Monday, September 18, 2017

"Derek"

-directed and written by (and starring) ricky gervais
2012-2014
A soft-mockumentary of a nursing home and its denizens: an overworked matron with a heart of gold, a hangdog handyman, a homeless and lecherous boozer, and a mildly-autistic staff worker with a heart of...platinum, i guess? The foibles of our world are seen through derek's simple, eager eyes. I'm going to say something that will sound like a negative, and i suppose it is, but not to the extent you might think. DEREK feels like the very best product of a graduate film school exercise in which the students are given three hours to make a film, from idea to fruition. The show is long on heart and smiles and tears...and how could you ask for anything more? I suppose the "more" would be writing that never feels contrived, but the forced moments are rare, and generally so cathartic you won't mind. The Duran Duran talent show, the zoo visit, the most tactless wedding toast ever...all gems you shouldn't miss.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Ascension"

-created by adrian cruz, philip levens
2014
A mini-series created for the SyFy channel, ASCENSION pulls off one of the greatest cinematic fakeouts i've ever seen. The action bounces between Earth and a spaceship launched by NASA in the 60s, halfway through its 100-year mission to populate another solar system. Will the existence of the generational ship be exposed on Earth? The visuals are enormous and awesome, and the kennedy-era culture aboard-ship is fascinating. Finally, it's revealed that the ship never actually left Earth - its inhabitants unaware that they're rats in a government sociological experiment. The acting and dialogue are top-notch, and the show simmers with sexiness. The subplot involving an attempt to genetically engineer psionically-gifted humans is a bit unnecessary and unfulfilling, but by the time the series ends, you'll wish very much it hadn't. With delightful turns by tricia helfer (GALACTICA, TWO AND A HALF MEN) and gil bellows (ALLY MCBEAL, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION).

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"The Crazy Ones"

-created by david. e. kelley
2013-2014
Robin williams' return to series TV, after thirty-one years...and it's a bit of a letdown, if you're looking for the kind of smart material he'd graduated to on the big screen. He plays a big city manic peter pan ad exec, with a button-down daughter (sarah michelle gellar - BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, SCOOBY-DOO 1-2) as a business partner. Once you adjust your expectations, it's not so bad, thanks to some lovely cameos (most notably pam dawber - MORK & MINDY, STAY TUNED), a delightful recurring role by brad garrett (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, 'TIL DEATH), and the most successful regular, the quirky amanda setton (THE MINDY PROJECT, HAWAII FIVE-O), who looks like a runway model but talks like the coolest, scariest tomboy ever. The writing is never quite good enough to lift the specter of robin's death, but you'll find a few laughs along the way.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

the mighty wregor!

(and the semi-mighty wrob)
Yesterday, i traveled more miles by bike in one day than i've ever done before. At least 36. Not that that's so damn impressive, as cross-country bikers do 100 miles a day. But it was my personal best. I'd be willing to wager i was the top biker in Contra Costa County. The whole Bay area? Doubtful.
Oh, wait. I forgot the x factor. This was one day after record Bay temperatures. When i left the house it was around 100 degrees. Now that i think about it, i didn't see one other biker the whole trip.
Okay, maybe i was the top Bay area biker yesterday.
And i did it all to drop off a borrowed highlighter.
My chariot was the mighty wregor (that's a silent "w", and a soft "g"). A Maruishi RX-105. I've had it for less than three months, and as it's a much fancier bike than i usually ride, and maybe one size too small, and i live in one of the bike-theft capitals of the world, i've considered trading it in for a less-auspicious target (and using the leftover money for rent and such). But i bought it from a relative who'd cherished it, and selling it would feel shabby. So i've been marking time, thinking that if i can keep it from being stolen for another few months, it will have been a worthwhile investment. It's an older model, but a bike clerk told me i could get as much as $400...i paid $50, which equals the most i've ever spent on a bike.
Anthropomorphizing vehicles has never been my style, but when mary sold it to me, she asked what i was going to name it. In deference to her, i inverted the bike's previous name (adding a silent "w", of course).
I should also mention that this wasn't just 36 miles in three-digit heat. The route from San Pablo to Vallejo is mildly mountainous. There were numerous up and downs a quarter mile or more, at a 15-degree angle.
I didn't time the journey, but i estimate it took over four hours, with thirty minutes devoted to breaks.
Why would i make this olympian trek, just to drop off a highlighter?
For love, of course.
Not in a cliched way, though! I've a new friend. We've known each other a couple months, and a part of me hopes that we'll fall in love, but that wasn't the point. It was a psychological gesture of balance. As she has a car and i don't, and there's a fifteen-minute drive between us, she's done all the facilitating so far. We're at a tenuous point between lovers and friends, and when you dance that dance, there's always the danger of the latter being eaten alive (that doesn't sit well with me, as nothing is more sacred than friendship). For instance, if she met the man of her dreams today (rich/great sex/on bended knee), and he asked her to get rid of me, i think i know how that would go. She has many hippy affinities, but as a single mom who once dreamed of being a Disney princess, ideals only go so far (if that seems mercenary, she also has more integrity than most, so i imagine that after a year or two she'd send a note my way, just to find out how the asian coeds are treating me).
Anyway, i took this loony trek to Vallejo unannounced. I even half-hoped she wouldn't be home. I had an envelope for the marker, to put on her porch and leave her flabbergasted by not knowing how it got there. Again, this was about balance. Have i written her poems? Sure, but that's not necessarily impressive, as i'd probably be writing poems regardless. I just wanted to ensure that the thought would never pop into some corner of her brain, "Y'know, this bum has never gone two minutes out of his way for me."
As for the trek itself...
It started out brimming with happiness and excitement. With whoops, even. I love higher temperatures. The local weenies had been complaining about this "heat wave", but i was happy to be comfy again. I'd never been on the northern stretch of San Pablo Avenue, and it turned out to be charming. The towns seemed quaint, with nice-looking shops and eateries. I knew this was no lark, though...the biking was hard, even when i was fresh. I knew the heat posed dangers, but i had two bottles of water. All went smoothly, until...
I got to where San Pablo breaks off near Route 80 and the Carquinez Bridge. I headed in that direction...only to discover that bikes aren't allowed access there. I considered breaking that law, but as i'd just spent a week studying for my CA driver's license, i didn't think such audacious scofflawry prudent (or even likely to succeed). I had to backpedal, and the detour added four miles to my trip (plus the 2 it took to fix my mistake). To wind back around to where i'd already been, i had to ascend the highest terrain yet, past a refinery and a spot named "Vista Point". The sense of loneliness was acute, and it occurred to me that it would be a bad (or good) place to die. Eventually a few cars passed me, and i even flagged one down, just to be sure i wasn't going the wrong way. I began taking water breaks...and even breaks just to gather myself. At 70 degrees, it would have been a stroll...at 100, even i was feeling the heat. But i got to the Point, and felt fit enough to take a look.
Then i coasted down (okay, there was one more uphill) to the bridge. A genial group of walkers pointed me to the bike path. I only passed one person the entire span. With the uphills behind me, the final four miles were breezy.
I rang her bell, and even though her car was there, i suspected she might have company, so i prepared the envelope. Just as i was getting ready to go, she opened the door. The looks of semi-amazement she gave me, money can't buy. She refilled my water bottles, and i pedaled away. It was probably imprudent of me to not take a longer break and get more fluids, but i'm contentedly dumb that way.
The shadows had begun to lengthen, so that i was more shaded by trees and buildings. Once i got to the other side of the bridge, i met the same group of walkers, at the same exact spot! We marveled at the coincidence. Then the uphills were upon me, and it was instantly obvious that it would be slower going. I began to downshift three gears as opposed to two...and eventually even four. I generally avoid taking breaks on an uphill, but now...i felt weary, and had an ache from the back of my head down to my butt. By the time i got to the north-south San Pablo straightaway, i could feel the preliminary stages of vision distortion that come with overheating.
Go. Break. Water. Go.
Slowly. At one point i passed a pharmacy, and considered stopping for a sports drink. But i felt like i was in the last few miles, and could gut it out.
I had two breaks of 5-10 minutes. For some of that time, my head was drooped over my handlebars. The water didn't taste refreshing anymore, but i kept drinking.
The toes of my right foot curled around themselves, and the whole foot cramped.
Wait. Go.
I fantasized about the meal i would have. Ever thrifty, i haven't eaten out once in the six weeks i've been here. I would stop for some yummy asian bean curd.
The last hill was almost the killer, because the previous hill had looked like the final one.
Finally, i was coasting down to home.
I didn't stop at the restaurant. A good thing too, as i might have ended up lying on their floor for twenty-five minutes, which is exactly what happened when i got home. As i took my shoes off inside the door, my left foot seized. Then the right again. After fifteen minutes i tried to stand up, and was down again.
Brilliant. What a day. Huge and beautiful.
And i learned something. I learned that no writer who bikes ten miles a day, will ever experience writer's block. During the trek, my mind cranked out at least three worthy ideas, the last of which was a poem dedicated to an amazing womyn in Vallejo. I hoped it might even make her cry.
A day in the life of a lonely fool, being naked for her (and you) as a rule.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"The Bonobo and the Atheist"

(In Search of Humanism Among the Primates)
-by franz de waal
2013
Primatologist de waal has given us a beautiful, thoughtful, measured book...with a canny title. Bonobos are very much in vogue in the scientific and progressive communities, with polyamorous hippies embracing them as proof that humans are naturally happy, peace-loving fuckmonkeys (this author has been guilty of that himself). But franz points out that bonobos are not compulsively peaceful with no sexual boundaries - indeed, their copious sexuality is largely about softening social conflicts. And at the end (or beginning or middle) of the day, a female bonobo still has to be willing to mate, which isn't an automatic given. De waal isn't swayed by the hype, saying that the most compelling comparison is still between humyn and chimp males, with collective hunting and defending, coalitions against rivals, all while competing for status and females.
But none of that is what the book is about! De waal has bigger begonias to fry - he's in search of the roots of morality itself, and more specifically a refutation of veneer theory, which holds that humans are by nature selfish and nasty. Without an artificially constructed morality to keep us in check, so the theory goes, we'd kill and steal and fuck whenever and whatever we please.
Poppycock, says franz! He shows us the social origins of morality in all mammals, and the advanced levels found in elephants, apes, dolphins, and others. Monkeys have a clear sense of fairness, as shown when they refuse to eat a treat if they see another monkey given a better one. Infant human studies show this sense of inborn fairness, too. Apes go further, refusing to partake when they see another ape treated unfairly. They also show more advanced group morality, spending often considerable effort to maintain the peace when there's no personal reward for themselves. The only difference between us and other apes is degree - because human society has grown far beyond the intimacy of tribal life, we've needed to invent larger and more abstract forms of control - hence, "god".
But de waal has no interest in religious debate, and indeed does much to dissuade agitated atheists from militant stances. This book is for two groups - those who think humans naturally "evil", and those who blame religion for all the world's problems. Both groups are deftly redirected.
My only criticism? I wish he would say "other apes" instead of "apes". But, just like a spirited game of badminton between humans and bonobos, that's a relative quibble.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"Pacifism as Pathology"

(Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America)
-by ward churchill with mike ryan
1998, 2007
Is pacifism the worst thing that could have happened to civil disobedience in the 20th century? Has non-violence played right into the hands of the global corporations who have steered humanity into endless cycles of poverty, exploitation, and genocide? Is the seemingly irreversible destruction of our ecosphere at the hands of capitalism (which seems patently incapable of self-correction) made doubly inevitable by devotion to pacifistic ideals in those who would save us from ourselves?
Ward churchill makes a starkly convincing case, by deconstructing the supposed triumphs of non-violence. Were gandhi's gains made possible only by a century's worth of violent revolt plus the bankruptcy of the british empire after WWII? Was indian freedom an illusion, as western capitalism never lost control of India's economic fate? Would martin luther king's victories have happened without the threat of the Black Panthers? And whether or not you accept the contention that jewish religious leaders steered jews into not resisting the stars, ghettos, or concentration camps, it's hard to disagree with the contention that if those nazi door knocks had been met with bullets instead of bleats, millions might not have died. Certainly the present israeli posture on militarization reveals a (chilling?) determination to never be caught unarmed again.
Churchill's point is that pacifism is of limited use once violence has begun...and the violence committed against "people of color" all over this world (and in America's backyard) shows no sign of abating (to say nothing of poverty's violence perpetrated against "people of no color?"). In response, western protesters offer only parades by permit and temporary arrests that become peacenik status symbols...while the displacement, death, and devastation goes unchecked. A war against humanity and our very planet is being waged, and these feeble protests have amounted to nothing.
This book can be unsettling...especially for someone (like myself) who has spent a lifetime making non-violence a sacred covenant. "Pacifism as Pathology" can make a pacifist want to grab a firearm and head for the barricades. Of course, there is a great difference between passive and active resistance, and ward isn't suggesting that armed revolt is the only solution. In active resistance, direct action is taken against the machinery of oppression - with real (even dire) risks involved. It is the absence of active resistance in America, that ward sees as the disastrous by-product of the deification of non-violence. He speaks of the necessity to incorporate different resistance strategies, to achieve real victories.
A challenging, necessary book.