30 June 2012

June, 2012 Errata

Rather than develop any of these into their own posts, here are several subjects in concentrated form that may or may not be explored further in future posts.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

The central tenet of Star Trek is one that celebrates diversity. Just this week, I've read some eye-opening blog posts by a musical-loving introvert and a British trans woman and I've chatted frequently through Google with a jaded feminist with a spiffy blog of her own. Every time I run afoul someone bemoaning "political correctness," I think of all the people represented by the microcosm of these three women and I realize that the complaining party's real problem is a lack of relationships with anyone outside their own homogeneous pool of people. I realized the effect these three (and several others) have had on me when I saw Billy Elliot: The Musical Wednesday night and I caught myself nitpicking its biases. It wasn't because some social bogeyman forced me think such things; it's because I've come to respect, like and care about people who aren't like me. They've taught me wonderful things about themselves, people like them...and they've also taught me some things about myself along the way.

Mash-ups Bore Me

Various YouTube fan edits and mashups keep circulating the web and I know I can't stop that and frankly, I don't even want to stop it. It's just that I can't really get into 99% of them, no matter how clever or well synchronized they are with the new music or trailer voice-over or whatever. When it comes time to discuss, I always come across as the unimaginative stick in the mud.

Anti-Obamacare Hostility

Here's the thing about the way this years-long issue has played out. The anti-Obamacare crowd has become so hateful that those of us who do support it can't even celebrate it publicly. We're so bullied by accusations of being lazy, selfish thieves who should have done something differently in our lives that isn't anyone else's responsibility to fix and we should just die and decrease the surplus population and how dare we even ask for sympathy because that's immoral of us that we just want to keep our heads down and not say a word. That's the real battle of health care reform: the bullies are winning, even if the Supreme Court unexpectedly handed down a favorable ruling on its legality.

I understand the importance to President Obama's reelection chances that his supporters be vocal, and I understand the importance to protecting this key piece of legislation of reelecting him. But after being hospitalized last year for severe depression partially brought on by the bullying persecution of the Tea Party, I just don't have it in me to make myself a target over this anymore. Mr. President, I appreciate that you've staked your political career and legacy on legislation designed to benefit millions of Americans like me and you can count on my vote come November. I hope you'll understand, though, if I keep kinda quiet about it right now. Of course, if you could give me some "red meat" by calling out that bullying and confronting it for what it is, that could make it more palatable for me to join you on the battlefield.

The Tea Party Threatening to Move to Canada if Obamacare Isn't Repealed

Sometimes, things are just so perfect they don't even need commentary.

Facebook Just Wants to Beat Children

It seems every other day, someone is circulating a diatribe on Facebook about how special their generation was, because their parents beat their asses and that's what's wrong with today's out-of-control kids, etc. I waded into one such debate, but I've let dozens of others pass without a comment because, like Obamacare, I just don't have it in me to fight these battles on a daily basis. The Reader's Digest version of my philosophy on out-of-control children is: "Kids are not out of control because no one spanks them. Kids are out of control because no one is investing the time to help that child develop properly. Spanking is irrelevant."

I was spanked just a few times in my life, almost none that occurred after I was old enough to form memories and the truth is I still believe the last one was an entirely uncalled for lashing out from my dad who just needed to reassert his dominance over me; not that I had committed some heinous infraction of the social contract. It wasn't that my parents were permissive; quite the contrary. It's that my mom took the time to discuss situations with me, even when they weren't at hand, so that I had no excuse for not seeing the right and wrong ways of handling them should they arise. Spanking without guidance becomes merely a tax for a child to pay, and guidance doesn't need the reinforcement of physical contact or even the threat of it.

Again, I also refer you to the memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelin, who wrote in her diary of the late 1600s and early 1700s about how terrible her children and their generation were. Every generation is branded the worst to ever walk the Earth, unlike any that have gone before it, etc. It comes from dishonest nostalgia. Take a look at a post I wrote in 2010 about today's youth ("Narcissistic Volunteers") and one I wrote just a couple weeks ago ("Birthright, Entitlement and Yard Sales") for more on my perspective on youth.

Tawkify

Lastly, one of my friends turned me onto Tawkify last night. She learned of it from a review on Gizmodo. It's an online dating service, but it's done the old-fashioned way: You hand yourself over to their human matchmakers. They're running a Klout-based promo right now, and my 54 score entitled me to three free matches (if I'd hit 60, I would have qualified for their 6 months, "red carpet" package). I naturally agonized over the registration process. I always fear that if I don't disclose all my baggage up front, then I'm just setting myself up for accusations of defrauding anyone who might actually go out with me when it comes to light. Yet, I also know that if I'm forthright about all of it up front, no one would ever bother with me. It's very frustrating for someone like me to do these things, and no matter how many times my friends tell me that no one is ever fully honest in their profiles and how I'm making it unnecessarily harder on myself, etc., I can't shake the feeling that I'm somehow concealing an unpleasant truth by not saying, "Okay, look...I have dubious health, no money, etc."

Anyway, I did manage to complete the registration process so we'll see what (if anything) comes of it. They never asked me about my income or marital status. I can only assume that my being poor and still legally married aren't supposed to disqualify me. At least it's something different from languishing on my own. Now, the Tawkify matchmakers have the burden of setting me up thrice. The Gizmodo article was pretty interesting and if you're curious at all, Dear Reader, I encourage you to take a look and give it a chance.

28 June 2012

"Dallas" (2012) Episode #4

Dallas
"The Last Hurrah" (Episode 104)


Alas, this is only a partial episode review because I missed both the 9:00 airing and the first ~18 minutes of the 11:00 encore airing on account of seeing Billy Elliot: The Musical. As such, I can only say that I really enjoyed the subplot of Bobby and Christopher with the tragic cow birth. I knew that the delivery would come to represent something else, but I didn't anticipate its actually sweet symbolic value at the end when Bobby reiterated his love for his son and made clear (again) that Christopher being adopted is not at all an issue for him. That's the side of Bobby that I've always admired.

Not only does Dallas need him to help offset J.R., but I think TV in general needs more Bobby Ewings. I readily concede, Dallas would lose its appeal if it was Bobby-centric; the show thrives on the machinations and double-crosses in which he rarely wittingly partakes. But there's something really healthy about him being present throughout all of it, reminding both the other characters and us the audience that people like J.R. and John Ross should not have an unchecked go of things, and that there are values and ideals that don't require being ruthless. Too many shows are afraid to have a Bobby Ewing, because they worry it takes away from their edginess somehow. I couldn't disagree more. Bobby's presence is what has always allowed us to feel comfortable with Dallas.


As for J.R., it was quite a lot of fun to watch him play everyone to set in motion his claiming Southfork for himself. Watching him throw John Ross under the bus was the payoff that makes last episode more palatable in retrospect. It never felt right, J.R. going from having a straight razor to his son's throat to immediately pleading with him for forgiveness, etc. This, however, feels a lot more like J.R. and now I feel validated for saying last week's behavior felt off-kilter.

This is twice, by the way, that we've seen Ray and Lucy and both times they've appeared together at a Southfork function. What's their deal? I'd like to see them in different contexts. If nothing else, I'd like to see Bobby and Ray trade stories over a beer, or for Anne and Lucy to develop a closeness. Just something that lets us know these characters are actually allowed on the ranch outside of formal events, y'know?

"Billy Elliot: The Musical"

Billy Elliot: The Musical
Janet Dickinson, Rich Hebert, Patti Perkins, Cullen R. Titmas
Introducing Ty Forhan, Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske
Choreography by Peter Darling
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Date of Performance: 27 June 2012
Whitney Hall - Kentucky Center for the Arts

Did I actually attend a musical? Yarp. A friend of mine had a pair of tickets she couldn't use and she offered them free of charge on Facebook to keep them from going to waste. That led to me going with a woman I'd never met who, as it turns out, is also the sister of another of my friends (they're not very close, hence my inability to make the connection myself). None of this really matters, of course, but I wanted to make clear that my attendance at all was a combination of generosity, specific timing and my own predilection for pursuing impulse decisions that seem like they could prove to be a lark.

I knew absolutely nothing about Billy Elliot: The Musical until we arrived at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I didn't even know there had already been a movie version. The premise is simple enough: it's 1984 and Lady Thatcher is hellbent on busting the coal union, exerting tremendous pressure on the small mining towns across the United Kingdom. In one such community is an 11 year old boy, Billy Elliot, whose unique aptitude for ballet is entirely inconsistent with the conservative nature of his environment.

Ty Forhan performed as Billy in the performance we saw, and I was very impressed by him. His manner of speaking was quite unique in that it did not feel like typical youth stage speaking, a point made explicitly clear whenever the actor playing Michael appeared onstage (it was either Cameron Clifford or Jacob Zelonky; I missed it if it was mentioned). Forhan's inflections and volume were not at all the kind of stage voice to which I am accustomed. In one scene, he shares with his ballet mentor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Janet Dickinson), a letter from his deceased mother. He half-sings the letter to her, and his voice became appropriately shaky. I confess, I grimaced a bit and even felt on the verge of becoming teary-eyed when his voice cracked. Maybe that was just puberty, but it was moving all the same.

One element of musicals that has never worked for me is spontaneous dancing. In Billy Elliot, I found it worked very well. Much of the dancing is either a moment of in-story dancing (i.e., the ballet class practice where the character is meant to be performing) or the song and dance numbers were used as a stylistic shorthand for the subplot of the miners' strike, including several escalating altercations with the police.

I am, of course, familiar with the perspective of dance being an expression of emotion not easily articulated in any other way. I've accepted it as a valid philosophy but never been particularly impressed by it...until this. Forhan's dances felt organic to me, rather than the artificial routines to which I am accustomed. Each movement felt like part of a natural progression to his emotional manifestation. His arms reached, and I felt his hopefulness; he fell prostrate to the floor and I knew how discouraged he was. I have never actually felt as though I was following along with someone's emotions through their dance before this. Kudos to choreographer Peter Darling - and to Ty Forhan!

I did, however, have very mixed feelings about the story itself. There's a very clear conflict between the arts and the working class miners, who are disinclined toward that kind of abstract stuff. We're clearly meant to sympathize with the miners as victims of Lady Thatcher's regime, but they're also the antagonists of Billy's personal arc. Billy's talent eventually helps break through some of their prejudices toward the ballet and arts in general, but I could easily see a lot of working class people being rightly offended at being portrayed as ignorant bigots. I don't doubt the verisimilitude of the story, growing up as I did in a small town likewise disinclined toward anything of fancy. Still, the message is very clearly so pro-arts that I'm unclear what lesson the arts world was supposed to learn from this, except reinforcement of the belief they're more enlightened than working class people.

More troubling was the matter of the heteronormative/cisgender/cissexual content including pervasive jokes about dance being for "poofs." I confess: I have always had very little patience for over-the-top, "fabulous" queens. The theatricality grates on my nerves, and Michael is such a character. He enthusiastically wears feminine clothing, even leading to an entire dance number that bizarrely culminates with backup dancers performing as anthropomorphic dresses. Michael's enthusiasms are played for laughs throughout the musical and it seemed unclear to me whether it was meant as an in-joke for the LGBTQ-friendly musical viewing demographic or if it was simply insensitive toward the transsexual community. Whether because that made my spider-sense tingle or because of the aforementioned issue I had with the actor's line delivery, I found little of the humor involving the character actually amusing.

I will say, however, that next to the letter reading sequence, my favorite moment in the whole thing involves Michael. It's Christmastime and the boys are about to part ways after a community-wide party, when Michael places Billy's hands on his chest. When asked why he did that, Michael suggests that he's trying to warm Billy's hands before he goes. Then he leans in and kisses his friend on the cheek. There was a tenderness to it that I found genuinely touching. I was actually sad for Michael when Billy recoiled, falling back on the heteronormative/cissexual/cisgender theme of insisting that just because he's into ballet doesn't mean he's gay. At the end of the story, when Billy leaves town, he does make a point to kiss Michael on the cheek when they exchange goodbyes. That made me smile.

Ultimately, then, I would say that I was extremely impressed by the execution, but troubled by the story itself. When it's just about Billy, it shines; when it gets into the various subplots, it gets rather murky.

25 June 2012

What's so "Brave" About Deception?


I reviewed the latest Pixar feature film, Brave, for Flickchart and you can read the basis of my perspective on the film there.

In discussing Brave, I recently responded to someone who didn’t understand why so many viewers were disappointed. I made note that Pixar was dishonest about what the film was; their trailers suggested a sweeping medieval epic and not a story about inadvertently turning one’s mother into a bear. Someone scoffed at that being my problem, asking me “Are we really at the point where we need everything spoiled for us in the trailer?”

Here is the original teaser trailer.


Trailer #1


We get a quick glimpse of a cauldron and we see the triplets as bears, but the film suggested by this trailer is of an independent young woman who faces down a bear in the course of becoming a legend in her father's kingdom.

It is unprecedented for me to advocate spoilers of any kind, but here’s the problem: The transformation of Elinor into a bear is the big reveal but it is not the payoff of the film. In fact, it’s only a big reveal because it was obfuscated by the advertising campaign. It occurs at the end of Act I, and anything in Act I should be fair game for a trailer. That’s the early part of the story in which characters are introduced to audience and to one another, and the objectives are established. The objective of Brave was to use Elinor’s involuntary transformation as an opportunity to grow her relationship with her daughter. There is no reason that could not have been made clear to us before we set foot inside the theater, except for one thing.

Once we know that it’s really about Elinor’s transformation into a bear, we already know what the rest of the movie is going to be and there are no surprises left. The moment we see Merida visit the witch, we know that the rest of the film will not resemble the film suggested by the trailer. At that point in the film, even young children could anticipate what will happen: “The mom will be made into a bear and the dad won’t know it and he’ll try to her hurt her because she’s a bear and Merida will have to turn her mom back and in the end they’ll all know that family is what really matters. The end.”

The ultimate problem is that Brave has no surprises to offer; ergo, there was nothing to avoid spoiling except what the film actually is. That’s not protecting the art of the story; that’s deceptive propping up of a movie in which Pixar clearly lacked confidence to attract an audience, and with good reason, because it’s quite unlikely we would have even been interested. Pixar’s reticence to divulge this information from Act I speaks volumes about how weak Acts II and III really are, and that’s why so many viewers have been disappointed.

Of course, I’ve also encountered one guy whose problem was “all the bullshit liberal and feminist themes.” When someone considers a young woman daring to think for herself and resisting arranged marriages some kind of leftist agenda, I know better than to take the bait. Even though Pixar dropped the ball with a predictable and thin story, at least they didn’t make a film that appeased that guy. That’s something.

20 June 2012

"Dallas" (2012) Episode 3

Dallas
"The Price You Pay" (Episode 103)

The teaser segment (that part that plays before the main titles/opening credits) features J.R. and John Ross in barber's chairs being shaved. J.R. excuses the barbers and, with straight razor held to John Ross's throat, tells him he knows about his son's intent to double-cross him on the Southfork purchase deal. I was like, "WOAH!" and whatnot, as the kids say. Then we're off to the main title sequence and as much as I love Jerrold Immel's iconic theme (even this abridged arrangement), I was thrilled that there wasn't a commercial break before the episode proper.


Except no sooner does the story resume than J.R. has already rescinded his threat and is now apologizing to John Ross for being an absentee father and is pleading to let him make it up by teaching him everything he knows now? There were shades of Palpatine and Anakin, but it was still anticlimactic.


On with the rest of the episode, though, which was dominated by Bobby's post-surgery cancer management and the matter of Christopher and Elena's working relationship becoming more of a priority to him than his marriage to Rebecca...who in turn is struggling between her genuine devotion to her new husband and her two-year long scheme planned with her brother. Into the mix is also the return of Cliff Barnes, hoping to become the new owner of Southfork and wishing to invest in Christopher's alternate energy plan (and possibly sewing seeds of dissent among the Ewings in the process).


I have to say, I was not a fan of this episode. To begin, I find the course of Bobby's cancer treatment disingenuous. There's no way he already had a tumor cut out of his guts. I know enough people who've had to have their guts cut on, even minor procedures, who didn't bounce back the way Bobby apparently did. I'm not saying this should have been drawn out into "A Very Special Episode of Dallas" or anything so melodramatic but this should have been his moving-slow/on-the-mend episode. Take advantage of the week between episodes. I'd have bought it a week from now that he was mostly fine again, but not this week.


As for the Christopher/Elena/Rebecca plot, I found that also wore thin. Elena doesn't seem to have much in the way of motivation right now. It's as though since Christopher told her he didn't send her the email (that she never even confronted him about), she's become some kind of subservient Girl Friday trying to make his project work. In the first two episodes, I really came to like her and I could see myself caring about her. This weakly written Elena, however, did not evoke nearly the same interest or sympathy from me.

Moreover, I've got an issue with Christopher's project itself. I know it's supposed to function merely as a way of establishing the character's journey, etc., but I have a problem when fiction presents solutions to real life problems that real life has yet to solve. This has bugged me in the past with some Bond movies, and it bugs me again here. Out of all the scientists out there right now working away at alternative energy, are we really to just accept that Christopher Ewing has almost by himself worked out the solution in the course of a few all-nighters? Think about this for a minute. Christopher Ewing is like what a Kardashian might be if she had an interest in green energy. He was raised with a silver spoon and I'm sure he's worked hard at what he does, but do we really accept the idea that he's the one person to have this magical breakthrough? I just can't go there.

It was admittedly fun to see the return of Ken Kercheval as Cliff Barnes, though. I'm not a big fan of his attire, though. Cliff was always a step behind J.R., sure, but he wasn't such a dweeb that I envisioned him dressing like an elderly version of Larry from Three's Company. There's comedic potential in a Grumpy Old Oil Men subplot involving him, but I fear that's incongruous with the erstwhile tone of the series. The barbs exchanged between J.R. and Cliff didn't feel right to me. Nor did Cliff's taunt of Christopher that he'll 
"never be one of them [the Ewings]." Cliff was never the master of subtlety, but that was entirely too ham-fisted even for him.

The most concerning thing about tonight's episode is that when it was over, I didn't have the same urgent desire for next Wednesday that I had at the end of last week's premiere. Some of that is attributable, I'm sure, to the fact that now we're into the season instead of buzzing about its debut. Mostly, though, I think it's because this episode just felt like it existed to connect some dots and keep things moving onto subsequent developments. I never really felt like this episode existed as its own story, though, and because of that I was never able to really invest myself in it.

I did note that this episode was written not by series developer Cynthia Cidre, but by producer Bruce Rasmussen. I'm certain he didn't just create the entire episode from scratch by himself; most of the broader themes would have been laid out as part of the season plan ahead of time so I can't fault him for something like Christopher's energy epiphany. But the rest of my complaints fall squarely on his perfunctory story. Things happen because the next scene needed them to happen, rather than because the previous scene made them happen. It's only the third episode and I'm trying to keep some perspective, but I do hope the rest of this season bears a stronger resemblance to the first two episodes than to the third.

19 June 2012

"The Absence" by Melody Gardot

The Absence
Melody Gardot
Date of Release: 29 May 2012 (CD, MP3), 5 June 2012 (Vinyl), 3 July 2012 (CD+DVD Deluxe Edition)

Okay, I was admittedly very stoked about Intrada's complete Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but of all-new 2012 music releases that I know of this is without question the one that excited me most. I've been a fan of Melody Gardot's music for a few years now. She's one of the few artists I enjoy so much that I have made a point to buy every bonus track and miscellaneous recording I can acquire - a task made particularly frustrating since several such recordings have yet to be released commercially in the United States. On 2 March, the following teaser video was released for The Absence.



Gardot has been viscerally sensuous with her music to date, but the content of that teaser was sexuality of a different nature than what we had seen or heard from her. It alarmed some fans, who expressed fears that she had sold out in an effort to catch a wider audience. I wasn't concerned. True, she still isn't a household name in America but she's cultivated a pretty stolid international fan base. I just don't read her as being so desperate for our validation that she would stroll nude on the beach on the hopes that an audience she doesn't seem to need might take closer notice of her.

The music of The Absence confirms my suspicions. There's simply no way that an artist reduced to pandering to American audiences for record sales creates an album in tribute to a months-long trek through Portugal and Brazil. Gardot set out to explore the shared musical heritage of those two parts of the world, divided by the Atlantic. Had she consulted me, I would have suggested she instead title this album Tordesillas. Portugal was ceded Brazil by a treaty signed there in 1494 and it is because of that arrangement that there exists today the threads of music and culture that so appealed to Gardot. She may have rejected my suggestion, however, on the basis that the Pope's line of demarcation served to divide people whereas she seeks to find their commonality.

The Absence is partly a travelogue, though not in a conventional sense. One must be attuned to the distinctions of local flavors in order to tell which part of the world influenced a given recording. There are no obvious odes to specific cafes or hotels or anything of that ilk. The album opener, "Mira," works partly as an introduction to (or even as thesis of) the album and the music video is a perfect microcosm of the entire project.





Fan reviews have been mixed. Some have been disappointed by the change in her aesthetic from the smoky jazz of her previous work, finding this album too "light" for their taste. It's true, these arrangements are dramatically different in tone and tempo. Yet in some ways I feel this is the most intimate of her three albums to date. There's a sense that this is a soundtrack to her personal journeys, physical and philosophical. All I ask of any artist is authenticity. Gardot is as authentic here as she was on Worrisome Heart or My One and Only Thrill and if there's a point to be made that The Absence is incongruous with those two works then I'm not sure I understand what the value of that point is.

Those so inclined can research the impetus of each song (starting with the aforementioned commentary track), but such homework isn't necessary to appreciate what she has crafted with this album. It's a celebration of the universality of music.

Which Edition?

There are presently five editions available in the United States:


"Iemanja" on CD


The final track on the album proper runs 18 minutes on CD...because it has 11 minutes of dead space and then 3 minutes of assorted noises. No one seems to like this. The MP3 album sold by Amazon originally was the same lengthy track, marked as including a "hidden" track but after enough complaints were lodged, they replaced it with just the song itself. This is perhaps the most glaring deficiency of the CD edition.

Bonus songs

"Mira" (Hamilton & Yamandu Acoustic Version)
"Iemanja" (Hamilton & Yamandu Acoustic Version)
"La vie en rose"


You can get all three songs on the physical deluxe edition; unfortunately, they're on the DVD! I will never understand putting audio bonus tracks on a DVD. If you want them as audio files, you'll want to go to iTunes. "La vie en rose" is on both the standard and deluxe editions, but it's an album-only track on either meaning you can't just buy that one song. The two Hamilton & Yamandu Acoustic Versions are only available on the iTunes Deluxe Edition, but they can be purchased individually.

Video content

The only content not found in the iTunes Deluxe Edition is a 4:00 "Making of 'La vie en rose'" video featurette. Given the other described differences, I'm willing to make that sacrifice.

Track-by-track commentary by Melody Gardot - This one is kind of weird. iTunes includes a 24:57 audio commentary. Amazon says the DVD concludes with an EPK (electronic press kit) that runs 21:00. Theoretically, a completist might appreciate having both the iTunes audio commentary and the EPK film though it's unlikely there's a significant difference in content. The MelodyGardotOfficial channel on VEVO features a 7:25 EPK, which you can stream here:



Also available is a look behind the scenes of the "Mira" music video:

15 June 2012

Depression: J.R. Ewing Edition

When we first see J.R. Ewing in the new Dallas, he's in a nearly catatonic state attributed to depression. He doesn't speak or even have a demonstrable reaction at all to anything said to him until later when John Ross tells him about finding oil on Southfork. That's enough to rouse him back into action. What I want to do in this post is take a look at the depiction of depression in the case of J.R. and what insights you, Dear Reader, might glean from the crafty oil baron.

We must go back to the original series to get a sense of J.R.'s history with depression. This is a guy whose whole life was dedicated to measuring up to is idealization of his father, Jock. Jock reinforced J.R.'s ambitions every step of the way, but it's difficult to say to what extent there may have been actual love between them. I refer to Robert Morgan, writing in Boone: A Biography (which I reviewed here):
"There is no more important milestone in a man's life than the death of his father. The death of the father may bring its own cloud of grief or regret, a sense of unfinished business, of questions that will forever go unanswered. A son feels alone in a particular way when his father dies. Suddenly he is on his own, and there may be a new sense of freedom, that whatever has to be done is up to him now. The rest of life opens before the son, and there is no one he has to answer to but himself and the future. And the future is all too short, though it is a sweeping vista of obligation. The death of a father is a time for reaching out, for stretching, moving ahead." - pp. 81-82
If we look back on Dallas, we see a growing schism between J.R. and everyone else in his life after Jock's death. He even comes to be at odds with the kindly Miss Ellie, trying even her patience and willingness to forgive at times. His quest for dominance as an oil man became his obsession, his only means of defining himself in a context where he could receive external validation and where he knew he was competitive enough to win it.

I've noted it previously, but it bears repeating. Depression doesn't burden you with all the things that are miserable in your life. It doesn't need to; you're already aware those things suck. No, depression is far more insidious than that. It takes the good things in your life and twists them in your mind so that they become bitter. This, I believe, is why J.R. fought with Sue Ellen (then later, Callie - not that anyone ever remembers their marriage) and everyone else who wanted to be around him. What J.R.'s depression thrived on most was the unshakable devotion of his brother, Bobby. Their rivalry has always been understood as having originated with Bobby not sharing J.R.'s ambitions but that's not it. Depression knows that J.R. will always have the acceptance and love of Bobby, no matter how much he does wrong, and depression doesn't want J.R. to take any comfort in that.

A healthy person would be grateful to have the kind of loyalty from their sibling Bobby offers J.R. A depressed person, however, becomes resentful. They feel inadequate and undeserving of that love. The depressed person will withdraw from it, trying to make it harder to be reached and shown that affection. The depressed person will become defensive, actively seeking to discourage that love and, at times, the depressed person will even try to hurt the other person in an attempt to make it stop.

Eventually, the other person has to decide whether to give up trying to reach their depressed love one. If they do, then it validates depression's insistence that the love could not have been trusted. If they don't, then it comes down to whether the depression can be reined in and properly managed. If so, then a healthy relationship can be resumed. Otherwise, it can become as destructive for the healthy loved one as it is for the depressed person. Most people don't have it in them to outlast that kind of emotional attrition.

When we think of J.R. Ewing, one of the first things that comes to mind is the time when all of America wanted to know "Who Shot J.R.?" Often forgotten, however, is the series' finale. J.R. had alienated everyone in his life from business partners to family. Alone at Southfork, he's approached by a man in his mirror offering him a sort of It's a Wonderful Life-style look at how differently the lives of others would have been without J.R. ever existing. Here's the final three minutes of the original series. Watch how J.R. is fixated not even on oil, but on being alone.

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For years, we were left to speculate whether J.R. had committed suicide. It would certainly have been in keeping with his battle with depression. After all, it's one thing to feel left out; it's another to actually be shown that everyone you love has actually had a worse life because you even existed. That's a tremendous amount of negative reinforcement, and it's more than enough to put someone over the top. In the TV movie, Dallas: J.R. Returns, we're told what happened when Bobby reached the top of the stairs. Note if you will the emphasis J.R. places on presenting himself as mentally stable again while still clinging to defining himself as Jock's heir.

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As we look to the current series, we see J.R. reemerge from his catatonic state of withdrawal at the promise of getting back into the oil game. It's not that J.R. was "bored" being out of the game, or that all he needed was something constructive to do or anything so trite. It's that this one arena is where his strengths have historically been allowed to shine, where he could find the external validation he needed to help offset his sense of inadequacy. I experienced that myself at Our Lady of Peace, when I rediscovered my own talent for speaking to, and for, other people and being helpful - useful - in that way.

J.R.'s application of his talents can actually be attributed to his depression, if we accept last year's findings by Clarkson University Psychology Professor Andreas K. Wilke. The study "suggests that people suffering with major depression may be more successful at persisting in and completing complex assignments that involve analytical thinking." The depressed mind is, by nature, sensitive to all matter of minutiae. If harnessed and directed to a purpose, it can be quite formidable. It's difficult to do, however, because depression is not interested in solving problems or contributing to society. Depression cares about isolating the patient and urging him or her to withdraw from anything positive.

Lastly, I don't think it's a coincidence that both J.R. Ewing and Tony Soprano - by far, the greatest characters of their ilk - both suffer from depression. Depression affects people of all walks of life, from poor people like me to One Percenters like J.R. Depression found easier prey in me, aided this most recent time by the duplicity of my own Crohn's infested body. For characters like J.R. and Tony, though, depression is more of a double-edge sword. It is their impetus, what drives them to conquer the world in a fruitless attempt to gain the approval they cannot give themselves. It is also what prevents them from ever being satisfied or happy, to the point they cannot truly enjoy any of their victories.

"What does he have to be depressed about?"

That's a commonly posed question, and to that I restate what I wrote in my original post, "On Depression" last year:

Depression is an internal problem, and it doesn't give a damn about your circumstances.
When you're depressed, there is no right job to have, no right lover to share a bed with, no right car to drive, no right home to live in, no right clothes to wear.  Whatever it is that it's in your life, it's insufficient to make a difference in how you feel about yourself or your life.  People who are happy assume that you just need to make some kind of exterior change, and happiness will follow.  It doesn't work that way.  You can change jobs, seek a new lover, trade in your car, move and change your entire wardrobe and still be just as depressed as you were before you altered a thing.  Plenty of rich people have talked about depression; money didn't help, and we're talking about people with the kind of money to change everything else about their lives on a whim.


I didn't write this post to further anyone's understanding of J.R. Ewing's psychological makeup. That's a matter for the writers of Dallas. Rather, I hope that by exploring what we have seen on screen of J.R. that perhaps this helps you, Dear Reader, get a different look at some of the ways that depression can affect people. TV commercials for anti-depressants would have you believe that everyone with depression sequesters themselves onto a couch in a dimly lit room and holds onto their legs. Not so. Sometimes, depressed people can not only continue to seemingly function but even "succeed" in life. This does not invalidate their innate sense of inadequacy, because depression will accept no accomplishments. What J.R. has seen - even if he hasn't allowed himself to understand it - is that, time and again, no victory ever fulfilled him. There was never enough money or prestige to allow him the kind of peace that Bobby has, because Bobby isn't depressed.

14 June 2012

Birthright, Entitlement and Yard Sales

This past Saturday morning, I went to some yard sales with my grandmother. When we arrived at one particular house, there was a family with three little girls looking over a small assortment of Barbies. They all, of course, pleaded to get their own but their mother declined. I wasn't actively keeping up with the conversation, but I did hear her say something about how the girls only had $X and for each of them to get a Barbie would wipe out that amount. Once they left, the sellers began to grouse about the mother.

They perceived the issue to be that by spurning their used Barbies, the mother had thumbed her nose at all used items in general as not being good enough. There were complaints about how "people today" insist on having only the finest of things, on demand, etc. You know the complaints. They're recycled daily on TV, where you work and probably at your own dinner table. Just recently, they masqueraded as profound words in a commencement speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts given by David McCullough, Jr.

In fact, they're much older complaints than we generally consider or admit. I've cited it before in this blog, but I again invoke the memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln. She began writing a diary at the age of 40 in 1690, in which she complained frequently about the ingratitude of her children and the lack of work ethic and sense of responsibility of their generation.

Watching Dallas last night, I was struck by something. J.R. Ewing was always motivated by his sense of how to provide security and prosperity for his family, but his son John Ross has couched his ambitions in the name of claiming his birthright. Clearly, John Ross is a selfish snot who needs to be taken down a peg or two, but I've gotten to wondering: Just why have we as a society become so hostile toward the concept of birthright?

"Nobody owes you anything!" It seems the people who shout this the most passionately are the ones who have kept very close score over the years of when they were denied something by others. "Entitlement" has become one of the ugliest words in American politics.

What, then, was the point of doing well in a capitalist society? What was the point of all that collective accumulation of wealth, land and material items if not to provide for the security and prosperity of one's family? Who would participate in the rat race if not for the promise of having something to show for it at the end?

That brings us to the nature of birthright. When one grows up in a world where previous generations have contributed to building an inheritance, what's wrong with someone actually claiming it? Wasn't that the point? Should "people today" have to start from complete scratch, unaided by previous generations? Put another way: Would you want your children to have to do without reaping the fruits of your own labor? Why would you work so hard at all, if not for their benefit?

Perhaps the issue is not that "people today" have a distasteful sense of "entitlement," but rather that too many of us don't want to admit that birthright claims have inflated along with everything else. That is to say, it's not the sense of "entitlement" that's the issue, or even how it's expressed (though, certainly, many people - of all ages - could stand to take a course on manners). Rather, it's that all of a sudden, that birthright dwarfs what previous generations even aspired to achieve or accumulate.

Sure, "people today" consider the lives of their grandparents' generation quaint and primitive. Our entire way of life is built on that very message. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, our economy is built on the concept of disposability, from razor heads to cars. We complain about the work ethic of "people today," but what we don't talk about are all those hard-working forbears who were let go just before they got their gold watches, denied the pensions they had counted on and thought they had worked for decades to ensure. "Sorry, but we're outsourcing this plant. It's strictly a business decision, you see." Shareholders cared more about themselves than loyalty to the employees whose lives they could affect. Yet, when "people today" assert that they will not pledge decades of their lives to the whims of shareholders the way previous generations did, somehow that's an affront to those previous generations?

One laughs at an actor scoffing, "Oh, what, being a contract player isn't good enough for you?" or an athlete being dressed down by a golden age player for filing free agency. Somehow, though, we can applaud those kinds of workers (that's what they are, you see) for standing up for themselves and getting theirs, but we resent anyone of our own ilk who dares to follow their example.

Perhaps the real problem is that "people today" haven't been as hungry as previous generations think they ought to be. We as a society like to see people working for things, "earning" what they get. We exempt from those demands anyone who was born into the lap of luxury because, "Good for them." Why? Because those people have a greater birthright than our own. Ergo, they're the fortunate ones. Oddly, though, it seems when we realize our own people have a greater birthright than our own, we become indignant.

My Facebook timeline has often been inundated with chain statuses boasting about people from Generation Whatever didn't have XBoxes, iPods or DVD players in cars, but they did have respect for their elders, safe communities and solid values. There are infinite variations on this, but that example list should be recognizable enough. Should this generation be punished for the existence of technology? Should no one under the age of 18 be allowed to play video games or have an iPod because no previous generation of kids or teens had them? That's absurd. Also, I'd like to point out that if Generation Whichever grew up in a safe community, that was the doing of Generation Whichever's parents. Generation Whichever have become the predators and threats to today's communities so they really should shut the hell up about that one.

Anyway, after the family with the three little girls left the yard sale I had to refrain from defending the mother because it wasn't worth it to me to become ensnared in such a debate at the time. Here, though, I would like to point out that the mother had taken the girls to yard sales. I don't see how that possibly supports the charge that she was somehow too "uppity" about used Barbies. Moreover, she had the girls on a strict budget. That seems to be completely in defiance of the sense that the mother's generation didn't "know the value of a dollar." Quite the contrary, it showed that even when it would only have cost a couple dollars to indulge her daughters' wishes to have Barbies, she wanted to make them hold out through the day to ensure they got their money's worth.

I for one am unimpressed by the resentful elderly sellers and their ilk, but I am very encouraged to think of the kind of women those three little girls will grow up to be.

"Dallas" (2012) Episodes 1 & 2

Dallas
"The Changing of the Guard" (Episode 100) and "Hedging Your Bets" (Episode 101)

What follows is an overview of my chief reactions and observations, without much polish or organization. I envision this being a sort of ongoing sub-series here, and they'll be written as close to the immediate end of each episode as I can manage. (Tonight's was delayed because I had to go buy cat food and take care of some incidental errands.) I am also going to assume you've seen the episodes so there will be spoilers. Speaking of which...

Dallas may be the ultimate water cooler show of all time, which is weird because the original series aired on Friday nights. This is not a show for casual viewers. I almost began to construct an actual flow chart just to explain to my grandmother what she missed by not tuning into the first episode on time. This will be one of those shows where fans are passionate and probably will not shut the hell up about on Thursday mornings...or all day long Wednesday in anticipation of that night's episode.
Cynthia Cidre (Series Developer & Writer) and Patrick Duffy. Photo from TNT.
Kudos to series developer and writer of both episodes, Cynthia Cidre. She did a terrific job making clear that this is a direct continuation of the original series, while not creating self-homage. That's a surprisingly difficult task in mainstream entertainment. The best microcosm I can offer was the prominence of the swimming pool at Southfork during Christopher and Rebecca's wedding. I actually commented on Facebook, "Someone is going into that pool. It's a requirement of formal events at Southfork." It would have been a nice comedic throwback moment, but Cidre didn't give it to us. At first I almost felt cheated, but then I felt really good about it. She knows what she's inherited inside and out and it shows; she's thrown in all kinds of back story in casual expository dialog throughout the first two episodes...but this is something new. It is not a tribute to the original series. It's a continuation, and frankly the fewer "obvious" bits we get, the better I think this new show will be.

I've said for years and it bears repeating: For my money, Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing is the apex of television. I found myself feeling genuinely exited to see him emerge from his state of whatever-the-hell and reassert himself. I laughed at least twice, just at realizing the sly old fox is still playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.

J.R.'s motivations are different now (at least early on) than they were on the original series. He used to justify everything he did as a means of providing security for the Ewing family. This J.R. is more blatantly selfish, though perhaps that's what happens when your parents are gone and you've become estranged from everyone else. Still, I can't help but feel that he's still got his eye on the same old prize: consolidated power of Ewing Oil and patriarchy of the Ewing family at Southfork. The ranch means something different to him than it does to the rest of the Ewings, but I don't believe for a moment that his sole interest is in acquiring the oil.

I love that Sue Ellen has become a powerful woman in Texas politics. New fans may be unaware, but J.R. met her when she was a beauty pageant contestant and their dysfunctional marriage led her to self-destructive behavior including alcoholism and a nearly fatal car collision. I like the idea that, once sufficiently removed from the poison of J.R., she was able to get her act together. Moreover, I like that she's not going to just be a token "generation one" figurehead here. She has legitimate power now.

John Ross is perhaps the laziest schemer ever. Seriously, Christopher's methane project caused an earthquake. It was clearly reported by various news media. Does he not go online? Hell, "earthquake" trended on Twitter during tonight's encore airing because of a minor 'quake near Yorba Linda, California. The idea that Christopher could somehow keep something like that under wraps, like some kind of disappointing lab result, is ludicrous.

Side note: Who doesn't maximize their browser? Or password protect their computer? How has Ann lasted five years in that family, with her computer apparently just open to whomever wishes to sit down and begin using it?
Jordana Brewster as Elena Ramos. Photo by TNT.
Of the new characters, my early favorite is easily Elena Ramos. She's a very sympathetic character, having already become a casualty of Ewing narcissism. I suspect she'll give as good as she gets, but right now I just feel really bad for her. That said, I also call shenanigans on the story of her and Christopher breaking up just before their wedding day because of an email. Elena is clearly an ambitious woman, and she didn't get where she is today by being deferential. I have a hard time picturing her refraining from instantly calling Christopher to demand an explanation and to give him an earful. Or for her own mother to remain in the Ewings' employ after that?! Either she doesn't share with her own mother her reason for not showing up at the altar or her mother - whom we know liked her relationship with Christopher - was not sufficiently offended as to find another job? Remember, this is a Hispanic mother. Her daughter allegedly being told she's not good enough for her boss's son should have led to her trying to poison the entire Ewing family.

Also, I am now in love with both Jordana Brewster and Julie Gonzalo. Brewster's profile at the official Dallas website states that she's married, but if that should change and you run into her, I'd appreciate if you'd put in a kind word on my behalf. Gonzalo's profile informs me she played the daughter, Blair, in Christmas with the Kranks (something of a guilty pleasure of mine among Christmas movies) and makes no mention of her relationship status. So, again...if you know her and you hear her mention she's in the market for a poor guy in dubious health with four cats and nothing else to offer, point her in my direction.

Lastly, I come to John Ross. I have to wonder, with Christopher off in Europe, just how his relationship with Bobby had been like prior to where we pick up. They were basically the only two living at Southfork from what I could glean. I'm unclear whether their thinly veiled resentments of one another had been simmering all along or if this was all out of the blue, brought on by John Ross's duplicitous oil strike. At times I felt he was antagonistic just for the sake of being so; a provocateur, lacking the nuance of his father. I think that's the point, though. He's so prone to hotheadedness that he can't play chess like J.R. does. He's the kind of guy who, instead, will turn over the checker board and yell that he's not playing anymore.

Oh, and man...when he dissed Miss Ellie, I really wanted to see Bobby just bitch slap that punk. New viewers shouldn't have any problem understanding why it was so upsetting to Bobby that his nephew just badmouthed his own grandmother, but this touches on the aforementioned balance struck so solidly by Cidre. For those of us who actually knew Miss Ellie (played mostly by Barbara Bel Geddes, but also by Donna Reed for a season), the affront was personal. It was also a betrayal; I can literally recall Miss Ellie sitting outside at Southfork while John Ross played. She loved that boy dearly, even standing up to J.R. to do right by him at one point. Maybe he was too young to remember it, but dammit, I do!

Upon reflection, I feel like this is my TV equivalent of DC Comics's New 52 relaunch. I've been away for quite some time, but my enthusiasm and interest have never been extinguished. I finished watching tonight's episodes with full-on excitement and anticipation for the next episode, much as I get all excited when I finish reading each month's Batgirl. I've withdrawn from most TV content over the last 15 years or so, only following a handful of shows very closely. It's kind of nice to actually be excited about a weekly series again. I'm glad it's Dallas.

11 June 2012

Iroquois Amphitheater Monday Night Movie 2012

I could've sworn I had already posted this but apparently I didn't. Whoops! Anyway, I don't think anyone relies on my blog to tell them what's going on in Louisville but I know sometimes it's helpful to have a record of these kinds of schedules later when trying to reconstruct what has played and when, which is why I post them. Too late to catch Citizen Kane, which played last Monday night, but it plays again this Wednesday at Tinseltown as part of the Cinemark Classic Series and again on 21 July at The Louisville Palace as part of their Summer Movie Series, The Directors: Hollywood's Golden Age.

Doors open at 7:30, movies begin playing at 8:30. All events are free!

Iroquois Amphitheater
Monday Night Movie
4 June Citizen Kane
11 June The Muppet Movie
18 June Romancing the Stone
25 June Chicago
2 July Stand and Deliver
9 July From Russia with Love
16 July The Magnificent Seven
23 July The Secret Life of Bees
30 July Raiders of the Lost Ark
6 August The Princess Bride

There is also a Metro Council Movie Night series, also free and at 8:30:

12 May Soul Surfer
8 June The Help
14 July Moneyball
11 August Cars 2
8 September Zookeeper

A chance to see From Russia with Love on the big screen? Yes, please! I'm also interested in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride.

Louisville Palace Summer Movie Series 2012

The Louisville Palace Summer Movie Series schedule has been released, though it isn't presently posted on the official website. This came to me in a Live Nation email. It seems the days of encore screenings are truly a thing of the past; this year, each movie will be screened only once. All shows begin at 8:00 PM. Tickets are "less than $6" per the email I received. They were $5.00 last year, so only a modest increase.

The Louisville Palace Summer Movie Series
The Directors Series: Hollywood's Golden Age

13 July It Happened One Night
14 July Modern Times
20 July Bringing Up Baby
21 July Citizen Kane
28 July North by Northwest
3 August The Maltese Falcon
4 August Casablanca
10 August All About Eve
11 August A Place in the Sun
17 August Roman Holiday
18 August On the Waterfront
24 August A Star Is Born
25 August Some Like It Hot
31 August To Kill a Mockingbird

I'm greatly disappointed by this list, to be honest. I would love to have had another crack at some David Lean, especially with this being the 50th anniversary of Lawrence of Arabia. Perhaps next year? I would have been excited about Casablanca, except I attended the special 70th anniversary event screening in March. If anyone I know wants to go see it, I'm game for catching it a second time this year but otherwise, I think I'll pass.

Several of these movies are on my personal To See list and have been for some time, but I would be lying if I said I was enthusiastic about catching any of them. I'll defer to my friends. If any of them want to go, I'm in for whatever they want to see (depending, of course, on my health as is always the case).

Note: Two of these will screen as part of Cinemark's Classic Series: Citizen Kane (13 June) and North by Northwest (18 July). The Palace is unquestionably the superior venue and the tickets will be half the price of Cinemark's special event pricing, but for those who can't make these dates, I thought I'd mention it as an alternative.

There will be no movie on Friday, 27 July, because Barry Manilow will be performing in concert. Tickets for that show run from $49.99 to a staggering $199.99! I've been to the Palace. It is by far my favorite venue and I have never been anywhere that is its peer. I can say without fear of contradiction that unless there's a special experience attached to the upper price tickets, there will be no discernible difference in quality of experience from one price range to the next. Now, if he lets the $200 seats name the set list for the night, or gives them piggyback rides through the lobby, that's different. But I have sat just a few rows back in the orchestra pit and I have sat in the very last row of the balcony and I cannot comprehend there being $150 difference between any two seats in the Palace!

09 June 2012

"Dallas"


I was born nine months after Dallas premiered on 2 April 1978. Whether that's a mathematical coincidence, I can't say but it would certainly befit the legacy of the show to have been responsible for a rash of babies. I grew up a child of the Reagan Eighties and Dallas, and if there was any TV show that better captured the zeitgeist of that decade, I'm unaware of what it may be. My fascination with Dallas runs much deeper than curiosity about society, though. I've said for ages now that there were two things that helped me understand my childhood. One was Randy Travis's Storms of Life album and the other was Dallas.
J.R. & Bobby toast under the watchful eye of their father, Jock.
My parents divorced when I was still quite young. At one point, my dad absconded with my brother and me and kept us holed up at his brother's farm. I will never forget the day when I was outside in the driveway, my cousins off working on a tractor when a car I didn't recognize pulled up. A woman who didn't seem quite familiar ran up and grabbed me and got me into the car. It was my grandmother, who had dyed her hair a new color since last I had seen her! My mom was in the back seat and I was able to piece together what was happening. Her friend was driving.

So too did my cousins, who came running toward the car. I can still vividly picture one of my cousins actually managing to pound on the car door as my mom's friend reversed out of the driveway. I have never asked, but I can't imagine they were much clearer on what was happening than I had been. It all happened so suddenly that there couldn't have been much chance for them to even know who had just grabbed me and thrown me in the car. Despite the fact that I much preferred to be with my mother, I have always appreciated the efforts of my cousins on that occasion. I can't imagine much else they could have done had it been a sinister abduction, rather than the benign sort that it was.

Dallas was the one show both my parents watched. It was on Friday nights on CBS. No matter which parent had us for the weekend, I could expect to keep up with the show. During one story arc a little while after all the dust had finally settled from our own divorce drama, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) left J.R (Larry Hagman). At the end of each episode ran a promo clip from the next week's episode, to ensure that you remained stoked for the next six nights. There I was, at my dad's, when the preview clip ran and Sue Ellen stormed into the room and demanded to know, "Where's my son, you bastard?!"

I'm unaware of my mom holding my dad at gunpoint.
Both Randy Travis and Dallas explained extramarital affairs and the effects of them to me, so I felt I had a grip on what had taken place that neither of my parents ever really discussed with me forthright. But Randy Travis hadn't really said much about custody battles. All of a sudden, Dallas wasn't just explaining my parents to me. Now it was about me.

I grew to accept and even like Clayton. But not Steve!
Around the same time my parents divorced, the widowed Miss Ellie (J.R.'s mama, played by Barbara Bel Geddes and Donna Reed) met Clayton Farlow (Howard Keel). J.R. resisted their union, leading to a tussle that sent Clayton tumbling down the stairs. That, too, resonated with me strongly. My mom dated a guy named Steve for a short time after the divorce. He sucked up to me, lavishing me with new Masters of the Universe figures and friendliness. It didn't matter. I was dead set against accepting the guy. I never threw him down the stairs, mind you, but I identified with J.R. In my case, it wasn't that I was protective of my dad's role in our family belonging to him alone or anything like that. I just did not want to accept anyone else into our family at all at that point. I needed time to fully establish a post-divorce status quo, and I didn't have that time. Even though I understood our motives were different, I was comforted knowing that even J.R. Ewing went through that kind of resistance to newcomers. I figured if J.R. did everything for the sake of the family and he was against Clayton, then I could go to bed at night knowing I had not been selfish for rejecting Steve.

The secret to why J.R. Ewing was so captivating wasn't just that he was as shrewd as he was ruthless. Anyone could be that. What made J.R. the greatest character on TV was that everything he did, was for the family. Maybe he was misguided about what was right for the family, maybe he was inconsiderate of the family's actual wants and needs, and maybe he was as destructive for the family as he was helpful, but every activity he ever undertook was directly connected to advancing the security and prosperity of the Ewings. There's a nobility to that, I think. This is the same reason that we later identified with Tony Soprano. He may have been a brutal sociopath, but he broke those kneecaps for his family. We get that. Simply put, Tony Soprano existed and worked because of J.R. Ewing.
In addition to John Ross, Tony Soprano is J.R. Ewing's rightful heir.
In Summer 1996, a cable station called The Nashville Network (TNN, which evolved into Spike TV) began airing reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas on weekday afternoons. I had grown up with both and I absolutely gorged on those reruns. When they finished the entire run, they started back at the beginning. I'm certain I followed Dallas from start to finish at least twice. That was an important summer for me, because it was my last one before entering my senior year of high school. It was peculiar to prepare for that milestone in my life by revisiting the show that had played such a key role in my formative years. But then, I've always been prone to introspection and nostalgia, so it was in my nature anyway. I still think of microwaving Webber's pulled pork BBQ in little white plastic cups and sitting down to watch those reruns. Good times.

In 2004, my then-girlfriend flew down to Daytona to visit her family for a weekend. The first night she was gone, CBS aired Dallas Reunion: The Return to Southfork (by morbid coincidence, the same day on which actor Howard Keel, who played Clayton Farlow, passed away). I had gotten way behind on laundry, so I washed it all night long. I started during the Dallas Reunion special and then proceeded to make my way through the entire Back to the Future: The Complete Trilogy DVD box set, borrowed from a friend. The sun was up by the time I finished the last of the laundry and the DVD. That was a fun night for me.

It's funny, really, but where other kids my age identified with Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, I identified with John Ross Ewing. I saw how distraught Sue Ellen became when J.R. kept him hidden from her, and through that I was able to surmise what it had been like for my mom when my brother and I were hidden from her. It should have made me resent J.R. Ewing all the more, but instead it somehow endeared the show to me even more because they were actually talking about my own life. I found it helpful, in the way that children respect that one grownup who will give them straight answers to their questions.
The answer to any question that begins with, "Why did J.R....?"
This Wednesday, after 21 years (give or take a few TV movies), Dallas returns to TV. After years of hearing proposed ideas of what to do with the franchise - including a movie with John Travolta and Jennifer Lopez that never came to fruition, thereby irrefutably establishing the existence of God - I am stoked at this new run. From what I understand, the show's producers and writers are very much steeped in what has come before and they intend to root their incarnation in the classic series. Just like J.R. himself, their plans may not prove a success but they're doing this out of respect for Dallas and a desire to perpetuate its glory. I can get behind that.

Speaking of what I can get behind, Charlene Tilton is returning, too! There's plenty more to be said about Dallas, of course, so go ahead and expect that show to become a frequent topic of discussion here on this blog.

All photos of Dallas are from the official Dallas Facebook page, Facebook.com/DallasTNT.
The Sopranos photo is from the official Sopranos Facebook page, Facebook.com/TheSopranos.

08 June 2012

"Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari
"The Poems of Yurii Zhivago" by Bernard Guilbert Guerney
563 pages

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What follows is the review I published on Goodreads. It is much less of a product review and consciously more of an attempt at literary criticism than I have heretofore put forward.

I feel it compulsory, by way of introduction, to acknowledge not merely that I have seen David Lean's film of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago before setting out to read the source material, but to make note that it was one of the most important films of my life. I describe my first time viewing in a blog post for Flickchart, but the short version is that it was the first time I had ever seen a truly "grown-up" movie. I was mesmerized as much by its scale and grandeur as I was by its amoral and desperate themes. You can read the whole thing here if you like: Movies to See Before You Die: Doctor Zhivago.

Finally, I have read the source material for that towering film. Comparisons between the two are almost obligatory and yet I wonder what I could really say that might be of any originality. What matters, ultimately, is that Pasternak's novel reads as a chronicle of the Russian Revolution whereas Lean's film explores the drama of the doomed romance between the titular Zhivago and his beloved Lara. The differences are far greater than merely the depth of detail or the scale of the stories. Even the ambitions are distinctly different.

I knew from the time I began to learn about the film that made such an impact on me that Pasternak himself had encountered great difficulty at home over this novel. Indeed, he was forbidden from even accepting the Nobel Prize for literature! It's easy to assume that Pasternak imbued Zhivago with his own disillusioned observations and frustrations with the politics of his country. Zhivago is very much a Romantic figure, whisked away time and again to the adventures that would comprise his character arc. Rarely does Zhivago even put forth any aspirations of his own, save writing. Instead, his life is consumed by events not of his own design.

Certainly, this is how both Zhivago and, presumably, Pasternak saw Russia herself: an unwitting, reluctant yet ultimately cooperative hostage of the fervor of the times. No Russian individuals set out to create the U.S.S.R. Rather, they each envisioned a grand achievement in the course of mankind that never came to be. Pasternak privies us to the frustrations of the intelligentsia, who initially stoked the fires of revolution and later came to rue the paranoid, oppressive regime that took hold. We have a sense that the revolutionaries truly understood themselves to be agents of modernity, overthrowing the yoke of an obsolete past. This is best embodied by poor Pasha Antipov, who reemerges as the dreaded figure, Strelnikov ("The Shooter").

Pasha, excitable about the future and wholly committed to doing his part to build the kind of Russia where his family could finally enjoy the kind of golden age he had longed to see, becomes the scourge of the Revolution. The ruthlessness of his activities become a sort of urban legend, a testament to his zealotry. Indeed, the man even commands an assault on the heart of the city where he knows his own wife and daughter are sheltered! To spare them would be to expose his own weakness, and so he bombards the city. His wife, Lara, characterizes him as the "purest" man she has ever known. Not only does she understand why he is placing her and their daughter in harm's way; she admires him for it!

It may seem laughable, but there is something genuinely inspirational about true believers when they offer a full demonstration of their sincerity. Even when we find such people wholly misguided and even insane, there's something about the fact they're willing to actually go that far with their beliefs that manages to impress us. So it was with not only Strelnikov, but all those whose energy drove the Revolution. Their passion is admired even by the suspicious Zhivago, through whom we read the begrudging admiration of Pasternak.

Throughout, though, we have Zhivago - the hapless soul who comes to see how that passion has run roughshod over reason, fairness or anything resembling civility. The savagery of the Revolutionary combat drives one imbalanced soldier to slaughter his own family. Everyone saw it coming, no one knew what to do about it. They were spared making any decisions when the soldier then takes his own life. We are meant to be appalled by the killing of his family, whom we know he loved dearly. We want someone to reason with him, to dissuade him from what he considers a mercy killing, but it happens all the same. More appalling, really, is the response of the others. It's as though they're just grateful he ended his own life so the whole ordeal could be considered "closed."

Zhivago bears witness to this and other atrocities. Just as we may have initially admired Strelnikov, Zhivago is there to show us the blood spilled in the name of those ideals. Poor Pasha! Could he have become Strelnikov, had he actually understood what that would entail?

Pasternak juxtaposes the two men - caught in a very symbolic love triangle with Lara - to illustrate his thesis that however high-minded was the genesis of the revolution, its actual prosecution and the consequences of it were so unconscionable that it becomes impossible to accept any suggestion that Red Russia in any meaningful way resembles that of the dreamers' imaginations.

Just as Zhivago is carried through the revolution against his will, so too must we notice that nothing good ever happens for him of his own doing. Everything positive in his life is the doing of some benefactor or other. Most conspicuous of these is his half-brother, Evgraf, who appears just a few times throughout Zhivago's life but each time he is nearly a deus ex machina with seemingly unlimited resources and influence. Evgraf's generosity is so bountiful, in fact, that through much of the second part of the book I wondered why Yurii didn't just go to him. It's not even a matter of pride; it's as though he is entirely oblivious his brother even exists until those times when Evgraf miraculously resurfaces.

Evgraf's moral counterpart must surely be the self-serving, loathsome Komarovksy. Just as Evgraf sees Yurii through his darkest hours, Komarovsky is the architect of much of the strife and misery that dominates Lara's life from her childhood through her adulthood. He is a predator, fixated on the vulnerable Lara from the beginning. His connections are clearly just as powerful as are Evgraf's, but he uses them for himself. Even when he offers his assistance to Lara and later, Lara and Yurii, he does so knowing that it will be him to whom they are indebted.

In the end, though, the self-serving Komarovsky retreats into exile where he continues to poison Lara's life, whereas the benevolent Evgraf has weathered the revolution with his influence entirely intact. Indeed, his final act in the book is to connect with his long-lost niece and by reaching out to shield her under his sphere of influence, he offsets the damage inflicted upon the girl by Komarovsky's selfishness.

Lastly, of course, there are the women: sweet Tonia and damaged Lara. Zhivago's courtship of Tonia, begun prior to the revolution, was yet another major event in his life in which he deferred to the dictates of others. It is simply assumed that Yurii and Tonia will wed, and for his part Yurii is actually rather indifferent about it - though he takes at face value that he wishes to be Tonia's husband and that they love one another. At times, he even seems to believe it. Yet we can tell his heart is never fully in their marriage.

Lara, however, crosses his path too many times not seem his true destiny. She gets under his skin in a very specific way. He has a specific perspective on life, politics and love that becomes increasingly disillusioned by the events surrounding them, but she has been disabused of any notions of idealism since her rough childhood. They find a philosophical equilibrium together. With Yurii, Lara is able to find some of the peace denied by the rest of her life. Likewise, the poet in Yurii thrives in the company of the one woman who truly understands and appreciates him for who he is.

Tonia is perhaps the most obvious victim of the whole affair. She entered into marriage with Yurii, envisioning a life together. Even after unforeseen events tear them apart, she remains dutifully faithful to their domesticity until eventually, she and the rest of their family are forced into exile to Paris. There is no place in Red Russia for intelligentsia who don't toe the mark, and Tonia's sweetness makes us empathize all the more with their banishment. These were people who truly cared about the affairs of Russia - and because of that, there is no audience for their criticism once things get out of hand.

Lara, meanwhile, is the kind of survivor who learned to navigate class subjugation before the revolution and this enables her to weather the ensuing tumultuous events. There will always be Laras in Russia and every other society, because there are always victims of the machinations of others. Yurii comes to characterize his political perspective not even as being about Russia, but of humanity. Surely, his devotion to Lara parallels his growing admiration for that part of humanity that overcomes the artificial, oppressiveness that dominates "modernity" and society at large. It's as though they're the only two "real" people in all of Russia, while everyone else is either a paragon of abstract ideals or a caricature wishing to be taken for a paragon.

There were several gaps between my reading sessions, including nearly two months where I didn't even open the book. Regardless of the time that passed, I was able to almost immediately return to Pasternak's Russia and recall all that I needed to follow each passage. It is presented as a large volume, but I came to view it as a collection of "episodes," much like a soap opera might be considered. It is a testament to Pasternak's specificity and thoroughness that I only twice felt compelled to thumb back to previous pages to verify that I knew what was going on.

In point of fact, when I first began reading Doctor Zhivago, I had already begun writing the first draft of my own novel. Its ambitions are much more modest, of course, and even if I ever get it published no one will ever speak of the two in the same breath. I was very conscious, though, of the difference between his writing and mine. I like to think I wrote only what was necessary to tell my story, and I feel he did this as well. Yet, his is a very verbose, flowing prose whereas mine was often very truncated. I did find all the "coincidences" a bit much to swallow (particularly in the conclusion and epilogue), but I cannot say I am aware of a single expendable word. To cut down Pasternak's writing would be to mar the beauty of his work.

Like all great works of art, Doctor Zhivago is a crucible of humanity. What more trying time is there, than a state of endless, chaotic violence? The artifice of civilization itself is wholly deconstructed, much as Plato explored in his Republic dialog. Where Plato had the luxury of indulging in hypothesis, however, Pasternak had real events from which to draw and into which to place his narrative. One would be mistaken to characterize this as "historical fiction," for that suggests that it is a made-up story set in specific time and place from real history. Certainly, it is that but it is also something much greater: it is a work of art.

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07 June 2012

The Pain That Will Not Heal

I have avoided writing this post since I first began to blog, but I have reached a point where I now find it necessary. I will not approve any comments left on this post.

In 2005, my then-fiance and I learned that we were pregnant. She was terrified to tell me, certain I would break our engagement and leave her. I had, after all, been outspoken that I was apprehensive of having children. I suppose it was a reasonable fear for her to have, though I like to think she should have given me more credit than that. Regardless, once I got past the initial surprise, I found I was very enthusiastic about it. Even when we were told we were going to have twins, I remained upbeat. I was, after all, finishing my bachelor's studies at the University of Louisville and planning to go onto grad school, then into teaching. It wasn't necessarily the most ideal timing but I felt we were headed into a really solid phase of our lives. I was very excited.

We originally had a late Spring wedding scheduled, but opted to move it up to January, between school semesters. It was the practical thing to do, and our plans were hardly lavish by any means. I remember sitting at Waffle House one night, each of us thumbing through books of baby names, brainstorming what we would call our children. Before we even knew that we would have twins, I bought a small baseball-themed outfit. Regardless of sex, it was something I was willing to dress my child in. Then I learned we were having one of each, and I began to think of finding something for my daughter to wear.

I never got the chance.

One night, while having pizza with some friends, she began to miscarry. It was soul-crushing. She had endured it before, in her first marriage. It was all new to me. We holed up in our apartment, not wanting to be bothered by anyone. Her mother flouted our wishes and barged in anyway. I went into another room and closed the door until she left. It was all I could do to ensure I remained even remotely civil. I am not a person who wants people around him when he's at his worst. I do not want visitors in the hospital, I don't want consolation calls after things go wrong and I certainly did not want someone flopping down in my living room with faux cheeriness while I tried to process what had happened.

See, contrary to popular belief, we guys sometimes actually care about things like whether our children are carried to term. I could spin out of this an entire spiel about my misgivings over how marginalized men have become in the discussion of reproductive rights, but that is not the purpose of this post so that'll have to keep for another time. What matters is, I was entitled to hurt and heal on my own terms and I was denied that. It set a tone for the last six years.

Being that my wife had previously gone through a miscarriage, I deferred to her entirely. I never really spoke with her about my feelings. I assumed she had a process she needed to follow and I didn't want to make it any harder on her than it already was. My role was to suffer in silence, because anything else would have only added to her burden. So that's what I did.

Throughout the next several months, I came to better understand just what living with Crohn's disease meant (chronicled in "My Hate/Hate Relationship with Crohn's"). I became paranoid about ever going through another pregnancy. I was just as afraid of another miscarriage as I was afraid of actually trying to raise a child from the bathroom. What if I passed on Crohn's disease? What kind of relationship could we even have, when he or she would look to me as an abject failure? At that time, we had a pet rabbit and I joked that I had a hard enough time taking care of him, I was in such bad shape half the time. It was presented as a joke, but the truth is I really was terrified of the logistics of fatherhood.

I also had my own misgivings because of my relationship with my own dad. The short version is, we've both been highly disappointed in one another since my childhood and we both know it. I despise June because I hate hearing about Father's Day and how everyone in the world has "The Best Dad Ever" and whatnot. Maybe they do. I don't know. I just know I don't. I have no idea what an actual dad is supposed to be like, and if I'm being entirely honest, I do carry some resentment toward everyone who does.

"You would make a great dad!" my wife would insist whenever the subject would arise. Others agreed with her, though I don't think any of them ever really thought it through, or meant it if they did. As things continued to collapse for us throughout 2006, it became apparent that I was in no position to take care of anyone or anything. That hasn't changed.

Despite whatever good qualities some of you may see in me, the truth of the matter is that if you didn't know me and someone described just my situation, you would be appalled at the very idea of someone like me being so selfish and irresponsible as to have a child he couldn't take care of properly. No one ever wants to admit that, but it's the truth. I know it because Nancy Grace and the 6:00 news staffs across the country make a living railing about people like me being unworthy of being responsible for children. "They should be with people who can take care of them," you know. If I had money, it would merely be unfair to the child but since I'm poor, it would be a social injustice. It would be just a matter of time before someone wanted to take away any child I might have had.

We briefly discussed adoption, but it was very quickly made clear that I was an insurmountable liability. When you're poor and in dubious health, you're unfit for adoption.

This month, my twins would have been six years old. I have thought about them every day since my wife told me she was pregnant. I imagine what they might be like, what movies they might have liked, or what books I might have read to them at night. I wonder what activities might have interested them. Would they have been introverted or extroverted? What would their laughs sound like? How long could I go before they realized how disappointed they should be with me?

I wanted to discuss this with my therapist, but last December I had to miss a session because I felt entirely too miserable to even leave bed. I was billed a $25 cancellation fee, despite the fact they were already aware that what brought me there in the first place was that I felt entirely worthless because of Crohn's and what it had done to derail my life. That $25 fee told me that all I was to the therapist's office was a copay, and last month I made my final payment to their office. I seriously need to see someone qualified to help me with these things, but it turns out that in America, mental health problems aren't for the poor. If you're poor and you're disturbed, well...that's your fault for being poor. And anyway, in a capitalist society, being poor is a sign that you've failed. Failures shouldn't be contented with their lives. Failures should be miserable.

So that's what I am. I'm miserable. This isn't a relapse of depression and no one needs to freak out thinking I'm hiding self-destructiveness or anything like that. It's an issue I've struggled to process for six years and because I have no other recourse, I have resorted to trying to address it with this blog post.

There is nothing unique about my/our situation. It happens to numerous couples and individuals around the world, every day. Some of you will read this and be upset there isn't more help for people like me. Some of you will read it and resent my even complaining about any of this. You're welcome to share whatever comments you have but, as I indicated in my introductory remarks, I will not approve any of them for this post.