2008-11-21

Don't read this unless you like thinking, and like some form of art

I find it funny that a TV show has brought me back to the age-old question of culture and purpose: what is art? This is a topic I'm going to tackle here, in this blog, in 3000 words or less, providing a defninitive answer that scholars will still be citing a hundred years from now. Just kidding. My aspirations are a bit more modest; I don't even hope to clarify what I think art is, because I don't even know that. What I do know is that I have some thoughts on the subject, and I'm going to share them with you now, dear reader, in an unclear and confusing manner.

The TV show which I mentioned, Mad Men, is to me in some ways unique in the world of TV shows. Perhaps this is because it was produced by AMC, whose primary genre is film. I find the standard 30-60 minute TV show is great for comedy and action (see: Family Guy, Fastlane, Hu$tle, Dukes of Hazzard) but I have never found it good for drama or suspense. I started watching Desperate Housewives when it was on its second or third episode and really enjoyed it for about five or six weeks, until they started creating even more mysteries than there were already, and I began to have the feeling that the writers were using the soap opera tactic of creating suspense in multiple ways so that hopefully at least one of the mysteries would intrigue you enough to come back and watch the following week. I quit cold turkey when I started realizing that even the screenwriters didn't know where the show was going, and would most likely leave the viewers hanging at the end of the season. This realization happened to coincide with the return from hiatus of Family Guy, so I told my girlfriend at the time that I'd be across the street at my own apartment watching animated figures by myself instead of Desperate Housewives with her, the reason being that with Family Guy, a thirty-minute session leaves me satisfied and happy, and not confused and wanting something more. [That's what she said.]

That half-season of Desperate Housewives was the first and last time in years that I tried watching a TV show which continued from week to week. I don't like having to remember stuff, and even if I did, it's not a good reason to watch the next episode. But Mad Men is different. Or was different, I should say. The entire first season is relatively devoid of action, drama, suspense, mystery, and other gimmicky weaknesses that in my opinion are overused in our main broadcast medium. One gimmick that is used in Mad Men is historical context from 1960-61. The episodes are interspersed with radio and television broadcasts of then-current events, such as the Nixon-Kennedy election battle and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I find some of this context wholly unnecessary when it isn't directly part of the plot, but it doesn't bother me. Like in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, you can learn a lot about history through fiction, but unlike Brown's book, it isn't the only redeeming facet of the work.

Mad Men is about nuance. My favorite parts are the high-context conversations, in which few words are packed in implication and insinuation. And the main character, Don Draper, is perfect as the tersest of virtuoso advertising men, never saying a word too many, and never deviating a millimeter from what he means. In a lot of ways he's someone to aspire to, but in other ways not. He does get a lot of women.

But all that aside, I'm still trying to figure out why I like the show so much. I think it is because of the focus on detail. The writers know that what happens doesn't matter as much as how they tell the story, and how the characters react. It's too bad the end of the second season (the most recent) got a bit bogged down in drama. It worked, but it didn't reach the bar set by the show's earlier episodes. I even started drinking whiskey towards the end of the first season; it plays a relatively prominent role in the show.

So, do I like Mad Men because it is more like a film than a TV show, or is there something there in the TV medium that I'm missing. I kind of have this subconscious-turned-conscious ordering of the pureness of art forms. On one end, there's the pure written word, prose, and next to it, poetry, with it's sometimes gimmicky visual arrangement of words on the page, and rhyme. Music can also be pure, but when we put words to it, it's contaminated and lies somewhere near rhyming poetry. The purest of the visual arts are painting, film, and photography, depending on subject. More contrived and conformist (Oh, the pleasures!) subjects and methods deviate from purity. Combining music, prose, and lyrics, we get theater, and the typically more-pure opera, though neither are as pure as ballet, which is not limited by words, spoken or sung.

You see, it easily becomes confusing which are more art and which are stuffed into a conventional format usually for the purpose of easy delivery to audiences. My main criterion for artness is freedom of expression. Prose is limited only by its own medium, words, and music only by sounds. I find opera forces too many high notes and astounding acrobatics of voice to deliver something wholly beautiful, though there are good instances. I prefer a symphony or ballet, where focus is either on music or dancing, and stories and words are secondary contexts. Or, maybe I simply have a preference against the human voice.

Film, with the possible exception of time, is limited only by technology and the people who operate it. Theoretically, anything can be on the silver screen. Salvador Dali and his friends produced wonderful examples of how non-conformist you can be with a camera, as I saw in a film studies class. But TV... TV is packaged in weekly installments, 30-60 minutes, with breaks for commercials. These are tough enough constraints to work with, without the constant need to keep ratings up and keep the advertisers happy. I don't think AMC has to worry about this as much as the typical network, but the basic format is the same. That being said, they've produced, looking at it from many different perspectives, the best TV show I've seen in a long time.

But as I already mentioned, the second season fell off near the end, and I'm losing hope that the writers can save it (in my eyes only) next season. Plus, I can't help but wonder if they have know what's going to happen before all is said and done, or if they take the story one or two steps at a time and wait for audience reaction. At some point it will become obvious if the carrot is on a string.

2008-11-13

I'm feeling like a charity case

Sometimes I like to take a break from receiving and do a little giving, before the "holiday season", nonetheless! Maybe I'm feeling motivated by the lack of respect for other human beings I witness on a daily basis, coupled with the devotion by certain people of time, resources, and effort to help out those in need and do the world at large a favor.

At the current moment (but probably not for much longer) I see no better way to help out my fellow man than by donating money to prostate cancer research (no, I'm not donating directly to prostate cancer) on the request of a very good friend of mine who is growing a mustache for the occasion. The occasion, need it be named, is in fact Movember. That it has nothing to do with cows, or finding a new apartment, is a mystery to me. Does it have anything to do with Febtober?

At this point, I must ask myself if I would have donated to this cause had this friend of mine not chosen to grow a 'stache. The answer is a resounding NO but that doesn't change the fact that he is growing a mustache, and I have already donated a bit of dough. If you would consider doing this also, please click here.

Movember - Sponsor Me

2008-11-05

A great day to be a conformist!

Ahh... the pleasures of conformity! I believe I'll humor myself with a little post-election blog entry. Certainly millions around the world already have done so themselves, and who would I be not to join them? Certainly not a conformist! And we can't have that! No, sir. I'll begin slowly, though, because I want to make absolutely certain that I am heading in the same direction as the majority, or at least a plurality. Maybe I shouldn't make too much out of it, because there are obviously large groups on both, or all, sides of the the election, if you want to count Nader, but he's a non-conformist, so I won't. Here goes...

Change. It's such a great thing to see the president-elect breaking down the racial barriers...

No, wait, let me start that again:

It's a sad day in this world when dynamic speaking and rhetoric conquer the proven hand of experience...

Uhhh... I'm just not sure about that. Perhaps I can be a super-conformist and rope them all in at once:

This country needs change, whether it comes in the form of breaking down barriers to thwart experience, or in having the hand of experience slap the face of a champion rhetorical speaker. We need someone to lead us to this change, no matter how good or bad it is, and how different from the status quo. This leader should appeal to the general public, meaning either the young, educated urban dwellers or the "real" american plumbers, farmers, and factory workers, but not both. So it's a joy to have elected a new president to do just that, but likewise a shame to have him woo his public and the world even without having the experience of most traditional president-elects. The one he left by the wayside fought like a champion, went down swinging, and I rue that he could not exercise his vengeful fiscal policy against the necks of his sweeter-talking comrades-in-arms. But he would have messed up foreign policy, relatively, anyway. I am so happy and so sad, crying tears of joy with tears of pain, which happen to taste the same. To those victorious: wave your banners. To those defeated: learn to make the winners rue the day, and boo every time you hear His Name. This country is a seesaw, and I'm standing in the middle.


[Authors note: Today I'm reminded of a familiar feeling, one that I haven't felt so strong for seven years. My first experience with it was at the end of September, 2001. I had just seen my one-millionth American flag in the past few weeks, and was offered red-white-and-blue laces to go into my racing spikes for a cross country meet, in New York, on the following day. I graciously accepted the laces, but never put them in my shoes. These were laces that showed me the very last bit of how ordinary intelligent citizens could get carried away with patriotism when given a compelling reason. Pathos, I believe it's called. Even in the most trying times, people need to keep their wits about them, and not immediately give a gun to a widow-by-murder.

I had this feeling again today when I saw pictures of the throngs of people gathered at Grant Park yesterday to see Obama, and again when I read about McCain's speech (very, very respectable, what I read) and how he had mentioned his opponent several times, and how several times he was forced to say "please, please" to stop the booing.[link to article]

An election is not a sport, yet people treat it as such. To these McCain supporters, Obama is some Sherriff of Nottingham in a high school production of Robin Hood. Maybe they don't understand that soon he will also represent them, even though they voted against him, for the next four years. It would be best to work with him instead of against him; he can help us all, as he'll be the president. And the Obama supporters would parade through the streets claiming to have been on board since "the beginning" and proclaim that the Messiah has landed himself in the Oval Office. Cliché alert: you've only just begun. Nothing has changed yet, except the face.

I'll do my celebrating when I see less consumption, less waste, more care for the community in general, more public transportation, fewer people dying for whatever reason, more food in our proverbial mouths, and fewer people being assholes for no reason at all. Oh, and when everyone learns to stop being scared of anything that anyone else calls "Socialism". Do you even know what that really means?


I doubt that this little bit of Author's Note here is either pleasurable or conformist, so I'll leave it out of the blog proper. You can keep my little secret, right?]