Books: The Dip
Movies: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Other: The Book of Mormon [12/10/15 performance, Austin]
The Dip by Seth Godin
This is a business self-help book about knowing when to quit projects and when to continue them.
Someday I will learn to stop reading business self-help books. As a general rule, each such book has maybe three good ideas in it, and then the whole thing is padded out to its unearned page count with pablum that's written at an eighth-grade level -- and written, specifically, for quiet, boring eighth-graders who want, at all costs, to avoid prose that might surprise, delight, or amuse them.
As for The Dip, I don't know if it even has *one* idea in it. The slugline I listed at the beginning is pretty much the whole book: it has nothing to say about the topic beyond "yup, you should know when to quit projects and know when to continue them." How do you know which case is which? Well, you know, you make sure you have enough resources to finish the project, and that it's interesting, and other such pronouncements from the Department of the Blindingly Obvious. Mind you, in a culture (particularly a business culture) that makes such a pointless fetish out of "winners never quit, and quitters never win", there is some usefulness to pointing out, "Hey, sometimes it's awesome to quit and cut your losses." But that's basically a tweet. Even at a mere 96 pages, this book feels bloated.
But really, that's on me for reading a business self-help book. Useless books about thinking for an audience that likes neither books nor thought.
The Big Lebowski
This is the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy about a middle-aged, unemployed, bowling-obsessed stoner who gets dragged into a complicated, high-ransom kidnapping case.
Of all the Coen Brothers movies, this is the only one that has a festival devoted to it. And that's probably for the best, come to think of it -- one shudders to think of what, say, "Fargo Fest" might be like, or a "Barton Fink Hotel Weekend'o'Fun". But The Big Lebowski is different -- yes, there's a crime story, and it's as convoluted (and, commendably, as clearly-presented) as the one in Fargo, and yes, there's violence -- but at its core, The Big Lebowski is basically a "hangout comedy", where we get to spend a couple of hours with well-drawn characters whose company we enjoy.
And that makes sense, given the origin of the film -- which seems to have been, more or less, "Wouldn't it be hilarious if our friend Jeff Dowd were the detective in a Raymond Chandler mystery? And if John Milius were his Vietnam-obsessed sidekick?" And so the characters are as sharp as any they've ever written -- which, for the Coen Brothers, is really saying something -- to the point that, as with a good TV comedy, you're up for watching these people forever, as they get into one situation after another and just react. The affection fans have for it feels analogous to fandoms for sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation.
In spite of the movie's lukewarm box-office and (at the time) critical response, the current consensus is that the Coens were firing on all cylinders at this point. They've got the twisty crime plot that's been their stock-in-trade up to this point in every film except (possibly) Barton Fink. They've got an amazing command of their color pallette, a quality that kicked in with Miller's Crossing and would reach its apotheosis in O Brother, Where Art Thou? They're playing with heightened characters like they had used in Raising Arizona and Barton Fink. And this was where they started including T. Bone Burnett in their scoring, expertly deploying pop songs that supplemented the latest Carter Burwell score.
And it's also amusing to see the Coen Brothers continue varying their films from one to the next. In the same way that the terrifying crime story of Blood Simple was followed up with the light, breezy Raising Arizona, they're chasing the bleak, frigid nightmare of Fargo with something loose, and warm, and convivial. But, as with the earlier pair, you can see a lot of commonality between Fargo and Lebowski -- the same convoluted-but-clear scheme for a rich old man's money, and the same progression of mounting mistakes sending a simple plan further and further out-of-whack. It's the same, only opposite.
I doubt that Lebowski will ever be my favorite Coen picture. Fargo is a thing of horrifying beauty, and I'm enough of a contrarian to doggedly hold The Hudsucker Proxy quite close to my heart. And I suspect that I'm just not quite old enough or mellow enough to really connect with the Dude, and that keeps me at something of an emotional distance. But it's still a virtuosic film that deserves the massive cult following it's accrued.
Man, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski add up to a hell of a run.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
This is the 2000 Coen Brothers comedy about a trio of escaped convicts fleeing across Mississippi in 1933.
Watching this got me thinking about the TV adaptation of Fargo. (Bear with me a moment.) Like pretty much everyone, I was puzzled when that project was first announced, not least because Fargo feels so hermetically sealed: it's a story about this one group of people, and it's almost relentless in the way the story stays focused exclusively on them, as the plot keeps circling around to those same few people and inflicting more damage on each pass. I (and many fans) couldn't work out how Noah Hawley would build up new material in that world.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? feels like the opposite of that. Where Fargo is turned inward, O Brother aims outward, its shaggy-dog story spinning through new groups of characters every ten or fiften minutes, and the world spilling out into some new direction with every plot twist. More than any other Coen Brothers film, this one is airy and expansive, with the feeling that they've built up a whole world, and the movie is just one single plot-line that happens to wander through it. Of course, there's no O Brother TV show -- and a tragic but predictable paucity of fanfic -- but this is the movie where it feels like there are other stories out there, in that same world, in that same stylized (and sanitized) take on the Depression-era Deep South.
Then again, it may be that the film only plays like that to me. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, and perhaps because of that, my brain sort of naturally connects magical realism with the South (and vice versa). So this movie is going to feel somehow natural and 'right' to me, as it turns my home's past into something heightened and mythical. Of course, the reality of that time and place was also impoverished, racist, anti-intellectual, and sexist, so perhaps it's a good thing that O Brother *didn't* kick off some idealized-South fantasy genre. I'm in the tank for this film as much as anybody, and even I feel a bit queasy that, historically, we're talking about a time and place that was damn brutal to anybody who wasn't a straight white dude.
All of this says very little about the film itself, but again, I feel like this movie isn't really *about* what it's about, but rather it's about that world. It's about the sepia-toned landscapes, and the quirky, one-off characters, and the sense that everything stops just short of straight-up magical sorcery. The protagonists are a great trio of cartoonish, Coen-Brothers-style losers, with George Clooney turning in his first such performance for these filmmakers. But even then, the characters don't have much of an arc -- they just go on their journey, exploring one part of this illusory south after another, and finally turning out okay.
The Book of Mormon [12/10/15 performance, Austin]
This is the Tony-Award-winning musical from the South Park guys (and one of the Frozen writers) about two Mormon missionaries who are dispatched to an impoverished Ugandan village.
I felt ambivalent about this.
On the one hand, musical theater is brain-breakingly impossible, and I have nothing but respect for it. That somebody can dance full-out while managing to sing on-key is just a stunning physical feat, like some intricate and spine-endangering longboard trick. And the level of flawless professionalism that the cast and crew displayed in this show was literally awe-inspiring. And this production's Elder Cunningham was a real standout, playing his character's enthusiastic incompetence so delightfully that even lines that weren't jokes were still really damn funny.
But still, the show left me feeling a little empty.
The songs, while well-performed, were unmemorable. The story was a bit too winking-at-the-audience and silly to really move me in any way. And that pretty much leaves the satire as the only thing to hold on to. And honestly, I don't think I much appreciate Parker and Stone's satire these days. Most people I talk to tell me, about anything those two do, "It's great! It's like they take down *everybody!*" But it always strikes me as odd that anyone would say, "I love that satire! It was so *evenhanded*!" Satire is not a kindergarten sports contest. It's not a thing where everyone gets a trophy. It's not an art form where we have to be equally mean to everybody, because otherwise somebody might feel picked on and therefore get hurt in their feelings.
Good satire bites. It hurts people. It is rage channeled through jokes. It has emotions behind it, and unless you happen to feel equal exasperated fury towards everybody on earth (hint: even if you're that special misanthropic snowflake that nobody *understands*... no, you don't), satire is going to be aimed in a direction. Even if you're saying something everyone agrees with, it has emotional weight, like that last, crushing "God's shoulders began to shake, and He wept" from that Onion article.
Parker and Stone occasionally reach that point, but most of their work just feels like two guys idly taking potshots at things because making fun of stuff is a nice way to pass the time. And that's valid, but it's not emotionally involving. It means that what they do had better be really damn funny, or there's just no reason to show up. And they have their moments -- oddly enough, I think their Mormon episode of South Park was a high point -- but the rest of the time, their work can feel kind of smug and ignorable. And so it is with The Book of Mormon -- it's got the usual view-from-nowhere satire that makes fun of everyone involved. It tries really hard to be outré, which usually means rolling around in racist stereotypes about Africa. It's not satire, it's just snarky.
That said, I can't be a total spoilsport about this production. The fact is, some of outré, shock-the-audience stuff is fun, in an "I can't believe this is in a big-budget musical" kind of way. The "I've got maggots in my scro-tuuuum!" runner was, for me, hilarious, just because it became this persistent, unwelcome leitmotif that wormed (sorry) its way into one group number after another, no matter how vigilantly the characters struggled to keep it at bay. Cunningham's complete misrepresentation of the Book of Mormon, as told by the villagers, is hilarious and delightful. Even if, in the main, I didn't feel much from the show, there were lots of little moments that made me smile.
But still... this won a Tony? This was all the rage on Broadway? Looks like Hamilton has arrived not a moment too soon.
For next week: I'm watching season 3 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising. I've also been watching Fullmetal Alchemist. And I'm sure I'll write about more Coen Brothers movies, a book about the Coens, and more Conan stories in due time.
 There's nothing so innovative or interesting as, say, "imagine it's five years later and this project has been an unmitigated disaster -- and tell the story of how that happened," a method listed in (IIRC) Thinking, Fast and Slow.
 Fun fact: O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first feature film to use digital color correction -- the footage they shot had lush green foliage everywhere, and Roger Deakins needed to make that look dry and dusty. So, in a way, we have O Brother to blame for the current teal-and-orange nightmare.
 The most ironic bit of "aren't Africans dumb?" was the runner where Nabulungi assumes her old-timey typewriter is used for texting. Buuut generally Africa has leapfrogged the developed world, skipping landline networks entirely and building huge networks of cheap cell phones. Africa, drawn apparently without reference, I suppose.
 See also: Meet the Feebles. (If you dare.)
Mood: contemplative · Music: none