Friday, January 26, 2007

United States of Confederacy

CSA: The Confederate States of America is a great movie, the spiritual progeny of Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee signed on to produce the movie after it had already been released), proof that creativity can overcome budgetary constrictions and the final nail in the coffin of Paul Haggis's tame and obvious Crash. In his Oscar acceptance speech Haggis quoted Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to society, it is a hammer by which to shape it.” In CSA the mirror is the hammer and I dare someone to peer into it honestly without flinching.

The premise is that the Confederacy wins the Civil War and slavery doesn't go away, ever. The movie is a faux-documentary (mockumentary is inappropriate and inaccurate) from the perspective of a BBC film crew in the late 1990's, but it is now being broadcast on "Confederate Television," which includes commercials that are the most shocking and guiltly exciting, parts of the documentary. The bracingly racist commercials are the comic relief that fulfils the promise of the movie's opening quote: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” Most of those laughs are just to fill the uncomfortable silence in the room as you watch the movie.

The movie closes with the revelation that the most racist scenes in the movie where taken from real life. While that ending is informative, it felt redundant after the commercial for "Runaway", "Cops" with a different theme song, a hillbilly blue-grass reworking of the iconic "Bad Boys" song. As I squirmed and listened to "Run boy, run boy, gonna catch you, run boy, run boy, ain't gonna get away," I stared at the U.S.A, not the C.S.A.

Some critics have questioned the historical interpretation of the movie, pointing out that it is light on historical accuracy and most of its presumptions wouldn't have happened. When a movie starts with the assumption that the U.S. still has legal slavery, it is safe to say that they have taken some liberties with history, but that is besides the point. The C.S.A. would be a straw man, a flat metaphor, if it was just an faux-cautionary tale of a history we barely avoided. The scary thing is that as evil as the C.S.A is- and it is evil enough to advise Hitler that it considered the Holocaust an immoral waste of manpower- it is just a rose by another name (how does "the American Holocaust" sound?). The C.S.A. took all of the Indian land and then sent the natives to boarding schools that eradicated their culture, it conscripted Chinese labors to builds the railroads, it practiced segregation (they called it "Separate and Unequal" and noted that it had the had the benefit of "letting the Mexicans know their place, and keeping them there"), and it formally ruled South America. That is a U.S. history course written with bracing honesty, from the victim's perspective, and it begs the question: "Who wrote our history?"

The film history of the C.S.A is a recreation of our own as well. Gone with the Wind becomes A Northern Wind, D.W. Griffith's The Hunt for Dishonest Abe replaces The Birth of a Nation, and WWII propaganda films and anti-Communist films become about literal race wars and abbies (the abolitionist communist equivalents in the C.S.A). Many people point out Abraham Lincoln's speech in Dishonest Abe (Lincoln in black-face says: "I ain't no prez'dent! I'z a darky!") as the most shocking scene in the movie, but for me the fictional speech that stood out was from the 1940 war movie, The Dark Jungle: "This world is made for the God fearing, to use as we see fit. For awhile these savages thought it was theirs, but their just renting it. It's ours, it was always ours, we just ain't claimed it all... yet. Kill em all, and let God sort em out." I would laugh, but then a coworker called me a coward last year because I "wouldn't defend our country in Iraq."

The C.S.A does suffer occasionally from its low budget; some sets are non-existent, some of the acting is uneven (I would like to praise Rupert Pate as the pro-C.S.A. talking head, he is excellent) and some of the green screen work is glaring. Fortunately, the strength of the writing carries the movie and overcomes any small technical glitches. Beyond being incendiary, it is consistently entertaining and features some riotously funny moments (the C.S.A.'s position on reparations springs to mind). This is the best movie of the 2006 (even if says it was made in 2004) and I wish it received some Academy buzz, and the attention that went along with that. The academy likes statement movies that make us feel self-righteously warm and fuzzy, CSA is too busy setting American history on fire to remind that those watching it are exempt from its recriminations.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Amsher is bending to my will

Yesterday I got a call from Amsher, the company that bought my debt from T-Mobile. I informed the caller that I sent a certified letter of dispute to the company. Surprise, surprise, they hadn't received it. I am so glad that sent that letter certified, because otherwise I bet they would just throw it away. Letter or no, they would like to settle with me.

I said I still didn't owe any money, but what is their offer?
"180 dollars."
"That's still a lot more than zero, but thanks for the information. I'll call you when I find out that my letter has reached you."

So in less than a month of wrangling, I now owe less than half what I owe originally. While an infinite series of getting half off would never reach zero, it would reach a number that I find acceptable (say... twenty dollars) in a little more than three months. By that point my credit would probably be in bad shape though.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What to watch if you can't afford Tivo

I love television. It is the most easily accessible way to get from point A (now) to point B (the sweet release of death). I think I have fairly exacting, if idiosyncratic, standards of how I waste my time in front of the Teevee. Here is my night by night guide of what is good on network TV.

Monday (all times are Eastern Standard, which is to say, standard everywhere but Central, where I live) :
7:00: "Jeopardy," ABC, still the best game show on television. Assume that is what you watch at every night, because I like to feel good about myself before wasting my entire night (which is four or five hours long, since I get home at six and go to bed by eleven). Maybe you don't consider watching "Jeopardy" productive, but I always feel like I learned something.
7:30: There are about 20 good sitcoms in syndication to get you from 7:30 to the beginning of network shows, which usually aren't as good as what is in syndication. "Seinfeld" is on Fox, and that is usually what I watch.

8:00: Go eat dinner and turn off the TV. This is the valley of dry bones as far as entertainment goes. Not even any enjoyable empty calories with junk like "Deal or No Deal", "Wife Swap" and "Prison Break" ("24" with more contrivances, but a prettier, unfortunately male, cast. Plus, Wentworth Miller's brother on the show should button one more button on his shirt, he is running around like he is in a club in South Beach).
9:00: "Heroes," NBC. I am extremely faithful to this show, but I am not as sold on the premise as some people. The voice overs at the beginning and end are painfully overwrought, and every episode seems like a stunt. Plus, the tag lines don't make any sense (how did saving the cheerleader save the world? It saved the hottest girl on the show, but the world?). That is nitpicking though, the characters are cool, the big revelations make sense (unlike "Lost") and even the evil characters seem nuanced. The fact that this is a huge hit shows you that there is a big market out there for quality Sci-Fi.
10:00: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," NBC. The only show I regularly watch, but don't like. In fact, I hate "Studio 60." Sure, everyone, especially bloggers, hates "Studio 60". But, with good reason. All of the characters are interchangeable, there is never internal conflict, only external pressure, it isn't funny and it is plotted soooooo slowly. I should watch an episode and write down every wasted, empty scene. The show is all filler, with a "cliffhanger" that no ones cares about and everyone expects. So why do I watch it? Well, it is a nice boost of confidence to see the creator and head writer of one of the best series ever, "The West Wing," reduced to this. We are all human, folks, and Sorkin is just proving that episode after episode.
11:00: "Daily Show"
11:30: "The Colbert Report" - Where I get my news, even if it isn't strictly on the networks.
12:00: ZZZZ. Actually I fall asleep during "Studio 60" most of the time, but I blame Aaron Sorkin.

Same, the only difference is that you will be ignoring the most popular show in recent memory on Tuesdays, while most people will be ignoring Mondays.
9:00: "Veronica Mars" The CW. Like "Arrested Development," this show will probably go out well before vastly inferior shows of a similar type (all 15 varieties of "CSI", including the ones named "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace", for "Veronica" and "Two and a Half Men" for "A.D."). It hasn't been as good as the first season, but neither was "A.D." ("The Office", meanwhile, is best in season 2, though still going very strong in season 3). Kristen Bell is so cute that I find myself talking nonsense to the screen when she is on. "Oooh, Veronica, you're funny... and hot. So hot, right now." I was taken with her from the first time I saw her on "Deadwood" and she just rocks on "Veronica Mars", even if she is getting a little too flip at times (I mean seriously, Veronica, I just asked you if you loved me, don't give me some cutting joke or pop culture reference). The supporting cast is terrific too, though the CW is so poor that most of the cast only appears intermittently. It is distracting when Wallace will disappear for a month only to pop up like nothing happened. It is still a good-to-great show, even with all of that, and if it was on CBS it would probably be one of the most viewed show on TV, but then it would probably also be dumbed down for old people, morons and necrophiliacs, like everything else on CBS.
10:00: Nothing is on at this time. This is a good time to watch a movie or go to bed.

Same old, same old.
8:00: "Beauty and the Geek". The Airheads of network TV. No nutritional value, but oh my is it delicious. The girls are so dumb, the guys are so clueless and the message is so heavy handed. This is the only reality show (non-MTV) that I watch, but it's a doozy. Honestly, I might falsify my resume, grew a patchy beard, profess to be a huge "Babylon 5" fan, and constantly reference the quantum mechanics and physics in an effort to fake my way onto the show. Here is a real quote from one of the guys on the show: "That would be like finding out that Brownian motion was inversely proportional to viscosity- unbelievable." One or two zingers like that and I would be in, baby! I think I would have a 90% shot of getting one of the girls, just by comparison to the gamma males I would be competing against.

9:00: Nothing really to watch, though you could try and sit through "The Knights of Prosperity" and "In Case of Emergency" on ABC, but I wouldn't recommend it. Both are proof that single camera shows can be just as formulaic and boring as the four camera shows. They might make you smile, but won't make you laugh.
10:00: Eventually "Lost," ABC will be back here, but for now, you might as well have gone to bed at 9:00. "Lost" is a case study in the law of diminishing returns as all of its "revelations" have become increasingly less interesting. The formula of focusing on one character's past per episode, while loosely mirroring that back story with the events on the island is my least favorite device on the show. It was one of the best parts of the show- such as Locke's back story involving his dad, which is one of the coldest things I have ever seen- but now it feels like avoiding dealing with the messy plot on the island. Still, it is great looking cast and they always plug in new hotties after they kill off minor characters. Plus, most of us are too invested to quit at this point, so we all eat it up the bullshit with a spoon.
11:00-12:00: "Daily Colbert Report Show", as usual.

Thursday: The best night of TV!
7:00-8:00: Same as usual, but get your dinner/blanket and pillow/remote ready because you don't want to miss much from 8:00-10:00 on NBC (of course there will be an 40 minutes of commercials in those two hours, so you will have time to run to the bathroom).
8:00: "My Name is Earl" is generally enjoyable, but not quite as funny as some people think. It makes me smile and I like the cast, but most of the jokes center around how stupid everyone is- which can be tiring after awhile. I think that Ethan Suplee as Randy is likable, but never funny. It will be surprisingly funny some weeks though, (the Cops episode last week was a scream) and it is a nice aperitif for the best show on TV.
8:30: "The Office"! This show is Barry Bonds on the juice- unbelievably good in its own time. It never has a bad episode, somehow manages to be emotionally demanding and yet extremely funny, and when it's really on, it absolutely blows away everything else on TV. I think "Arrested Development" was the cleverest (most clever?) show I have ever seen, but "The Office" trumps it for sheer laugh out loud funny moments and "A.D." never had the emotional core of the gang at Dunder Miflin. It is amazing to me that its ratings are still relatively mediocre, while "Grey's Anatomy" cleans up. I know that "Grey's" rakes in the females, but if all the girls watched the season finale last spring, I bet that Jim would convert some away from the contrived romances in the hospital. In short, if you don't watch "The Office", then go grab the DVDs and give it a shot. Season One is spotty, but if you finish watching that season and you aren't convinced... then go watch season two!
9:00: "Scrubs" isn't my absolute favorite show anymore, and one could make a pretty good case that it is past its prime. However, it stills brings the funny, and at this point they are in "I'm Keith Hernandez"phase, where they know they probably won't get picked up again and so they can do whatever they want. Case in point: last week's "Scrubs: The Musical," which, in conjunction with "The Wizard of Oz episode" and the homoerotic friendship between Turk and J.D., makes a pretty good case for "Scrubs" as the gayest comedy in prime time. I watched Zach Braff on Carson Daly the other night and while he was diplomatic, it seemed like he was leaning towards leaving the show even if it is picked up. He was also surprisingly awkward, much more like J.D. than his character in "Garden State".
9:30: "30 Rock" is a very solid comedy and as everyone points out, Alec Baldwin is amazing. Maybe I am in the minority, but I have always liked Tina Fey and she does good work here. Tracy Morgan plays just the sort of character he excels at (silly), and because the tone of the show is so wacky, it works. There is a minor reoccurring character on the show, played by Katie Bowden, who is Jessica Alba hot, which also helps.
10:00: All good things come to an end, and Thursday night on NBC bleeds into snooze fest "ER". I can't believe that show is still on the air, with much better ratings than "The Office" to boot.
11:00: "Colbert Daily Report Show", if you managed to make it through the boredom of the preceding hour.

Friday: Don't watch TV on a Friday night! Go out, get a little crazy, or at the very least, go watch a movie in the theaters.
Saturday: The worst night of TV of the week. The networks and cable have given up on this night, so should you. Go get drunk and ask random women if they lost weight (like I apparently did at the office Christmas party. I only found out about my misdeed today, a month later. In my defense, I was dared, and when I'm drunk, I'm like Marty McFly- don't call me chicken).
Sunday:* Supposedly a good night for TV, but I don't like any of these shows. Which is unfortunate, since I am usually nursing a hangover and regretting all the money I spent the past two nights, so I end up watching crap I don't like.

So there is it, what to watch on network TV, but if you have HBO, then you have access to drama that is better than anything on network TV. However, HBO has yet to do a great comedy ("Lucky Louie", "Arli$$"), which is why "The Office" is far and away the best show on network TV. It is the only show that is better than its equivalents on the pay channels, I mean let's face it, "Lost" isn't in the same league as "The Sopranos".''

* I don't watch "24", and though I generally don't say anything bad about in front of the million people a day who tell me how great it is, I think it sucks. Maybe I just can't believe that the growling midget is really the toughest guy on the planet, or maybe I don't like its politics (It is a case study in why torture is appropriate and when Jack Bauer is cutting people eyes out and shooting women to an audience of tens of millions, it is hard to get upset about Guantanamo Bay and water boarding), but my experience with "24" has been uniformly negative. I get bored by the constant "danger" with no real expectation that Jack will die and no investment in any of the other characters. Beyond the fact that "real time" makes the show in less authentic than most crap on TV, the show feels very contrived, even when Jack isn't getting from gun fight to knife fight faster than the speed of light. Even the supremely hot Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door was a four star sex appeal performance) can't make me watch this show.