Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kill your own f*cking television! Vol. 2


One area where television is currently completely kicking the ass of the movie industry is comedy. Sure, there's still plenty of mediocre sitcoms polluting the air waves but in this post Seinfeld/The Office era there's also a more than usual amount of smart, unique and innovative shows to choose from. "Parks and Recreation", "Community", "Bored To Death", "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia", "Eastbound and Down" and the still funny "Curb Your Enthusiasm" are just a few of the titles out there at the moment. Towering above them all as clearly the best in a strong field is FX's "Louie"

Starring, written, directed and edited by comedian Louis C.K., "Louie" is one of the purest examples of auteurism in any current medium. If you're not familiar with his work, Louis C.K. is one of the most successful and respected stand up comedians working today. His style is honest, acerbic, self-effacing, observational and confrontational. With George Carlin he shares a love of both language and the puncturing of pomposity and self importance combined with an almost Cosby like conversational style. His humor encapsulates all subjects from the meaning of life and death to fart and dick jokes, all equally funny. In the industry he's universally respected as a "comic's comic".

Despite his mastery of the stand up form he's had little success in film or television. He has directed many short films but his feature debut as a writer/director was the notorious "Pootie Tang". Now, by all reports "Pootie Tang" was a much interfered with production and was more or less taken away from him and re-cut into the form it exists today so he's not entirely to blame. To his credit, however, C.K. has not disowned the film entirely and admits that even if his version had survived it wouldn't have been anything like a great film, or even a very good one. He just wishes he'd been given the chance to succeed or fail on his own merit.

His next major project was "Lucky Louie" for HBO, a not entirely successful experiment in deconstructing the traditional sitcom format. Shot multi-camera, with old fashioned video tape on cheap looking sets in front of a live audience, "Lucky Louie" looked and felt very much like an old fashioned network sitcom, but it's subject matter was deliberately shocking and profane, laced with cursing and even nudity. Both audiences and critics were confused and turned off by the show's ugly aesthetic and willful vulgarity and it only lasted one season. Which is too bad because, despite it's off putting elements, "Lucky Louie" was often laugh out loud funny. More than that, it was, like C.K.'s stand up, almost painfully honest in it's portrayal of the difficulties of being married with a small child and not enough money. Louis and his TV wife Pamela Adlon were a great team and a believable couple as well, and happily she has shown up on the new FX show. Although I cannot bring myself to recommend "Pootie Tang" (which is not without interest but still a god awful mess) I absolutely do recommend "Lucky Louie" at least if my description doesn't turn you off.

On second thought, maybe it's for the best that "Lucky Louie" didn't succeed because it freed it's creator to spend the next few years further refining his comedic voice and allowing him to produce some of the best stand up of his career. It's from this newer, stronger comic perspective that "Louie" his brilliant new show emerged. It is forever to their credit that despite his shaky record in the medium the FX network basically gave C.K. carte blanche to do whatever he wanted within the agreed upon budget. The form and content of the show was up to him and him alone. This is almost unprecedented and has left more than a few of his contemporaries scratching their heads in wonder (and privately seething with envy I imagine).

So what is "Louie" anyway? Basically, it's a series of short films (usually two an episode, sometimes just one) with only the barest strand of continuity. Louis plays a sad sack version of himself, a single comedian and divorced father of two young girls and this is the one real constant throughout. Stand up performances are sprinkled throughout the episodes, somewhat like early Seinfeld, often commenting on or enhancing the filmed stories. This loose format allows C.K. as a writer to wildly vary the the tone of the comedy. It is often arduously realistic but can turn on a dime into absurdism or surrealism, it can be subtle or wildly exaggerated, it can be extremely vulgar, even offensive, but also poignant and sensitive. What this format lacks in cohesiveness or consistency it more than makes up for in invention and unpredictability. Over the course of thirteen episodes Louis is able to create as full and rich a comic universe as I've ever seen. On top of this it's one of the best directed and most cinematic shows, comedy or otherwise, currently in production, often resembling a low budget seventies film, and if you know me at all, you know what a profound compliment that is.

Series highlights for me would include, a humiliating encounter with a bully that takes a genuinely surprising and moving direction, a fall-on-the-ground funny cameo by Ricky Gervais as an offensive doctor, a chilling scene of Catholic school children being terrorized by a realistic description of the crucifixion, Louis' narcissistic Mother (who's portrayal is completely different in a later episode) coming out of the closet, any scene between Louis and Pamela Adlon as a single mom he befriends, Louis eviscerating a female heckler and a great scene where Louis and his friend comedian Nick Dipaolo come to blows over politics only to immediately become friends again when one of them is injured. Anyway, I could go on because it's all good. I don't exaggerate, the entire first season is great, every last episode. Last week the second season started and I'm happy to report it looks to be as strong as the first. The first episode was very good overall and contains one the the best and least gratuitous fart jokes ever recorded. Ya gotta see it.

I've often said that I'm far more of a comedy snob than a music snob. I really don't care what kind of music people listen to but it frustrates and angers me when people laugh at lazy, unfunny bullshit. In this era where between TV and the Internet we have a greater choice of quality comedy than we've ever had before, it pains me that the number one comedy in North America is the abysmal "Two and a Half Men". As a cable show with fairly edgy content, I know that "Louie" will never be able to rival a show like that but I hope, at least, that it manages to carve enough of a niche for itself that it stays around for a few more seasons. Also, when it does finally end I hope Louis C.K. is allowed to take what he's learned on this show and use it to make films. If he's given half a chance I think he could one day stand beside Woody Allen and Albert Brooks as one of the great modern comedy auteurs.

Anyway, kill your own f*cking television. I need mine to watch "Louie".

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Me and Jim: A Literary Memoir for Bloomsday

"Welcome O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

When I'm asked, as I am on occasion, to name my favourite author and/or book, I always feel hesitant to answer. It's not because I don't know, am not sure or find the question foolish, although those are all perfectly legitimate positions. Rather I've grown used, over the years, to a certain incredulity in the questioner when I finally do answer. The unsaid feeling being that I'm being somehow pretentious, dishonest and self aggrandizing as if I was trying to one up the other person by choosing the most difficult and rarefied subject to admire
Admittedly, I'm probably just being neurotic but, still, it gives me pause. The answer, by the way, is easy for me and has been for some time. My favourite author is James Joyce and my favourite book is his epic adventure of the everyday, "Ulysses".

I suppose I should include some kind of biographical sketch of Joyce but, I'll be honest, that would be boring and I'm too lazy, so click here thank you:
Good enough? Okay then.

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of our last end, upon all the living and the dead."  (The Dead).

Lets back up a bit. In preparation for this post I've been trying to remember exactly when I first become aware of James Joyce. I remember that "Ulysses" was the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question but I don't think that was it. Actually, somewhere in my teens I became fascinated by Ireland and all things Irish although I'm not sure where or when that began either . I remember being struck by the physical beauty of the country in Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" and that was definitely part of it, but it's clear to me that the greatest factor influencing my Irish obsession was the music of The Pogues.

A quarter century after discovering them The Pogues remain at the top of my favourite all time bands, particularly the albums, 'Red Roses For Me",  "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash" and "If I Should Fall From Grace With God". Their songs, mostly written by lead singer Shane MacGowan, are filled with references to Irish history, mythology and literature performed with a punk sensibility fused with traditional Irish instrumentation. Great stuff, can't recommend it enough, and it solidified my decades long obsession with all things Irish. Joyce actually appears on the cover of their third album, the great "If I Should Fall from Grace With God".

Now parallel to this I'm sure I'd read at least some Joyce, perhaps selections from "Dubliners" or a first attempt at "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and I can pinpoint exactly the individual work and the surrounding circumstances that made me an admirer. It was reading "The Dead", late into the night one Christmas Eve. "The Dead" if you don't know, is the last piece in "Dubliners" a lengthy, rambling story centred around a Christmas Eve dinner party attended by Dublin artists and intellectuals. Like all the stories in "Dubliners" it is not driven by narrative but by the astute observation of character and behaviour and by the uniquely Irish (or better, the uniquely Dubliner) flow of conversation. It is also a masterpiece, one of the greatest short stories ever written. I'm not going to discuss the plot but I will say that the last few pages contain some of the most beautiful prose in the English language. I was engrossed in the story anyway but the concluding passages, an extended meditation on love and death, were transporting. Alone in my bedroom I was moved to tears (and I'm not an easy cry, or at least I wasn't then) and still get goosebumps thinking about it. Joyce and I (I call him Jim) have been pretty close ever since.

"(A writer is) a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of existence into the radiant body of everlasting life" (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

After the rapture of "The Dead" it was definitely time to reattempt Joyce's great autobiographical novel; "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". I remember being primarily struck by the early passages about the young hero Stephen Dedalus' struggles at school as they were moving and easy to identify with. Needless to say the subtleties of Irish politics and history were largely lost on me and were aspects I would only learn to appreciate later. Another vivid passage is a sermon on hell that appears late in the book, terrifying and vivid even to a non-believer like myself. 
There where however, several passages, particularly a complex discussion on aesthetics during Stephen's college years that were baffling to me. This was frustrating because, in the arrogance of youth, I had a relatively high opinion of my intellect and reading level at the time and it was more than a little humbling to discover how little I knew or understood. So amongst the many other valuable things I learned from Jim was a sense of humility, an important and underrated aspect of being a serious student, or for that matter a reader, of literature.
Needless to say, I've re-read "Portrait..." many times over the years and my appreciation of it has grown alongside my increased knowledge of Irish history and politics and the particulars of Joyce's own life , as well as my own life experience. It's one of my favourite books and one I'm happy to recommend to almost anyone.

"The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. Paintings of Moreau are paintings of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our minds into contact with eternal wisdom; Plato's world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys." (Ulysses)

"Oh rocks!' says Molly Bloom, drumming her fingers in impatience. 'Tell us in plain words." (Ulysses)

So now we come to the reason behind this rambling and self absorbed post. Today is June 16th, so Happy Bloomsday! June 16th 1904 is the day on which James Joyce's great masterpiece "Ulysses" takes place.  All over Dublin today, but especially in Sandymount, people are celebrating the life, work and characters of James Joyce, particularly, of course, those of "Ulysses". June 16th 1904 was also the day on which Joyce met the great love of his life Nora Barnacle, the woman who would be his companion for the rest of his life, so it's safe to say that the date was not chosen at random.

"Ulysses" has dozens of memorable characters but it focuses primarily on three, Stephen Dedalus, returning from "Portrait..", Leopold Bloom, a lower middle class advertising agent of Jewish extraction and Molly Bloom, his earthy, sensuous wife. Bloom is the "Ulysses" of the title and it's his day long peregrinations (his "Odyssey") that make up the bulk of the novel's narrative. Stephen serves as a sort of Telemachus as he wanders a parallel course around Dublin and Molly is a bawdy, witty and adulterous Penelope.

The simplest narrative imaginable is given the the most complex treatment. Every chapter corresponds to an incident from "The Odyssey" of Homer, has it's own symbol as well as being symbolic of organs of the body, various disciplines of the arts and  a specific literary technique. The style of writing changes from chapter to chapter from relatively straightforward prose, to stream of consciousness, script (play form), catechism, newspaper headlines to complex pastiches of mythical and biblical speech, pulp fiction and in one chapter (Golden Oxen of the Sun), the entirety of English literature.

It's all this that gives the novel it's intimidating reputation and I'm not going to deny that it's a challenging read. I've read it several times and have even listened to a very good audio version and I'm certain that I have not gotten every allusion or enjoyed every nuance. If one approaches the book (or any book) as a test, the chances are you will not enjoy it, you'll resent and abandon it as a self indulgent piece of intellectual noodling. This would be a great pity because of all the books I've ever read, not only is it one of the most impressive and important but it's also one of the most fun.

First of all, it's a hilarious book. It's filled with the complex and witty wordplay true, but that sits comfortably alongside, corny puns, physical and scatological humor and the unique comic voice of the city of Dublin and it's denizens. For me the comic highlight is the chapter "Cyclops" in which Bloom is confronted by a drunken, anti-Semitic Irish nationalist. The chapter bounces back and forth between the point of view of a smart alec observer of the incident and a mock heroic narration in the style of ancient Irish myth, culminating in a pseudo biblical passage in which the triumphant Bloom ascends to heaven:

"And there came a voice out of heaven, calling Elijah! Elijah! And he answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoes's in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel."
Even more than the humor however, what I love about "Ulysses" is it's in-your-face humanity. All of the literary genius and mastery of language would amount to nothing if Joyce didn't populate the novel with living, breathing human beings with all the faults and foibles that entails. Bloom is one of the great figues of literature not because he's brave or strong (although he is after a fashion) but because he's decent. As a husband, a father , a son and a breadwinner, he's everything a man can really be and more. He's not perfect, with a predilection towards voyeurism and an overall preoccupation with matters sexual, but he is unfailingly kind and empathetic, even to those who despise him.
Then there's his wife, one of the great women of literature. We should hate Molly for her unfaithfulness but we don't. If anything we understand (without actually approving) her needs and frustrations both personal and sexual. She's so funny and honest it's as easy for us to forgive her transgressions as it is for Bloom himself. The last chapter of the book "Penelope" is her internal monologue and it's a tour de force of writing, arguably the best in the book.  I would never presume to say that Joyce completely understood women, but he certainly understood Molly Bloom  (as well he should since she was based on Nora).

Other favourite chapters of mine include the opening chapter "Telemachus" which reintroduces us to Stephen Dedalus and spells out his current dilemma (in the words of the Clash "should I stay or should I go"), "Wandering Rocks", portraying various characters and their interactions, "Nausicaa" in which a voyeuristic encounter between Bloom and a pretty young women is rendered in a style aping pulp romance novels and "Sirens" the most musical chapter of the book, even including an an onomatopoeic overture.

For the record, for me the most difficult chapter by far is "Golden Oxen of the Sun". I always have to take it a page at a time as the style changes every few sentences and it seems to be written for maximum obfuscation. "Circe" written in the form of a play is also tough because of it's aggressively hallucinatory content but it's also very funny and fun to read. I've often wondered if an ambitious theatre director has ever produced it for the stage. I'll bet it's happened. I've seen "Penelope" produced as a one woman show called 'Molly" and it was brilliant!

Anyway, this is getting long and I'd really like to post it on Bloomsday, so I should wrap it up.  If you take nothing else away from what I've written here let it be this; don't be intimidated by Joyce and "Ulysses". By all means read "Dubliners" and "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" first. If you don't care for those, fair enough, no writer, no matter how great, is for everybody. However, if you do enjoy those, you must attempt "Ulysses'. Don't worry about getting every nuance, try to enjoy the language and spending time with the characters, Hopefully that will be enough.

Before I go, I have a confession. Even though Joyce is my favourite writer, I have never successfully completed his last, and some say his greatest, novel "Finnegan's Wake". It's combination of wordplay, literary, historical and mythical allusion and dream logic just completely defeats me. I'm literally not knowledgeable enough to read it. I have listened to some very old audio recording of Joyce reading from it and did enjoy the musicality of his reading but that's the best I've managed. Ah well, maybe someday when I have the time to read it side by side with a book of annotations, but until then I'll leave it alone.

Well, I hope this has been fun to read and has adequately explained why Joyce is so important to me. Some of my other favourite writers include, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Honore de Balzac, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov and Cormac McCarthy and I may write about all of them in the future. I would never presume however, to call any of them by their first name

Happy Bloomsday!

PS - A word about the photos. All these were taken during a trip I took with my wife, to Ireland in 2009. The first one is me with the statue of Joyce on O'Connel Street in the heart of Dublin, the second is a casting of Joyce's death mask from the James Joyce museum in the Martello Tower at Sandymount, the third is me with the bust of Joyce in St. Stephen's Green, the fourth is the Martello Tower in Sandymount, the setting for the opening scenes of "Ulysses" and the home of The James Joyce Museum and the last is me raising a pint of Guinness to my friend Jim in Davey Byrne's Pub which appears in the '"Lestrygonians" chapter of "Ulysses".


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Still Alive

Hi Everybody,

Sorry about the delay in finishing my BBS post. I've been surprisingly active the last couple of weeks and it's kept me off the computer. I also confess to feeling a little bit uninspired to write and, wanting to give the remaining films in the set equal attention and devotion, I decided to put off the review until I felt more engaged with the topic.
yeah, I know, weak excuse but It's my blog so what are you going to do about it?

Also, I have a special post I'm planning on posting sometime tomorrow afternoon, on a subject that never fails to fascinate me.
See you then.