Sam

Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon in “The Hero”

First things first: Sam Elliott is not an icon, or an archetype, or a legend. You can make a case for all three, depending on the level of affection you have, but Sam Elliott is an actor. Wanted to be an actor, became an actor, stays an actor. He’s made a career out of it.

I feel obliged to note the distinction, if only to point out the obvious: He wasn’t born with that moustache. The now-famous Sam Elliott Cameo (see: The Big Lebowski, Up In The Air, Thank You For Smoking, etc.) created this contemporary Remington portrait of an American…something, I dunno. But whenever they haul Sam out for one of these moments—and they’re usually pretty effective moments—they slap another coat of paint on the statue, and I think it’s a shame.

I’m not saying he’s one of our best actors. I don’t think he is. But I think he’s a better actor than this iconic crap allows for, so I was glad to see “The Hero” get made. Somebody thought Sam deserved his very own movie, and about time.

Somebody was writer-director Brett Haley, who had cast Elliott in his 2015 feature, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Traveling together with Sam to do promotion for that film, Haley and Elliott developed a closer relationship and “The Hero” eventually came out of that.

Sam Elliott has taken some pains recently to point out that he’s not playing himself. The film is about an aging actor, Lee Hayden, who’s been plugging away for 50 years. He’s been working, hard enough for any actor, although his best role is decades in the past, and he mostly seems to do voiceover work, smoke weed, drink bourbon, and watch Buster Keaton movies with an old friend (Nick Offerman, who has some nice moments). He’s divorced and semi-estranged from his daughter, and early in the movie he’s given an ominous cancer diagnosis. Life has been a disappointment, we get it.

As Elliott notes, he’s been married for decades, he has a great relationship with his own daughter, and, as we can see, his career seems to be just fine. He’s got a Netflix series (The Ranch) and a new movie in the works (A Star Is Born, playing the manager to Bradley Cooper’s doomed musician).

I saw “The Hero” yesterday, noticing that it appeared to be on its way out of town after a week or so in theaters. What can I say? I like Sam.

I just don’t like the movie that much. Again, I’m glad to see him get a star turn, and he does some good work, but this film feels like it was written in a week. What seems to want to be a character study ends up swamped by its own sentimentality and just dumb ideas. Recurring dream sequences are occasionally visually striking but irrelevant and, again, dumb. As is a mid-movie set piece, a hokey awards ceremony in which Lee Hayden makes a grand gesture that, honestly, I’d like someone to explain to me. Using small words.

And cancer. Don’t forget.

It’s not a horrible movie, not at all. It’s just an aim and miss. Kind of dull. Nice to see Sam. That kind of movie.

And it’s nice that it exists, if only to give us a solid dose of Sam Elliott. We also get to see his wife of 35 years, Katharine Ross (playing his ex-wife in the film), although she’s on screen for maybe a total of 45 seconds and her only direction, apparently, was to frown a lot.

Offerman manages to play a drug dealer and still come across as he usually does, a well of common sense and wisdom about ordinary things. Laura Prepon is physically striking (those eyes) and has her moments, although she’s burdened with character traits that feel tacked on (she likes older men! She takes a lot of drugs! She’s a STANDUP COMIC!).

Krysten Ritter, the fine actress playing Sam’s daughter, is also handcuffed to a couple of facial expressions, none of which are all that flattering.

I searched through reviews of “The Hero” last night, wondering if I was just in a mood. Aside from an odd Rolling Stone review that was of the “mark your Oscar ballots now!” variety (not likely), I got a strong sense that critics were being gentle because, you know. Sam. “Rising above the sometimes weak material” and so on. Again, it’s just nice to see him get the screen time.

“The Hero” runs two hours, and I can’t think of a scene that doesn’t include Elliott. That’s a lot of Sam, and at age 72 there’s no movie magic. He’s a wiry, ropey senior citizen with decades etched into his skin, the years rumbling from his vocal cords, every bass note drawled out under that impressive facial hair. You can’t miss the drawl, an echo of his Texas roots.

Except he doesn’t really have Texas roots. He’s a California boy, born and bred, working his way up and down the west coast over the years but not straying east (and south) except for roles. That drawl? He’s an actor, folks. He appropriated it, and good for him. It’s a nice fit.

It also allows us to remember that this has been a long haul. He began acting in his 20s, leading-man looks getting him plenty of work, and eventually found a career. If we can all, maybe, remember specific roles that we can’t seem to forget (for me, it was his laconic, existentially challenged lifeguard in “Lifeguard” in 1976), it might be easy to forget the “working” part of working actor. He’s done a lot, and he’s a better actor for it.

I just wish he’d been given a better movie to act in. Haley’s other film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is a much better movie, and allows Elliott to slip in and out of the story with ease while Blythe Danner does the heavy lifting (this one is definitely worth your time, if you can find it, although some of the same problems show up).

And I’m not discouraging you from seeing “The Hero,” or I don’t want to, anyway. I found it a little slow; your results may vary. If you want to catch it in a theater, you might want to hurry.

Sometimes good ideas don’t work out as well as we might hope, that’s all. I’m pretty sure Sam Elliott has that figured out by now. The dude knows how to abide.

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Sam the Man

I noticed a typo in this week’s column just now, something I first assumed was an editor’s error. Surely I wouldn’t write “Alex” Baldwin. I’m pretty familiar with Alec Baldwin.

But it turned out to be all on me, for some strange reason. Maybe a suggestion from spellcheck, but as I typed it right now I noticed my fingers automatically hitting the “x” and not the “c,” and again right this second. Go figure.

Here’s the column, anyway. No surprises, I would think.

What did surprise me was I’ll See You in My Dreams. But first a word about podcasts.

I’ve been listening to pods for over 10 years. The first was the Slate Political Gabfest, but as various radio shows started offering episodes in a podcast format I gathered quite a few.

The problem with listening, for me, is that I have to be moving. I have no patience for sitting and listening, and probably because I’ve been walking and listening forever. And since my walking has been pretty light this winter and spring, I’m left with listening while working around the house. This summer should explode my opportunities, but meanwhile I try to be selective, given that I only seem to find a few hours a week when my legs are moving consistently.

I end up picking and choosing, then, based on topic or subject interviewed. Occasionally I’ll subscribe to a new pod just because I want to hear a particular episode, sometimes keeping it around and sometimes jettisoning them quickly.

I saw a short one that interested me the other day, although I doubt I’ll continue to listen. Too much to do, too little interest. But Sam Elliott? I’ll listen.

It was a nice interview, and surprising in what it covered considering that Sam tends to speak slowly. You think? He was promoting his new film, The Hero, written with him in mind and apparently a gift for all of us.

He mentioned another film, though, by the “Hero” writer/director, Brett Haley, and that was I’ll See You In My Dreams. I was a little intrigued, and found it streaming on Amazon Prime. Stream away, then.

Sam Elliott is a good actor. He’s appeared in nearly 100 films over nearly 50 years, and a slew of television. His voice is everywhere, as is his moustache (favorite reference is in Grace & Frankie, when Sam Waterston says, “There are only 10 men in the world who can pull off that moustache, and he’s nine of them”).

He’s not my favorite, or close to it, but when he appears my eyes are drawn to the screen and pretty much stay there. I was ready for as much Sam as I could get.

The movie stars Blythe Danner (and ditto for her; always a treat, a reminder of what a special actress she’s always been and getting a little Meet the Fockers taste out of my mouth) as Carol Peterson, a southern California woman in her early 70s (just taking a guess here; the chronology of this character is confusing). A former jazz singer and then teacher, she’s now comfortably retired on her husband’s life insurance, a small benefit from being widowed, suddenly and tragically, 20 years before. She lives quietly in a nice, unremarkable house, alone but for her dog, Hazel; an apparently slow, a little dull and fully predictable life.

And she’s lonely, especially after her beloved Hazel dies after 14 years. She strikes up an unusual friendship with the guy who comes to clean her pool, played by Martin Starr in really the key characterization of the film. Without Starr, it’s a soap opera. With him, there are enough crackling elements to keep my eyes from glazing a bit.

The soap opera is still there. The film is clear-eyed about mortality, and death shows up in various forms (both past and present) to remind us in case we forget. YOLO and all that, we get it.

Sam Elliott murmurs, “Bittersweet” at one point, in the middle of a master class on how to listen supportively while male. It’s a bit much, and hamstrings Elliott’s wry side, but that’s the word. It’s a bittersweet story, saved by the actors from a snoozy fate.

I enjoyed it, even as I turned it off three-quarters through and only finished a couple of hours later, feeling incomplete (didn’t help that I looked the film up before I watched and so got the big plot points ahead of time). Danner was a joy to watch, Starr was amazing, and the supporting cast all got their moments, particularly Mary Kay Place, who shows up in these things playing a woman of a certain age and always seems 20 years younger than she’s supposed to be.

As does Ms. Danner, who does get a chance to play with wry. This is a showcase for her and she elevates the film with just her presence, allowing us to understand how baffling aging can be to someone standing still for 20 years.

It’s not so much a showcase for Sam, although if you like watching him you won’t be disappointed. If we share the skepticism of Carol, who more than once questions his lack of romantic partners (this guy should be swarmed wherever he goes), his character is grounded and wise. His initial appearances belie the character we’d come to know, but why say more? If you like Sam Elliott, and I’m not sure we have anything to talk about if you don’t, you’ll want to watch I’ll See You in My Dreams.

Keep an eye out for Martin Starr, too. He’s done a lot over the past decade, from Party Down to Adventureland to his current Silicon Valley role. This helps explain why.

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Captain Of My Soul

I’m a little surprised, just checking around the nets, that there’s not more remarking from people in my neck of the woods about yesterday. There were some pictures of snow.

And there was snow, sort of unexpected, including thunder snow. Some outlying areas got pretty decent coverage; our lawn was covered but not the roads. Just not that cold.

But starting in the morning with some sort of accident involving flammable material, I have to think that Feb. 27, 2017 will be one for the traffic books. If someone keeps those.

Yesterday I became a footnote. My wife was rehearsing an opera (she’s been directing a small company for a few years now, one in which she sang for many more years) in Shoreline, about 15 minutes south of me on the freeway. And I dropped her there and went back to retrieve her in just about that amount of time.

From there, though, we had to drive to Renton, some 26 miles southeast. In normal daytime traffic, about a 35-minute trip. In rush hour, of course, longer. Yesterday, about 95 minutes. It took a full hour to cover the last 7 miles. It was not nice. Lots of accidents, etc. Ice and snow, wet roads, and so on. Not a surprising story, but a big one.

***

What was nice, though, was that it was my wife’s birthday, and even given her usual busy day (it’s almost always busy on her birthday) I figured out how to spend some of it with her, even if part of that was in the car. She was going to church to prep for Ash Wednesday, and with my help we got through it pretty fast. Then we headed out for Mexican food, spontaneously joined by five friends, and managed to get something that looked suspiciously like a birthday out of the whole experience.

And the drive home was a breeze.

***

I watched Captain Fantastic the other day, noticing it on Amazon Prime and being curious. Viggo Mortensen got an Oscar nod for his performance, which I have no comment on having not seen the competition.

It doesn’t seem to have done very well critically or at the box office, even with Viggo. I’m not sure what to think about that. There’ve been any number of snarky mash-up comparisons, as if it were just a combination of Into the Wild and The Swiss Family Robinson.

What it was, to me anyway, was a libertarian fantasy, a Noam Chomsky-quoting father rearing five children in the wilderness, living in an old bus and off the land. It’s a remarkable sight, and concept, a rejection of a consumer-based society controlled by the rich and powerful.

The rest of the story is problematic, maybe, in ways that I won’t spoil, but I think I liked it. And Viggo was great.

For some reason, too, it seemed like a perfect film to watch as Lent approaches. As I’ve said, most of the time I haven’t been particularly observant of Lent as a period of reflection and perhaps shedding some distraction, but this year is different. I’m not likely to wander out into the woods and slit a deer’s throat with a hunting knife. Probably definitely not.

But the ascetic, frugal, simplified life of this fictional family was inspiring in a way I haven’t quite figured out. So I have a few weeks to do that, and see what I feel like at the end.

Today is Fat Tuesday, though. Tomorrow is soon enough.

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Movie Movie

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Ricki and the Flash is, assuming you don’t know and are barely interested, a new film by Jonathan Demme starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, and Mamie Gummer that focuses on…

I’m not sure. Streep plays an Indiana housewife and mother who likes to play guitar and sing in dives (well, that’s where she mostly sings; not sure how much she likes it, but on the other hand she seems like she’s having a good time. No big time, in other words). She eventually leaves her husband and family, moves to L.A. to hit it big, and a whole bunch of years later…well. The dives are alive and well.

Backed by her band – lead guitar, drums, and bass, with Streep filling in on rhythm guitar, although more later* – The Flash, Ricki covers rock ‘n’ roll. Old stuff, some new stuff, mostly old stuff. The crowd eats it up, the bartender is a huge fan and feeds her margaritas after work, the lead guitarist (Springfield) and she have some sort of romantic thing going on, despite the age difference, and then she gets a phone call.

Her daughter’s husband has left her, and the young woman is in bad shape, staying at her father’s place (played by Kevin Kline, a straight-laced business type with nothing but kindness and a deep desire to just once see his three kids and their mother get along together, at least for a meal). Ricki flies to the flyover country, gets screamed at by her daughter, eventually does what she knows about mothering (gets her daughter a makeover), and then faces her husband’s wife, who returns after a trip and is nothing but perfect (played by singer and actress Audra McDonald, who does not sing in case you were wondering). The wife gently suggests that Ricki is causing more harm than good, and so that’s that. One functional, completely together woman runs that house, and it ain’t Ricki.

And right there, you have a mildly interesting family drama with a few signs of growth.

The rest is expected, predictable, spotted from a mile away, and you know what?

That’s what I wanted to see. At least yesterday.

Oh, Streep inhabits her character, as always. She dresses in club fashion from roughly the mid-1980s, lots of bling, purple eye shadow, boots, etc. On and off stage. She wears a tattoo of the American flag and is a fierce supporter of our troops (her brother died in Vietnam), at 65 still a fine-looking woman who sings well and puts on a good show. She just doesn’t know much about being a mother, having missed a lot, and that’s pretty much the way it stays.

Except it doesn’t, but more would spoil it and let’s be fair: This devolves into cornball, even with fine actors putting their all into what they have.

I approve.

I mean, this has been on my mind, but I may explore it in more depth next week in the paper, so let’s just say that it’s flawed and a little shaky and you leave happy, reminded that life and families are both messy things, and sometimes you follow the advice Streep gives to her daughter at a crucial moment: Walk on.

I don’t want to see any more super heroes for a while. I’ll watch a space opera at the drop of a hat, assuming it’s any good at all, but I’m not interested in whoever Liam Neeson is saving from kidnappers or big explosions or blood or horror.

I can watch the great films whenever I want. Sometimes I want to see an ordinary one, in which good actors make us believe them, if not the plot so much, and Kevin Kline gets to be in it, and Meryl Streep sings My Love Will Not Let You Down by Mr. Springsteen, among others (Tom Petty, Lady Gaga, Emmylou Harris, etc.).

And maybe it’s just me. But give me a few of these a year, and I can stomach the rest.

—————-

*Streep apparently learned to play the guitar for the role, although my guess is she’s still learning. A woman who’s been playing guitar for decades would probably not be staring at her fingers to form a simple G-chord, and her fingers I swear never slip below the fourth fret, but it’s not distracting.

Other notes: Springfield is surprisingly good, and Mamie Gummer, if you didn’t know, is Streep’s real-life daughter. The genes are strong in this one.

 

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How Long Can You Tread Water?

What’s interesting is that I think Woody Allen is probably innocent of the charges of molestation. I have no inside information; I just trust the opinion of a couple of insiders who have no particular affection for Mr. Allen but know some stuff.

The weird thing is that I don’t really care for Woody Allen. Or I’m ambivalent. Good memories of early films, particularly in the 1970s. After that, even though I’m assured there were gems every few years, I haven’t been interested. He strikes me as an odd man, possibly duplicitous and maybe a little creepy just in general. It should be easy to believe the worst, but somehow (so far) I don’t.

Bill Cosby? Rapist.

I also have no inside information, other than the just-released court documents that have Cosby admitting to buying and using drugs to ensure a more pliant sex partner. Since that’s the salient point of the many accusations that have surfaced…it’s easy to make a call, when it has nothing to do with me.

Except like a lot of kids in the 1960s who learned to love humor, we learned it at Cosby’s feet, multiple playing of the comedy records our parents bought. And then there was the remarkable stage persona, the casual way he’d sit down in front of an audience and ramble and talk with then, and slide into routines without anyone noticing exactly when. A marvel.

And we watched “The Cosby Show” at lot in the first years, starting back when my daughter was an embryo. It was different, and funny, and it was Cosby.

But something was slipping into my perception. First, there was the doctorate Cosby earned based on a dissertation he wrote on “Fat Albert” and its usefulness in teaching in elementary schools. Since he never finished his bachelor’s degree (it was awarded later on, from Temple, for “life work”), the whole thing struck me as bogus, as possibly the sign of someone who needed affirmation that didn’t come in the form of applause.

Then there was the title sequence in the first year of The Cosby Show, where he was listed as “Dr. William Cosby, Ph.D.” This is awkward and redundant nomenclature (one uses a title or a degree, usually, not both: It’s Rev. Julie K. Sigars or Julie K. Sigars, B.A., M.A., M.Div. For an example), and struck me as showy and sort of ignorant (fixed for later seasons). Just a hint, right there.

And then he just became arrogant, and mean. His “philosophy” on parenting became best-selling books, and then there were his aggressive lectures to the African-American community and so on. Bill Cosby has all the answers. Bill Cosby is not to be argued with, because he’s the smartest guy around. With that doctorate and all.

So my affection, dying anyway, disappeared. Didn’t care for him, found him annoying and out of time. But lots of people affect me that way. Not my circus, not my clowns.

But I think Bill Cosby, a pioneer in so many ways, an iconic figure in our culture for half a century, drugged and raped women. No pedestals get rebuilt here.

I could be wrong. But Quaaludes and Benadryl? And that was a while ago. Pharmacology has improved.

So many of us have demons, and sexual misbehavior isn’t shocking, from anyone. But rape is rape, assault is assault, while adultery and bad manners are crimes against personality, not other people so much. They define character, and some of us find it wanting, but then who is Bill Cosby? No relation to me.

And while I can grieve for the victims, mostly I’m curious about what comes next. Cosby can lawyer up and probably endure a rash of civil suits without diminishing his apparently vast resources, and the statute of limitations has long run out.

But he’ll be in his 80s soon, and as this plays out I suspect we’ll see the most remarkable destruction of a very long and established public presence in my lifetime. The Cosby Show will never hold its luster again, even as nostalgia. We will see the sweaters. We will imagine the drugs slipped into drinks. We’ll try not to think about the rest.

At the end, I suppose, he’ll be remembered for his early days, his confidence and brilliance on the stand-up stage, as a historical entry, but he’ll fade away and die eventually, no legacy to speak of that’s not stained by the fact that he’s a bad man who did bad things, and measuring his accomplishments on a scale against his transgressions, there’s no balance. Justice, even justice for rich people in America, will ultimately prevail in one way or another. Bill Cosby definitely won’t be remembered as the smartest guy in the room. His obituary will be rich reading, and not pleasant.

And he deserves it.

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Funny People

Every year, around this time, and in the past several years exactly at this time, my wife gives her final final exams, grades like a bat out of hell (do bats not care for hell? How do they escape? I have many questions), then boards a plane away from us for a long time. Or a couple of weeks.

In the past, this left me trying to earn a living while simultaneously parenting a couple of children. One of those offspring grew up and moved away, taking a cue from her mother (in more ways than one). The other, no longer a teenager, still lives here, and while the two of us are accustomed to seeing his mother only occasionally, usually when she’s imitating bats making a run for it from Lucifer’s evil lair, it creates a slightly different dynamic, which means we declutter and make fun of his mom for her cluttering ways.

And I always write about it. Every year.

As I always write about at least one adventure in trying to trim back the blackberry brambles that invade every spring. Already I look like I’ve been in a knife fight. That column is coming.

And I’ll write about warm weather, and weird people I see in the neighborhood, and the occasional movie I’ve seen, and with luck I tenuously link these pieces to something relatable, maybe an article or event in the news, maybe not. But I write them. Every year. And I expect no different results.

Sometimes, though, I get the urge to go rogue. Pick a subject and write it into the ground. Doesn’t matter what it is. The challenge alone intrigues me, much like the challenge of incorporating the personal observations of a man who doesn’t do much into the 900 words I write every week that get printed on real paper and get read by somebody.

I’m too lazy and timid to do this, but lately I’ve had this crazy idea to deconstruct the FX series The Comedians for a few months.

I have no business watching anything, other than personal pleasure or boredom. And if you catch me watching a reasonably obscure cable show (since I don’t have cable, and have to find another way to watch online, either buying the episodes or sitting through commercials), you can be pretty sure it’s boredom. Not a good sign.

The Comedians premiered back in April and they’re wrapping up season one in a couple of weeks, 12 episodes. We can picture the ostensible star of this show riffing on abbreviated TV seasons, having been there when a season had twice as many shows and probably three times the budget and nice weekly paychecks.

This ostensible star is Billy Crystal. His costar is Josh Gad, whom I’ve been watching for a few years now, catching snatches of small parts in film and TV, and now gathering some momentum from his star turn in The Book of Mormon and the voice of the snowman in Disney’s Frozen. He’s as hot as an actor like him can be. He is, then, in all probability, toast in terms of a future career, but I wish him well. He’s talented, funny and carries tons of presence.

The show is interesting in that it’s a mash-up of two contemporary genres, the mockumentary and the two-person sketch comedy show (e.g., Key & Peele). Some differences: This is a show about making a two-person sketch show. This is a show about a generational divide, with possibly a fading star and an up-and-comer.

And, to add a third genre that I just thought of, they play versions of themselves, as Louis CK and Marc Maron do on their weird cable networks (IFC for Maron, which apparently a lot of people don’t know if their cable company carries). It’s on the FX Network (like Louie, and as is their pretend show). Billy is Billy and Josh is Josh, although they generously use their less-pleasant sides to give us at least a partial picture of how this business works, how ideas are tweaked and massaged and focus-grouped, how network suits interact with talent, how fear and desperation lead to choices that may or may not make this “show” a success (with three of them left to watch, the actual “show” has yet to premiere).

Every week. I would just deconstruct this insignificant offering on a borderline cable network, discussing the generational conflicts and the reluctant bonding and, I dunno, maybe a King Lear reference tossed in.

Look: I found it by accident. I was looking for Louie, wondering if I could take another season of brilliant but slightly uncomfortable and dark stories with laughs. FX is promoting the hell out of it, especially now that Louie has wrapped.

So I can’t swear anything. It might turn out to be good. It might be a nice try, but ultimately a failure.

Still, I’ve seen some very funny moments, and been moved (there’s nothing resembling pathos here, but people are people. They have bad days, and sometimes other people try to help when they’re not trying to fire them). But there’s also something weirdly anodyne about the show, as if it’s intended (or unfortunately ended up being) fluff for somebody. Somebody bored.

Hey. There’s material here. I could write about it.

Except I watch very little TV. I’m not an authority. I love Key and Peele but don’t watch full episodes. I think Silicon Valley and Veep on HBO are exceptionally smart and intriguing comedies, far more sophisticated than The Comedians.

Then again, it’s Billy Crystal. While my comedy tastes led from Cosby albums to Carlin to the burst of creative, conceptual comics like Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams, all the time Billy Crystal was there, a throwback to just funny. Funny bits, funny voices, funny observations. He does voices for animated films. He did a successful Broadway show. He’s hands-down the favorite Oscar host, perhaps of all time. He’s still funny, even if films aren’t popping up in his inbox. He’s 67, fully aware of the contemporary world and only occasionally sniffing a little at the bizarre ideas that come out of his co-star, most of them dumb and vulgar.

And Billy can be conservative, and so on. We’re set up. Add in a cast of supportive characters who vary in interesting qualities.

The generational relationship has the most promise, so far (nine episodes in). I’m a little fascinated.

But, again. This is not something on my radar, usually. We’re back to boredom.

I’m really tempted to do a comedy exegesis on this, though. I think it has potential, including the potential to disappear, but I’m curious.
And something Billy Crystal said in an episode encapsulated in a single sentence the reasons well-established actors, dramatic or comedic, find themselves grasping at television and steady paychecks, a comment that resonated with what I’ve learned about filmmaking and that world in the past couple of years.

Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week in the paper. Probably a column about the guys being alone will appear, though. Old habits. Arm scars. Warm weather. Long walks.

It’s a pitch for a TV series, maybe. A writer about nothing. Probably will try IFC.

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It Only Hurts When I Live

My first response to hearing the news that Netflix had premiered a new series, a comedy called Grace & Frankie, starring (eponymously and respectively) Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, was irritation. How could Netflix not prominently place this new show, which I assume they hope is successful, right there at the top of my splash screen, a Suggestion For Chuck? I had to look for it, while their algorithms spin out suggestions that look OK, but I only have so much time. A quick human glance at my Netflix viewing habits would suggest, I think, that I have a limited capacity for absorbing new material, considering how many episodes of The Office and Parks & Recreation I’ve watched, but it might also suggest that I’m susceptible to nontraditional situational comedies.

It doesn’t matter. I heard about it, read about it, thought about it, and watched it. Grace & Frankie, that is. The first two episodes. That’s where I am. There are some issues with my wife, who on Mother’s Day seemed determined that this would be something we could watch together, although God knows when she thinks she’ll find the time. It’s fine; I don’t mind watching things twice (see: The Office, above), although after a few decades of my own marriage I think I understand how this will go down on the domestic front: I’ll watch the episodes, then sum them up for her.

But how could I at least not be intrigued? It’s not just the star power (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston play the male counterparts, although there are complications and “counterparts” is pretty funny), although these are all actors I’ve enjoyed watching in the past and are worth at least a look.

The set-up is mildly interesting, but we may have already outpaced the novelty of a story of two men coming out of the closet in their later years.

In fact, it’s the “later years” aspect that drew my respect, if not attention. Exactly how old the characters are supposed to be hasn’t been established by the two episodes I’ve watched, and actors playing younger is such a convention that we barely notice any discrepancies, but a quick check shows me what I already knew: These four actors are firmly septuagenarians (Fonda is the elder at 77; Tomlin is 75, and both men are 74; all will bump up one year before 2015 closes out).

I’m not surprised at this, just impressed. Happy, too, that these actors can still find some acting to do, although they seem to have been pretty busy anyway.

GF

The story, in case you missed it, is straightforward if a little contrived: Two men, law partners for decades, break the news to their wives (who tolerate their social contract as spouses who must occasionally socialize, but just barely) that not only are they gay, but they’ve been lovers for 20 years and have decided to divorce these two women after 40 years and marry each other.

And we assume that the point of this not-so-cutting-edge storyline is a retread of The Odd Couple, throwing these two disoriented and devastated women together and watching the hilarity ensue. Both play to type, or to a type that feels familiar and comfortable to us: Fonda is the body image-obsessed, high society-finessing wife of a successful man; Tomlin is a hippy, who keeps a supply of peyote (and pot) in the fridge for a special occasion, when she and Sol (Waterston, so far the most interesting character of the bunch) can vision quest together at the beach house the two couples bought together.

Oh, right. And these people are rich.

None of this matters. It’s just a show. I wish it well. I’ll probably watch the remaining eight or so episodes, just to see how it plays out. Lots of good shows out there. I won’t watch most of them.

I’m watching Grace & Frankie because of one line, delivered by Fonda as she stares at her aging face in the mirror, removing her hair extensions and eyelashes absentmindedly, at the end of the evening of truth telling. Her husband, Sheen, tries to communicate, to express understanding of her feelings, to apologize for the pain he’s causing, but she’s nowhere near ready for that (possibly, given her attitude, this might come in season #3, if ever).

“It would have been easier if you’d just died,” she says to him, and there it is.

This isn’t a comedy about social upheaval, or cute older men who are finally true to themselves (although they’re pretty cute a couple of times). This isn’t about marriage equality, or self-actualization, or even about the complications of very long marriages.

This is a comedy about heartbreak, and it doesn’t spare us. Fonda knows she and Sheen didn’t have the romance of the century, but she thought they did OK (did I mention they were rich?). Tomlin beats herself up a little for not processing the signals, but Sol was her best friend.

I can imagine all sorts of stories with a few minor tweaks of this one. Two women, very different, suddenly widowed in their later years, as happens. They make discoveries. They bond. They learn secrets their dead husbands kept, they explore options, they become free at last, free at last. Saddened by loss, but loss is inevitable, particularly if you’re a woman and you’re married to a man. Statistics, etc.

But no. Whatever Grace & Frankie turns out to be, if anything at all (I have no idea if there will be more episodes), the creators have given us a topical, startling, life-altering syllabus for a comedy and they blindside us with pain. Lots and lots of pain.

And laughs, or at least my wife found them. I smiled a little, but I couldn’t help suffering along with these women, and that was my surprise. Death is painful. A later-life divorce, driven by the aging male ego with a young trophy wife on his radar, would be humiliating.

But this? This lights up every emotional pain receptor, and the show doesn’t hide it. The thoughts of forty years’ worth of fraudulent cohabitation are there, but mostly it’s the future that is biting these women, and hard.

You can start things over in your 70s, absolutely. But not everything. Life doesn’t let us. We don’t live long enough. These were couples looking at 10 to maybe 20 years of life left, optimistically, and they had no reason to expect it to wind up any other way. Together. Husbands and wives, friends and partners, houses and children.

I could find myself surprised. I could see some senior citizen self-actualization after all. There may be a lot of laughs, and I’ll be impressed that the writers gave us the hard truth from the beginning, working their way toward humor. There’s always humor.

This show belongs to the women. First, it’s just a matter of talent: Waterston and Sheen are solid actors, but they’re not in the same league as Tomlin and Fonda. It’s going to be up to them. I’ll watch, anyway, to see how or if they pull it off, but it won’t be for lack of chops.

But make no mistake: This is a show about loneliness. Laughter will only help. I suspect it can’t heal.

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My Sling Blade Is Out

We’ve been without cable TV for five years now. I don’t miss it, other than being able to turn on the random Mariners game, but there’s always radio (I did MLB.com with a work-around to avoid blackouts for a couple of years, but didn’t use it enough to warrant the cost. Which wasn’t much – $100 or so for six months – but just not used enough). Anything else I was interested in I could buy a la carte from Amazon or (I suppose, ugh) iTunes.

But last night the Spurs were playing in game #6, and it was on TNT, and after a few frustrating tries to find a feed, I signed up for a free 7-day trial of SlingTV, which gives me a variety of cable channels to stream, on a variety of devices, including the Roku.

And it worked fine, except for the Spurs losing part. Nice picture. Bad outcome.

Looking around the app today, seeing what was on the few channels they offered me (for $20 a month, were I inclined, which I’m not) just validated my original rationale for cutting the cable: There’s nothing for me. If I were horribly sick or dying and lonely and immobile, maybe. But I’d probably just watch Groundhog Day over and over.

This is the last thing I’d pass judgment on. Sports alone is a good reason to have cable, as wasted as most of their offerings are, so I get that. And the ease, and the variety, and some star dancing with another star, etc. I watch my share of junky, waste-of-time stuff on other venues. This is just personal.

And the sign-up process is buggy, as is the whole system in a minor way, but it’s an option, I guess, if you want The Food Network or ESPN variations or AMC, etc.

Me? Six more days (unless/when the Spurs advance and their games are on TNT, in which case I might spring for it. Although I suspect most will be network).

And network? How many times to reiterate? Depending on where you live (we’re in sort of an awkward place in terms of pulling in a lot of stations), you can get 20-40 stations or more, including  the big boys, with a simple antenna (I use the Mohu; there are others), in glorious uncompressed HD video. Really, the picture is amazing.

So a glimpse at the future, maybe. Go Spurs Go. I can find Alton Brown in lots of places, buy each episode of “Mad Men,” and do something useful like listen to podcasts and pull weeds.

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Unbinding

Feeling under the weather yesterday, and with not much to do, a little writing deadline but nothing new, I decided to take a day of rest after a busy week and watch the beginning of the end, meaning Mad Men.

I started watching it when I was in my TV marathon phase, back in 2007. I bought a refurbished TiVo and began recording everything, and anything that was new and vaguely interesting got a shot. Mad Men stuck.

As it should. To anyone paying attention at all, it’s landmark television, quality and unique, which is not to say that I’ve not been tempted to dump it at times. Still, I like the set decoration, the objects and art that stir up vague memories of my childhood. They’ve progressed 10 years since the summer of 2007, when it premiered, a nice trick, meaning that I was in the sixth grade as they now work their advertising magic in 1970 and have sex with everybody else. I figure I’ll stick it out for a few more episodes, which is all we got.

I also finished up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Tina Fey-produced Netflix sitcom starring Ellie Kemper, who was a surprise addition to The Office (American version) in the last years. On that show, she played a naïve young woman who also might have been a little dumb (the naiveté makes it hard). On Unbreakable, she’s naïve (duh, stuck in a bunker for 15 years) but not dumb, and in fact resilient and tough. And in 22-minute segments, it was easy to scoot through the season in little bits. I approve, tentatively, so far. Lots of Fey-ish humor.

As for House of Cards, I watched the first episode of season #3 and decided that maybe I’ve had enough of Frank and Claire. Never watched Orange Is The New Black (and please don’t say that I have to watch it, or anything else. You might be missing the point here).

This is how I watch TV now, nothing new to this blog. My cable TV is long gone, years now, and only occasionally will I subscribe to a show on Amazon. My annual television budget comes in around $50, I figure, not counting the $100 a year I spend on my Netflix subscription (I don’t count Amazon Prime, which has lots of watchable stuff, since I mostly use it for the free shipping). It sounds a little nickel-and-diming, but no cable, even basic, adds up to…what? A little less than $1000 a year? Lots of nickels and dimes there.

Yeah, sports are a drag (sports are supporting cable, trust me). I can’t watch baseball unless I subscribe to MLB TV and pay for a proxy service to get around their home team black-outs (you can’t even watch your own team when they’re on the road), and I found I wasn’t watching enough to justify it. I might change my mind, especially if the Mariners have the season some are predicting, but radio still works and baseball is another good reason to read newspapers, so.

Movies? Pick your poison. Netflix, Amazon rentals, YouTube, Vimeo, HBOGo…there’s always something to watch. Interstellar is currently calling me, and I wonder when I’ll have the time, since no plane trips are in the immediate future.

This seems to be the future. Broadcast news is worthless and the cable variety is actually sort of dangerous, in my opinion, so I find that stuff in other places (radio news I still admire, if only for the brevity). Hulu covers most network shows I might be interested in, but I’m not all that interested. I can catch Jimmy Fallon clips whenever I want, wherever, and The Daily Show and anything else that I might want a few minutes of. I seem to be set.

And I suspect you will be, too. I understand that some of your enjoyment comes from waiting each week for the next installment of DWTS or whatever, and so I get that you’ll hang on, but eventually this is where we’ll be: Menus and choices, all we really want in a bloated system that gives us plenty of material to ignore, brought particularly to light when that duck guy started saying controversial things and a lot of us were scratching our heads. What is this show, exactly, and why are we caring what this odd man says?

In the most golden of the various ages of TV, with quality overwhelming us, this is the only solution I see this side of being a TV critic or bedbound. Pick and choose, accept that you’re going to miss something good, and find out what gives you pleasure and entertainment, your call.

And that call will mean, I suspect, either cutting your cable (don’t actually cut it) or waiting for the big boys to get desperate and sell us shows a la carte.

In the meantime, we can clean the kitchen, listen to podcasts or ball games or music, take walks, work for a living, and stop staring at screens so much.

Which I intend to do right now. Signing off. That kitchen won’t clean itself.

Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt

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A Visual Medium

Fellini, sure.  Kurosawa?  Seven Samurai, Rashomon…yup, heard of that guy, know his films, may even have seen a couple back in the day, when days were meant for that.  Discovering stuff that somebody, somewhere, thought I should, and I was young enough to take advice.

And Bergman, absolutely.  Ozu?  Hmm.

“Provincial” is my silent adjective; feeling slightly derogatory, I keep it to myself.  But I think and apply it a lot, now that I’m privy to so much about people I barely know.  What entertains them, what their preferences are, what they think about things I think about.

I’m having my way with the definition, too.  I’m using it as a synonym for unexposed, less rube or naïf than unaware or uninterested, content with small circles.  A provincial person might think The Avengers or Avatar is the best movie he’s ever seen, because he hasn’t seen enough and isn’t inclined to do so.  None of my business, but I’m not going to pay attention to much else he has to say, you know?  Because there are many things under the sun, I have only so much time, etc.

I’ve been watching The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the 15-part 2011 series developed by Irish film critic Mark Cousins, now showing on Turner Classic Movies and, nice for me, streaming on Netflix.  I’m almost finished.  I stand provincial, humbled, fascinated.  I don’t know nearly as much as I should, or want to.  Story of my life: an odyssey.

My summer adventure in filmmaking sparked some of the interest, for sure.  Mild curiosity did the rest, along with an interest in history and documentary.  It was worth the ride; I’m on episode 14, and I share it with Julie and John at different times, and sometimes watch an episode on the iPad before bed, too.

It’s opinion, absolutely.  Mr. Cousin’s disdain for “romantic” cinema (i.e., nearly all American films) is clear, but it’s difficult not to take his point.  I love Casablanca and could watch it right now, but I know what kind of film it is.  It’s just done really well, and no apologies from me, but the form is large and the possibilities seem endless when the motive isn’t money.  Watch enough of The Story of Film and you might start to see American movies as the film equivalent of paintings of dogs playing poker.

That isn’t true, either, of course.  There’s just a lot to think about and learn, and mostly to watch.  And that’s the measure of this film history marathon; not that I watch it, but that now I watch more.  And I might.  Ozu, even.   I hear he was good.

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