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

Monday (7/12/10) 11:24pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week due to laziness.]

Movies:  Adventureland, Black Dynamite
TV:  This Emotional Life [disc one]
Books:  <none>

This is the 2009 nostalgia piece about a teenager working at a seasonal carnival in the mid-80s.

The one-phrase review of Adventureland is "methadone for Freaks and Geeks addicts".  It mines some of the same territory as Freaks and Geeks -- the same teenage awkwardness, the same quirky realism, the same period detail, the same small-scale-yet-operatic teenage tragedies.  The film's director, Greg Mottola, was a director on the Apatow/Feig project.  They even have a supporting role for Martin Starr, who played Bill Haverchuck on the TV show.  Hell, there's a family-dinner scene in the movie that looks like it could have been lensed by Bill Pope for the show's pilot episode.

But still, like methadone, nobody would mistake this for the real thing.  Everything in Adventureland is kind of blunted.  The cast is a little more Hollywood-pretty.  The awkwardness never pushes the audience into feeling uncomfortable.  The comic-relief characters are wacky enough to reassure us that yes, don't worry, we are watching a comedy, and we can keep it at a bemused distance.

But at the same time, it's not completely harmless.  Its central storyline, with James and Em falling in love and then botching everything, over and over, plays out with emotional honesty.  You find yourself nodding and saying to yourself, "Yup, that really is what would happen next."  And that also lends it a certain uniqueness:  every other story would make the competing love interest a moustache-twirling villain.  This plays it more realistically, and sadder.

It's small-scale, it's low-stakes, it's entertaining.  It makes you feel like you could have had memories like that, if only you had gotten out of the house more in the eighties.  (Or maybe that's just me?  Yeah, I guess that's just me.)

But mainly it makes you realize that Freaks and Geeks lived every moment of its run convinced that cancellation was just around the corner.  So that show played for keeps, every time, in every way.  Adventureland mines the same territory, only it stays safer and more palatable.

Like I said:  methadone.

Black Dynamite
This is the 2009 send-up of blaxploitation movies from director Scott Sanders and star Michael Jai White.

Apparently Colin got to watch this movie with the various DJs from BluesShout, most of whom were experts on the blaxploitation genre.  That was probably the best way to watch it; I imagine nearly every frame of the film has a reference to some cheap 70s movie hidden away somewhere in it.  I had a lot of moments of, "Right, that pose must be a quote from something," with no idea what the referent was.

One thing the movie did very well, and something I haven't seen much in other movies, is that there was an arc to its silliness.  It started out relatively un-silly.  Sure, there were ridiculous bits to the movie, but they were the sort of ridiculous things I could imagine actually showing up in a 70s blaxploitation film.  It's only as the film goes on that it absolutely streaks towards crazytown.  By the time the story reveals what the criminals' conspiracy is, and who is behind it, the movie is as zany as a short-form improv game.

This was really satisfying from an audience point of view:  "Surely they can't do anything more ridiculous than *that*."  "Oh, wait, yes they can!"  But it did mean that, at the start of the movie, I just felt like I was watching an old blaxploitation movie.  It was mostly funny in the incidental ways that cheesy old action movies are funny.  I suspect that proper film buffs would be full of knowing laughter through this section as they recognized all the old tropes and nods.

The bottom line, though, is that this movie was satisfying because it was something new.  Blaxploitation parodies are few and far between (I'm Gonna Git You Sucka is the only other one I can think of), and few parodies of any stripe have Black Dynamite's meticulous attention to detail.

This Emotional Life [disc one]
This is the PBS series from Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, about current scientific research into human emotions.

It's hard to find much to say about this.  It basically takes a few central concepts of that book, and inflates those half-dozen pages of ideas into a full series.  It pads out the material by doling it out slowly, by repeating concepts, and by introducing long stretches of human-interest sentimentality.  They bring on a tearful talking head, and play a light, plaintive piano melody in the score just to make absolutely sure you know how to feel.  Each story centers on some Good, Upstanding Person facing some tragic psychological issue.

It feels like about 80% fluff.  A small fraction of it conveys the results of current psychological research; the rest is vague, up-with-people sentiment. 

Maybe documentaries are just not the aptest way to talk about science.

For next time:  I'll put up a review of Small Giants (yet another business book); reading-wise, I've moved on to How to Cheat at Everything, a rather exhaustive summary of various con games.  I'm also *finally* starting to watch Doctor Who, AKA "the British version of The Middleman".  Oh, and hopefully I'll post something about The Tobolowsky Files, an absolutely wonderful podcast of personal stories from character actor Stephen Tobolowsky.

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (7/13/10) 7:57am
"The awkwardness never pushes the audience into feeling uncomfortable."

That in a nutshell is why I had to stop watching Freaks and Geeks. It hit a little too close to home, and at some point I said to myself "you know what, I finished high school. I'm done. I never have to go back, and thank god for that. So why am I putting myself through this again?" Maybe it says bad things about me, but I never was able to understand the point of "make the audience feel uncomfortable." Can you help explain it to me?
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[User Picture]
Date:Wednesday (8/18/10) 3:33pm
That's a good question, and I don't know if I have a good answer.

I can say for certain that I don't appreciate discomfort just in and of itself.  Even the original Office is really hard for me to watch most of the time.

In the case of Freaks and Geeks, I would say the discomfort -- the awkwardness, the painfully-bad teenage decisions, the oh-my-god-my-life-is-over disasters -- accomplishes two things.

First, it makes the triumphs, however small, feel like they actually matter.  I have sympathized so strongly for these characters that, when something goes right, I'm not just detached, watching the gears and flywheels of the plot take everything to its typical conclusion.  When I watch that last dance at the end of the pilot, it's cathartic -- and something as simple as "Lindsay has fun at a dance" is not going to be cathartic unless things have been pretty damn bad before that.

Second, it's uncomfortable in a specific *way* that feels very genuine.  It's not *just* that they're making the audience uncomfortable -- it's that they're making the audience uncomfortable *because* they're recreating those parts of your adolescence that you, personally, would just as soon leave buried.  I think other shows are just off-putting for no good reason, and I have little patience for that, but this one is trying to get at some truth about what that part of your life is like.  On some fundamental level, that's worth putting up with a bit of wince-inducing, right?  It just depends on how you weigh the pros and cons of it.

One last thing to consider is that you're also weighing this discomfort against the strength of the show in general.  If you're watching an awkward scene, then it's awkward, sure -- but it's an awkward scene in an exquisitely-shot, -acted, and -scored piece of work.  Hell, even the set decoration is to die for.

Don't get me wrong -- I see where you're coming from.  There are stretches of Freaks and Geeks that *I* can only watch through my fingers.  But I think the discomfort serves a purpose, and for me, the good far outweighs the bad.

~ hope this helps ~
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