Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2014

Ed Murrow must be spinning in his grave

Filed under: media,television — louisproyect @ 2:24 am

January 13, 2014

“Girls” promo

Filed under: humor,television — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

September 30, 2013

The cinematography of “Breaking Bad”

Filed under: technology,television — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After having made 28 videos, most of which were made with a prosumer JVC camera that cost me $3000, I have a pretty good idea of the capabilities of digital video and its limitations.

What you can’t get in the run-of-the-mill videocam is the ability to control depth of field as you would with a SLR camera. In other words if you were recording a baseball game, the catcher and the pitcher would get the same degree of focus. If you are using a film camera or the newer and rather expensive videocams that incorporate Digital SLR, you can manipulate the depth of focus for dramatic effect, such as zeroing in on a character. This image from an article titled “Using Depth of Field For Storytelling” should illustrate the effect:

Last night when I was watching the final episode of “Breaking Bad”, it hit me what made the cinematography of “Breaking Bad” so riveting. It eschewed the narrow depth of focus illustrated in the image above even though it was using film. Instead, this was the typical image:

You’ll notice that everything has the same focus. The effect is usually unsettling since it is basically the perspective of the human eye rather than the camera. Neither the objects in the foreground nor background are emphasized. It gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. It also lends itself to the non-judgmental POV that made the show so interesting.

An interview with the cinematographer for “Breaking Bad” makes a series of interesting points. The show avoided the use of hand-held cameras, especially in action scenes. By now, the shaky images meant to convey an excited state are a cliché that every smart cinematographer should avoid. The one who worked on “Breaking Bad” was exceedingly smart.

The other thing noted in the article is the use of natural light. The scenes of the New Mexico desert and the streets of Albuquerque are as important to the show as Bryan Cranston’s facial tics and stammer. If you want to see where he picked up these tricks, just watch Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”.

September 19, 2013

Under the Dome

Filed under: literature,television — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Counterpunch September 19, 2013
Remarks from an Ecosocialist

Under the Dome

by LOUIS PROYECT

In 2003, after the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King with a distinguished career award, a big hue and cry went up from all the snobbish critics and authors who regarded him in much the same way that Dumbo was viewed by the other elephants. King’s acceptance speech was an eloquent testimony to his belief in a people’s art:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Most people are aware that King writes horror stories but the reference to the muckraking Frank Norris hints at a side of the author that many of his fans never considered. King is also an outspoken liberal who takes on social and political issues but without the sterile didacticism so pervasive in leftist fiction.

When I discovered that CBS had adapted “Under the Dome” as a 13 episode series, whose finale aired last Monday night, I was eager to watch it not only as a long-time King fan but as an ecosocialist anxious to see how what some regarded as a parable on the environmental crisis would play out. Although I had not read the novel, I assumed that with King serving as executive producer it would ensure that the TV series would remain faithful to the novel. But only after watching the finale, a dreary conclusion to an altogether dreary series, did I begin to consider the possibility that King’s intentions would be subverted by another big-name executive producer: Stephen Spielberg as well as the show’s major creative force, one Brian K. Vaughan.

Before dealing with the novel and its original agenda, some thoughts on what was likely the worst adaptation of the author’s work ever made. Since King is on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining”, I would love to get him alone for five minutes to find out why he did not leave this TV show on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

“Under the Dome” sticks to the premise of the novel, namely that a mysterious transparent dome lands on a town called Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outside world. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the dome at the moment it landed, you would be sliced in two. Each week the show begins with the shot of a cow being cut right down the middle and a small plane bursting into flames as it crashed into the dome. It goes downhill from there.

read full

June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini, dead at the age of 51 from heart attack

Filed under: obituary,television — louisproyect @ 12:19 am

New York Daily News, June 19, 2013

James Gandolfini dead at 51: ‘Sopranos’ star suffers massive heart attack in Italy

‘Everyone is in tears,’ a source close to the Emmy Award-winning actor tells the Daily News.

By AND / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 7:30 PM

Actor James Gandolfini is dead at 51. A source tells the Daily News he suffered a massive heart attack in Italy.
 James Gandolfini, the New Jersey-bred actor who delighted audiences as mob boss Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” has died following a massive heart attack in Italy, a source told the Daily News.

“Everyone is in tears,” the source close to the 51-year-old TV tough guy said.

A press-shy celeb who got his start as a character actor and became famous relatively late in his career — thanks to his breakout role on “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini has largely avoided the spotlight since the last season of the beloved show aired in 2007.

The burly Westwood, N.J. native has appeared in several supporting roles since then, playing the director of the CIA in “Zero Dark Thirty” and the gruff blue-collar father of a wannabe rock star in “Not Fade Away” last year.

Gandolfini hit Broadway in 2009 with the Tony Award-winning comedy “God of Carnage.”

“I seek out good stories, basically — that’s it,” he told The Star-Ledger last December.

“The older I get, the funnier-looking I get, the more comedies I’m offered. I’m starting to look like a toad, so I’ll probably be getting even more soon.”

Gandolfini’s wife, former model Deborah Lin, gave birth to a baby girl last October. The couple married in Hawaii in 2008.

Gandolfini — who spent part of his early career supporting himself as a bartender and nightclub manager — also has a son with his ex-wife, Marcy Wudarski.
His first break came in 1992 when he landed a role in a Broadway version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that starred Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.

Smallish parts in major films followed — Gandolfini played a submarine crew member in “Crimson Tide” in 1995 and a gangland bodyguard in “Get Shorty” the same year.

Fame came for the Italian-American actor after 1999, as “The Sopranos” garnered critical acclaim and cult popularity on its way to becoming a TV classic.

Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards for his sparkling depiction of protagonist Tony Soprano, a mobster trying to balance the mundane stresses of family life and his unusual occupation: organized crime.

* * * *

Swans

The Sopranos, Capitalism And Organized Crime

by Louis Proyect

November 15, 2004   

“A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as commodities. . .The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form equally many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them.”

—Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value

Having just completed its fifth season on premium cable station Home Box Office, “The Sopranos” has garnered well-deserved accolades for innovative writing, directing and acting. Along with other HBO series such as “Sex and the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it is continuing evidence of premium cable’s ability to rise to the standards of golden era television. Before rampant commercialization took over in the early 1960s, network television pioneered breakthrough weekly dramatic series such as Playhouse 90 that drew upon gifted playwrights, many of whom like Walter Bernstein had been blacklisted from the film industry.

HBO shares the social and political vision of television’s early days. “The Sopranos” offers up sharply observed insights about American class society reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s naturalistic novels. Revolving around the character of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano and his friends and rivals, the series makes clear that criminality is deeply engrained in American society. It also reveals that Tony Soprano has the same hunger for social acceptance as any other ‘nouveau riche.’ Ironically, his criminal mystique seems to open up more doors for him in polite society than the barbecues and church donations he lavishes on his New Jersey bedroom community.

“The Sopranos” can be categorized with other post-Romantic and post-Affluent Mafia narratives. By post-Romantic we mean the following. As in the case of Mike Newell’s film “Donnie Brasco,” the main characters lack the Corleone family’s charisma. Rather than appearing as a sort of chivalric order with the sense of noblesse oblige of Coppola’s “Godfather,” Soprano and his crew would steal from their own mothers. In addition, like the character Lefty Ruggiero played by Al Pacino in “Donnie Brasco,” they are always under constant pressure to make ends meet. In the post-affluent world of “The Sopranos,” just as is the case in any small proprietorship today, sales quotas in a framework of declining market share have to be met. But the gangster has the added complication of being continuously hounded by the feds. When an underling cannot come up with Tony Soprano’s share of gambling profits, he might get a broken nose. In the straight world, the consequence might be a loss of a job and economic collapse. Who can say which is worse?

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy20.html

October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Filed under: humor,television — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

September 18, 2012

A conversation with Jeffrey Marlin and Richard Greener

Filed under: bard college,television — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Now into the middle of the third season of “Mad Men” on Netflix, I continue to be bemused by the lofty critiques of the show in places like the London Review of Books and the journal that inspired it, the New York Review of Books. In the October 2008 LRB, Mark Greif complained:

Mad Men flatters us where we deserve to be scourged. As I see it, the whole spectacle has the bad faith of, say, an 18th-century American slaveholding society happily ridiculing a 17th-century Puritan society – ‘Look, they used to burn their witches!’ – while secretly envying the ease of a time when you could still tie uppity women to the stake. If we’ve managed to become less credulous about advertising, to make it more normal and the bearer of more reasonable expectations, perhaps in 50 years’ time viewers will look back on the silly self-congratulatory subtexts of Mad Men, shake their heads, and be grateful that gender and sexual tolerance have likewise been normalised.

In February 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn told NYR readers that the show was pretty much a load of crap:

The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

He also repeats Greif’s charge that the show maintains an ill-deserved superiority complex:

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

When I first posted about Mad Men, after viewing the entire first season, I defended it against such charges, drawing upon my experiences at Metropolitan Life in 1968, on the very floor that served as a backdrop for Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. If you’ve seen “The Apartment”, you’ll recognize the similarities between it and “Mad Men” right off the bat. This is no accident since Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, counts this movie as one of his prime influences:

Billy Wilder wrote it with I. L. Diamond – this is like one of the great writing teams of all time, and just the cinema in it, the stuff that’s done…I’d like to claim a relationship to ‘Mad Men’ for that, too. Spoiler alert: Things like the champagne cork going off and you think it’s a suicide. The tennis racket. The compact with the crack in it. The restaurant with the drinks in it. How things are shaping up ‘cookie-wise.’ That’s a contemporary movie. People were seeing people that they knew. It was done in a very sort of classic kind of way. It’s masterful storytelling.

That’s my relationship to it: that it’s one of my favorite movies. I saw it and realized that it was the apex of a period that I had already been fascinated with. I loved the characters, and just writing-wise I always try and emulate that kind of storytelling, where the payoffs are visual and there’s a lot of misunderstanding, but they’re believable. And the bad guys have a reason for what they do. And casting. Do not forget who Fred MacMurray was when they put in that part. The grimiest guy that he had ever been was in ‘Double Indemnity.’ He was the schmuck in that. In this thing he was really a dark character.

If I was really a bit young to be a character in “Mad Men”, that can’t be said about my two old friends from Bard College I interviewed above. A good five years older than me, they are exactly the same age as the junior copywriters who would have worked under the lead character Don Draper.

Both of them had a connection to advertising, one brief and one fairly long term. Jeffrey Marlin’s first job was as a copywriter for a direct mail outfit. Trudging off to work in an office each day (one likely much smaller than Met Life) persuaded him to look for a gig that he could do at home. This led to a very long career with Xerox Learning Systems that ended a few years ago. I understand what went into this decision psychologically since I used to return home from Met Life each day wondering whether I would be able to do this for the rest of my life. Fortunately I found computer programming less of a drag, if not something akin to playing games, than just about any other corporate job.

Richard Greener’s long career in radio started off selling advertising but evolved into a management position, including serving as president of WAOK in Atlanta, a Black radio station that he helped to push in a progressive direction—including sympathetic reporting on Sandinista Nicaragua.

But a good friend of Richard and Jeffrey probably epitomized the “Mad Men” ethos a lot more than either of them. Leonard Leokum, who died about five years ago, was the son of acclaimed author Arkady Leokum and a figure without about the same clout in the advertising business as Don Draper. Although I never really knew Leonard, I used to get a chuckle out of Richard and Jeffrey referring to him as the brains behind the Juan Valdez coffee commercials. We differed on the “political correctness” of the ad, with my friends making the case that Juan Valdez was a subtle symbol of Latin American national aspirations.

In my interview with Jeffrey and Richard, they told me that they had no interest in the show with Richard adding that it would probably make him sick to watch it. After doing the interview, I reflected a bit on the show and what is probably its greatest failing, something not truly addressed in the LRB and the NYRB articles—namely the absence of any character working in the industry who saw through its bullshit.

“Mad Men” has a character or two who spout Marxish comments about advertising but are mainly portrayed as hypocrites whose leftist politics are disjoined from ethical lapses of one sort or another. There are also some characters who seem aware of the beat generation but again don’t truly “get it”. In Bob Dylan’s words:

Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones

Well, there were people who knew what was happening, especially Jeffrey and Richard (and Leonard as well, I’m sure). At some point during my retirement, I plan to do a series of interviews with ex-SWP members who will be willing to share their experiences with the young activists of today, just as I benefited from conversations with George Novack back in 1967.

But I doubt that any conversation I have with them will be half as stimulating and as eye opening as that I had with Jeffrey and Richard.

By Jeffrey Marlin:

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/10/11/the-right-by-jeffrey-marlin/

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/11/30/eleven-thoughts-on-the-jewishnational-question/

Jeffrey Marlin has also just released a 1300-page opus on Amazon Kindle. It’s entitled Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry, by J. Marlin, and includes five complete verse-novels: The Three Wicked Pigs; Jack and the Time Stalk; Boots: By Puss Possessed; The Outlaw Rumplestiltskin; and Snow White and the 7 Deadly Sins. You’ll find some more-or-less progressive social commentary around the edges, and whether or not it’s your idea of great literature, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Comrades with Kindles may want to have a look.

My review of Richard Greener’s “The Knowland Retribution: the Locator”:

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/richard-greeners-the-knowland-retribution-the-locator/

May 11, 2012

HBO Girls: Hipsterism gone awry

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Dunham’s Jugs A-Flashin’ Ain’t Gonna Save Girls

The HBO series Girls misfires again in this week’s episode that has viewers pulling their hair out wishing the characters would just stop their whining, grow a spine and grow up. In the wake of the recent backlash, it’s curtains for the series for this viewer (and many others) as the backlash grows.

{Note: I admire all who create. Creating is not easy. Still, when you put something you create into the world you open yourself up to criticism. Girls has been getting a fair share of it as of late, some of it deserved. The following is my opinion, take it for what it’s worth. I believe that Lena Dunham can do better.}

The problem with the HBO series Girls (by creator & star Lena Dunham) isn’t so much the backlash and controversy against the show, although that was on an epic scale. (In case you missed it, one of the show’s writers tweeted insensitive comments that were deemed “racist” which lead to a critique that for a show set in Brooklyn, a very diverse borough, it lacked diversity.) The problem in addition to that is — the show isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. The characters are so pathetic while being so arrogant at the same time that it’s hard not to feel they deserve every horrible thing that happens to them. In short: They act like idiots.

And not the endearing kind.

“Hannah’s Diary” doesn’t show them changing anytime soon. They’re still clueless girls who want us to revel in their cluelessness. They are the kind of moronic idiot that is hired as a nanny, goes to the park to talk down their nose at actual (multi-cultural) nannies, and then loses your kids. Then said nanny goes home to flirt with your husband who tells said nanny that losing children in public “happens to all of us.”

God bless and god help us all but um, cough, no — it does not.

full: http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/959665/hbo-girls-episode-recap-hannahs-diary

April 19, 2012

Girls

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

One of the most heavily hyped HBO shows in ages premiered last Sunday night. Written and directed by, and starring the 25-year old Lena Dunham, “Girls” is an obvious bid to reap the kind of fortunes generated by the network’s highly successful “Sex and the City” by appealing to a certain demographic: urban, well-educated, female and white. The main difference is that this show is about struggling young people living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn whereas the female protagonists of “Sex and the City” were rich and living in the fabulous Upper East Side. It is the difference between the Cosmopolitan cocktail that the women in “Sex and the City” favored and a $1.99 bottle of Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe’s.

If I had known nothing in advance about Lena Dunham, I would have looked forward to it with great anticipation. But having seen her “Tiny Furniture” and knowing what to expect (the HBO show is obviously based on the mumblecore feature), I watched it warily, all the more so since it was produced by the execrable Jude Apatow.

In a bid to build the buzz around the show, HBO took the fairly unprecedented step of putting the premiere episode on Youtube that is worth watching, at least as a cultural biopsy:

Dunham plays Hannah, the daughter of college professors, who learns in the opening scene that they will no longer be providing financial support. Since Hannah works as an intern at a small publishing house, this means that she will have to find a paying job. When she tells her boss that she needs a salary, he replies that he will be sorry to see her leave. Obviously Dunham is informed enough to know that the exploitation of interns is a major problem facing recent college graduates like her. She might have even had a look at Ross Perlin’s new book from Verso titled “Intern Nation” that decries the unpaid jobs that so many are forced to take during the ongoing financial collapse. Or at least a book review—undoubtedly not in the sort of newspaper that has been giving the show rave reviews.

But “Girls” is not really about economics, politics or society. By her own admission, Dunham has very little inkling about such matters:

I am woefully unread in the areas of history and politics and have a grand plan to read “A People’s History of the United States,”  “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” and some other books that might hack away at my ignorance.

It is much more about sex but in the spirit of a depressed economy handled in a rather depressing fashion. After leaving the publisher’s office, she stops off at a boy friend’s apartment to give him the news. Within five minutes of her arrival, they decide to have sex on his sofa which involves him mounting her from behind. Neither one of them seem to be enjoying themselves particularly. By contrast, the hedonistic approach to sex in “Sex in the City” was what made the show work. The character Samantha, played by Kim Cattrall, was a female Lothario who bedded any man she had the hots for, including plumbers and delivery boys.

Now if Lena Dunham had considered trying to convey the joie de vivre of Samantha and her pals in a situation shaped by dire economic circumstances, “Girls” might have worked. After all, Puccini’s La bohème is a delight to watch, even as the main character dies from poverty-related illness in the third act. But Dunham’s mumblecore aesthetic precludes such an approach.

Rule number one of mumblecore is that the characters must be undramatic, which is a contradiction in terms. If one of the chief dictates of theater, including screenplays, is the creation of memorable characters with larger than life personalities, then mumblecore fails right from the starting line. That possibility never occurred to the men and women who work in this genre. Their primary goal is rather narcissistic, namely to show anybody who’s interested how they and their pals live. Personally I don’t find the prospects of sitting through a 2 hour movie or a half-hour TV show featuring a bunch of 23 year olds talking about nothing that inviting. Of course, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld arguably were up the same thing but they knew how to write jokes.

This leads me to the next problem with “Girls”. It is not funny at all. For Dunham, a typical attempt at humor is fat jokes taken at her own expense. One does not know how long it will take for this sort of thing to become tiresome but for this viewer it was just 10 minutes after the show started.

Teaming up with Judd Apatow must have seemed a no-brainer to the suits at HBO since this producer’s films, often starring the talentless Seth Rogen, have generated mega-millions based on sophomoric plots, dialogue and performances. In a dinner party hosted by Hannah’s friends in the premiere episode, they are discussing getting high. When cocaine is mentioned, one of her girlfriends says that she never touches the stuff. When asked why, she replies because it makes her shit in her pants. This is pure Judd Apatow, but mercifully we are spared the spectacle of one of the character’s mishaps through flashback. The essence of an Apatow or a Dunham comedy is the character being degraded. Why this is so typical of contemporary comedy is a question that I have explored in the past, but will only state at this point that it reflects a decline of humanism in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin’s movies embodied humanistic values to the highest degree while Apatow serves as their nadir.

In a half-hour filled with such cringe-inducing elements, you might be surprised to learn that all the leading characters come from privileged backgrounds and likely shared none of their character’s misfortunes—starting with Lena Dunham. In my review of “Tiny Furniture”, I noted:

Laurie Simmons [Lena Dunham's mother] is married to Carroll Dunham, a painter whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Would their daughter’s movie, the first she ever made, have gotten the financing and attention it has if she was not born into this family? The answer is obvious.

A story about “Girls” appearing in Gentleman’s Quarterly lets us know that the other actors were also born with silver spoons in their mouths:

Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, Girls, is centered on—you guessed it— four girls. Each is trying to find herself and, more pressingly, gainful employment, in New York. The comedy was created by Lena Dunham, who stars in it along with Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and real-life friend Jemima Kirke, all daughters of famous New Yorkers. (Dunham’s parents are artists; Kirke’s dad was the drummer for Bad Company; Zosia’s dad is playwright David Mamet; Allison’s father is NBC’s Brian Williams). As one friend put it, the cast is like “a graduating class of Yale.”

In other words, the show is a kind of exercise in going “slumming”. In the 1920s, rich white people used to go to Harlem to see how the other half lived. For Dunham and company, this show offers a chance for them to pretend that they are like most college graduates nowadays– forced to live at home, take jobs as interns, or eat at McDonald’s to make ends meet. In the dinner party, one of the male characters riffs about how wonderful McDonald’s is. Anywhere you go in the world, the food tastes uniformly great—as if any of these people ever stepped foot in a restaurant that was not rated at least 2 stars in the NY Times.

There’s been a backlash brewing against “Girls” brewing, especially from the Black community. An unnamed contributor to the Womanist Musings blog (as might be expected, the blogosphere has bought into the show’s hype much less than the bourgeois media) has this to say:

I missed the Sex & The City phenomenon and so I decided to tune into HBO’s Girls. It was not high on my priority list, so I didn’t actually watch it until yesterday. It can best be described as 35 minutes of my life that I will never get back. As a thirty something, Black, disabled mother of two, I am not the target audience for Girls, but if I were to wait from something to actually appear on television to be marketed specifically to me, I wouldn’t need to own a television. Being marginalized means having to deal with dominant bodies being universalized as typifying the human experience, no matter how ridiculous the roles they take on are.

As she leaves the hotel you finally see the first Black person. A homeless Black man in New York after just being inundated with thirty-five minutes of the most navel gazing, spoiled nonsense I have seen in a long time. According to Huffpo, in an HBO live chat, Dunham has the nerve to claim that “the racially homogenous cast was a “complete accident.” Is anyone buying that? Ooops, they did it again. It’s yet another all White show, but because they didn’t mean for that to happen it’s okay. Why am I even complaining, when they did after all find a Black man to act as a homeless person in New York City, one of the most diverse cities on the planet? I suppose I should feel thankful that they managed to scare up a Black man ’cause they most certainly didn’t find a single GLBT person.

Frances Latour, an African-American reporter who blogs at the Boston Globe, had an identical reaction:

With Girls, Dunham has been catapulted from indie-film darling to Hollywood It-girl, heralded by culture critics as a fearless visionary capturing the zeitgeist of young cosmopolitan womanhood in a post-Carrie-Bradshaw age. But the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the City in 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks.

It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. But if you watch CSI: NY on a regular basis, you’d think the only person of color you’re likely to meet in Manhattan is a forensic scientist who works in a high-tech basement. (God bless you, Harper Hill).

Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.

Now none of this would matter so much if the show was even slightly entertaining. After all, I used to enjoy an occasional Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from time to time even if it embodied a xenophobic machismo ethic.

The biggest problem with “Girls” is that is dull. But that’s what happens when you live a life of privilege. You really can’t absorb what it means to be the classic underdog, who knows best how to make other people laugh in the spirit of tears of a clown. From the wiki on Charlie Chaplin:

Chaplin’s childhood was beleaguered by poverty and hardship, prompting biographer David Robinson to describe his eventual trajectory as “the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told.” His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons. Because of this poverty, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as “a forlorn existence”. He was briefly reunited with his mother at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another charity institution.

In September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum—she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by malnutrition and an infection of syphilis. Chaplin recalled his anguish at the news: “Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane?” For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom the young boy scarcely knew. Charles Chaplin Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life with the man was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died two years later, at 37 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver. Hannah Chaplin entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until his brother Sydney returned from the navy. Hannah Chaplin was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her madness returned, this time permanently. “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate”, Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.

August 11, 2011

Random notes on television comedy

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

On July 29, an article titled “Curb Your Racism” appeared on the widely read Mondoweiss, a blog devoted to “the war of ideas in the Middle East”. Written by Eleanor Kilroy, it expressed dismay at the most recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode on HBO:

Larry David’s right to exist in his homeland, America, seems ‘pretty, pretty’ secure. Slandering all Palestinians as anti-Semitic on an irreverent and popular TV show like this is a new low, and is an example of cultural and ethnic arrogance; it is no joke to imply that the Palestinian people’s ongoing struggle for justice poses an existential threat to privileged, Jewish men. Antony Loewenstein’s comment on the clip: “Is it possible for even liberal Jews on mainstream American TV to not frame Arabs and Palestinians as all anti-Semites? Apparently not”. Meanwhile, Haaretz is grinning like a fool at Larry’s joke that this is best place for Jews to cheat on their wives – since they would never be seen. If you side with the oppressor, you won’t be seen dead in the company of the oppressed.

This led to a heated discussion on the article with many comments claiming that Kilroy did not “get” the show:

You guys are misinterpreting this completely. It’s ironically pointing out how absurd those fears are in the context of Larry’s life.

When the guy looks at the posters and says they’re anti-semitic, that’s clearly the writers saying that claim is overblown. When Larry worries about women not recognising his right to exist, that’s clearly Larry getting over-wrought within a Jewish victim-complex.

It’s actually a smart comment on the Jewish mentality. Irony, people!

On August 1, there was a follow-up article titled “The Larry David Peace Plan”  that concurred with the comment above. Written by Jesse Benjamin, it recommended a more subtle reading of the show that required a deeper sense of irony:

My argument is that beyond the serious cultural limitations we sadly have come to expect on US television, there is also something else in this episode, something subversive, which is not common at all, and which casts light on the significant cultural moment we are living through. In this sense, I think too many critical thinkers with good politics have moved too quickly to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. Amidst the gross but predictable equalizing of two profoundly asymmetrical “sides” in this very real conflict, David and crew actually showcase Jewish racism in both its extreme and its liberal forms, and this is something truly rare on television. They also give us brief flashes of otherwise censored concepts like “occupation,” “settlements,” or even just the real-life restaurant posters which show an Israeli tank facing down children, or declare: “Right –vs- Might,” and “Visit Palestine” – things we never see on tv.

HBO has a synopsis of the episode here.  As should be obvious, the inspiration for the show was the NYC mosque controversy in which rightwing protesters challenged the right of Muslims to build a Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the World Trade Center.

What commentators on the show seem to miss is that–leaving aside the politics–it was not very good satire. While nobody would ever expect good satire to be “obvious”, the show was so unmoored from current events and from social reality, that it failed to register as social commentary—other than making religious Jews look foolish, a rather commonplace occurrence on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Rabbis have gotten sent up on the show more times than I can count and much more effectively than the vastly overrated Coen brother’s movie “A Serious Man”.

The biggest problem is the utter failure to make the Palestinians seem even slightly plausible. To start with, the notion that there is such a thing as a Palestinian chicken restaurant festooned with political posters in Los Angeles is absurd. First of all, when Arabs—whatever their nationality—open a restaurant in a major American city, the last thing they are interested in is making a political statement. The posters on the wall of the restaurant opposing the occupation, etc. were a gimmick dreamed up by the Curb Your Enthusiasm writers in order to create a context for the conflict between the feckless Jews who came to protest the restaurant and the equally feckless Palestinians, symbolized by the young and attractive Palestinian woman who decides to become Larry David’s lover (I am afraid that he is succumbing to the Woody Allen syndrome) after he plucks the yarmulke from his friend’s head.

After the people in the restaurant watch the confrontation between Larry David and his newly observant friend in the parking lot as seen in the Youtube clip above, they decide to hail him as some kind of anti-Zionist exemplar. Who in their right mind could possibly connect this to a real-life situation? While I don’t think that the show could ever be interpreted as Zionist propaganda, it is unsettling to think that Arabs could ever act so foolishly. Why in the world would Muslims care about an observant Jew eating in a Palestinian-owned restaurant? The net effect of this scene is to portray them as anti-Semitic, and as equally intolerant as Larry’s friend who sought to “provoke” them. This is classic Hollywood liberalism but turned on its head. Instead of Paul Haggis “let’s all try to get along” pieties, Larry David aims at an “Arabs and Jews are equally stupid” message.

I first wrote about “Curb Your Enthusiasm” back in 2004:

When Seinfeld’s Executive Producer Larry David launched a new TV show on HBO playing himself, it might have been anticipated that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” would retain some of the characteristics of the Seinfeld show. This it does. Not only is the character Larry David just as self-centered and obnoxious as the Seinfeld regulars, he has the same whining Queens inflection as Jerry Seinfeld himself.

Unlike most Americans, I could not stand the Seinfeld show. I thought the show relied too heavily on shtick, a Yiddish word meaning gimmick–especially in the comic sense. For example, Jack Benny’s cheapness was shtick, as was Chevy Chase’s pratfalls on SNL. It also had the mandatory laugh-track, which has the same effect on me as the sound of a garden rake being scraped across a blackboard.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” does incorporate the same kinds of convoluted plots as Seinfeld, usually putting one of the main characters into an excruciatingly embarrassing situation. Since they are not constrained by network requirements to keep Bible belt figures like Donald Wildmon happy, these plots tend to be a lot rawer and a lot funnier. For example, in one show, Larry David performs oral sex on his wife only to get a pubic hair stuck in his throat. For most of the episode, he is seen gagging and choking in polite company trying to dislodge the troublesome hair.

Now in its eighth season, the show has exhibited a kind of exhaustion that you tend to expect from those that are long in the tooth—the Saturday Night Live problem, so to speak. You get the sense that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes are cooked up in writer’s sessions that put a premium on being “outrageous” rather than witty. Watching a thirty-minute episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” nowadays is a frequently exhausting experience as you try to find dialog and situations that are even distantly related to the experience of real-life human beings. (Please don’t ask me about my own experiences with oral sex.)

In utter contrast to what “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has become, I strongly recommend “Louie”, the show produced, directed, written by and starring Louis C.K. (The comedian’s last name is an approximation of his Hungarian surname Szekely.)

Louis C.K. is a standup comedian who has also written for David Letterman and other big name entertainers. His style is an admixture of Bill Cosby and Sam Kinison. From the former, he derives home-spun subject matter, like interacting with his kids. From the latter, he derives a savage misanthropic view of the world, reserving the greatest loathing for himself. So in a typical bit, he might make some cute reference to his daughter and in the next breath saying something like he wishes she had never been born.

And above all, Louis C.K.—like Kinison—is deeply misogynistic. Much of his material dwells on what is like being divorced and how hard it is to find love. Mostly he blames himself for being overweight, a creep, a liar, etc. But more than enough blame is assigned to women who seem to get their greatest joy in humiliating him.

Some of the episodes of the thirty-minute FX show “Louie” can be seen at http://www.hulu.com/louie. I particularly recommend “Bummer/Blueberries” that follows the same format as Seinfeld, another about a comedian that blends on-stage performances at the beginning of each episode, followed by a “situation”.

Unlike Seinfeld, these situations are much darker and much more realistic, cutting close to the bone. In the aforementioned episode, the blueberries are a reference to a shopping expedition that Louie is sent on by a woman who has invited him to have sex—and virtually nothing else. She runs into him at his daughter’s school and after a precursory conversation about school affairs suggests that he might come over to her place sometime for some casual intercourse.

After he drops by, she asks him what kind of condoms he brought with him. When they turn out to be lubricated, she frowns and tells him that they will not do. They irritate her vagina. She instructs him to go to a pharmacy down the block and pick up unlubricated condoms, some lotion for her vagina just in case, and some blueberries. The blueberries, it turns out, have nothing to do with sex games but just something she wants to eat later. Throughout the entire experience—first meeting her, finding out about the shopping trip, and a truly alienating sexual encounter—Louie is held back by a hair’s width from aborting the mission. He wants the sex, but everything else leaves him depressed.

While all of this is completely amusing, at least to me, it is also very painful and very truthful. If this sounds like it is worth your while, I suggest tuning in to “Louie” on FX Thursdays at 10:30pm.

You also might want to check out “Wilfred”, the show that comes on just before “Louie” at 10pm, even though once might be more than enough.

Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins in the Ring movies) plays Ryan, a depressed lawyer who after trying to commit suicide relies on the companionship of a dog named Wilfred to raise his spirits. After seeing Wilfred in action, you wonder why Ryan doesn’t rush out and buy a gun to blow his brains out. I guess this is the comic conceit that is supposed to sustain your interest.

Wilfred is a dog in name only. Dressed in a Halloween-type costume, Australian actor Jason Gann, who created the original “Wilfred” on Australian TV, is an obnoxious pot-smoking creep who is constantly getting his master in trouble by doing all sorts of anti-social things like pissing on one of Ryan’s friend’s living room floors, etc. His “uplifting” message, repeated to the point of tedium to Ryan, is to “let it all hang out”.

I can’t vouch for the original Australian show, but I am afraid that it is probably much more inspired by “The Family Guy”, an American show that was created by David Zuckerman, the producer of “Wilfred”. Like “Wilfred”, “The Family Guy” features a talking dog and situations carefully calculated to make you squirm.

Like “Louie”, you can watch some episodes of “Wilfred” on Hulu. (http://www.hulu.com/wilfred) I more or less decided to put the kibosh on the show after watching the episode “Respect” the other week.

Set in a hospice, where Ryan has begun volunteering in order to impress a woman who has a thing about men with a social conscience, Wilfred—who has tagged along—demonstrates a talent for detecting when someone is about to die, a supposedly “spiritual” gift.

The show derives most of its guffaws from showing people near death looking and acting like human refuse. All I can say that having spent a couple of years visiting my mother in exactly such a place, I found it callow and tasteless. Just the sort of thing that television comedy is mostly about nowadays, I’m afraid.

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