Free, with just a touch of Dumb

With the son away connecting to some of his ancestry via Dennis, I spent a rather marvelous 4th completely alone. Like women across America, my most productive times are when any menfolk are safely removed from the house. With the Kid out of his favorite room (the one with the computer; I haven’t replaced his used laptop since it died), I successfully attacked a very nasty carpet with a matte knife, rolling it out of the room a strip at a time. When at last I was down to sub-floor and carpet tacks, toiling away with screwdriver and hammer to prize up the stubborn little buggers, I discovered a 2 inch section nothing short of evil smelling. Years ago – the room has smelled vaguely of cat pee on humid days for a few years, but had gotten so bad over the last month that it has forced me out of my adjoining bedroom – one of the cats had marked a corner indelibly, as cats are wont to do. We’d cleaned it up as best as possible with the carpet down, but some of it had leaked into the spot where wall meets floor. If anyone was more deeply satisfied by any act yesterday than I as I ripped out those little guys – my friend, I shake your hand in mutual glory.

The debris trucked out to the garbage, the air literally cleared, I was finally free to make some fairly significant headway on my current venture, with a big boost courtesy of a suggestion from Mom. Feeling downright virtuous after 1200 words, I settled in with some guacamole to do a little DVD catch-up.

In the shits-and-giggles category was Fair Game, a recent entry in the Mainstream Liberal Fantasy genre. It’s a big category, including movies like The American President, Dave, and The Contender, to name a few. In it, liberals are always the True Patriots; if only we ran things, the movies say, how very much better America would be. I am as disgusted as everyone else by the increasingly nutty right wingers, but at least they’re entertaining in a WWF/Celebrity Rehab kind of way. Mainstream liberals, who I believe will be marketing themselves as “The New Conservatives” any day now, are so humorless, dull, and hypocritical as they blather about the high moral ground that I frequently caught surprised looks from Mabel, she who I had only recently vanquished in her personal pissing contest. Apparently I was groaning out loud in a most disconcerting way.

Fair Game features Naomi Watts, lovely as always, in a not-massive-stretch as icy blonde Valerie Plame, and Sean Penn as her spouse Joe Wilson, with all his Sean Penn self-righteousness going full bore. Remember on the Chris Rock Oscars when he got up and said, “Jude Law Is a Fine, Fine Actor”? You know, during a meaningless awards ceremony in which one hopes against hope for some kind of entertainment bone, a good scolding really does restore that even keel as it teaches a valuable lesson: Don’t laugh at Hollywood if you’re not mugging like Billy Crystal! He’s funny because he sings those songs! Anyway, imagine 90 minutes or so where every time Sean Penn is on screen he does a variation of that Jude Law speech and you pretty much don’t need to bother watching the movie.

What was I expecting? I dunno. I keep watching these political thrillers connected to the Iraq War and hoping that maybe they’ll actually be kind of, well, thrilling; maybe the characters will be a teeny bit real, the argument have just an iota of bite. Dumb of me. Valerie Plame comes off as a regular Florence Nightingale, and even gets to play herself at the end of the movie in her impeccably groomed speech via real CSpan footage. For God’s sake, folks, she worked for the CIA. The CIA. My hairdresser told me this joke:

A man and a woman have made it all the way to the end of their CIA training, and there is one final test prior to receiving full agent status: their respective spouses are sitting on chairs in otherwise empty rooms, they each receive a gun, and now, to prove their loyalty to the Company, must shoot to kill.

After a minute, the man comes out of his room in tears, hands back the gun and leaves, his dreams dashed but his marriage and wife’s life intact. The woman, however, doesn’t emerge for a good 20 minutes; the walls of the soundproofed room are vibrating. She comes out, breathless, covered in blood.

“What the hell happened?” says the person who gave her the task.

“Well,” she replies, “the gun had blanks in it, so I had to beat him to death with the chair.”

See, if that joke writer had written the movie, Naomi could’ve beaten Sean to death with a chair before he could lecture us right before the final credits, equating complaining about a pothole to – oh geez, I didn’t pay attention, saving America by catching a Scud missile in your teeth or some damn thing.

Dear ones, for the true celebration of capitalism, need I say more than Breaking Bad? Still together last summer when season 3 came out, Dennis and I could not time viewing properly; each swore not to watch an episode without the other, and we ended up missing the whole damn thing. Mystified and in no small agony – particularly with no Mad Men to look forward to – we waited for repeats and….nada. (I do not believe that the lack of Breaking Bad viewing over the summer contributed to our split, but so many straws go into compromising the camel’s back. I do love “Breaking Bad: Saving American Marriages” as a tagline, false advertising though it may be.) He bought it a couple of weeks ago and loaned it to me, and I’m halfway through.

I prefer the writing in Breaking Bad to Mad Men, which is inconsistently great. BB is, I think, in an even tighter straightjacket, given that all TV shows are slaves to the clock, and it is consistently great story and solid writing; it may not achieve the heights of poetry that MM is capable of, but it also hasn’t ever had a dull moment, which one can’t truthfully say of MM. Try writing something that has to time out to exactly 12 minutes, then do it 4 times per episode; serious craft involved there, folks. Add on the constraints of focusing on drug manufacturing and distribution, and really, where can it go? But show creator Vince Gilligan has been smart as hell in making the series, now at 39 episodes and about to unleash the next 13, one of the greatest extended cat and mouse games in history. It’s conflict, tension, and obstacles superbly handled and timed, and so far not anywhere close to jumping any sharks. And like the best mysteries, the research behind the show impresses. Spectacular plot twists have been introduced through the beauty of chemistry, not exactly a subject most of us are dying to revisit.

Central to the show’s power is Bryan Cranston. When Dennis and I first saw him on Malcolm in the Middle, we both were sure the part had been written with Phil Hartman, recently murdered, in mind. Both actors have an inherent ability to be surprised, which in turn surprises us; their eyes convey a pure and innocent disbelief when a right turn sneaks up on them, but you can also see them immediately trying to adjust to it. It’s a great quality in a comic actor, and over the life of Malcolm, Cranston proved himself every bit as good as Hartman. Now, that same desperation takes a turn for the bleak, and BB will no doubt be Cranston’s masterpiece. As protagonist Walter White, he’s a basically good man trying to work through situations that become increasingly impossible. Over three seasons his eyes have become more haunted and ravaged, yet the character’s decency has never left, an amazing balancing act.

The entire show is well cast. My particular favorites are RJ Mitte, Walter’s son; Dean Norris, his narc brother-in-law; and Giancarlo Esposito, superb as the ice-blooded kingpin Walter falls in with at the end of Season 2. Bjarn Sletteland and Marisa Frantz’s art direction also deserves plenty of love; evoking the heart of darkness under a blistering sun is quite a feat. And Dave Porter’s original music is particularly fine, made up of sinister, Ry Cooder-esque twangs and, in suspenseful moments, just the amount of barely audible tremolo to curl the hairs on your arm and make you beg for a break.

DIY, creativity, guacamole, a lecture on What It Means to Love America that at least helped me remember a joke involving bludgeoning, and several episodes of one of the best TV shows in history. Quite a celebration.

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