Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Month That Was - May 2014

I did not intend so, but this month is nearly all TV reviews.  Not so bad, since I haven't written about TV in a while. (I make no apologies for writing about TV a lot, as it swamps every other art form in our daily lives.)

At the moment most of my obsessions are getting the little annoyances of my life straightened out.  For whatever reason, the extended very cold winter left me quite antsy about getting stuff done.  This was exacerbated when pretty much everything I had planned to have done for me needed to be re-done and re-done again such that I spent the bulk of May running back home from the office to deal with workers, whom appear to be unable to schedule their activities with anything less than a six hour margin for error.  The fireplace took three visits and even then I had to figure out how to get it right myself.  The sprinklers took two visits and still left me with work to do on my own and the folks were so haphazard I have to find another service.  The car two visits to find out nothing could be done (more below).

The highlight of the month was the, now annual, trip to Nashville Indiana for the Gnaw Bone 10K, the World’s Toughest 10K.  It’s a killer race, but a really enjoyable experience.

And I’m making some progress writing, but my current project is in a genre quite foreign to me and I’m struggling with the plot intricacies.  There is nothing to do but keep going and remind myself that it has to be bad before it’s good.

[Cars] Carpocalypse
[TV] John from Cincinnati from David Milch
[TV] Still Mad After All These Years
[TV] No Win Game of Thrones

[Cars] Carpocalpyse

So my car is officially toast.  Not unusable, but it makes no economic sense to repair it.  It needs a new catalytic converter, ~$800, which left unrepaired just means I have a permanent check engine light and I get to pollute the environment.  I can live with that.  But the oil-burning problem is not going to go away without an engine rebuild or replacement, ~$3000.  The blue book on the car in perfect condition is $3500, so I think it’s time to give up.  I’m fortunate that it is still drivable, just have to add a quart of oil every 1000 miles or so.

I have cast out a lifeline on Craigslist to see if anyone is willing to do an engine rebuild at a price that will make it worthwhile, but I do not have high hopes.  So I am officially in the market, seriously this time.

Unlike in the past when I would have only ever considered a Toyota, it is not my first choice this time around.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, my car has less than 200k miles.  While that sounds like a lot to us old timers, it’s really not all that special for contemporary cars. I consider needing a rebuild at 200k only average from a durability standpoint.  It’s not like it’s a fragile, high-end German sports sedan. It’s a Camry. It should be like a cockroach.

Second, this was my second Camry and honestly, it was a step down from the first.  The first one was a ‘93, the legendary third-generation model (V30) that was released roughly at the same time Lexus was getting going and Toyota had gone ballistic in the quality department.  That car was quiet and steady as a tomb.  The current one, while always reliable, did not have the build quality of that earlier model -- a squeak here, a rattle there.  It’s level of comfort was high, as I discovered every time I got back into it after a week in a rental, but it was achieved less through solidity than cush.

[I just realize this is going to turn into an excessive rant, you may want to back out now.  Fair warning.]

So it was (is) a good, but unspectacular car.  Maybe I’m spoiled.  I’m told the latest generation Camry -- that would be the 5th -- has stepped up in quality, so maybe I should keep an open mind.  But a couple of contacts who I respect as far as auto knowledge have gone over to Honda as the most durable and reliable brand.

I test drove an Accord a few years back and was really unimpressed with the ride quality.  Maybe that has changed.  But the Honda that kind of appeals to me is the CRV.  Price-wise, the Hondas I’d be interested in are base model CRV or Accord.  I’m still in the prelim stage; narrowing my selections based on web research.

The other half of the equation is selling my Camry.  The perfect situation would be to trade in, but that would be sub-optimal price-wise.  It’s got pretty much new tires, and I’ll get it detailed.  I can clear the check engine light easily enough and keep the oil topped off, so if I was a dishonest guy I could dump it on to some unsuspecting soul.  I don't want to do that, though, which means I’d be selling it on my own knowing full well it needs more repairs than its value.  Not likely going to get a high price anyway, so I may as well just trade it in and haggle with the dealer over it.  At least the dealer can get stuff fixed at cost and possibly turn a profit.

An added wrinkle is what to do about Sirius.  Many years ago, possibly as many as 15, I splurged on a lifetime subscription to Sirius.  I fretted over the decision but it turned out to be one of the smartest things I ever did.  Since then, for something more a decade, I had Sirius in my car with no monthly fee.  Now, I have had to use aftermarket receivers that plug into the aux jack, but that’s fine.  The only time it cost me any money wa when I had to transfer my subscription to a new receiver.  I think I did that once and it cost $75.  Over the course of the years I bet I have saved in excess of $600 over the usual monthly subscription price.  But that was because I had external receivers.  New cars have Sirius-ready radios and that means that a) I’ll be dropping another $75 subscription transfer fee and b) I don’t get to transfer again after that, since Sirius doesn't allow transferring a lifetime subscription from an in car unit (a policy which, as far as I’m concerned, is pure bollocks and should garner the attention of the FCC).  Now this is not a big deal really. As we know, I keep cars for over a decade so I would still have my free access for a very long time.  But for the car after this one, I’ll have to move to the subscription model.  I can only hope technology provides a solution and I can move away from Sirius to some other free model.  Or better yet I will have an unlimited data plan and just use Pandora.  So I guess this isn't really much of an issue after all.  Forget this last paragraph.

A sobering thought:  There is a good chance that this will be the last car I drive.  If I keep it 12 years I will be 65 when I move on. Oh, I may own another car after this one, but it will likely be driverless.  Maybe 50-50 odds on whether my new model year 2026 car would require human intervention to function.Meanwhile, I’ll be spending a few Sundays trolling the car lots; gathering intel when the annoying salesmen aren’t around. As it stands I am one fo those people who HATE buying cars.  So this may take a while.

[TV] John From Cincinnati from David Milch

So Amazon hooked up with HBO to stream their shows for all of us Prime subscribers.  Interestingly, it isn’t all their shows.  Some of the older ones are excluded, like Larry Sanders, Dream On, and a couple of one season wonders, like the late lamented John from Cincinnati.  (You can stream J from C, but it’s not covered by Prime, you have to pony up cash for it.)  That’s a shame because if there was ever a series that merited a quick binge watch to see how time has treated it it is J from C.

J from C was decidedly experimental and self-indulgent.  Milch was coming of the unfortunate cancellation of soaring Deadwood and HBO was clearly ready to let him try whatever he wanted.  He came up with this surreal tale of a severely dysfunctional family of world class surfers in Imperial Beach, CA, on the edge of Mexico.  One day an odd fellow appears and becomes integrated into their lives.  A pure innocent, he seem to have some kind of clairvoyance or even magical skills, or maybe he’s just brain damaged.  The family patriarch starts levitating uncontrollably (just slightly).  Two of the roles are played by former teen idols (Luke Perry and Mark-Paul Gosslear) something that Milch would not do by accident.  It gave a sense that it was a random swirl of any wild thing that came into Milch’s mind, without rhyme or reason.

But it carried the usual Milchian dialogue; words selected for beauty and effect, not utility, this time with a hint of savagery to them.  It was also deadly funny, a thing that was missed by many in their confusion over plot.  It feature one of the finest acting performances ever by Ed O’Neill (yeah, the dad from Married with Children).  Its cancellation was disappointing but not surprising.  If you have any interest in an adventurous attempt to do something special with TV drama, it’s a gift.  But it’ll cost you, even if you’re a prime member.  (I think $20 to purchase the whole season.)

Milch’s relationship with HBO has been rocky to say the least.  Deadwood is the GOAT, but it never did get finished, even though it ended almost perfectly.  J from C was justifiably cancelled after a single season.  Luck was unjustifiably cancelled after a single season due to HBO cowardice. His latest project was called The Money and was to star Nathan Lane, but HBO decided not to pick it up at all.  It seems like a downward spiral since Deadwood, and yet, HBO has extended Milch’s contract through 2016.  I wouldn't put it past HBO to never produce any of Milch’s shows but keep him on the payroll to prevent the possibility of a hit show appearing somewhere else.  Hoopleheads.

[TV] Still Mad After All These Years

So we just finished 7 episodes of the final season of Mad Men and we now break until next year, so Matt Weiner doing the interview rounds. Here’s the money quote for me regarding the use of the very un-60s hip Frank Sinatra in the scene where Don and Peggy dance in the office:
For me, it was an explanation of the thesis of the show. There were a lot of people in the audience who were there, and it was their childhood, and they have a very distinct viewpoint on what was going on. And it has been cemented by the representation of the late '60s as this revolutionary moment, of cultural upheaval, whatever the cliche. My basic statement was there were a lot of people who were adults when this happened, and they had their own lives, also. It's just like the idea that as the hippies come along, "Oh, Don's going to be left behind." Well, you can read Playboy Magazine and you can see that a guy Don's age in a suit and a tie is still at the top of the heap in 1969. It's not like they were supplanted by people in bell bottoms and sandals. It really was a kind of acknowledgement of the fact that the way history has been metabolized is very different than the way it was.[emphasis mine]
I don't think you can overstate how important this is to the dramatic quality of Mad Men versus, oh say, everything else ever. Weiner is so fully involved with the characters he sees beyond them as socio-political actors and just portrays them as people. Contrast this to something like The Wire, which became ever increasingly an outlet for David Simon’s cultural frustration. Mad Men is, I think, unique the realm of high-end TV drama in that there is no larger theme. We know the Sopranos was about self-delusion and Deadwood was about civilization from savagery, but Mad Men is just about the characters in the show working through the arcs of their lives. To make that interesting, nevermind riveting, is a remarkable achievement. While we’re doing quotes, the legendarily acerbic critic John Simon once commented about the movies:
“[American films] do not (cannot? dare not?) cope with serious, contemporary, middle-class, adult problems….What is virtually nonexistent is serious filmmaking about the urban bourgeoisie and its ordinary problems of existence and co-existence–not something about beautiful young women dying of mysterious diseases, to say nothing of demonically possessed teenagers.”
Matt Weiner can do this, remarkably so. It is sad that, as Mad Men draws to a close, there is nothing else on the horizon that can. For example, here’s the word on the next HBO drama which concerns gay rights in the ‘60s:
Open City will feature "characters from disparate corners of Manhattan as they navigate the cultural revolution and political turmoil of the era." It will also include a look at the "unlikely alliance" between the gay community and the Mafia upon the opening of a nightclub in the West Village.
Good grief what tripe. (Yet, they keep cancelling Milch.)

Throughout this half season you couldn't help but feel as though there was attention being drawn to how far these characters have come, thereby setting up the endgame for next year. Don starting ever so slightly to overcome is self-destructive narcissism; Roger having to be a grown-up; Peggy coming to terms with the cost of lifestyle choices (notice how this could have been easily turned into a chest-thumping feminist issue, but it remained personal to Peggy); Pete's growing cynicism; Joan, despite her elevation, continuing to live entirely in a state of fear -- great stuff. And if you didn't love Robert Morse’s song and dance, made perfect by Jon Hamm's reaction shots, you’re dead to me.

I’m pretty sure I’ll binge this season over again just before the next one starts. And I’m sure I’ll binge the whole series again in a few years. So many memorable moments to relive.

[TV] No Win Game of Thrones

I have always struggled with what Game of Thrones is about. Dramatically speaking, I mean.  It’s obviously beautiful and powerful storytelling, but I had difficulty seeing a larger theme; a point beyond the events themselves.  Examples:  The Sopranos is about delusion.  The Wire is about the corrupting of life by institutions.  But what is Game of Thrones?  It constantly teeters on the brink of misery porn.  One horror after another.  Injustice upon injustice.  Good and Happy are two things that do not exist.  The traditional dramatic end of comeuppance is never in play.

And then I saw Peter Dinklage's soliloquy about beetles and I realized that’s what Game of Thrones is about.  It is about what life would be in a completely amoral world; a world where there are only two drives, survival and power. God (in the form of George R.R. Martin) has created an existence in which humans are the beetles to be smashed.  That is the function of human history in and of itself.  Tyrion obsessively tries to determine the meaning of the endless mountains of dead beetle husks (human history) but fails because there is none.  God is the moron without reason.  There is no purpose.

That makes G of T probably the darkest, most dire TV show in history. It is also quite troublesome from a dramatic point of view because unless there is a change, I don't see how it develops an endgame -- a conclusion, or at least a clear arc for the characters.  Is the only arc “So-and-so tries to find meaning but there is none so he fails and suffers and dies like everyone else”?  If so, it will continue to be horrible event after horrible event, with no justice or substantive change in sight.  Deadwood took savagery to civilization in three seasons and was a classic. So the question is no longer “What is Game of Thrones about?” but “Where is it going?”  “Nowhere, it’s neverending anguish without meaning” is not really a good answer.