Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Here's to You, Lou

Courtesy of Santi Slade and Zander Abranowicz
There is a point in every music lover’s life when things get ugly. Dissonance, atonality and heavy, dirty subject matter assault your ears and your precious illusion that all music is supposed to sound nice and pretty and easy to dance to. It’s how you react to this challenging aesthetic that defines your relationship with music: Stick with the old for the comfort you see as its mission to provide, or sneak toward this abrasive yet alluring New?

More than anyone over the past half century, Lou Reed, who passed away Sunday at the too-young age of 71 years, turned us onto this other side of music. Before him stands Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and in his wake, we have Johnny Rotten and Tom Waits. Sometimes I would rather listen to Waits than The Velvet Underground, the immortal rock band Reed fronted with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. Hell, most of the time I’d take “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “Get Lucky” over the both of them. But I love Lou Reed most of all for exposing me and so many others to music’s oft-guarded potential as art, and for making that discovery so immediate, delirious and fun.

It was mid-2006. My family had lived in Weston, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, for about a year, with the three-part crescendo of Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Wilma still on our minds. Put it on our storm shutters, luck or my privileged naivety, but the storms didn’t bother me too much. In fact, they brought on a sort of rush, an awareness of the world’s capabilities for entropic destruction cushioned by the sense that this awareness was always on the cusp of my knowing. In some perverse way, bearing first-hand witness to nature’s fiercest work affirmed a long-dormant feeling that the world was unpredictable and strong and violent. It was the perfect time to discover The Velvet Underground.

Rolling Stone had recently republished “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in book form, and for all the complaints I charge that list with today (No Pixies or Radiohead in the Top 100? No Guided by Voices at all?), it was a perfect primer for middle school me. Before I flipped to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, what caught my eye was Andy Warhol’s taunting cover art for The Velvet Underground & Nico. “The Velvet Underground … ‘heroin’ … hmmm … this does not look like it should have a banana on it.” And so the art of irony entered my life, where it has stayed. When I biked over to the library to check out this album and burn it on my dad’s computer — six stars, GTA-style — I was riding some waves, let me tell you. All that before I even listened to a song.

What can I say about the music? It threw me off, at first, as the delicate xylophone from “Sunday Morning” came in and I thought, shit, this might actually be some kiddie music with a stupid banana on it. But if The Velvet Underground teaches you anything, it teaches you patience: just relax, the music will sort itself out and, if it doesn’t, you better sort yourself out, man. Layers of instruments and reverb coat this psychedelic track, lulling you into comfy complacency until — DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA. Are those pianos? Really? I’ve heard of the Wall of Sound but this thing is a freight train. The aggressive opening to “I’m Waiting for the Man” throws you for a loop before Reed’s unflappable voice comes in, as he sings about the “26 dollars in my hand” to buy smack from an “always late” dealer who “wore shoes and a big straw hat.” What a delicious look at the grit of not just drugs but of the New York from Midnight Cowboy. Reed embodied in his fashion, character and art the spirit of Gotham you can’t touch today. Bless Laurie Anderson — Reed’s wife and a respected artist of her own — for sticking with him.

His music felt too close for comfort, as if it violated your conceptions of how the medium that gave us Schubert’s “Ave Maria” was supposed to work. It’s life-changing stuff. “Heroin,” the centerpiece on The Velvet Underground & Nico, slunk in and scratched at my core. Here is a song that lets melody drop in and out, fall out of sync with rhythm and just push ahead into pure chaos. It hits you in the gut with lived-in experience, with the sensations of heroin use that Reed and Cale were gracious enough to convey through music so some suburban kid can hear and feel how the other half lives (I don’t think that was their intention). Reed’s cool “Ha!” after “When the heroin is in my blood” in the last verse always haunted me the most, as I realized that this was not some P.S.A. about the ills of drugs. He let us know he enjoyed what he did, even as it ravaged him with the fury of Cale’s screeching electric viola.

To rattle off a few other Reed masterpieces: “White Light/White Heat,” which presaged The Stooges and all of punk; “Sister Ray,” a 17-minute opus where organ solos sound like amp feedback and vice versa; “Sweet Jane,” where, out of nowhere, he sexes up the bourgeoisie; “Walk on the Wild Side,” a sparse, spacy ditty that sounds to me like what e.e. cummings would make if he was a rock star; “Satellite of Love,” where he recognizes his voice is so smooth that he pretty much just talks the lyrics, leaving David Bowie to do the belting. Then you have Berlin, a rough, sad rock opera that has long fought for recognition; Metal Machine Music, over an hour of just noise; and Lulu, his loathsome collaboration with Metallica, where you can hardly hear his voice.

Lou Reed may not have been at the peak of his career when he passed but I always loved how he still managed to so relentlessly troll the scene. He was pure id, although he sure had one big ego. “It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever. It could create another planetary system. I’m not joking, and I’m not being egotistical,” Reed said in regards to Lulu.

What an asshole. But we nearly bought it, now didn’t we? After all, he promised nothing that he did not already deliver before.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Filthy, Brilliant Back Alleys of Twitter

Facebook and Twitter. Say it out loud: Facebook and Twitter. Twitter and Facebook. Status updates, news feeds, retweets, social media ... There was once a time when these words had a spark of potency to them, before Buzzfeed, IPOs and the Fox News Deck. We too easily conflate Facebook with Twitter, or at least bunch them together in the same headline (“The Anti-Social Social Network??”). But while Facebook deserves censure for its ever-growing string of privacy concerns and unwavering intellectual vacuity, Twitter is too rarely celebrated for what it has revealed itself to be: A platform for a new, bizarre and brilliant form of literature.

Granted, if you just follow your friends, One Direction fans and celebrity “parody” accounts (“FillWerrell” is the worst), you have yet to leave the Facebook ghetto, or are stuck on an even more insipid avenue all your own. Of course, many of my friends at Cornell and back home maintain honest and entertaining Twitter accounts — that goes without saying. They join the wider band of users I follow, and not the other way around. Aside my friends’ often very earnest updates (usually about appreciating life, weather, etc., or stressing over work), I find the topical, capsuled comedy of Stephen Colbert, the metropolitan musings of Ezra Koenig, the inspiring cinephilia of Richard Brody, the gaming know-all of Jeff Gerstmann and the “weird, sexual, anti-comedy comedy” of Megan Amram.

It’s that last one that I would like to talk about. Amram’s off-kilter brand of humor caught my eye early on (I’ve had a Twitter since 2009, which is apparently a long time). From “Anyone who doesn’t request unlimited salad and breadsticks as their last meal is an idiot” to “Guys be honest how raven am I,” her style is about one part removed from the typical stand-up one-liner, and mostly in step with the alternative comedy sensibility practiced by Zach Galifianakis, who also once teased the grammar of That’s So Raven in his set. She landed a writing gig on Parks and Recreation from the strength of her tweets, which feed off millennial references and ironic turns of phrase to appeal to a predominantly college-aged demographic.

Amram still deserves to be ranked with the best of Twitter today, yet it is down the back alleys leading from her work where you can find the most ingenious and subversive comics on the web. An acquaintance from my early high school gaming days, @piss_wizard posts like crazy (he broached 97,000 tweets recently) on anything that passes his mind, from the crappy politics of his native U.K. and the U.S. to delirious pop culture mash-ups like “banjo kazooey deschanel.” This mad stream-of-consciousness approach to tweeting finds seasoned practitioners in @othersome and @jitka, as well. On fleeting occasions, I have interacted with these accounts and have found them to be smart, unusually self-aware young guys (one of them is a Cornell alum) who circumvent the corporate political correctness of Twitter by trolling it with apolitical, stupidly funny non sequitirs. “@tomhanks happy hanksgiving,” read an @othersome tweet you know he waited weeks until Thanksgiving to send, while @piss_wizard tweeted to the Pope, “@Pontifex when is half life 3 coming out.” And when the cool mode of irony doesn’t suit the occasion, a concise though fervent rant will do, as @jitka made clear early last year: “shut up about bacon. bacon is good but just shut up about it already please. it's just bacon. it's literally just bacon”

You may notice the lack of proper capitalization, punctuation and spelling in these tweets, which is about an aesthetic requirement for this school of humor. Some bloggers have referred to this body of jokesters as “Weird Twitter,” which I guess is about the right name if you had to pick one. But while the tweets may look similarly ‘broken,’ it must be emphasized that “Weird Twitter” is a simple label for a very diverse pool of comedy. Some of these masters exclaim all-caps epiphanies (@rare_basement: IMAGINE IF JAMES JOYCE COULD SEXT) while others impart narrative poetry so subtle they should be considered [hilarious] works of art (@UtilityLimb: it's sad thinking of all the dogs in old movies that have died, but even sadder thinking of the earth we fled because of the dogs that can't”). Some make light of (and truly love) gaming culture (@wolfpupy: burn your enemies and take the gems they drop) while others prefer to riff on film or music, like @ingmarbirdman or The Mountain Goats’ own John Darnielle, who I consider an honorary member of Weird Twitter, with his standout contribution: “When my Citizen Kane moment comes I’m pretty sure I’m gonna say ‘Nerds Rope.’” Like I said, millennial humor, even for a 46-year-old man.

Weird Twitter (not a phrase I love, but it’s easy shorthand) works so beautifully because it recognizes that the utopian pitch for Twitter, and all social networks, to make the world a more connected, knowledgeable place is B.S. Twitter secured its staying power once WalMart realized it could sell more stuff with this thing. With that acute awareness of how the Internet, and thus the 21st century, works, this ragged band of comics spews both its jaded contempt and sincere awe for the world around at or under 140 characters apiece. Ironically, doing so has fulfilled the site’s idealistic goal and united these provocateurs as they stake out a new avant-garde form of Twitter-based comedy. Leave it to @dril — a cross between Bukowski and 4Chan, and surely the greatest Twitterer today — to sum up the profound and irreverent grace of the medium: “sometimes i gaze towards the beautiful endless sky and wish that i was a bird. so that i could piss and shit out of the same hole.”

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Decasia & Just Ancient Loops Review

Released in 2002
Just Ancient Loops
Released in 2012
Directed by Bill Morrison

What a pretty mess.

Whatever your feelings on Bill Morrison’s Decasia and Just Ancient Loops, two experimental films Cornell Cinema screened at Sage Chapel Tuesday evening, you should agree that this pithy assessment of mine approaches some objective, albeit cursory, truth. For Morrison’s work discovers a beauty in what most would consider ugly, nonnegotiable trash: destroyed and/or decomposing celluloid film stock from the ancient, lesser-known annals of silent cinema. By assembling these clips together and asking us to find meaning in their perceived deficiencies, Morrison works in a most peculiar mode of the “found footage” form. These decrepit moving images take on new life, paradoxically, through the invasion of decaying, dying elements. It is an awesome, sometimes startling and often maddening experience.

I say “maddening” knowing that that was partly Morrison’s intent. Why else would he commission Michael Gordon to compose a score for Decasia where the orchestra plays out-of-tune, in repetitious and shrill drones? As an admirer of Philip Glass and current experimental electronic acts like Oneohtrix Point Never, I am totally on board with cyclical, stubbornly non-harmonic music styles. Yet Gordon’s soundtrack does not traverse as wide a range as it should in a film with such cryptic, alien images, instead climbing up to the higher registers early on and just staying there, wailing almost the entire time. Pairing these sounds with the film makes for a somewhat suffocating experience, piquing anxiety at times when the images provoke free-floating curiosity. Perhaps I am overly irritable, or maybe the Sage Chapel’s speakers were too loud, but it narrowed my perspective on Morrison’s work.

At the time, at least. Reflecting on what Morrison actually did, on the ineffable tinge of Decasia’s exploration of life and death — how art, at least film art, suffers corporeal violence in the same way humans do, yet how it can potentially better from it — I find it impossible not to be moved. Some of these shots just stay with you. An expressionless boxer punches at a stream of eaten-up nitrocellulose, unknowingly battling a force more powerful and eternal than the human opponent it replaced. White wisps of liquefied chemicals tear at the face of man and, later, a hook-nosed woman, resembling an effect similar to the Dementor’s kiss in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or Stephen Gammell’s infamous illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Intensified film grain mingles with the ants crawling about a tight macro shot, confusing the identity of each. Extreme reversals in contrast render Mary Pickford, America’s golden girl, into a maniacal, glowing beast, and a sunny cloister into a nightmarish vision that could have been pulled from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

I mention other films and movie stars, old and new, because I believe Morrison operates in that referential, meta-cinematic mode. Bookended by a shot of a whirling dervish, Decasia obsesses over movement — some of it chaotic, but most of it rotational, like a projecting film reel. Mechanical movement meets an arc light to create life, or recreate it, or, better yet, to revive it, as the subjects in these 100-year-old clips take back that energy robbed by the grave. Rather than obliterate meaning and function like a magnet to a computer hard drive, the deterioration of film stock amplifies backgrounds, hides protagonists, quite literally pulls apart human emotions and provokes them anew through the most abstract forms, like frame-filling black and white blotches that become, on their own, lyrical films in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Morrison probably wants you to support film preservation after seeing how time and poor conditions ravage celluloid, but the unfamiliarity of most of the source material (culled from University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections, by the way) just fascinated me more, encouraging my mind to go wild with associations. Whether he intended to or not, Morrison created quite a decadent Rorschach test for cinephiles.

I neglect to comment on Just Ancient Loops, Morrison’s most recent effort, which premiered just last year (compared to the original 2002 release of Decasia, his most famous work). Running 26 minutes compared to Decasia’s 70, Just Ancient Loops concerns itself with a more explicit spirituality and the way we visualize such unknowable, unseeable divinity. Ancient cinematic reenactments of Jesus’ resurrection (they look hand-painted, so we’re talking like 110 years back) coexist with clips of jungles, roller coasters and a playful moon. The most jarring sequence comes as the film’s most serene: a CGI scale modeling of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, with the perspective swooping back to dwarf each orbiting rock against the gaseous giant behind it. This goes on for a couple of  minutes, and I may have checked my watch at least once during that duration, but I look back and think to myself: Man, even if this all doesn’t make sense, isn’t fleeting boredom via a visionary artist’s exploration of the cosmos a beautiful problem to have?

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Breaking Bad's Top 10 Episodes

*Co-written with one of my editors at The Sun, Sam Bromer, whose excellent work is designated by an asterisk*

Well, we’ve made it one week so far, and, from the looks of it, we’re going to be just fine in a world without more Breaking Bad. That being said, The Sun would like to offer one final feature on what pretty much everyone has canonized as one of the greatest television shows of all time. Breaking Bad was stellar from start to finish, but, like any show of this caliber, there were some episodes that approached something close to perfection. Below, you can check out the 10 episodes we ranked above the rest. It’s an impossible task that will piss off fans no matter what (“Where’s ‘One Minute’?” ‘Felina’?!), yet we hope you’ll revisit these episodes when you have some free time on your hands or, better yet, when you don’t.

1. Phoenix (Season 2, Episode 12)
Our number one pick does not boast the kickass firepower of “Face Off” nor the perfect dramatic unity of “Fly” or “4 Days Out.” Indeed, the one where Jane dies is very typical, in action and narrative structure. What it does do better than any other episode, however, and through the most moving, startling ways, is come to grips with what makes Walt tick. From Walt beaming as he shows newborn Holly the stacks of cash hidden in the garage to his look of wounded pride when Walter Jr. posts a charity site for his father’s cancer, money — for, and within, the family — appears to be Walt’s motivating factor. But things complicate when Jesse and his girlfriend Jane blackmail Walt for Jesse’s cut. Walt standing over Jane’s asphyxiating body, allowing her to die, is horrible enough, yet it arrives just moments after, by mere chance, he runs into Jane’s father at a bar, where they talk about the difficulties of “family” and how “You can’t give up on them.” Money sets the pieces in place while one man’s selfish need for control assumes the truest power. “Phoenix” is the turning point of the series, as well as a perfect microcosm of all Vince Gilligan was going for. And it is devastating.

2. Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)*
No, the episode named by dozens of critics, thousands of IMDB users and even Vince Gilligan himself as the best episode of the series is not our number one pick. But that does not mean it is unworthy of the heap of praise it has received: “Ozymandias” is Breaking Bad at its most thrilling, its most powerful — and its most sickening. From the moment Walt’s “shattered visage lies, half-sunk” in the sands of To’hajiilee, it is clear he, and by extension, we, have turned a dark corner; as the AV Club’s Donna Bowman succinctly points out, the Spaghetti Western vibe of Breaking Bad’s highly stylized previous episode devolves into a veritable “horror show.”
Unsurprisingly, Bryan Cranston is at his absolute best in “Ozymandias.” As the empire he has built is reduced to rubble, with nothing remaining but a solitary barrel of cash, Cranston earns his accolades, presenting both the frantic desperation of a man trying to salvage something from nothing and the chaos of two personalities clashing into one. Even as he rats out his former partner, kidnaps his own daughter and threatens his wife over the phone (albeit to ostensibly help her), it is disconcertingly difficult not to feel sympathy for Walter.
“Ozymandias” works breathtakingly well on all levels; as a character study, as a thrilling climax and as a perfect nightmare scenario, where our greatest fears for these characters, spurred from the earliest moments of this series, become a reality.

 3. 4 Days Out (Season 2, Episode 9)
This bottle episode (an episode filmed on mostly one set and a limited budget) is impossible not to love. After discovering what he thinks is a ghastly tumor on his x-ray, Walt recruits Jesse to cook one last batch of meth, far out in the boonies. What starts as brilliant comedy — Jesse lectures Walt on artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “She does these vagina pictures” — nosedives into survivalist horror, when the RV’s battery explodes and Jesse pitches all their water on its fire. Walt nearly gives up hope and accepts death, which is right around the corner for him anyway. It takes Jesse’s persistence to shake Walt out of it, plus a great line where Jesse declares with confidence that “wire” is a chemical element. Things get back onto track … until Walt receives his x-ray results back: He’s clear, in remission. After hugging and crying with his family, Walt retreats to the bathroom, where he beats a paper towel dispenser to shit. He already accepted death and evil in his life, and without one, he’s destined to succumb to the other.

4. Fly (Season 3, Episode 10)*
Thank God for budget constraints. Like “4 Days Out,” “Fly,” the acclaimed and largely self-contained masterpiece from Breaking Bad’s third season is a bottle episode. On a functional level, its plot adds little to the overall story arc, and if you’re looking for tense gunfights or nursing home explosions, look elsewhere. Yet, as a singular allegory for Jesse and Walt’s mercurial relationship, a darkly comic exploration of the forces at work in Breaking Bad’s universe, “Fly” is unmatched. In the episode, Walt, suffering from insomnia and paranoia, becomes fixated on finding and killing a fly that is “contaminating” the lab.  At the heart of this tale, whose sensibility lies somewhere between the obsession of Moby Dick and and the absurdist slapstick of Waiting for Godot, is a monologue delivered by Walt in another of Cranston’s finest hours. “My God,” he exclaims, “the universe is random, it’s not inevitable, it’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?” Unable to resolve the existence of justice in a disordered universe, he gives up trying. As he defeatedly tells Jesse just before the episode’s close, “It’s all contaminated.”

5. Better Call Saul (Season 2, Episode 8)
As a sign of the show’s many layers of greatness, Breaking Bad’s funniest episode is also one of its most cinematically ambitious. It opens with a single long shot of a lanky dude coercing Badger into selling him some meth. When that dude turns out to be a DEA agent and the deal a bust, you realize that long shot was probably a camera in a surveillance van across the street. Brilliant! The introduction of everyone’s favorite bus-stop lawyer, Saul Goodman, produces some of the series’ most memorable lines (“Faith and begorrah! A fellow potato eater!”) and leads to a criminal-for-hire taking the fall for Heisenberg — but only after everything goes wrong. It’s as rigorously edited a sequence as any meth-making or prison-shanking montage, and a million times more hilarious.

6. Crawl Space (Season 4, Episode 11)*
A single moment alone justifies this episode’s inclusion on any Top 10 list. In case you can’t remember the iconic moment to which we refer, here’s a refresher: Walter enters the crawl space for which this episode is named, expecting to find the money he needs to escape Gus Fring with the vacuum man. Instead, he finds an empty basement. Panicked, he begs Skylar to explain where the cash has gone, and she tells him, in a tone of measured terror, that she has given it to Ted. Walter, beginning to lose track of his sanity, breaks down. as the camera pans out, framing Walt in a coffin of his own misdeeds, he laughs maniacally. All the while, the sounds of mechanical feedback echo as the only sound in a void. There is only terror — then the credits roll.
Oh, and the rest of the episode works well, too.

7. Madrigal (Season 5, Episode 2)
Better than “Box Cutter”? “Dead Freight”? “Face Off”?! With its cocktail of tones, palettes and character moments, yes, “Madrigal” earns its rank. The cold open delivers a concentrated shot of delirium as a blank-eyed and silent German businessman taste-tests various condiments before committing suicide by automated external defibrillator. As a way to show the scope of Gus’ and Walt’s meth empire, the scene could not be more off-the-wall. From there, you get Jesse’s anguish over his “misplaced” ricin, Lydia’s horrifying pleas to Mike as he holds a gun to her head and Walt’s sickening bedroom abuse of Skyler. Good shows can live off dynamite set pieces and season finales, but only the greatest keep you riveted as the pieces are slowly put into place.

8. Face Off (Season 4, Episode 13)
First off, let us clarify that “Face Off” would be higher if not for the last scene’s Lily of the Valley reveal, which we buy but still consider a stretch. That being said … wow. Gus and Walt’s game of chess ends with a pawn, wheelchair-bound Tio Salamanca, taking out the mighty king. “Ding-BOOM,” read a card tacked onto the writers room’s board months before they wrote this episode, and we are grateful Gilligan and co. pulled all the stops to make it happen — even the ricin gambit, sure. But we most love Uncle Tio’s extended flip-off to the DEA, communicated one letter at a time, in order to lure Gus into Walt’s trap while ensuring he dies without becoming the most dreadful of creatures: a rat.

9. …And the Bag’s in the River (Season 1, Episode 3)*
Classic moments are scattered throughout this early episode, often marked by Breaking Bad aficionados — myself included — as the one that got them fixed on the series. Among these, two deserve “classic status” among the pantheon of great scenes. First, the cold open, where the camera switches off between Walt and Jesse struggling to choke back vomit as they clean the hydrochloric acid-soaked remains of Jesse’s former partner, and a younger Walt discussing the mysterious chemistry of the human body with Gretchen, then a fellow chemistry student. Second, a more simple, but equally powerful, scenario: Walter weighing the pros and cons of killing Krazy-8, a meth dealer who had previously attempted to kill him and Jesse.  The sole pro? “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” In a single scene, Cranston and the writers manage to encapsulate Walter’s constant justification for his actions: he must protect his family, and it is better they than he. As the show goes on, of course, Walt bastardizes this logic, letting, “I did it for family!” justify increasingly heinous actions. In doing so, he becomes the danger.

10. Dead Freight (Season 5, Episode 5)*
Breaking Bad has it all, as the above list has attempted to illustrate. From slapstick humor to mortal terror — and everything in between — the show manages to pay homage to several forms of art while paving a strikingly original path. In “Dead Freight,” Gilligan and Co. take on the caper. In fact, in the vein of the Westerns they so love to reference, the writers have Walter and his team pull off a train robbery. Of course, they do not go in guns blazin’ — though the murder of Drew Sharp provides an exception. No, Walter is smarter than that. In one of the most captivating exploits of the series, they use ingenuity (science, bitch!) to pull off their bold plan. It is a fine example of Bad’s flexibility, and a thoroughly entertaining watch from start to finish.

Honorable Mentions: “Over” (Season 2, Episode 10), “Box Cutter” (Season 4, Episode 1), “Gliding Over All” (Season 5, Episode 8), “Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12), “To’hajiilee” (Season 5, Episode 13)

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spongebob Hits Rock Bottom

Courtesy of Santi Slade
Spongebob deserves better. In this Age of Taking Television Seriously, no one has a problem writing thesis-length encomiums on The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood, etc., etc. I’m one of those — just yesterday I threw 1100-plus words at Breaking Bad’s finale, like everyone else. But where’s the love for Spongebob Squarepants? I know it’s a show you probably watched before your brain, like, worked, but creator Stephen Hillenburg is due for a retrospective or two. Worthy of the singular, self-contained TV episode pantheon that includes Bad’s “Fly,” The Sopranos’ “College” and Lost's “The Constant” is the Nickelodeon cartoon’s finest 12 minutes: “Rock Bottom.” Here is a cartoon that explores existentialism, race, quantum theory and linguistics — seriously.

For a show so rife with irreverent joy, I recall the dread that befell me watching this episode as a kid. When Patrick sees the sign, “You Are Now Leaving Bikini Bottom” he asks, as more than a few of us would, “Spongebob, where is ‘Leaving Bikini Bottom?’” For me, drifting away from home, without a plan or supervision, was a terrifying prospect. Patrick does not even register what the sign means, instead thinking it’s another part of his hometown. When they do hit Rock Bottom, a benthic community populated by anglerfish and eels with funny accents, they remark how different everything seems. Even the sand is different — it says so itself! I don’t think I’m stretching things when I say that, in “Rock Bottom,” Spongebob and Patrick leave the suburbs and find themselves in the ghetto.

And for a little sponge and a clueless starfish, the ghetto is a scary place. With their dinky, prophylactic-looking glove hats (what you discover watching cartoons when you’re older …), Spongebob and Patrick stay close to the bus stop where they arrived yet still fall victim to crippling disorientation, culture shock and fear. Spongebob, at least, tries to keep things together as Patrick’s mental state rapidly deteriorates. You should credit the episode’s disciplined writers Paul Tibbitt, Ennio Torresan and David Fain, then, for throwing in a deus ex machina and getting Patrick out of there, on a bus that materializes the second Spongebob leaves his side.

It’s almost as if the world conspires to screw over poor Spongebob, altering the very fabric of time and space to do so. One of the episode’s classic set pieces illustrates an absurdist, catch-22 scenario where Spongebob, hungry after waiting what seems like hours for the bus, discovers, across the road, a “Kandy” machine. Just a single vending machine, hovering there like a mirage or a tempting Siren. After looking down both stretches of the desolate, far-reaching road, he bolts over, checking the road every step, to buy a “kelp nougat crunch” bar. The second he reaches the machine, however, the bus pulls up, stops for a millisecond and leaves.  Spongebob discovers the impossibility of boarding when he reaches into the machine’s tray for a candy bar the moment a new bus arrives, only to pull his hand back out of the tray and watch the bus go backwards. In, out, in, out, forward, backward, forward, backward, like a DJ scratching a record. Spongebob reaches in to tap the candy bar and the bus’s engine purrs. It’s either the candy bar or the bus — or, in actuality, neither. What other children’s cartoon bases its sight gags on the paradoxes of the observer effect and Schrödinger’s cat?

Fed up with his no-win situation, Spongebob thinks a trip to the bus station will somehow solve his problems. He comes in huffing and puffing, yelling, “I’m first in line, and no one’s going to tell me otherwise!” Except the fish he cuts is a giant, moaning pufferfish. Naturally, he limps his way to spot 329. He can’t even hold on to that number for long once the fish in front of him lays an egg from which three clothed babies pop out, also apparently in need of assistance. When he finally reaches the counter, he modifies his accent, adding the requisite “pbbt” sound in between syllables when asking for the next bus. “The next bus leaves in *pbbt* five seconds,” the attendant deadpans. Tired and emasculated, Spongebob cannot find his way home even when conforming to this strange language.

Spongebob’s display of bravado does not hold up when the lights go out, plunging him into what he calls “advanced darkness.” His plan to stick out the night in the bus station is obliterated when that colloquial sound (it sounds like farting) echoes through the hall. He walks, runs and finally sprints away before crashing into a wall, when the anglerfish he met earlier greets him with the glove balloon he lost. The angler ends up giving Spongebob his ticket out, tying the balloon to his wrist, blowing some air into it and sending the confused sponge attached to it floating back to Bikini Bottom. Spongebob thanks the good Samaritan, “Thank *pbbt* you!” “You’re welcome,” a remarkably boring, accent-less voice replies. After all that uncertainty with language and fear of the dark (make of that word what you wish), Spongebob relies on the kindness of strangers to find his way back. The episode ends on a note of optimism and integration, not irrational terror at “the others” of the world.

Well, sort of. Spongebob does make his way back home, but the moment he arrives, his glove balloon pops. Speeding by in a bus, unable to see him, Patrick hollers, “Don’t worry, Spongebob, I’m coming back for ya!” The unbroken cycle of the Absurd commences once again, and this time without a balloon.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Felina" Review

Breaking Bad
Season 5, Episode 16
First run on September 29, 2013

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” — Hans Gruber, Die Hard

This quote often serves epigraph duty atop reviews of films and television shows because, let’s be honest, a lot of the protagonists we love are extraordinary men (and, for better or worse, they are men) who live for the struggle. They face a problem, set a goal and barrel so furiously towards it that when they reach that peak, they find it constraining, foreign, flavorless. Whatever motives they had at the outset have molded to this new self-centered, usually violent way of life. Donna Bowman of The AV Club cited the quote in her review of last year’s mid-season Breaking Bad finale, “Gliding Over All.” Back then, ages ago, Walter White realized his dreams of power, money and infamy with as smooth and lucrative a meth operation he was ever going to get. Yet he was exhausted with the monotony of his work and the emotional distance between him and every member of his family. A lot has happened since then, but that quote still applies.

It applies to us, more than anyone or anything else. How are you managing? “Felina,” the series clincher, ties up about every loose end and hits all the right notes. It’s about as perfect a finale any of us could hope for — perhaps too perfect. After all that change, all that bloodshed, all those montages and minerals, Vince Gilligan ends it all on a note of startling, almost uplifting finality. I want to give him either a standing ovation or a punch in the face. The latter more as a coping mechanism because, come on, does he expect Homeland to fill the gap he’s left us? But, on point, that last scene is beautiful, albeit hardly surprising. In contrast with his catatonia in “Gliding Over All,” here Walt greets that dingy meth lab — the remnants of his domain, of all that he built — with a smile. A smile, a cue from Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” a slip of a bloody hand, a contented corpse, a crane shot ascending to heaven or else sending that soul to hell and one final cut to black. I watched that last shot with a breathless smile, yet I could not summon the expected tears. I’m not sure if that is the show’s fault or mine, or if that is the even the tone Gilligan was aiming for, or what that tone is. Ending a show built on moral ambiguity is tricky business.

“Guess I got what I deserved. Kept you waiting there too long, my love.” — Badfinger, “Baby Blue”

A stray bullet from his own jury-rigged M60 finishes what cancer started 61 episodes ago, so why does Walt look so happy? Perhaps because he goes out without a shred of bullshit between him and those he loves and those he hates. As for those he hates, he lets Uncle Jack know money has nothing to do with it via a bullet to the head. He boasts to a dying Lydia how easy it was to slip her some ricin, how predictable she is after all her precautions. He kills all the neo-Nazis because they’re scum and the sloppy antitheses to Mike and Gus, criminals he admired and emulated. He lets Jesse strangle the life out of Todd’s already lifeless eyes because Jesse has more than earned it, not to mention the privilege to finish his own. Jesse’s refusal to put Walt down is one of the show’s final, humanistic triumphs, in which the corrupted breaks free from the corrupter to drive, cackling and crying, toward the sunset. Perhaps Jesse will finally find his way to Alaska, or into the apprenticeship of some old bearded woodworker, one equally wise as Walt but nowhere near as toxic.

“Cheer up, beautiful people, this is where you get to make it right.” — Walt to Elliot and Gretchen

Because Breaking Bad made its name as the funniest serious show on TV, “Felina” balances its late-act slaughter with some seriously funny, somewhat horrifying preamble. In a scene none of us saw coming, Walt saunters around the postmodern, largely hollow mansion of Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz like Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot. Gilligan, who penned and directed “Felina,” emphasizes the Schwartz’s empty space and towering doorways against the stooped, narrow hallway of the White house. Walt may come across like a zombie — or, according to Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, A Christmas Carol-esque ghost — but he’s still as brilliant as ever. He’s got that pissed-off-at-the-world Falling Down vibe about him, which about sums up his feelings for Gretchen and Eliot, yet he knows their dearly valued comfort will ensure that his remaining millions go to Walt Jr. when he comes of age. That “the two best hitmen west of the Mississippi,” Badger and Skinny Pete, are a pair of laser pointers, Badger and Skinny Pete, both perfectly willing to cast aside moral quandaries in favor of stacks of cash, just reaffirms the basic motivations that drive most of the characters in this world.

 “Back in El Paso my life would be worthless. Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.” — “El Paso” by Marty Robbins

With that: Why, oh why, did Walt return to ABQ in the first place? That fascinating cold open, just of Walt sitting there in a car, deserves a revisit. It opens with a gray, out-of-focus, neutral palette, like this year’s opener “Blood Money,” which opened on the White’s pool-turned-skate-ramp. After some scratching and shedding of snow, this grayness reveals to be a driver’s window, the corner of which frames Walt’s bearded, desiccated face. Gilligan employs a ton of frame-within-a-frames in this episode (in this shot alone, two of them), which could be a subversive hint to stop judging, scrutinizing, entombing Walt — like a work of art — before he has his final say. He nearly freezes to death there in that car, the glare of police lights reflected in his thick-framed glasses (there it is again). But when he finds the keys and gets that car running, we are with him, in a close-medium shot, as he smacks the snow off the window and gets one last show on the road.

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.” — Walt to Skyler

Even with that one frigid, cloistered moment and all that long-overdue revenge, no scene spelled true catharsis like those words. Before Skyler in her cramped flat stands neither Heisenberg nor the Walter White who justified every terrible thing in the name of family. Here is Walt, changed by his actions and, for once, true to them. That does not make him a hero, not after all he’s done — perhaps that’s why the celebratory tone of the final shot confused me, even as it moved me. If anything, that line sequesters Walt into the darkness once and for all. He seems happy there. I’m reasonably happy, too. I’m about as happy as I can be, greeting the finale not as the end of greatness but as yet another completion, now enthroned to history.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.