Archive for April, 2010

Dead poets calliope

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

What writer worth their Whitman doesn’t have a vast store of quotable knowledge or appreciation of the great poets of literature? Well, this lazy bard, for one. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some E. A. Poe, a little E. Dickinson, and the wacky dude who never had a shift key on his typewriter (e. e. cummings).  But I am woefully ignorant in all our richest rhymes, and without good reason or worthy excuse. I have the collected works of Yeats, Walt Whitman and the Oxford Book of Poetry on my shelves, but the only living things nibbling on them recently (or peeing on them) are cockroaches which must somehow be addicted to the old glue they used in the book bindings.

Which in no way segues me to Natalie Merchant’s new musical opus, Leave Your Sleep, featuring the whimsical or wizening works of a couple dozen formerly breathing poets now set to her voice and music. Just hearing about this project made me depressed and longing for the days when Merchant’s overly somber lyrics were magically lifted by the chirpy guitar playing she was straddled to in her former band 10,000 Maniacs. Left to her own production choices, it seems like she’s been on a downer ever since. Imagine my surprise when I listened to this lovely journey through dusty tomes from the crypt only to be charmed every note of the way. That’s right; the melancholy woman who once improbably rhymed ‘four poster’ with ‘dull torpor’ has been vividly inspired and revived by the dead and the decayed.

Every style of music noodles its way up from these poems and through your ears; from Chinese strings to Celtic pipes, reggae rhythms to orchestral swells, Irish jigs to New Orleans jazz, barroom blues to minute waltzes, and everything in between. And yet it all sounds so cohesively … apt and entertaining. The voice, so familiar, clear and committed, doesn’t hurt, either.  Read through the extensive liner notes and you discover she not only immersed herself in these poems, but into the very lives of the poets; including a mini-biography with every selection. This is what she felt she needed to do as an artist to choose or channel the right mood or melody for each poem. And throughout, she succeeds.

Charles Clausey. Rachel Field. Edward Lear. Mervyn Peak. Laurence Alma Tadema. Charles Edward Carryl. Arthur Macy. John Godfrey Saxe. William Brighty Rands. Eleanor Farjeon.  At some point in my lit-heavy Maryland education, I was probably exposed to some of these poets. Now, I’m ashamed to say, those could be the names of my city council members, for all I’m aware. Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings and Gerald Manley Hopkins still ring a bell, but don’t ask me to quote anything.

Merchant corrects any ignorance and makes us sit back and listen to voices long since silenced, but still eerily relevant. Here’s Gerald Manley Hopkins, who died of typhoid fever at age 45, writing a poem (to a youth named Margaret) to explain the unexplainable to a child.

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same

Nor mouth had, no nor mind expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed;

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Try to get through Merchant’s achingly beautiful mediation on this ode to loss with a dry eye. I dare you.

— A. Wayne Carter


For no specific reason, here is Bill Murray reading Emily Dickinson to a group of construction workers.

What’s on the DVR: Spring 2010 edition

Friday, April 9th, 2010

The Pacific on HBO

At the risk of getting fragged, let me state up front that I thought Band of Brothers was no masterpiece. By the time you sorted out the characters and cared for them, they were either dead or the series was nearly over. I’ve seen much better personal stories on episodes of the 1963-66 series, Combat, which also showcased a lone platoon or band of brothers single-handedly winning World War II. Band of Brothers looked and sounded great, though, and was suitably realistic (guns jammed and ran out of ammo), and gruesome (soldiers got mutilated).  The Pacific narrows the focus to the journeys of three individual soldiers fighting the Japanese, so it’s easier to know the characters, but they’re not together and the narrative jumps back and forth between them. And it’s also gruesome, with depictions of naked soldiers going crazy in the jungles and eating their pistols, Japanese getting mowed down by machine-guns or flame-throwers, parasitic-caused bed-wetting, dysentery and foot rot. I wonder what men like my uncle, who fought as a Marine in the Pacific, would think of this show; which dwells less on the mission, and more on the misery, confusion, guilt and PTSD. Would they really want to visit that side of the conflict again? There’s a reason why all the movies done in the immediate wake of the Big War starred ‘noble’ icons like John Wayne and glossed over the horror. Now, revisionist productions make subsequent generations wallow in it, not so much because we need it to understand the sacrifice our fathers and grandfathers made, but more, I suspect, because we’ve come to expect it after being so desensitized to gore or violence on screen and in video games. The rallying cry of war depicted on film used to be “No guts, no glory.” Now, it’s “All guts, all gory.”

Nurse Jackie on Showtime

Normally, I avoid medical shows like the plague (you just never know what you’re going to catch watching one), but this show is stacked with great characters played by some terrific NYC actors. Watching Edie Falco stay calm in the middle of the ER-trauma-ward storm in her professional life, and self-destruct as a pill-popping, sack-hopping disaster in her personal life somehow provides a soothing medicinal balm for any viewer who thinks THEY’VE got problems.

Justified on FX

Elmore Leonard always understood how low life criminals making terrible decisions, botching robberies, kidnapping the wrong people, and turning on each other whenever there’s a dollar to grub like caged and starving pit bulls … makes fun entertainment. And cable television finally caught up with being able to feature most of this shit without turning the camera away during the good parts. Who doesn’t want to see a skinhead neo-Nazi redneck have his face shoved into a steering wheel obliterating his nose? (Especially if it were Jesse James!) Timothy Olyphant doesn’t exactly rock the acting Richter scale (he goes from a steel-eyed half grimace to a steel-eyed half smirk), but it’s about the closest we’re going to get to having Clint Eastwood cloned or recycled. And, if fast draw gunfights or slow drawl dialogue zingers are your thing, minus the horses, cattle and BULL, this modern day Western will … make your day.

Two hit men (one veteran, one rookie) watch a crime scene from their car,staking out their intended target – Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens:

VETERAN HIT MAN: He’s the one in the hat.

ROOKIE HIT MAN: The tall one?

VETERAN HIT MAN (after a blank look and a pause): The one in the hat.

(This just may be my new favorite show)

Fringe on Fox

God I miss The X-Files (at least the first five seasons). But until the blu-ray season sets come out and I watch them all over again, this show will have to do. And it has dramatically improved in its second season and is worth watching for John Noble’s wacky Walter alone.

Damages on FX

It’s uncertain we’ll get a fourth season at this point, but it’s definitely been worth the ride. This third season has basically been the story of tracking down the money scammed off investors in a Ponzi scheme by a Bernie Madoff-style character who kills himself before going to prison. But cast Lily Tomlin against type as the button-lipped society wife, Martin Short as the creepy and loyal lawyer, and Campbell Scott as the ruthless son, and you’re already cooking a bitches’ and bastards’ brew of tasty and unexpected drama. Glen Close plays Patty Hewes, the powerful but ethically dubious lawyer going around and below the law to recover the money for her plaintiffs. My dad was a county attorney who came from the Atticus Finch breed of idealistic and ethical upholders of the law, and would cringe at the greedy sleazebags who often demean his chosen profession, but he also enjoyed a gripping yarn, and this one grabs you in the same place Patty Hewes is grabbing the poor schmucks who defy her.

Parenthood on NBC

Based on the beloved Ron Howard movie of the same name, but having nothing to do with that film, those characters, or real life, this show tries to walk the line between either being poignant or cute, and comes off just cute. Tough, no nonsense Maura Tierney (Rescue Me last season) was originally cast to play the Lauren Graham role, and I can’t help imagining how that might have changed the whole tone of the show, but with Graham it tilts too much from believable drama to sit-com shtick. Also, listen carefully to Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman and imagine her with brown hair and a trademark giggle and you have the perfect Julia Roberts clone. It’s just something to do while passing the time enjoying an uncomplicated show that doesn’t require any heavy thinking.


Leave all the heavy thinking to LOST. Doc Jensen, Entertainment Weekly’s online recap columnist, regularly spends up to 12 pages interpreting each episode. That’s 11 pages of arcane references to existentialism, philosophers Locke or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, Egyptian mythology, quantum physics, magnetic thermodynamics, wormholes, Chaos Theory and the Old Testament. And one page devoted to what actually happened in the episode. Here’s a typical sentence from one of his recaps: “Seen in the abstract, with the castaways representing a singular entity, the scene was a metaphor for existential consciousness: fragmented, argumentative, double-minded, self-referencing but non-reflective, inert to the point of paralysis, compelled to action only by crisis.”

I love a program that can stimulate more than 1,000 posts every week (with sub-posts) on one site debating the meaning of every single moment, reference or character. But I can’t help but suspect the show itself was all concocted by writers huddled around a hookah smoking awesome Moroccan hash, giggling incessantly, and throwing out stream-of-consciousness ideas in random moments of eureka, then starting to freak out realizing they had to somehow cobble it all together before the buzz wore off.

Breaking Bad on AMC

This show had me long before the decapitated head of the Mexican drug henchman exploded on the back of a huge walking tortoise taking out several Border patrol officers. Or before the voiceless, near-quadriplegic uncle of another drug lord began incessantly pushing a hotel bell to warn his nephew he was about to be poisoned by our meth-cooking series ‘hero’ Walter White. Or when the stolen ATM machine fell over and crushed the skull of the same lowlife who hijacked it. In between these insanely dark, tense and morbidly funny moments lays the tale of a family man/high school teacher and the American Dream going horribly sour.

— A. Wayne Carter