The criticism around Lena Dunham's Girls takes two different, overlapping, forms: criticism of the fictional protagonist modeled to some unknown extend on the actual life of the auteur, and criticism of the fictional portrayal of the shallow or blinkered. These are difficult to parse because the first set of issues are longstanding; people have genuine difficulty in separating writers from their writing, artists from their art, etc, and the tendency to read fictional output as personality simpliciter is frequently enacted--see Woody Allen, Kanye West, and most biographies of literary figures. The second is part of a set of issues about what, and how, fiction is supposed to work; there is a particular sense that now there are a greater number of unlikeable characters, that this unlikeability is a way of signifying 'realism,' and this realism is expressed primarily through the grim, the awkward, and the mundane. In the case of Girls these issues are heightened by considerations, alternately facile and serious, about the role of women and/or people of color in fictional worlds (the pushback on Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot is another example of this ongoing conversation with respect to the role of women). Lastly, one must say that Lena Dunham does not always appear to be her own best advocate.
Well, no one, to my knowledge, thinks of Alexis Bledel and Rory Gilmore as being the same person, and while auteur Amy Sherman-Palladino certainly writes with one very typical type of voice, Gilmore Girls nicely divides up its concerns between a wide variety of women, and finds the time to validate many of their own particular choices and beliefs. It's fitting rather than reductive that Lane inherits her mother's values--people tend to end up like their parents, more or less. Sookie gets pretty much what she wants. Paris might be a pain, but she's an endearing one. The way the latter seasons suggest that Rory draws her personality most strongly from her grandmother are well-observed. All that as preamble, let's get down to business:
The show is a real drag once Rory gets to college, if not sooner. That she would find Logan and his gang of rich folks to be enjoyable is not surprising--the freedom that comes with money is a real kind of freedom, after all--and that she would enter into a relationship with the least suitable of these and eventually decide she didn't want to be with him also seems realistic. She also steals a boat and drops out of college, and spends a significant amount of time being a general dirtbag and mean to anyone who wants to help her. Of course Lorelai takes her back--motherhood is about nothing if not infinite forgiveness--but the whole thing is unpleasant to go through. So also the slow process by which she discards her first boyfriend--infinitely patient with her, as it turns out, and working so hard to avoid trying to change Rory while also carving out time for his interests--for the pseudo-literary bad boy who just feels too much to subscribe to your middle-class notions of 'acting like a regular human being,' man, is also realistic, and also uniformly unpleasant. Anyone who was in high school will recognize it as A Thing People Sometimes Do. Why anyone would want to relive this particular set of emotional experiences is baffling.
Rory is a character who is quite plausibly drawn as both very intelligent and poor at making decisions, particularly about relationships, and this seems like a plausible combination of traits. But the question is not whether they're real, but whether these mistakes are dramatically interesting, especially when she repeats the same mistakes--choosing someone who is unable to clearly articulate his feelings, who is ambivalent about the nature of their relationship, someone who is in some relevant sense a bad person (if not an evil one). The defense usually offered is that these people draw Rory out of her shell, and this is a good thing, but the series itself raised and answered this question in the first season episode where Chilton gets concerned she is not active enough socially. In that episode, it eventually resolves that she is perfectly fine as she is: she has friends, and makes new ones, if at a slow pace, and wanting to read, etc, is a perfectly fine way to go through life. However, the adventures of someone who is fundamentally well-adjusted to life, but introverted, lacks dramatic spark, so it must be brought in from outside forces; in order to bring the same spark, these outside forces must become progressively stronger (also following the rule of patterning or matching and intensifying in a television show), and thus the reasons for the show's well-accepted slide in quality during later seasons. It is a short-term attempt to goose the dramatic value of the show, with the benefit of being a realistic depiction of the poor decisions made by a very smart young woman, but is generally recognized as a creative failure.
Gilmore Girls, then, is a show whose titular characters are often the least interesting, and whose conflicts, even when believable, are both realistic and unpleasant. It seems entirely possible to say that it is a success in its aims, and not very much worth watching through to the end.
Kitchen Mishaps: Making a Roux
There are a lot of cooking processes that acquire a reputation as difficult--I am a member of the tribe that thinks of baking as black magic, mysterious and incomprehensible--and making a roux is one of them. While Top Chef is not the end-all of American culinary experience, the way in which its chefs will often go out of their way to avoid doing anything that requires making a roux lends credence to this belief. It is not, however, very complicated: melt butter over heat, incorporate flour into the butter until it forms a paste or dough, warm without burning, then slowly add milk (slowly, to maintain the temperature of the pan) while using a whisk to incorporate the flour-butter combination. The heat from the pan reduces the volume of liquid, the mixture thickens, and you're done. You will know the mixture has thickened because your thoughts will shift from "why am I constantly whisking milk for no conceivable reason?" to "huh, that definitely seems to be thickened."
Here is the way Cook's Illustrated describes the adding-milk-to-dough stage making a roux as an intermediate element in its Classic Mac and Cheese recipe:
"Gradually whisk in milk; bring mixture to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes."
As it happened on this occasion, the roux thickened while I was still waiting for the mixture to boil. I was done, but according to the objective-ish side of the recipe, still had the time to bring to a boil + 'about' 5 minutes to wait. The result was a perfectly fine roux-turned-cheese sauce, and a layer of burnt flour and milk on the bottom of the pan that took two days of soaking and scrubbing to definitively remove.
I think I've written elsewhere about my belief that A Recipe Is Not a Suicide Pact, and you should be willing to discard any suggestion in a recipe that seems likely to lead you into doom. The very best cookbooks, or perhaps those pitched to a slightly higher level of skill, will make clear when the chef is simply giving his opinion about best practices--there is no one who manages this better than Jacques Pepin. The Cook's recipe does none of this: it gives the impression of precision by listing times for each step, and hedges by qualifying all times with "about." The actual things to be doing are hidden in the text, and so it behooves the home cook to read against the text and determine what it is actually asking of them.
(Analogously: this Garden and Gun recipe (quite good) that speculates the old prevalence of Cream of Mushroom soup in older recipes as a sort of instant, no-fuss béchamel. That makes a lot of sense: fat and thickening agent and just enough liquid to not burn when put into a hot pan, to which more liquid must then be added. The thing about southern cooking, or midcentury American homestyle cooking, is that it all is quite logical, if you happen to have the right premises.)
Decline of an Empire
Getafe 0-0 FC Barcelona
The thing about great teams, much like great writers, is that it can be hard to learn from them because they are not making the mistakes that allow for learning. It's quite possible to read something great and learn no lessons about how it was successfully constructed; it's just as possible that the personal creative processes hit a peak for that author in that one period of composition, and will never be matched. When you read something that goes wrong in a noticeable but minor way, it's much easier to see the flaw and imagine how one might go about fixing it.
I am still only learning how to watch football: the moments of chaos give way to patches where I am able to understand and follow both what is happening and why. This is good for increasing my technical vocabulary and very bad for being a fan; I can read the tactical review of a match and its impressions now sync with mine. Barcelona now features weird tactical decisions so notable that even I can recognize the flaws: "why are they only attacking on the left, even though the starting striker on that side is out?" "why is Messi playing like a midfielder?" "why is it the backs are the only ones who ever have the ball in possession?" "why does Rakitic only ever get the ball in the defensive half of the field? Isn't he an attacking mid?" "why does everyone just stand around in the box waiting for someone to do something?" All of this seems emblematic of a club that is something less than the sum of its parts, largely because no one ever seems to have a plan; everyone knows what to do when there's a rebound off a shot, but that's it. The solution is to get more creative with who plays, and tactics in games--the 3-4-3 for Champions League was risky, but effective--but Luis Enrique is beginning to get that siege mentality look that doomed Michigan football this year.
Fandom is dumb because you pick sides for, ultimately, arbitrary reasons, and then ride or die with those decisions.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Watching these back-to-back as part of our informal Christmas movie series*, it's hard not to notice that they have the exact same message but choose entirely different ways to go about explaining it. Grinch is fantasy from top to bottom, not least in the manner that some unnamed Christmas spirit manages to be at the heart of all the materialist trappings, only to be revealed once the trappings are taken away.
Charlie Brown is better, obviously. The kids are all realistic: caught up in themselves, easily taken in by trends, more interested in going off to play than in doing work, quick to demonstrate amour propre and criticize those whose performances are lesser. Not all of these are bad things, of course, but they're all very kid-like. Charlie Brown serves as the other side, the one that wonders why these things sometimes seem lesser than they are. The Christmas spirit is there, and wins in the end, but it's an easily battered thing, and easily forgotten. That seems about right.
Of course, because there is no irony that people will not commit in the name of nostalgia, there is an (expensive) Charlie Brown Christmas tree replica that you may purchase.
*A mix of movies about Christmas, and those that happen to be set around Christmas. The latter is a pretty great list--The Thin Man, The Apartment, Die Hard. Also all those movies that have developed into Christmas traditions for us: Black Orpheus, Barcelona, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
J.S. Bach, Cantata 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
On this particular Sunday morning, I found myself walking up to church with the head pastor, her husband, and their newborn child (she's still on maternity leave, and this was her first time seeing how her son would handle the noise of a service). I sat in the back pew along with the guy who is usually one pew behind me, and around the usual mix of people in the back-right; no one ends up there by accident, and most of us like it better than anywhere else. The service was one of the two "high" services of the year--Easter, and one in Advent before people leave for the holidays--and was welcomedly packed. The other hymns were a resetting of lyrics to the melody of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" I'm thankful for the typical Reformed mid-level liturgy in the average service, but glad to be at a church that will break out the full orchestra and choir on special occasions.
Desert Island Top Five 30 Rock Episodes
I have a working theory that people can only ever be experimental across a few different types of culture. For the sake of balance, or time, there will be some area where they are utterly conventional. TV is that place for me: I'd subsist happily on a diet of Cheers, Friends, and 30 Rock without much complaint. The auteur-driven work that's more critically acclaimed sets itself up to be immune from criticism: if it's a drama that is occasionally funny, it gets credit for changing up the tone; if it's a comedy that spends as much time in drama, it's 'grounded'; if it's experimental, it doesn't matter whether the experiment succeeds or fails. None of this is particularly inspiring to me--watch as the loner genius man solves a gristly murder with the help of his only friend, bourbon. Just have a lot of jokes, and let most of them be funny.
"A Goon's Deed in a Weary World": Season 7 is an exercise in wish fulfillment, of which this episode--Kenneth becomes president of NBC, Liz meets her kids--is the highlight. Sad and happy at the same time.
"Rosemary's Baby": for a brief period, it seemed like Alec Baldwin would be able to do whatever he wanted. If his five-accents-in-two-minutes scene isn't right up there with his cameo in Glengarry, Glen Ross, someone isn't keeping score correctly.
"Leap Day": Ah, the made-up-holiday episode. Inspired.
"Cleveland": The song in this episode is the peak of 30 Rock music, which is saying something for a show that gave us "Muffin Top" and "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," among others. It's also impressive that the season finale plot begins five or six episodes before this one--30 Rock never did a lot of plotting, but this is intricate and well-played.
"The Head and the Hair": the low-key early-episode fake-out and build: "we all have uncles who are cops" indeed.
One of the things I find weirdly admirable about W.H. Auden is the fact that his two most famous poems--"September 1, 1939" and "Spain 1937"*--are not in his 900+ page Collected Poems, and do not appear in a variety of other collections of his work. I wrote a paper about this where I called it "denying legitimacy without denying authorship." The poems, he felt, took advantage of rhetorical tricks to say things that were poetically compelling but false: "we must love one another or die." They created a false moral and martial sense that he found politically irresponsible despite--perhaps because--of their popularity. He spent a few years attempting to fix the poems, eventually concluding that to say the true thing would be to destroy the poem, but he also could not be associated with something he believed to be false. But he also would not disown having written these things. The solution of declining to allow them to be anthologized is an elegant halfway position: he needn't deny the reality of having written them in the first place, but he also needn't give them the imprimatur of representing his current beliefs--or even an acceptable belief for someone else to have.
All of which is prolegomena to saying that I have very mixed feelings about writing on the internet. The archives of this blog are hidden to the casual viewer--not hard to find if you know how to look--because I've been writing it since 2002 and have held a wide variety of opinions since then, not all of which I would endorse today (like any person who writes for long enough, I am certain to say ill-advised things even if my opinions of the moment are always correct and true). And occasionally I write something that seems 60% done, and hit 'publish,' and think better of it--or come to realize I have communicated ineffectively. When that happens, I feel slightly more content than the rest of the internet to remove the offending bit and try again later. I know this is well outside standard internet practice, but it's the thing I feel comfortable with: there are many forms of writing which are irreversible, but this one isn't.
*Funny also that the decision to not anthologize has reduced the prominence of "Spain 1937", but not "September 1, 1939".
Well, that misfired. The general idea: if you have to justify your writing as though its a niche concern, there will be a pressure to share and, thus, to overshare. But all of those niche concerns are pretty universal, and I do wonder if articles on, say, parenting, would be better if they began with the assumption of their subject matter's universality and importance; it's a slight but important shift between "I've had a problem with my child with x" and "a lot of parents have a problem with x". Writing from a third-person, objective perspective is not always earned, but there's no reason it shouldn't ever be used.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Paris St. Germain
On offense, the relevant questions are: "Should the striker who carried his nation's World Cup team get most of the shots? Or the striker who carried his nation's World Cup team? Or the striker who carried his nation's World Cup team to the final, scored half of its goals, and is generally considered one of the best players of his generation/ever?" and the answer is "Why not all of them?" This game also featured a goal by another former Barça player who scored for PSG, dumped by Barcelona after one season--despite also being a world-class striker--because the manager did not particularly like him. They may be mes que un club, but that means sometimes they are just like un club--playing people with big contracts rather than promising youngsters, paying to buy good players and fix mistakes in talent development and planning, and all the rest.
It's a breath of fresh air after the environment of American sports, where each team does its best to play perpetually aggrieved, with a small loyal cadre of followers who are surrounded by 'haters' who Just Don't Get It, a role both trite and obvious that is, nevertheless, the default script for almost every team in almost every sport, amateur and professional. They Don't Believe In Us is maintained even by the teams everyone expects to win, i.e. the ones people believe in whether they want to or not, which suggests that coaching and motivation remains primitive. The only alternative script is The Team Is Bigger Than Any of Its Members, which is marginally better but just as reductive and simplistic.
I think Messi's "Derek Jeter, but better, of a sport people around the world actually follow" act is at least partly a calculation, if a smart one*, and I don't have any illusions that the seeming compatibility of Neymar, Suárez and Messi is based on the fact that they all realize they must get along with each other whether they like it or not. If things go south, it won't last. But I'll enjoy it while they do.
*And actually a brilliant bit of personality management, fulfilling two basic needs: crafting a personal narrative that allows him a maximum of space and freedom to live as much of a private life as possible, and driving people who don't like you crazy. As Jeter showed, there is nothing a lot of people hate more than a very good professional who keeps his head down and refuses to say anything shocking. How anyone can think Maradona better than Messi I will never understand, except that people seem to think that appearing emotionally unstable and volatile in all situations is a sign of genius.
Small Faces, "Tin Soldier"
Ian McLagan, the keyboardist for the Small Faces, died last week. The Small Faces/Faces were one of those bands that regularly put out quality music on the pop/blues/rock spectrum, and managed to do so for a long time. All their early singles are at least good; Ogden's Nut Gone Flake better than average for a psychedelic album; they were the secret weapon on Rod Stewart's early, good albums. All of them enjoyed pretty good or well-respected careers, or both: Steve Marriott went on to front Humble Pie; Ronnie Lane is on the short list of every music fan's underappreciated musicians ("One for the Road"); Kenney Jones was Keith Moon's replacement in The Who. The two guys who joined when the band became The Faces--Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart--went on to do all right for themselves. McLagan didn't quite have any of these careers, but he seems to have steadily worked with a wide variety of people, which is something.
While I like a lot of the British Invasion music, I love "Tin Soldier." The best bands did their best work by establishing a sonic texture and executing it well--the samba of "Sympathy for the Devil" or the editing work on "Tomorrow Never Knows," for example. This song, by contrast, does four or five different rhythms and tempos, and that allows the tension to build throughout to the rising-chord crescendo at the end. Nothing tapers off or resolves, it is just transferred to the next section.
On Superman Being Boring
What follows is something that I have occasionally tweeted about, worked out as a full-length case.
In the midst of--let's not call it a 'creative renaissance'--the tremendous amount of money being poured into comic book movies, it has frequently been noted that there has never been a good movie about Superman. Perhaps the first two qualify, the ones made in the late 70s/early 80s, but none since. The recent attempts have all been relative commercial flops. The last film's attempt to make his story more interesting outraged fans by having Superman kill General Zod as its climax, after a long battle in which Superman shows an uncharacteristic disregard for the lives of innocent bystanders. People will say that the reason for the failure of these movies is that Superman is a boring character (e.g.), that having essentially limitless abilities means all challenges to his power are doomed to fail and essentially meaningless. No drama, no story.
The failure to make Superman into a compelling figure is a good sign of the general failure of imagination in the comic book renaissance, because, italics required: Superman is a heroic figure cast into America's exact position in the world, capable for doing whatever he wants, for all practical purposes, but also living with a moral code that places severe limitations on the use of that power. Superman's moral code serves as a critique of the powers that be in our world, who are prepared in certain circumstances to compromise their principles in the name of results. Precisely because he can do whatever he wants, Superman recognizes the fragility and importance of every human life; he will go to ridiculous and wholly gratuitous efforts to protect them. This is in direct contradistinction to every other comic book movie, where one Sacrificial Family Member or Love Interest comes to stand in for humanity as a whole. When 'ordinary people' are mentioned or considered, it's as a mass--in The Dark Knight, the great validation of common morality is about the behavior of people in a group; in Spider-Man, the New Yorkers who aid Spidey at a critical moment are just schmoes who could be anyone (and these masses will become mobs whenever narratively convenient).
The idea that comics take a certain dehumanization of the average person, that they approach a line of fascist worship of power for its own sake, has its definitive characterization in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Not surprisingly, giving someone great power--or practically infinite power, or power that can be redefined according to the needs of the story--makes them into a vehicle for wish fulfillment. But the line between killing/injuring in general and killing only bad guys is an exceedingly thin one. Killing an enemy combatant in a legally declared war is a lot closer to killing someone because you can than choosing to do neither, and if there's any distinction at all, it is in the specifics of the moral code in play. The unwillingness to use any means to win, no matter how important the situation, is one of the things that allows us to identify the good people, if any. The unwillingness to use power just because they can, and because it would be more convenient, is one of the things that makes them good.
The counterpoint is Harry Potter, where the good guys are notable for putting themselves at a strategic and tactical disadvantage because they, in anything but the most exigent circumstances, refuse to make use of the most powerful spells, because they value the humanity of individual human persons, do not like threatening the lives or wellbeing of innocents, Muggle or not, and recognize the tremendous horror of violence as experienced in the loss of loved ones. Molly Weasley can use these spells, when her daughter's life is threatened. Snape can, when it is necessary for the eventual victory of the cause, and Harry can, when it is literally the only option. But death is represented as loss, and other losses matter, too: Snape, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, even Dobby--all of them are treated as real tragedies in their own right, apart from consequences, and there's something equally sad about the fate of Neville's parents, or Hermione's. Each of the losses matter, and each has weight.
It's hard to imagine a comic book universe in which the Malfoys are allowed to live, and are treated with dignity because underneath their evilness is real familial affection, which redeems them in the end (bad guys whose goodness is not just the eventual winning impulse but definitive); so also with Snape. It's easy to imagine the opposite of Snape--the person who was good but goes to evil--but not the bad, or lost or misguided person, who is redeemed. This is also because his final redemption is in his death, which means he has to die in a definitive and irreversible way, which is Not Permitted in comic book and serialized fantasy/science fiction these days.*
*Contrast with Mystique in X-Men, whose small moments of redemption can only ever be temporary, because her role is "person who might be good or bad, we don't know" and is perpetually thus.
Labels: general musings on culture
Gram Parsons, "A Song For You"
'Country music' is an odd target for ire, popular though it may be. For a long time, country's second home was in southern California, and this even before the rise of country-rock bands in the late 60s. Its distinctive features are all borrowed from other genres of music--it's particularly hard to imagine country music without the influence of blues--and it runs from slow-paced twang and whine all the way to music indistinguishable from the average 90s alternative band. It's focused less on the rhythm than the lyrics, and the vocal phrasing of particular lines, and can thus require a bit of patience. But when it's on, it's marvelous.