The Broom of the System

So I’ve put off reading this, David Foster Wallace’s first novel (and first published book), but with the upcoming release of The Pale King I felt motivated to take a pass at it and have all of his stuff read before that posthumous and final(?) work comes out.  Which is to say that I’ve read everything else by the man, which is to say I’m a pretty big fan (RIP).

The reason I’ve waited for so long to get around to it mostly has to do with its reputation, which if you followed Wallace much at all you probably know that it was met with less than full critical praise in some corners and that eventually even Wallace considered it juvenilia.  I recently picked up Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, which includes at least one selection that disputes that assessment, but I decided not to read it before I got at least some of my thoughts out about the book (and so you may be hearing more about that after a while).

Anyways: not his best, but really, what writer would want their first novel to be their best?  Isn’t it way better to build an awesome career arc instead of just serving up diminishing return after diminishing return?  Though in Wallace’s case, of course, that awesome arc came to an all too early, tragic end.

I much preferred the first half of the book to the second (which in some ways mirrors Wallace’s own reaction to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks — just the kind of epiphany you get to have when you steep yourself deeply in a writer’s work; btw, if you want more Wallace on David Lynch, the essay is collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which was my own introduction to Wallace and which I would generally recommend as a starting point), although the ending isn’t exactly as bad as I’d heard, either.  Though it is frustrating to have gotten through the sloggy second half (you won’t get this if you haven’t read it yet, but: Tedium, thy name is “Fieldbinder.”) just to get to some real rising/collapsing action at the end, and then have the story just sort of poof out.  But if you get to that point and are confused or think things are overly ambiguous … um, maybe you should read it again?  I’m not trying to be snide, but I’m also not going to be spoiler-y.

My favorite parts are the pillow-talk stories that Lenore (the protagonist) gets her publisher boyfriend Rick Vigorous to tell her.  They really are like half-baked college sophomore-level ideas elevated by the ironic device of having them filtered through and related by this sensitive, articulate character, in a voice which is undeniably Wallace’s natural (okay, “natural,” maybe) writing voice (the one he uses in essays and fictional exposition).  Also his ear for the rhythms of speech and dialogue are amazingly fully formed, especially his use of short dramatic beats.  Mostly it’s just really clear that he learned a lot about his talents and limitations from Broom and went on to do even better work.

The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic in this.  I know the film’s been generating tons of Oscar buzz for Fincher and Sorkin, and they’re deserving, but I really like Eisenberg’s performance here — so much so that I think they let Saverin’s character be a little too emotive.  Everybody comes across as pretty inherently emotional when compared with Zuckerberg’s character, and even though I understand why they would want to drive home the contrast between the two (especially since Saverin is ostensibly Zuckerberg’s only real friend), they lay it on pretty thick.  Also some nice Don Draper (by way of the Übermensch) channeling from the Winklevoss twins, and Rashida Jones acquits herself in her usual cool, understated style, which fits her role very nicely.

So anyways I pretty thoroughly enjoyed it.  My only caveat would be that I have a pretty high tolerance for dialogue-driven movies and shows, but seriously even if you hate that kind of thing maybe you should give this one a shot.  It’s very beautifully crafted, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is eerie, crystalline, and perfectly matched to the movie’s visual and thematic tenor, and while I know I was just criticizing some of the acting, it’s all really basically great: nice to see so many young actors knocking it out, even in the smaller roles.  Oh, and Justin Timberlake’s in it.

This is the pilot episode of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, David Cross’s new show.  Unfortunately, Hulu will only be carrying the pilot (through September 30th) and not any of the subsequent season.  Hulu also interviews him here.

The pilot starts with a two-weeks-in-the-future bit where we see that Cross’s character has landed himself in all kinds of legal hot water.  Cross also mentions in the interview that the subsequent shows move from day to day, and that he had the opportunity — because he was working in the British TV business climate — to completely finish writing the show before shooting commenced.  So, given the explicit final (or perhaps penultimate) plot point and how tightly controlled this script is, it will be interesting to see if all the escalating hijinks and scrapes, etc. that Todd Margaret finds himself in will work.  Though Cross prefers his writing method here, having the chance to react to your show as it’s getting made could allow for “course corrections” as needed (although perhaps he was making these kinds of adjustments anyways).  On the other hand, it may be as idiosyncratic and singular as Louis C.K.’s Louie, just on the other end of the tonal spectrum.

Freedom

I’ll refrain from too much undigested insight (though: an Arrested Development episode as written and directed by Noah Baumbach, anyone?), but I will say that if, like me, you weren’t particularly wowed by The Corrections, Franzen’s latest might still be worth your checking out.  My main problem with the former was that the ending seemed a little too simple and very much unearned, and while he pulls the same stylistic tricks — broadening and softening his focus in the epilogue (which, sure, of course, right?) — in Freedom, everything seems very much earned, even the kind of simplistic little story arc shoehorned in about Walter’s “thawing.”

Also, if, like me, you found yourself not really buying into Patty’s autobiographical section near the beginning: that gets put into a better context, eventually, trust me. (Though I was so glad when that part was over!)

Franzen does a good job of keeping things pretty well readable while still making me, like, look up half a dozen or so words, and the narrative also includes some bona fide cliffhangers as he switches chapters from one character’s POV to another. I was especially eager to know what Joey’s dire predicament was going to be, even if it did end up being predictable (which is really just another way of saying it was perfect).

My unkindest thought while reading it: that it seemed like the world’s most ambitiously literary Airport Book.  Kind of a thing where it’s still a little true but not as unkind as I thought, now that I’ve finished.  I’ll let the experts decide its GAN status.  Definitely worth the $.60 or so I’m going to pay in late fees to the library, in any case.

Rubicon

I really think AMC might have taken a misstep with this show.  It’s pretty obvious that they’re branding themselves as a “serious” network with lots of “serious” shows (and well they should!  They have two extremely successful ones, critically, creatively and even somewhat commercially) but I think they would have been better off diversifying somewhat, and maybe putting out the type of comedy that seems raunchy and crude on the surface but actually has some substance to it.  Something like my much-missed Party Down, or even like FX’s Louie.

Rubicon’s pilot (which they’ve “premiered,” like, three times already in a marketing move that in itself suggests a lack of confidence) exuded the kind of film-aspirational quality that characterizes their other original content (especially Mad Men), but I found it to be pretty obtuse.  Anyways, I missed the second episode, but from what I’ve gathered it wasn’t much of an improvement.

But I could be wrong!  A conspiracy thriller that for some reason focuses more on character at the expense of its own genre expectations may be awesome — but you have to wonder if even their self-congratulatory level of viewer (and I say this as one of them.  I’m patting myself on the back right now!) will have the patience for it.  I’m going to try to give the next episode a shot, but I have a feeling I’ll be checking in at the end of the season to see if it’s worth renting or something.

Inception

So!  The movie everyone’s talking about, and the one that I’m obviously late to the game writing about.  Should you go see it?  Yep, I think you should go see it (if you haven’t already, all three of you).  Is it such a good movie that it deserves not one, not two, not five, but eleven full 100 (i.e. perfect) scores on Metacritic?  Well — no — though its composite of 74 is a lot closer to the truth.  Most of that enthusiasm has something to do with the industry’s poor overall box office showing this summer, in as much as it gives industry rags (which are pretty well represented in that group of eleven perfect scores) a chance to both cheerlead a bona fide hit and get their “art” on with a high-profile director like Nolan.

But enough about arbitrary rankings and industry gossip. (BTW, I’m not only not an insider to the industry, I’m not even a particularly well-informed outsider; so if someone wants to poke holes in the second half of that former paragraph, feel free to educate me.  I do think it’s a pretty good hunch, though.  Blogs!)  Also: spoilers.  Probably.  I mean, I don’t know why you would even read reviews if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, but giving a warning is the polite thing to do, right?  Roger Ebert’s Sun-times review (which also ranked a perfect Metacritic score) says that the movie is spoiler-proof because of its self-reflexive obsession with process, and indeed, the most interesting positive review I’ve read creates a clear parallel between the film-making process and Inception's characters: Dom (DiCaprio) as the passionate but haunted auteur, Ariadne (Page) as the screenwriter who creates the framework of the dreamworlds, and so forth (the CHUD review spells out the rest; it's worth a read).

However, the movie’s obsession with this rather literal form of logic is also its glaring flaw — the most boring possible interpretation is exactly the one that insists that the movie’s entire narrative is a dream (or a simplistic metaphor; i.e. a boring dream).

Take David Lynch’s Lost Highway for comparison.  In it, our protagonist may or may not have (but probably did) kill his wife.  In jail, he transforms into another person and is freed.  After living this double, eerily parallel life for a while, he eventually transforms back into his original self, kills his antagonist (who may have also been himself in parallel) and drives off into the desert, sirens and lights in hot pursuit.  The movie’s last shot is of him undergoing another transformation, into who or what we don’t know — but it’s monstrous and strange; this ineffability is mysterious as opposed to merely secretive.  Perhaps you’re not a fan of Lynch’s, but I think it’s inarguable that he captures the essential mysteriousness of dreams much better than Nolan does.  Or perhaps you think that dreams are essentially secretive.  I definitely do not.

Inception's ending, of the spinning top that starts to stutter but then the film ends before we know if it actually falls or not, does lend itself to the idea that the entire movie is a dream, that its outermost narrative frame is, by the film's ever-tedious rules, actually unreal, but maybe we're better off reading it as a cheeky, almost groan-worthy pun: Dom is now “living the dream,” having made peace with the ghost of his tormented wife and been reunited with his children.  It's mawkish and clumsy, sure, but I will take that over solipsism every time.  Neither of those choices makes for a very satisfying conclusion, though.

A look at Mad Men season four.

Quick Links…

—Jerry Saltz’s blog on Work of Art (he’s the critic-cred judge) is worth a look for fans of the show.

Here’s a look at the season premiere of Mad Men.  Apparently the show opens up in the latter half of ‘64, with both the new firm and Don’s divorcé lovelife struggling to live up to previous successes.

—So Erik (perhaps you’ve heard he’s an untrained artist) got kicked off the most recent Work of Art.  Jaclyn continues to grow on me, especially the more hatred I see for her around on comment boards and such.  I’d hoped we’d see the kind of growth she’s had also exhibited by Erik, but since we pretty much got none of that, I can’t say I’m sad to see him go.  Next on the block: Mark, the photoshop guy.  Also, I’d be totally cool with it if they never did a team challenge again, ever.

Work of Art

Look, I’ll just come out and say something I’m sure a lot of people have already been thinking (and saying): this show is entertaining as a reality show, but clearly isn’t all that interested in actual “art” (or Art, or “Art,” or ART, etc…).  I mean, its subtitle/tagline is “The Next Great Artist,” and I’ll go out on a sarcastic limb and suggest that, at best, this “Great Artist” will have a pretty sizable asterisk next to their name in the hypothetical record book.

I’ve seen Robert Hughes' name wishfully bandied about as a judge to have on the show, and while I get where that's coming from I don't think he would deign to be involved.  This show works best as an accidental parody of the market-driven art culture that he's pretty well known to despise.  On the other hand, maybe he would find it in his heart to forgive us our postdiluvian sensibilities.  Nah — he’s probably too busy laughing that wonderfully wise and cynical laugh of his.  (If you’re lost now, you’ll just have to watch Mona Lisa Curse.  All kinds of insider self-referentiality up in this wazoo.)  I’m also sitting on/reading Hughes’ Shock of the New right now, which I checked out from our pretty great local library.  (Hands off my civic institutions, Fox News!)  So maybe more on that later.

Anyways, back to my original point.  The old lady stayed too long by at least one episode (though she will always have a place in my heart for punking Jaclyn).  And they got rid of both Nao and John?!  In one fell swoop?!  I hate to come off conspiratorial, but if the producers aren’t juking the demographics, I don’t know what they’re doing.  I mean, I do (ratings, blah, blah, blah), but they definitely aren’t keeping the best or most promising artists around.  Nao was only going to get more interesting.  John’s “shocking” painting was certainly one of the worst and definitely beneath his abilities, but he rightfully won just the week before and has been pretty strong so far.  Jaime Lynn made a local paper-level editorial cartoon and should have gone before either of them.  Sigh.

Structurally, I like how the show brings both the worst and best pieces’ creators out at once.  It wouldn’t really work on something like Top Chef, but it’s pretty perfect for Work of Art.  I’m waiting for a strong contender to defend his work so poorly or stupidly that they go from being a cinch winner to getting booted.  Drama!  Or maybe for someone who never shows up in a crit to get booted for being too consistently lukewarm.  “We spit you out!” sayeth the judges.

Finally, a note about Serrano, about whom I’m pretty conflicted.  Basically, I think that the propagation of the culture war only benefits that tired struggle’s worst, most entrenched participants.  So for Serrano to have basically delivered crooked televangelists and their ilk a walking strawman/talking point with a work like “Piss Christ” doesn’t sit too well with me.  But how much is Serrano actually responsible for something like that?  I’m certainly not suggesting his work isn’t protected under the First Amendment, but it seems kind of ironically naive about its own inevitable cultural status.  Perhaps my unstable opinion is a testament to Serrano’s importance, but I’m still not much of a fan.  On a related note, I’m simultaneously dismayed and relieved that nobody this past episode went the topical route and, oh, I don’t know, did a painting of a militant Jesus and Arab (maybe a certain historically famous Arab?) butt-fucking each other (and then dunking the painting in a vat of urine, of course).  All in all, Abdi deserved his win.  And I guess it’s just as well that none of these eccentric young things will get assassinated. 

The new episode of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist*  airs tonight on Bravo, 10/9 central.