Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Carnivàle vs. The "Kill 'em Young" Manifesto

"Golly, but I miss those 'Bottle Episodes'!"

I took my time getting around to watching Carnivàle. There were so many ways I could experience disappointment. The DVD packaging was fabulously evocative, suggesting the creative love-child of Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King. What if the show didn't live up to my expectations? Worse still, what if it did?

When I finally sat down to watch, the show hit a happy middle note. The episodic development of characters and narrative had a charmingly primal roughness. Season 1 was all ennui and suggestion, fostering expectations that the series might fold itself into a Lynchean sort of Fabulist Mobius Strip.

Instead, shortly after the midway point in Season 2, questions began to be answered. For a show as grievously truncated as Carnivàle, there are some very clear pluses and minuses to this particular tack. On the plus side, once certain pieces fall into place it's fun to go back to the early episodes and see where surprise conclusions were pointedly alluded to. On the minus side, it becomes crystal clear exactly where this television series was pointed and, frankly, the trip doesn't look worth the ride. Which brings me back to the plus side: I'm as grateful for what I've been spared as I am for what I've seen.

If you're among the legions of disappointed viewers who still want to know what was going to happen next, I can tell you. The carnival was going to split into factions pitted against each other by shady manipulative types. The guys you thought were good were going to cross the line with their behaviour, until the fateful confrontation between Brother Justin and Ben Hawkens is mired in profound ambivalence. Both camps would experience defections, and confusion of identity. There were going to be surprise resurrections, as well as prophecies that were either beacons of hope, or cunning deceits. And finally, by the end of Season Six, there would be an apocalyptic sloughing off of . . . .

Ah, but you've already seen this show. That's because the guy whose hand was heaviest on the till at the end of Carnivàle's first season bolted to another network, where he saw the thing to its proper completion. I'm talking about Ron Moore. And, yes: I'm talking about Battlestar Galactica, which managed to slip directly into its Decadent Phase at the very end of Season Two, and stay there to its conclusion in Season Four. And which, coincidentally enough, has a narrative arc that bears a striking resemblance to the Carnivàle “bible” laid out by creator Daniel Knauf at the beginning of that series (viewable here, at the HBOCarnivale Discussion Group, as The Gospel of Knaufius).

Another trait Galactica has in common with Carnivàle is its “bottle” episodes, where the epic comes to a screeching halt and the characters get to interact with each other and set up scenarios for subsequent episodes. These episodes are usually given over to the junior writers in the stable, while the seniors figure out how to plant teasers that lead to the big surprises that keep viewers hooked. Those are the episodes that get me looking at my watch and wondering if I couldn't just skip ahead to the next barn-burner (the answer is usually, “no” because I will have missed five minutes, or even 30 seconds, of crucial “reveal” planted by the Story Chief).

Even a show as brilliantly executed as The Wire couldn't escape these occasional doldrums, which is as it must be, I suppose. It does keep me wondering, though, if there is any creative team that has the wherewithal to keep generating narrative momentum for more than three seasons. I'll let you know if I ever find one that does. In fact, stay tuned: our family has just discovered this wacky six-season show that looks like it might have some potential. It's called Lost.

Post-it note: over at the Onion AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff is giving Carnivàle some frame-by-frame analysis. His attentiveness more than makes up for my crass generalisations.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The 84th Academy Awards: Trenchant Analysis From A Non-Viewer

It's been years since I last bothered to watch the Academy Awards, but why should that stop me from reading and contributing my own day-after commentary?

If there was a common note struck by viewers of this year's awards, it was how dismal and shabby it all was. I'll take their word for it. Two appended observations struck me rather forcefully, though. The first was that this year's Best Picture award embodied the “Least Objectionable Viewing” theory that television execs typically run with: i.e., the fella holding the remote control will settle on the program that bothers the fewest people in the room. So in the Academy's case, if the choice boils down to an arty kid's movie and a pleasant but toothless French movie marketed to adults, the French movie gets the vote.

It's a shame, really. I enjoyed the kid's movie — twice — but was rooting for Tree Of Life, a movie I've only seen 10 minutes of. I haven't finished it (yet) because in a house with two teenage daughters Mallick's movie qualifies as the most objectionable viewing. In a sane world, that alone would place it head and shoulders above would-be contenders.

Another commentator said the Academy Awards Show was Hollywood's equivalent of the State Of The Union Address. If this analogy holds true (and I think it does) then the American film industry's fixation on two nostalgic movies about movies suggests a collective mood that swings from denial to depression, and back again.

This theory would also explain why awards shows that include television series have been so much jollier in tone. It's difficult to recoup the blockbuster budgets for series like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, but a gazillion PVR hits can't be wrong: this stuff is the destination viewing (more TV-speak) of today's maturing aesthete. When series writers are doing their job right, we get complex story-lines and subtle character development over considerably more hours than we'll ever spend in a theatre. And, as a special bonus, the seats are comfortable, the bathrooms clean, and we don't get bombarded with sound bleed-over from the action flick in the adjoining theatre. Movie critics who pointedly ignore these shows are doing themselves a double disservice: not only do they miss out on some supremely satisfying viewing, they actively pursue their own irrelevancy.

And speaking of arty television series, I finally deliver a few irrelevant critical thoughts pertaining to Carnivàle — tomorrow!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Del Fuegos, Reunited And Back On The Road

I haven't found anything on the web to support this, but I've been told Dan and Warren Zanes spotted the name for their future band on a road atlas. They traced the Number 5 highway as far south as it went, to its final destination. You couldn't get any lower than Tierra del Fuego: ergo, the Del Fuegos.

Here's another early band story, with attribution: in the band's first year or two on the road, the budget for alcohol exceeded the Del Fuegos' budget for gas. No small feat, considering this was the 80s, when beer was cheaper than gas and gas was cheaper than water. Close observers knew the band's days were numbered.

Actually, close listeners knew it, too. When Smoking In The Fields was released, it became obvious that, as Gordon Lightfoot put it, “the alcohol was no longer helping.” Smoking is a sturdy enough album, but there are lyrical indications that at least one band member was slipping lower than Tierra del Fuego, into a place no-one really wants to hear about. If they were going to survive — as human beings, never mind as a band — the Del Fuegos had to hit the reset button.

Two decades after the reset button was hit, the Del Fuegos are back, delighting fans and I daresay themselves with energetic and focused performances that are the exclusive domain of the clean and sober. I'll try not to be bitter in my envy of the good folks in the remaining seven (of 11) US northeastern cities, but if you count yourself among these lucky citizens you should avail yourself of the chance to catch these well-seasoned rockers.

For those of us who can't make the drive, there is a collection of new Del Fuegos songs to be heard: Silver Star (A, e, i). Fans who gratefully partook of Dan Zanes' family-oriented rock 'n' roll pretty much know what's on tap. The Del Fuegos are in a celebratory mood, as the (for now) free track “Friday Night” indicates. For my money, the collection closer “Raw Honey” is the stand-out track, hearkening back to the erotic slow-hand contemplations of yore.

While I'm certainly digging the new material, I do kind of miss the low notes the younger band hit. The demons of a narcissistic youth have been shackled and banished, as is right, but surely other dark shadows loom. Maybe instead of looking south, the Del Fuegos could glance northward: hell, up here in Canada we're gutting the Alberta/Saskatchewan landscape until the place looks like Mordor. That's not just our grandchildren we're throwing onto the pyre of cheap fossil fuel — we're throwing yours, too!

But I digress. Concert-goers get the full range of low and high notes, which is the way it oughtta be. See 'em if they show up in a town near you. The rest of us will wait in hope that the Del Fuegos reunion tour might just expand to include us, too.

Photo from here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Prairie Cemetery: Beauty & The Dead

I can be dismissive of the mortician's art, challenging though it may be. When death settles into a face, its individuality and beauty completely disappear. The mortician puts considerable effort into reconstructing who this person was, in life. Usually what one sees in an open casket falls within the failing end of the spectrum, which I'm prone to thinking is as it should be. We do not behold our loved one; we behold what remains of her.

This time, however, the mortician's art seemed inspired. I was struck by the beauty of my grandmother's lifeless mien. I saw her as I hadn't seen her in many, many years. In this reconstructed face shone a bold projection of the person she had been — not just recently, but as a young woman, even as a child.

She had once been a young woman, a mother of four who, incredibly, never raised her voice at them. Hers wasn't a shouting temperament, mind you, but I also suspect her own earliest childhood memories informed her conduct.

She had once been a three-year-old, who cooled her mother's forehead with a wet cloth, as the young woman fought the grip of Spanish Influenza — and lost.

Less than a year later, when her father hitched up the wagon and rode off, promising to bring home “a new mother for you,” this three-year-old waited in anticipation. When the wagon returned with a woman who was clearly not her mother, this little girl threw a fit. Following a spanking and earnest talking-to, the new rules of behaviour were laid out and followed.

Standing in the funeral home and seeing the chimera of that little girl, it struck me that this person, whose face this once was, had always seen with the eyes of that three-year-old — certainly when beholding her own children, then grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren, but also when greeting the various souls a pastor's wife is compelled to greet.

These people exist in varying states of need, and approach the pastor's house either in a shabby disguise, or clearly naked in their insufficiency. Either way, my grandmother set the table for them, and listened to the stories they told her husband as they broke bread together.

Most people didn't put on airs when they were with this woman. I don't think they felt the need: my grandmother had a remarkable capacity to withhold judgement.

I think she understood, as only a heart-broken three-year-old can, that we all look to the faces of others and harbour yearnings so fierce we can only name them when we are disappointed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Listing Again, For The Moment

Terry Teachout has provoked me to thought (much to the consternation of DarkoV — but what has he done for us lately?) with this list of 10 American novels he wishes he'd written.

It's a rather oddly constructed exercise. The first question screaming to be asked is, Why American? I wish I'd written The Red & The Black, to say nothing of Anna Karenina, Bleak House and The Brothers Karamazov. In fact I wish I'd written À la recherche du temps perdu, in the original French, even though I haven't read a word of it. (Surely my ignorance of content only adds to the trenchancy of my desire to have been its author?)

"You do know I'm gay -- don't you?"
It could be an instinctive U.S. American solipsism that is at work here, but I suspect what Mr. Teachout is casting about for in this exercise is a larger sense of the authorial voice and depth of perspicacity that he aspires to when he approaches the keyboard. So neither Stendhal nor Dickens are worth mentioning, because their prose, while exemplary, exists at a great remove from the plain-spoken pipe-fitter's prose that Teachout favours.

If that is indeed the nature of the exercise, then I have to admit my list of 10 works of fiction I wish I'd written would be predominantly American, too. Here are the stories I try to “listen” to when I write; the last two are, of necessity, in translation:

1, Paul Auster's Moon Palace (more here).

2. Flannery O'Connor's, A Good Man Is Hard To Find. “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” I'll never forget the force of those words the first time I read them. What writer doesn't strive for similar effect?

3. Jim Harrison's Julip. All three novellas are Rabelaisian comedies of a gentle sort. I suspect Harrison wrote them while easing himself out of a cocaine dependency. There is a compassion to their telling that I very much admire.

4. Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River.
For its interior sense of the exterior.

5. Nathaniel West, The Day of the Locust. While I've never been happy with its overwrought climax, I still love following West's misbehaving cretins into the ditches and canyons of Depression-Era Hollywood.

6. Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle In Time. Watching Carnivàle and reading Stephen King's latest door-stopper, while pleasurable experiences, have been sharp reminders of just how profoundly subversive this woman was. With this little novel she is in a league completely her own — a destiny worth striving for, and proclaiming as boldly as possible once you're there.

7. William Gibson, Neuromancer along with Carol Shields, Swann. Both books delight in exploiting the deliberately ambiguous, but steer the craft in radically different directions.

8. Mordecai Richler, Barney's Version. Richler was remarkably assured in his point of view, and impressively sly about asserting it.

9. Bohumil Hrabl, I Served The King Of England. Evocative and immediate — deceptively so.

10. Franz Kafka, Amerika. Hallucinatory, fragmented, staggeringly incomplete — the most haunting of Kafka's novels asserts that a work needn't be “finished” to exert power over the reader.

There are other variations I've thought about exploring, including: writers who once inspired, but no longer; the dearth of Canadian content in my list, and why that is; but I'll leave it here for now, so that I can return to the business of the prairie cemetery.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Prairie Cemetery (But First, A Quick Stop At Home)

Ah, but who am I to talk? When it comes to beauty we can live with, I am the prince of procrastination.

Our house is nearly 200 years old. When we first moved in, my wife took down the wallpaper, only to discover that, in the bathroom at least, there was no wall behind the paper. On the upside, this has kept the bathroom well-ventilated.

On the downside, it's the ugliest room in the building, and we use it every day. I could give you a sheet of reasons why I don't get to this project. Some of them are pretty solid, too — even experienced renovators are loath to touch bathrooms. But every morning this one ugly room confronts and sneers at my failure of nerve.

And every morning I shrug it off and face some other pressing task. It is, after all, a bathroom — the one room in the house where the contemplation of the beautiful has a piquant irony of its own.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Prairie Cemetery (Via The Trailer-Park)

My grandmother on my mother's side passed away shortly before Christmas. She was 96, the last of my living grandparents. For the last few years she'd been living in a care home in a prairie township I'll dub Graben der Freude. My aunt and her husband farm there; most of my aunt's kids have taken up the plough as well.

I spent my high school summers there, helping my uncle out. He and my aunt granted the (much) larger favour by having me. I had no head for the work, but remember those summers fondly.

As my brother drove me, our sister and our father to the funeral, my eye drifted over the landscape, nudging my memory over the contours and conversations and looney-toons adventures of adolescence.

There's one final curve in the road into town. If you go straight, you'll get to the outdoor pool, where I'd go with friends on Sunday afternoons, to cool off in the water, meet up with girls (if we were lucky) and fish for giggles and a pinch.

Keep tight to the curve and you encounter the trailer park.

These singles and double-wides are held together with bailer-twine and duct tape. Most of them have a wood-stove chimney-pipe sticking out the top, and in winter you pass through a tarry cloud of poplar smoke. The whole quarter acre looks like something out of The Grapes Of Wrath, with Mexican Mennonites standing in for bitter, disaffected Okies.

It's Graben's slum, really. And because Graben is so small, its presence is inescapable. Step out of one of those trailers, pick up a stone and throw it, and, depending on the direction you're facing, you could strike the village school, the fair grounds, a church, or the care facility my grandmother lived and died in.

We drove past it shortly before noon. We'd agreed to meet the rest of the family for lunch, but since that wasn't going to happen for another half-hour we pulled up to the grocery store, where we bought some cheese curds from the local factory.

As we sat and nibbled on these little knobs of inoffensive cheese, I wondered why Graben wasn't a prettier town. I grew peevish the longer I meditated on it. In fact, why beat around the bush? Graben is butt-ugly. It's a Canadian Prairie farm-town, and most of those are of a piece: cobbled together with materials found, and quickly, so that the real work could get attended to.

This makes the aesthetic explicable, but hardly comforting. The town has been around for a century, if not longer. As farmers, we got the jump on Nature fifty-plus years ago when we embraced petroleum and its manifold gifts. You'd think we'd take that opportunity to address the business of quality of life, before Nature rallied and set us back on our heels. We settled instead for television.

Why the hell is beauty such a distant concern for my people? It isn't like we lack pride. But with us it always has to be practicalities first. Get the barns up, get the crops in, get the canning done. If you've got some spare time, work on the quilt.

The problem is, practicalities ye shall always have with thee — even in prosperous times. Thus are we endowed with a cultural heritage of vibrant four-part harmonies, lavish quilts, and cheap feed.