Monthly Archives: November 2008

Just because I can…

I am posting this video, just because I can.  I first heard this song in a movie that means a lot to me, a movie that sparked something in my heart that I’m not even sure I can put down in words yet.  I may soon give an entry writing about Tony Hillerman novels, or may even review the movie itself, “Smoke Signals.”  So anyway, enjoy a video that’s probably not quite like the other videos you got sent links to this week.

More later.

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Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night


The cast of ABC's Sports Night
When I originally conceived of this blog, I knew I would make this post.  Again, the vision here is for me to tell you about things that get me excited and stirred up, especially in the arts.  And as I have been rewatching this series recently on DVD, I knew it would be on this blog.  What I didn’t know is that I would, by the time I sat down to write, develop a love/hate relationship with this series, instead of just a…um…love relationship.

In the world of film and television, I don’t typically follow actors.  There are certainly actors I like, but rarely is a specific performer’s presence enough to draw me to a work.  There are three things I pay attention to far more than I do acting–the writing, the directing, and the story.  

Story is maybe the most important.  I can’t define what kind of stories I’m drawn to–I love all sorts of stories.  I believe that story is one of the main ways that my generation and those younger than me learn.  Tell us something factually, and we may not learn or embrace it.  Tell us in a good story, and the point creeps in the back door and we grow.  If there is a truly intriguing story being told, it doesn’t matter to me if I’ve never heard of anyone associated with it–or even if it’s in English.  My all-time favorite television show (which I’m sure will get an entry come January), Lost, is a good example–I knew not a single actor and didn’t care much for the creator’s previous work when that was introduced.  But before the pilot was aired, I read an interview with one of the show’s writers, and what he said (some of which never actually played out in the show the way he hinted) grabbed me enough that I watched the show and haven’t missed a minute since.

Director is maybe the least important.  There are certain directors I like a lot, but if their new project is empty, or inappropriate, I can skip it without a second thought.

Writers fall pretty close to story in importance.  A good writer, to me, is one who can do several things at once.  He (or she) can draw characters that I relate to and want to see more of.  He can tell a compelling story, one whose story points aren’t obvious from a mile away, and even though it may be some of what we’ve all seen before, a good writer manages to bring a freshness to old storylines or themes.  But the big one–the one I’m the most a sucker for–is the writer who can do something original with language.  My favorite writers in film and television all do this.  They bring an original voice, like Joss Whedon, whose first show (let’s not mention the name right now…) invented whole new ways of talking–really, there are scholarly essays about that very thing.  Or, they bring a since of rhythm and history.  Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work on Gilmore Girls is a good example of this.  This is a show you are not allowed to knock until you’ve given it a fair shot.  Sure, it’s about a mother and daughter and their relationships and blah blah blah, but her scripts were a good 20 pages longer than scripts for other hour-longs, and full of literary and cultural references that kept my head working as I watched.

Which brings us to Aaron Sorkin.  He worked as a playwright and screenwriter first, penning films like A Few Good Men.  Then he moved over onto TV for awhile, creating and penning three TV series–Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  I discovered, as most people did, The West Wing first, and was struck by its wit, passion, and desire to show goodness in its characters.  I felt smarter watching that show, even when I didn’t agree with it–and to feel smarter watching TV is a rare thing indeed.

All 3 of Sorkin’s TV ventures have the same basic premise and theme–we watch people who work in the public eye, getting a behind-the-scenes look into their lives and especially their work.  TWW took place behind the scenes at the White House, Studio 60 (by far the worst of the three) at an SNL-style sketch comedy show, and Sports Night at a Sports Center style TV broadcast.  The styles overlap, with deep emotion contrasted with humorous moments and a lot of movement–it was Sorkin’s shows that developed what is now known, in TV, as the “walk and talk”, featuring characters talking rapidly about something as they walk down hallways.  (I love this, by the way.)

Thematically, they cover overlapping areas–politics, morality, sexual politics, creativity–but are all built on one basic idea–all three of Sorkin’s shows are full of characters who love their work, and are basically very good people, trying to do a good thing and contribute to society.  That can be inspiring, if not, at times, heavy-handed and a bit deceptive, as all three of these shows subscribe to a very optimistic humanism (even though God does enter into all three shows).  Sorkin believes–this may be his biggest core belief, at least the basic core belief of these three shows–that good people trying their best will be the main thing that changes the world for the better.  A quote from Margaret Mead pops up, I believe, more than once in the Sorkin world: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

While I have to strongly disagree with this man-centered sentiment, it is deeply refreshing to me to see a show where the characters actually wrestle with their choices, trying to make moral decisions and make a difference in the world.  Not many other television shows in history fit that description, and I doubt any have been so consistently inspiring.

Let’s talk about Sports Night (heretofore referred to as SN so I don’t have to keep switching to italics.)  It aired in the late 90s on ABC for two ratings-challenged seasons.  Critics loved it.  It concerns the nighttime sports show “CSC” at a fictional network.  Numerous well-known (in television, at least) actors got their big break here.  The main characters are the two anchors, Dan (the amazing Josh Charles, recognizable from Dead Poets Society and what happened to this guy?) and Casey (Peter Krause, better known for Six Feet Under, and now…well, shudder), their producer Dana (Felicity Huffman of…well, shudder), her assistant Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), the new guy Jeremy (Joshua Malina, who also played Will on TWW), and everyone’s boss, Isaac (played by Robert Guillaume, he of Benson and Rafiki fame.)

It’s on this show that Sorkin develops his television voice.  This was mistakenly billed as a sitcom, and though does have its share of Sorkin-humor, the forced laugh track is painful, and the show should be approached more as a short drama–22 minutes in the world of these characters and the issues they face.

If you’re going to give this a try, you should really start with Disc 1.  And maybe stop there.  (More on that later.)  The first handful of episodes are genius both in style and content.  You can hear Sorkin starting to develop his rhythm–short lines, repetition of short lines, new short lines, leading to long lines.  And the stories are almost all moving.

In the pilot, newly-divorced Casey is frustrated with his job, especially at the constant reports of rich athletes getting busted for drugs or spouse abuse.  He has a young son, and he’s worried that his son’s heroes are all going to be thugs.  An incident with a South African man, one who was beaten and abused under Apartheid, running a marathon brings Casey some hope.

The second episode concerns Dan’s refusal to apologize for a magazine interview in which he implies that he is open to the legalization of marijuana, and the episode builds to a deeply emotional climax.

Episode 3 focuses on Jeremy’s first on-the-field assignment, to do a piece on a hunting and fishing show, and his monologue to Dana and Isaac about the trip is probably the main reason I am personally opposed to most hunting.  I’m not sure even that anyone can discuss the issue with me until they’ve seen the episode, or at least the monologue, which starts a few minutes in this clip:

Episode 4’s storyline is split between a comic plot about the illegality of singing “Happy Birthday” in public (it’s copyrighted material), and a look at the possible romantic tension between Dana and Casey, a story that becomes a main focus of the show later in the season.

Episode 5 & 6 are a two-parter that really present a moral quagmire, as something traumatic happens to Natalie when doing a pre-interview with a controversial football star.  Questions of journalistic integrity and responsibility are brought to light, especially examining the question “How does a news organization handle it when the news is happening to one of their own family?”

Episode 7 is the first weak one, although it has its moments.  It is built around the device of Jeremy writing a letter to his deaf sister, a device that doesn’t quite work out.  I also find the ending to this episode offensive personally.

Episode 8, the last one on the disc, is about a news broadcast where nothing seems to go right.

Anyway, these are a great set of episodes, and as I rewatch the show’s first season, I realize that, in my opinion, it never quite tops itself after these eight, the show getting a little bogged down in romantic twists and turns from this point on.  The writing, and the way Sorkin uses the characters to wrestle with different ideas, inspired me to even develop my own show (more as an exercise than anything else), which I called Home Base and some of you have read episodes of.

So I can highly recommend you watch Disc 1 of Sports Night.  Now onto the “hate” part of the “love/hate relationship.”  I have never felt compelled to own SN, and in rewatching these episodes there are a couple of reasons why you won’t find it on my shelf, next to the four Sorkin seasons of The West Wing that I own.  One is the aforementioned shift in focus to romantic subplots.  The other, I think, is that as Sorkin figures out that he can write with rhythm, he begins to rely on the rhythms that he is developing a little too heavily.

We just finished watching Disc 2, and after each episode, Ira and I would find ourselves kind of making fun of the way he talked.  Let’s say you and I are having a conversation, and I want to tell you that SN has a rhythm.  In Sports Night world, our conversation would go like this, most of it spoken very quickly.:

Me: Hey, did you ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

You: Did I ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

Me: Yes.  (slower) Did you ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

You: Huh.

Me: Huh, what?

You: Did I ever notice?

Me: Yes.

You: That Sports Night has a rhythm.

Me: Yes.

You: I guess you did.

Me: I did what?

You: Notice.

Me: That Sports Night has a rhythm?  I did.

You: Well, I don’t know that I ever noticed.

Me: You didn’t notice?

You: I didn’t notice.  I have never noticed this rhythm.

Me: Oh, there’s a rhythm.

You: There’s a rhythm?

Me: There’s a rhythm.  You know how I know?

You: How do you know?

Me: I know because…Sports Night has a rhythm.

You: Well I never noticed.

Me: You didn’t notice.

You : I didn’t.  Except…

Me: Except?

You: I didn’t notice, except that I totally noticed!

And so on…Some of these episodes feel like that conversation happens for about eighteen minutes, and then there are four minutes of emotional plot to explain how Dan really notices the sense of rhythm because of something that happened to his mother when he was eight.  Or something…

So that’s my complaint.  By the time he got around to The West Wing, Sorkin had definitely stopped writing rhythm for rhythm’s sake and was using his style to further the story instead of being cutesy.

But that complaint aside, Sports Night, especially that first disc, is a breath of fresh air, and you should check it out.

You should check it out?

You should.

Best Record of 2008: House of Heroes “The End is Not the End”

 

House of Heroes newest record

House of Heroes newest record

There is much that is good and convenient about MP3 players, but I was hesitant to get one for several years. This is mainly because the onset of music downloads and iPods that hold 16,000 songs seems to have led to a depreciation of music.  I have noticed that when I download something off of a subscription site like emusic, I am less likely to really listen to it, absorb it, and give it the time to sink in.  It becomes something to be consumed and forgotten.  That’s a little less true about when I buy something off of iTunes, but it still happens.  

 

It’s when I purchase an actual physical CD, shelling out the $10 or so that it costs, that I tend to actually take the time to listen.  But that’s rare these days.  What all this is leading to, I fear, is the death of the album–the death of full and complete records, discs that are excellent from beginning to end and make a thematic or cohesive whole.  Instead, most bands put out an album that has a few great singles, a couple of other strong songs, maybe a little experimenting, and a handful of throwaway tracks that could have been more fully developed.  

The album is dying.  But it is not dead.  About five weeks ago, I received my copy of House of Heroes’ new album, “The End is Not the End.”  This is their 2nd album of all new material (they had a demo EP, an eponymous record on Gotee, and a rerelease-with-new-tracks-and-a-new-name on Mono Vs. Stereo).  It’s been a three year wait.  And they knock it out of the park.  This is my vote for the best album of 2008, and the first cohesive album to really get under my skin since Mute Math’s self-titled record and Sufjan Stevens’ “Come on Feel the Illinoise”.  

I’m bad at describing what music sounds like, but I’ll give it a shot: this is a rock record.  I guess it’s technically an indie rock record.  (In fact, you can only download it on iTunes or order a physical copy on zambooie.com.  An actual release to stores is coming in early 2009.  But get it now.  And order a real copy.)

If I were to try the “who do they sound like” game, I’d say…I don’t know…the Foo Fighters?  But there’s a great deal of musical versatility here.  One or two songs are straight up rock tunes, with a traditional verse-chorus-bridge format and only four chords.  Others shift all over the place, changing time signatures, keys, dynamics, and vocal styles (from falsetto to 50s harmonies to rock bravado) in the course of three or four minutes.  There is, musically, aggression, beauty, emotion, worship, and even bits of humor.  And it often just, you know, rocks.  (Ooh…italics.)

But what makes this record stand out is that all of these fifteen songs are linked thematically, and the way the lyrics play off of the emotion of the music and unite the album is just brilliant.  The theme is war.  Most of the songs are ostensibly told from the point of view of a soldier in World War II, but it is a short step to find parallels to both our current war and even the spiritual war we face every day.

When you look at the collection of songs as a whole, many facets of living in war are covered.  Devotion to family (“By Your Side”).  The morality of a man of faith being willing to kill, and what it does to his relationship with God. (“The Valley of the Dying Sun”–which has an absolutely amazing video–and “Code Name: Raven.”)  Acceptance of the probability of death. (“Journey Into Space Part One”).  Post-war guilt over the killing of the enemy. (“Voices.”)  Honor.  Mercy.  Love.  Romance during wartime.  There’s even a song about falling in love with a Communist.  And each of these tracks, I think, brilliantly explore these themes, which are then wrapped up in the final song.  (Well, final song not counting the bonus song, which is remarkable in that it’s an actual song, and not a short, undeveloped idea or a recording of the band joking around, like most bonus tracks.)  And what a final song…

You need to buy this record.  It has gotten under my skin, inspired me, moved me, and even nearly brought me to tears.  Let me highlight some of my favorites, in the order they appear on the album.

Track 2: “If”–Not the deepest or most powerful song, but a catchy beginning after the string opening.

Track 3: “Lose Control”–love the bridge on this song.

5: “Dangerous”–a great chorus about the risk of love.

6. “In the Valley of the Dying Sun”–this song starts the run of brilliance.  Using the war theme, it reads as a a song about a man wrestling with what he has to do during war. “I’m thinking of you when I kill a good man to keep myself from being killed by him.”  He wrestles with what to do, and the conclusion climaxes with the mantra “I’m living to shine on!” repeated several times.  A solid read of the lyrics, though, shows that most of the song could also be from the point of view of Jacob in the Bible, preparing to face Esau.  Another great thing about this song is its defiance of traditional song structure…it appears to go verse, chorus-that-sounds-like-a-pre-chorus, verse, slightly-new-wording-of-chorus, fast bridge, weird staccato haunting bridge, big slow down, yet another bridge leading back into what sounds like it might be the chorus but instead morphing into the finale, and finale.

 

7. Code Name: Raven–the brilliance continues with one of my three favorite songs on here.  So much goes on in this song, musically and lyrically.  I’m just going to give you samples: “And I don’t hate my enemy.  I hate the cloud he’s brought over my land.  There’s no virtue in killing a man, neither is there virtue in being afraid to stand.”  And in the chorus: “You’re the only reason I stay in this coward’s melee–I’d rather die than live without mercy and love.”  Some of the brilliance of this song is how the lyrics read one way, but the vocal interpretation twists the meaning.  There are a couple of places, but the most noticeable is the final line: “I’m on your side until my body drains of blood…” which reads as a bold pledge of fidelity but sings as a statement of deep regret.  Man, I love this song.

8. By Your Side–beautiful acoustic song, the only moment of respite musically, though emotionally I always want to cry when I hear this.

9. Journey Into Space (Part One)–this chorus makes me want to pump my fist in the air, and only today that I realized that it was about how the soldier’s relationship with God gives him confidence to face death at the hands of the enemy.  And he’s telling this to his loved one.  “Should they murder, we will live again in the clouds that cover the sun…”

11. Baby’s a Red–this song is just fun.  That’s all I have to say.

13. Faces–I don’t fully get this song.  It has something to do with the narrator’s tendency to fall in love a lot, perhaps with the idea of love, but how that never seems to pan out.  Love the “Shot down, shot down” chorus though.

14. Voices–the aforementioned song about hearing at night the voices of those killed by the soldier in battle.  The soldier looks to God, wondering how, if God can hear those voices as well, He could possibly show any mercy.  A haunting song then morphs into a sample of some preacher talking about the sin of unbelief, essentially rebuking the soldier for doubting the mercy of God.  Haunting, haunting, haunting.

15. Field of Daggers–Man, oh man, this closing song just pushes this thing over the edge, from mere greatness to masterpiece.  Seriously, I had to stop mowing our lawn yesterday to jump around our backyard when this came on.  The soldier looks at those he has lost in war, wondering if it will ever be made right.  And then: “I see a new day coming–maybe tomorrow. Woe to the king of nothing.  I see a clean blood flowing, brothers of sorrow.  Here is your kingdom coming.”  Woe to the king of nothing is right.  Because a new day is coming.  The song concludes with these lines: “He was and is, He is and is to come.  He holds the keys…” and then goes into one of the best false endings I’ve ever heard in a song–it slows down, you think the songs over, and then it kicks in fast and heavy, only to end straight into the strings you heard at the beginning.  This song inspires me, turns my heart to heaven, and is just perfect in every way.

And that’s followed by a minute of silence and a pretty amazing bonus track.

Two things: 1. I am not saying that this groundbreaking Radiohead-style experimental music, something you’ve never heard before.  You have heard this kind of music before.  But it hasn’t been done this well, or with this much variation and creativity, in a long time.

2. You have to give it awhile.  It’s one of those records where the first listen might be enjoyable but not particularly impressive.  Give it five or six listens.  Then you won’t be able to stop playing it.

House of Heroes.  The End is Not the End.  Thank you, boys, for making not just a collection of songs, but a true work of art.  I hope to see you play this live, and I hope this disc makes it into a lot of hands.  Thank you for being vessels.

Joining hip trends years after they start…

Ah.  Well, here we are.  I have finally broken down and started a web log.  (For some reason, the word blog sounds ookie to me, so we’re going to avoid it as much as possible.)

For what purpose, you ask, am I doing this?  Or maybe you didn’t ask, but I’m still going to tell you:

Lots of things have moved me lately.  I wrote about one of them on a “note” on facebook, which two people read.  I figure that if I start something like this, and send the link out to a bunch of people, more people might read it and I might be able to pass on things that move me to others.

There’s this personality test you can take where there are columns of verbs, arranged alphabetically, and you go through a process to narrow them down until you have three verbs that supposedly summarize your entire possibility.  While I find that…unlikely…whenever I have done this test, I always come up with some word that means “to move” or “to entertain.”  That’s something about me.  Whether it’s actually me performing a song or reading something I’ve written, or just getting someone to watch, read, or listen to something that I think they might like, I find a lot of satisfaction in “moving” people.  

Hopefully, I won’t pass on any junk.  Not everything might be to your taste.  Hopefully, though, as I write, you might get inspired, or one of the things I pass on might even draw you a bit closer to God.  That’s my hope, anyway.

What’s to come?  Well, whenever I am so moved to write, I will soon be passing on entires about:

1. House of Heroes CD “The End is Not the End”

2. Sports Night DVD–Disc 1

3. Maybe Mystery Science Theater 3000

4. Tony Hillerman novels

Well, that’s that for today.  Thanks for reading to the end.  jdb3