Addicts to addicts, dust to dust

The formula for making “bingeworthy” TV is very similar to what they used to get kids coming back to the Saturday afternoon serials in the 1930s or ’40s. Back then Commander Cody, or whoever the star was, would be wrestling for control of a small plane, say. The episode would end with the plane crashing into the side of a mountain. Heavens! We must see what happens next!!

Next week, the episode would resume with the struggle on the plane. But this time, before the plane crashed, we would see the hero win his fight, grab a parachute and jump off the plane.

The same concept is at work in modern day stories, perhaps with a little more sophistication. One episode ends with a dramatic reveal or our heroes in jeopardy; we look across the room at our partner and say, “Heavens! Shall we go to the next one and see what happens?” A nod, another episode begins, and the binge is on.

In a recent article called “Are You Not Entertained?” Mark Manson writes about how our dramas, our music and even our politics are being designed to be as addictive as possible, based on what will get the most likes and what will keep you watching, listening or otherwise paying attention.

I have always been attracted to the new and unusual and weird, not the standard fare. Back in eighth grade I went nuts over “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Vibrations” precisely because they didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before.

I don’t know if experimentation in the arts is rewarded anymore, unless it’s an experiment in coaxing people to come back again and again. Where have you gone, Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, Joe DiMaggio and the like? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

The saga of Ozark is complete

Red said enough is enough as the closing credits rolled on the series finale of the Netflix show Ozark. It’s a brilliantly crafted drama about a family and organized crime, well acted, with sympathetic characters caught in one of those tangled webs we weave when we practice to deceive.

The final seven episodes landed Friday, and we sailed through them over the weekend. As the final scene faded to black, Red and I looked at each other and said well, that’s that, and let’s not go there again for a while.

There’s something disconcerting about stories where the heroes are crime lords and you find yourself rooting for this character or that to meet a brutal ending and for that character or this to get out of it alive. It makes for the greatest of drama — think The Godfather, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad — but the depravity of it all is exhausting.

 Ozark does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those other three. I would not have written some of the denouement the way the creators did, but they are better at this than I am. The choices they made resulted in a story with a powerful message about the intersection of crime, government, and corporations, specifically Big Pharma.

I’m with Red, though, I think for a while we will seek out entertainment with lower body counts. 

Don’t get me wrong, we loved Ozark, or else we wouldn’t have stuck around for all 44 episodes. We loved the characters — most of them, anyway — and even the most evil of them had a perverse charm.

It’s just that at some point you have to re-focus your mind and heart on “whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8), to kind of cleanse the palate of blood and guts and an inevitable descent into darkness.

‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ and great art

‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ and great art

Now there’s an April Fool’s Day headline if ever a wiz there was.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is on plenty of lists of the worst movies ever made, and it IS a bit of a train wreck in many ways. But still …

That opening line — “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives” — is profound in a way, isn’t it? Ed Wood was onto something, and he became immortal in an unintentionally funny sort of way, and hey, all we of Earth ARE idiots, aren’t we?

We discover a doomsday device, and beings from other worlds come here to stop us before we innocently destroy the universe. In other hands great literature or great cinema might have been made with that theme.

Plan 9 From Outer Space amuses us with its shlockiness and poor production values before nudging us with a realization — hey, this film is trying to say something important, and maybe in the back of our minds we come away with less anger and a greater reluctance to use our doomsday devices, and the next time someone says, “Let’s turn that country into glass and rubble,” instead of nodding and saying, “Yes, let’s,” maybe we’ll say, “Really? Are you an idiot?”

I love Plan 9 From Outer Space — not in the way I love Casablanca or Arrival — but because he wanted to say something important, and OK, maybe he didn’t create what anyone considers high art, but he got it said, and we hear it, and the world is a better place for it, even if we miss the message and just laugh, because we need to laugh, we need desperately to laugh. Maybe we even think about that important thing he was trying to say and realize we heard more than we realized.

Practice, man, practice

I have become a belated fan of Sparks ever since the closing credits of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season finale, which I wrote about the other day. The song “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” has been an occasional earworm these past few days. OMG, is it catchy.

And how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, man, practice, on the Steinway, on the Steinway, on the Steinway. It’s the perfect accompaniment as Lenny Bruce’s impassioned exhortation echoes in the mind: “Don’t plan! Work! Just work and keep working.”

Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, have kept working for more than 50 years. Their first album was released in 1971, and over the years they’ve made 23 more studio albums, a live album, a movie soundtrack and a collaborative album with Franz Ferdinand as FFS.

In other words, they just work and keep working. That’s a half-century of practice, man. 

“How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall” is on their 19th studio album, Lil’ Beethoven, released in 2002, 31 years after their first effort. Talk about your “overnight success” — two decades after its creation, the song finds its perfect place over the closing credits of a story that involves a legendary performance at New York City’s most prestigious venue. 

It’s an inspiring thought. How do you survive 50 years in the music business? Practice, man, practice. Work, and keep on working. And how do you know if one of your songs is any good? Wait 20 years and see.

I am a broken record spitting out the Ray Bradbury quotes: “You only fail if you stop writing.” If you believe in yourself, don’t quit. Just work and keep working, and there’s a good chance, one day, you’ll turn a corner. Robert A. Heinlein’s Rule No. 5 is, “You must keep it on the market until sold.” Well, Sparks just sold a copy of Lil’ Beethoven 20 years after they produced it, and I bet I’m not their only customer.

There’s something to be said about persistence and staying power. How many artists hit a home run in their 19th album?

Watching: Lenny and Midge

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one of the best shows on television right now, and the Season 4 finale delivered one of the most riveting scenes yet in the story of a woman trying to crack the world of standup comedy in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

The rest of this post has spoilers — it’s about what happens in Season 4, Episode 8. First and last warning.

Mrs. Maisel has joined 3,000 other crazed souls who braved a February 1961 snowstorm to attend the historic Carnegie Hall appearance by her friend (and now lover) Lenny Bruce. Lenny had to turn down a five-night job at the Copacabana opening for Tony Bennett, and he told the singer’s people that they should hire Mrs. Maisel instead.

But Midge has a new rule: She’s not going to be anyone’s opening act. Having been fired on the tarmac just before her tour with Shy Baldwin was about to take off at the end of last season, she got a job as hostess at a strip club (such establishments were illegal in 1961) where she can do her act the way she pleases.

After his triumphant appearance, Lenny takes her onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, and while she’s basking in the vicarious glow of what it must have felt like, he confronts her about turning down the Tony Bennett opportunity.

Don’t put me on a pedestal, he says, take the opportunities that are presented to you.

“You’re not going to get here hiding yourself in a club that technically doesn’t exist,” he pleads.

“So I’m just supposed to go get fired from one job after another,” Midge says scornfully.

“Yes. If that’s what it takes.”

Lenny tells her 90% of getting to Carnegie Hall is building the perception that you belong there.

“They see you hanging with Tony Bennett they think you deserve to be there,” he shouts. “They see you hauled off to jail for saying ‘fuck’ in a strip club they think you deserve that also. Wise up.”

“I’m not hiding,” she says, a little less certainly. “I have a plan.”

“Don’t plan! Work! Just work and keep working,” and he makes his final argument: “There is a moment in this business; windows open. If you miss it it closes. Just don’t —“ and there’s a dramatic pause as Lenny tries to keep his composure. “If you blow this, Midge, I swear …” and he walks off the stage … “You will break my fucking heart.”

Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce, play this powerful scene to perfection. These are two likable train wrecks, and since Lenny Bruce was real, we know he’s heading for a tragic end. To see him pleading with Mrs. Maisel to learn from his mistakes, not repeat them, well, it was just brilliant theater.

But more important, it conveys tremendously sound advice from the mouth of this tragically doomed entertainer, at the apex of his own career. Making your dreams come true takes hard work and taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, and when a window opens, you’d better be prepared to climb in.

I understand the fifth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will complete the story, which makes me sad to know this terrific ensemble cast will only be delivering eight more episodes, but they’ve set the stage for them to be eight astounding hours. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Mrs. Maisel go forward. 

Watching: Stay Close

There’s a meme out there where Netflix says, “Hey you want to watch a 10-hour movie?” and the obvious response is, “Heck, no.” To which Netflix replies, “What if I split it into eight parts and you watch them one after another,” and the response is, “Damn you, I’m in.”

Red and I watched the first part of Harlan Coben’s Stay Close on Thursday night. We were tempted to watch the second part of this weird, twisting and turning thriller, but we thought better of it.

Early Friday night I said, “Should we pick up with part two of that thing we watched last night?” and she replied, “Sure, why not?”

[sigh …]

After watching episodes 2 through 8, we have another Netflix show to recommend to people with a warning they may end up binge-watching. It’s a good cast led by Cush Jumbo as the woman with too many secrets and James Nesbitt as the chief inspector who can’t stop until he’s connected all the dots, no matter where it leads.

That wasn’t what I was planning to write for today, but now it’s 10 minutes before posting time. That’s what binge-watching does.

Looking forward to “West Side Story”

The first theater production I ever saw outside of school was a community theater production of “West Side Story” in my second-half-of-childhood hometown of Chester, New Jersey.

I remember the first time I heard the song “Somewhere” sung from the stage’s balcony and echoing all through the old church. I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard and tears filled my eyes, not for the last time that night.

I’m anticipatory that no less than Steven Spielberg is bringing the story back to life on screen, and I suspect the new film will be as magnificent as the original.

There’ll be as much nostalgia as real emotion when the new screen lovers start to sing “There’s a place for us,” but I’m grateful for the chance to revisit the memory of that magical night, when I first felt the energy of live musical theater.