Monday, October 15, 2007

Cardinal Sin...Redeemed

Salana Beach, CA--So, here's the cardinal sin--I completely forgot about the Martin Sexton show on Saturday, October 14. Yes, I had, and still have tickets for this show. How did I forget? I have a hypothesis on the matter: bought tickets too early and wrote reminders in too many spots.

One of the ways to get one's attention is to use novelty or incongruity. That is to say, add something new to one's routine or put something out of place. Well, when I first bought the tickets, I wrote the date on my kitchen calendar and Palm. Of course, this was over two months ago. So, day in and day out, the date on the kitchen calendar just became part of the background as did the reminder on my Palm.

I know, it should still have been fresh in my mind. It is Martin Sexton, after all, and...enough said. Anyway, it is Saturday night, about 10:30 p.m. Kids in bed. My wife and I are in bed watching TV. Just about to crash when she asks, "When are we going to the Martin Sexton concert?"

Flying out of bed, I ran to the kitchen only to confirm what I already knew--I had forgotten about the show. I had committed the cardinal sin. This wasn't a case of baby sitter falling through, death in the family, or some other tragedy, this was...well, lame.

Now, I have had and am having the busiest October of my life, but no excuses. So, as my wife suggests that I drive to see him, you know, catch the last two seconds of the set, I accept the situation.

The next day, I go on Sexton's website and discover that he is playing the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, CA, 25 miles north of San Diego. I buy a ticket online. I drive the 88 miles one way. I walk into the Belly Up and realize, it was a blessing in disguise. No knock against the Anaheim House of Blues, but the Belly Up is legendary.

All I can say is that Martin Sexton blew the doors off the place. It was jammed packed. Sexton can sing. And, play guitar. I can't figure out why he isn't bigger.

More show review later, but now, I can rest in piece knowing I have redeemed myself and have been forgiven.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

All Blacks Will Never Win It Until...

Yeah, so most Americans don't have a clue what rugby is except to say "it's like football and soccer," which is wrong--it is more like football and basketball. Nonetheless, in a weekend following one that saw six of the top 10 ranked college teams lose, so did the world of rugby.

Saturday and Sunday mark four matches that make up the quarter-final rounds. Two favorites, Australia and New Zealand both lost their matches by 2 points. The Aussies lost to an injury plaugued English side who are the reigning world champs.

New Zealand lost to France who have been their nemesis twice now in World Cup play. Two world cups past, New Zealand was up 13-0 at half-time only to lose to a more passionate and inspired French side.

Again, this Saturday, New Zealand was up at the half, only to see France creep back in and ultimately win.

To understand what this means to a Kiwi, think of your all time favorite sports team losing the big game, but not just the yearly rivalry, the one that only comes once every four years.

This tough is particulary hard in that it was a quarter final and New Zealand was expected to win.

The bottom line is that the reason the All Blacks have failed to win the World Cup since its inauguration in 1987 is that they play one match in a lackluster fashion (the only exception would be the overtime loss to South Africa in the 1995 World Cup final).

Last World Cup is was a passionless loss to Australia, the World Cup before, to France, and the 1991 Cup to Australia.

There isn't any magic or panacea to fix this problem--they are still undoubtedly the best side in the world--the best team with the most talent. What is lacking is the killer instinct in the matches they assume they will win.

France lost this year's opener to Argentina, but have regained that deep down passion. The killer instinct that says never die. I think the All Blacks were looking to the next round.

The only thing they'll be looking at is other teams on the field.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

There’s Nothing Wrong with the Ending

Now that the crying has ended and the pouters have uncurled their lips, it’s time to examine the sheer brilliance of the final episode of The Sopranos. At the core of interpreting why the ending didn’t work for some and worked for others is the conditioned series finale syndrome or CSFS; the triumvirate levels of what Shakespeare referred to as “noting”; and what I’ve dubbed the “plausibility equals suspension of disbelief to experience ratio”. And, of course, there is the sorting of miscellaneous debris within the final scene.

The things that are probably most troubling to viewers are the conditioned expectation of a “neatly wrapped” series finale as seen in M.A.S.H., Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and most recently, Six Feet Under. Now, these shows vary in their quality, but each concluded in a somewhat satisfying way. The predictability factor is determined by how a viewer’s expectation is shaped by show convention. So, when a show follows tried and true convention, its conclusion becomes more and more predictable because the audience expects certain things to happen.

In the case of The Sopranos, audience expectation was primarily based on what their determination of convention was prior to the series. For most, it is the conventions of the mobster genre as defined by The Godfather trilogy, Good Fellas, and the like. In these stories, the main male character fits a stereotype of hardened and street savvy thug who doesn’t have a heart, conscious, or care (exteriorly speaking) of what others think of him. The main characters of these stories would never in a million years think of seeing a psychiatrist for therapy, let alone become self-aware of emotional and psychological problems.

This became the general premise for David Chase’s work. He set out to shatter expectation by changing convention—ultimately changing predictability. He masterfully—along with his writing team—pulled this off, episode after episode. Viewers disappointed with the final episode did one of two things—they either felt their viewing senses were tantamount to Chase’s predictability factor and fooled themselves into thinking there were in step or one step ahead; or they, in a moment of insecurity or, perhaps nostalgia, experienced a viewers relapse into the old convention, expectation, predictability mode. In short, this latter group needed or wanted the tightly packaged finale that would allow them to continue life knowing the fully resolved story.

Of course, Chase pulled no punches in that he established from the get go that this show was not about predictability, and his writing team certainly changed convention, partly by the graces of H.B.O. and partly because of their panache in pushing the limits. Unfortunately, disappointed viewers just may have had too many years of conventional television to undo the Pavlovian effect.

Now, what exactly allowed Chase to change expectation? Viewers know that the H.B.O. format in and of itself challenges conventional television in that it is sans commercials, breaks the cliffhanger format for commercial breaks, and can portray sex, violence, and profanity among other things. But, these are easy things to do by themselves. What chase did was take the assumptions of mob life and give viewers the fly-on-the-wall purview to see what really might happen in a mobsters life. With The Sopranos we went from being fascinated with la cosa nostra as depicted in two-hour films, to getting past that and really getting to know the characters.

Television is a voyeuristic endeavor. No questions asked. However, the way the eavesdropping or “noting” as Shakespeare called it, occurred on The Sopranos was quite different from normal prime time fodder. In most shows, the viewer sees the show through a single layer. However, just as Shakespeare demonstrated in Much Ado about Nothing (Alvarez’s favorite), Chase uses a triple-layer of observing.

Recall that in Much Ado about Nothing, there are characters that hide behind bushed and eavesdrop on genuine conversations between other characters. There are also characters that stage a conversation because they know that they are being observed and give false information or merely perform for the eavesdroppers. Finally, the audience or reader of the play become the third layer of voyeurism in that the audience views all levels of the “noting” and become eavesdroppers themselves.

How does this work for The Sopranos? There is the perfunctory audience level. This is standard television for sitcoms, dramas, or sporting events. As for the staged level—the viewer got to see Tony say things to people that he both meant and didn’t mean, depending on the situation. Sometimes for a set up a la Adriana. Sometimes for the agent who gave him inside information. But, as we continued to view The Sopranos by way of unconventional settings (kitchen of Tony’s house), characters (just about all of them), or situation (Tony in therapy, suicidal son, lawyer daughter), we gained a view of mob life that had never before been portrayed. This became the hook that would ultimately lead to the need for a tightly closed ending. Being along for the ride so long gave viewers a sense that they were part of the family through the three levels of observation. This point of view was significantly apparent in the final seconds of the show as the screen went to black. But, more on that later.

One of the most fundamental challenges of any work of fiction is the idea of suspension of disbelief. That is, to what extent must a viewer suspend his or her belief of reality as they know it in order to follow a story? The difference between a viewer’s real life experience and level of suspension of disbelief are what gives a work of fiction its plausibility.

Tony seeing a therapist was one of the first challenges of disbelief. How many viewers would believe that a mobster would see a shrink? At first thought, probably very few. However, as Chase uses the three-levels of observation, challenges convention, he changes our expectation and thus increases the amount of disbelief we are willing to suspend. It gets to the point that by season two, nobody gives the thought of “a mobster in therapy” a second thought.

Coupled with this is the very real and down to earth of Tony struggling as a father. He, like any other dysfunctional family, cannot control his own children and adds fuel to the fire in terms of his marriage. His tireless pursuit of the American dream is in vain. As he gains power and money, he loses his son, daughter, and maintains a constant friction with his wife. Ultimately, he is only able to acknowledge his childhood difficulties, but never quite resolves them. So, that brings us to the final episode, namely the last scene.

The cat may be Adrianna, may be a reference to the Egyptians belief in cats as good luck, and may be an ode to The Godfather when Don Vito Corleone pets the cat as he sees visitors. Maybe Chase just wanted to give a part to an animal that doesn’t die. Who knows?

Final scene. Tony is alone in the diner from his youth. A critic recently referred to it as a Normal Rockwell scene. Families and patrons enjoy “soda fountain” fare, jukebox music, and a flare for nostalgia. Enter Carmella. Husband and wife are joined. Tony orders and old favorite—onion rings, best in the state. A.J. enters. The prodigal/emotionally disturbed son returns.

Outside, Meadow struggles to park the car. She continues to do this as conversation unfolds inside. At each attempt, she is trying to park while going backwards. Yes, she is trying to squeeze between two parked cars, but her inability to go backwards prevents her from joining the family.

Inside, we see a man in a Members Only jacket looking like a possible hit man. There is the mesh cap clad truck driver looking guy. Tony and A.J. talk over “Don’t Stop Believing” with Carmella listening. Tony glances to the door each time someone enters. Meadow continues to struggle—she desperately wants a “do over” on several levels. How can she navigate the difficulties of medical school, let alone law school if she can’t parallel park a car?

The scene cuts quickly between Members Only, truck driver, two African Americans, etc. as A.J. says to Tony, “You said to always think about the good times.” Tony replies, “I did?” A.J., “Yeah.” Tony, “Well, then, yeah.” Meadow, now parked, nears the entrance. Tony looks up and, zap. Black screen.

Were we bamboozled, and Chase laughed his ass off? Not likely. Not after eight years of a well-crafted show. Why not an on screen whacking of Tony? Convention and conditioned expectation. We’ve seen the mob boss killed too many times. Why not sailing off into the sunset? This would be, after all, the conditioned predictability, which, for the most part, gives people comfort. Chase could have followed in the footsteps of St. Elsewhere and had Kevin Finnerty awaken from a dream or coma and the entire thing could have been his alter ego or his take on what he wises he were. There are certainly enough hints that could validate this route. But, this is really where I think Chase was going. And I thank him for it. After all this time of giving us a deep intimate look at Tony and his family and other characters, making us work to understand, making us lessen the need to suspend our disbelief, changing convention, he not going to suddenly reverse and give us the neatly wrapped package.

Chase gave us a series that made us work and think. He gave us an ending that makes us work even harder. Tony is going to live his life until it is his time. But the question is not whether he is going to die at the hands of another mobster or by heart attack; it is, rather, how is he going to deal with his failure to reach the American Dream?

A dead Tony is just another mobster who dies and leaves a widow, fatherless kids, and a fortune he never enjoyed. Letting him live doesn’t make him a hero. He still lives the life of worry, the king who can usually control his court, but not his family. It is just as we are about to see the Norman Rockwell portrait come to life that it is taken away. And for the wife and kids—they’re in the same boat, pursuing a happiness that they just can’t obtain. Carmella will continue her failed pursuit of independence via prospect properties. Meadow will strive to undo her “mobness” by becoming a doctor or lawyer—something that is for a good cause. And A.J., the suicidal son who, cannot live up to his father’s expectations, just like Tony couldn’t.

Chase changed convention, raised our expectations, and created unpredictability. He gave us multiple layers of intimacy. And, just as we got comfortable, he reminded us that things are not so easy. He wasn’t going to take us this far only to undo that which we pursued. And, in kind, he rips our point-of-view away just before we think we know it all. Sure, he made every fan jump for the remote, curse aloud, or ask “what the hell’s going on?” as the screen went blank. But, Chase was doing what he’s been doing all along.

Just when we thought we had the “Chase convention” solved, we falsely settled, and ultimately lowered, our expectations, and fooled ourselves into hoping for a predictable ending. But those are safe. Tony’s life is not predictable. It is not safe. In that blackness we take what we’ve learned from all of the episodes and ask ourselves, “What would happen next?” As the Journey song reminds us “Don’t Stop Believing” because that is what made the show so great. We didn’t stop believing that we could keep disbelieving. Chase certainly allowed us to suspend our disbelief, the least we owe to him is a thank you for changing what we think we should expect. After all, we take Tony’s advice as A.J recounts and “think about the good times.”

Monday, October 1, 2007

Joe Henry's Civilians


Joe Henry has returned and his newest release Civilians may be his best yet. While Joe’s trademark songwriting features his subtly complex arrangements, the driving force of this album is really the subtext: his take on Americana.

What more but a CD cover flanked inside and outside by photographs of the late 1950s and 60s can capture the “old days” alluded to in songs like “Civilians,” “Our Song,” and “I Will Write My Book.” These are not songs of melancholy, but, rather, songs of nostalgia—but not just for nostalgia’s sake.

No. These are pieces juxtaposed against modern civilization; the voice of the songs looking for the stability of the past amidst the chaos of the present. It’s no wonder Henry mentions God in nine of the 12 tracks.

Although he mentions in the linear notes that in retrospect he noted that God appeared in many of the songs, it is difficult to not see this as a driving theme within the major pieces. Especially those with the yearning cry of his voice, backed by the multi-layered instrumentation.

Nothing his rushed; this is Joe’s left hook out of a dark alley. The piano sounds like a player-piano that most Polly’s Pies used to have in the waiting area—it has a tinny resonance, adding to the feel of way, way, back in the day.

Just as Wilco’s addition of Nils to the line up has done wonders for the overt and covert guitar playing, so is the guitar playing of Bill Frisell. Where a less experienced player, or one solely rooted in one style may have trumped the musical freedom of this collaboration, Frisell knows exactly what to play and when to play it.

David Piltch’s upright and electric bass playing may be the most underrated musician on this CD. That Henry leaves many of the pieces sparse in terms of mixing and the slower tempo pieces create implied gaps in time, Piltch is the one literally holding it all together. Sometimes it’s a single note in a bar, or a longer line that is almost inaudible. But, that is part of the joy of listening to this CD: you have to listen several times, and listen closely.

One last trope, perhaps the most imperceptible, is Henry’s ultimate comment to the entire music industry—he’s doing it his way. Released on Anti-, a three date tour, with one recently added, and absolutely no apologies; Joe Henry brings it well-refined, developed, and impeccably executed.

But, like with any Joe Henry event, he comes out in a flash, and like that, he’s gone. Rolling Stone and all the other detritus of music review use stars—typically one to five to rate an album. I use the pound sign. Joe Henry has just pounded out the best CD of 2007 and I’m not afraid to give it ####. Yeah, those at Rolling Stone fear the five-star review because that means it’s an instant classic. We should be so lucky that taste will survive ten, 15, 20 years from now.