Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Recommendations

There are so many things in the world that go on just a little bit longer than they should. Elvis, for example. If he only he had died sooner . . . American television shows would dominate a list of things that stayed on the shelf long after their sell-by date. The Office (US Version) has not just been flogging a dead horse; when the whip frayed a few years ago, the show went down on its hands and knees and started scraping at the exposed flesh on the dead horse's flank with its fingernails, and once the last shreds of meat were gone, it began gnawing on the bones.

But there's another category, another list, that's a bit more complicated and a lot more rewarding. It's the category of things that go on after they need to, for which we can be grateful and a little bit sorry. It's not about wishing Elvis died in the army or that Bob Dylan's career was cut short of Christianity (Robert Chalmers begins a nice piece on Dylan "Everything would be so much more simple if he were dead" - but notice: he's talking about simplicity) or that a meteorite crashed into the set of The Godfather Part III, smashing the equipment to smithereens, wiping out all the recorded footage and taking out Andy Garcia, Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, Bridget Fonda, and Joe Mantegna (sparing Sofia Coppola and George Hamilton).

It's a list of those things that could have ended at a certain point - and no matter what happens afterwards, part of you thinks maybe it should have ended there; sometimes you stop yourself and are glad it went on, other times, you're not so sure.

1. Peep Show. This heads the list because the wedding of Mark and Sophie would have been the most perfect ending to what was up to that point a fairly perfect show. Comedies are traditionally supposed to end with marriages, but in Peep Show, the wedding was not a restoration of the moral order and a consummation of comedy's erotic promise, it was complete submersion into comic horror. Had Peep Show ended there, the show would have had a classic formality that would make it largely unsurpassable in the annals of modern sit-coms. It's gone on. While I'm not sorry, I also am.

2. Morrissey.

3. Until last week, I would have said Obama's Presidency, which peaked at a historic high on January 20, 2008, and has been mostly downhill with a few small highs. But some things have . . . changed; nevertheless, I'm keeping it on the list as a sort of moral-political compromise.

5. U2

7. Winter

9. Woody Allen's career as a director

10. Clint Eastwood's career as a director

11. Sex

12. Slavoj Zizek's books after about page, oh I don't know, 200.

The question I'm asking myself: will I soon think that 30 Rock will be on this list? Or, I'm biting my lip nervously, will it be on the same list as The Office (US Version)?


Sven said...

Might I point out that it's Zinedine?

(Did you mean to link to the Tolkien trailer with him as well?)

sw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sw said...

You might. How odd to have misspelled that.

And no - but now, why not?

Daniel F said...

I just finished Season 4 of 30Rock - Jon Hamm, Michael Sheen, Julianne Moore and Matt Damon all guest starring in the final episode. On balance, it was a glorious season. Is this point where the asteroid should have hit?

Daniel F said...

When would you say that Eastwood's career as a director started, even debatably, to go on too long? He directed his best film in the 70s (Josey Wales), and perhaps his worst in the 80s (Firefox), but generally speaking has consistently produced entertaining, interesting, not particularly brilliant work. I don't think he's ever noticeably slumped. I gather his most recent one is a dud, but it's hardly his first, and taken as a whole the last decade has been no worse than any other in his directorial arc. It's not a Woody Allen situation, where you can suggest after Husbands and Wives (say), he never produced such good work, even if he produced a lot of minor stuff that you wouldn't want to be without (as well as some you would). Surely Scorsese would be a better fit for your list. He drops permanently to a lesser mode after Casino, but we're still happy enough to have Shutter Island, bits of The Departed and the Dylan thing.

Steven said...

There is now video of Zizek at the ICA last week?

sw said...

Regarding 30 Rock - well, yes and no. Obviously, one is obliged to stand back in awe: the three best actors in the world - Damon, Hamm, and Sheen - with another from the top five - Moore - appearing in a sit-com?

Nevertheless, following from your second question, my poor spelling must be distracting people from the finer points I think I'm making: this is not a list of things THAT MERELY GO ON FOR TOO LONG. That list would be headed with The Godfather, thanks to Part III, and would include shows like The Office (US Version).

No, this Sunday Recommendations is a list of things that reached a certain perfection at a certain point and then went on - for better or for worse, for better and for worse. When I write about Woody Allen's career in this list, I'm not talking about the last decade and a half of his films, I'm talking about the last three decades of his films. After a run of effervescent comedies - Bananas, Sleeper, Everything You Wanted, Love and Death - he made Manhattan and Annie Hall, the only two great American films not made for teenagers. If his career had ended there, we would not have had such formally exquisite comedy as Midsummer Night Sex Comedy, or some of the wonderful Manhattan b-movies of the 1980s. But it's tantalising to think of the magnifience of his oeuvre if he only made as many films as, say, Tarantino.

Perhaps a better example is Zidane, who was still doing fantastic things at the end of his career - any athlete slows down, loses pace, loses force, but the real ambivalence comes with his final moments on the world stage. The blow he strikes is one of the greatest blows in sporting history, including boxing; it's magical in its intensity and ferocity and physicality; it's also squalid and disappointing.

That ambivalence is one I hold about Eastwood's entire career as a director, although less intensely. Eastwood is on the list as a director, because there is part of me which sort of wishes he had not moved from the Talent chair to the Director's helm; of course, I don't think that when I watch Unforgiven, and I acknowledge that he has produced a mish-mash of films, with some very entertaining films and some reactionary crud. The reason I would not include Scorsese on this list is because the calibre of his work has remained sufficiently high and sufficiently complex that I would not be surprised if he eked out a few more classics in his dotage.

sw said...

Thanks, Steven, for the Zizek link - I've only just started watching the introductory film with its cheerily, patronisingly befuddled interviewer (he ignores Zizek's mumbled response about the correct pronunciation of his name: that hearing his name pronounced correctly makes him paranoid). Will we be reading your assessment of this event somewhere?

Daniel F said...

I think I did understand the point of your list, thanks, which is why I asked you when you thought that Eastwood's directorial career had _"even debatably"_ gone on too long. In other words, when it might hypothetically have been ended with the sense of perfection, but also the real loss, that would have occurred had Woody stopped with Manhattan or Peep Show with the wedding. Your bizarre answer seems to be before it had actually started! :-)

We disagree about the quality of late Marty. For me, he is a textbook example of your phenomenon. A part of me really wishes he had stopped after Casino, or perhaps even after King of Comedy. Then i could revere him without complication, without feeling that his later, OK stuff might be diminishing Taxi Driver or Mean Streets, somehow.


sw said...

My list is full of incredible subtleties of thought and a nuanced critique of cultural engagement itself; forgive me for assuming that my readership misunderstands me when they disagree. I was only being charitable.

(For the sake of humanity, may I note that what I just wrote was written thumb-in-cheek?)

I actually doubt that we disagree about Marty's late output. Which is why he doesn't belong on this list! Because it's all about the ambivalence. If you can say fairly confidently, "I wish X had stopped at this point", and find little with which to argue against this point, then X does not belong on this list. If you are unsure, confused, or, perhaps more accurately, find yourself deciding one way and then the other about whether X should have ended at a point of perfection, then it belongs on the list. Hence, there are times when I'm really glad I watched a Clint Eastwood (dir.) film, and there are other times when I think the only Clint Eastwood films that should survive the 2012 doomsday that awaits us are Clint Eastwood (-starring) films. It's not that the films he directed range from the execrable (Mystic River) to reactionary vulgarity (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino), and from the fairly compelling (Sands of Iwo Jima) to the excellent (Unforgiven); it's the fact that they exist at all that gets to me. Bizarre? You tell me!

(Well, you already did. You don't have to tell me again.)

I suspect that there are "people" out there who can, without much worry, say that Morrissey's career should have ended one, maybe two, albums into his solo career; Morrissey does not belong on this list for that reason. Morrissey belongs on this list for those of us who have struggled with his later albums even after Bona Drag or, pushing it, Your Arsenal, at times finding much to love, and other times despairing.

Steven said...

Could I just point out that it's Letters from Iwo Jima, not Sands of Iwo Jima?

I've only just started watching the introductory film with its cheerily, patronisingly befuddled interviewer

That interviewer does a great job. I should point out that I was not one of the many audience members obediently tittering in oafish condescension at that point.

Will we be reading your assessment of this event somewhere?

Daniel F said...

I do feel ambivalent about late Scorsese, which is why I said that it was only a part of me that wishes he had stopped, which is why I mentioned my regard for lesser works like No direction Home and Shutter, which is why for me he belongs on this list. As with your peep show example, there s a point after at which you can be sad he didn't stop, and at the same time glad he didn't. It's not a godfather 3 situation. That's my view. You seem to hold his late work in sufficiently high regard to take it out of the ambivalent sphere - for you, it's an unalloyed good. That's ok, maybe youre right.

As for Eastwood, do you really sometimes wish that he had never directed a movie? Consider just this. How many decent films as an actor do you think he would have made if he had never directed himself once his associations with don and Sergio came to an end? He is a limited actor, but as Hal Holbrooke told him in Magnum Force "a man's got to know his limitations". As a director, Clint has on the whole shown regard for his limitations as a performer.

Put another way, what would he have got as an actor, in return for Play Misty, High Plains Drifter, Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino? A bunch of shit films and an awesome cameo in Django Unchained?


sw said...

Yes, I can't really defend this Eastwood point much further (I feel that I would be similarly pressed on just about any other member of this particular list if I were taken to the mat). Sadly, the more I've thought about Eastwood during this conversation, the less I've liked him. Weird feeling, that. Not true of Allen, Morrissey, or Scorsese.

And Steven, I'm disappointed that we won't get your take on the Zizek. Why'd you link to it if we can't enjoy your thoughts about it afterwards? (I'm reminded of an earlier season of Survivor - maybe more than a decade ago? - which was only enjoyable to watch because you could then read a devoted, and devotedly bitchy, review of each episode on Salon. When Salon dropped that feature at the end of that season, I also dropped Survivor)

That having been said, I have no more patience with your superiority than with the purported superiority of the audience (on YouTube, we can't hear the audience obediently titter). While it is vile of Paul Taylor to call the presenter an "idiot", and while Taylor's subsequent waffling critique of the middlebrow is middlebrow, one should not for a minute think that the encounter he has selected is not an amazing one - and amazingly funny. First, the host is setting up a patronising encounter that Zizek refuses to have, a run-of-the-mill, "entertaining" book-blagging "interview", where the host's benign contempt is presented as a diffusely, phonily self-abnegating lack of interest. Zizek does not play along. And for several moments, you have the two of them, badgering each other with their own styles: the host's cheery jokes, which are louder than they are insightful, and Zizek's rambling, fidgety hands trying to form the words that have tumbled out of his mouth into something cohesive and whole. And then you get a sense of engagement, a bit of a click; there's very little palpable change in either man's tone, and perhaps you're more aware of it when the host brings the set to an abrupt close because you're finding yourself thinking, "I'm just getting into this". I think the moment comes when the host asks, after Zizek's oft-repeated chocolate laxative example, "Is that in here?" He's given a bit of the game away (he has not read the book), but he's actually really intrigued. And what's great is that Zizek pays no real attention to this cue, or any other cue, and just prattles on - until there is one last moment of tension as the host's laughter between Zizek's comment "as a marxist" about "class propaganda" and his own comment about never thinking he'd have so much fun talking about this topic, is forced out, a kind of "shut the fuck up" nervous laughter, followed by that comment about never thinking he'd have so much fun. So, I think the whole encounter is very amusing and I only wish you'd point out more. I'm at minute 6. What should I look forward to?

Steven said...

I'm glad we agree that the presenter isn't an idiot.

I linked to it instead of writing about it. That's the beauty of the internet?

sw said...

Okay, fine.

Then my next post on this blog will be my last, because I can link to something instead of saying it.