Last night was must-see TV, at least at my house. Having followed former NBC executive Jeff Zucker’s stupefying programming decisions, further driven home after reading Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night, it’s a wonder the network even has its Thursday night comedy line-up. I sat through Perfect Couples‘ cold open and shaved my legs during The Office, but Community and the triumphant mid-season return of Parks and Recreation did not disappoint. But since I refuse to watch Outsourced or Leno but planned to stay up for the Dismemberment Plan performance on Fallon (seriously, music booker Jonathan Cohen is turning it out), I needed something to occupy my time. I stumbled on the chords to “Jane Says” and attempted to untangle a necklace. I also watched Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, after Dana Stevens and virtually everyone else told me to see it. Also, Cholodenko’s comments during the Hollywood Reporter directors’ roundtable won me over and Annette Bening’s recent Golden Globe win reminded me of her cerebral sex appeal. Plus I’ll literally see any movie Mark Ruffalo is in.
I was more than a little skeptical of this movie during its theatrical run. The possibility of a dalliance between a lesbian and her heterosexual male sperm donor made me grimace a bit. My principal concern was something Amanda Klein touched on with in part of a tweet that stated “lesbians really love getting pounded by straight dudes.” To my surprise, the affair between Julianne Moore and Ruffalo’s characters didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. The affair certainly isn’t the focus of the movie, which breezes through it to devote considerable time to the aftermath. Moore’s Jules discusses human sexuality’s fluid nature in an earlier scene. Yes, this is rather obvious foreshadowing. But frankly, I’ve known a few lesbians who’ve been involved with men in various capacities. It didn’t make them any less queer.
This commitment to representing lesbians as complex beings because of and apart from their sexuality was reflected in the performances. Bening and Moore very much registered as a couple to me. They’re possibly the sort of couple where one partner was queer long before she found the other, who may have discovered her lesbian identity through this relationship. The movie handled the affair as an indiscretion and lapse of judgment between two aimless people who briefly take solace in approaching middle age as one party’s daughter is heading off to college and the other is just getting to know the kids he helped create. Furthermore, I thought the exploration of lesbian partners who shared the experience of child-bearing fascinating, especially when they have to confront parenting differences in relation to which child they gave birth to. Seriously, I want to read more about this.
However, The Kids was merely all right. There’s a lot to recommend. The ensemble is fantastic (recognition should also go to Mia Wasikowska, who I loved in the first season of In Treatment and is great as older daughterJoni). Music supervisor Liza Richardson does an exceptional job locating the songs these characters would identify with (Joni would totally throw the Knife on while loafing in her room). The production design is phenomenal. The homes immediately resonate as the dwelling places where upper-middle-class bougie southern Californians. Thus Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg’s script, which my partner had an allergic reaction to, also registers. I don’t necessarily like these people, but I buy them. Every clipped line or wine ovation Bening delivers as breadwinner doctor Nic strikes the right balance between surreptitious and well-mannered. Likewise, every time Julianne Moore says “man,” it seems like a joint is being passed just out of frame. And when the couple interrogate their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson, playing a role with a name only ex-hippie types would come up with) about their suspicion that he’s gay or goad their children into sharing their feelings, the premium they place on unfiltered self-expression scans as the tactics of people who use phrases like “higher self” and spend thousands of dollars and hours in therapy. While I’m not enamored with the efforts, I certainly appreciate their sensitive realization.
My biggest problem with the movie was exposition. I know that the movie was made for a pittance and under a truncated shooting schedule, but I would have appreciated ten more minutes of set-up. Why are Jules and Nic in a rut? Why does Ruffalo’s Paul care about being a father after forgetting that he donated his specimen when he was 19 and broke? Why is Laser’s friend peeing on cats? Who exactly is Paul’s girlfriend Tanya (played by Yaya DaCosta, who should have won the third cycle of America’s Next Top Model but is doing okay by herself as a working actress, particularly in John Sayles’ Honeydripper)? This is drawn together too hastily for me, especially given the care put into the rest of the movie.
However, the scene that’s the center of the movie for me is Nic impromptu performance of a verse from Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” at a dinner at Paul’s house. When perusing his record collection she discovers, after weeks of suspicion about him and his proximity to her partner, that they’re both fans. This part didn’t surprise me, nor did the reveal that Wasikowska’s character is named after her (seriously, poll a sample of late boomer or early Gen Xer women — 4 out of 5 probably love Mitchell, especially if your pool resides in California). I could be snarky and say that it would be better if they dug a little deeper than track one of the canonical Blue. What, no love for The Hissing of Summer Lawns? But Blue captured the zeitgeist and lives on across generations for a reason. It’s a devastating record about love curdled by deception and human error.
It totally works here, bolstered by Bening’s disarming performance. The camera lingers on Nic’s ostensibly private reverie. It’s a purposely awkward but deeply informative scene. Nic might be embarrassing her kids but she’s ultimately singing to herself. Jules and Paul watch, perhaps only slightly aware of how deeply affected she is by what’s going on. Following her performance, she will walk into Paul’s bathroom and have the truth she already knows confirmed for her. But this scene gives you insight into her interiority and why she’ll remain committed to her family after the fallout. It’s a subtle, powerful moment that demonstrates what the movie is and what it could be.
NPR is currently streaming Sleigh Bells’ full-length debut Treats, which came out yesterday. Folks were all a-Twitter (nyuk nyuk) about it, including folks like Maura Johnston. This release, off M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. label, is hotly anticipated. It follows “Crown on the Ground,” which Pitchfork named one of the best singles of 2009. Community‘s Donald Glover also sampled the song for his rap outfit Childish Gambino. As additional incentive, the album boasts a sweet cover. A photo of a cheerleading squad with the girls’ faces scratched out? Some Gleeks must feel vindicated.
For those unfamiliar with Sleigh Bells, the duo make abrasive pop music that grinds Derek Miller’s harsh guitar riffs and pounding drums against Alexis Krauss‘s sugary vocals. Imagine Lush‘s Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi singing to Ratatat‘s hard rock guitar loops with The Go! Team contributing samples, claps, and children’s choruses. Then turn the amps to 11, blow out your speakers, and feel your ears bleed. This is the kind of music you want to pump in your car, but probably shouldn’t so as to avoid becoming a road hazard.
Now, I’m not sure if I’ll champion Sleigh Bells when we look back on the decade. We’ll see how if they live up to their (literal and figurative) buzz. I like “Infinity Guitars,” though note some problematic lyrics that brings to mind Jessica Yee’s dress-down of hipsters’ Native American appropriation. I love “Rill Rill,” but am not sure how much of this has to do with lyrics about girls with braces or the sample of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That.” But for now, we have a pretty solid debut that juxtaposes the harsh muscularity of metal and rock guitar with deceptively sweet female vocals. Play it loud.
I was talking with my friend and neighbor Rosa-María during Glee‘s fall finale about Freaks and Geeks. We were specifically talking about the final episode, “Discos and Dragons,” which she just rewatched. In it, Michiganian teen protagonist Lindsay Weir is loaned a copy of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty by her hippie high school guidance counselor Jeff Rosso and steps into a larger world.
I’m not a Deadhead. For those of you watching Community, main character Jeff Winger’s religion/Paul Rudd analogy in this week’s episode is pretty much exactly how I feel about the band (i.e., we understand the appeal and don’t begrudge it, but also don’t share it). To me, I’ve long wondered why anyone would listen to the Dead when there’s Santana, a peer jam band that was more rhythmically intesting with a better lead guitarist. And before anyone starts mailing me bootlegs, I have also heard American Beauty. My first listen even took place around some pretty optimal conditions. It didn’t take.
That isn’t to say that I’m not fanatical about other things. For one, I’m a huge Animal Collective fan, who are themselves a bunch of hippies with a rabid fan base. And while I don’t think the two bands sound that much alike, both espouse feel-good truisms like “What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?” and “You have your fits I have my fits, but feeling’s good.” And of course, Animal Collective’s “What Would I Want? Sky” samples the Dead.
I’m fanatical about this show too. It’s one of my favorite television programs, perhaps of all time, and unlike some of the critically-acclaimed fare of the decade (ex: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office, season two of Friday Night Lights, season three of Arrested Development), I don’t think I know anyone who has seen Freaks and Geeks and doesn’t like it. I’m especially fanatical about how much music factors into both the characters’ lives and the tone of the show. For a show set in pre-MTV suburban Michigan, it nails the radio domination of classic rock, the percolation of punk and post-punk, and the general antipathy toward disco. Thus, it makes sense that Lindsay and many of her peers would be into the Dead, as they’re also into The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.
As an aside, one of Lindsay Weir’s clearest televisual counterparts is not a Deadhead, even though the band was fashionable at the time of her show’s season-long run. Angela Chase, the angsty protagonist of ABC’s ultra-90s’ drama My So-Called Life was given her father’s tickets to a Dead concert in “Father Figures” because he couldn’t make the show. She scalped them out of anger toward her father, who she caught talking to an attractive woman who was not her mother outside their house. She also did it for the chance to talk to her crush Jordan Catalano, who was willing to buy the tickets from her. But it’s also clear that Angela doesn’t get what all the fuss over the band is about, much to the ire and bewilderment of her Deadhead friend Rayanne Graff.
I think Lindsay becoming a Deadhead is really interesting. Throughout Freaks and Geeks‘ 18-episode run on NBC and the Fox Family Channel, Lindsay worked toward defying expectations. Sometimes, these expectations were put upon her by her peers, whether they be her kid brother Sam and his nerdy friends, the Mathletes she used to be close with as a geeky good girl, or the burnouts she hangs out with throughout the series’ run. Other times, they were put upon her by authority figures, whether they be the concerned faculty at William McKinley High School or her parents, who feared this bright girl was throwing her life away by running with a bad crowd.
But the best moments for me of this show were when she defied her own expectations, which were already considerable. She does it when dumping freak Nick Andopolis, an otherwise nice boy who was completely wrong for her, and later when she tries to be his friend. She does it when she rejoins the Mathletes only to quit again after realizing that she doesn’t get any joy out of it. She does it when she tries pot for the first time, only to discover that she really doesn’t like it. She does it when she sticks up for her friend Kim Kelly in English class when they both dismiss Jack Keroauc’s On the Road, to the disdain of their pretentious teacher. She does it to dazzling effect when promoting her family’s sporting goods shop while sticking it to Vice President George H.W. Bush and his lackeys for throwing out the original question she was going to ask him in assembly during his visit to her school.
She does it here too. Originally skeptical of the Dead’s profundity, she gets a gentle nudge from a stoner couple at her school (one of whom is played by Samaire Armstrong, who I enjoyed on The O.C. as Seth Cohen’s music geek girlfriend Anna and who had an enviable platinum blonde pixie cut with hot pink roots in the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck). When Lindsay gets the record home, she slowly absorbs the music and ends up “getting it,” whirling around exuberantly in her room.
As an aside, kudos to actress Linda Cardellini for being able to make what could be an otherwise cheesy scene believable.
Discovering the Dead couldn’t come at a better time for Lindsay. As her junior year winds to a close, she finds out that she’s been selected to participate at a state-wide academic summit at the University of Michigan. The idea of spending two weeks of summer vacation participating in competitive seminars and hobnobbing with her supposed intellectual peers sounds like a flattering offer but a pointless exercise to her. It sounds like little more than résumé padding to me, though I probably would’ve gone if offered it at that age).
However, the idea of following the Dead from Texas to Colorado with her Deadhead friends and Kim sounds like an ideal way to spend part of her summer vacation. So she decides to skip out on the symposium to go truckin’.
And while I have no doubt that Lindsay ends up going to a good college anyway, I’d imagine that those two weeks did more to shape her as a young woman than battling wits with a bunch of eggheads about great literary and philosophic work ever could. She’s probably the kind of person UC-Santa Cruz are looking for to manage their Grateful Dead collection. At the very least, I’m sure she’s got some items to donate.