Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Singing Soprano in the Choir, Harmonies with Brandon

"Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor." -Augustine, City of God

One of the failures of Letterboxd is its exclusion of television. So, blog.

I've been watching The Sopranos over the past month. I'm an American. I'm a cinephile. Therefore, I'm necessarily an observer of Gangster Culture. Like most others, my entire experience of this breed of person is mediated through the motion picture experience.

The Sopranos is hyper aware of this backlog of film gangsters. And it is smart about its present moment, presenting the breakdown of culture and values and all connections. And of course this breakdown affects those who operate outside of the "law" as much as anyone else.

I've been interested recently in pirates, both as a reality and as a metaphor.

Pirates are a law unto themselves, not recognizing the "laws of the land" (because they are subject to no land). They are transnational in their transgressions. But lawless does not necessarily mean immoral or anarchic.

So, Tony Soprano. A true King, a man presiding over a real kingdom. What separates his kingdom from the NJ civil apparatus is a piece of paper and wider social recognition. Besides this, the two aren't so dissimilar. "Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?," asks Augustine. And what are gangsters but land pirates?

One of the most fascinating moments in Season 2 is when Tony speaks to his psychotherapist about being a soldier. Soldiers take orders. Soldiers know the stakes. Soldiers do not harm civilians. Soldiers play by rules. He both intuitively and explicitly knows that he is part of a rival society. But most emphatically, it IS a society and not an anarchy of perverts and plunderers. There are rules in place and proper protocols, respect to be given and to be received. Tony Soprano is as lost as anyone else when these facts of life are no longer facts and the world is wild once more.

I've got mixed feelings about The Sopranos. I do think that it's clever and that it's entertaining. And it definitely hits at the social anxieties of a decade ago that are still very much with us. But it's also a soap opera. The strength of TV is its length and ability to explore vast internal and external spaces in that vast timeframe. Its weakness is also its length, that the themes and ideas that could be communicated in 20 minutes are now communicated in a thunderously repetitive 200 minutes. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't enjoying the soapishness of The Sopranos, but I also already feel as if it's all disposable, that I've gotten out of it all that I will get out of it. Like Tony Soprano's dreams that end Season 2, all of the shows that make up the past ten years of the so-called Golden Age of TV Drama might be reckoned to a bad case of food poisoning. If, in the end, we also get some true insight out of these fever dreams, let's also not forget that it came at the price of a long night of heavy puking and wet farts.

One thing that's interesting about television is how it is engaging in the moment, but rarely lasts past that moment. At least, this is my experience. I was obsessed with Breaking Bad. I re-watched episodes and looked forward to each new one. Now, I've cooled off a bit and don't feel any need to return to it. Why the heck is that? What's different now that it's over? Could it just be that it is over? Lost was great fun to look forward to each week, even when it went off the rails, but I can't see myself ever re-watching it. And on and on with so many shows. Battlestar Galactica. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Parks & Rec. Part of this is related to the ending of each show, that whatever itch it was scratching was through the satisfaction of the open-endedness of it, that it was an open space that could always be explored further. Once it was closed, it became a finite thing and necessarily became smaller and no longer that world where anything could happen because now we know that, in fact, only one set of things happened. Now, the lulls and natural rhythms of a weekly show start to seem unbearably meandering. They always were so, but now it is so very noticeable. Those moments are no longer pregnant with likely meaning, though, and the twists and loose ends no longer shimmer with possibility. And maybe this is why most of us move on to other new TV shows and why some people watch four hours of television a night or whatever the numbers are. And don't even get me started on reality TV and the plethora of mediocre dramas and sitcoms that dominate the networks.

Anyhow, two TV critics have written better than I have on related topics. Check them out.

Here's MSZ on TV endings:

Here's VanDerWerff giving an evaluation of what is happening in the current phase of the ongoing "Golden Age": "The message seems clear — if the 2000s were all about breaking shit, then the 2010s are going to be about putting everything back together."


It's good to see a post from Brandon:

He held out on the blogs longer than the rest of us. But it's hard to do something like this alone, apart from any interaction. Which is the flip side of the fear of engagement that Brandon writes about in his post. It's good to be blogging again. This is a good kind of engagement and the best kind of verbal sparring is done among friends, iron sharpening iron and all that, or at least dull heads butting up against one another.

I really do think that these blogs are a much better platform than FB or Twitter or whatever. Both of those online worlds give me the creeps, FB more so, and I'm not sure how people manage to carry on raging debates in the comments sections. I never posted anything terribly controversial there because it is a wasteland of resentment and exhausting fighting for position and the worst part is that it never ends. That feed keeps getting updated and the comments keep coming and no one is the better for it.

I'm willing to sit and talk and argue about anything, but the past few years I've become more adamant that any sort of heated debate should happen face-to-face, preferably over a pipe and a few beers. It is very hard to hate someone sitting in front of you, no matter how much you may disagree with the person. It is only when dialogue ends that we're all in trouble. That said, I've even grown less interested in in-person arguing. Like Brandon, I used to literally "duke it out" with others, slapping someone to make a point and getting very much in-yo-face. Now, I'm more likely to be mellow and live and let live. I think that part of this may just be getting older, that I don't have so much to prove anymore, that I know that I'm just an average guy and that my responsibility is to my immediate family and those immediate needs. I don't need to change the world and there's nothing hanging on whether or not I can change anyone's opinion, especially about something as inconsequential as taste in movies. (Although arguing about meaning in movies and how the structure of the movie communicates meaning is very worthwhile in my opinion, and the best slugfests that we've had here were when we've all gotten excited about something very particular and started digging, closely examining and offering up examples instead of slinging poo; though the poo inevitably gets slung! ;-)

But the other point of Brandon's paragraph is also worth noting, that sometimes we watch lots of movies and don't have much to say about them. I liked 'em. Meh. Whatever. These are all valid responses and fine and I don't think that either of us are in danger of confusing these statements for criticism. It's a mistake to think that we have to offer our opinion on every last thing, especially when we're not willing to do the difficult work of supporting those opinions. So, yeah, not having anything to say is often better than blathering with no actual content (which may be where this post is headed!)

Valentine's Road sounds fascinating. As mentioned in my Sopranos musings above, I am very interested in the politics behind it, what justice is and how it is applied, if at all. I won't comment on the specifics in Valentine's just based on your post, but maybe I'll check it out. Abby loves documentaries and I've been thinking about watching more of them. Specifically, the Middletown series and maybe finally checking out some Frederick Wiseman. Documentaries are often less interesting to me than features; maybe I'll try to write sometime about why I feel this way.

Anyhow, it's fun to be blogging again. And it's actually kinda fun to have it be stripped back to just the two of us, like it was way back in 2008, when we were writing long posts just for each other. Good times.


  1. “Half of writing is overcoming the revulsion you feel when you sit down to it”- Flannery O’Connor

    I think it’s funny to read us both trying to come to terms with justifying our actions be it watching a show, writing about movies, etc. Whenever I’m in the deepest depths of my blues the prevailing thought and tacit catalyst is the weight of time. I’m more aware now than ever that I won’t get to redo any of the days now behind me which sparks me to want to define and live out as many meaningful minutes as humanly possible, hence why something as trivial as ripping apart and debating fictional narratives seems directly a part of the ostensible problem. But maybe a bigger problem is the way I define “meaningful.” I wrote yesterday about feeling compelled to get outside more often, be more physically active, interact more with loved ones, be productive, and generally exit every day feeling happy. Maybe that’s how I’m currently defining mean and maybe that’s why I’m not as interested in logging movies these days. Basically, I’m committed to doing what I want and right now I’m very happy to talking with you.

    Thinking back to those early days when we would write over 200 posts a year, sometimes multiple interactions per day not to mention our dustups on Facebook. I remember you called it a “vocation” which seemed about right at the time. But calling something a vocation is also a slippery slope because this would demand “a strong feeling of being destined or called to undertake a specific type of work” which can feel kinda heavy at times. Likewise, being immersed in that aforementioned cesspool of “resentment and exhausting fighting” was wearing me down and bringing out the worst in me. I think this is quite different as it’s at once far less public and committed to a very specific kind of connection, one that thus taps into most other avenues of dialogue. Here’s to keeping it anxiety free and completely voluntary.

    I have seen most of The Sopranos but don’t feel especially compelled to talk about it. At the same time I want to second your trepidation in declaring our current time the “golden age” of television. I would argue that I’m more interested than ever in narrative television and I have you to blame for this. Speaking specifically of the medium I can say that I resisted its importance for a very long time despite your insistence that I should spend time watching Breaking Bad. After much bellyaching I caved and here we are. I agree that the same strengths used within the medium’s lack of constraints wind being a weakness in many cases. But I do love the way shows like The Wire explored the mechanizations within the Baltimore drug trade while managing to still be a compelling character study. It juggled so many characters so effortlessly. Likewise, Breaking Bad was a morality tale with an emphasis on the way this good intention gone wrong ruined an entire family. Deadwood is a fascinating amalgamation of historical fiction and, once again, rich characters entangled within its social structure. I understand the emptiness but I gotta question the notion that rewatchability is tantamount to worth. I will probably never revisit Shoah but that doesn’t make it any less a masterpiece. Again I find myself trying to define and quantify worth for the sake of justification.

  2. As to my fear of engagement, I’m not sure how I feel about these communal debates and profound bitching. On one hand I find it exhausting to observe laymen on their soapboxes spewing uninformed bile to their virtual cronies, on the other I can’t deny the fact that some of what is being peddled is having a positive impact on a large group of people. Even if most of these people have no intention of ever acting upon their deafening consciences, the mere fact that certain empathetic tenets are circulating is probably a means to very good end. One could argue (and I certainly have) that this is all leading to a great big circle jerk and nothing more, but he/she would be denying the existence of public demand’s influence on justice. Look at where we started with these instances of police gunning down unarmed minorities and look at how quickly we are seeing convictions and firings and various other responses. Imagine how that’ll end up helping motivate public servants to be just that, servants.

    That being said, none of this will ever compel me to reconnect. I’m unplugged for good. It makes me feel dirty. Scratch that, I’m on Instagram which is mercifully devoid of message board hubbub. I’m also on letterboxd, which is seeming less and less appealing as the days wear on. All of this somehow might bring me back to Valentine Road, which is admittedly not a something I would hold up aesthetically (bad music, unnecessary animation) but a film with an admirable sense of compassion not just for Larry but also, briefly, Brandon. Both boys grew up under immense pressure and abuse and the filmmakers are interested foremost in the impact adults have on children. At its heart it’s a movie about legacies that ought to cease to exist and the responsibility for us old people worrying about our own mortality to look out for those just getting started. The children are watching us.

  3. Good comments. I've got a bad memory. I didn't remember the "vocation" thing. I searched my old blog and found the post you were talking about.

    Sheesh. I know that I was earnest and sincere when I wrote it, but, yeah, it looks a little silly now. And that specific word is probably (definitely) wrong. But my overall point is one that I'll stick with. We've got movies in our blood and we watch them seriously and spend time thinking about how they are constructed and what their intent is, etc. Most people don't.

    As you know, I've made a strong effort the past couple of years to get into better health (this has slipped a bit the past few months, but I'm back on the wagon now). I've spent time lifting and I've spent time running and spent time doing all sorts of other crap. And I actually know a ton of exercise jargon now. But you know what? Exercise people aren't my people. If I see someone squatting heavy or running long, I don't think, hey, there's a kindred spirit. But if I see someone watching FBI Story, whether they like that piece of crap or not, I know that there's someone I'd like to spend the next eight years in a film club with! ;-)

    But, yeah, I hear you that "ripping apart and debating fictional narratives" can be part of the problem. It's easy to fall into the rut of thinking I'm doing something important when really what I'm doing is ignoring my work situation or family situation to be engaged on a screen spending time writing about the time I spent engaged with another screen. That's part of why I stepped away from Chasing Pictures, to re-orient myself toward the non-screen. But then I got sucked back into online land through becoming part of a literary fan community. And that was wonderful in its way, but I was also checking notifications all of the time and sucked back into screen life.

  4. I had already scaled back my FB usage and deleted the app off of my phone. Yesterday, I decided to just commit and follow you in deleting my account (for like the tenth time), hopefully permanently this time. I hate that place.

    That's funny that I brought you into TV Land. I do remember when Chris and I would repeatedly veer off into TV Club conversations. I guess I'm not saying that TV is worthless or that it's bad or whatever, but that it certainly seems more ephemeral than certain films. Certain shows feel Very Important right now, but then don't feel very important at all once they're done. I don't know.

    I do think that repetition is important. My own reading and viewing is often shallow because I've only read/viewed something once or twice. And to be fair, most books/films aren't worth reading/viewing more than once (if at all!). It's fine to read/watch the disposable stuff (which is sometimes very enjoyable), but the danger is to do so at the expense of time spent re-reading/re-viewing the good stuff. I do think that repeatability is the true test of any "classic". Besides historical accidents at work that preserved certain texts and not others, the Iliad and the Odyssey are still with us because they're danged good reads, both exciting and dense with meaning.

    I had a conversation with Jeff once about the vanity of thinking that we have any idea of what the 20th century film canon will look like in a thousand years. Looking back a thousand years to the year 1015, how many works of art can you name? Even closer to 1515 or 1815, how many? I'm not saying that all of the films that matter to us shouldn't matter to us, but that put into perspective, our Top Ten lists and attempts to get a handle on 20th century film history are a tiny miniscule part of an historical process that might see three films from the century taught in an elective survey class in a thousand years. Which three films? That'd be fun to argue about, but the truth is that we can have no idea.

    I don't know. I've started rambling.

    I guess it goes back to your bringing up "meaning", that in my own media consumption, I've tried to make a point of getting back to the more permanent things, reading "classics" that have stood the test of time and filmwise, not caring so much about keeping up and having the perfect Top 10 lists. I've also tried to narrow down what I actually like and care about.

    Really, I'd like to find those few things that I truly love that I can master instead of spending so much time looking for the next thing.

    "I understand the emptiness but I gotta question the notion that rewatchability is tantamount to worth. I will probably never revisit Shoah but that doesn’t make it any less a masterpiece. Again I find myself trying to define and quantify worth for the sake of justification."

    Yeah, I think that there's something to this as well. There Will Be Blood is still one of my favorite films. I watched it twice in a row the night that I first saw it at Regal, immediately going in for a second viewing. Then, I watched it a third time with Abby a week later. Then, I bought it on DVD the day it came out, but I haven't watched it a single time since. It is definitely one of my favorite films of all time, but I find myself unable to sit down and watch it again right now. But I also find that many of its images are burned into my brain in a way that other films have never done. So, I've only seen it three times, but I feel like I can see so many moments from it absolutely clearly right now.

    Actually, I think with TWBB, I may just be afraid to watch it at home, with distractions. I'd jump at the chance to watch it on a big screen again.

    Alright, I've rambled too much and I'm not sure that I've been clear about anything. I'm closing down the screen for the day. Peace.

  5. This is true John. I wasn’t implying that your use of the term was bad or cheesy or anything, but rather that I can’t really approach much of anything outside of my family and music with any sense of vocation. That’s all. I don’t regret the old film club days even slightly. They ruled. They were fun. I am religiously devoted to fun. This is fun.
    FB was sucking the life out of me. It was engaging my mind in the most shallow aspects of the world around me. I was listening to great programs on NPR (I know that sounds really stupid but hear me out) that would get my brain moving in the right direction. Then I would scroll down a “feed” and find those same talking points spread as thin as humanly possible. I guess I’m just a little more interested in pragmatic things these days. Or maybe I just think I am.
    I remember getting snarky when TV was brought into the movie club. I think I still feel that the two don’t belong in the same discussion, only now I think I have more respect for the small screen as a potential art form unto itself. I’m not sure I agree with you about its ephemeral nature, but I haven’t really thought about it. I agree that certain dramatic shows end and I find it less and less compelling to revisit them. But then I think of certain movies that I’m certain I’ll just let be in my head and memory. I’m no Pauline Kael when it comes to revisiting stuff but I’m not as prone to wearing out any movie. The funny thing is that I’ll wear out any episode of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or certain stand-up routines any day of the week. Better Call Saul is a really good show btw.
    Speaking of Jeff, I had a brief conversation in which he expressed an interest in writing again with us. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. It’s funny because if I was reading this not knowing us I’d think that we were the two lamest nerds on the planet. Cheers to that!

  6. I’m not interested in movies’ canonical impact on future generations. I’m a jerk like that. I understand that only a select few “great” pieces of literature and paintings and songs survived but I’m not so sure I trust that great ones weren’t left buried and dead. Look at what music is being touted as worth of the “hall of fame.” How many great bands and musicians will never even come close? Who gives a shit? It’s all about spreading our own personal “suggestions” to those in our immediate circles and hoping it spreads just enough for a few more people to be inclined to enjoy better things. I’m sure only like two or three people will see Timbuktu from my group of friends but at least that’s three more people who will see a masterpiece and walk away with a greater appreciation for art and humanity (though they may be just as compelled to leave the theater bummed about humanity). Timbuktu won’t even make the 2015 cannon let alone the decade or century and beyond. That doesn’t make it any less a great movie.
    What’s extraordinary to me about movies, books, music, paintings, etc. is that it comes from a person, sometimes multiple people. It’s an extension of their personality, thoughts, dreams, fears, aspirations, and basically everything that can pour into it. That’s why I take “art” as seriously as I can. I think Dave Kehr described the auteur theory beautifully and I don’t remember exactly what he said but it sounded a little something like the bond between art and the human spirit. I’m making it sound way more cheesy but I think I got the general idea. It’s worth taking seriously because someone is communicating to us through their means of expression. Now THAT’S a vocation.
    I understand your desire to consuming things that have “meaning,” but sometimes I think “meaning” can spring up from the most unlikely sources. And you know was well as I that certain viewing environments contribute to us being moved, intrigued, or provoked. I watched True Detective and while it certainly reached deep for meaning, I found it mostly empty and annoying in its inability to just be a fun and engaging mystery. Catch my drift?
    I always loved your top ten lists. I prefer honesty, even if honesty means liking Computer Chess ;)
    And great point about There Will Be Blood and the desire to dive back into a movie when its images are wonderfully preserved in memory. I have a similar fear of revisiting certain movies. In fact I rewatched Brazil recently and could barely get through it. It made me sad and ashamed of myself. Having kids has rekindled that desire to revisit things. I can’t wait to watch ----- insert well/lesser-known auteurs ----- with my kids. That, I’m looking forward to.

  7. "I’m not interested in movies’ canonical impact on future generations."

    No, me neither, or at least only a little; it is interesting to think about just to give us perspective, that not much of what we argue about is really going to last. Then again, no one will remember us in that time either. But somehow our little squabblings nevertheless do matter as much as all of the other art that has been forgotten matters.

    But of course you contradict yourself later on when you say that "I can’t wait to watch ----- insert well/lesser-known auteurs ----- with my kids. That, I’m looking forward to." (I'm teasing about the contradicting, to be clear!) ;-)

    You are very much looking forward to introducing the Musa Film Canon to the next generation. In that regard, you are very much interested in "movies' canonical impact on future generations." All I can say is, "Me too." :-)

    Let's end on this note:
    "It’s funny because if I was reading this not knowing us I’d think that we were the two lamest nerds on the planet. Cheers to that!"

    Cheers to that!