Confused High Jinks on Ballykissangel

BallykissangelI’m a fan of the Irish television series Ballykissangel. But I like all those kinds of shows because they are focused on something that we in the modern world have very little of: community. My community, off the internet, really consists of only three people: tens, hundreds, and thousands of miles away. That would be sad enough for me, but I’m afraid I’m fairly common in that regard. So if I can’t have much in the way of personal interactions, at least I can watch stories about characters who do.

I just watched an episode from the second series, “Only Skin Deep.” It has a subplot that is right out of Shakespeare. But I mean that in a good way for a change. Siobhan and Brendan have been friends forever. The local capitalist, Brian, is pushing a beauty pageant to get more tourist dollars for the area (he is also doing his usual machinations, but that doesn’t especially matter here). Siobhan is not happy about this and she is in the bar ranting about beauty pageants, “They’re just glorified cattle markets.” At that moment, Brian walks in and cruelly tells her, “What do you know about beauty contests? Let’s face it, it’s a long time since you qualified for a beauty contest of any kind — if ever!”

Siobham leaves the bar, humiliated. Brendan goes by her house later that night to check on her. They are both very drunk and they have sex. Brendan sneaks away in the morning, thinking he’s made a terrible mistake — ruining their friendship. In fact, Siobham thinks it is a one-off so he needn’t worry. Meanwhile, as the two of them don’t talk, Brian leaves a bouquet of flowers with a card at Siobham’s door to apologize for his rude remarks. Siobham finds it later, but the card is dropped without her noticing it. So she thinks they are from Brendan. Thus, the two friends have the idea that the other is taking their drunken romp more seriously than they actually are. It is an example of perfect farce plotting.

The story is paid off very late when Brendan tries to tell Siobham that they should stay friends. Siobham cuts him off before he can say anything, and tells him the same thing. Then as he stands there stunned and Siobham walks off, Brian passes her going the other direction. She turns around and yells to Brendan, “Thanks for the flowers; they were a lovely thought!” At that point Brendan and Brian and in a two shot. Brendan is mystified, but Brian gets a smile a mile wide.

Now, if I had a bunch of friends, I would have just related that story to them instead of you. But the truth is that I’ve tried to get everyone I know to watch Ballykissangel. But even when I get them to watch the first episode, no one is as charmed as I am. Maybe the problem is that most people are not interested in living in a world with such confused high jinks. Their loss!

Edward Albee’s Anti-Romantic Vision

Edward AlbeeWhen I was a teenager, I was crazy for Edward Albee. And I still love his work. In fact, I understand it a lot better than I did as a teen. Albee writes a lot about the aging process and the ways that people mature. The best example of this — and I would say his best play — is Three Tall Women. The first act involves a rich old woman who is dying. There is middle-aged woman who cares for her. And finally, there is a young woman — a lawyer who has come by to get some business matters taken care of. In the second act, the three actors become instances of the dying woman at those three times in her life. It is a remarkable and compelling way to tell her story.

More important, however, we get to see how the woman changes over time. The young woman is actually quite annoying in her moral certainty that she would never do things that the other women are telling her that she will, in fact, do. There is no one so slappable as a person who thinks themselves moral when they have never been tested. I know this is a very pessimistic look at life. But I can’t say that it isn’t entirely accurate. What’s interesting is that the woman is the very worst that we see from the pampered rich. So she has no real empathy for others. But see is at least able to accept who she is as she gets older.

It was only quite recently that I realized that what Albee does in Three Tall Women, he does in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’ve never liked that play as much as some of his others. Largely, I think, it is because the people are all so horrible and yet it is realistic. But like much of his work, I think it is best after one has grown up a bit and seen what happens to people.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we see two couples — both intellectual. The older man is George, a history professor; the younger man is Nick, a biology professor. George and his wife Martha have reached that sad point that I see in a lot of old relationships where they can only connect by abusing each other. Nick and his wife Honey are certainly past the infatuation phase of their relationship, but they haven’t gotten to the point of thinking abuse is a substitute for affection. But what’s remarkable — and horrific — is just how easily George and Martha are able to to entangle Nick and Honey in their sick games.

What is clear is that we could visit Nick and Honey in twenty years and we would find George and Martha. The implication is that the younger couple is as infertile as the older couple. So even if they don’t make up a fake son as George and Martha did, Nick and Honey will find some other mechanism by which they can avoid dealing with the reality of living in a marriage neither of them desires. And we know that mechanism will be negative and will reach out beyond them to poison others.

Albee was already 30 years old when he wrote his first play, The Zoo Story. He was in his mid-30s when he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And he was in his sixties when he wrote Three Tall Women. I think that in itself is telling. Even at 30, one begins to get a clue of the ways our engagement with the world changes. And Albee has always understood how systemic these things are. Even in The Zoo Story, Peter and Jerry are entirely products of their environments. Peter living in a squalid tenement is Jerry; Jerry with an upper-middle class upbringing and a college degree is Peter. You could say the same thing about Seascape — although obviously we are talking about different species, which makes the point especially clear.

I think that is what Albee is most focused on when he does his best work: the way that the environment manipulates us regardless of how we try to resist. This isn’t always the case. In lesser plays like Tiny Alice and The American Dream, I’m not sure that even he knows what he is trying to say. But the more real the characters are, the more they seem trapped by the circumstances that brought them into being. In this way Albee is anti-Romantic. There is no classical tragedy because the characters aren’t in control. They are just reactions to the stimuli of their environments.

Fido, Slavery, and Cinematic Doritos

FidoI’m a big fan of zombie films. Or at least I was until they became so mainstream. The great thing about zombie movies was that they could be made on a shoestring. And if the filmmakers were creative, a great film could be made. But some time ago, I was visiting my niece and got the chance to watch the first couple of episodes of The Walking Dead. It was okay. But then, in the second episode, it introduced a love triangle. Ugh. The beauty of the zombie genre is that it is not complicated. I understand that television shows need these kinds of things and this is why there shouldn’t be zombie television series.

After years of putting it off, I finally got around to watching Fido. It is a zombie comedy, which is no big deal. I’m not just talking about films like Shaun of the Dead and Dead Snow. Fundamentally, all zombie movies are comedies. Zombies are silly. And Fido takes the genre exactly as seriously as it deserves.

The film revolves around the Robinson family, who have just purchased their first zombie slave. The mother, Helen, got it because all her neighbors have zombies and she feels looked down upon. But the reason they don’t have zombies is because the father, Bill, has a quite reasonable fear of zombies because he had to kill his own father who had become one when Bill was still a child. The zombies now wear collars, which eliminate their desire to eat human flesh. But the collars malfunction all the time and one instance of this is the basis of the film.

What’s most striking in the film is the art direction. The film takes place in an idyllic 1950s world that, rather than coming about after World War II, came about as a result of of the Zombie War. And so everything is decorated with clear, strong colors. It looked to me very much like Tune in Tomorrow… — also supposedly taking place in the 1950s. But the colors here are a bit more harsh and bit more primary. They aren’t going to realism exactly.

This is contrasted with the zombies who are in varying states of decomposition. It acts as a kind of explicit metaphor of the oppressed underclass that the 1950s’ affluence was based upon. Sadly, the filmmakers do not understand this. So instead of seeing these zombies for the slaves they are, it sees them as pets. Hence, the Robinson family’s name for their zombie: Fido. There is even a scene where Fido rescues the Robinson boy a la Lassie. And the boy’s name? Timmy, of course.

Thematically, I really have problems with the film. It pushes a troubling idea of slavery right out of Gone With the Wind. Fido loves his captors so much that he doesn’t even eat them when his collar malfunctions. Another character — played brilliantly by Tim Blake Nelson — turns into a servant for his zombie after she is accidentally shot in the head. This all happens in the context of a narrative where we see that zombies are self-aware. I don’t appreciate it when films open up moral questions without engaging with them.

In this regard, the film really fails in comparison to Pleasantville. The two films are very similar, except that Fido uses zombies to upset the status quo while Pleasantville uses knowledge. But Gary Ross is extremely aware of what he’s doing. In Pleasantville, he created an allegory of the changes to sexual mores and the resulting disruption of the power structure. Andrew Currie and his colleagues are not at all aware what they are doing. In Fido, they flick images on the screen like cinematic Jackson Pollocks. And they succeed as well, creating something that is stunning, engaging, but devoid of any meaning.

Fido is a silly romp, which works remarkably well. Much of it is quite funny. But I do think it is the equivalent of junk food. Not that I’m complaining. I like Doritos as much as the next guy.

Election 2014 From Deep in California

I Voted TodayNationwide, yesterday was a terrible election. But here in California, it wasn’t so bad. And here in Sonoma County, it was actually quite good. To give you some idea, Jerry Brown won the state with 59-41% — without campaigning. But here in Sonoma, Brown won 74-26%. But you know Sonoma county: it’s where hippies go to retire. Similarly, my man Tom Torlakson eked out a victory with 52% statewide, but won handily here with 65%.

This isn’t to say it all went well. Corporate tool James Gore beat Deb Fudge decisively for County Supervisor. Of course, I’m sure that if this were a partisan race, both Gore and Fudge would be Democrats. That’s part of the problem with the Democratic Party: it is such a big tent that it doesn’t much stand for anything. Although it indicates a bigger problem with the Republican Party: why would anyone be a member of that narrow and extreme party?

The statewide propositions went exactly as I predicted. Everything passed except for the three measures that had multi-million dollar ad campaigns against them. The Indian casino measure went down. The existing medical tort levels stay in effect because rich doctors and hospitals convinced the people that it would make their healthcare go up to benefit the “trial lawyers.” And we won’t see our healthcare go down in price because that would be giving power to a “bureaucrat.” I tell you, I weep for democracy. I see this all the time on the state level where carpet advertising totally distorts the democratic process.

We had a couple of local bond measures that I’m pleased to see pass. Measure H will help to improve infrastructure at Santa Rosa Junior College. Measure M will help to improve infrastructure and lengthen hours at the Sonoma County Library.

I understand that most people do not live in California, much less Sonoma County. And I feel really bad for people in Mississippi and North Carolina. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, Philadelphia was the most vibrant city in the colonies because it had the most liberal governance. The same is true of California today. Sadly, too many people would rather vote to screw their follow man than vote to lift up everyone.

This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote, The Democrats Have Two Choices Now: Gridlock or Annihilation. In it, he provided a stark graph. It shows how big a percent of the vote was from people under 30, and in 2006, 2010, and 2014: it was always the same, 12%. Compare this to 2008 and 2012 when it was 18% and 19%. Meanwhile, people over 60 made up 32% of the vote in 2010 and 37% of the vote in 2014. Is it any question why we are losing?

Benjamin Franklin supposedly said that the United States was, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Too many Americans think our democratic republic is God given. But it isn’t. We have to fight for it. And we aren’t — at least not nationally.

Ike Turner

Ike TurnerOn this day in 1931, the great musician Ike Turner was born. He was a rock pioneer. He and his band, Kings of Rhythm, recorded what is arguably the first rock song in 1951, “Rocket 88.” It’s amazing song, complete with distorted guitar. It was written by Turner and Jackie Brenston, who sings the song. Turner’s piano on the introduction has been widely copied. Elvis would not show up in a recording studio for another two and a half years. I’m sure “Rocket 88” blew people’s mind at the time. It still swings relentlessly. And it doesn’t contain even a hint of the excesses that would come to dominate the art form later on. It is just good music that will always appeal.

Turner had a long career of incredible work. Sadly, about the only thing that people know about him is that he beat up Tina Turner. I will not minimize that, but few great artists were models of virtue. And I tend to think that part of the focus on this is racist — the angry black man archetype. But it is also due to the fact that people mostly focus on singers, and so think that Ike was just some hanger-on to Tina’s great talent. There is no doubt that Tiny is a fine singer, but the artistic debt runs exactly the other way.

Apparently, Turner decided very early on that he didn’t like to be on stage, so he stayed in the background. In fact, during the decade and a half with Tina Turner, he usually played with this back to the audience. But later in life — notably after becoming the poster child for spousal abuse — he started fronting his own band. And he was fantastic. But in general, people didn’t much care. Here he is doing “I Need A-Nuddin'” in 2002, five years before his death:

Happy birthday Ike Turner!