The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for January 2010

A study in contrasts

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An American writer recently died. You know him. Maybe you read his book in high school. He was the “voice of a generation” and all that. His prose captured the rebellious nature of the American spirit.

I’m speaking of course of Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States.

And then, not soon after, that guy who wrote The Catcher in the Rye also kicked the bucket. What was his name again? It’s not that important; he might as well have died fortysomething years ago when he became a recluse. No need to get into a frenzy with the obits.

The point is this: why are the media going on about J.D. Salinger but ignoring Zinn? Of course Salinger is important, and Zinn has had plenty of write-ups, but as far as coverage goes — I’m going by aldaily and Google News — this is just lopsided.

On the surface, you can’t really compare them. One was a novelist and the other an activist/historian. They gave us different perspectives on the world through different genres of communication. But Zinn did have an influential role in the US; he was a part of our contemporary history as much as a revisionist of the history that preceded it.  Yeah, he was a pinko, but one would think that, at a minimum, the media could assess his place in academia and measure the debates concerning his relevance — instead of briefly noting his passing and hurrying on to ponder the vast mystery of what Salinger was writing all that time.

(Come on people: drop the fantasies. Salinger wasn’t writing anything of interest. If he was, it’ll take about 339 years to clear the legal hurdles to get it published, and then we’ll discover it was all dreck. At least Howard Zinn was still writing stuff up until his death.)

I do hope I have the wrong impression. Let’s see how the stories of these remembrances develop.

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Written by cwmote

January 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm

A (very overdue) farewell

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I remember browsing the books in the Gotham Book Mart and feeling like I was standing among giants. My first visit came about four years ago, when I was a heady aspiring novelist looking forward to the doors of opportunity that graduate school would open up. The Gotham was at its newer but less cramped location on East 46th Street then, maybe not the same space that Auden et al once frequented, but it didn’t matter. The space wasn’t the bookstore; the books were. First editions, rare editions, autographed volumes, all in formidable, tattered brown covers, as well as famed lithographs, and newer lit mags sitting next to vintage PRs (Paris or Partisan, take your pick) — imagining a place with so much literary history (usually) open to the public seemed impossible. This was the company I wanted to join.

When I was in New York last year, I went looking for the Gotham Book Mart again, but it didn’t turn up. I imagined I had forgotten the address. I had no idea that the bookstore had folded up back in 2007.

It was a visit to the Penn Library that broke the news for me. I’ve been a regular visitor to this library, but only last week did I come across the plaque in the lobby that commemorates the library’s acquisition of the Gotham Book Mart’s 200,000+ volumes. How I missed the news of its demise, I have no idea. Needless to say, it’s a shame it came to an end. But I’m glad I experienced it before the end came.

On first thought, it is strange and kind of pleasing to know that a Philadelphia university holds the remains of a Manhattan institution. On second thought, as a mere guest to the Penn Library, I won’t be able to browse the collection like I did before. Further, maybe this isn’t an act of one-up-manship as much as an act of intellectual kowtowing. So, way to go, Penn. You’ve solidified our city’s Sixth Borough status. (And where do you get these crazy “anonymous donors” of yours? Inquiring minds at Temple wish to know.)

Still, all those books had to end up somewhere. I’m sure Penn has made the best of this donation.

More details on the collection here.

Written by cwmote

January 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Late Night Disgrace

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I am late in getting to this, but the Conan/Leno/NBC drama has been playing out for two weeks and finally reached its ugly conclusion. Conan O’Brien will step down as host of The Tonight Show not even seven months after taking over. His final show airs tonight.

It was clear from the get-go that NBC did not have very much confidence in Conan. Even so, the path this feud has taken has been stunning. It’s almost like being in a relationship with someone who can’t stop talking about his or her ex. Happens often enough. But then, imagine you and your partner decide to get serious and move in together, and your partner agrees, but only if you find a house right next door where the ex is living. A few months pass, and suddenly s/he announces that things aren’t working out, so s/he’s going to invite the ex to move in with both of you. What’s a guy supposed to do?

OK, dude, your hair is awesome. We get it.

So I really can’t blame Conan a lick for refusing to lie down and get pummeled by his own network. It’s probably fair to say that this will go down as the most bone-headed move in modern television history, and probably one of the most shameful programming episodes of all time. The network feared low ratings, it enacted damage control anticipating those low ratings and sure enough, the low ratings came.

In Everything Bad is Good for You — a book that approximately sixty percent of Temple University’s 26,000 current undergrad students have had to lug through, and end up loving or loathing it — Steven Johnson cites the idea of “Least Objectionable Programming,” devised by Paul Klein, the head of (wait for it) NBC in the 60s, to show how the goal for networks was to not lose viewers rather than to gain them. They feared that audiences would tune out programs that were too offensive or complex. Today, it’s supposedly different: audiences crave complexity because shows are now made for repeat viewing–through VCRs, DVRs, TiVOs and the internet.

Johnson’s general argument is that pop culture, TV included, has become more complex and intellectually engaging over the past 30 years. However, it’s obvious that this model doesn’t apply across the board. The late night talk show genre, for one thing, is very topical and tends to date easily, so repeatability doesn’t help as it does with scripted prime time dramas. Besides that, it’s designed to appeal to a more general audience than dramas, sitcoms, reality shows or most cable fare. The talk show host still has some incentive to keep people of wide interests tuned in. As Alessandra Stanley writes, in the age of fractured media, “Classic late-night shows now distinguish themselves most by not being too distinctive. However clownish, the late-night host is cool and self-contained, sending up the water-cooler follies of the day at a benevolent remove.”

One of these guys has higher approval ratings than the other. I think.

Until now, of course. Things aren’t just bad for NBC; they’re historically bad. By putting Leno in the 10pm slot five nights a week, NBC was hoping that viewers would appreciate a move to “simpler times” and the middle-of-the-road shtick that came with it. They were playing not to lose. By keeping Leno around, the network never let O’Brien find his own footing. And the current round of insults is all due to one network very publicly making a mess of itself and all but admitting that the damn Hindenberg is gonna crash sooner or later.

I grew up with Conan, looked up to him as a sharp mind of a generation, who sought to keep late night comedy fresh and riveting even as comedy expanded into newer mediums. I watched O’Brien’s inaugural week at the Tonight Show back in June and caught the occasional show after that. The jokes had their bite now and then, but it wasn’t the same. O’Brien knew his audience was different than Leno’s, and he really wanted to reach out more to the mainstream, and maybe he lost some of his comic identity in the process. (Female cannonballs? Puppies dressed as cats?! Sexy and cute, respectively, but they belonged more to institution of The Tonight Show than to Conan.)

So, in this, his final week, it’s almost thrilling to see Conan bashing the network with a fungo bat, playful but blistering in his comedic shellacking of his soon-to-be-erstwhile employer, and rolling out all the classic characters that mfNBC won’t let him take with him. The elephant in the room has become the center of the show. O’Brien, as Rolling Stone once put it about another NBC firee, is at the altar of the High Church of Not Giving a F*ck. And all of us young folks old enough to remember his Late Night heydays are reveling one more time. We may have moved on to the cable territory of Messrs. Stewart and Colbert, but Conan was here first, and we shall pay heed.

It’s Friday. You know you’ll watch tonight.

Written by cwmote

January 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm

No, I never win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest either

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“It was the scurvy that really had me worried.”

“You say you’re into DIY. I’m a little DIY myself.”

“I swear that 7-11 camera gave me fifteen pounds!”

“Are you sure we didn’t take the drug by mistake?”

“I think the head’s in the wrong place.”

Oh wait, I slipped up… One of those captions wasn’t mine; it actually won the contest. See if you can figure out which one. (Answer here.)

Of course, as we have learned, if the funniest entry won every week, it wouldn’t be the New Yorker, would it?

Written by cwmote

January 21, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Literary

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Teddy Pendergrass 1950-2010

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Walk of Fame plaque, South Broad Street

The Sound of Philadelphia that flourished in the 1970s was projected through many voices, but none more distinct than that of Teddy Pendergrass. The man epitomized soul. The power of his raw baritone voice lay in the very sense of vulnerability that it conveyed — a quality that took on shocking real-life dimensions when an automobile accident paralyzed him in 1982. He lost his onstage flair after that, but he never lost his honesty in his singing.

Read Dan DeLuca’s appreciation in the Inquirer.

As a token of remembrance, this clip seems appropriate:

The Sound of Philly lives on.

Written by cwmote

January 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm

My Trip to See The Colbert Report

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Tuesday, January 5. New York is freezing with an ungodly chill that is only worsened by the wind tunnel effect created by its tall buildings. But I have no worry, as I am out to prove that I am a worthy member of Colbert Nation. Fresh off a double-decker Megabus (aptly named, indeed), today I will wait in line outside an unassuming warehouse-type joint on West 53rd Street to attend a taping of The Colbert Report.

Everyone was in a pile fighting over the last Colbert Wriststrong bracelet...

Funny how this came to be. I’m no fanatic, nor was I ever one to salute the emperor on the way to a glorious death. And I certainly don’t get my news exclusively from Comedy Central. The Stephen Colbert fanbase is real, but the cult of personality that surrounds the opinionator character is only a joke–we assure ourselves. Before the day is over, I am wondering if the people I encounter will turn out to be a real cadre of devoted, charismatic die-hards, or just a bunch of wry college kids who play them on TV.

I already have my ticket, and I didn’t need to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire it. No: As with all great comedy, timing is everything. I’d heard that tickets for shows at the Colbert Report website usually open up around 10:30am (New York time) on weekdays. That’s exactly what happened: I checked the site the Monday before Christmas and tickets were available for two dates. Five minutes later, they were gone. But not before I got mine.

Admission isn’t guaranteed, though. The shows are always overbooked to ensure they have a full studio audience. They recommend that you get to the studio by 5:15 for the best chance of getting in.

colbert_awningI wish to get there bright and early, but I’m not in the mood for camping out. So, after killing time and staying warm in a few locales–a cafe on 9th Avenue, and the Public Library at the Lincoln Center–I decide to show up at 4. There is a long, wraparound line set off from the street and covered with a plastic tent. About thirty people are already there. It is mercifully less chilly inside the tent. I don’t know what the studio’s seating capacity is, but since the tent isn’t even halfway full yet, I figure I’m in good shape. Whether I’ll have a good view of Colbert himself is another matter.

By 5, I’ve had my ID checked by a staffer and I’m holding an official blue placecard: number 45. This makes it official. At 5:15, the chief of security gives the line a briefing on the airport-like screening everyone must go through. Only people with bags (ahem, myself included) will have any trouble getting through the gate. But I have no weapons, just a small camera, which the security guy doesn’t confiscate. 5:45, I’m in.

The waiting room looks like an old bus terminal. There’s a row of 20 chairs where the first people in are sitting–they have red cards, which I guess makes them better than us blue card-holders. The room keeps filling up and I get pushed closer and closer to the double doors that lead to the studio. For entertainment, there’s a TV with a tape (dare I say VHS?) playing clips from the show from about three years ago. The room ends up holding almost a hundred people; the staffers tell us that the studio set has been redesigned and the show is now airing in hi-definition. They also constantly remind us how we the audience are the life of the show and need to go crazy applauding and cheering, so we show them what we got. To me it seems strange that a fanbase would need such a prompt. I guess that’s the Philadelphian in me talking.

Around 6:15, the studio doors open. It doesn’t matter where you are in the throng; the order of seating is based on your card. A staffer calls for the white card holders first–which surprises even the red card holders. (“WTF?! I thought we were the most important people in the room!!!”) The rest of us can only sigh. Eventually they get to Number 45. Walking into the studio at last is a thrill. It’s bigger than I expected. My assigned seat is only three rows up. I can see the whole stage perfectly. But there’s more waiting, with music playing to pass the time; clearly Colbert and Company are big on alternative rock.

At 6:45, a stand-up comedian comes out and warms us up for the show. He draws his energy from picking out people in the audience and cracking jokes at their expense, but it works. The delay in starting the show is longer than expected, but he valiantly keeps the act going until…

7:30, at last, Stephen comes running into the studio. The moment is surreal. The celebrity effect; really, he’s larger than life. This is the best part of the night, in which the real Stephen, out of character, fields questions from the audience. Some are mundane: does he ever gamble, how often does he go home to visit South Carolina. (Answers: No and Very often.) Then someone asks, “What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?” which gets him thinking, and he ventures into an anecdote about driving on an icy road in Long Island on an assignment for The Daily Show during the “Blizzard of the Century.” A college student (surprise) asks him if he knows of the campaign to rename one of the dorms at her school after him. Stephen is intrigued at this, but then she says that he either has to be filthy rich or dead for it to happen. To which he deadpans, “Uh, yeah, sorry, no luck.” From question to question, he doesn’t miss a step. His roots are in improvisation, and improv is still his strongest comedic asset. Even out of character, he isn’t much different from his TV persona in personality, only in politics. When the Q&A is done, he takes his seat behind the C-shaped desk and the crew preps for the show. That’s when he starts shooting the elastic Wriststrong bands into the audience, an event no one is prepared for. But once we’re all fired up, the bands go flying. One goes over my head and another lands in the row right before me.

7:45, taping begins. Some people wonder if the entire show is done in one take. More often than not, it is. Only serious flubs warrant do-overs. There were two retakes during the taping, but they were brief and didn’t disrupt the flow or temper the audience’s enthusiasm. The taping wraps up around 8:15 and the show is done.

Leaving the show

In all, it was a good time. Not his best material; I was hoping things would get crazier. And the guest pool this week was unimpressive. Dr. Riley Crane is a real innovator and could well go down as the guy who turns social networking on its head, but clearly the program execs went with him and other relative unknowns this week so they could land Morgan Freeman the next. Still, fresh into the new year, Colbert was true to form. The show didn’t disappoint. The Word and the telestrator bit on Yemen were both packed with welcome laughs. On a related note, this was also the second straight show in which a groin-related image turned out to be censored. Watch out, guys, or this latest would-be bomber could spell the end of comedy.

As usual, it seems I’m at no loss for words. To conclude, all I can say is that it’s worth going to a taping; if you’ve never been in a studio audience, you’ll never look at TV programming quite the same way again.

(Here’s the full episode, in beautiful HD. You can see me in the opening crowd shot on the far left side; I’m the guy with the beard right behind the white dude in the Rastafarian cap. Five seconds of fame, 14:55 to go, baby.)

Written by cwmote

January 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Finally, a lit post: The year of publishing that will deliver us from our misery. Maybe.

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C. Max Magee, who edits the superb website The Millions, previews the year to come in fiction. And frankly, it looks promising, or at least very eventful.

Will 2010 live up to the hype? Hard to say. Skimming through the titles month by month, I note three trends:

  • The Year of the Highly Anticipated Follow-up. Among the novelists to be scrutinized after (relatively) long lapses between novels include Jonathan Franzen and Yann Martel (whose last big book I fully enjoyed, so sue me!). Joshua Ferris presents his sophomore opus after wowing the critics with his debut in ’07. And John Banville is back from his crime-dabbling Benjamin Black alias and writing as his unequivocal self again.
  • The Year of the Posthumous Release. No act of upsetting bones and ashes could top the ongoing drama that was The Original of Laura. Still, 2010 is looking good for writers beyond the grave. Speaking of anticipated follow-ups, we begin with Ralph Ellison’s never-quite-finished second novel (and this WaPo article on the editorial cobbling-together is way worth reading). There’s also a “discovered” novel by Henry Roth, as well as the possibility of that last hobbling giant that David Foster Wallace recorded before doing himself in. And it looks like Roberto Bolaño is in good company with Charles Bukowski on not letting death get in the way of publishing–although if he really wanted to fool us, he would have his translators space his titles out a couple of years.
  • The Year of Nobel Laureates Publishing Their Blogs in Book Form. OK, no, not a real trend yet–but if Jose Saramago can do it, why can’t Doris Lessing or Orhan Pamuk? Call this a victory for the ancient, reputedly dying print medium–or for the need for a translation of Saramago’s Portuguese-only website. The fact that he calls his blog ‘O Caderno‘ (The Notebook) only adds further to the Jenga-like stack of ironies here.

While you’re in the midst of catching up on all the classics, recent and not so recent (I’m finally getting to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex–hey, where’s his follow-up?), take heed of the coming months. Best wishes for happy page-flipping and arguing at all the coffee-table discussions to come.

(Thanks to Maud Newton for the link. Muito obrigado.)

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Written by cwmote

January 7, 2010 at 11:17 pm