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I’d pretty much had it with serial-killer narratives – on TV, in movies, in pop novels. I was tired of the dead-helpless-women trope that recurs in too many of these plots, weary of the murderers who are frequently portrayed as brilliant masterminds we’re meant to reluctantly admire, exhausted by the hardboiled ethos that’s accrued around the men and women who solve these cases. But then along came, last weekend, the premiere of True Detective, on HBO. It’s about two police homicide detectives in Louisiana and how they handled a very grim case. The detectives are played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, initially as an almost comic odd couple. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, a laconic good ol’ boy, a married-with-children working stiff. He’s paired with McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, a burned-out-case loner cop who’s coming off years as an undercover agent arresting drug dealers. They eye each other warily and play to each other’s strengths: Hart has a fine work ethic and a doggedly logical manner; Cohle is an obsessed workaholic and alcoholic, steeped in a half-eloquent, half-loony existential philosophy that leads him to make near-mystical divinations of human character that cohere as smart hunches. True Detective is structured so that we watch Cohle and Hart investigate the first murder in 1995, and then the show cuts back and forth to present-day interviews with the two men: They’ve been called in by the police to be interrogated about their crime-solving methods, because another murder has been committed, and it’s possible that Cohle and Hart, who thought they’d caught their killer in the 1990s, may have fingered the wrong guy. One thing that immediately distinguishes True Detective from other shows in this genre is its writing: All eight of its episodes (I’ve seen four so far) are written by one man, Nic Pizzolatto. A novelist and short-story writer, Pizzolatto is fond of something that’s usually the death of drama on TV: The monologue. Interviewed separately, McConaughey and Harrelson reel off pages of words, paragraph after paragraph, supposedly facing another cop but actually looking straight into the camera at us. And as their individual monologues proceed, their lives unravel for us: We learn about Hart’s disguised temper and marital infidelity; of the depth of Cohle’s despair for the worthiness of humanity. Pizzolatto’s scripts are rich with the eloquence of the everyday, of men straining to explain their lives in guarded language that ends up revealing more than they intend. Pizzolatto has an immense talent for the first-person-singular: I recommend his tough-guy novel Galveston (2010), also written in this style, as well. Every episode of True Detective is also directed by one person, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the 2011 remake of Jane Eyre. The result of this one writer-one director creation gives True Detective a focus and intensity that transcends the suspense of who committed the killings. The series plays out like an exploration of spiritual exhaustion enlivened by the energy of ordinary life – it suggests that getting through the day, day... Continue reading
Posted Jan 16, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
The subtitle to the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary airing on HBO tonight (June 10, 9 p.m.), is accurate: Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich, who were arrested on Feb. 21, 2012, after performing for 40 seconds on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, do indeed embody many of the precepts of 1970s punk-rock culture. Although presenting themselves as a band, they view their work as performance art as much musical performance. A collective of unstated numbers of young women, Pussy Riot has found its most effective communication tool to be planned “spontaneous” musical performances that consist of rudimentary songs proclaiming their feminist, anti-authoritarian stance. In the documentary, the members come off as tough-minded, resourceful, and wry: “It’s not too hard,” one of them says of their punk-band strategy: “Write a song and think of the place to perform.” Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have footage of the group assembling at a protest site, divvying up the musical duties (“You play the guitar”), and diving headlong into a song or two before scramming. Since the sacrilegious sin-crime and immediate arrest that made the group famous worldwide lasted a mere 40 seconds captured on what looks like a jittery cellphone, the bulk of A Punk Prayer is taken up by the show-trial of what I’d call the Pussy Riot Three. Placed behind a glass cage, the three women are allowed to make occasional statements, but their defense team comes off irritatingly smug and complacent – it’s as though the lawyers defending Pussy Riot lacked Pussy Riot’s own awareness of just how offended the combination of defying the Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin’s leadership would be to the court system. The trial exerts a sickening fascination. The film is warmed by the comments of some of the defendants’ parents. Soon after Nadia tells us that her father is “wonderful… so supportive,” he proves it. A thoughtful, baby-boomer generation man, he tells of being told by his daughter of Pussy Riot’s church-invasion plan as they rode the subway. He says he immediately tried to talk her out of it, but “after a few stops” on the subway ride, he realized she was determined to go through with her actions. His reaction? “I started helping out with the lyrics,” he says. Unmentioned in the film is the debt Pussy Riot says it owes to the Russian poet Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), himself a government-suppressed poet of organized anarchy, and, like the Pussy Riot Three, a member of an art collective, OBERIU (Association of Real Art). During her group’s trial, Nadia specifically cited Vvedensky’s “principle of ‘poor rhyme’… He said, ‘Sometimes I think up two rhymes, a good and a poor one, and I pick the poor one, because it is the one that is right.” A Vvedensky poem collected in the superb, recently published An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets) includes lines that could be a Pussy Riot lyric: How cute! Will they cut or bite... Continue reading
Posted Jun 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
George Jones, who died this past Friday at age 81, had long been lauded as one of the greatest voices in country music history. He was also, along with Hank Williams, one of country music's most cautionary tales, with a history of alcoholism, substance abuse, marital woes, and career mismanagement that would have forced a lesser man into early retirement or (as in the case of Hank) an early death. Unlike Williams, Jones was never a great songwriter; he was a great interpreter of others' songs. He was very much a contradictory artist: A loner who did some of his best work in collaboration with another singer -- Tammy Wynette (his ex-wife) and Melba Montgomery most notably. And all of the problems that dogged him whenever he didn't appear onstage (which was frequent enough to earn him the nickname "No-Show Jones"), vanished when he was in thrall to his own gift, in performance, at one with the baleful sentiments he sang. He was hard on himself in every sense, and always carried with his toughness and stubbornness an air of hangdog shame, as though he felt destined to be the fool, not the master, of his life. Jones was one of the most self-conscious, for good and ill, of great American artists. He knew his gift, he knew it wasn't so much his voice as his phrasing that was the genius part ('s why he could redeem so many lesser lyrics). But the clenched-jaw delivery can also serve as synecdoche for a man frozen, trapped: trapped by his feelings of inferiority, the unwarranted shame he felt about his class, the paralyzing sting of those in mainstream music industry who never recognized him fully, for the cruelty of country radio for abandoning him when he still had something to give. People of privilege sometimes don't understand why an artist can start to self-destruct when he feels resentment, abandonment, false praise instead of the kind of praise and appreciation of his gifts he knew he was owed. (And I'm talking about the whole arc of his career, not just the final years.) "No-Show" was a fond joke barely concealing a different diagnosis: an addictive, isolating personality that could not achieve enough comfort in his own skin. All of which makes the best music that he leaves behind more precious. --Ken Tucker Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Richard Hell wrote one of the best songs built around one of the least useful, or at least most misunderstood, phrases of 1970s punk rock in “Blank Generation,” for his band the Voidoids. To his great credit, as his new memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography (Ecco Books) proves, he and a few of his cohorts were among the least blank, most thoughtful and informed young musician-writers working during that period, not nihilists but poets with the romanticism wrung out of them by some combination of natural asperity, experience with music-biz venality, and a genuine passion to make some kind of art. And so while I Dreamed is indeed the memoir of a man who spiked his hair, consumed a lot of different chemicals, and lived in the shadow of Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, and Johnny Rotten, Richard Hell stakes out his status as an always-intelligent man whose musical value has been underrated and whose excellent taste extends to a casual yet more than knowledgeable reference to “my main man New York poet Ted Berrigan.” Indeed, the most interesting aspect of this swiftly paced tale of a Kentucky-born first-gen punk-rocker is that he was a poetry fan and a poet before he was a bass player, a lyricist of concise note, a by-his-account profligate yet caring ladies-man. Hell – born Richard Meyers in 1949 – writes with some of his greatest passion about the second generation of New York School poets including Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Tom Veitch, as well as ornery outliers like Bill Knott, the latter for writing “fully thought-through funny word-packs of imagery and ideas of loneliness, desperate love, shock and fury.” He lavishes as much praise upon publications such as “C” magazine and “Ashbery’s and Koch’s and Schuyler’s and Mathews’ swoon of witty word-chess” Locus Solus as he does influential recordings by the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. If Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir Just Kids took a more literary shape than the straightforward prose and chronology Hell offers here, his is the book to read to get a less self-mythologizing view of what it was like to live in the blended musical-literary circles that overlapped and bedded down with each other in the late-70s/early-80s. It may be that, as someone who wedged into the vibrating narrow corridor of CBGB’s and sat at the same Gem Spa counter stools as Hell during this period, I am more susceptible than an average reader to his amiable rambles not just through CBGB lore but also his jobs at the Gotham Book Mart and the Strand Bookstore. But that also means I know his details are pretty much spot-on. Plus, I like the way Hell is not so highfalutin’ that he doesn’t enjoy sharing gossip about and quarrels with characters including his Television band-mate Tom Verlaine (boyhood buddies who became thoroughly sick of each other over the course of launching a career – that’ll happen when you’re a part-time drug-head and he’s a full-time control-freak);... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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The wonderful TV and literary critic and dexterous light-verse emitter, Clive James, once wrote that “J.R. Ewing’s reign as the King of Dallas reached its apotheosis under Reagan. Now that corrupt America was passé and straight-arrow America was back in business, it was time for J.R. to get his. The shooting of J.R. was announced in advance all over the world. It was fictional, but it made news like fact… J.R. was no longer an actor, he was a real man. He was more than that, he was a Messiah. He rose from the dead and continued with the next series, like a President going into his next term.” Well, last night, J.R.’s body was lowered into the grave once more, with finality, because we were also, in effect, watching Larry Hagman’s body achieve sepulchral grace. J.R. was Hagman’s creation as much as it was creator David Jacobs’, or any writer or producer, who worked on the original run of Dallas. The actor invested what could have been a cartoonish villain with an evil intelligence. Yes, sure, because this was a frequently outlandish nighttime soap opera, with what has come to be called in the fan-boy culture of TV analysis as a knotty “mythology,” there were regular moments when J.R. was a caricature of venality. But more often, Hagman made sure that J.R. was in on the joke – the big-buck Ewing relished his power and his ability to make mere mortals (frequently his brother Bobby, played with superb asperity by Patrick Duffy) tremble. J.R. was capitalism with unruly eyebrows, aging but still fitfully potent. Last week on Dallas, two shots rang out during a phone call J.R. had placed from another country. He referred to a gesture he would make that he called his “masterpiece.” No: It was a fate forced upon the character after Hagman died during production of the rebooted Dallas’ second season. The bang-bang occurred at the very end of that hour, and so last night’s edition featured the funeral and a deepening mystery. Old Dallas characters were hauled out to pay their (sometimes dis-)respects to J.R., and even the most ardent fan probably spent some time gazing at his or her HD screen to note whose jaw-line was sagging, whose gut strained a Texas belt buckle. Now that J.R. is gone, who beyond the hardcore devotees will continue to watch Dallas, with its cleverly conceived but mostly plastic-looking young co-stars intended to continue the J.R.-Bobby brawling? Certainly Josh Henderson, as J.R.’s son John Ross, has stepped up to achieve his own semi-original take on J.R.-style mendacity. (I qualify the originality since what Henderson, with his drooping eyelids and mumbled menace is doing frequently seems half-Hagman, half-Elvis Presley.) The hour, titled “J.R.’s Masterpiece,” was written by Cynthia Cidre, and was shrewdly executed. By the end, we knew that J.R. had not been killed in Mexico by a random thug; that Sue Ellen had fallen off the wagon; that Emma Brown was popping clonazepam and having sex... Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
This week’s Girls was a high point in a second season that’s been a bit of a disappointment. After making a well-deserved media splash as a novel TV approach to the depiction of Young Women In Our Time, Girls is showing some of the wear and tear that occurs when an ambitious creator also becomes The New Voice of Her Generation. (Promise: no more capitalized theme phrases from hereon.) At least, that’s the sense I get, given the timing, shooting schedule, and result of Lena Dunham’s intensely scrutinized, It’s Not Just TV (oh, damn – sorry) creation. The second season feels more like a conventional sitcom, with snappy punchlines and increasingly lovable characters, or at least characters we’re meant to understand as earnest, wounded birds. Except for the male characters, who tend to be angry wounded pitbulls. Dunham’s Hannah and her sisters-in-the-sisterhood are never more engaging when they’re not engaging each other, but rather, interacting with people older than themselves: Parents, employers, would-be mentors, patrons, and sleazebags. So it was this week’s installment, which found Hannah accompanying Jemima Kirke’s Jessa to spend the weekend with the latter’s father and most recent stepmother – played respectively by Ben Mendelsohn and Rosanna Arquette. The half-hour contained the usual amount of Girls hijinks, Seinfeldian phrase appropriations (the repetition of “sexcapade”; “You are ‘the cushion’” – i.e., the absorber of too much emotion), and sight gags (Hannah, her bladder too full at a remote outdoor train station, squatting to pee in semi-full view of an older couple). But this episode, titled “Video Games” after a nutty belief of Arquette’s character – that the world is “literally” a video game – was filled with nice touches and filled in a bit more of the Girls universe. Jessa is, you’ll recall, coming off the dissolution of her brief marriage to a wealthy heel. If it was typical of Dunham’s writing strategy that this haughty, assiduously devil-may-care yet totally-together Brit would prove to have a thoroughly dissolute, emotionally unstable and needy father, it is to the show’s credit that the relationship felt right – that Jessa is the daughter such a man would produce, in that we-react-against-what-we-dislike-the-most about our parents. Significantly, I think, this episode was written by producer Bruce Eric Kaplan, better known in some circles as “BEK,” the cartoonist whose work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker. I say significant not merely because Kaplan also wrote a few episodes of Seinfeld, but because the series this season has featured more fully delineated male characters whenever Dunham and/or another female collaborator aren’t writing them. Sorry, not sexist, but it’s just true: The early half-hours of this second season featured the show’s least believable new characters, most notably the happily brief appearance of Donald Glover as Sandy, the dreary, surprise!-he’s-a-black-Republican creation. Where the second season of Girls has frequently carried a distracted air, as though the cast members were rushing through their jokes and problems because Dunham had a scheduled Rolling Stone or I-D cover photo-shoot,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Here’s my Christmas book gift recommendation. To (re-)discover a first-rate critic, and read about a life that went wrong in a harrowing way, you must read Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Press), by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the New York Dolls, and Warren Zevon. He served as the record-review editor of Rolling Stone and was an A&R man for Mercury Records. But this thumbnail sketch of Nelson’s career doesn’t begin to suggest his import as a writer and presence. Avery’s book is divided into two parts. The first is a biography titled “Invitation to a Closed Room: The Life of Paul Nelson.” The second is a collection of some of his most famous and/or influential pieces, titled “Good Critic Paul: The Writings of Paul Nelson.” The biography tells a story that might easily be transformed into the plot of one of the semi-obscure hard-boiled writers Nelson admired so much, a tale out of David Goodis, say, or Horace McCoy. It’s the story of a man who loved a certain kind of music, literature, and movie with a passion that eventually overtook his life. Nelson was a romantic, and prized tales of loners, misfits, and rebels. Whether it was Zevon’s song “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” the Lew Archer detective novels about missing children and bad parents, or the sere Westerns of Howard Hawks, Nelson prized above all portraits of men who performed with grace under pressure, who pursued doomed love affairs, who held themselves apart from society as independent agents even when what they really were were high-functioning hermits. So it was with Nelson. His greatest influence and activity occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s. In a 1976 Village Voice essay entitled “Yes, There Is a Rock Critic Establishment, But Is That Good for Rock?,” Robert Christgau named the Establishment’s core quintet: John Rockwell, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, Nelson, and Christgau himself. All but Nelson continue to have active careers; Nelson, however, became, in a Graham Greene phrase Nelson himself used too frequently, a “burnt-out case”: His taste and standards of excellence became so circumscribed, his natural inclination to hole up in his small, rent-controlled, pack-rat Upper West Side apartment re-watching old movies and re-reading The Great Gatsby and thrillers so self-seductive, that he slowly slipped away from the world. Eventually, Nelson took a job behind the counter of Greenwich Village’s Evergreen Video store to make a bit of money; he pretty much ceased writing, and abandoned keeping up with new music. When he died, he was indigent and malnourished. Does this sound like not the sort of book you’d give as a cheery Christmas present? Perhaps, but you’d be wrong: This volume is exhilarating. Avery tells with great energy Nelson’s tale, with copious details about the active period of his subject’s life, and in so doing... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Following the death of Jerry Leiber (see David Lehman’s fine tribute below) comes the news that another half of another fine songwriting team – Nick Ashford of Ashford and Simpson – has died, at age 70. While I would never claim that Ashford and Simpson’s body of work is nearly as important as Leiber and Stoller's (the latter remained unequalled until Lennon-McCartney for the range and ambition of their pop songs), Ashford and Simpson made some very beautiful music together. Early on in its career, the husband-and-wife team wrote hits for other duos, most notably Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was one early summit; “Ain’t Nothin’ Like The Real Thing” was even better). As performers and producers as well as songwriters in the 1970s, Ashford and Simpson recorded a series of albums that presented something distinctive: a portrait of a classy, upwardly-mobile couple in love – with each other, and with success. Never smug, never taking love or material gain for granted, they were politely adventurous (no other classy duo coming out of the 1960s would have recorded an unironic instrumental called “Bourgie, Bourgie”) and extravagantly soulful on hits such as “Send It,” “Is It Still Good To Ya,” "By Way of Love's Express," and “Solid.” Nick Ashford – tall, debonair, dashingly handsome – was a songwriter born to be a front-man. His skill and gracefulness were rare. Continue reading
Posted Aug 23, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Gladys Horton, one of the lead singers for the Marvelettes, has died. It’s a measure of how little respect this great girl-group has been given that The New York Times obituary of Horton had to resort to many hedges due to a lack of outside scholarship about the group. Horton was either 64 or 65 when she died; she was born either in Inkster, Michigan, or Gainesville, Florida; the Marvelettes broke up either “in the late 1960s or early 1970s.” Sigh. I think we know the exact moment the Beatles broke up, and the precise moment Dylan “went electric,” don’t we? The Marvelettes will always be obscured by other acts on the Motown label starting with the Supremes. But they released a string of singles that are exceptional examples of girl-group soul. Their tight harmonies, no-nonsense phrasing, and lack of melodramatic flourishes may actually have worked against them, as did their talent for putting across a novelty song such as (the Marvin Gaye-written) “Beechwood 4-5789” as skillfully as they did more poetic work such as Smokey Robinson’s extraordinary “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.” Horton didn’t sing lead on that last song, but she did on the group’s biggest hit, “Please Mr. Postman,” and one of the Marvelettes’ trickiest, wittiest performances, “Too Many Fish In The Sea.” “I don’t want nobody that don’t want me,” sang Horton on that song. The firm decisiveness is in the lyric written by Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland, to be sure. But it wouldn’t be half as effective had Horton not sung the sentiment with such a whiplash sting, flicking each consonant at the listener as though she wanted to commingle pain with your pleasure. She was a fine, fine vocalist, and you’d do well to track down a copy of The Marvelettes: Anthology, the best showcase for the group’s work, a short history of soul music across 28 tracks, concluding with the superbly punctuated song title, “A Breath Taking Guy.” Every breath Horton took on these hit singles was a strong one Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Newsweek has already hailed Howl as "a great film," which is exactly what it is not. Now, a great performance -- that's more like it. James Franco (above, right) captures the Allen Ginsberg we hear in our heads and know in our bones. The actor lowers or raises his diaphragm and pitch to achieve Ginsberg's soul-vibrating chant-recitations of the movie's title poem. Franco never once relies on his own crinkly-eyed smile to charm or wink at his audience. Instead, he looks at the camera with Ginsberg's cock-eyed, moist deadpan, or reproduces the Elated Allen Grin -- an ear-to-ear face-splitter that can vanish in an instant. Howl is a sentimental disappointment whenever Franco isn't front-and-center. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman can justify the animation sequences by Eric Drooker by saying that Ginsberg himself collaborated with Drooker, but that doesn't make the cartoon sequences any less maudlin. As for the restaging of the Howl obscenity trial, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn give good, understated performances in search of dramatic reinforcement: They're reduced to reciting court transcript, staged with all the immobility of a grade-school pageant. No, at bottom, Howl will survive most usefully when some adroit techno-lit-phile inevitably recuts the film as a YouTube video consisting solely of Franco's recitation of "Howl." Maybe with a split-screen of Ginsberg own readings. "Great YouTube video" doesn't have the same ring as "great film" (yet). But it's truer to the spirit of both Ginsberg's great poem and Franco's great homage to it. --Ken Tucker Continue reading
Posted Sep 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Kyra Sedgwick, what the hell? Connie Britton, you were robbed, football muse. Continue reading
Posted Aug 31, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
MAD MEN II Peggy peeks into Don's office sees his despair No schadenfreude, kid Continue reading
Posted Aug 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
MAD MEN Betty slaps Sally Children are playing outside Don drinks in the pain EMMY AWARDS THIS WEEKEND Jane Lynch will win prize Great glee splurge through cameras If Conan wins, too Continue reading
Posted Aug 27, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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My mother died a few years ago. I’ve discovered what many people already know: that you can’t predict how you’ll remember someone after she or he is gone, what memories will bob to the surface again and again.I’ve found that I’m frequently reminded of my mother just before or after I read a book. As I was growing up, my mother was the reader in the family. The only books in the house were my mother’s, and they were almost exclusively mysteries: Ellery Queen, Rex Stout,and John Dickson Carr (and Carter Dickson) were favorites. Kids imitate their parents, and so I spent many pre-teen and adolescent years alternating whatever books I was reading for school, before I developed stronger reading preferences of my own, devouring the adventures of Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, and Gideon Fell. My mother had a difficult marriage. What a coincidence: I had a difficult father. For her, I’m sure these books were escapes, and they overlapped with her fondness for puzzles. (She also did the Times crossword puzzle every day of the week.) Sometimes I’ll be in a library or a used bookstore and see the exact edition of a copy of, say, The Roman Hat Mystery or Too Many Cooks that my mother read, and I’ll be so overcome with emotion that I’ll have to hide in the stacks for a moment. I can picture my mother in so many different times and settings, thoroughly absorbed in reading, unaware of my gaze. Or maybe she was. Wanting to know what my mom was so interested in: That’s as good a reason as any to become a reader and a writer. Thanks, Mom. Continue reading
Posted May 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Bill Murray reads poetry while wearing a hard-hat: Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I urge you to watch tonight’s episode of Breaking Bad, which finds Bryan Cranston’s Walter White adjusting to the dissolution of his marriage while declining to abandon one big reason it dissolved: He still wants/needs to make meth to pay the bills. He goes to a new location to ply his chemistry-teacher skills and acquires a new assistant, played by David Costabile (the scruffy villain from last season’s Damages, among many other credits). New Assistant finds it comforting to quote Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer” to justify his illegal, and let’s face it, immoral ways to God and to himself. Cut to our Walt sitting in his new cheap apartment, a copy of Leaves of Grass on his lap, poring over the pages silently. It’s a terrific moment in a terrific new season of Breaking Bad, which digs deeper, with each succeeding episode into questions of what makes a man or woman “bad,” what needs to be done to protect one’s loved ones, and constantly asks the viewer: “How far would you go? Not here, you say? You’re lying to yourself, then.” Breaking Bad airs on AMC, home of Mad Men, which returns with a new season in July, it was announced earlier this week. Me, I can easily await MM when there are new hours of Breaking Bad to watch. The two shows could not be more different. If Mad Men is a novel of manners for TV (John O’Hara meets Louis Auchincloss in Updike/Cheeverville), Breaking Bad is working thriller territory mapped out by the likes of Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Jonathan Latimer. It’s lean and mean (a cop takes an axe to the back of the head in the opening minutes tonight), but thanks to the inspiration of creator Vince Gilligan to insert a middle-class nebbish into the role usually occupied by the cynical sharpie in most thrillers, it never lets ordinary folks like you or I to step back and say, “Oh, I’d never do that.” Breaking Bad is all about what you’d do if you were desperate enough. “And from time to time,” as Whitman writes, the show makes sure that you have “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,” contemplating the full measure fate. --Ken Tucker Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Not content to daydream about the scenarios in which you'd like to place your favorite characters from Mad Men? Bored waiting for the new season to begin? Play with dolls. Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls of Don and Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, and Joan Holloway. (That last one isn't really fair, since Christina Hendricks is a living doll, isn't she?) Mattel is releasing what it calls a "Mad Men Barbie Collector doll collection," and even the redundancy within that phrase cannot prevent it from sounding like an unholy cross between John Fowles and Thomas Harris. The limited-edition collection has a "suggested retail price of $74.95." I'd like to think I haven't been contemplating buying them... but then I realized I'd read no fewer than seven different news items about these toys trying to figure out whether Mattel meant 75 bucks for one doll or all four. (I think they mean the set.) I admire Betty's impeccable housewife finery even as I know the Betty we saw at the end of last season is rebelling against just such stereotyping. (Mattel should be offering an alternate Betty in a horse-riding outfit, complete with crop.) And the more I stare at the men, I think they should switch suits; wouldn't Roger be wearing gray, and Don the black? As for Joan, well, she puts the lie to the old complaint that Barbie's measurements are unrealistic. Are you tempted? Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
The death of singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle, at age 63 on Jan. 18 of clear-cell sarcoma, is an awful loss. As recently as Dec. 9 of the year past, she performed with her sister Anna and her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright -- one of the annual "family Christmas" shows that the McGarrigles and the Wainwrights liked to put on, this one at the Royal Albert Hall in London but more frequently at Carnegie Hall in New York.Her debut album with her sister, entitled Kate and Anna McGarrigle, was released in 1976. It set the template for every album they recorded: folk music influenced by pop and country, filtered through their French-Canadian Quebec upbringing. The stark, often staggering beauty of their harmonies could not hide the fact that Kate and Anna were always playful misanthropes, capable of sarcasm, bitterness, and a detachment that allowed Kate, in a song on their second album, Dancer With Bruised Knees (1977), to gaze down upon her infant son and sing, "Some of them make it, some of them don't." This is one of my favorite McGarrigles performances, Kate singing her "I Eat Dinner": Kate -- sitting behind her piano, exchanging unknowable glances with her sister as they sang -- made music unafraid that its often soft tone would be mistaken for passivity. This sister-team recorded songs with such astringent precision, it's no wonder it took other performers, with more lush voices and arrangements, to make hits of the McGarrigles' songs (Linda Ronstadt, "Heart Like A Wheel"; Maria Muldaur, "Work Song"). Kate took long periods off from recording to raise the family she had with the great singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. They divorced 1976, and Loudon wrote some memorable songs about their relationship, including "Red Guitar," in which he recounts destroying a cherished guitar in a drunken rage. The song peaks with the line, "Kate, she said, 'You are a fool, you've done a foolish thing.'" Wainwright recorded Kate's "Come A Long Way" as a rueful salute to their marriage; when Kate and Anna got around to recording it four years later, the song was transformed into a testament of self-reliance. I fear I've made Kate McGarrigle sound grave and severe, living a stoic life in cold Canada. In fact, she had a wicked sense of humor and a great playfulness about her. Once when I interviewed her, she reminded me that I'd once described Kate and Anna in print as "the Bronte sisters with mittens." "We laughed and laughed" when they read that, she said. Firm, funny, realistic, and independent, Kate McGarrigle was certainly a wonderful musician, and she seemed like a wonderful person. Continue reading
Posted Jan 20, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Elvis Presley was born 75 years ago yesterday. As the terrific musician Patterson Hood wrote yesterday, his birth is the date the celebrate, not the anniversary of his death, since, among other reasons, "Pat Boone's daughter had the #1 record in the land the day Elvis died with 'You Light Up My Life,' so Rock and Roll wasn't much healthier than Elvis was then." It's impossible to pick a greatest-Elvis moment, of course, so I'll just give you one of mine, from his brutally great 1968 concert. The poetry occurs about 1:45 into this video, when Elvis cannot bear the beat of the music inside him and rises up from his chair to shake it loose from his soul (and his booty) for a second: Continue reading
Posted Jan 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
This past Wednesday, The Poetry Project hosted a "Tony Towle at 70" celebration. Towle, to my mind the New York School's most distinctive lyric poet, was well-served by the procession of poets who saluted him, preceding his own reading. One of my heroes, Ron Padgett (a white popsicle-stick of serious whimsy), and the finely meticulous poet Jo Ann Wasserman each read separate selections from Towle's Memoir 1960-1963. Anne Waldman shook a bit more of the flaky plaster loose from the ceiling, while Bob Hershon worked the crowd (and it was indeed a crowd) like a savvy tummler. Nine poets in all read some of their favorite Towle poems or prose. After them, Towle himself read, his reedy yet surging voice delivering a superb selection of some of his poetry, the dartingly vivid work of a lifetime spent considering the most precise yet offhand way of describing historical figures, the weather, the seasons, the various skylines of New York, and the conversations of friends, rivals, and those who would bring sadness into the world. He read "On His Name": Wandering, shipwrecked on a shoal and running into Robert Lowell I introduced myself: “Tony Towle,” I said, “we met briefly some years ago at a party in your home; we have differences in style and sensibility but a general goal, to distill from the distraction and trouble of life as a whole what we think of literary interest, before interment in the loam.” He replied that that was not his role, that he preferred not to speak, since it was not his poem, and the conversation broke off near the knoll’s island foam. Towle told the audience he once tried to get a copy of this poem to Lowell but wasn't successful. Then with typical modesty, he added, "I don't think he would have enjoyed it, anyway." It was one of many peaks of pleasure in a vibrant evening. Happy birthday, Mr. Towle. Continue reading
Posted Dec 3, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
• Early on, Pete cuts off wife Trudy's questions by snapping, "Trudy, stop it with the Ellery Queen." Ellery Queen was, of course, the fictional detective and pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, author/star of over 20 novels and at the time of Pete's remark, probably the most well-known American detective character this side of Nero Wolfe. Two Queen mystery titles could serve as alternative-titles for this Mad Men episode: Calamity Town and The Devil To Pay. • It was nice to see news footage other than the usual Walter Cronkite-voice-breaking moment on CBS in reporting JFK's assassination. Chet Huntley was shown leading NBC's coverage with as assist from Frank McGee and a man caught in the middle: Bill Ryan, a local WNBC news anchor in New York who would have been doing the local news at the time the news broke. Look again and you’ll see McGee on this phone with a "Robert" who’s on the scene in Dallas: That’s Robert MacNeill, who’d later co-host The MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. • Finally, the episode’s closing-credits music was Skeeter Davis's shattering 1963 hit "The End of the World." Davis was a Kentucky-born country singer who achieved cross-over pop stardom with this song, produced by Chet Atkins. While the title of the song was appropriate for the plot of this week’s Mad Men – so many characters feeling that the world was ending with the death of a young, inspiring President – the lyrics Davis sings after the music faded out last night, unheard by the TV audience, are particularly apt for stark moment when Betty told Don she didn't love him anymore: "Why do the birds go on singing/Why do the stars shine above/Don’t they know it’s the end of the world/It ended when I lost your love." --Ken Tucker Continue reading
Posted Nov 2, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, everyone--made those corrections. (Sometimes I still think of Jared Padalecki as Dean from Gilmore Girls--duh.) Happy Supernaturalizing!
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Mr. Phillips--you're right: Hader's Malkovich was very good & I shd have mentioned it. Done. Thanks.
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Really, really funny... because, as they say, it's true. Thank you, Whitney.
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AJ--You're right: Larry, not Henry. Got my names-ending-in-"ry" confused. Thanks!
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