Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Never go with a hippie to a second location."

If you're not watching 30 Rock you're missing the smartest, funniest show on network TV.

Tonight's episode featured three quick-moving plots. First, Tracy defies a request from Jack to refrain from dogfighting. Second, Lemon meets her comedy writing idol, Rosemary Howard, played by Carrie Fisher, and sees her future as a burnt out old maid, has-been, living in Little Chechnya (she says to Lemon: "you are me. . .you date cute, smart guys who leave you, because you're too complicated"), and finally Jenna burns Kenneth's page jacket and forces him into a "page-off" with the head page. What's a page-off? Well it involves feats of physical strength and NBC trivia. Of course these plots sound ridiculous without the build up, and there's certainly some absurdity in just what happens on this show. But what happens is not the best part. It's the incredible writing and acting. You almost have to watch it twice to catch all the lines and references (when Tracy messes up the National Anthem he says, "who ever knew there was so many words; it's like a Mos Def CD." See I provided that wiki link for you in case you don't know who Mos Def is. They're not afraid of quick and obscure jokes on this show. It's challenging. Hurrah!)

In one scene, Jack, who plays the head of the network, calls in the "NBC therapist" to see why Tracy has issues with authority. The therapist suggests a role play. Pretty soon Jack is simultaneously (and Baldwin is working so hard at this you can see the sweat on his neck) playing Tracy's father, his mother, "the white dude my mom left my dad for," Tracy himself, all in a sort of poor Black dialect. But wait, he also throws in a "Mrs. Rodriguez," the Spanish neighbor. This whole bit is less than two minutes. Watch it. It's brilliant! Alec Baldwin should win another Emmy for this bit alone. In this clip he graciously acknowledges the brilliance of Tina Fey and explains why he does the show.

Jack McBrayer as Kenneth the page: there is only one word: perfect. He plays the edge of gay, straight, smart, stupid like he was born all of these things, if that's possible, and it's not. He embodies the character like Jon Heder did in Napoleon Dynamite. Here's a clip of just him. Boysenberries! Get it?

30 Rock rocks hard!

Watching this episode again, with Mike, an astute and infrequent television viewer, I realized it takes two to really get all the allusions in a typical 30 Rock episode. He pointed out two things I missed: During the therapy scene, Alec Baldwin ends by quoting Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird. And as as Rosemary leaves, Carrie Fischer wails her line from Star Wars: "Help me, Liz Lemon, you're my only hope!" As one commentator on TV Buddy pointed out: "I love how Carrie Fisher is still dining on Star Wars 30 years on.

This makes a case for watching the re-runs. You'll definitely pick up stuff you missed first time around, especially if you have a smart couch buddy!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mini Reviews: Fall Movies

I haven't written much about movies, which is odd, because movies, after theater, are my favorite art form. I haven't written about theater yet, either, but that's because I haven't seen anything new in a few months.

But autumn is the season of serious movies. I love this time of year for that. I don't want to write long torturous entries on everything I see, though; I'm too lazy. Still, I have opinions on what's out there right now, and so I've invented the VeryMarkMcCormick mini review.

Into the Wild. See it. It's ambitious and will make you think and feel. It's scenic. Sean Penn bit off a lot and good for him. Sometimes it does weird, first film things, like the split screen, but I liked it for the story, the acting, the scenery, but most of all the theme: we all have a journey inside of us: it takes bravery to take it.

Michael Clayton. See it. Tom Wilkinson, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack--they're all good. I'm finding I like darkness in movies and music. I mean this is no great revelation, because I've always liked the dark side of things, but I like espionage more than I thought. I loved the Bourne movies, and this is like that in that the plot is largely psychological.

The Brave One. Hmmm. A little cheesy, but watching Jodie Foster work through any horror is a treat. See it.

Darjeeling Limited. Definitely see it. It's getting only mixed reviews. People are too hard on Wes Anderson. Build him up then knock him down. Critics think his characters aren't really emotionally complex enough, or the serious emotional drama is ignored in favor of clever art direction and music. I disagree. I think the story of these three brothers is fable-like but rich. It's archetypal somehow: "once upon a time three brothers traveled to India to ask their mother why she was absent at their father's funeral. They had many bags and lots of baggage. Each brother had some pain: one was in love, one was afraid, and one was confused." I loved the moment when Owen Wilson took off his bandages and said, "I think I still have some healing to do." How poignant to find out the actor has been suicidal as well.

Lars and the Real Girl. See it. It reminds me of a movie called Big Eden, which presented a Utopian version of small town America. As a product of small towns, I can tell you that they do not bend and sway to express their love for the misfits of society as this movie posits. In reality, small towns tolerate a very narrow range of behavior. But we can dream, can't we? What if, this movie asks, what if one amongst us had a delusion and asked us to participate in that delusion. Would we go along with it, in order to support that person, who after all had been Christlike himself, had sacrificed for us, had asked for nothing? In this town they rally behind Lars who falls for a doll (literally) named Bianca. You will find yourself crying and here's why: because Ryan Gosling is one of the best actors living. We believe his loneliness, and in the end, his grief and redemption. This movie is gentle, a warm bath, and sometimes we all need a little comfort. Oh and Patricia Clark is understated and pitch perfect as always. Love her.

Lust, Caution. See it. Ang Lee's new movie is complex and multi-faceted. It's full of atmosphere. And can I say this: Ang Lee likes his sex rough! Consider the scenes in Brokeback Mountain and this movie: pleasure through pain, baby! Bone up on your WWII history of the Chinese resistance.

Okay, so that's it. Can't say there was a dog amongst these. I've chosen well this fall. Agree? Disagree? Comment!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Silversun Pickups at The Fillmore

The coolest thing that happened to me at the Silversun Pickups concert was just before the show. I was upstairs getting a drink, a margarita if you must know, and just soaking in the history of the Fillmore. A pretty woman walked by in a little black dress. I immediately recognized her as Nikki from the Silversun Pickups. She saw me recognize her. She smiled. I smiled. No one else seemed to notice. She is at that level of fame where she can fill a pretty big venue, but still walk through it relatively unrecognized.

There were a lot of "dudes" at this concert. One of them started talking to me. I told him about my Nikki spotting, and he said, "Dude, no way. My buddy loves Nikki!" And off he went to try to find Nikki and his buddy.

The performance was beyond my expectations. Some surprises:
--Guiarist/singer Brian Aubert was remarkably sort of squeaky clean and happy. I've seen the videos and pictures, and he always seems kind of sullen with greasy hair. Not so. He was totally upbeat, fresh, smiling most of the time, playing with the crowd, a real showman and a very impressive strummer. He's got that sort of "Right now I am Jesus Christ" relationship with the audience. He makes graceful and yogic gestures a lot, sort of blessing the audience. I half expected a Namaste.
--Christopher Guanloa the drummer is supremely talented and sexy. He's got "I would kill for that" hair and he WORKS it. His approach is to get into a deep, but very precise, trance as he works out intricate rhythms on every song. He also has a whole yoga thing going on--he does this cute little stretch/twirl thing with his sticks to loosen up and cool down after a particularly intense session.
--Nikki Monninger is a total girly girl sweetheart, seemingly somewhat shy, absolutely without a shred of pretention. If I was the kind of guy who took out girls on dates, she'd be the one. I'd buy her a rose and open doors for her.
--I didn't get a good hit off Joe Lester, except he has a sort of magician-like presence. He's like a maestro of dissonance, an alchemist of sound. He and Brian sort of play with each other as they build these walls of sonic energy then crash them down, kind of like two mischievous kids with erector sets.

This concert was a lovefest. They acknowledged San Francisco for getting them to where they are today: Live 105 was the first radio station to play them in steady rotation, and others around the country picked them up after that.

So what if I was about 20 years older than the average fan there. I can still jump up and down and scream. But maybe I'm thinking about meta-ness of it all a bit more than some (and maybe not). But I do believe that with their lyrics, sound, and presentation they are working harder than any other rock band I can think of to try to telegraph some sort of semi-spiritual message about being alright with shadow, being alright with being stuck, working through difficult shit and coming out the other side.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mo and Me

I've been trolling around the blogosphere, looking at other blogs about culture, posting comments, trying to drive traffic to this blog, because I have like 4 readers and you all happen to be on my speed dial. I mean, it's only my best friends reading at this point, but what good is a blog if strangers don't come along and post nasty comments?

In any case I found Maureen Ryan's blog. She's the TV critic for the Chicago Tribune. She posted a long interview with the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner. It's a thoughtful (and long!) article and interview, but in it they try to expain the character Sal, the only gay character, and frankly I think this character, how he's written and acted, is the one flaw of the show. Below is what they said in the interview, and then follows my dialog with Maureen Ryan.

Article says:

Sometimes the characters’ choices are not what you would expect, because human nature is not as predictable as more conventional dramas would have you believe.

At first glance, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), a closeted gay art director at Sterling Cooper, appears to be the ultimate Manhattan sophisticate. Nothing would faze this dapper, worldly man — or so you might think. But Romano freezes up when a client makes a subtle but unmistakable pass at him, and quickly flees the scene.

"I knew I wanted Sal to be tempted," Weiner says. "But then I started thinking, ‘Well, what does Sal know so far? Who is Sal? Is Sal ready for this? And what does the audience expect?’"

As Weiner says, the drama would have far less impact if the characters’ actions didn’t have very real consequences. Draper lives in fear of being revealed as a fraud. Despite her husband’s infidelity, Betty is terrified at the prospect of losing her home and her marriage, having never fended for herself. And for Sal Romano, a gay man in 1960, the consequences of being outed at work would be severe, if not catastrophic.

“The guy says, ‘What are you afraid of? And Sal says, ‘Are you joking?’ Like, ‘My whole life is at stake here.’ And that is never taken seriously,” Weiner says. “The same way [infidelity] is never taken seriously – what would really happen if you were having an affair and your wife found out and you could lose your whole life? I went out of my way on an episode level to tell those stories with that in mind.”

And I said:
Great review and interview. I'm sure you've written about this before, but what also makes the show brilliant is the art direction, even the sound. Those typewriters, those cigarette lighters, the clicking of the heels.

One very small nit to pick. I don't think you have it right, or the writers have it right about Sal and his hesitance to take that guy up on his pass. See, Sal is *constantly* making these really obvious double entendres that no one notices. Therefore the character would have some self-awareness about being gay. But refusing an invitation from someone he was obviously attracted to, someone who could pretty much guarantee discretion. . . well it might fly if we had come to believe that Sal was miserable and repressed, but that's not how he's portrayed with his glib little remarks. His refusal was out of character.

And then she said:
Mark, regarding Sal, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I think he was afraid of the repercussions of acting on his feelings. I'm sure he's known he's gay most of his life, but he is just too afraid to do anything about it.

Someone can come off as well adjusted and more or less happy day to day, yet be afraid to act on impulses having to do with sex and desire, especially when those impulses might get him fired, and he knows that full well

To which I replied and she replied back:
Thanks, Mo. I appreciate your comment.
I do see how he could be petrified of being fired in a way that gay people today (like myself) possibly can't imagine, because in most places it's different now, but then I have one question: how do you explain his constant double entendres? Isn't he playing with fire? Interestingly, and true to your theory, he does go out of his way on occasion to fake heterosexuality, but isn't he worried that one of the guys will pick up on his remarks? See I think the writers have two different characters in mind with Sal: a campy art director, and a super closted, fearful ad man, but they're trying to have it both ways with Sal, because TV typically affords only one major gay character in a series. Let's just see if he doesn't end up dead which is what usually happens, as Vito Russo so brilliantly examined in The Celluloid Closet. Not much has changed, really, on that front.

[Mo here: I take your point. They do seem to go out of their way to make it clear to present-day viewers of the show that Sal is gay. It's abundantly clear that he is. Yet I'm not so sure I agree that he's making constant double entendres. I know he's always making witty remarks, but to me the majority of them don't have a subtext indicating that he's gay. Plus you have to balance those kind of remarks with his willingness to kiss Joan, and do other things that'll make the guys think he's straight. Also, I think the show is just pointing out how clueless most people were in that day and age -- and how little the subject of homosexuality was even broached. The guys at Sterling Cooper probably never mention the topic, and quite literally don't know it when they see it -- or if they do see it, purposely ignore it.

So if I were to leave one final word--and I'm trying not to have the final word, not to be "that guy" who can't leave it alone--I would say, "are you f'ing kidding me? Listen to Sal! he can't say one thing without it meaning another, usually a comment on the male anatomy." Then I realized the writing is brilliant if it's even getting by the straight audience. Sal is only as suggestive as he can be; his comments are so subtle only the gay guys are getting them. I'll publish some examples soon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


I just want to gush about Weeds a bit.

It gets better and better.

Tonight, the silent scene with Celia looking nude at herself with her re-constructed breasts was as brave and poignant as anything I've seen on TV in a long time. But the show won't sentimentalize. There was no music and the next scene undercut any bathos: Celia and Nancy's kids smoking pot for the first time.

Eventually we find Celia in bed with Matthew Modine as the real estate huckster. Their flirtation has been building for months. But she is paralyzed with fear that she'll be rejected once he discovers her scarred breasts. He says he doesn't care and confesses to popping a Viagra in her driveway. It's a comedy most of the time, but it's making some interesting points about middle age. Cut to Andy who's finally found his avocation in porn, starring as foot fetishistic stud. He makes a speech about porn being a flesh factory, but no one ever takes him seriously.

I like this show, because it strikes the right tone. It's funny/serious in a Coen brothers sort of way. It has heart, but it's not sentimental. It's funny, even slapstick funny, but it's smart and original. It plays with race, sex, age, drugs, but it's serious play.

I hope the drug dealer Marvin comes back. He was hysterical. So is "Celia's dyke" daughter Isabelle.