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Top 10 List for 2009

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010


I am in a band with my wife, Jenny. She is a Ph.D. fellow studying the history of borderlands, bakes a mean apple pie, and was born on the same day as Willie Nelson. As Shiny Around the Edges, we enjoy making music together and occasionally have a chance to collaborate on things non-musical because of the band. The kind folks at Popshifter asked what our “Top 10″ list was for 2009. We hadn’t even thought about this throughout the year, but had a good time putting a list together late one evening over a glass of wine. It should be noted that we would have had our bassist Kerm contribute, but he was on a vision quest exploring his roots in beautifully sparse west Texas. The resulting list is what my wife and I have listened to, watched, and read throughout the year that made an indelible impression. It is either hopelessly out-of-date or incredibly prescient depending on your personal politics. In no particular order:

1. Emma Goldman: Living My Life

A two-volume autobiography penned by one of the leaders of the anarchist movement of the 1900s. Exploring Emma Goldman’s life story is a first-hand look at anarchism, feminism, Marxism, and more in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. This is a great read and helps one understand from where much of modern counter-culture has originated. It is well written and full of wit and insight into the United States and Russia at the dawning of modernism.

2. Frank Sinatra with Antonio Carlos Jobim: Sinatra & Company

A forgotten masterpiece (and out of print in the United States) that is filled with standards like “Bein’ Green” along with bilingual gems such as “Drinking Water (Agua De Beber).” Like all of Sinatra’s albums, the arrangements are superb. Hearing Sinatra and Jobim collaborate is worth the effort to find the vinyl used or order the import CD. I believe it might also now be available digitally.

3. Dust Congress: Regurgitate Sunshine State

Broken down folk with marimba and trumpet from Denton, Texas. They live up the street from us and we never tire of hearing Nick Foreman’s contemplative wail while the notes supporting him waver and stumble in a beautiful procession. The 12″ vinyl is also worthy of coffee table display.

4. Mad Men, Seasons I & II

What started as a deft, retro look at the time when media and commerce began to intersect is now one of the darkest commentaries on the beginning of the end of modernism.

5. Castanets: Texas Rose, The Thaw, & the Beasts

We always enjoy hearing Ray’s new songs and this album is the perfect marriage between Rafter’s production skills and Ray’s songwriting: a sonic voyage greater than the sum of its substantial parts.

6. Leonie Sandercock: Cosmopolis II

This book looks at the questions urban planners will have to answer in a time of hypermobile global population shifts. The speed and diversity of immigration is creating neighborhoods, cities, and countries that are hybrids demanding new approaches to planning.

7. Sonic Youth: Confusion Is Sex

This is on our list every year, with good reason.

8. Russian Ark

Unbelievably (and spectacularly), this film is one entire shot from beginning to end. It takes the viewer through 33 rooms of what is now Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, involved literally a cast of thousands, and details events in Russian history in a non-linear way. The narrators are ghostly presences slipping between observation and interaction with a disquieting ease. The resulting effect is dreamlike.

9. Michel Foucault: History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction

A philosophical staple that crosses academic disciplines, this book offers a new way of thinking about sexuality, knowledge, and power and the ways they are created and transmitted.

10. Black Sabbath: Paranoid

Our elderly VW Golf’s CD player stopped working at the beginning of the year. Inexplicably, this cassette made its way into our car and we have been revisiting it throughout the year. Our recently recorded collection of songs reflects this to some degree.

Michael is a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can follow him on Twitter here, visit his website here, and listen to his band here.

The Prisoner

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

(This contains minor spoilers of the TV show The Prisoner)
[AMC is currently streaming the entire series, for free, here - Ed]

Patrick McGoohan died yesterday, and that is sad news.

He was the creator and actor of The Prisoner, a 60s surreal sci-fi show in which a spy is taken to an island called The Village and held against his will there.

I don’t know how I originally heard about The Prisoner but it was a little before A&E started re-releasing the show on DVD in the late 90s. When they did, at a rate of about a volume at a time (there were five total containing 17 episodes), my parents gave me a volume a Christmas for several years. It became a tradition to finish unwrapping presents, eat brunch, and then all of us  plop on the couch and breeze through a DVD or two of the show. I, of course, loved it.

Wired has suggested that the series laid the groundwork for modern shows like Twin Peaks, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even The Simpsons. That’s true technically. The serial nature of The Prisoner, with its intricate story arc and its somber tone, definitely made something like Lost possible.

But another modern show that connects to The Prisoner on a more fundamental level, and I would argue a more important one, is The Wire.

prisonerlargeIn the The Prisoner , Number Six, McGoohan’s character, never escapes The Village. Despite Six’s aggressive pursuit of an answer, he never discovers who is behind it all, be it another country or an agency or even his own country or agency. We know that Number Six is a spy, and that he quits whatever agency he is employed by for some unknown but noble purpose. But beyond that, McGoohan as actor or creator reveals very little to the audience. The final episode is surreal, allegorical, and ambigious. We never even learn Number Six’s real name. The general argument woven throughout the series is that countries and agencies are small players in what is a global system of control and manipulation, a system so large it is impossible to combat. And people are mere numbers.

For The Prisoner, McGoohan took an icon of the sixties, The Spy, and made him even more perfect: hansome, witty, intelligent, athletic, resourceful, and principled. If anyone should win, it should be him. But even all that wasn’t enough. In the end, the character is in the same place as he is in the introduction to the show, replayed as a sequence at the beginning of each episode as if to remind us every time. We know as much about The Village at the end of the series as we do at the beginning. The Spy, whose goal is to obtain information, is unable to do anything of the sort. Against the system that is The Village, he is utterly useless.

18048The Wire, too, depicts The System in all its less allegorical and more urban facets; drugs, bureaucracy , government, education, employment. David Simon, creator of The Wire, employs a similar icon (albeit slightly more tarnished than McGoohan’s Spy): The Police Detective, known to us as McNulty. Though the range of “protagonists” is much wider than Prisoner’s Number Six, none are likewise capable of really changing the system, and any influence is muted at best.

In this respect, both shows connect to a broader well: Kafka, as a more recent incarnation, and then Greek tragedy, wherein humans are buffeted about by the whims of gods. But The Wire and The Prisoner break from this tradition and for that reason are distinctly modern. The creators of both shows go to great lengths to demonstrate that the protagonists not only succumbed to The System, they are The System. “Number Six” is not just a designation, it is an operational assignment. McNulty tries to wrestle with bureaucracy in The Wire and not only fails, but only exponentializes the  amount of bureaucracy. The message from both shows is this: despite what we may think, or how strong we may be, or whether we are aware of it at all, we are all perpetrators of a System that dehumanizes and degrades and disregards.

It’s unfortunate, if we’re to read our TV right, that apparently little has changed from the sixties. Maybe there’s more to the budget now, or it all looks a little shinier (or more realistically dirtier). Maybe we think we know more than we did then, or presume that we are making more of a difference. But really, in the end, if we’re to believe our fiction, The Village is Baltimore is Your City, and we are all just along for the ride.

John from Cincinnati

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

"My Father runs the Mega-Millions. Fur is big. Mud is big. The stick is big. The word is big." – John, in John from Cincinnati

HBO had high hopes for John from Cincinnati, the newest televised creation from David Milch of NYPD Blue and Deadwood fame. The subscribe-only network aired it immediately following the series finale of the Sopranos. It was an unfair move. While everyone was slowly closing their wide open jaw, wondering whether Tony Soprano was going to die or continue enjoying his dinner, a strange looking guy in a white jogging suit stood on a beach watching another guy surf for three minutes. Ouch.

Milch’s Deadwood was a masterpiece, from start to finish. In my opinion, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to new Shakespeare. It had rightfully garnered a loyal following of critics and fans alike, but quality cost silver. Deadwood was expensive – and therefore eventually canceled.

John from Cincinnati, set in the modern (aka cheaper) washed-up surftown Imperial Beach, California, is more disjointed than Deadwood. The Shakespearan+swear dialog stepped right over the time barrier between old west and modern west, but what worked in the fantastical, foreign setting of Deadwood demanded a higher suspension of belief in a modern setting of kitchens, cars, and hospital rooms.

Pretty much everyone abandoned the show after the first episode. I almost did too. It was as if someone had taken the soul out of Deadwood and put it in a cheaper, flimsier box. If I hadn’t been watching the show with a bunch of friends who did like it, I too might have walked away.

But last night’s episode convinced me that ever since that first scene when John appears from nowhere onto a Californian beach, I have been watching something great, even important. The last few episodes prior to this have certainly stepped up in quality, but the most recent episode walked back to 1992 where Twin Peaks left off and said, "It’s ok. I’ll take over from here," in much the same way TP had with The Prisoner. Without giving away too much, a scene late in the episode not only borrowed but advanced the narrative method first employed by Twin Peaks. The scene even used that deep, haunting wind that used to tell viewers of TP that something important and surreal was about to happen.

Here’s Milch on his new show:
"The important point that I’m trying to make is that storytelling has nothing whatsoever to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It’s an illusion. It’s a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That’s the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth."

That could very well have been Lynch talking about Twin Peaks.

Lost has often been associated with taking up Twin Peaks’ mantle. I used to think that until last night. But really, Lost is only as close to TP in the sense that we really don’t know what’s going on, and that the story is serialized – which really owes as much to radio shows and soaps. I love Lost too, especially after this season’s finale, but its no successor to TP.

John from Cincinnati is. It’s by no stretch perfect, but I’d still suggest that Milch’s newest not only meets but exceeds Twin Peaks. Whereas TP tried to maintain two disparate but parallel storylines, one non-linear (the White and Black Lodges) and the other fully linear (the murder of Laura Palmer), the show couldn’t sustain both. It ultimately entangled itself in a mess only Lynch’s imagination could unravel. With John, Milch is being more interesting than TP’s "Who killed Laura Palmer?" John asks us: what if God, or the Son of God, were here, now?

The Wire

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

To Say thatThe Wire is a police drama is like saying that Crime and Punishment is a murder mystery, or that SpaceCamp is just a space movie. It’s true, of course, but it’s also missing the point.

I guess SpaceCamp was just a space movie.

In any case, I discovered The Wire quite accidently about a year ago, having exhausted the excellent Deadwood and Carnivale of current episodes. I’m glad I did. The Wire is so much more than just a police drama. I almost want to say that I didn’t find The Wire, it found me, but that’d be a little strange.

Kind of like putting Crime and Punishment in the same sentence as SpaceCamp. Tolstoy – or Jinx the sentient robot – would be proud.

Anyway, the show reflects a highly revised, elaborate thesis, perhaps birthed publicly in 1998 via a book entitled The Corner. The book was written by David Simon, a twenty-year vetern of the Baltimore press, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective and high school teacher. Simon is producer of The Wire, and Burns is a frequent writer and consultant. Their touch shows. In The Corner, which later became an HBO miniseries, the two men argued that the war on drugs was a war on African American community. To bust a corner was to attack a social and communications hub in the ghetto.

The Wire shares The Corner’s focus on the drug trade. Throughout all three seasons televised so far, the police and drug trade have remained constant subjects. Season one compares the the police department to the drug trade and finds both guilty of bureaucracy. The two, Simon seems to suggest, are more alike than either would care to admit. Neither is good, or evil.

In season two, Simon and the writers backdrop the continuing story of drug trade to the Baltimore dockyards, where they chronicle the sad decline of the blue-collar union, a once great institution in Baltimore now fully dependent on illegal eastern European drug cartels for its well-being. The season culminates in a fantastic montage set to country singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s haunting but defiant “I Feel Alright:”

I’ll bring you precious contraband
And ancient tales from distant lands
Of conquerors and concubines and
Conjurers from darker times
Betrayal and conspiracy
Sacrilege and heresy.

Season three changes tracks again, this time to municipal government, as the drug empire struggles with one foot on the street and another in legitimate economic development. Meanwhile, the city “cracks down on crime” by increasing beat patrols to improve statistics. In perhaps the most overt political statement of the show, a rogue police commander tired of “busting corners” with no results sets up an area in Baltimore where drug users and dealers can do their business without police intereference. The drug traffickers quickly dub the area “Hamsterdam.”

(Simon and Burns know their stuff: in response to a recent murder and crime wave, my own city’s government decided to enact the same procedures as the city officials in The Wire’s fictional Baltimore. We’ll see if more beats and less detectives in the real world is as equally ineffectual as portrayed in the The Wire.)

The upcoming season also plays off of the two men’s experiences in the city and will turn its attention to the educational system of Baltimore. No doubt, they’ll have more brilliant things to say.

I know all this sounds incredibly boring. The Wire is a hard sell. City hall meetings, episode-spaning legal wrangles to obtain wiretaps, scene after scene of useless surveillance, and season-long examinations of public education are a far cry from the mysterious exploding vaults of Lost or the Parisian “historical” excursions of Treasure Hunter.

But The Wire is so carefully and lovingly crafted that is all too easy to find oneself addicted within just a few episodes. While the show is acted just as well as it is written, the police drama is really just a delivery system for Simon and Burn’s intricate treatise on the city. This is a dense show, perhaps the most layered ever on television, and it will be a surprise to me if urban scholars aren’t still unpacking it 50-100 years in the future.

Of course, as is the case with most good TV shows, The Wire is hardly watched. It has maintained its low viewership throughout the seasons just as well as it has its high quality. How it has survived to a fourth season is beyond me, but apparently Mr. HBO, the long-standing president of HBO, hasn’t noticed it’s still on.

But it is, and we’re better off for it. So thank you, Mr. HBO, for not noticing, or Jinx the sentient robot for sabotaging HBO’s signal so that this wonderful show continues to air. The Wire premieres its new season September 10, 2006 on HBO, but you’re better off playing catch up between now and then and knocking off the last three seasons with all-nighters. The DVDs are expensive, but I’m sure Netflix has a large quantity ready for perusal. Better, try your library. Mine has a few copies of each season that seem perpetually – and shamefully – checked in.