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

Friday (7/24/15) 12:13am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  American on Purpose
Movies:  Inside Out, My Dinner with Andre
TV:  <none>

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson
This is the autobiography of Craig Ferguson, a Scottish comedian best known for hosting The Late Late Show from 2005 to 2014.

That's an odd way of putting it, though, because the book treats the talk show as a footnote, squeezing it into the last chapter or two.  And honestly, that's something of a relief.  Yes, Mr. Ferguson must have a fascinating perspective on a job that only a dozen or two men have ever held, but I suspect that, if he covered that in detail, it would just sound like every other breezy showbiz memoir.  Yes, your success was improbable.  No, you couldn't have done it without the support of your friends.  That's what a success story looks like in *every* industry where 2% of the applicants make 99% of the money.

Instead, he is more evenhanded, devoting most of the book to growing up in Scotland, to moving through England's alternative-comedy scene in the 1980s, and to dealing with crippling alcoholism.

On that last point, I was going to say something like "every story about drugs will glorify drugs", but then I remembered that Requiem for a Dream exists.  And Trainspotting.  And, well, pretty much every modern movie about drug addiction.  But go back in the past, and you have the 60s, which are full of movies that are ostensibly sternly telling you not to use drugs, and ensure in the last reel that the evil drug fiends get their rightful comeuppance, but really are about a fun romp through the kuh-razy, sexy, transgressive stuff that the addicts do.

I was relieved to see that Ferguson's autobiography doesn't aim for that sort of titillation.  Granted, there are some crazy antics that satisfy the audience's desire for reading something outré -- really, there's no way to make "I was tripping on acid and running from what I imagined were killer ducks" not funny.  But it's clear that Ferguson doesn't have that agenda.  Primarily, he's just reporting the facts -- this is the story about how alcoholism almost killed him, and how he somehow got sober.  And his agenda is just to make it clear that alcoholism is a brutal disease, and that people suffering from it can get help.

In fact, the book was at its best just conveying what that state of mind is like.  He talks about long years of sadness, and terror, and helplessness.  He mentions how, even now, his brain tries to play games of "well, maybe I could just get away with a few drinks."  It feels honest and detailed in a way that you don't expect from a showbiz memoir.

Meanwhile, I was most interested in his stories about the 80s comedy scene -- that post-Python world where Peter Cook was still an elder statesman, where countercultural comics would wind up on The Young Ones and Red Dwarf[1] while Fry and Laurie were working their way through the Cambridge Footlights.  I was probably just giddy over the bits of name-dropping.  I'm always keenly interested in those brief spans of time when a community suddenly churns out a ton of art that's exciting and different.  I think I worry that I'm somehow going to bungle the opportunity I have here in Austin, so I want to take notes on other places.

As the story settled in LA, the world, and the stories, felt more familiar -- more similar to other stories from other entertainment outlets about other TV shows and other screenwriters.  But for the bulk of it, the book does a good job of whirling through lots of places quite foreign to my experience.

Inside Out
This is Pixar's current release, which shows how the various personified emotions inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl react to a cross-country move to San Francisco.

But first, I'm going to talk about Tron: LegacyBack when I re-watched Tron, the sequel was on the horizon, and I was excited.  I was excited because that movie -- the first one -- had found a metaphor that let them translate crazy computer concepts to onscreen action.  They'd found a way to smuggle in ideas from computer science, not from other movies, and that could let them do something genuinely new.  So as I looked forward to Tron: Legacy, I wondered: what would a DDoS attack look like in the Tron universe?  What about PGP-key encryption? or a botnet? 

Then I saw the trailers for Tron: Legacy, and it looked like a bland actioner, so I never bothered watching it.

But that brings me back around to Inside Out.  When the concept was first announced, everyone my age said, "Ugh, so it's basically Herman's Head," the ho-hum early-90s sitcom that played the same conceit for easy laughs.  But to my vast relief, Pixar is doing something very different.  For starters, the science nerd in me delighted in little touches that correlate to our best current knowledge about how the brain works -- things like processing the day's memories during REM sleep, or repeatedly jumbling facts and opinions in memory.  But even better than that, like with my imagined Tron sequel, they were using this invention to tell new kinds of stories.

Take the sequence where Joy draws a little circle around Sadness and orders her to stay right there.  Sure, it would be *possible* to tell a story like that -- a story about repression, about stifling some emotion in a mistaken effort to please those closest to you -- in a 'normal' movie.  But that movie would have to be subtle about it.  It would likely be some mumble-y, literary piece of spinach cinema in which nothing much happens and people talk about tea.  But here they can tell that story, perfectly clearly, in a children's movie -- which is amazing, because what they're depicting is such a huge part of so many children's lives.

And I love that this leads to a message that being sad is okay.

Often I feel like I'm living in an age of militant happiness.  If you're feeling down, that's not just unfortunate, it's *wrong*, and should end *immediately*.  Why are you feeling sad you have nothing to feel sad about and life is a thrilling adventure or IT IS NOTHING HERE IS A PUPPY ANIMATED GIF STOP FEELING THAT NOW.  So it's nice to see a movie -- a candy-colored animated film, of all things -- that lets you know that sadness is okay.  It's useful.  It's how we acknowledge loss, or admit disappointment, or empathize with others in the same boat.  It's a part of us, and it shouldn't be cut off for purposes of enforced cheery decorum.

Life is not a contest in which whoever tallies the most cheerful facebook posts wins.

And the movie does a brilliant job of distinguishing sadness from depression.  Again, the central conceit serves them perfectly here, as the console goes dark and unresponsive, leaving Riley perilously close to never feeling anything again.[2]

I wouldn't put this in the top tier of Pixar movies -- it doesn't quite hit the lofty heights of The Incredibles or Toy Story 2 -- but what does?  It's very good, and a promising sign of quality after the slight misstep of Brave, the disappointment of Monsters University, and the miserable hell of Cars 2.  Frankly, I feel like Pixar has painted themselves into a bit of a corner -- they've done such a spectacularly good job with standard "hero goes on a quest" stories that anything 'normal' will likely compare unfavorably to past successes.[3]  So they *have* to make movies that are this far out there, if they want to stay out of their own long shadow.

In the end, though, Inside Out may wind up as one of the films that matters the most in their canon.  For Pixar, it might be the assurance that going for broke with a thorny, original property can absolutely pay off.  And for kids, it might be the story that tells them something different from any number of hero/quest/believe-in-yourself adventures: that growing up is hard, and it's okay to be sad about it.[4]

(Side note: I was so glad they did a whimsical sequence that went cubist and then 2D in something comparable to "Duck Amuck".  Take note, all other directors: artistic whimsy is fun.  We like it.)

My Dinner with Andre
This is the 1981 Louis Malle film that depicts a two-hour dinner conversation between an actor an a theater director.

And yes, that is *all* it depicts.  Two guys, at a table, two hours, talking.  It's become one of those films like Rashomon, a movie with such an idiosyncratic take on what movies do that the title becomes a kind of shorthand.  Even if you've never seen either movie, you certainly know that Rashomon presents the same story from multiple perspectives, and you probably already knew that My Dinner With Andre shows a long, arty conversation.  And both of them show up throughout pop culture -- many, many TV shows attempt a Rashomon episode, and a surprising number of shows try to pull the My Dinner With Andre trick of holding our attention for an entire episode of dinner conversation.

This was my second time seeing the movie.  If I remember right, my first time seeing it was when I was living in Boston, nearly twenty years ago.  Since then, I've done a lot of theater.  So watching it now, long stretches of the conversation feel weirdly familiar.  I feel like I've been told about the nonverbal improvised tribal ceremony in the woods on more than one occasion.  And I've smiled with strained affability while somebody told me about having to build a special roof to account for UFO access.  This time around, I know this world, if only tangentially.

I wouldn't say I was entertained by the movie.  More specifically, I enjoyed the film, but in such a low-key way that "entertained" feels like the wrong word.  Over the first half-hour or so, my mind just slowly accepted that, okay, right, this is the film where the dinner conversation is literally all that happens.  So you stop expecting action.  You get less jumpy and more meditative.  Watching the ebb and flow of the conversation becomes very peaceful, like watching the tide.

Strangely, the movie didn't make me think about the ideas that the characters presented.  Instead, it made me think about what conversations about those sorts of ideas are like.  The characters would present the usual conflict between, say, the comforts of technology versus living in some less assisted, more authentic way, and I'd think about other conversations I'd had that went along those lines, and the usual lines of argument that it would follow.

I don't even know if I can recommend this movie.  If you want to see something pensive, and quiet, and different, this movie will reward you.  But honestly, just by living in this society you pretty much already know what My Dinner with Andre is, and so you already know whether you need to see it.

For next week: I'm watching Good Eats and Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I'm watching Transparent, listening to a (disappointing) book about traffic, and re-reading Pride and Prejudice.  Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale and watching season two of Community (including their beautiful My Dinner With Andre episode).
[1] I was kind of (irrationally) disappointed that he never said anything about
his guest spot on that show.
[2] Kudos to Lindsey for pointing this out to me.
[3] ... though the sequence of Toy Story films has bucked that trend rather spectacularly.
[4] I'm basically quoting Mindy Kaling (Disgust) there, because I can't find any better way to phrase it.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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