Thoughts On Better Call Saul and Big Ideas in Entertainment

I found myself rewatching Breaking Bad this morning, starting at the beginning.  It’s amazing how entertaining this show is given that this will be the third time I’ve seen this season.  Also, as almost everyone knows, for a show this entertaining it sure was able to deal in some really heavy themes.  I think that is what makes it so great, that it works on different levels, from base entertainment to American tragedy.

I finished Better Call Saul the other day.  Seeing the whole season now has made me want to watch Season 2.  There were several times in the first season that I wasn’t so sure about the show.  The acting has always been excellent.  I’m used to modern TV shows taking a little time to develop and find their voice.  After the amazing ride of Breaking Bad I determined that I was going to give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt, even when the show was slow.  Several seasons of Mad Men have taken a little time to develop, only to pick up steam in the second half and be unbelievable.  Modern TV, when its at its best, can have almost the detail of great literature.  Mad Men definitely falls into that realm.  I think what Better Call Saul ended up doing throughout the season was great, but it really took me the full season to become invested on an emotional level, where Breaking Bad had an opening episode that hooked you from the start.

I think that any kind of art form has to work on an emotional level first.  If it can expand your mind, deliver big ideas, on top of that, all the better.  I want to get something more than just being entertained out of something if possible.  However, I think if a writer, musician, painter, can pull you in on some way that is emotional, especially if they have a big idea, it is going to have a far greater chance at affecting how people think.  George Orwell is brilliant not only for his ideas, but for his clarity and readability too.  Even if he is talking about something highly intellectual, I am always struck at how the way he writes pulls you along with him.  It’s almost as if you are arriving at the conclusion with him.

That doesn’t mean that every moment of a book or TV show or whatever has to be easy.  I like to be challenged.  I like to hear that weird soundscape in the middle of an album of pop songs, for a show like Mad Men to take its time developing characters so the emotional payoff is bigger by the end, to see a play that has an act that sets the stage for later. Only fools need everything spoonfed to them.

I just got done reading Voltaire’s Candide.  It was written in the 1700’s.  There is a reason, beyond the big ideas contained within, that it has lasted several hundred years.  It is highly entertaining as well as being highly intelligent.

One thing I realized is that one will never ever read every book that is ever written.  One will never hear every piece of music ever created.  One will never see every show that or movie that has ever been made.  Therefore you must choose what you expose yourself.  It’s fine to watch or listen to things that are escapist at times.  The brain needs downtime if it is going to function on a higher level at other times.  But one should seek things out that help to understand the world around you.  If you are looking to understand something in a very specific technical way, then that is a different matter.  However, if you are looking for some kind of broader understanding of the world, there is no reason that one can’t enjoy oneself while doing so.  If you are interested in something, or some idea, or just looking for new ideas, the chances are there is someone that has communicated what you are looking for in a way that is enjoyable too.  A great journalist, dramatist, or songwriter, can do more than one thing at a time.

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House of Cards: First Half of Season 3 Review

I am about halfway though Season 3 of House of Cards.  The season has gotten better as it has progressed, but I can’t help but feel that it is somewhat of a letdown.  The acting, cinematography, and subject matter give it the potential to be great.  It is still good entertainment, but nothing more.  I find myself wrapped up in it while I’m watching it, but as soon as its over I find myself not thinking about it very much.  There are scenes here and there that provide interesting ideas about the Presidency, but because there doesn’t feel like there are greater unifying themes at work, they fail to hit you on a memorable emotional level.  Truly great storytelling hits you on an intellectual and emotional level.  It communicates ideas and makes you feel deeply about them.  Although the performances are good enough that make you feel like you are seeing more while you are actually watching, this series has been too much of a melodrama.  If there is any big idea this season, and I don’t feel like it has been expressed coherently or fully so far, it is that the presidency, despite being the seat of power, is constricted because of the political realities of the day, from campaigning to micromanaging different interests.  There are also moments, even though there are also moments that make you feel like you are seeing something as it really is, that are highly unbelievable.  I’m not saying don’t watch, only that the show is capable of better.  I’m not real hopeful of the rest of this season, but I hope Season 4 will pull it together.

Spoiler alert!

An afterthought:  Did anyone else think that when Kevin Spacey’s character threw Kate Mara’s character in front of a train in Season 2, that it was really unbelievable.  There is no way a famous, powerful, and savvy public figure would ever do that or get away with it.  Power, in the modern world, is so hard to defeat, specifically because it is so good at insulating itself from its worst crimes.  We could only hope that one of our modern leaders, the obscenely corrupt men and women in our political and corporate criminal class, would do something that blatantly evil.  Usually the corrupt hide behind self made laws that give their crimes a legal and therefore “decent” facade.

Birdman, Confusing Appreciation With Love, and The Virtue of Ignorance,

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Yesterday the weather in Austin was like the movie Bladerunner.  After being sequestered in my house all day, I started getting stir crazy.  I finally decided I had to get out for awhile and I went to see the movie Birdman.  The movie stars Michael Keaton and it is as fantastic as all of the reviews say it is.  It is one of those rare movies that is full of ideas, completely original, and is extremely accessible.  The human drama of it and the pacing are enough to keep one involved in every moment of the movie, even if one didn’t get off on all of the multiple levels of ideas and meaning in every scene.  It is extremely funny, sometimes sad, and often poignant.  The movie itself is largely about the human ego.  It follows Keaton as a washed up actor trying to make a comeback, as actors, and artists in general, are a great subject to be able to examine the ego with.

One of the key lines in the film is about how Keaton is confusing admiration for love, which is something that so many people get confused on.  People often confuse being appreciated for something they do, whether that is art they make, being good at their job, being a great athlete, whatever, with being loved for who they are as a person.  Being appreciated for something you do is a superficial kind of love where people are only approving of one aspect of your life, that has nothing to do in the overall picture of who you are as a person.  Whereas, if someone loves you they accept you for who you are, warts and all.  As soon as you stop being good at what you are doing, appreciation can fade, whereas love should continue.  I think that is why so many people in the entertainment industry, or in the public eye in general, have egos that have run amuck.  It is also why so many are needy emotionally.  Being appreciated is a thing that has to be constant to fulfill.  If you have even just a couple people that really love you, you know that it is fulfilling in a way that all of the appreciation in the world can never equal.

The subtile of the movie is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.  I had a really strange experience on the way into the movies.  This movie was in South Austin, the height of hipsterdom.  While I was walking out of the parking garage there was a couple that looked like they were in 70’s costumes.  Every article of clothing they wore was straight out of that decade, even if they were in times with current fashion.  Then next to me sat a rocker looking couple where the guy had long blonde hair and a bandana, like Bret Michaels, but more hip.  It was like I was at a costume party at the movies, but these weren’t costumes, just people dressing to some kind of strange fashion ideal.  But fashion is a construct created by society and has nothing to do with if someone is a good person or not.  All of a sudden the movie title and subtitle came up and it all made sense.  Although you can still play with fashion if you are aware it is all a game, how much easier is it to take yourself seriously in one of those get ups if you are ignorant of the construct?

Also, isn’t it morally easier for someone to sellout, if they never had integrity in the first place.  Although there are some people that definitely “sellout”, I would imagine that many people in the public eye are ignorant of the ethical quandaries that, say, endorsing some product bring up.  If you buy into the larger economic system, or are even completely unaware of what is going on, isn’t it so much easier to go along with the program?  In modern society ignorance is a virtue to some degree.

Anyway, those were just two of the ideas that the movie gave me.  It really has so much going on, on so many levels, in not only the ideas that it contains, but also in the way that it is constructed as a movie.  It is a fantastic viewing experience that I think most people would like, even if they aren’t consciously aware of all the ideas the movie is bringing up.  It is entertainment in the best sense, in that it completely sweeps you into its world, holds your attention, yet it also somehow does the trick of making you think at the same time.  And I should mention again that it is often funny as hell!

Ideas of Value and Worshipping at Decaying Alters

I once read part of Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World.  Although I don’t agree with Ferguson on most current political issues and he can often be pompous and arrogant, there were parts of this book that were really interesting and one part in particular that stuck with me.  This was the idea that technology cannot only spread progress and enlightenment, but can also spread bad ideas just as quickly.  In the book he talks about the implementation of rail.  Rail allowed certain regions to progress economically and culturally.  Goods and technology that had not reached parts of the world were now more easily available and allowed civilization to advance.  Different people that had never been in much contact were able to come together, become more familiar with each other, and share worthwhile ideas.  However, things like racism and anti-semitism, that might not have been prevalent in certain areas, were able to spread as well.

We can see in modern times how the internet allows both good and bad ideas to spread more easily.  Not only can the internet be a place where democratic ideas can be shared, but fundamentalists and fascist corporatists are able to spread their message through the internet as well.

Earlier tonight as I drove home from a gig I was listening to Chuck D’s album The Black in Man.  On one of the songs Chuck D raps that,”There’s a difference between censorship and senseless shit.”  I’m against censorship of any kind, the banning of ideas.  However, this does not mean that ideas have equal value and should be regarded as such.  There is not enough critical thinking and bullshit detecting going on in our society.   Whether it is the right’s fear of intellectualism, because facts are often not in their favor, or the left’s fear of things being deemed intolerant, too many of the conversations we have end up being about how people respond to something and not the actual value an idea itself.

Making scientific decisions is better when science is the metric for a decision and not economics.  A culture that treats women equally is flat out better than a culture that tries to keep them subservient.  These, and others, are simple conclusions that can be reached easily when reason and critical thinking are involved.  Now more than ever, in this information age, we need people that can critique our culture in a meaningful way and that aren’t afraid to stand up and be counted.  At the same time we need these same kind of people to be unafraid to change their opinions when facts add up to something different than what we previously thought.   Utilitarianism, what benefits the most amount of people, should be a force in that debate, even if that idea in and of itself isn’t enough.  (No matter how many benefit from something, it should not be at the expense of suffering of the minority.  There needs to be clear ethical lines as safeguards to that utilitarianism.)  What gives the people the best chance to be free of fear, want, and oppression?  How do we as a society prosper and live lives of meaning without creating suffering in others?  What brings long term meaning to life?  What kinds of short term satiation of our desires makes life less meaningful in the long run?

We have all of the information of the world at our fingertips, but kids are taught less and less how to actually parse that information and decide what has value.  People on the right and the left sense their is something sick in our culture, even if they can’t agree on what it is.

In my opinion, although there is still a lot of ill in our culture due to petty tribal and religious differences, our main problem is that we have allowed money to become the thing we worship above all else.  Whatever sells wins, even if in the long run it will lead to our destruction.

As I read the news today I couldn’t help but notice all of the false gods that we worship on a daily basis.  We too often worship the god of the tribe, while allowing money and power to have their way while we are distracted at decaying alters.

I already know, before even reading over what I wrote, that it is somewhat rambling, that it possibly touches on too many different ideas.  But I can’t help but feel these are the kinds of things we should be thinking about, that these are the kinds of questions that we should be asking.

Death, Mortality, Abraham Lincoln, and His Secretary of War

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If you want to know why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is such a thing of beauty, look no further.  The following two pages (at least on my Kindle) shows you how jam packed this book is with ideas and humanity.  Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were polar opposites in personality, but were a perfect team when working together.  The one thing they both personally shared was a deep understanding of mortality due to the fact that both of them suffered the tremendous loss of loved ones.  As well as losing family members, Lincoln’s first love died when he was young.  Stanton lost his first wife at an early age.  Excerpt:

That Lincoln was also preoccupied with death is clear from the themes of many of his favorite poems that addressed the ephemeral nature of life and reflected on his own painful acquaintance with death.  He particularly cherished “Mortality,” by William Knox, and transcribed a copy for the Stantons.

Oh!  Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

He could recite from memory “The Last Leaf,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and once claimed to the painter Francis Carpenter that “for pure pathos” there was “nothing finer…in the English language” than the six-line stanza:

The mossy marble rest
On lips that he has prest
  In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Yet, beyond sharing a romantic and philosophical preoccupation with death, the commander in chief and the secretary of war shared the harrowing knowledge that their choices resulted in sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their graves.  Stanton’s Quaker background made the strain particularly unbearable.  As a young man, he had written a passionate essay decrying society’s exaltation of war.  “Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?  But if generals are useful so are butchers, and who will say that because a butcher is useful he should be honored?”  

Three decades after writing this, Stanton found himself responsible for an army of more than 2 million men.  “There could be no greater madness,” he reasoned, “than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.”  Lincoln, too, found the horrific scope of the burden hard to fathom.  “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”  

The Zero Theorem Review

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Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is one of his masterpieces.  The Zero Theorem, staring Christoph Waltz, is a subversive science fiction movie that uses the future to show us our present.  It is full of ideas, great performances, and is a visual wonder.

The movie follows Q, someone that works a mundane office job, as he tries to solve the zero theorem, which is a mathematical equation that will prove that life is meaningless.  Q is a damaged individual that takes no joy out of life.  He is an introvert that tries as much as possible to avoid human communication.  He wants to work from home, so that he has even less contact with others.  He unwillingly goes to a party at his supervisor’s house.  There he meets the boss of his company who grants his wish to work from home as long as he will work on the theorem.  At the party he also meets a young and beautiful woman that shows interest in him.

Q spends his days waiting for a phone call that he believes will give him the meaning of his life.  Much of the film deals in symbolism like this.  The phone call represents anything outside of ourselves that we believe will give us the answer to life’s mystery.  The dialog in the film, like the film itself, jumps back and forth between the absurdly comic and of a more philosophical nature.  However, just because the film deals heavily in symbolism, does not mean that the main characters are not three dimensional or that the world is not fully realized.

Visually the film is an absolute masterpiece, both for the cinematography, the realization of the world that the characters in habited, and the sheer amount of ideas that are on the screen.  In Q’s house there is a crucifixion where Jesus’s head is replaced by a camera that watches Q’s every move.  In his office he is working on what looks like an absurd video game with a video game controller replacing the typical office keyboard.  I have worked several office jobs in the last ten years and working on a meaningless video game is not too far from the truth of what a great deal of office work is like.

The colors explode on screen.  Every scene looks like it was carefully orchestrated.  Every nook and cranny of the film looks like it had thought put into it.

The film is like our world, but on steroids.  If the capitalism that runs our country is allowed to continue one can imagine that this is what our world will turn into.  Commercials follow Q down the street as he commutes to work.  The party scene, with its garish colors and cartoonish behavior, looks like a modern nightclub taken to its logical conclusion.  The characters work ridiculous jobs that bring no meaning to their lives.  Terry Gilliam is showing us the absurdity of our world.  He is just pushing things a little further so that the everyday becomes new again.

Even though this film is very subversive, it is not without heart.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the film is not without some small sliver of hope.  Gilliam knows what is important despite how much we get wrong.

If you are a fan of Gilliam’s work than I highly recommend this film.  if you don’t know any of his work, but are willing to try something that will make you think, then give this film a try.  Some critics have described this film as Gilliam-lite, but I don’t agree.  This is a unique filmmaker operating at the height of his powers.  This is like a modern update of his masterpiece Brazil.   While Brazil dealt with a dreamer in the middle of a  bureaucracy, this movie imagines a future where corporations run everything.

On a personal note I watched this movie the night of the election.  Feeling somewhat depressed I decided to watch something else other then the returns.  It was one of those instances where art makes one feel less alone.  I thought, “Thank god someone understands what is going on.”  Gilliam is a tremendous filmmaker and we are lucky to have him amongst us.  He is one of those rare souls that uses his imagination to paint the world as it truly is.

The Joy of Truth

The truth, or at least what I perceive as the truth, makes me happy, even if it is something that wouldn’t typically bring one joy.  I am talking about ideas and art, and not some kind of realization of some painful physical truth.  I am not insane, or not completely!   Meanwhile, things that seem false, unless they are an exaggeration to get at the truth, or an absurdity for comic effect, fill me with displeasure.  Euphamisms, sentimentality, and platitudes are things I have no time for.  Sure, there are always exceptions to every rule, but in general this is how I feel. 

So I could watch something like Apocalypse Now, which for all of its artistic liberties, feels like it is trying to say something truthful about the Vietnam War, and feel completely alive afterwards and full of inspiration.  Meanwhile I could watch a feel good movie, albeit one that is meant to manipulate you into crying, like Mr. Holland’s Opus, and die a thousand small deaths. 

That doesn’t mean if something is happy and full of joy it can’t also be true.  David Lynch’s The Straight Story is one movie I absolutely love that is filled with love and compassion. 

Although a great deal about the modern world troubles me, and I feel that humankind has the odds stacked against us, I am full of hope that the world can be better.  I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think so.  If I was a pessimist I would simply write nothing at all.