Friday, September 30, 2005

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

With one step.

1. "Looks like December" - Antonio Carlos Jobim - Antonio Carlos Jobim's Finest Hour
I love "Waters of March" with all my being, but this isn't doing it for me.

2. "Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)" -- Sting -- The Soul Cages
I love this song, a jazzy-bluesy hybrid with some great end-of-the-world lyrics.

3. "The Woman with the Alabaster Box" - Arvo Part - I am the True Vine
Part's music is just gorgeous, hushed and solemn but still full of life. The balance here between the men and women in the choir creates a nice kind of duality.

4. "Pickin' on Your baby" - Louis Armstrong - The Essential Louis Armstrong
Ancient, scratchy-sounding song with Louis on the trumpet and some warbly female singing the lead. For me, of primarily historical interest.

5. "Esmeralda" - Alan Menken and Tim Stephen Schwartz - Der Glockner Von Notre Dame
The Berlin Original Cast recording (sung in German) of the seemingly abandoned stage version of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is a new song written for the score that makes ample use of themes from the film. Stirring Broadway stuff.

6. "Puerto Rican Day Parade" - Paul Simon - The Capeman (Original Broadway Cast)
Authentic-sounding Puerto Rican music from Simon, in an upbeat, trumpet-filled number from his underrated Broadway score.

7. "Move On" - Beradette Peters - Sondheim, Etc.
Touching live rendition of one of her signature Sunday in the Park with George songs. The revised, more "Broadway" orchestration is a bit of a disappointment.

8. "The Juggernaut" - Andrew Lippa - The Wild Party (Original Cast Recording)
Very energetic big ensemble number from Lippa's play. Many scoffed at the anachronistic electric guitars, but I think they give the score a great sound.

9. "When I Was Cruel No. 2" - Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel
Costello builds an insinuating, creepy song out of a sampled loop. He's still got it.

10. "Blood of Eden" - Peter Gabriel - Us
One of my favorite Gabriel songs, a simple, slow, delicate ballad with a great vocal.

Until Whenever
Ban the Meme!

From Lefty, I grab the following. The idea is to note those of the banned books listed you've read or own:

BOLD: Read
BOLD and Underline: Own and have read.

Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz
Daddy?s Roommate by Michael Willhoite
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
Forever by Judy Blume
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Giver by Lois Lowry
It?s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Sex by Madonna
Earth?s Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L?Engle
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
The Goats by Brock Cole
Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
Blubber by Judy Blume
Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
Final Exit by Derek Humphry
The Handmaid?s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead
George The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
What?s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Pigman by Paul Zindel
Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
Deenie by Judy Blume
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
Cujo by Stephen King
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
What?s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
Are You There, God? It?s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Crazy Lady by Jane ConlyAthletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
Fade by Robert Cormier
Guess What? by Mem Fox
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Native Son by Richard Wright
Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women?s Fantasies by Nancy Friday
Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
Jack by A.M. Homes
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
Carrie by Stephen King
Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
Family Secrets by Norma Klein
Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
The Dead Zone by Stephen King
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
Private Parts by Howard Stern
Where?s Waldo? by Martin Hanford
Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
Sex Education by Jenny Davis
The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
The Terrorist by Caroline CooneyJ
Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

Until Whenever

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Music Morsels Volume XI - I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky

Classical composer John Adams does a musical. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky wasn't really billed as such, but that's what this was. A look at class and race clashing in LA (I didn't realize it until now, but it's kind of a musical version of the same story the film Crash tells), the musical was done as a special performance originally, and only got recorded because of the prominence of Adams' name and some of the names singing on this recording--including Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie, relatively big names in the musical theater world.

The music is odd at first, but it slowly seeps into your pores. The opening title number is easily my favorite, with its pulsing, minimalist, synthesized long intro and the wonderfully spiky harmonies in the chorus. The second song is another favorite, with its very poppy, catchy, hook-laden chorus of repeated women's names (the song is sung by a woman to her lover chastising him for his many side-lovers). The story itself (and I only have the recording--I've never seen a production), seems a little heavy-handed, with one song in particular -- "Mike's Song about Arresting a Particular Individual" -- almost comical in its cop-arresting-a-black-man spoken-sung diatribe. But the music and the singing makes the disc worthwhile, especially since the story becomes somewhat secondary on CD as opposed to in a theater anyway.

Grade: B

Until Whenever
Pandora's Legacy

(The Shawshank Redemption spoilers lie ahead--consider this fair warning)

Gordon, here, pointed me towards a post by logan on his blog house of the ded on one of my (and many others') all-time favorite films--The Shawshank Redemption. Logan points out how hope is really the film's central theme, and he's certainly right. But his post got me to thinking about how the film's treatment of the theme, while wonderful in its own right, reminds me so strongly about another of my favorite works of art--the musical Man of La Mancha.

Like Shawshank, Man of La Mancha also has as its central theme one of hope, one that illuminates how the power of hope can help to get one through even the worst of times. Andy, in Shawshank, gets through decades of false imprisonment, brutal rapes, and other indignities because he has hope, and that hope sustains him. The theme isn't exactly buried; Andy basically comes right out and defines it for us in his letter to Red: "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

Man of La Mancha may not be so explicit, but its treatment of that famous literary character, Don Quixote, hinges on much the same point. Don Quixote is seen as mad by the rest of the world because he refuses to acknowledge reality, preferring instead to believe in a better, more noble world, even in the face of the opposite. This is, to me, a kind of hope--he has hope in the world and in people, even when it's not justified at all.

The crucial difference in how the film and the play treat this theme lies in their endings. Andy escapes from Shawshank, and Red, in the end, embraces the hope Andy has taught him about and travels to see him, to see if "the Pacific is as blue as it is in [his] dreams." Both Andy and Red go through numbing hardship, but their belief in hope sustains then and, (and here's the rub) in the end is rewarded. In Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote's stubborn belief in a better world is hardly justified. The message of the play is, to my mind, even stronger than Shawshank's--that hope is a remarkably powerful thing, not because "dreams do come true" or because there is a light at the end of the tunnel and hope can get you to it, but because of how it can give you strength even when there is no light at the end of that tunnel.

The theme of La Mancha is powerfully voiced by its most famous anthem--an anthem that has been turned to cliche by far too many bombastic, smug, and kitchsy renditions to count (curse you Robert Goulet!). But listen to the lyric, closely. It's not "The Highly Unlikely Dream" or "The Seemingly Insurmountable Dream." It's "The Impossible Dream." The song's, and the play's, point is that believing, and striving towards something that you know you can't have, has remarkable power. It's almost counter-intuitive. Don Quixote dies at the end of the play; his dream has not come true, his hope has not been justified. But in the way it inspires the wretched, debased woman he insisted was a breathtakingly beautiful and pure maiden, the dream has, in some sense, come true. And that's the true power of the play and its message.

The original ending of Shawshank was to have been that penultimate shot of the bus Red is on rolling on down the road. There wasn't originally the little nicely tied bow of Red getting to the beach and greeting Andy that the film leaves us with. The studio, correctly I think, insisted that the film couldn't end without letting the audience know if Red made it or not. And the ending as is well-earned--I, for one, love seeing Red's hope fulfilled. But the message, that hope is the "best of things," would probably be just a little bit more powerful if it was left open-ended--if we were encouraged to believe that Red's hope was a good thing no matter what the outcome.

Don't mistake me--I'm not trying to argue that Man of La Mancha is somehow better than Shawshank because of this. What I am saying, though, is that its message about the power of hope is actually a more striking and powerful one.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The U2 Canon--War

A lot of hay has been made, both within the critical press and within U2 fandom, about what a departure, or more specifically, a return to classic form, the band's last two albums, All that You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb have been. But what often gets forgotten in all of the talk about U2 switching styles dramatically, as they have several times throughout their career (most notably with 1992's Achtung Baby) is that War was really the first examples of a large stylistic shift, and in many ways was one of the most striking.

Listening to October and Boy back to back, one can almost hear them as having come out of the same sessions. There are real differences between the two, of course, but the basic sound is much the same. War represented a real departure for the band, the moody, almost-punk like rock songs and mid-tempo numbers from those first two albums replaced by a more poppy, melody-driven sound married to a military beat. War remains a critical favorite today, and is often thought of as the band's first "mature" album, but for me it's always been a lesser U2 disc. True, it has supplied three U2 hallmarks, three brilliant songs that would become live staples for decades hence (indeed, two have been central figures in the band's current tour). But some of the more pop-oriented, sing-songy material grates a little for me, making the album uneven. Don't misunderstand; I like the album, quite a bit, but on the U2 scale it's never been a favorite.

1. "Sunday Bloody Sunday"--One of the all-time U2 classics. A certain top ten in my ever-shifting list of the greatest U2 songs ever, and a near- and sometimes-top five finalist. I'm always surprised to hear this album version, with the violin and the somewhat less muscular and aggressive tone than I've become accustomed to from too many live versions to count. To non-hard-core fans, this is probably one of the two or three essential U2 songs, and rightly so. What I love about is is how that deadly simple but effective riff so neatly grabs at the DNA of the song. It's a gentle, melodic figure, unlike the defining musical figures off of any of the songs from the first two albums, and it serves the song well in many a context.

The "standard" live rendition, if there is such a beast, takes off from Larry's martial drum beat and the insistent, almost angry way the Edge lashes out that simple triadic figure. Another iconic live version for me is the rendition captured in the Rattle & Hum film. Bono starts the song with a short monologue about a bombing that had just occurred that day. He then sings the entire first two verses over nothing but the Edge plaintively picking out that famous figure, with a hint of angry desperation in his voice. The contrast works beautifully when the full band comes crashing in, cashing in the anger Bono had been depositing throughout the beginning of the song. Another great live rendition happened almost by accident when the band was playing Sarajevo in the late 90s. Six or seven songs into the concert, Bono blew his voice out completely, and the rest of the concert was sung by a hodge-podge of Bono singing off-the-cuff modified vocal lines to keep the range of the songs' range down, along with an ample helping of singing from the Edge. "Sunday Bloody Sunday," in particular, gets a solo Edge treatment, nothing but him and his guitar. It's a haunting, quiet version of the song.

2. "Seconds"--An atomic war ditty, from the depths of the 80s cold war. "Takes just seconds to say goodbye." I like this song, but it is a little slight, with its bouncy, devil-may-care bass line and jingle-like melody. The contrast between the lightness of the music and the seriousness of the lyric is well-taken, but not quite as effective as I suspect the band may have hoped. The song is also notable for featuring that rarity, an Edge vocal. He sounds just like Bono.

3. "New Year's Day"--The second classic to come out of this album, "New Year's Day" is a great song that makes expert use of the Edge switching back and forth from piano to guitar. Adam's rolling bass line provides an anchor for the Edge to play from, whether he's picking out the simple but effective piano figure or ringing out chords on the guitar. We also get a taste of Bono's penchant for grandstanding: "A crowd is gathered, black and white/Arms entwined/The chosen few." The songs open dream for racial harmony is hardly subtle, but the music makes it more than a gaping cliche. And that hint of doubt within the faith that is U2's core thematic trademark appears here as well, with the closing line: "Nothing changes, on New Year's Day."

4. "Like a Song"--A throwback to the October sound, with the driving drums and hard-hitting guitar that defined the first two albums, but married to a little of that martial drumbeat that's all over this album and with more overtly political lyrics. Not a classic, by any means, but a fine U2 song.

5. "Drowning Man"--The tempo slows. An acoustic guitar strums urgently while a bass figure insistently repeats. Bono sings with a sense of tension in his voice. A kind of forgotten song, but an effective piece, with some slide guitar adding to the atmosphere here and there.

6. "The Refugee"--An almost bluesy song, with a relaxed Edge sliding around notes like a country guitarist. Bono tries for a kind of angry, stylized, sing-shout that almost works. The song also features some great pounding drums from Larry, with some of that Keith Moon manicness peeking out from under his usually more-staid sound.

7. "Two Hearts Beat as One"--The pop/dance song. It's not a bad song, but something about its too-upbeat chorus, especially against the more typical U2 verses, always struck me as off, as not-U2. And the title is too cliche for comfort.

8. "Red Light"--Is that a female back-up singer at the beginning? Yes it is. And are those horns at the end? Yes they are. A stylistic experiment that never quite hangs together.

9. "Surrender"--The could-have-been-a-contender. Mostly forgotten today, but this sounds like a U2 classic, as if it could have achieved the status of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or "New Years Day." A ringing Edge guitar opens the song, and the riff that rides over the verses is solid. The female back-up singers sound like they're back, but still, there are some great solo lines in here , precursors to Edge's masterful "Bullet the Blue Sky" work.

10. "40" --The third classic from this album. A wonderful, beautiful, insistent song based on Psalm 40, with a resigned and yet hopeful bass line providing the foundation for the Edge to ring short bursts of abbreviated riffs out over. And Bono starts to show evidence of the phrasing and ability to invest a lyric with feeling that will make him a great singer. This became the staple U2 concert closer until the late 80s, and was resurrected this year on the current Vertigo tour.

Until Whenever

Until Whenever
Things I'm Pissed I Missed

On last week's (or was it the week before's) House an Elvis Costello cover of Christina Aguillera's "Beautiful" was apparently prominently featured. So intrigued.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Two years ago I bought one of these from Best Buy--a Nomad Zen NX Jukebox. My wife gave me an "iPod" for my birthday--meaning that she said, "go get yourself an iPod, since I don't know how to pick one out." Before venturing out to my local Big Blue Box, I did a little on-line research, and decided that the Nomad was instead the way to go. I got the 30GB version for the same price that, at the time, the 10GB iPod was going for. I'm hardly a fashion plate, so the cooler styling on the iPod was pretty much a non-issue, and I figured that the interface, while reportedly much less user-friendly and buggy than the iPod's, couldn't be that bad. And you know what? I was mostly right. Sure, the software was ugly and cumbersome, and crashed a lot, but I did manage to get all of my roughly 400 CDs into the damn machine and it soon became the item I couldn't imagine living without. Having my entire music collection at my fingertips? Breathtakingly cool.

Maybe six months after purchase, the headphone jack on the Nomad started giving me problems. If it wasn't positioned right, most or all of the audio would cut out, often the vocal. Not a huge problem, but annoying nonetheless--I spent many hours, all told, twisting that damn jack to get the sound right on the machine. And more time than I care to admit listening to what I initially thought were oddly long instrumental intros, before realizing that the jack wasn't twisted right and I wasn't hearing the vocals. The removable cover (that allows for the insertion of a new battery) also broke, necessitating that a rubber band be forever wrapped around the lower quarter of the unit.

Because I am a sucker, when I bought the unit I paid the $39 for the replacement plan. And last week, just one week before said plan expired, I made use of it. Stalwart as my Nomad was, this time the temptation was too great. My wife got me an iPod again--I took the cash credit I got for the defective Nomad and applied it towards the 60GB iPod, the balance being her birthday gift to me. 7,000 songs and over 900 photos in the thing and I'm barely at half capacity. Sweet.

Now that I have one, I kind of see what the fuss is about. The interface is far more elegant, yes, and the software much cleaner and more user-friendly. But iTunes has frozen up on me several times now when connecting the iPod--so it's hardly bug-free. And, again, I'm not sure the extra money is worth the sleek styling and crisp graphics and handy-dandy click wheel. Still, I'm very happy with my new little toy and am, I suppose, now a full-fledged member of the cult. The photo feature is very cool specifically--as the embarrassingly proud father of two year-and-a-half year old twin girls, having every picture I've ever taken of them on my person at all times is, well, quite frankly, just dangerous. If you see me on the street don't say hi--unless you want to stare at my iPod's screen for a good while.

Now I'm off to explore the vast world of iPod accessories. Gulp.

Until Whenever

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Vagaries of TV Time

The premiere of Lost last night was superb. As promised, we did get to see what was in the hatch, and the teases of information Abrams and company spooned out to us were just enough to keep us hungry. And the reveal at the end (keeping spoiler-free here) was excellent. The excellence of the episode aside, though, it got me to thinking.

Television shows traditionally, if very roughly, follow a "school-year" calendar. Premieres often take place in a September timeframe and season-finales usually take place in the late Spring. Major holidays (Christmas) often get referred to, and we often see the changing of the seasons reflected in shows as the seasons change in the real world. The reason for this is obvious, of course, given that the shows are merely reflecting the timeframe of when we watch them. Now, cable's different schedule--usually 10-15 episodes released every week, as opposed to 22 doled out over eight months--has changed those guidelines somewhat (The Sopranos follows whatever timeline makes sense for that season, for example), but network shows still, again, roughly, adhere to this schedule.

Now, you will see often enough a season finale cliffhanger that leads directly into the season premiere--no "summer break" in storytime. But even in cases like this (Gilmore Girls both this and last year, for example) the show eventually "makes up time" and by Christmas, usually, they are back on a real-world schedule. Lost, of course, is different. The entire first season was only supposed to span maybe a month, and of course the season premiere picked up directly after last year's finale. One can easily imagine seven seasons of Lost that only take up, in the show's world, several months. Which could be bad news for Walt.

As a kid, he's going to age, a lot, over the next few years, but on the show that much time presumably won't be passing. The very structure of the show would seem to spell an early end (or escape?) for Walt. It'll be interesting to see how the writers address this as the season(s) progress. (And let's hope they do--my suspension of disbelief will be strained past its breaking point if I'm asked to accept a 15-year old Walt). At least for now, the actor who plays him hasn't aged appreciably, so they seem to have some time to play with. But puberty is a fast worker; they might have less time than they think. Time, of course, will tell.

Until Whenever
Fun with Randomness

From Byzantium's Shores, a random little blog-thingy.

1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.


"The ruling is (duh) under appeal, and I have to imagine it'll be tossed like salad, but that it was ever made in the first place is . . . odd."

Ugh. The sentence that pops up would just have to be one in which I a) use the "word" "duh," and b) painfully execute a particularly ungainly simile, like an ice skater almost falling after attempting triple sowcow. (whoops--did it again)

Until Whenever

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Music Morsels Vol. VIII - Hello Again

Michael John LaChiusa may be a bit arrogant, as his recent diatribe against the current state of musical theater ("The Great Gray Way," in Opera News) and the ensuing battle of words that ensued in print between him and one of his targets, Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman, suggests, but he does write some wonderful music. I like the light entertainment side of musical theater just fine, but would hate to see it overtake completely the more serious side epitomized by musicals like West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and the current The Light in the Piazza. And as far as contemporary serious musical theater composers go, LaChiusa is easily at or at least near the top of a very small class.

Hello Again was my first exposure to LaChiusa's work (it was, I believe, his second full-length musical to be produced, after First Lady Suite, but the first to be recorded). The structure of the musical, lifted from Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde, is simple and effective--the first scene is of a prostitute seducing a sailor in the early part of the century. In the next scene, the sailor character reappears, this time seducing a nurse in a later era. In the third scene, set even later in time, the nurse seduces a college boy. And so on. Each scene is musicalized by LaChiusa, and the conceit of time jumping allows him to play with different musical styles--80s dance-pop, music hall ditties, swing, etc. But what makes the CD work so well is how he is able to in these short vignettes musically really into these "typed" characters. So by the end of the first scene, for example, we really feel for the prostitute, she's become more than a simple type, and this is done primarily through the music. That first scene, "Hello Again" is one of the score's best, with a simple haunting climbing figure introducing the play and the prostitute with a weary meloncholy. The score is also refreshing in that LaChiusa refuses to dumb down the sex. There are some pretty funny dirty lyrics and some awkward sex scenes, all set to music--the musical can be squeamish about sex, so it's nice to hear one that isn't. The beginning few and final few scenes are disproportionately strong, and so the middle of the disc can drag a little. This is more than just a minor quibble, especially considering just how strong songs like "Hello Again," "Tom," "Mistress of the Senator," and "The Bed Was Not My Own" are. Still, this is a worthy CD of any serious musical theater collection, and a fine introduction to the prolific-by-today's-standards LaChiusa.

Grade: B

Until Whenever
. . . Into Me (I Can Not Hear the Title without then Hearing that Lyric)

Saw Crash on DVD, and it's a keeper, a great film, and easily one of the best I've seen in a long while. A quick synopsis is very hard to do given the number of characters and the intertwining plots, but basically a group of people in Christmastime LA, including a white cop and his younger partner, a black television director and his black wife, a black detective and his Hispanic partner, an Iranian man and his wife and daughter, a Hispanic locksmith and his family, a pair of black twenty-somethings, the white DA (assistant DA?) and his white wife, and a middle-aged Korean couple (among others) interact in fateful and star-crossed ways over the course of a single day. If my descriptions of the characters didn't tip you off, the thread tying everything together is racism, and more or less none of the characters get off scot-free in that regard. The movie, as honestly as any recent film I can recall, examines race in America, but more critically the ways in which different races react to each other and in the different assumptions one race makes about another can be proven or disproven in an instant, or by the same person in the same way. All the characters, to varying degrees, evidence racism in their actions and in the way they interact with each other, but to say that the movie's premise is "everyone is racist and that's OK" would be grossly wrong. The movie isn't "saying" anything in that sense, but is with great economy and art examining the racism that lies underneath us all.

The movie works because it marries good old-fashioned plotting - questions brought up early become important later, props presented in Act One reappear at critical moments in Act Three, characters tie together in surprising ways--with a wonderfully unforced, un-"arty" naturalistic style. The dialogue, the shots themselves, even the low-key electronic score evoke a very realistic sense and mood. The result is an honest film with wonderful dialogue and multi-faceted characters that plays like melodrama; call it honestly-arrived-at melodrama.

I won't go into any plot details, because much of the joy of the film is discovering the characters' stories and intersections, but I will say that the acting is uniformly excellent. Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Jennifer Esposito, Ludacris, Brendan Fraser, Michael Pena, Larenz Tate, and a host of others do selfless work, with no one character or actor taking the forefront, in terms of story time or screen impact; this is a true ensemble. And look out for a cameo by, of all people, Tony Danza, who in just a few short minutes actually does a wonderful job of establishing his character. Is Tony Danza an underrated actor? Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed, has impressed me hugely in the past few months (he also wrote the screenplay for the marvelous Million Dollar Baby, which I wrote about here), and I'm anxious to see what he does next.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

. . . Before She Died and I Had to Raise You with Your Uncle and his Dorky Friend

I kid Bob Saget, above, but his narration for CBS' How I Met Your Mother is actually well-done. I had read good things about this new sitcom, and was not disappointed--this has the potential to be a very good sitcom, in the Friends mode of quippy twenty-somethings making their way in the big city. The cast is uniformly good and, more importantly, even in just the 22 minutes of this pilot, evidence a good team chemistry. Former Willow Alyson Hanigan and former Nick Jason Segel make an inspired pair, and they work well together in the pilot, completely selling their believability as the "cute" couple, while former Doogie Neil Patrick Harris is hilarious as the ladies-man Barney. Newcomer (to me, anyway) Josh Radnor is appealingly charming and awkward as Ted, our lead, and also-new Cobie (Cobie?) Smulders is very pretty and charming as love interest Robin.

The pilot does an excellent job of setting up the premise (an unseen Bob Saget, as a 2030-era Ted, tells his two teenaged children the story of how he met their mother) and then playing with our expectations in the final scene, promisingly setting up the show as something of a more long-term mystery than the first 21 minutes may have suggested. The writing so far is sharp and funny, if not groundbreaking, and, given that this is just a pilot, this is a very good sign. Funny, charming, at least a little moving, and with a great hook for giving the series as a whole forward momentum--a great pilot, at least. I have hopes for the series as it progresses.

Until Whenever
The Galaxy Is Flat

Caught The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on DVD and was, to my surprise, very nonplussed. I love the books, thought the casting and design elements I had seen seemed right, and had read some good things interspersed amidst the bad, but in the end the whole thing just kind of fell apart, and I'm not sure why. The acting was good, with some casting extremely right (Arthur, Trillian, Marvin); Douglas Adams was involved and wrote the screenplay, and was able to include many of his own classic lines and bits from the novels; the look was mostly spot-on, with appropriately ugly Vogons and a great design for the Heart of Gold; and the tone of off-hand detached British satire seemed to be present. It should have worked. But it didn't. So what went wrong? I have no idea. The love story aspect was forced and out of place, to be sure, but it was far too minor to take down the film on its own. It's a mystery. Maybe the material is just not meant for the screen, maybe the particular vibe of these books, through some fundamental aspect of its nature, requires the words on the page. But the successful radio drama of the same material (which I've never heard but from all reports is great) would seem to scotch that idea. In the end, I can't think of a real reason for the movie's staleness, it's flatness as a living piece of cinema. All I know is that it didn't work. Odd.

Until Whenever
No Louis Armstrong?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees have been announced. My take on the R&RHoF is that it's a grand idea that's been just a bit watered-down in the execution. I think the Hall has two basic problems: 1) I think it's just a little too easy to get into the Hall (Rod Stewart, The Jackson Five, Billy Joel, Aerosmith-all good, but Hall of Fame-worthy?), and 2) their definition of "rock" is a little too loose (Aretha Franklin is a remarkable singer, but not really a rock singer, now is she?).

Anyway, here are this year's nominees:

New Nominees
Miles Davis
(Brilliant, but, again, is he "rock," Bitches Brew notwithstanding?)
Cat Stevens
The Dave Clark Five
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
The Sir Douglas Quintet

Repeat Nominees
Black Sabbath
The J. Geils Band
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
John Mellencamp
(I'm a pretty big Mellencamp fan, but even I'm not sure he belongs. Then again, given the caliber they've already let in . . . )
Lynyrd Skynrd
The Patti Smith Group
The Stooges
The Sex Pistols
Joe Tex

Until Whenever
What He Said

James Tata quotes some excerpts from a speech by Carlos Fuentes defending fiction. Tata's response rings my bells, and I suspect many of ours. As a U2 fan of no small measure, I would, however, like to know what song lifted his spirits so (see the end of his post).

Until Whenever

Monday, September 19, 2005

Well, I'm No Hotshot, But . . .

Grabbing a meme from Jaquandor:

1. It is Dan's theory that one only has time to devote to 10 outside-of-work pursuits. What makes your list? This can be an idealized version of your life (e.g. pursuits in which you are interested but just haven't found the time or ambition to start).

Who is Dan? That's what I get for not following the link Jaquandor provided I guess. Anyway, these would be:

1. The wife.
2. That one twin.
3. That other twin.
4. Writing (a little idealized; since the coming of the twins I've been very fallow).
5. Writing music (very idealized--I dabbled in this a little years ago but pretty much gave it up completely)
6. Learning to play guitar (somewhat idealized--again, since the doubling of the household the guitar has lain forlorn.)
7. Learning to play piano. (Idealized. I got years ago as far as I could get without a) practicing rigorously and b) taking actual lessons.)
8. Reading.
9. Movies/TV
10. Music.

A list like this really makes me realize how much I give up on the interests that would take actual effort (writing, playing instruments), as opposed to the passive ones (watching movies, listening to music). Laziness can be quite insidious, no?

2. What are the last five albums you bought? Are you just kind of buying albums on a whim these days or following any kind of overarching plan-such as exploring a genre or working your way through a backlog of albums you've wanted to buy for some time?

I'm including gifts, since I don't buy all that many CDs, given my overall tightness with a buck:

No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Volume Seven) - Bob Dylan
Excellent, with some great early stuff (the highlight: a lost version of a young Bob doing a spare and lean take on "This Land Is Your Land"). I am getting to the point, though, where I have too many multiple versions of some songs.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Danny Elfman
Haven't listened enough to judge, but at first blush sounds like generic Elfman. The songs are great though.

The Light in the Piazza - Adam Guettel
Gorgeous score.

Shostakovich: Symphony #14
A bit taken aback by all the singing, but it is growing on me.

Avenue Q

I keep a wish list ongoing and make ample use of the inter-library loan system to check things out. Since I'm pretty hesitant to splurge on new CDs I tend to have a few items at the top of the list that I know I'll want.

3. Everyone has an issue (at least one)-political or philosophical-that is kind of their personal baby. One on which they feel they have an enlightened view in a greater world that just either doesn't get it or doesn't care. Tell us about it-and attempt to be brief.

Well, I wouldn't agree that I have a particularly enlightened view on anything. But, briefly, the notion that people would out-of-hand dismiss homosexuality as aberrant purely on the word of a brief mention in one book completely and wholly baffling.

4. Prairie, mountains, woods, desert, lake, the sea. Which calls to you the most? Where would you most choose to reside? RANK THEM!


With the caveat that it is a lake I can swim in. Swimming on my back in the pure, clean waters of Echo Lake in New Hampshire, and staring up at the green beauty of Mount Cannon rising from it, is one of the purest pleasures I can remember ever basking in.

5. Guilty pleasure TV. Is there a show that would be condemned by your peers, but yet you find yourself watching it on a regular basis? Let's hear it.

The Apprentice. And the thing of it is, I agree with the peers. It's bad. But I am still giving Joey a fighting chance, and still think Will & Grace gets off some of the best (and naughtiest) one-liners on TV, and still think ER combines great characters and drama very effectively, and am actually too lazy to change the channel.

Until Whenever
RockStar Week Ten

Pre-final thoughts. Suzie was very good, but the never-ending string of "Come on!"s was starting to get to me. I do think that INXS is missing the boat in going with a guy though; the marketing angle of a woman taking over for a man is priceless, and I think musically speaking it would have made for a more interesting tour and album.

Of the final three, I'm really non-plussed. None was a favorite, and I really have no stake in who ends up winning. I still stand by my very early stand that Ty and Jordis were the best singers in the group. Jordis, in particular, is the only singer I'm keen on hearing more of, and the only singer I've been moved to buy songs from over at My thinking is that that huge misfire at the end of "Dream On" several weeks back, when she went for the high note and completely botched it, just completely took her confidence away. Maybe it's an age thing, I don't know, but whatever it is it's a shame. Of the three finalists, my thoughts are:

Marty: A very good singer, with an excellent presence, who's all wrong for INXS. I actually am curious to hear what he would do with them, should he win, just because I think they are so mismatched.

J.D.: Presence and charisma, and a strong, if slightly narcissistic voice, but just comes across as a total ass.

MiG: A bit too theatrical, but so is some of INXS' stuff. If forced to choose I'd probably pick him as my preferred winner, even if he does spell his name like a moron.

Until Whenever

Random Emmy thoughts:

Ellen was very funny. Every time I watch one of these I'm surprised all over again at how much of the host's job is to do a funny monologue and then mostly disappear. Am I that dumb? I did like Ellen's attempts to add some quick comedy bits to the proceedings; the recurring gag with the director and the time check was pretty funny I thought. And her monologue was spot-on, especially the tongue-not-really-in-cheek request to host the Oscars.

The Emmy Idol thing, while worth trying, ended up falling flat, I think because the performances were unsure--are we mocking this song or paying tribute to it? If they bring it back next year they should either do good songs with good singers or bad songs with bad singers, to make the tone clearer.

The Emmy memories were a nice touch given their brevity. a few more and it would have gotten annoying.

Serious Letterman is off-putting, like watching Gilbert Gottfried try to do Hamlet.

Telling, and appropriate, that the clips submitted by the writing teams for the "Writing, Variety, Music, or Comedy Program" were the funniest part of the night, especially Conan O'Brien's hilarious mock-self-love. He was also the funniest presenter of the night. Next year, how about hitring these nominees to do the show? Let each have a half-hour to go nuts with.

Wins I was happy to see: Lost for drama; Raymond for comedy (never seen Desperate Housewives but doubt it's really a comedy, and as good as Arrested Development is in a "new and exciting" way, Raymond was equally as good in a "well-crafted, traditional" way--and one way isn't, by its very nature, better than the other, no matter what the critics may insinuate); Felicity Huffman (just because she was so good in Sports Night); and J.J Abrams' for his direction of the Lost pilot.

Wins I thought were undeserved: I did think the Raymond team deserved the writing one, just for how elegantly and simply they cracked the series finale nut that has bedeviled so mnay other writers; Raymond's Garrett wasn't so good as to overclipse co-star Peter Boyle again; I may have never seen Boston Legal, but I have to doubt that Shatner's work there was better than O'Quinn's wonderful Lost work; and Roberts on Raymond was getting stale, and the little I saw of Jessica Walters has me thinking she should have taken home that particular prize. Also--I am very intrigued to see "Three Stories," the House episode that won the writing award over Lost's "Walkabout." My wife saw it and assured me that it was great, so it may indeed have been worthy, but my jury will have to remain out.

Until Whenever

Friday, September 16, 2005

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

Busy week; my regrets for the lack of posts. A quick shuffle before I dive back into the maelstrom:

1. "Follow the Fold" - Frank Loesser - Guys and Dolls (1992 Broadway Revival Cast)
Throway bit of Salvation Army mockery.

2. "Wheels of a Dream" - Lyyn Flaherty and Stephen Ahrens - Ragtime (Original Broadway Cast)
Big, melodic, Copeland-tinged, big voiced, unabashed Broadway anthem. God bless Flaherty and Ahrens.

3. "Isn't It?" - Stephen Sondheim - Saturday Night (2000 Off-Broadway Revival Cast)
Sweet little waltz from Sondheim's near-first produced show. (It famously lost its backing in the 50s only to be resurrected in the late 90s, with Sondheim fanatics (myself included) demanding every bit of music the man ever wrote to be released.)

4. "Slow Dancing" - U2 - Bootleg
Taken, I think, off of a radio show, just Bono and the Edge on acoustic guitar on this Willy Nelson homage.

5. "Addison's City" - Stephen Sondheim - Bounce (World Premiere Recording)
See above. Another Sondheim show that keeps flopping but has made it to disc nonetheless. Not a bad score, but the material is a bit dry. This near-patter song is a bit underwhelming, I do have to say.

6. "Cheerful Little Earful" - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Sings the Gershwin Songbook
Jazzy Gershwin number.

7. "Never Again" - Alan Menken and Tim Rice - King David (World Premiere Recording)
A gorgeous, completely forgotten score from the man who gave us Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, and Little Shop of Horrors. This is a gorgeous ballad of sad defiance.

8. "Frequent Thing" - Thomas Newman - Meet Joe Black (film score)
Delicate melodic work from Newman on a fine score.

9. "Fool to Think" - Dave Matthews Band - Everyday
Not one of my favorite DMB songs (the wife is more the fan), but the chorus has a cool syncopated driving beat thing going for it.

10. "By Strauss" - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Sings the Gershwin Songbook
Brilliantly funny lyric, and a great piece of Strauss-pastiche from Gershwin.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Music Morsels Vol. VII - Glory

James Horner gets a bad rap, some of it deserved, for endlessly recycling musical material, both his own and others', in his film scores. Alex Ross gives him a well-done takedown in a 1998 New Yorker article (posted by Ross in his blog here), noting, for instance, that the opening theme from his score for Aliens is a direct transcription of the opening to Shostakovich's 14th symphony (the 1st samples from each of the linked albums demonstrate this nicely). And yet a few of my favorite film scores are Horner's, including Glory, a beautiful work.

Horner may have, as Ross accuses, written the main theme from Glory by smooshing together Prokofiev's "Humming Chorus," from Ivan the Terrible, and Elgar's "Enigma Variations," but, being unfamiliar with either work, I never noticed. (And I don't at all doubt Ross' word; when I first read his article I was equally unfamiliar with the Shostakovich 14th symphony; having heard it since I can attest that the Aliens theme is a direct swipe). Horner also gets a wonderful, and very appropriate sound, from the Boys Choir of Harlem, who appear extensively throughout the score. The end-of-the-day point for me is that this music is beautiful, regardless of the source, full of stirring marches, elegiac choral lamentations, and sweeping romanticism. As John Williams taught us nearly 30 years ago, with his landmark Star Wars score, romantic pastiche can work very well when handled right, and for my money Horner handles this material very, very well, regardless of how much of it is, in fact, his. After all, the line between homage and thievery is exceedingly thin. There's a moment in Williams' ET score that reminds me very strongly of a theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth symphony. Did Williams steal it? Is it an homage to Beethoven? Who knows? Some may claim that Horner crosses that line by leaps and bounds, and perhaps in some cases he has. But you know what? I can't stop loving this disc if he, indeed, has--so in the end it really doesn't matter.

Grade: A-

Until Whenever

Monday, September 12, 2005

Po' Boy

Bob Dylan is getting the same Broadway treatment Billy Joel got. Twyla Tharp, the choreographer who had a big success with the dance musical Movin' On a few years back, is debuting her new show, based around the music of Bob Dylan, in late January. It's not that I can't imagine a compelling theatrical narrative being created around Dylan's music, I can. It's just that Tharp's specialty is choreography. If this is going to be similar in form to the Joel show, it'll be nothing but dances, with a band and a single singer doing Dylan songs on stage. No dialogue, no dramatic singing; more of a ballet than a musical, with the story told through dance. But--is Dylan's music really danceable? Inquiring minds want to know. I try to remain open-minded, but color me dubious.

Until Whenever
The U2 Canon - October
Continuing my song-by song stroll through the U2 discography, we turn today to 1982's October. Many a U2 fan (but not nearly all) considers this to be the least of their albums, and I'd more or less agree. Like on Boy, this is a still-young band developing and discovering their sound, and is not quite yet the work of "mature" artists. It's pretty much the only U2 album to make any kind of extensive effort at including traditional "Irish" instruments, a move that has its moments but in the end doesn't quite work for their music. Still, it's hardly an unworthy effort. Bono's singing hasn't yet graduated to the more full-voiced roar he would employ in later years; he's nowhere near the singer he will become. However the Edge's guitar work continues to evolve, and he's here really starting to nail down certain elements of the signature Edge sound. The album, like its predecessor, does do a very good job of maintaining a tone throughout, a slightly melancholy, autumnal tone that does justice to the title.

Gloria--U2's much vaunted and pored over status as a "Christian band" gets a workout here. The lyrics, while they weren't quite so to my somewhat oblivious teenaged self, are pretty clear: "only in you I'm complete" isn't a line about a girl, and the Latin stuff pretty much tips off the whole thing. For a song about Jesus, though, it rocks quite nicely. Musically they've more or less continued in the Boy vein, although the sound is a bit fuller and the deepening and maturing of Bono's voice has, if only barely, begun. I love Adam's adept little bass solo in the break, and the briefest of Edge solos that leads out of the bridge from that solo.

I Fall Down--October features a lot more piano than its predecessor, and if none of it is, shall we say, virtuoustic, it's still pretty and serves the songs well, as in the intro here. Hints of future more heavy and distorted Edge guitar lines peek out of the chorus, and Bono begins to play with a rougher, more overtly "rock voice" in parts.

I Threw a Brick through a Window--A mild hint of funk teases into the guitar riff here, with the U2 hallmark of having the verses be dominated by a driving bass line with only stabs of guitar, as opposed to full strumming or other backing, showing itself strongly. The adolescent rebellion lyrics are, already, starting to chafe and feel a bit forced.

Rejoice--Completely classic U2 riff, a bit of U2 DNA. Another more overtly religious song, with some well-meant but nonetheless trite stuff about "changing the world in me."

Fire--Almost halfway through the album and still not a ballad in sight. This more mid-tempo song could have been a Boy outtake.

Tomorrow--Ah, there's the ballad. An Irish instrument, with a bagpipe-like sound sets the tone, and the bass alternates between notes like a foreboding metronome. At the end they pick up the tempo and volume, an old trick, but one they hadn't trotted out as of yet. Perhaps the theme of U2's music gets highlighted in this song. It's a theme that will reappear in song after song, that of the pull between wanting to be joyful in Jesus' imminent return, and in his glory, and anger at the state of the world as it is, anger that he hasn't yet returned. The "Won't you come back tomorrow?" refrain has hints of both that joy and frustration, and it's an impressive balance for such a young band to pull off, all the more so given how well the music captures that ambiguity too.

October--A U2 classic, a gorgeous piano ballad, with lyrics only at the very end. Sure, it's a ridiculously simple piano ballad (how do I know? Because I can play it; and I don't play piano), but effective nonetheless, and wonderfully evocative of the month its title spells out.

With a Shout--Back to the religion well. "To the side of a hill/Blood was spilt/We were still looking at each other/But we're going back there/Jerusalem/Jerusalem" A spitfire of a song, with a driving, unrelenting bass line, and some stellar guitar work from the Edge pushing the song forward. U2 would never really get this explicitly religious again, with lines like "I want to go to the foot of Mount Zion/To the foot of He who made me see."

Stranger in a Strange Land--A moody song, with a great bass line riding up and down the scale like a man riding a bull and trying not to get thrown. Bono is in specific, character-based, storytelling mode, a lyrical style he rarely uses, and for good reason. While other story-focused songwriters can get a lot of detail into a song, and make the story at least somewhat clear (Bruce Springsteen), Bono lacks the discipline, so the song remains just hazy, with details that don't really add up to a clear picture.

Scarlet--The song that feels like the closer, with its martial drumbeat, it's quiet piano, and its rolling bass line. A beautiful and underrated U2 song.

Is That All?--The band roars back from the false ending with a fiery riff, one they would use live as the intro for Boy's "The Electric Company." The too-simple lyrics come off as empty instead of profound, but the riff and driving pulse of the song make up for them.

Until Whenever

Friday, September 09, 2005

What I've Done

Lynn asks for lots of folks to pick up this meme, so, well, I shall:

"List all of the accomplishments in Heinlein's famous "specialization" quote and identify the ones you've actually done. First, the quote:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." "

change a diaper A diaper? Try several a day. (Well, I'm at work all day, so that's not quite true, but I do change copious diapers.
plan an invasion No. Even in my D&D days I wasn't one for much planning.
butcher a hog No. Or any other animal for that matter.
conn a ship No. Not even sure what that means.
design a building No.
write a sonnet Yes, for a high school English class, but I don't remember a thing about it.
balance accounts Sure.
build a wall No.
set a bone No.
comfort the dying No, not yet.
take orders Of course.
give orders I've directed plays, so yes.
cooperate Sure.
act alone I guess.
solve equations Five semesters of calculus, baby! (Two alone of Calc IV)
analyze a new problem Probably?
pitch manure Maybe? Does cleaning a field of horse manure count?
program a computer Technically, in college programming classes (don't remember a thing)
cook a tasty meal Yes, if I do say so myself.
fight efficiently No. One fight, one loss.
die gallantly Ask me in seventy years (God willing)

Until Whenever
Doin' the Friday Shuffle

1. "'S Wonderful" - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Sings the George Gershwin Songbook
A great Gershwin song, and Ella delivers it with just the right tone of happy, surprised, delight.

2. "Lady with the Spinning Head" - U2 - One (Single)
What used to be called a b-side, this sounds like an early stab at The Fly, but it's still a decent U2 song all on its own.

3. "Paperback Writer" - The Beatles - The Beatles 1
I'm not a huge Beatles fan (gasp), but that they were damn strong songwriters is undeniable.

4. "Will I?" - Jonathan Larson - Rent (Original Broadway Cast)
One of my favorite numbers from this score. A kind of round, with various characters singing about the uncertainty of the future living with AIDS brings: "Will I lose my dignity/Will someone care/Will I wake tomorrow/From this nightmare?"

5. "Goodbye" - John Ottman - X-Men 2 (score)
A decent, but not great, score, that's a tad too generic for my tastes.

6. "New York (Live)" - U2 - U2 Elevation Tour 2001 - Live from Boston
One of the lesser songs off of All that You Can't Leave Behind, it fared much better live than on disc. I wish they had shelved this for the tour and done that album's "When I Look at the World" instead.

7. "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" -- Audra McDonald -- How Glory Goes
I like Audra better when she's doing contemporary musical theater songs, but it can't be denied that she excels on these old standards as well.

8. "Last Boat Leaving" - Elvis Costello - Spike
One of Costello's prettier songs, a Celtic-feeling ballad with some great guitar (mandolin?) work.

9. "Variation VII2" - Brahms - Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
I bought the disc for the Beethoven, and have probably only listened to the Brahms once. My loss.

10 "But Not for Me" -- Elvis Costello -- Glory of Gershwin
A star-studded Gershwin tribute album featuring harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler on all tracks. He adds a nice soulfulness to Costello's respectful but impassioned rendition of this great Gershwin ballad.

Until Whenever

5. "

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Known World

"The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins. The young ones, his son among them, had been sent out of the fields an hour or so before the adults, to prepare the late supper and, if there was time enough, to play in the few minutes of sun that were left. When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harness that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five-inch long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fifteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as evening quiet wrapped itself about him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing. He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage woman, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life."

The preceding is the first paragraph of Edward P. Jones' Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Known World. When the book first came out in 2003, I read it and was, frankly just overwhelmed by its scope and depth. I knew it was a great novel but at the same time I knew I hadn't gotten nearly enough out of it. Its huge, sprawling cast and time-jumping narrative had, at least in part, defeated me. I knew I had to read it again.

Last week I finished re-reading the novel, and my suspicions were born out. This is, perhaps, the greatest novel I have ever read. Jones is a masterful writer, but, and this is what I find so remarkable, I have no idea as to how he does it. As that opening paragraph ably demonstrates, his narrative voice is a very simple and direct one. He tells his story plainly and cleanly, in direct, clear sentences, and yet the cumulative effect of this style is one of great power. The reader feels connected to the characters, and their story, in a way that seems counterintuitive with such a, in many ways, dry style.

The story itself should get a lot of the credit to be sure. The germ of the novel lies in the fact that during slavery times in the South there were a number, not a large number but a number all the same, of freed blacks who owned slaves themselves. The novel is about one such imaginary black man in Virginia, Henry Townsend, the man whose death is referred to in the very first line of the novel above. Townsend's death precipitates many a flashback, through which we learn his history, how he came to be freed, how he came to own slaves, all of it. We also learn much about seemingly every person in the imaginary Manchester County Jones sets his story in. The cast of characters is, as I said, large, but each is painted with a sure hand and a keen ear. Throughout the course of the novel, we learn more about all of these characters as the story moves in fits and starts to tell us of both Henry's past and what happens to those his life has touched after his death. It's not a straightforward, point A to point B narrative but rather a weaved tapestry of connected stories. Nonetheless, this is most decisively one cohesive novel, not a loose collection of stories. Every character and every story tie together into one epic piece, in as seamless a way as I can imagine.

Through this large story, Jones also does a fine job of describing the time and place. We learn much about slavery and the relationships among slaves and between them and his masters through the matter-of-fact stories Jones tells. It's an emotional novel, to be sure, and all the more so because Jones steadfastly refuses to grandstand or allow melodrama or pathos to enter his style. That near-dry, putting-the-facts-on-the-table style is consistent throughout, and when dramatic events happen, and they do, they hit all the harder for that restraint.

Suffice it to say I recommend this novel with all my being. As I said, I'm having a hard time making a case for any other to take its place as the greatest I've ever read (sorry Stephen King).
Until Whenever
Rock Star: Week Nine--Alas, Poor Jordis

A sad week eight for this fan. I truly think Jordis had the voice and sensibility best suited to doing something interesting with INXS, if not best suited to recreating Michael Hutchence. But she did seem nervous the past few weeks, and the intensity of the competition just may have been too much. In any case, she'll be sorely missed.

This week:

J.D.--"Come As You Are" (Nirvana) and "Pretty Vegas" (original)
J.D. elects to do "Come As You Are" with pretty much just solo piano for the first two-thirds, and the effect kind of works, although his mannered voicde and presence continue to grate. His original ain't half bad, and it does have something of an INXS vibe. The public would vote his original as tea best the next day.

Suzie--"I Can't Make You Love Me" (Bonnie Raitt) and "Soul Life" (original)
Suzie sings the tender ballad well, but her soulful, big and open voice just doesn't seem right for their band, INXS, to me. Her original is a little too easy-going and tame for an INXS song, and its fairly generic soul vibe doesn't really impress me.

MiG--"Hard to Handle" (Black Crowes) and "Home in Me" (original)
MiG is a good singer, but has no real fee lfor the blues (not that he'd need it to do INXS stuff) and his rendition of the Crowes song is rushed and thin. His ballad is a nightmare, a sappy, treacly bit of overcooked fluff that would feel soft at the end of a made-for-DVD Barbie movie. Debbie Gibson heard the song and barfed. Richard Marx was embarrassed by its cheese. Celine Dion couldn't believe the schmaltz. Really bad.

Jordis--"We Are the Champions" (Queen) and "Try Not" (original)
Jordis handles the Queen song ably, though she does stumble over some of the more tricky rhythms. Every time someone sings Queen just how good of a singer Freddie Mercury was just becomes more and more apparent. That reduced, more nervous stage presence is still present. Her original, I thought, was the best of the bunch, and very INXS-ready--funky with a hard enough rock edge. I'm very, very curious to see what she does after this show, whether or not she is able to put together a high-profile career, because she really is, if not the best technical vocalist, the best singer in the bunch. But that nervousness, nowhere in evicence earlier, was getting to be an issue.

Marty--"Everlong (Foo Fighters) and "Trees" (original)
Marty does a great job of giving INXS what they want by stripping "Everlong" down to an acoustic number, letting him scream less and sing more. And his song is the catchiest of the bunch, with a very clear modern-rock sound that would be comfortable on radio today. Marty is good, but I still can't see him doing INXS songs. Nonetheless, the band seems intrigued.

The elimination night had one surprise, with J.D. in the bottom three, but, as might have been expected, Jordis got the boot. With four left, the show really gets into the nitty-gritty next week.

Until Whenever
No. Rubber. Ears.
I'm pretty sure I had heard this before, but Marvel is going to try and pull a Lucas and make their own films, rather than sell the rights to other studios. Paramount has agreed to play the role that Fox plays for Lucas and distribute the films for a fee. The key grafs:

Marvel Entertainment -- previously Marvel Enterprises -- is set to announce Tuesday its name change and completion of its loan package, and also will divulge that superheroes Captain America, the Avengers, Nick Fury, Black Panther, Ant-Man, Cloak & Dagger, Dr. Strange, Hawkeye, Power Pack and Shang-Chi will get the feature-film treatment.

Paramount Pictures, under a deal announced in April shortly after Brad Grey took the helm of the studio, will distribute and market the films, the first of which will be released in 2008 or possibly sooner.

I'm crossing my fingers as many times as they'll go for a good Captain America movie, the good Captain being, easily, my favorite superhero character from way back. I have strong doubts they'd do it this way, but for my money the best, if somewhat risky, way to go would be to do the first movie completely retro. World War II, Red Skull, Bucky, the works. Big, epic, war battles, Nazis, thrilling action--do it all.

See, the central appeal of Captain America is in large part the whole "man out of time" aspect. The notion that this great, near-mythological hero from decades past has returned to fight the good fight. It's going to be hard to really capture that in one movie through flashbacks and the like. But if they take the time to spend a good two to two and a half hours building that reputation, actually showing us the whole World War II history of Cap, the origin and all of it, in one whole movie, only to end with a huge cliffhanger--Cap being frozen and then found 50, 60 years later--then they have not only the background to make the character really compelling to new audiences (and face it, Cap isn't that well-known outside of the comics-savvy community), but also one heck of a hook for the sequel.

That's what I'd do, anyway, but, in case you weren't sure, I'm not in charge.

Until Whenever

P.S.--While the universally acknowledged horribleness of the low-budget early-90s Captain America film (the source of this post's title) is entirely deserved, they did get one thing right--the teaser poster. The font and backlighting may be pure cheese, but the concept is perfect. Captain America's mighty shield indeed.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Mixing It Up

Lefty is hosting a contest to win a Darth Tater toy, and yours truly has entered. The task was to create a CD mix, with the selections picked to fit any of three criteria (see here for details). I elected to go the alphabetical route, and, selected a set of songs united by their mellow vibe, the intent to get away from the alterna-, indie-, and cult-rock selections that so often pop up on these types of mixes and instead present some classics and some beautiful new music. I was pretty liberal in my application of the alphabetical dictum, using the last names of composers and/or artists indiscriminately to get the songs I wanted. I also limited myself to one disc, so some letters, alas, were left without representation. Did I succeed? Lefty's response is here; suffice it to say I most likely won't be winning the dastardly Darth in question (damn my eternal love for Audra McDonald!!).

Anyway, here is the mix I sent off to Lefty:

Tosy and Cosh's Mellow Mix for a Lazy Summer Day

1. Louis Armstrong--"Summer Song" (written by Dave Brubeck)
The defining summer song for me; just an exquisite piece of writing with a beautifully laconic melody.

2. Audra McDonald--"Stars and the Moon" (written by Jason Robert Brown)
A wistful little cabaret number that has, in its short life, already become something of a standard. A sad song about the choices people make in life. The first of many Audra appearances. The Audra overload wasn't by design so much as the natural result of wanting to include several of the "new" musical theater composers, and of Audra's interpretations of their songs being so definitive in so many cases.

3. Elvis Costello--"God Give Me Strength" (written by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach)
Elvis hits just completely nails the high note at the end of this song. Painted from Memory, the Bacharach-collaboration album from which I pulled this track, is a wonderful album full of twisty, melancholy melodies sung beautifully by Costello (for a look at why Costello ranks as one of the great rock singers, see here)

4. Bob Dylan--"Sugar Baby"
Possibly my favorite Dylan song. So suffused with feeling and sadness, and one of the great vocals.

5. Ella Fitzgerald--"Love Is Here to Stay: (written by George Gershwin)
One of my favorite Gershwin songs, this version is second only to Nat King Cole's sublime rendition, which was my wife and I's wedding song.

6. Audra McDonald--"How Glory Goes" (written by Adam Guettel)
A remarkable song, sung from the point of view of one about to die asking God what heaven will be like.

7. k.d. lang--"Hallelujah" (written by Leonard Cohen)
As Lefty says, a rendition to challenge the much-beloved Jeff Buckley cover.

8. Audra McDonald--"Tom" (written by Michael John LaChiusa)
One of LaChiusa's best, off of the Hello Again score. A woman sings about an affair, with highly sustained tension and longing.

9. Audra McDonald--"You Don't Know this Man (written by Jason Robert Brown)
A bitter song off of Brown's Parade score, in which a woman lashes out at a community who has judged her husband for a crime he didn't commit.

10. Sinead O'Connor--"Sacrifice" (written by Elton John)
Lefty didn't care for it, but this is one of my favorite covers, ever. O'Connor starts off at barely more than a hush, and over the course of the song builds to a passionate finale.

11. Mandy Patinkin--"Loving You" (written by Stephen Sondheim)
Controlled, not belting, Mandy. One of my favorite songs in any genre, ever.

12. Queen--"Who Wants to Live Forever?"
Lefty notes the awesome transition between this and the previous, but to be honest it's completely accidental.

13. Radiohead "True Love Waits"
One of my favorite Radiohead songs, a quiet acoustic number.

14. Nina Simone--"Little Girl Blue" (written by Rodgers and Hart)
Simone completely makes this song hers by scrapping the original accompaniment and instead singing the melody over a softly playing tender piano rendition of "Good King Wenceslas." Sounds bizarre, but in practice it's beautiful.

15. U2--"Miss Sarajevo"
A lost U2 gem they've resurrected for the current tour.

16. Cassandra Wilson--"Shelter from the Storm" (written by Bob Dylan)
Another superb cover, with Wilson wrapping her vpice around the song's tenderness and fully bringing it out.

17. Neil Young--"Harvest Moon"
An autumnal song, apt for ending a lazy summer disc, I thought.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

And Again, and Again, If Only

To celebrate the long-awaited release of the second season of Once & Again on DVD a few weeks back, I thought I'd offer up my thoughts on the first season, which has been out for three some-odd years now, but has been re-released along with the second season (not sure if it was out of print or what).

For the uninitiated, O&A was an ABC series that debuted to very strong critical response but only managed tepid ratings, in part because ABC had an annoying habit of moving it around as if it were the ball in a shell game--the intent perversely seeming to be to make audiences unable to find it (one imagines devilish ABC executives laughing maniacally as devoted fans keep picking up the wrong shell). The series started out as the simple story of a divorced man with two children and a divorced woman with two children meeting and falling in love, but very quickly became really about the two families and how the relationship between the two protagonists (Rick and Lily) affected everyone, from themselves to their children, to their parents, to their siblings, to their friends, to their co-workers, to their exes.

Sela Ward (now playing House's ex-wife on his eponymous FOX show) won an Emmy that first season for her portrayal of Lily, and it was richly deserved. Lily was beautiful (uncommonly, being played by Sela Ward) and smart, but very needy and insecure and emotionally a little broken. Ward caught all of that, often only via the subtlest glares. Billy Campbell (now doing something on The O.C., a show I've never seen), played Rick. During the first episode, we see Rick and Lily meet at the local high school--Rick is at the school for his son Eli (played by current E.R.-regular Shane West), a junior, and Lily is attending her daughter Grace's soccer game (Grace was played, wonderfully, by Buried Beauty nominee Julia Whelan) and the two meet briefly in the principal's office. That first episode brought the characters together and set them off as a, tentative at first, couple, and from there on the series slowly charted the trajectory of their relationship and the effect it had on their families.

The show also featured an interesting fourth-wall breaking device. The characters didn't speak to the camera, per se, (not in the Ferris Bueller sense) but within the show we would periodically break away from the main story for brief, black and white "confessionals" with the characters sitting and talking to an unseen and unheard-from interviewer about events relating to the story at hand. So, for example, in an episode focusing on the effect of the divorce on Rick's youngest daughter Jessie (played by Evan Rachel Wood, who went on to much acclaim in the film Thirteen and is in about a dozen upcoming movies), we would periodically break to "confessionals" featuring Jessie talking about finding out about the divorce. These were artfully woven into the main narrative and served as a unique and very unobstrusive way to allow the characters to reveal additional truths and complications about their lives and their reactions to one another.

What was wonderful about the show was how honestly and elegantly it handled such standard issues as new loves, the effect of divorce on kids, the pull of ex-spouses, all of it. By refusing to pull punches, or soften the edges of the world they were talking about, series creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz were able to tell a deeply complicated emotional story in true-long term time; in this case over three seasons. There's a moment in one of the early episodes that stands out as a stellar example of what I'm talking about: Rick is telling Lily about his divorce, and he refers to the moment when he told his two children that their mother and father were going to get a divorce as a physical act of violence, as akin to taking a baseball bat and hitting them over the head with it. It was so nice to see a series treat divorce honestly, and not to elide over the emotional damage it so often causes. And this from a series that is at its heart about two divorcees finding hope and happiness in each other; even with that ultimately happy message at its core, the series never tried to sugarcoat or oversimplify things by insisting that "divorce is OK or not OK."

This element is perhaps what impressed me about the show the most. For a show that took as its central conceit the beauty of newfound love for divorced 40-somethings, it never soft-pedaled the real damages that divorce causes. I haven't looked, but I'm fairly certain that if I did I could find some right-wing "family-first" Christian group that criticized the show when it was on the air for espousing a "pro-divorce" point of view. Which is, of course, to entirely miss the point. What the show did, and wonderfully, was to show all sides of divorce. The damage it does to families, the real lasting damage, but also the happiness that it can allow for. The show was never about "divorce is good" but about taking a strikingly honest look at the realities of divorce.

The show also did a remarkable job of treating the emotional conflicts between characters that were its bread and butter honestly. Issues were brought up and discussed, dramatized, certainly, but rarely resolved. Just like in real life. The issues you have with your spouse or siblings or parents are rarely issues that you fix; rather, they are periodic problems that are messily, if at all, dealt with for the moment until they surface again days or weeks or months down the line. And so it was with the show. One example: that Rick's brother and father were alcoholic were discussed, and that Rick himself may have had a drinking problem was hinted at heavily throughout the season's run, but the issue was never resolved. It was always, through three seasons, just there, hovering in the background, just like it very realistically might be in real life.

All of flowed from the writing, to be sure, but the cast uniformly was excellent as well, from the kids to the adults. Open, sensitive, wonderfully naturalistic (but not fetishizingly so), emotional performances were the norm, and it's impossible to find a weak link. One of the most cohesive and uniform ensembles to ever assemble for a TV series. I look at some of these performers in more detail below, as I, as a prelude to the second season, provide my (relatively) brief thoughts on the first season's 22 episodes. Spoilers abound, so those who have not yet seen this first season, I bid you adieu:

1. Boy Meets Girl
A perfect pilot, and remarkable for how much happens. Rick and Lily meet, have a few dates, get caught undressed by her kids, agree that it's too soon to start a relationship, and then come back together, all in one episode. Right off the bat we see amazing chemistry between Ward, Whelan, and Meredith Deane (as Lily's younger daughter Zoe). Whelan gets the angsty teen stuff, and does it well, but Deane gets the funnier little-girl material, and she's hilarious. Amazing that in 43 minutes or so we care so much--already--about this couple; we're rooting for them almost before they begin to really root for themselves.

2. Let's Spend the Night
The second episode centers around sex, as Lily and Rick wrestle with the decision to sleep together or not and Eli struggles with the same questions concerning his girlfriend, Jen. What's great about the episode is how naturally and honestly they portray the climactic (pun intended)sex scene between Rick and Lily--look to Ward's performance for some amazing emotional work as she struggles with the reality of sex with a man who is not her husband. I don't think I've ever seen as emotionally honest a sex scene, certainly not on TV. There's a very funny, affecting, and real-feeling subplot about a rumor at the high school about Eli and Grace having been caught by their parents (instead of Eli's dad and Grace's mom being caught by Grace, as happened last episode) that nicely foreshadows the crush Grace will have on Eli.

3. The Scarlet Letter Jacket
Lily and Karen (Rick's ex-wife, the ex-Borg Susannah Thompson) are forced into meeting and Grace is forced to work with Eli, at the school carnival. Great interactions between Ward and Thompson and Campbell and Jeffrey Nordling (as Lily's ex-husband Jake). The material with Grace being called out by a snotty cheerleader-type for liking Eli is handled wonderfully, with Whelan nailing the tremendous awkwardness of being a teen.

4. Liars and Other Strangers
One of the first heartbreakers, as Eli feels compelled to lie to protect his mother from finding about his father's new love. The last scene between Eli and Karen is just amazing stuff, as she realizes that her son sees himself as her protector--and more importantly that she sees him that way too. Thompson was great in this series; this was one of the first inklings we'd get of just how good she'd be.

5. There Be Dragons
One of the most amazing episodes of television I've ever seen, and out of nowhere Evan Rachel Wood shows what an amazing actress she already is at 14. Lily meets Rick's kids for the first time and at the same time Rick's and Jessie's annual hiking outing is ruined when he cuts his finger. The episode is really about Jessie's coming to terms with the divorce, and the scene with her and her father at the end just slays me every time I see it:

"Dad, will we ever be a family again?"
"No, sweetheart, no, we won't, not in the same way."

Pale on paper, but up on its feet being delivered by two amazing actors, simply and honestly--wow.

6. A Dream Deferred
The combative relationship between Rick and Lily's sister Judy (and Judy and Lily) intensifies, as Judy asks a handsome young artist/carpenter to discuss building a coffee bar for the bookshop she and Lily own and Lily brings in Rick for a second opinion, with Rick eventually taking the whole project over. An episode that gets us deep into the relationship between Lily and her sister, and starts to look at Lily's often needy, dependent relationships with the men in her life.

7. The Ex-Files
Rick and Karen go away together when Eli has a big out-of-town basketball game and Grace and Zoey meet their father's young girlfriend. I like that this early in the season, they weren't afraid to complicate things, by taking the time to explore the romantic lives of the exes as well as our central characters. Tiffany, in particular, would come to be a valuable addition to the series.

8. The Past Is Prologue
Rick gets consumed by a project at work and Lily is jealous. This could have been a very typical, surface episode, but the way they honestly explore Lily's feelings of jealousy--and the way the episode-ending discussion, if you listen closely, doesn't really resolve anything, shows how the writers could take the most banal of plots and use them to illuminate things about the characters.

9. Outside Hearts
The team takes on that most cliched family-drama plot, the "teen goes to party with drinking" chestnut, and makes it very, very real and fresh. Grace's shy attempts to socialize and talk to a boy she likes are played out with squirm-inducing honesty, and Judy and Lily get some wonderful interactions on parenting philosophies. This episode stands as but one example of what I really love about this show. Many an episode, including this one, ends with a heart-to-heart between conflicting characters over twinkly music, like so many family dramas. But if you listen carefully, you realize that, as a rule, problems are never solved, just illuminated. So the conflict here, of Eli's being dishonest with his parents, and with his parents struggling to set limits, isn't at all resolved at the episode's end, but is left very open-ended. Lily's over-protective ways and her sister's need to chafe against them for her nieces' sakes are discussed, but not resolved. The show is very much like life in this regard, in the way problems are discussed and cried about and shouted about but rarely solved.

10. Thanksgiving
A remarkable episode, in which we meet Lily's parents and see that they have barely acknowledged her separation. An artfully captured tense Thanksgiving dinner scene (Lily's parents have shanghaied her into letting Jake attend) is wonderful. In a very low-key way, they perfectly capture the "divorced family holiday" dynamics through both families.

11. Where's There
One of the season's best episodes, with the subplots about Karen struggling to let Eli grow up and Lily taking her kids out to dinner with Rick worthy of their own eps. But the main thread, with Jake's business deals unraveling and his breakdown to Lily, and her tearful support of this man she once loved that leads to sex, just kills, as we see Lily do to Rick just what Jake did to her--betray her trust; and this this after we've spent 10 episodes learning just how irrevocably painful that betrayal was to her.

12. The Gingerbread House
The Christmas episode. Lily can't stand the guilt and confesses to Rick, and he can't forgive her. Tears flow. One of the show's central scenes is in this episode, as Lily realizes that she wants a divorce and tells both Jake and Grace so in no uncertain terms. I love how Whelan is able to realistically take Grace from hating her Mom for what she's done to her Dad and to her family to feeling real sympathy for her Mom once things are final.

13. Mediation
Lily and Jake enter mediation, looking to avoid divorce attorneys, and Rick struggles with losing Lily. I had remembered the breakup as lasting longer; Rick and Lily get back together by the end of the episode, in a scene that's wonderful for how underplayed it is and for how much goes unsaid. There is no big speech, no big moment of insight, just Rick realizing that he can't let her go. Again, so much goes unresolved, as in life.

14. Sneaky Feelings
Karen, who has been seeing a safe, boring man, falls for a young, impulsive doctor, while Eli feels constrained by his relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer. The Karen plotline is notable for how believable the relationship between her and Leo is. Mark Feuerstein, who would later star in the execrable NBC sitcom Good Morning, Miami, is great here. It's an object lesson in the importance of writing--he was, frankly, not very good in his big sitcom, because the writing was simply horrible. Here, where he's given real quality material to work with, he's excellent. There's a great directing moment in this episode that bears mentioning as well. When Karen breaks up with Lloyd in a crowded diner, as they eat at the counter, the awkwardness of the moment is highlighted by the wonderful acting by several extras, in particular a woman sitting to Karen's right. The extras don't ignore what their characters can't help but overhear, as they would in so many films or TV shows, but neither do thy intercede, or comically comment, as we've also seen countless times. Instead, they subtly but clearly react to what's going on--just like in real life. The subplot works very well too, not for the typical teen breakup stuff, which is done very well, but for the way they focus on how Eli's breaking up with his girlfriend affects Jessie. The pain of having her family broken up is being repeated on a smaller scale, especially since she and Jen have become friends, and Wood does an insightful job of portraying a pre-teen's almost inchoate anger at what her brother's done to her and to her new friend. A great episode.

15. The Mystery Dance
Judy gets her spotlight episode, as she falls for a man she then discovers is married. Steve Weber, of Wings fame, plays the man, Sam, a sculptor friend of Rick's, and he would turn up as a more regular character in, if memory served, season three. Hinkle is wonderful at getting at the conflicting feelings of finally having found someone who could be a "soulmate" only to find out that he's unavailable. The show in the first season had a masterful way of examining infidelity from a variety of angles, and made a heartbreaking case here for why Judy would let herself betray another woman as Jake betrayed her sister.

16. Daddy's Girl
An episode focusing on Lily and Jake's divorce proceedings, with Lily abandoning mediation and hiring a divorce attorney. Paul Masursky returns as Lily's father. The conflicts and tensions that have swirled around all season between Lily, Jake, and Phil (Lily's dad) come to a head here. At the same time, Grace begins a flirtation/relationship with a classmate, in a subplot that featured some of Whelan's most vulnerable acting in the season--she completely nails the hesitancy and awkwardness that goes with those first teenaged flirtations.

17. Unfinished Business
A complete heartbreaker of an episode. After a first-act feint involving Phil and Grace getting into a car accident that results in nothing worse than a broken ankle for Phil, Phil collapses and is rushed to the hospital, having suffered a massive stroke. Zwick and Hershowitz take another standard, near-cliche family drama plot--a family member dies--and treat it with sublime sensitivity. The way they capture the unreality of death, the guilt survivors feel, the terror that losing a parent can cause, is commendable, and all the actors are remarkable. There's a moment where Judy, who had lashed out at Jake for overstepping his bounds in discussing with the family whether or not to take Phil off of life support after a second stroke removes all hope of recovery, comes over to Jake to comfort him, realizing that he's hurting as much as she is, that's beautiful in the way it simply plays out.

18. Strangers and Brothers
As the family deals with the funeral and sitting shiva, we finally meet the oft-alluded to but never seen Aaron, Lily and Judy's schizophrenic brother. Patrick Dempsey plays Aaron, and he would return for an episode or two each year. His performance is remarkably touching, exhibiting none of the actorly tics that so often infect actors' performances when playing mentally ill people. Aaron's illness is treated with real care and sympathy, and not leveraged for easy sentiment or laughs. Instead, Dempsey gives us a real, complicated human being. The episode's central scene, featuring Grace bonding with her usually absent uncle, is a perfect little piece of theater, with the two actors doing a marvelous job of showing us two people getting to know each other. The way Grace's initial delicacy in interacting with her ill uncle gives way to infectious joy as she and her sister show him old family pictures, and how their rambunctious happiness and laughter ultimately prove to be too much for him, leading him to an "outbreak," just tears at the heart.

19. Cat-in-the-Hat
Another Karen-centric episode, as Leo insinuates himself more into her life. Priceless comedy featuring an exuberant Leo meeting Rick and Lily, and more stellar work from Thompson as she limns the competing pulls of propriety and happy lust that threaten to tear Karen apart.

20. My Brilliant Career
Lily starts her job as an assistant to Christy, the young editor of an on-line literary magazine. The office stuff is solid, with Lily feeling like she's playing den mother to a brood of young, goofy, Internet start-up twenty-somethings, but the real meat of the ep features Grace finally finding out that her father cheated on her mother, just as she's also experiencing her first date and kiss. Whelan is just brilliant here; we can feel the betrayal and hurt as she experiences it. For me there are two moments in this first season that stand out as completely and utterly killing me, just hard-hitting pure moments of real human emotion that take me aback with their truth. One was in episode five when Jessie and Rick discussed the divorce (see above). The dialogue is simple on the page, but the way the actors speak the lines, the way Wood is able to invest so much hope into that simple question, and the way that Campbell makes it clear how much it hurts Rick to say that two-letter word, and how much he knows he's causing real pain to his daughter by saying it, make the scene a wonder of human emotion.

The second takes place in this episode, when at the end Lily tries to comfort Grace and let her know that she can still love her father: (paraphrased)

Grace: Then why couldn't you forgive him?
Lily: I can, and I am, but I can no longer be in love with him.
Grace: (bursting into tears) What if I can't love him anymore?

Let me tell you, I tear up a bit just remembering the scene. Whelan and Ward are brilliant in it, and the absolute truth of it, the real pain and damage they acknowledge; again, anyone who claims the show soft-pedals divorce just isn't watching closely.

21. Letting Go
We revisit Judy's affair with Sam, all the better to highlight Grace's ongoing inability to forgive her father. The parallel stories here, while perhaps a bit obvious, pay off in spades, with the sheer pain Jake has inflicted upon Grace hitting Judy like the proverbial ton of bricks. Hinkle is great at portraying the conflicts within the besotted Judy's sheer need for Sam and her conscious' urging her to do the right thing. There's also a subplot here about Rick having to spend a day in the hospital after coming down with the flu that's effective both in how it moves the plot--Lily realizes just how much this man has come to mean to her--and in the way it acknowledges that the last third if the season almost dropped the Rick and Lily dynamic to focus elsewhere. Another moment worth mentioning involves both Karen and Lily bristling in the confessionals about "another woman" becoming involved with their kids; the irony and hypocrisy is wryly depicted in a moment of great humor as Lily, talking about Tiffany, echoes Karen's earlier indignant sentiments about her (Lily).

22. A Door, About to Open
A nicely ambiguous season finale. Lily and Rick decide to get the four kids together for dinner, Rick's illness having made them realize how much they really have come to love each other, and how some things just shouldn't be put off. Lily's overeagerness, a demanding client of Rick's, and drama involving Grace having to deliver bad news about Eli's new girlfriend cheating on him all conspire to stop the dinner from happening, but in the end the families do meet, the door to the Manning household opening to let Rick, Eli, and Jessie in and the season ending. So befitting for this show, which lets so many things go unresolved, to end on such an ambiguous note.

After re-watching this set, I'm more eager than ever to see the second season again, not having seen it since it's original air date. This was truly one of the great television dramas, and I only wish it hadn't been so prematurely ended. Still, the two and two-third seasons they did produce stand up as easily classic-worthy; as involving; as filled with real, compelling, interesting characters; and as insightful about family as the much-more-lauded (and successful) The Sopranos.

Until Whenever