Thursday, February 13, 2014

Woody Allen Redux: The Blame Game

I started my Woody Allen piece last week with a tie-in about Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose shocking overdose on the same day of Dylan Farrow's harrowing (Farrowing?) NY Times' piece caused me to ponder just how much the private lives of our favorite artists should affect how we feel about their art and legacy.  

PSH in Doubt
In writing my blog, though, I may have missed  a more obvious connection between the late Mr. Hoffman and the scandalous Woody Allen: doubt. Doubt is the name of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play and movie, the latter of which starred Hoffman as a priest accused of molesting a young boy.  The gimmick of the show is that the audience never finds out for sure whether Hoffman touched the kid -- Hoffman's Father Flynn is personable and likeable and believable, but also lonely and, of course, a member of a profession long notorious for such crimes.  You want so badly to believe sweet, good-humored, doting, kind Father Flynn could never do such a thing, but the whole time, there's part of you that feels a gnawing...doubt.

Doubt -- this word, this concept, more than anything, has permeated discussions about the renewed sexual abuse allegations leveled at Woody Allen.  My post last week on the subject incited a raging hot debate on my Facebook page, not so much about the questions my piece posed (how to reconcile deploring a person with adoring his films), but rather about how we wrestle with our doubt, and to whom we give the benefit of it.  The question that erupted from all this was: when accusations are made and evidence is sparse, who gets our presumptions and who gets our blame and who gets our belief?

Since this lengthy, impassioned, worthwhile debate happened on Facebook, and not in this blog's comments, I wanted to share some of it here. The first side boiled down, crudely, to "Team We'll Never Know," a contingent of who-are-we-to-say-what-happened film fans who think dredging up a decades-old he-said/she-said is pointless at best unfair to Allen at worst. Their centerpiece is this Daily Beast article, written by Robert Weide who produced and directed PBS's two-part Woody Allen: a Documentary. I'll be the first to acknowledge that Weide's article is persuasive, well-written, and grounded in personal anecdotes and observations of Woody himself -- which is more than I or many of the heated commenters on the internet can boast. Weide's article argues that amid a nasty divorce and a bitter, brutal custody battle, a scorned Mia Farrow "planted" the molestation idea in her daughter's head. In this narrative, Dylan Farrow is still a victim, but a gullible, susceptible, naive victim of a crazy, manipulative mother.

"Team We'll Never Know" argues that in the absence of evidence -- a conviction, a confession -- there's just no way to confirm the truth or who's telling it, and in that big chasm of uncertainty we can all still love Woody Allen because hey, who knows, right? What this side misunderstands, though, and the crux of the Facebook debate, is that implicit in the "not so fast, we don't know" analysis is a presumption, a choice, that favors Woody Allen, that favors the accused.
That's why the opposing side is not "Team Dylan," it's "Team Why is That Your Reaction?" The crux of their argument is touched on in this piece, but nowhere better said than by my old friend and writer, Matt Sailor, who pissed off a whole lot of people on Facebook when he wrote:
 . . . .The point that you don't address, in the interest of blaming some larger imaginary media conspiracy, is that a woman has publicly shared her story of abuse and rape at the hands of her former guardian, and you're choosing to side with the abuser. Why? Why is that your reaction? Why is the word of Weide, a man who, as much as he claims to be objective, has spent months of his life studying Allen's work and very much has a vested interest in the continued celebration of Allen as an autuer...why is that man's word more credible? Why? Why are the considerable jumps to conclusions and logical acrobatics that he does more persuasive than a woman's simple story: I was abused? 
I mean, that's it, right? That's what the uncertainty breaks down into, isn't it?  So, why? Literally, why is that our reaction? Well, the foundation seems to be that our society holds up this "presumption of innocence," doctrine, dating to Blackstone and before, where we've long subscribed to the notion that it's better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to suffer.  But, this article, which is hotly written and somewhat meandering, turns that doctrine on its head (in a social way, not a legal way): what happens if we re-frame exactly whom we're presuming to be innocent? The article posits: in a he-said/she-said like this, isn't presuming Allen is innocent necessarily presuming that Dylan is lying? Where there's no proof, why does the accused deserve our presumption over the abused?
Mia Farrow in Purple Rose of Cairo

It may all bring us back to this question: are we selective in our condemnation of people we like? In the absence of proof, do we project guilt and innocence onto parties as it is convenient for us? Based on liking them, or identifying with them, or their gender, or our privilege issues, or it fitting into a narrative that makes us comfortable? If we presume Dylan Farrow is lying, isn't it easier for us to avoid the whole sad, confusing, inconvenient questions I posed in my first piece? If she's a liar, can't we all watch Annie Hall again?! How great is that?

. . . But if Dylan is lying, then isn't Mia Farrow lying, and what if we want to watch Purple Rose of Cairo (an Allen film starring Mia as an abused wife, hah.)? Do we have to boycott Farrow's movies if she's the liar? Can anyone on any team ever watch Hannah and Her Sisters ever again ever?

You guys, did Allen molest his daughter? I don't know. But I do believe that the way we hold that question in our heads, the things we (secretly, involuntarily, innocently, invisibly) weigh when we consider it, the priorities and presumptions we dole out when we decide for ourselves, say something about who we we are, and what type of mistakes we're willing to make.

"If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I've done my job." -- Woody Allen

Monday, February 3, 2014

What Do We Do About Woody Allen? Or, How Do We Love a Bad Man's Good Movies?

One sordid detail dominates all the tributes and obits to Phillip Seymour Hoffman -- that sickening image of a syringe unceremoniously stuck in his arm.  How grotesque, how debased, how unfitting of this man who elevated his craft, redefined the scope and depth of "character acting," transformed himself into lauded role after role -- the Olivier of supporting casts.  But it's what we keep picturing when we think of him, isn't it? The sick, sad little syringe that took down the great man.

In the wake of PSH's passing, I wanted to consider the effect of an imperfect personal life on the legacy of a great artist -- should the fact that our beloved PSH was a drug addict take away from his career or his legacy?  I think most of us would agree that it should not; that private struggles and missteps and failures should be separated from art and work.  There are countless examples of addicts and alcoholics and divorcees and cheaters and bad parents who nonetheless make wonderful movies and shows and stars.

But what about artists who commit worse crimes, crimes like murder and rape?  How do we handle the sticky situation of hating the person and loving the movies?  How do we reconcile Roman Polanski, the poster-child of sleazy talent, an accused rapist and murder suspect, with his near-perfect 2002 WWII film, The Pianist?  (Polanski, who won the Academy Award for Best Director that year, couldn't attend the awards show in person due to a pending arrest warrant in the U.S.; his award was accepted in abstentia by American sweetheart Harrison Ford and was received by a standing ovation from the entire theater.)  How do we hold up these truths -- justice on one hand; art on the other -- and have any idea how to process them?

A more personal struggle for me has been the lifelong scandal surrounding Woody Allen.  Allen is an ensconced comedy great, a mastermind of the 20th century as a both a stand-alone stand-up comic and as a filmmaker; a genius as a writer and an actor.  No fewer than a half dozen of his extremely prolific works are treasures of modern cinema: most of us film-snob-types stand behind 1977's Annie Hall as his magnum opus (it's the only Allen film included on the straight-laced American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Films list).  But 2011's tender, nostalgic, magical Midnight in Paris is my pet favorite, and this year's Blue Jasmine was refreshing and resonant and nearly flawless.

Owen Wilson, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein in Midnight in Paris
But that's Allen's art-life.  In real life, Allen is a self-absorbed, manipulative monster whose alleged sexual abuse of his adopted children, and his affair with and eventual marriage to his 19 year-old step-daughter, is stuff of sordid tabloid lore.  My reaction to his conduct as a humanist and a feminist is that Allen should be stripped of our fandom and denied our respect, that he should be shamed, spat upon, derided, divorced, disowned.  He's a criminal and a misogynist and a pedophile and an unapologetic abuser.

But guiltily, horribly, I admit: I paid to see both Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine in theaters, and again to rent and re-watch them later.  They're beautiful, fragile, brilliant, well-written, well-made films that I sought out and enjoyed and recommended to friends.  What does this say about me, and my principles, and my weaknesses?

Yesterday, Dylan Farrow -- daughter of Allen and Mia Farrow, Allen's ex-girfriend whose penchant for adoption introduced Allen to his stepdaughter-turned-wife, Soon-Yi -- published "An Open Letter" to Allen in the New York Times asking this very question.  Dylan has repeatedly and fruitlessly accused Allen of sexually abusing her as a child.  And, yesterday, while we all mourned and processed the news of PSH's drug overdose -- that unalterable needle sticking out of his arm -- Dylan asked:
What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?
How do we respond to this?  Alec Baldwin reacted much like we'd expect him to -- a series of curse-riddled tweets in the vein of this one: “What the f&@% is wrong w u that u think we all need to b commenting on this family’s personal struggle?"  Cate Blanchett, front-runner for Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, gave a measured, non-committal response, "It’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family and I hope they find some sort of resolution and peace."  Largely, though, the Twitterverse has rallied behind Dylan.

Just a scene from Take the Money and Run
But, will sympathy for Dylan's story at all impair Allen professionally?  Will it risk Blue Jasmine's Oscars?  Does Dylan's brave first-person tale spell, in the words of the Wall Street Journal's Tom Gara, "the end of Woody Allen?"  Or is it another in a long line of tabloid stories that never seem to catch up with Allen's legend?  What justice is there for Dylan in a world that, with full knowledge of these accusations, bestowed Woody Allen with a Cecile B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award just last month?  How do we love the work and hate the man without hurting the victim?

I don't know the answer, and I'm pretty torn up about the question.  Time Magazine's Peggy Drexler stands by the professional/personal divide, arguing that Allen's film awards should be unimpinged and unimpugned by his "allegedly" awful conduct.  But reading her stance made me feel all icky and sleazy and rape-apologist-y.  Drexler used the trend of celebrity bad behavior as a justification, discussing (as I did) celebrity drug use and violence, and remarked: "[t]o declare Allen unfit to receive an award for his art because of Dylan’s allegations is, furthermore, to issue judgment on Allen’s particular transgression as somehow worse than any other. . . ."  But, like, isn't it?  Isn't molesting a child worse than using drugs or getting into a bar fight?  She goes on to say, "[m]olesting a child is awful stuff. But so is beating your wife."  Dear God, is that the best argument we've got?

The rape-culture counterpoint is well-stated here.  And I have to admit, I internalize and understand the argument against Allen so much more than I understand the notion that some impermeable wall exists between the person and the profession, especially where something as personal and raw as Allen's movies are at issue.  But, I can't stop myself from loving the result of all this horror -- I'm glad Midnight in Paris exists in this world, and I'm glad I've seen it, and I'm not going to promise I'm never going to watch it again.  So how to we go forward like this?  How do we root for Cate Blanchett and boycott Allen?  How do we teach comedy classes and ignore his influence? How do we celebrate great cinema and dismiss him? I don't know, yet.  Do you?

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Archer Vice:" The Cast of "Archer" are Now Drug Dealers

It’s been an abnormally long hiatus for The Boomstick, so naturally I wanted to start back with something important, a subject that exploded me back to the keyboard, a topic near and dear to me, but also something monumental, with gravitas.  So, after much pondering, I have decided to inaugurate 2014 with a truly meaningful, monumental subject: The FX cartoon Archer.

Are you guys watching Archer?  It's been FX's under-the-radar, hard "R"-rated adult cartoon since 2009, but this season premiered to dramatically high ratings because you guys are finally listening to me. It's a great, comedic Bond-lampoon -- or maybe more accurately a wittier, sleazier Get Smart -- featuring a cast of independent-contractor spies led by a pop-culture-obsessed, alcoholic Lothario, the eponymous Sterling Archer.  The L.A. Times might've best summed the show as "the smartest and filthiest cartoon in prime-time," and the cast refers to creator/writer Adam Reed as "the Aaron Sorkin of dirty cartoons."  It's the sort of rag-tag group of misfits comedy that would make M*A*S*H jealous, but with the sci-fi quirkiness of Adult Swim, the absurdism of Family Guy, and the building, repeating, inside-jokiness of Arrested Development.  

Indeed, it's hard to talk about the show without mentioning A.D., because Archer is voiced by a bunch of A.D. veterans (Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Judy Greer, and the marvelous, gravely Jessica Walter as Archer's mom and spy-boss -- essentially Lucille Bluth with a career and a better-looking Buster).  It's also staffed with some Atlanta locals (Amber Nash and Lucky Yates of Dad's Garage fame), so there's a little hometown pride for those of us in the A.

Some of the cast of Archer.
But, the reason I wanted to write about it was because season five premiered this month with a reimagining too complete to be called a gimmick.  The season's first episode reveals (with almost no exposition) that Mallory Archer (Jessica Walter, aka Lucille 3) was never actually authorized to run a spy agency and the U.S. government is shutting it down.  And when they're shut out of spydom, what is there for a dysfunctional group of newly-unemployed spies trained in espionage, weapons, and disguise to do but...become a drug cartel?  So, presaged by a lengthy season-montage trailer at the first episode's end, we've embarked on Archer Vice

Prior to the premiere, Archer's executive producer explained that the change came about because Adam Reed "got bored."  What a damn diva.  The big surprise here, of course, is that in view of Archer's increasing popularity, FX approved the change (especially since Archer inexplicably didn't make the move to FXX -- FX's new all-edgy comedy channel -- with its FX bretheren Always Sunny and The League).  For a network to be on board with an overhaul of a slow-build show that's only recently finding a broader fan base is certainly a rare, bold risk.  At the same time, Archer's setting was always only incidental to its plots -- the show's humor and irreverence came from character relationships and pop-culture nods, and many of its best scenes had little to do with the spy-work at hand.  The joke has always been Archer's misplaced emotions -- he's prone to panic at an off-brand vermouth, but pays little attention to the eastern bloc firing squad shooting through the door.  That device will be well-served against a backdrop of perilous drug deals and Scarface-esque shootouts.

Archer also may be the perfect vehicle to try out the mid-series reset because the show already exists in a time-period limbo.  Archer has never committed to taking place in any decade, and indeed, seems to straddle the last centuries by using "cellphone and modern technology, while driving 70s muscle cars, dressing like like Mad Men characters and battling to the Cold War."  With characters who are already displaced in time, how much of a stretch is it to plop them into a difference place?  I could really get behind Archer as a continually-reborn cartoon Blackadder.

And, its not like Archer hasn't done this before -- past seasons have dispatched the spies all over the world and the oft-disguised gang has blended into many a new backdrop.  Just compare the posters from seasons one through three, not to mention the mid-summer pirate-themed mini-season "Heart of Archness:"

Season 1
Season 2: The Spy Who Loved Himself
Season 3: Counter Intelligence
So, in honor of Archer Vice, here's some assorted Archer internet miscellany to tide you over until next week's episode:
  • Slate's "Gateway Episode" has hand-selected the best episode to get you hooked on Archer. And Babou.  
  • In the spirit of Boardwalk Empire's vintage subway car, Archer circulated a mobile barbershop-and-shoeshine parlor called "Debonair Repairs" around New York City in anticipation of the premiere.
  • But by far the best thing you can find about Archer on the internet is this amazing amazing music video, a full Archer-cast, Top Gun montage set to Kenny Loggin's hit/Archer's favorite catch-phrase, "Danger Zone."  Here it is in full:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween, Love Sharknado

You guys knew I liked Sharknado, but you probably thought I just "liked" it, like as a joke, good for a little bit of blog fodder and fun-making.  That must mean you guys don't know me at all, because my favorite pastimes are pretty much Halloween, pop-culture costumes, and taking things too seriously.  So I give you my absurd overreaction to ScyFy's best/worst made-for-TV experience: Sharknado.


That's me as a shark. And that's my awesome husband dressed as Ian (pronounced "EYE-an," because that's important to me) Ziering. Devotees will notice a glimpse of his actual "Fin's Restaurant" shirt, the name of the bar Ian Ziering runs in the movie. 


If you don't know what this is a reference to or why it's funny, check out my intro to Sharknado here.  If you do know what this is and think it's hilarious, listen to the excellent How Did This Get Made about it.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

U Suck @ Grammer*: Less Than Perfect

After the whole Literacy Privilege/old, white, sexist, racist men invented grammar and if you care about it you are one, too thing, I think I shied* away from writing another post in my grammar series for fear of looking like a snobby elitist grammar fuddy-duddy.   But then I realized: I am a snobby elitist grammar fuddy-duddy, and you know it, and I know it, and sometimes you just have to be your damn self.

So, today we're back with a new U Suck @ Grammer, acknowledging that language is not an immutable thing, that language is constantly changing, that word-use ebbs and flows and slang becomes uniformly accepted and archaic words drop out of the vernacular and high schoolers have an ever-harder time understanding Shakespeare and we fuddy-duddies have an ever-harder time understanding high schoolers.  It's good that language evolves -- and even if it weren't good, it's true, so we might as well get used to it and embrace it and find interesting new things to like about it.  But, while language is transforming more rapidly than ever, the whole system hasn't gone out the window yet; it's not changing too rapidly, and you guys still have to write resumes and shit for work where you don't want to sound like an idiot.

So, today we're going to talk about two sort-of related word pairs that are widely misused and confused:  "then" vs. "than" and "lesser" vs. "fewer."  Luckily, for as frequently as these words are transposed, the rules governing them are actually pretty simple. 


First, and please listen to me: "then" and "than" may only be one letter apart, but they are different words, you guys.  They're not interchangeable; you don't get to pick which vowel looks prettier in your sentence.

"Then" is an adverb, almost exclusively used to orient events in time.  You would say: the chicken came first, then the egg.  Or, "I watched Sharknado, then I watched Ghost Shark because it came on next on SyFy."  "Then" is  also used with our favorite tense -- the subjunctive -- following the word "if" in a conditional clause.  For example, you could say: "if I were the writer of Sharknado, then I would kill myself."

On the other hand, "than" is exclusively used as a comparison. You would say: "I liked Sharknado better than I liked Ghost Shark."  Or, "I'm a better writer than the slobs who get paid buckets of money to write crap like Sharknado."  Or, "my face looks 70% less leathery than Tara Reid's face."

Keep in mind that unlike "then," the word "than" has no synonyms, so no other word will do in its place.  If you could say "subsequently" or "afterward" or "following," then you are looking for the word "then."  It doesn't get easier than that, right?


I say the second pair of words is related to the first because "lesser" and "fewer" are always necessarily paired with "than."  Now that we know where to use "than," we can further polish our writing by mastering the trickier, subtler difference between "lesser" and "fewer."  The short of it is: you use "fewer" whenever you're discussing something quantifiable, something you can count.  You use "lesser" when you're describing something abstract or massive or otherwise uncountable.  Let's look at some commonly-encountered examples:



How Whole Foods does it is the right way: 10 items or fewer.  Remember it this way: Whole Foods is super pretentious and snobby, so they would have correct grammar.   (Note: Publix recently got a grammar award for changing their signs.) 

Okay, quiz time.  One of these is correct and one of these is incorrect.  (Hint: it's not "Big Taste.")  Can you tell which is which?

That's right, smartypants, 40% less fat is fine, but it should be 30% fewer calories. Why? Because calories are necessarily quantifiable.  This one may seem a little trickier because, you say, isn't fat, too, measured numerically?  The difference is that a "calorie" is itself a measurement, and "fat" is itself an object.  Fat can be measured, of course, but when it's counted, another measurement term is required.  That's why the ad would be correct if it said "40% fewer grams of fat," but as it stands, "less" is appropriate.

To conclude, because I am a worldly and thoughtful person interested in self-improvement and becoming less of a lame, vanilla, rule-follower, I will at least share with you the counter-point to all of the lessons that I have taught you today:  Motivated Grammar's "'10 items or less' is just fine."  (I'll note that the author isn't motivated enough to capitalize his title.  Maybe I just haven't gotten to "Not capitalizing shit is just fine.")***  I mean, I still totally think you sound smarter and better if you follow 'dem rules, but it's worth hearing a smart, proactive person explain the linguistic history and make the argument that you can be SO SMART that you purposefully sound dumb.  You know, like a hipster would. 

* Because I always have to say it, "Grammer" is purposefully spelled wrong in the title.  For humor and irony and all.

**I looked up how to spell "shied" like 14 times. It looks so stupid and wrong.

*** I'll also note that the author of "Motivated Grammar" is a computational psycholinguist with a "Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Princeton University and a Master’s in Linguistics from UCSD."  But y'all should still totally listen to me, the theater major with a law degree from a state school, when it comes to words and stuff.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Extrovert Conundrum: A Confession/PSA/Promise to My Loved Ones

I read this interesting article recently called "How to Love an Extrovert."   Written as a rebuttal to "How to Love an Introvert," the piece condemns extrovert-shaming, does away with the term "attention-whore," and celebrates the layered, genuine, vulnerable, social loudmouths we all know (and some of us love).  It explains that extroverts can be deep, thoughtful people -- not just vapid word-spewers -- and that extroverts can need and enjoy quiet self-reflective time, too.  Until I read this article, I don't think I realized just how much internet advice there is in "defense" of "introverts," tacitly shaming and blaming the unshy types we lump together as "extroverts."  (See, also, this great article: "The Care and Feeding of Your Extrovert.")

From Buzzfeed's 25 Frustrating Things About Being an Extrovert.
I've gathered from the imbalance of internet articles that many introverts think the world is built for extroverts; that extroverts have an easier go of it, have more friends, more happiness, think less, care less, worry less.  But diving down the rabbit hole of the articles coincided with me experiencing an extreme period of personal self-criticism, regret, and almost incapacitating, over-analyzing insecurity.  I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a human adult person who interacts with other, different, human people with different needs and thoughts and senses of humor, and a lot about how to be better at the whole human-person thing in general.

As a (largely) hopeless extrovert, I constantly feel the need to apologize for my behavior: my volume, my energy, the way I just spent 40 minutes acting out Clue for your now-silent new boyfriend who's never seen it and didn't really seem to grasp what I meant by "French farce."  Some of this isn't just being an extrovert.  It's being a socially insensitive, domineering asshole. But the lines are foggy, and the night is dark and full of booze.

When I was younger -- high school, drama camp, high school drama camp, etc. -- I was proud of my personality.  I called my fevered outspokenness "passion" and my plowing through other people's conversations "loquaciousness" and my bossiness "having lots of ideas."  And I was heartbroken when people didn't like me.  Because, you see, I also tried really hard to be nice and considerate and gracious and a good person.  I just couldn't contain my excitement for ALL THE THINGS and my need to discuss and explain and not relent until everyone around me was as excited as I was (or, more accurately, had left the room).  But, it came off wrong lots of the time, and I came off wrong, and through the endlessly embarrassing looking glass of adulthood, I'm starting to understand why.

Looking back, I realize that what I had was this really raw, rough draft of a personality. All the spice and humor and interesting quirks and mouth-movements, but none of the finesse and self-restraint and situational awareness that I needed to be liked or appreciated or invited to places.

I once read the etiquette is the art of making other people feel comfortable.  That's what I didn't have -- etiquette -- not that I didn't write timely thank you notes or exchange polite small talk -- I didn't get that the best person you can be is someone who makes other people feel comfortable.  I was too much myself, if that's a thing, and I didn't understand that small, fitting-in gestures aren't selling yourself out; they're making other people feel validated in their choices and their personalities.

Who you calling "attention-whore?"
I think a lot of extroverts struggle with this conundrum: it's not that we need attention in some sort of negative, overcompensating, low-self-esteem way.  Many of us don't go out seeking attention (as hard as that is to believe). We're just loud and passionate and excitable and have so much fun talking and bubbling that we can overdo it.  When you like to meet people, you like to make jokes, you like to say "yes" to the next party/bar/date/trip/idea, you're unshy and ridiculous and full of mischief, sometimes you can overrun quieter, more reserved, less frenzied people.  I struggle a lot with this, especially lately; I replay conversations and evenings over and over in my head and worry constantly that I talked too much or said too much or hurt someone's feelings or did something wrong.  I don't have the brash confidence I used to have, as my rawer self, and I live in semi-constant state of self-balancing.  It's like a weird, stutter-step dance: two steps forward BEING MYSELF, one step back regretting and overthinking myself.

So, in this long slow journey to "adulthood" (a word whose quotes are earned each weekend where I backslide many bumpy miles down the hill of maturity), I've been trying really hard to be, if nothing else, self-aware.  My husband recently said, "the best any of us can do is just keep trying to be a better person."  And it's true, right, despite it's fortune-cookie/pinteristy flavor?  Trying to be a better person means trying to pick your battles, trying to benefit the doubt, trying to make other people feel good about themselves, trying to shut up once in a while.

My marriage.
But, I was glad to read the "How to Love an Extrovert" article, because I've been doing so much guilt-feeling and self-shaming about my natural social instincts that it was nice to hear "it's okay! You're just that person!" It was nice to feel defended and understood (something we all fundamentally want, right?).  So, real life friends, check out the article; and this one.  And forgive me, please.  And feel free to ask me to shut up for a minute so you can finish your story.  Because I want to shut up, I really do; sometimes I just don't know how. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Boardwalk Empire: The Coen Brothers You've Been Missing

Alright.  It's time to talk about Boardwalk Empire.  Now that our collective Breaking Bad fevers have broken, we all have room in our hearts and minds and DVRs for another show.  I'm here to tell you that if it's not already, it needs to be Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk Empire's $5 million recreated Boardwalk.
Now in its fourth season, Boardwalk is a period gangster piece about Atlantic City bootleggers and businessmen and the early American mob.  It's fiction, but populated in its periphery with real-life names -- Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano --  so it has this great The Untouchables quality.  It's executive-produced by Martin Scorsese (he gives actual notes on each episode); it was created and is written by Terence Winter (The Sopranos), and backed by a bunch of vetted names.  But, more than anything, Boardwalk Empire feels like one long Coen Brothers movie.  And who doesn't love the Coen Brothers? 

Aside from the obvious actor overlap -- Steve Buscemi in a masterful, stereotype-shattering lead, Kelly McDonald (No Country for Old Men), and other character-actor guests like the masterful Michael Stuhlbarg and Stephen Root -- Boardwalk consistently appropriates favorite Coen motifs and details.   It has some of the Coen's love affair with small town poverty, tinny music, twangy ambiance.  It's got lots of period costumes lit by warm filters and overlaid by an O Brother/No Country dinginess like the whole world is covered in industrial smoke or Model-T dust.  Boardwalk employs some extreme accents and caricatures (Mickey Doyle, anyone?) with the respectful sort of mockery the Coens perfected, at once sympathetic and self-parodying.

But the real Coen crossover is the violence.  Boardwalk, like so much of the Coen's work, is driven by grisly, creative, unglamorous violence -- that pure, bloody, thud-y violence that you can hear as much as you can see (clunks, cracks, breaks, drips -- so much more than just gunshots).  It's hands-on violence, dirty and painful and mean, and when it's done, there are no clean shirts, no salvageable pieces.  But the hands-on-ness of it also means its delicately choreographed: balletic, poignant, poetic in its gristle; it's the sickening air-rush sound of murder by cattle gun; a spear driven right through your one eye; the sawing off of a little green toe.

It's also violence that resolves in beautiful, contrasting vignettes -- art pieces painted in crimson.  Murders in jagged, dead woods, a la Miller's Crossing.  Peeling wallpaper in decrepit hotel rooms a la Barton Fink.  The gentle spray of wood-chipper blood onto snow, a la Fargo.

And though it doesn't always have the Coen's rapid, pedantic, magical dialogue -- there are just way too many words in a 12-hour season to polish each phrase the way the Coens do -- it has its moments (like this little gem of dialogue in Season 2, Episode 5 [starts at 26:00] that's got the Coen's classic out-of-place sophisticated diction -- rural rednecks saying "bamboozled" and "pontificating"). 

Pop Quiz: Coen or Boardwalk?
Of course, Boardwalk stands up on its own without any Coen comparisons -- it's truly an heir both to the line of epic HBO television shows and the long, lauded history of the American mob movie.  But the parts of Boardwalk that call the Coens to mind are often its cleverest, most charming, most profound moments.  And for those of us wishing only that there were two more Coens to churn out even more movies, Boardwalk is a prolific and satisfying fix.

And, frankly, Boardwalk has been one of those great, self-propelling shows that has survived some major plot twists that would be series-enders for lesser shows.  The quality of the writing, the character-building, and the supporting cast (who are able to rotate into and out of lead roles as necessary), combined with the shifting ground of the real-life time period means that that show has a lot of rumbling opportunity to change and grow where it needs to.  HBO must feel the same way, because they just renewed it for a fifth season.  So, if you haven't jumped aboard the Boardwalk train, consider this my (and maybe the Coen's?) endorsement.

Jump aboard the actual Boardwalk Empire subway train car.