Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Office

 In October I binge watched all 9 seasons of The Office.  I started watching it just as something entertaining to have on while I did other things, but the particular humor of this show was not something I could only half pay attention to.

The Office depicts a mundane world of unexciting characters doing boring, almost pointless, work while held hostage by their self-absorbed, performance oriented boss. The interactions are awkward and uncomfortable, but also incredibly hilarious and even surreal. The characters have seemingly little in common, yet they must co-exist in a small depressing space hour after hour. The antics are largely based on situations where dominant aspects of one character clash with another, and in an amazing and special way, it is through these juxtapositions of flaws that a unique joy emerges. Dunder Mifflin is really fun. In small and silly ways, like when they all get swept up in betting about every little thing.  And The Office is often touching, as unlikely friendships form and awful behaviors are seen from a more compassionate perspective.

Steve Carell is incredible as Michael Scott, and the last seasons when he was gone seemed unfocussed and disappointing, but it was also during these seasons that the characters' narratives really took off. It became less about the office and more about their lives. I was shocked by how moved I was by the final few episodes, where the documentary about them over all theses years is finally aired. They get to see themselves, and, beautifully, while the viewer expected them to be exposed as petty and sad and crazy, their lives are instead shown as meaningful, and they get the unique opportunity to watch their past unfold before them.  As much as I laughed out loud during 8 and a half seasons, I was totally crying during those final episodes. I was caught off guard by how moving it was. Something that particularly touched me was the friendship that formed between Oscar and Angela.

I liked it so much it is possible I will soon start it again from the beginning!

Monday, October 31, 2016

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst


Jeffery Toobin's book about Patty Hearst is fascinating. Incredibly detailed and well-researched, it is also a page-turner.

I knew so little about this story -- I only knew it as an example of Stockholm syndrome (which Toobin shows is not a thing, and even if it were, this case is not an example of it). Toobin's American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst puts the strange events in the historical context of the 70s, where middle class young people were setting off bombs right and left -- there were far more terrorist incidents then than there have been since 9/11. He provides rich information about the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army -- their backgrounds, and characters, and love lives -- as well as the six months Patty spent with most of them, and her year as a fugitive. I had no idea she was involved in so much violence, but I also did not understand the violence and rage of that decade.

Toobin provides information about the all the players, other than the radicals, so you have a strong sense of the emotion of the drama: Patty's parents, her fiance (who fled the kidnapping immediately), a number of detectives, etc.

The most powerful part is the Afterward. I was so immersed in the detailed, blow-by-blow account of the main action in the 70s, that when he pulls back and jumps into the present I was jolted by the sense of the passage of time, of the history I have lived through, of how different the world is now.

The 13th

The 13th is an incredible documentary structural, systemic, and political racism. It looks at how policy since slavery has served to control and oppress black people. It is a powerful companion piece to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, a book I teach every semester. Both the documentary and the book detail how criminal justice policy, particularly since Nixon, and through to Clinton's crime bill, has made it legal and acceptable to designate black communities to secondary social status. The laws that serve to lock up disproportionate numbers of black americans, and the social policies that allow for discrimination against felons in housing, employment, education, and voting. Many black Americans today face the same obstacles that they did during Jim Crow.

The 13th offers powerful and disturbing visual parallels about violence against black people between the 20th and 21st centuries, and earlier eras of slavery and the KKK.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

La Boheme

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to see La Boheme at the Met. I had only seen this opera before on DVD, the same Met production, I think. The live performance was so rich and lovely. On one hand the story is very simple, and almost cliche. But the music, and the music, and the deep commitment to romance made this an incredible experience. And, once again, I cried when Mimi died.

This performance featured David Bizic as Marcello; Dmytro Popov as Rudolpho; Ailyn Perez as Mimi; and, my favorite, Susanna Philips as Musetta. It also included a pony and a horse!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

As much as I love Jane Austen, and adaptations of her novels, I never saw the much-loved 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley (who is a favorite of mine).

It is really charming and perfect. It's been decades since I read Austen, but her novels made enough of an impression on me that everything in the movie seemed straight out of the book. I swear I remembered specific bits of dialogue. At the same time I think I forgot how many elements to the plot there are. I kind of just remembered it as Lizzie forms an initial negative impression of a gentleman that gets in the way of her seeing his good side and slows down her falling in love. Which is true, but that happens through a series of incidents and relationships and mistakes which are all very entertaining and at times quite moving.

I think that because of the charm of much of Austen's work, and Pride and Prejudice in particular, people don't totally see the grim underside of the issues. At few times Mrs. Bennet says something dramatic-seeming about her daughters ending up destitute. This is to comical effect, but in fact the Bennet girls situation was dire. None of them stood to inherit the estate and they would likely be destitute if they did not marry. It is lovely when Lizzie's father does not insist she marry the cousin who will get their home, but this sentimental moment obscures what the intense and real pressure there would be for her to marry him and secure the family's economic stability.




The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing who cracked Nazi military code for the Allies, is okay. There is a lot of interesting elements, like the secret formation of the code cracking team, the undiagnosed but definitely present spectrum type disorder that Turing had, the criminalization of homosexuality... And in the movie each of these held my attention enough to keep watching.  But ultimately I didn't find the whole of The Imitation Game to be that compelling.

Frasier

Over the past several weeks I watched I all 11 seasons of the 90s sitcom, Frasier.

I think I started it because I wanted something mindless and non addicting to watch now that school has started. But, because the episodes are only 22 minutes, it was quite easy to gobble up many episodes an evening.

At first I was incredibly put off by the laugh track, which seemed so jarring and disruptive. I eventually got used to it. So much so that by the end I really didn't notice it at all. I also remember that I used to find Kelsey Grammer's overacting in this show to be insufferable, but not only did I get used to it now, I began to see how it was effective.

I really like Frasier. I love how it mixes a bit of wry, verbal humor with very traditional broad physical humor, and classic wacky plot structures.  Niles and Frasier are great together. I was shocked to learn that they added Niles' character at the last minute, that he wasn't part of the original concept. I cannot see the show working without him. The PAIR of comically ostentatious snobs is somehow hilarious. And their similarities serve to enhance their individual characters by bringing their differences into focus.

There is also something sweet and endearing about the family dynamic -- The grouchy father and the two competitive grown boys. The other characters are good, and most of the episodes are pretty tight with many, many funny moments. The last three seasons are not as good, as Niles and Daphne get together, and some of the storylines wrap up. Oh well, it happens to the best of them.