Movies: Palm Springs, Too Funny to Fail
Great Guitarists: Stories and Styles by Colin McAllister
This is the 2019 Teaching Company course about notable guitarists.
The AVClub has an annual tradition of listing the "least essential albums of the year". These albums aren't bad — they're usually well-produced and perfectly serviceable — they just have no possible reason to be here in the world. A repeat winner ('winner') was the "A*Teens", four Swedish teenagers who did 100% transcriptive ABBA tunes. Nothing bad about it, but: why would that album ever need to exist?
So it is with Great Guitarists. The course proceeds pleasantly. There are seventeen lectures. Usually, a lecture is devoted to a particular guitarist, though a few cover specific musical styles instead. Each lecture opens, commendably, with the lecturer playing an original composition in the style of the guitarist. It's generally a dad-rock-friendly name like David Gilmour or Alex Lifeson, or some jazz great. (There is only one woman — Joni Mitchell — among them.) Then there's a five-to-ten-minute summary of the guitarist's career — it sounds a little like a wikipedia summary, peppered with a few quotes from music critics saying, essentially, "this guitarist is good."
It's pleasant enough, and it passes by without your really having to think about it at all, and it has no reason whatsoever to exist.
And that's frustrating, because you could readily imagine a good, useful version of this course. If it focused more on musical styles than on career histories, and didn't shy away from music theory, then it could teach something useful about the guitar. Hell, I'd get a lot out of a course that was just the performances, followed by the instructor explaining exactly how he put those songs together to evoke the style of the given performer.
Even just some kind of through-line, some overall point about how the guitar works or how it's changed over time, would give the course *some* kind of weight.
Instead, it's a genial trifle.
Outdoor Fundamentals: Everything You Need to Know to Stay Safe by Dr. Elizabeth K. Andre
This is the Teaching Company's 2019 course about the basics of exploring nature.
I decided to give this a shot because it was (1) outside my experience and (2) unrelated to the ongoing 2020 dumpster fire. Plus, my wife is idly curious about hiking these days, as a safe way to get out of the house.
I liked the through-line of this course. Dr. Andre pushes back on what I'd call the "performative masculinity" take on camping — where you go out into the wilderness to prove how much pain and punishment you can take without complaining, and prove your worth by getting out of life-threatening scrapes via sheer strength.
The professor emphasizes all the *other* reasons to experience the outdoors: for peace, for closeness to nature, for changes of scenery, that sort of thing. And she talks about how to stay safe and reasonably comfortable outdoors. Basically, she's laying out techniques so that you can focus on *nature*, and not on "oh god my leg hurts and we're lost and hungry and literally *everything* is chafing."
(An interesting side note: Dr. Andre makes the point that pain is not something to "power through", but something to observe very acutely. Something that just started hurting a little bit likely needs attention, and quickly, before the problem becomes more severe.)
The course is well-organized, with good, self-contained topics for each lecture. The professor's presentation is a little "reading from cue cards", but it's adequate to get the information across. The video sections I watched had some small demonstrations and fairly normal powerpoint-style slideshows.
Eventually, it got hard to hold my attention on it. The course moves from broader ideas to basically reference material — all very useful, but more or less impossible for my brain to hold on to effectively. You can show me five different ways to tie knots, and I completely get why it's a necessary part of the course, but the different shapes are going to kind of wash by me vaguely. I loved the practical advice about how to predict weather via cloud patterns, but again, the details never really stuck.
I guess it'd be different for a frequent camper — "Oh, *that* knot will be really handy for [frequent situation]!" makes it more memorable.
The course sensibly covers a lot of emergency scenarios — how to handle a variety of injuries, how to handle getting lost, how to steer clear of hostile wildlife. However unlikely those scenarios are, the situations are dramatic enough to stick in my head. So now I can't help thinking of camping as "that thing where you leave a perfectly good house to get injured, lost, and eaten by a bear".
Still, I appreciate that it has all this useful reference material, and I like the overall philosophy that informs the course. It's a good resource for someone getting into camping for the first time, but it's not interesting enough in and of itself for anybody else.
Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies for a Better You by Prof. Peter M. Vishton (audiocourse)
This is the 2016 self-help course about how to use recent advances in psychology to help you be happier and more productive.
Right off the bat, this course lost my trust. It talked about ego depletion — offering the 'tip' that willpower is a limited resource, and has to be managed accordingly. The problem is, at the time of recording, this concept was relatively new (first experiments in 2002 or so), and immediately *after* recording, meta-analyses started calling this entire framework into question. If I recall correctly, it became something of a poster child for the replication crisis in the social sciences.
Generally, the course gets tripped up by over-relying on "recent advances in psychology". Sure, it's coming up with advice that's fun and counterintuitive, but it's also traipsing into conclusions that are just plain wrong. Power poses don't do anything, but this lecturer swears by them, guiding listeners through a minute or so of the "Wonder Woman" stance.
These days, much of our best-known psychology research is being called into question. The 'marshmallow test' actually measured food insecurity. The Stanford Prison Experiment was badly designed, and nobody could replicate its results. Most of the participants in Milgram's obedience experiment knew it was play-acting. While smiling might make you happier — as this course argues — nobody can replicate *that* result, either.
And a lot of psychology is beset with widely-popularized "one weird trick"-style findings: conclusions so counterintuitive that they cut through the science-journalism noise. And yet, most counterintuitive findings are counterintuitive because they're wrong. (As Andrew Gelman puts it, 'People argue simultaneously that a result is completely surprising and that it makes complete sense.') So many of these results don't survive closer scrutiny.
Now, this is a good thing for psychology. I absolutely applaud the field holding itself accountable and trying to nail down which of our ideas are actually supported by evidence. But then that means that putting out a course like this, that takes all these results as given, just feels irresponsible.
To his credit, the lecturer does a good job of at least presenting some skepticism towards his cited findings. The professor will at least tell us how a given experiment controlled for certain variables, and he'll point out cases where correlation is not necessarily causation.
On the other hand, he's got a very bad habit of describing results as "significant". This is a *very* stupid thing to do in science communication, because we don't know whether to take "significant" to mean "important" or "statistically significant": if some percentage reliably goes up from 1% to 1.00001%, that can be *statistically* significant, but still unimportant. This vagueness calls a lot of tips into question — if, say, repeating "keys keys keys" while I'm looking for my keys makes me find them faster, that's great. But if it makes me find them 3% faster, no, that's pointless.
If you generally follow pop psychology — if you read books like Thinking, Fast and Slow and read the odd science article that crosses your feed — this course won't teach you anything new. You'll recognize the findings as soon as they're introduced, and maybe one or two new "tips" will be news to you. (I did heed its gentle reminder to take up meditation again.)
In the end, I can only recommend it as an overview of some interesting fields of research in modern psychology. The tips are interesting, but dubiously useful, and kind of depressingly geared towards being a nicely-productive capitalist cog. The presentation is fine: it's a little reading-from-the-cue-cards, and the lectures don't build on each other or set up much of a through-line. I imagine, though, that there are better psychology courses available from the Teaching Company. I may try their massive Great Ideas of Psychology course soon.
Las Puertas del Infinito by Victor Conde and José Antonio Cotrina
This is fantasy novel about a magical house with elaborately-locked doors that lead to alternate realities, and the "stalker"-like treasure hunters employed to unlock them. (Yes, it does edge more towards magical realism.) It was written in Spanish, and highly-literary, vexingly-Castillian Spanish at that, so I can't guarantee I understood it 100%.
Speculative fiction presents unique opportunities and unique challenges.
The opportunities are there in full force.
These writers clearly delight in world-building. The 'multiverse of earths' conceit lets them spin out one whimsical AU after another: here's a cloud world with hyperintelligent birds; here's a massive computer the size of a universe; here's a planet where hundreds of realities are literally colliding together. They enjoy this so much that it soon starts to work against them: they are having so much fun creating one world after another that they never really settle into building *out* any individual world.
They also delight in narrative twists. When your literary world doesn't play by round-earth rules of how reality works, you can present all sorts of surprises. I can't imagine any of you will read this, so I will spoil a lot of the ending: in addition to working with alternate worlds, this novel also deals with time travel. On top of that, you see one character who's very old and never named. And this character never meets another character who's rather younger and has a name. So of course, those two are the same person, just at different times, leading a life that loops nonlinearly through the story's narration.
This enthusiasm for twists also works to the story's detriment. I honestly didn't suspect that these two obviously-the-same characters were the same person — I'd pondered the idea, but realized that if they were, then the character's motivation in his later years would literally make no sense. Then the book told me no, they were the same guy... and his motivations made no sense because "he went crazy when he got old". Not only that, but there's another pair of characters that pans out in the exact same way — "this nameless guy is actually this young man, grown old! and he went kuh-RAZY!"
It's lazy and cheap.
The novel also hits the pitfalls of sci-fi. For instance, it's really easy for sci-fi to get fixated on all the gewgaws of world-building and time-traveling and various forms of plot shoe-leather, and forget that your story is about characters who have objectives. This book's central characters are ciphers. Half the time they don't even want anything — when they do want things, you can't really relate to their goals.
So basically the book gets by on its voluble world-building. The characters are there as more-or-less tour guides — they go from A to B to Z so that we can tag along from A to B to Z and see all the fun planets and battles and such the writers have planted in A and B and Z.
And I will add that a good chunk of the book takes place in alternate-universe Victorian London, and between that and the Spanish authors, you've got that fun effect where somebody outside a country weirdly 'overshoots' in depicting the country. (Consider faux-Prussia in Fullmetal Alchemist.) So not only is that AU London British, it is *strenuously* British — which is actually kind of delightful. When "Brigadier General Duncan Chaucer" shows up in the story, sure, it makes sense, and you're well on board.
Sci-fi can also have problems with scale. You might recall The Hitchhiker's Guide, when Arthur Dent has discovered that the Earth has been destroyed, and he can't get his mind around it. Finally he pares the tragedy down to "I will never eat at a McDonald's again," and starts sobbing uncontrollably. Again, spoiling with abandon, Las Puertas del Infinito builds up to a massive Big Bad who's trying to destroy the entire multiverse, and so there are entire universes of armies coming to do battle with it. And eventually something in your mind just clicks off, and you can't connect to this action any more. It's too *much*, and too big, to be relatable.
In the end, I can't recommend Las Puertas del Infinito. The world-building is delightful, and the whole book is kind of drunk on its own invention. But the characters aren't quite there, and you can't quite connect to them. And in the end, the story is just moving pieces around a chessboard, making people do things very arbitrarily, to get its time-travel machinations to line up correctly.
This is the 2020 Lonely Island movie starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as a pair of wedding attendees experiencing the same day repeatedly, à la Groundhog Day.
One of the very few nice things about 2020 is seeing the continued, tentative return of smartly-written, mid-budget, solid, three-star movies. Movies in theaters had bifurcated into (1) massive tentpole action movies based on safe, known properties — ideally sequels or adaptations or sequels *to* adaptations — and (2) tiny indie films with shoestring budgets. The middle dropped out, and finally, at long last, we're seeing the streaming studios take an interest in "new movies that might be popular that don't require the GDP of Bolivia to make". (Hey, kids, remember "romantic comedies"?)
All of which is to say, I both liked Palm Springs, and I liked that Palm Springs sits in a whole category of movie that I thought I wouldn't see again.
Yes, it's a riff on Groundhog Day. Now, the stupid way to do a riff on Groundhog Day is "Whee, I like Groundhog Day, let's go through the motions of that story." Then you just end up with "Groundhog Day, but not good".
But there are several *smart* ways to do a riff on Groundhog Day. You can dig into what you like the most about what the story means, and build something new out of that. You can combine it with a different genre — I'll put the book I'm thinking of in a link to avoid direct spoilers on that.
Or you can do what Palm Springs does: take Groundhog Day as a given: we all know the movie, we all know the rules of its universe.
Then, introduce something new.
And it's commendable that there's literally one single tweak to this gimmick: it's a repeating day where, if any random person visits the right spot at the right moment, they *too* will get stuck in the loop. And the script explores that perfectly logically. Of course we have one character who's just joining the loop, and another who's a long-time veteran. And yes, there's some question of who else, in this wedding party, might also be consciously repeating the day.
And that's it. They don't mess with the formula any further. That one complication is enough to keep an entire movie occupied.
The rest of the film goes pretty by-the-book, which is commendable. Simplicity is good (and hard), and we need the familiar, solid storytelling elements to keep our attention nailed down while we spiral through this insane time-loop story. I'm sure if you broke this movie down with a stopwatch in hand, you'd find every single classic romantic-comedy beat — the meet-cute, the romantic-activities montage, the conflict, the angry separation, the realization, the run to the airport — all clicking in at the exact right times.
And they sensibly, and sparingly, give each lead one (and only one) secret. And I love that these are not stupid sci-fi secrets — it's not "I am actually this other character time-traveled into the past", and it's not "I am secretly controlling the time-loop with my magical demon magic." It's just basic character secrets — retroactively unsurprising, because they make sense for the characters and you understand why they wouldn't reveal them. You could even figure them out on your own — it isn't a matter of 'solving' the movie, it's about how these secrets impact the characters when they're revealed.
Just good, solid screenwriting.
And with a solid story in place, everybody is set up for success. Andy Samberg, perhaps like Bill Murray, is a little out of his element in the film's dramatic acting, but absolutely nails the "dude who's lived this day ten thousand times and no longer gives even the merest of fucks" vibe. Nobody can do smarmy, childish privilege like Mr. Samberg. And the jokes land nicely, especially once Nyles and Sarah get into a chaotic-good routine of amusing themselves in this universe without consequence.
As you might expect, Cristin Milioti gets most of the heavy lifting, acting-wise — she handles a much heavier character arc, while still doing the same "fuck it let's go crash a plane" insouciance that the lead does.
But it's hard to really say much about this. It's good. It's funny. It's doing a romcom formula with a fresh twist that keeps it interesting. It's taking on just the right amount of material for a 1½-hour film. May streaming bring up a zillion more of these simple, solid films that are well worth our valuable time.
Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show
In 1996, ABC premiered a sketch-comedy show. Stephen Colbert performed and wrote for this show. So did Steve Carrell. So did Robert Smiegel. So did Bob Odenkirk. So did Charlie Kaufman, who'd go on to write Being John Malkovich.¹ It was all hosted by Dana Carvey at arguably the height of his fame and his powers.
And it was a staggering, cataclysmic, Heaven's Gate-level failure. Too Funny to Fail is the 2017 documentary that chronicles how the hell this happened.
A successful TV show is rounding error. For every show you see that makes it on the air, there are a dozen more that never made it to series, and a hundred more that never made it to pilot, and untold thousands that are just unproduced pilot scripts, in various levels of development hell. And then on top of that, among the shows that actually appear on TV, most of *those* are failures. There are artistic failures, the shows that are unrewarding and not worth watching for any reason, and there are the commercial failures, that just don't take in enough eyeballs to justify their existence.
Most TV shows fail at both.
And we hear all about the shows that fail because a great auteur with a brilliant team was putting together a show that the SUITS at the NETWORK just weren't READY FOR, MAN. We hear about how BoJack Horseman was originally supposed to be an ex-racehorse, because that would make more sense, right? Or we remember all the adorable kiddos suddenly shoehorned in to old sitcoms, to everyone's dismay.
Too Funny to Fail is fascinating because it depicts the exact opposite of this. What if you let creatives run amok, do exactly what they want, and cause a disaster *that* way?
The show was, apart from the occasional *shockingly racist* sketch, an artistic success. They made the show they intended to make, and made the comedy they intended to make. They hit the exact tone of harmless-but-shocking sketch comedy they wanted.
And it all culminates on the night of the premiere: on Wednesday night, Home Improvement rolls credits, and then The Dana Carvey Show cold-opens with Mr. Carvey, as Bill Clinton, giving a speech that quickly segues into Clinton suckling puppies from several artificially-implanted teats on his bare chest. They had the technology, by then, to get minute-by-minute ratings for the network, so they could watch their 15-million-odd-view lead-in plummet to almost nothing in minutes.
So you watch the whole thing with the sort of morbid fascination usually reserved for reconstructions of airline crashes.
Beyond that, it's pleasant, light entertainment. It ticks along quickly, with punchy editing and nicely-shot interviews. It's fun to watch all these big comedy stars² reminisce about their first big break. It's fun to watch the highlights of the sketch show itself. It's a fun, if distubingly white, time capsule of comedy and the TV business in the late nineties.
Mainly, it was nice to be reminded what it's like to be part of a comedy community — to see people bounce ideas off of each other, help each other get better at their craft, and collectively marvel when a great sketch comes together. I felt like I was getting to reminisce, too, about that phase of my life. Maybe you'll feel some of that too.
For next week: I'm watching the second season of Adam Ruins Everything and the BBC miniseries of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I'm reading a book about how outbreaks work. On The Great Courses I'm listening to a course about basic electronics.
¹ I'll relegate to this footnote that Louis CK was the head of the writing staff.
² Except Louis CK, who can stay here in the footnotes, and does not appear for interviews.