Like: TREME Episode 3 “Right Place, Wrong Time” … and the effects Malcolm Gladwell framework from “The Tipping Point”

April 28, 2010

On the plane to New Orleans this past week I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” I’ve been meaning to read it for years and so when I saw the paperback in the airport bookstore I bought it as an impulse purchase. This moment I consider to be a bit serendipitous.  It ended up providing a fascinating sociological framework with which to approach my visit to N’awlins.  For those who haven’t read it (like me, last week) the basic conceit of the book is that little, seemingly trivial details can push huge trends and epidemics in the community wildly in one direction or another.  Of course it’s a lot more nuanced than that, but this specifically applies to the idea that context and environments play a huge role in terms of our actual behaviors, far more than we previously believed. One example he explores in great detail is the dramatic turnaround of crime prevention in New York City largely being a matter of physically cleaning up trash and graffiti on the subway. The idea: an environment that accepts simple lawlessness and petty crimes will therefore accept/encourage harsher crimes. So they changed the physical environment and crime plummeted. Context rules.

But what about more specific community traits? For example, Fist-Fighting in Boston is a largely tolerated cultural; two knuckleheads would beat each other up, the cops would show up and ask who started it, and then they’d go to the can for a night and be released. No one would sue anyone else. This happened all the time. The first thing I noticed when I moved to Los Angeles is “where are all the dudes fighting each other in front of bars?” There weren’t any. And if they did, someone for sure was getting sued. Same laws. Same country. It’s just that one place is more culturally tolerant of a behavior and the other is not. But Los Angeles is a city five times the size of Boston and bars are everywhere, so how does this happen? Maybe it’s the kind of people who live here. Maybe it’s the nice weather putting everyone in a better mood. Maybe it’s because people are wearing less clothes. Maybe it’s because people are afraid that the other person is gang affiliated or something and maybe carrying a gun (the violence situation south of the 10, and east of the 5 is far different after all). Either way, I’ve seen hundreds of fist fights in four years in Boston and none in five years in Los Angeles. The difference is the environment, and therefore the context. And context rules.

So what if the difference is about positive behavior? What if a city had a context of joy and indomitable spirit? Would the context of that that spirit really hold sway over the city’s constituents? Over the tourists? Can the overwhelming joy and kindness of a city be as contagious as Gladwell argues? My conclusion was yes. After all, context rules.

By the way, that city is New Orleans. I spent the last four days there and, prompted by the Gladwell read, I spent the entire time being fascinated by the context/environment. Every single person I met was relentless positive, affable, and engaging. Not just the cab drivers, bartenders, hotel managers and assorted folks whose jobs it was to be cheerful and welcoming. And not just the citizens of New Orleans, who always seemed to manage to say a friendly hello as they walked to work, or strike up a conversation as they stood in the doorways to beat the sweltering sun. But what contagiousness argues for best, is to look at your fellow visitors. What mood do the Tourists and the Party Folks take upon their visit? By all accounts, they were likewise celebratory, kind, affectionate. People who you couldn’t imagine dancing on the street would do just that. One wonders how so much (relative) good behavior happens with so much alcohol involved, but it’s a function of the environment. People are there to drink, enjoy music, and have a great time. It’s a kind of debauchery that lacks the animosity that seems to characterize much youthful partying these days (think woodstock 99, etc).  Especially after the storm, where it seems the desire to embrace and reignite the things that make New Orleans special have become priority #1. The environment is now one of healing and pride. And it’s frickin’ contagious.

After all, Context Rules.

So upon arriving home, I watched TREME episode 3, with a sense of… is there a word for “immediate nostalgia?” So as far as cinematics goes, here’s the good and the bad…

Good:

-Wendell Pierce plays the best drunk ever. This is inarguable.

-The episode struck me as funnier than the previous two.

-Khandi Alexander is poised to win some serious awards. Maybe? She’s putting on a clinic.

-I remembered that John Goodman can do subtlety. We’re always wrapped up in his usual gravitas and Walter Sobcheckian-yelling that we forget just how acute he can be too. The scene on the porch between him and Zahn is priceless, “Just piano lessons.”

-Melissa Leo, high marks all around. She’s perfectly cast.

-Zahn. Not as manic as the first episode. A bit more manic then the second. But still finding balance and had some real nice moments. Even his doucheyness is starting to be charming, which seems to be the point. He mostly works as a great foil for Kim Dickens.

Bad:

-Meanwhile, Sonny is the douchiest douche in douchetown. How are we supposed to feel about him again? Are we supposed to like this guy? Because he’s giving hipsters and even badder name. Drinking his girlfriend’s birthday present because she got a surprise big-deal-gig and just happened to be busy for a little bit? And Sonny got to go to the gig too?! What is he, fucking five? Shut up Sonny you whiny little brat. For the record, I find most complaints of hipsterism and/or emo to be inane, simplistic, and often just plain irrelevant, but dear lord Sonny. Come on man. You’re actually justifying all of those diminutions. And yet, because this is David Simon, I will wait patiently. Maybe we’re suppose to hate this douchebag in the long run. My guess though is that his seemingly pretentious stories of saving people in his boat (the ones that people can’t seem corroborate) will actually end up being true. And really he’s just working out his shit or some other backstory. I dunno.

-His girlfriend Annie is far more tolerable, except she makes a face when playing fiddle that looks like she’s passing stones.

-There’s a fine line in film/tv between something that feels real and something that feels forced. This seems obvious, but authenticity is such a rarity in entertainment that we’ve learned to embrace the ridiculous as an alternative. Meanwhile, Simon’s shows (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire) have built a reputation on being authentic above all else. So in regards to the scene in episode 3 where the cops suddenly go ape-shit on Antoine for, like, no reason… well, it immediately set off my bullshit detector. Which is odd, because I’ve seen that exact same kind of horror go down in real life multiple times. But if it is something that’s painfully real, what’s the problem? The problem is the “how” of course. Since DO THE RIGHT THING(1), we’ve seen the no-reason-police-beating many, many times in our cinematic experience, and many of these immitations are often done for contrived/imitative/knee-jerk reasons. Unfortunately, we can’t help but bring all those negative connotations with it. This scene in episode 3, however, builds up beautifully; Antoine drunkenly sings with Annie and Sonny as the police car slides carefully into the backround. They finish their song. He starts to drunkenly walk forward. You slowly feel it coming. It’s perfect film-making. Then the second his horn taps the cop car, the police are instantly on top of him and within a second are beating the shit out of him, spewing the kind of dialogue we see in “evil cop” movies. Even the style of the scene changes, as it ultra-edited and with multiple angles to accentuate the violence.(2) You sense the filmmakers wanted to show how quickly things can turn and how impacting real police violence can be, but in doing so they’ve created a scene that achieves in the exact antithesis of what it was achieving when it started. In this culture of stylistic violence you need to be doubly careful. Even the shaky cam has a action-movie connotation now. You need the same kind of unblinking de-stylization that made the action of The Wire so heartbreaking.

Anywho it’s just something to look out for in future episodes, as it’s the crux of what makes a David Simon show work.

And I swear I’m going to have have another “It’s not just who but when” post up this week, it’s almost done.

(1) – It goes back further of course, but the scene of Radio Raheem remains the last major touchstone for a lot of us.

(2) – In comparison to the normal Simon standards, not, like, Michael Bay.


Like: KICK-ASS

April 16, 2010

No big review.

1) You will enjoy KICK-ASS if you like/don’t mind the following: gleeful amoralism, a sense of irony, insane amounts of violence, punk rock sensibility (the sensibility, not punk rock itself, though there’s some of that too), children dealing insane amounts of violence, children absorbing insane amounts of violence, children swearing, Nic Cage being awesome instead of corny (fine-line), hilarious/filthy dialogue, well-choreographed fight sequences, meta-commentary, surprisingly serious overtones, surprisingly silly overtones, surprising life-affirming overtones, Adam West cadence, and silly costumes.

2) One of the best parts about the movie is the managed to subvert a lot of the negative aspects of the comic. This doesn’t happen that often. It does away with most of the sexist stuff in Millar’s shitty opus and completely does away with the weird racist stuff (and yes, Mark Millar is  racist folks. It’s not “reflexive commentary,” he’s just got straight up issues). On the whole it’s a completely more functional tone and it’s much, much funnier.

3) KICK-ASS may seem to have a confused thematic message, but I’d argue it doesn’t at all; it just plays into a whole lot of gray areas which are more results from seemingly simple decisions… plus so much of the film’s success depends constantly messing with your expectations. It’s sort of a Coen-esque anti-movie at times, but ultimately it plays straight… which yeah, makes it seem uneven, but think of it like this: it’s a movie that uses anti-movie sequences as dramatic events. In the age of super-saavy audiences (especially with comic book movies), it’s a perfect device. I love that and it’s a pretty edgy film sensibility (almost Hanake-esque? In terms of what it’s doing, not how it’s doing).

4) If you’re on the fence, consider the following: the one thing this movie will do is prompt you to have a reaction. Good. Bad. Aghast. Enthralled. You won’t leave the theater and immediately forget it like that vast majority of consumed entertainment.

5) And if you ever see this girl on the street. Walk the other way:


Love: Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe

March 13, 2009

“Scott Pilgrim is one of my favorite comics.” Lots of people say that. That’s because it’s awesome.

Scott Pilgrim is 23 year old living in Toronto. He meets Ramona Flowers and is smitten. Author Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic is almost perfectly observed: tiny bits of interaction, nuance, dating intricacy, and wholesale anxiety. Perhaps the most wonderful part is that there’s a wonderful casualness to the style and the world. Most of scenes are simply hanging out, but rather than reflect significant boredom, there is instead a focus on just the kinds of things that make hanging out with your friends so exciting and fun.  Scott Pilgrim is perfect realism… except when it’s the exact opposite. O’Malley mixes the aforementioned realism with vivid fantasy tones and video game logic.  In order to date Ramona, Scott must defeat her 7 evil ex-boyfriends. Expect expansive fight scenes, traveling through the mystic void of “subspace”, people who go to “vegan school”, item rewards, robots, stat bonuses, and plenty of metaphysical indie rock. It’s a stunning amalgamation really.

The world is populated with wonderful characters, but Scott and Ramona a truly something remarkable. Scott is a perfect central figure. He is intensely like-able and funny, yet a ball of walking anxiety, stupidity, fear, and forgetfulness. He’s not exactly a simpleton, but there is something intensely “regular” about him. And it goes far beyond the “lovable loser” routine. Scott transcends it. Truth is, I can’t think of a similar central character off the top of my head. That in and of itself is wonderful. Ramona meanwhile transcends her own cliche. Nothing seems more inane right now than the recent influx of “magic pixie girls.” It’s a new cliche, flighty wonderful women who make your boring personality and existence more tolerable because they are so adventurous and spontaneous. At first Ramona may seem to be a perfect example. She’s a rollerblading delivery girl (even in winter), she dyes her hair every other day, she’s got some serious martial arts skills, and actually travels through subspace! But Ramona is anything but an empty shell of surface things that make a woman’s “personality.” That’s what a lot of males writing women don’t seem to get. Personality is suplemented by details (wheras their male character seem like empty templates of longing). Ramona has so many layers. Her complexity and distance are earned. She is marked by a sense of grief. Her “running” from people is not a sign of dejecting the screenwriter, but a reaction to her past. She is someone more mature than who she was, but not sure how to be the person she wants to be. My word, it seems as if O’Malley *GASP* knows an actual woman who is actual person! You know, instead of the crazy version of magic pixie girl they see as their desire from the outside looking in. Nowhere are Ramona’s layers more evident than in the most recent book (Volume 5). It’s a revelation to me. O’Malley has transcended the magic pixie girl. Good show old chap!

Tangent: There’s a movie coming out. Edgar Wright is doing it. Just going off Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, you may think that’s not exactly a perfect choice. But Spaced is the closest thing in tone to Scott Pilgrim I’ve ever seen. It IS perfect. Most of the casting is complete home runs. I have two big worries: 1) Scott Pilgrim is played by Michael Cera. Don’t get me wrong, I love Michael Cera. But the dude kind has his own style of delivery… And he seems nothing like Scott Pilgrim. So I’m worried. Hopeful, but fearful. 2) Looking over the casting… it seems like they’re cramming 4 books into one movie, maybe even 5 or the whole story (there are 6 stories). This seems like a huge, huge mistake. The four or five action sequences alone could take up so much running time that it wouldn’t leave room for the minor scenes of the story. And That’s what makes Scott Pilgrim so wonderful. I’m absolutely terrified. If anything it seems like it should be broken up episodically into 3, or at least certainly 2 movies (There is a great natural break at the end of the third book). Don’t get me wrong. I love everyone involved. I’m just scared as hell.


Don’t Like: Watching a Boxing Match Between Two Guys With AWFUL Jabs

February 19, 2009

I’m an armchair boxing fan; in the sense that my dad is a big fan and has given me a knowledge base with which to appreciate the sport. So I casually watch at work or catch fights I’m interested in. I was watching a fight on “Nothing but Knockouts” (great show) and caught one of the worst things that happens in boxing:

Two fighters with awful jabs.

It’s just most painful thing ever to see two guys circle each other and get the most awkward, slow punches as they pretend to have some boxing skill. They can’t even use it to distance themselves and create space. It’s like watching two kids make an action movie in their back yard, it’s almost cute that they’re even trying.

The good news is once they expend some effort trying to box, they get tired and just start brawling.

This is much more fun.

The fight descends into a basic barfight where two guys slug each other til the other one goes down. While it’s not exactly a wonder to behold, it satisfies part of the pugilistic reasons we watch boxing in the first place: to watch someone who is not us get hit really hard.

Oddly enough, the fight had a spectacular finish where one dude was finally starting to lose after 4 rounds of draw boxing. He’s getting absolutely pummeled, then the other dude drops his hands almost to brag. BOOM. Connects with a stealth right and he’s down for 10. The guy barely even knew he had been knocked out and thought they had called the fight for some reason.


Like: Total Badasses

September 17, 2008

The Following people were total badasses:

Teddy Roosevelt (president, soldier, bad-ass, probable racist)

Muthafuckin’ Omar (stick-up man)

Mean Joe Greene (his name is mean for f-ing sake)

Bob Gibson (he would drill his own players in batting practice)

Ogie Oglethorpe

John Matrix

Han Solo

Truckasuarus

Ghengis Khan

The Asian Cobra

Marburg

Throwing Stars (no link necessary)

Muldoon

And please, more suggestions for bad asses!


Like: Fred Simmons, King of the Demo

May 27, 2008

I saw The Fist Foot Way yesterday and it was pretty freaking hilarious. It was shot for 70,000 dollars (read: nothing) and while it looks like it, it still totally rocks. The entire thing rests on the shoulders of Danny McBride who plays Fred Simmons, “King of the Demo”. McBride is absolutely hilarious and rather than just be a vehicle for jokes, he ends up giving the kind of performance that turns this movie into a strange, little character piece. It’s kind of a remarkable feat given how rarely that happens with this kind of humor. A lot of people who have seen this and McBride’s other work think he’s going to blow up. I’m one of them. I caught Pineapple Express a few months ago and he’s fantastic in that too. The Fist Foot Way is being released pretty shittily in the summer against Sex and The City. Even with Will Ferrell’s and Adam Mckay’s names attached as presenters it won’t help cause nobody knows.

Here’s a clip of Fred Simmons on Conan: Enjoy