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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (6/3/08) 11:02pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT
TV:  LOST (4x13) [spoilers], Friday Night Lights (2x09-2x12) [spoilers]
Books:  She Comes First



Upright Citizens Brigade:  ASSSSCAT
Watching this was frustrating.  I was watching this particular style of improv -- the kind they do and teach at UCB -- being done about as well as it possibly could... and it still just didn't do much for me.  Occasionally I'd laugh at something, but the laugh just... it wouldn't go very deep, if that phrasing makes any sense.

Now, none of this is meant to impugn the UCB cast.  Even I can see that they know what they're doing and they're executing it damn near perfectly.  No, I think this is just a sign that conventional sketch comedy -- taking a wacky idea and making it iteratively wackier for three minutes -- is just not what I'm into lately.

And ASSSSCAT is all about sketch.  In this format, they have a guest deliver a monlog based on a one-word audience suggestion; then the cast performs a dozen or so sketches based on elements of the monolog.  Then there's another monolog, either further exploring the one-word subject or using the sketches as inspiration.  Then there's a dozen or so more sketches.

Then they're done.

And it wound up hitting a lot of the things that make me roll my eyes in improv.  Oh, look, there's a wacky drug scene with zany hallucinations.  And there are some broad caricatures.  Oh, that's no ordinary moose head, that's a *magical* moose head.  *sigh*  It's rude of me to be so dismissive, particularly when I could certainly do no better, but... with improv, I got to a point where I felt like I was watching the same show over and over, and it *always* had hallucinations, caricatures, and convenient magic.

Ah well.  Fortunately, improv is a big house with many rooms besides this one.

The commentary on the show, by the way, is well worth listening to.  It's almost like that class that Mr. Besser taught a few months back, boiled down into DVD-commentary form.  The cast thoughtfully picks apart how the show structure works and explains why they make the choices they do.

And yes, I laughed very hard at the business meeting to address the buzzard-infestation problem.  I'm not made of stone.


LOST (4x13) [spoilers]
So... what did I think of the finale?

It felt different from other finales.  Good, but different.  Season one ended with the sudden dip into the hatch.  Season two ended with the reveal about Penny's search party.  Season three ended, of course, with "We have to go back!"

This one?  This one didn't do anything crazy.

Okay, I take that back:  several crazy things happened in this episode.  The island moved.  Ben departed for the future.  The freighter exploded.

But all of these actions were *expected*.  We knew that there were plans to move the island.  We could put together that Ben had time-traveled.  And you don't introduce a pile of C4 in episode twelve unless you're going to explode it in episode thirteen.

Basically, this was an episode where the last smattering of puzzle pieces snapped into place.  Oh, that's how those six people wound up returning to civilization.  Oh, that's why the island got moved then.  Oh, that's how Jin died (or 'died').  And so on.

Honestly, after this finale, things feel relatively tied up.  I'm not absolutely desperate to find out why Locke left the island, or how he died.  I can't dream up any possible reason why the O6 have to return to the island, so I don't find myself wondering about it.  (Instead, my brain says, "Ah.  Arbitrary writers' decision.  They probably don't know why yet.")

I'll have to wait nine months (or more?) for the start of season five -- and I'm strangely okay with that.

You could argue that they'd painted themselves into a corner here -- there was no mystery involved in *what* happened, only in *how* it happened, so naturally the finale wouldn't leave you breathlessly wondering, "What happens next?"

But I think they could have done something subtly different that would have made me more invested in season five.  Going into this finale, I knew about the guilt eating away at the Oceanic Six.  I knew how Jack was sick of lying.  I could see how none of the Six were willing to even *talk* about what happened on the island.  And I saw Jack get done in by his own self-destructive tendencies.

All this, taken together, made me think that the finale would be about some kind of moral cost.  The six had chosen to get back to civilization... but they had *chosen* to do something awful to get that privilege.  Think of Claudius trying to pray:  you know you've done something bad, but you know you've gained something good.  That's the sort of thing that tears people up.

And so I was figuring that after I knew how the Six got off the island, I would know what the big secret was.  I would know about that moral cost.  And I would sure as hell want these likeable characters to get the chance to *redeem* themselves -- to make things right -- in the final two seasons.

So instead... I got to the finale, and there wasn't any bad thing there.  The lying was, in fact, the whole enchilada.  And -- here's the more problematic bit -- beyond a certain point, none of the Six really had a choice about what they did.  They couldn't stop Sawyer from jumping out of the chopper.  They couldn't stop the freighter from blowing up.  They couldn't reasonably go back for Jin.  They were basically locked into the rollercoaster seats 'til the rescue.

And even after the rescue, they don't seem to have a choice about lying, at least according to the tenuous logic Jack lays out.  They can keep it a secret, and feel bad about lying; or they can tell everyone about it, and... apparently that's really bad, and people will kill their friends.  I suppose if I think about it long enough, I can understand intellectually that the lie would feel awful to the Six, but... I never saw it or heard it, I have trouble imagining it, and I just don't feel it.

It felt vague and not-quite-rational, like the whole bomb-disarmament freezing mumbo-jumbo.

That said, the episode still does a lot of things right.

There are small things:  segueing directly from the 'previously on LOST' S3 finale to "the rest of that scene" was absolutely brilliant.  Having Ben say "So?" in the Orchid Station was a great way to keep us wondering if Ben could really be one of the 'good guys'.  And the implication that Charlotte was born on the island gives me hope that next season, she can do something besides stand around being mean.

In broad strokes, Lindelhof and Cuse did a great job ratcheting up the jeopardy in this episode.  Oh, you're in a helicopter?  Great, you just had a fuel leak.  Oh, but there's a freighter you can land on.  Great, it's about to explode.  Oh, but we can land on the island!  Oh.  Um.  It... moved.  Like, away.

That is how you write an action sequence, kids.  And what's even better is how they set up each complication so the audience knows it but the chopper people don't.  This way you get that repeated dread:  "No!  No!  Don't land on the freighter, it's... oh, god, they're landing on the freighter."  I don't know why the 'audience-superior' thing makes action-sequence complications about a zillion times cooler, but it does.

Also, the Orchid scene was a great little horror sequence, with yet another repeatedly unkillable baddie coming to finish off Ben.  And that came straight after some note-perfect comic dialog between the two.  ("Is that the magic box?"  "No.")

And generally, it was *cool* to see all these jigsaw pieces fall into place.  I liked seeing how the middle of the finale led directly to Ben's flash-forward in "The Shape of Things to Come".  It was neat to see the Oceanic Six finally get on the same vehicle at the same time.  And even if the 'we have to lie' thing felt kind of forced and dull, it was satisfying to at least have an answer to "I'm sick of lying!" that made sense.

Generally, these last two hours did a great job paying off everything they set up throughout the season.  I just wish it had sent us hurtling into these last two seasons with some forward momentum.

Side note:  Kate's dream sequence freaked me the hell out.  If I ever want to drive somebody batty, I'm going to call them in the wee hours of the morning and play reversed speech into the phone.

Additional side note:  I was really hoping that the Sumba beach scene had included a 'local fisherman' using a badass digi-cam with a lens the size of his head.  I mean, that press photo that neatly blew up to the size of a wall had to come from *somewhere*....

Add'l add'l side note:  I suspect I was the only one weirded out by the vocal resemblance between Keamy and Boston songster Jonathan Richman.  It causes just a bit of cognitive dissonance when you half-expect the baddie killing machine to bust into "Ice Cream Man".


Friday Night Lights (2x09-2x12) [spoilers]
The third disc of season two of Friday Night Lights contains four episodes:  "The Confession", "There Goes the Neighborhood", "Jumping the Gun", and "Who Do You Think You Are?".

Now, before I go nattering on about the show itself, note that this disc includes the episode I was an extra for (that would be "The Confession").  And yes, I did go back and Zapruder through the episode to spot frames where I showed up.  Screencaps with little superimposed arrows are uploaded here.

Okay, now that that's out of the way:  what is this show about?

Season one did meander quite a bit, but that season did have one big question in the middle of it:  will the Dillon Panthers win the state football championship?  I'm not saying every storyline related to that question, or that it dominated all the screen time -- but it still served as an engine that drove the show.  Many of the story arcs directly or indirectly nudged the answer to the question towards "yes" or "no".  It might sound stupid (since, in a way, the show isn't really *about* football), but this arrangement made the show feel like it was going somewhere.  It imposed an act structure on the whole season.

Now?  Now it feels like it's just a soap.  Plot arcs come and go, without any overall direction.  I talked before about how the arcs seem to come from nowhere; now it looks like they don't really *go* anywhere, either.  Matt meets his grandmother's new nurse, Carlotta.  They fall in love.  She leaves.  The arc is done, and Matt seems to have taken a leisurely journey from point A to point A.

In a similar vein, Landry's unfortunate murder arc resolves itself.  The murder goes away.  He and Tyra (as far as I can tell) break up.  And Landry... looks to be back where he started.

Granted, I'm not saying that every plot arc has to leave the characters irrevocably changed.  (Full disclosure:  I *do* believe that, but I'm not picking that battle today.)  What I'm saying is that the arc has to affect *something* in the broader scheme of things.  And if there's no 'central question' that's driving the whole season, and if the arcs don't impact the characters in any lasting way... well, then, what's the point?

It feels dangerously close to Perfect Strangers territory, where everything that happens gets undone by the end of the episode, and we hit the reset button before the next one starts.

So the overall structure isn't quite working out.  The individual arcs continue to fly out of nowhere -- for example, the TWoP reviewer pointed out that Noelle and Smash must have been dating in a parallel universe before the "racism is bad" storyline shows up in "Who Do You Think You Are?"

And then there are storylines that just don't quite make sense.  Andrew Johnston points out that the 'do we put the baby in daycare?' thread happens when the kid is three months old, which... is that right?  Is that when you start putting kids in daycare?

And then there's the "Tim steals from a drug dealer" storyline, which has the show veering further away from nuanced realism and further into wacky-soap-opera territory.

I guess I keep watching because there are bits where I can see the old show peeking through.  Landry and Matt had one of their few scenes together in "Who Do You Think You Are?".  They talked about Matt's relationship with Carlotta.  I cheered because it's one of the few scenes I've ever seen with guys talking about sex that appears to take place on the same planet I live on.

I feel like at some point this season, the writers will stop asking, "What exciting subplot can we throw in next?", and they'll *start* asking, "What would these people *do* next?"  And the moment they do that, everything will snap back into place.


She Comes First by Ian Kerner
Yeah, I'm a little amused that I'm reviewing a book about oral sex.  I'm sure for some folks, just revealing that I have *read* such a book is TMI.  And I'm certain that for the various lotharios who read this blog, most of whom are planning to move to Japan because they've long since exhausted all the possibilities of western sexual practice -- for them, the implication that I don't already know everything in every book about the topic only inspires pity.

Mr. Kerner opens with a lengthy discussion of Elements of Style, so maybe it's best to start with talking about how the book is written.

It's weird.  I like puns.  I like jokes about sex.  Combine the two, though -- puns about sex --  and I'm usually just annoyed.  I don't know why it has this dragon/monkey effect[1], but it does, at least for me.  I can go the rest of my life without hearing the term "cliterati" or the phrase "one giant lick for womankind".

Now, I'm not saying such puns are categorically bad -- in fact, I'm sure most readers giggled at those two quotes.  I guess, for me, puns are all about context.  If a guy delivers a pun, and everyone (including the teller) acknowledges that it's a really stupid pun -- I'm okay with that.  Likewise, if someone tells a brilliant, complicated piece of wordplay, and everyone knows it was great, that's fine, too.  But if somebody tells a really stupid pun with the conviction that it is genuinely funny? -- then I turn into a joke snob.

And I think that's what was happening here -- Mr. Kerner piles on the paronomasia, apparently convinced he's saying something very very clever, and you're thinking, "Just stop.  Stop it.  You're not funny.  You're still not funny."[2]  At least I *think* that's what's going on in my head.  *shrug*  Or maybe it's all just prudish recoil; I've led a sheltered life and I honestly do have delicate sensibilities.

Puns might seem like an odd thing to talk about, but I think it's the most noticeable symptom of a prose style that just tries too hard.  I mean, take the bit where he quotes Thoreau about hwo writing something short and effective takes more time than writing something long and tedious.  For a commonplace like that, is the Thoreau quote absolutely necessary?  And the comparison of vaginal secretions mixed with wine to "ambrosia, the Ancient Greek food of the gods"[3] seem maybe a weensy bit over the top?  And the less said about the conclusion, where he struggles to be poetic, but lands somewhere in livejournal-poetry territory, the better.

Generally I'd call his prose style "elite" -- and when it comes to good prose, I am *vehemently* anti-elite.  If you use a big word where a small one will serve, you'd better have a damn good reason.  If you illustrate something with a quote, it had better be because the quote makes your point better than you possibly could.  If you're going to use a cultural reference that most of your audience won't know, your reasons for including it should be as clear as a goddamn mountain stream.  The good fight is to get things across simply and clearly, and that's infinitely more difficult than proving to your audience that you own both a dictionary *and* a copy of Bartlett's.

Then again, the subtitle of this book is "The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman".  So maybe this messy self-indulgence is intentional, and part of Mr. Kerner's way of pleasuring his audience of Thinking Men.  "Ooh, I can parse "cunnilignoscenti".[4]  *And* I know who Thoreau is!  Hooray for me!"

*sigh*

Let's move on to content.

Once you wade past the pretentiousness, the book does have useful things to say.  Before getting to the "okay, here's how you do it" part, Mr. Kerner spends the first half of the book providing general information.  I admit, the anatomical discussion mostly flew right past me, but he referenced all the Latin terms[5] frequently enough later on that I gradually sorted out what was what.  The most interesting part of the first half of the book was the historical discussion, specifically of attitudes towards oral sex in the United States.  He also included respectable sections about safe sex and common qualms that couples have about the practice.

It goes on to discuss female sexual response in some detail, as a way of setting the stage for explaining just how cunnilingus is properly done.  Still, I wish this section had had more obvious structure.  The old line about essays is that "you tell them what you're going to say, you say it them, and you tell them what you just said."  This felt more like "you tell them something, you tell them something else, you tell them something else, and eventually you get to the end."

On the plus side, it did go in chronological order -- from the first signs of arousal through orgasm and finishing up somewhere in afterglow-land -- which lent it a certain built-in organization.  Honestly I wish he'd opened with something like, "If you only come away from this knowing three things about female sexual response, they should be <x>, <y>, and <z>.  Now, let's go into more detail."  Yes, I know "just three things" is horribly reductive.  What I'm saying is that I wish he'd put more emphasis on the big picture.

Because frankly, understanding deeper principles at that point -- rather than every detail of which anatomical structure contracts when -- might have made the second half of the book make more sense.

Hmm.  How do I explain how the second half of this book reads?  Okay -- it's like you're reading a book about swing dancing, and the author includes twenty chapters in a row that list a complete choreography -- on the level of 'now put your left foot 45 degrees to your left and wait one beat' -- for dancing to a three-minute song.

Sure, it provides useful information.  And, should you learn all of those moves, this lengthy list might see you through a song very well.  But without foregrounding the idea of "moving to the beat" or "reacting to the song" or "paying attention to your partner", it would be tricky to sort out exactly *why* to do such-and-such a move at such-and-such a time.  And what's worse, such an exhaustive catalog would make dancing seem less like fun, and more like desperately memorizing material for a med-school exam.

... which, of course, it isn't.

Now I'm reading back over what I wrote, and I feel like I may be exaggerating a little.  Mr. Kerner does make an effort to explain some general ideas about female sexual response (he has a giant list of them at the end of chapter two), and he usually does explain how the various minutiae of technique fit into those ideas.  What I'm saying is that he could have gone *further* with that, and made his whole book clearer.

I don't know if I can recommend the book or not.  I don't know how it compares to other literature in the field.  I can say it does cover what it sets out to cover, it includes a lot of information, and the tone never gets so bombastic that it's incomprehensible.  So *shrug* one can do worse.


For next time:  probably not much, as I'll spend the weekend traipsing around San Francisco.

Classical-music-listening continues, slowly-slowly-slowly.  Starting in on Beethoven's violin sonatas, IIRC.



[1] The Onion A. V. Club frequently alludes to this:  films with monkeys are cool; films with dragons are cool; films with monkeys and dragons inevitably suck.

[2] And lord knows when I hear some hopelessly-coy swing song, my inner voice is saying, "Oh, fercrissakes, just say 'penis'!"  I think this is a related issue.

[3] I wish I could remember the exact phrasing.  Rest assured, it was something just as over-explainy and ponderous.[3b]

[3b] As a side note, I think this bugged me because it took something gustatory and, well, politicized it.  "You should like how this tastes because it is correct to do so.  Yaaay vag."  It's a perfectly understandable thing to say in this book -- a guy responding with a disgusted "blaaagh!" does not deserve to ever have sex again -- but... I dunno.  I guess I'm always leery of subjugating what you want to what you're told to want, even though we do it all the time.

[4] Note:  Mr. Kerner never actually used this word.  This word is far funnier than any of the nonce words Mr. Kerner invented.

[5] ... there were many French terms as well; I suppose that shouldn't have surprised me.

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[User Picture]
From:jefpeanutbutter
Date:Tuesday (6/3/08) 11:20pm
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I agree with a lot of your Lost assessment. I wanted this finale to have the emotional impact of the season 3 finale, and it just didn't, I believe. It seems that they just barreled through a lot of plot points that they'd been building towards all season. I wanted the reason they have to lie to be something more significant than a really significant look in Locke's eye. And by having the strangely placed reunion of Des and Penny they kinda sabotaged their chance at a powerful scene of the Oceanic Six being completely visibly traumatized before their rescue. In other words, I would have liked the show to take a little more time with the emotions that led to the tense and sullen scene in the back of the rescue plane. And yeah, they totally should have showed some fisherman with a camera on the beach. I was looking for that, and it would have been really satisfying to see. But I liked the episode overall. Its structure just seemed a little too by-the-book (and, "let's finally show all these things we've been talking about") to have a solid emotional impact.
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From:hujhax
Date:Wednesday (6/4/08) 12:59pm
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I agree with a lot of your Lost assessment.

Thanks!

I wanted the reason they have to lie to be something more significant than a really significant look in Locke's eye.

Hee!

And by having the strangely placed reunion of Des and Penny they kinda sabotaged their chance at a powerful scene of the Oceanic Six being completely visibly traumatized before their rescue.

Wow -- I had totally overlooked that, but I absolutely agree.  Just give the O6+2 a little time to sit there, floating in their little emergency raft, shell-shocked and suspecting they're going to *die* out there.  I mean, the audience probably needed a breather from the plot churn at that point, and it would have made "OMG we're rescued!" into a stronger reversal.

But I liked the episode overall. Its structure just seemed a little too by-the-book (and, "let's finally show all these things we've been talking about") to have a solid emotional impact.

*nods*
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