La La La La La

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La La Land: “This year’s other best picture nominees have heart, soul and humanity. Damien Chazelle’s tawdry, dispiriting confection has none – it’s the tale of two narcissists who sacrifice love for self-interest”.

On the advice of someone whose taste and opinions I trust, I decided to break my personal non-cinema-going record (hadn’t been to a cinema since June 2009) and fly to Berlin just to see a midday showing of La La Land. Let’s forget the impracticality of my impulsive leap; let’s forget the fact that, despite my multiple confirmations of getting the original-language version, the film was dubbed into German. Let’s just consider the fact that I still felt deeply saddened by the film, even if I could not understand every word that was said. (I later saw it in English to pick up the nuances and bits I’d missed.)

My trusted source, who had recommended it, felt that it was uplifting, if I may paraphrase his post-viewing thoughts, because the couple (spoiler alert), despite not ending up together in the long run, inspired each other to do great things, to follow their dreams.

As the aforementioned Guardian review points out: “They get together when their careers are failing, and spend their time sharing notes. Once they have co-mentored themselves on to the road to personal advancement, they ditch each other like a rocket’s blast-off section.”

I can see and support this interpretation logically, without putting such a negative spin on it (it is a film, meant to be entertaining in some way, after all). The ‘support’ and ‘seeing talent and beauty in each other and encouraging it’ angle is only one edge of the sword; the other is that both characters were using each other, as the Guardian suggests.

Going by how I felt after seeing it without being able to understand everything being said, I knew that my feelings were not admiring the ‘mutual support’ and the characters being who they needed to be for each other until they made it or didn’t need each other any more. At least it was not the complete feeling. I cried, felt moved, but could not pinpoint exactly what made it so deeply sad for me. I did, after all, share many of the same complaints about the film’s many shortcomings (bad singing, a lacklustre chemistry, the co-opting and simplifying of jazz as a musical genre, and blah blah blah) that the article highlights but still was able to overlook them for the sake of finding some greater meaning.

“Greater meaning”, though, all filters through the prism of your own state of mind and emotional being at the time of viewing and later reflection. Thus I was able to wring mammoth amounts of emotion from even my dubbed German viewing, but this may only be because of my own topsy-turvy emotional state at the time.

It is only now, reading this review, that I see reflected in words what I was unable to articulate: these two people (potentially ‘narcissists’, according to the article) sacrificed love for self-interest. Again, setting aside the fact that I did not necessarily find their “love” all that believable or compelling, it still ended up disposable and was easily cast aside to pursue other things.

“We can now see why these sweethearts separate. On their last night together they pledge eternal love; but they also promise to follow their dreams. For them, the latter was bound to trump the former: self-worship brooks no distractions. If, at the end, Seb seems a little lonely and Mia seems a little bored, no matter. Their final smiles indicate that both have attained what really matters: self-satisfaction.

Still, La La Land is a film for our time. With our self-nurturing, self-promotion, clicktivism, Twitterstorms, sexts and selfies, we are all narcissists now.”

And you know, that is not entirely unrealistic. Do we not meet people when things in our lives are falling apart, less than ideal, and make pledges of undying love and then somehow rebuild around them but then run far and fast as we ‘follow our dreams’?

Unfortunate Coincidence (Dorothy Parker)

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

It happens every day, and sometimes for very good reason (I even applauded the ‘leaving a relationship, forgoing love for personal goals’ move heartily in my previous post on the women of the mostly crap TV show, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce). I don’t want or need every movie (or any movie, really) to have a standard Hollywood ending wherein the couple ends up together. But when I saw the film, I needed to see (and believe) that love could be strong enough to win and could be stronger than circumstance or even self-interest.

Photo (c) 2017 Lisa Zins

Revisiting Divorce

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I cannot believe that I am writing about a show like Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce – again. I would have, when it began, sooner shot myself than watch it. And watching the first season, it was as bad as I feared. It was one of my big hate-watch shows. But in the subsequent seasons, it has sometimes knocked the wind out of its characters – shown them and their glitzy lives as being far from perfect, shown some struggles and shown the consequences of the girlfriends’ frequent poor decision making. It’s still totally unrealistic and the characters are a bunch of self-absorbed assholes. But there are tiny glimpses of realism now and then that humanize the nonsense and fluff.

And occasionally it hits some nerves. In the final episode of the latest season, messy, selfish protagonist Abby is newly entangled in an affair with a guy who is in the midst of a very fresh (as in, he has not even moved out of the house or started divorce proceedings) divorce. She tries to overlook all the warning signs, her constant string of hurts and wounds, his tendency to shut down and completely avoid her, because their connection, as she herself says, “It’s great, it’s rare, and that’s why we should stop now.” She had been through a divorce that dragged on painfully (as breaking up, particularly in a long and messily intertwined relationship, does) over the course of the first two seasons. The guy, Mike, tries to insist that he is solid and ready, but Abby knows from experience that he is wrong. She argues that everyone told her that you can write off the first full year after a divorce because you are and will be “certifiable”; she tells Mike she ‘ruined’ a man because she was so raw and not ready. Maybe the timing is wrong, they tell each other, so maybe the door is not shut forever, but for now, she has firmly closed it.

At the very end, I was relieved and uplifted, actually, by the fact that instead of chasing the man or relationship or changing her mind about closing the door, Abby has her ‘epiphany’ and runs to her former colleague and friend to enlist her help in launching a website for women their age. Not that love – or whatever – is not important – but it’s no more important than deciding you’re not taking any more shit, not going to answer to anyone else, and will not get tired of waiting while you’re being jerked around.

Lunchtable TV Talk: House – King of Misanthropes

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House is one of those shows with an egotistical, maniacal, damaged “genius” with special skills at the helm. It never interested me much, despite being a Hugh Laurie fan, as medical mystery procedurals don’t generally keep delivering punches after one season. They hold our interest when they are new because we like novelty – we like curmudgeonly assholes or mental cases (and I do recognize that lumping people into a superficial group like “mental cases” is insensitive and a massive and unfair generalization). There is only so much we can take of assholes, racists, addicts on TV… from Archie Bunker to Adrian Monk, from Hank Moody to almost all characters Denis Leary plays on TV. Dr Gregory House is one of the biggest of all TV jerks, and completely self-involved, self-destructive and does not care how he hurts – or how much – the people in his life. That common thread runs, to varying degrees, through all these “lovable” (or not so lovable) jerks.

I realize it is a bit late to be writing about a show like House. It’s old – it ended ages ago. I was surprised when I watched the first season to see that it was more than a decade old already. I got sucked into House recently after a long, self-imposed foreign-film festival on the homestead. I just wanted some English-language entertainment to occupy my mind only halfway. What struck me first is: how on earth do we, with our short attention spans, manage to follow or care about serialized television shows that go on for 22 or 24 episodes per season? Particularly with these kinds of shows, they run out of steam fairly quickly and become predictable (even in their lack of unpredictability). It still remained mildly entertaining, but when you’re bingeing all eight seasons at once, all 176 plus or minus, it wears out its welcome really fast. I recently read an article in which a TV critic argues that binge watching enables a show to be created expressly for the binge in mind, which means we are less likely to pick out its flaws. This applies mostly to shows created for streaming that go for a max of about 13 episodes. I agree to some extent – nothing’s perfect, whether it’s too long, too short, or skimps on process that adds to plot. These things are designed to stream and ingest all in one go. But these longer shows that get churned out season after season feel churned out. A great slog through mostly mud before occasionally hitting a few smoother streams.

Second thing that struck me, of course, as I am sensitively attuned to these things, and which is not at all a surprise: addicts possess nothing but meanness, diffuse blame and spew denial and insult whenever they can. But House is not the best portrayal of how addiction works. It occasionally illustrates (although more with unrealistic storylines and hammer-over-the-head consequences for the people House works with – his “friends”) the bad parts of addiction. House is openly an addict, and the people around him openly enable it. It is a lot more interesting and realistic to see addiction (particularly in a healthcare setting) in Nurse Jackie. (You can incidentally get a lot better and more intimate view on the work lives of nurses from Nurse Jackie and Getting On than medical shows like House, which have nothing to do with nurses, in any case.) Addiction really only comes into stark focus as season five ends and season six begins, and House goes to rehab. I suppose the “party” could not go on forever.

Third note: I think I kept watching throughout because I like the cast. And for most of the cast, I like them in these roles. I have not really liked Jennifer Morrison in much other than in her role as Dr Cameron. I really have a growing hatred for Lisa Edelstein after suffering (forcing myself to suffer, really) through each week’s increasingly horrifying episode of Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, but seeing her in House makes her look strong, intelligent, thoughtful, insightful. Girlfriends Guide strips away every last bit of the humanity and compassion that Edelstein cultivated in House. I realize the point of acting is to… act, but the characters in GG2D are so distasteful that I can’t see why someone would want to stretch their “acting chops” to stoop so low. Robert Sean Leonard is a reliably good foil, friend and enabler for Hugh Laurie’s Dr House, and Omar Epps has carved out a career of being a doctor on TV.

While there are only so many scenes of close-ups of House’s brooding, thoughtful scowl a person can take, I appreciated the opening episode of House, wherein, as an introduction to his misanthropy, in which he explains to a patient who exclaims, after being probed, prodded and tested that she just wants to “die with dignity”:

“There’s no such thing! Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it. I don’t care if you can walk, see, wipe your own ass. It’s always ugly, always….You can live with dignity, we can’t die with it.”

Revisiting Girlfriends’ Guide…

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When I finished watching the first season of the asinine Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, I swore I would not return for more brain abuse. But then I did. I guess I needed, as I wrote previously, more reasons to roll my eyes. The first season had fleeting moments of poignancy in that it dealt on occasion with the sweeping themes of pain, loss and confusion after breakups. But the majority of the show was frivolous and shallow, and the second season largely continues to dredge the dregs. The attempts at evoking depth also come off as exceedingly shallow, trivializing real problems and emotions.

The only exceptions have been (in this order):

  • The appearance of Retta as Barbara. While her character is framed as a bitter and divorced managing editor, she is the only voice of reason/reality in this twilight zone of non-reality. I’d keep watching the show if it started following her.
  • The breakup confrontation younger-man Will forces once his heart is broken by Lisa Edelstein‘s Abby. While I still find the relationship unrealistic and have no clue, given what we’ve seen, why or how this guy imagined he was in love with the clueless and totally self-involved Abby, his reaction seemed spot on.
  • Finally and repeatedly exposing Abby for the self-involved, “it’s-all-about-me” asshole she is. While all the characters are a bit hollow and narcissistic, very rarely considering that there are consequences to their selfishness (they almost all, in fairness, do realize that there are consequences after the fact – the over-the-top acting always reveals these “shock-hurt” facial expressions when someone confronts them on their selfishness). When Will confronts Abby, and also when close friend, Jo eviscerates Abby more than once for her fair-weather-friend nature, these moments rang true.

But dear god, what a stupid show – redeemed in moments that expose the deeply flawed nature of these people.

 

Lunchtable TV Talk: Girlfriends Guide to Divorce

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The only things this show gets right are: 1. divorce is hard, 2. even seasoned, beautiful women, perhaps especially the experienced, who should feel accomplished and professional, feel vulnerable and unsure – especially when their footing is pulled out from under them. Those are important themes. Otherwise, nothing about this show rings true.

I like series creator, Marti Noxon, and wrote a love letter about her surprising series, UnREAL. I have always loved Janeane Garofalo, but Garofalo’s character was a psychotic caricature (and probably why she exited the show almost as soon as she started). Lisa Edelstein is someone I can’t make up my mind about at all. I caught her call-girl/law student role in the first season of The West Wing (my recent binge indulgence), and it didn’t do anything to tip the scales either way.

But bottom line, regardless of whether everyone in this show is wealthy and privileged, having had some kind of high-powered position (or being the recipient of major divorce settlements), it is not realistically presented. Edelstein’s character complains about money and how she doesn’t understand how she will make ends meet after she loses her writing contract and her husband (who was never earning money anyway, I guess)… but then everything seems to work out without any explanation or real struggle. And Edelstein’s character has two children – they are mostly invisible. Rearing children is hard with regard to time and money, and assuming there is not a nanny (I have not seen one – and supposed they could not afford one any longer), this is not a big enough part of the story to be realistic. Sure, it’s a fictional show – what does it matter?

Another gripe I have with show and most shows on television is the fluidity and ease with which people hit on each other, as if all of life is this smorgasbord. Maybe it is just that people don’t hit on me every time I go to the grocery store, my kids’ school, the cafe, at work, a casino, every party, etc. but somehow I don’t think things sail quite this smoothly in reality. Why else would people complain in reality about how hard it is to meet people? But we’ve got to flatter these actresses, I guess, or make up storylines.

I do not think I will be back for the second season unless I need something to roll my eyes at.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.