19 April 2007

pop goes the weasel

I watched American Idol this week, after seeing nothing but the results show at V’s for what may be months, but she tipped me off to the premiere of a commercial done by David Mamet so I was once again snared in the web, semi-inexplicably, since I’m not much of a Mamet fan. Melinda and Jordin were my favorites, as I expected; everyone sounded pretty much exactly as I would have guessed, which made me feel I hadn’t really been missing much so far, though I was sorry to miss American Songbook week, since those are the only songs they do that I’m familiar with. The show makes for uneasy viewing, what with the endless kapok and the constant low-level, low-lying sniping among the judges and the contestants and slick Mr. Seacrest. Simon looked physically uncomfortable during some of the worse performances, and I can’t blame him. (Though I do side with the undistinguished Chris on his dispute with Simon about "nasally" as a distinct vocal style; I always describe the country music I do like as "the nasal, twangy old stuff.") Sanjaya seems to believe he’s in on the joke, and I don’t think he really is. I also noticed that when the bottom three had to stand on stage for the agonizingly prolonged period before hearing their fate as determined by the always astute American voting public, Blake and LaKisha held hands with each other but not Sanjaya. In any case he’s now gone, which is too bad in a way because I was hoping that during Sondheim week I’d get to hear him singing “I’m Still Here.” On the other hand, V’s theory that country week usually results in the premature booting of a black woman left us edgy about LaKisha’s fate, so Sanjaya’s farewell was a relief. Afterwards I channel-surfed and found the results show for Dancing with the Stars, another show I haven't really watched but which seemed much more enjoyable and good-natured all around. And that Apolo Anton Ohno is quite the charmer – I wouldn’t be surprised if agents were calling him about his post-Olympic career.

As for the Mamet commercial, if I hadn’t known about it – well, if I hadn’t known about it, I wouldn’t have watched it, because of all commercials, those for cars are the worst (something about the automobile drains all humor from ad agencies and their clients) and that’s why God invented picture-in-picture. I’ve really liked some of Mamet’s plays (American Buffalo, of course the inevitable Glengarry), had mixed feelings about others (Oleanna – I know the professor is supposed to be arrogant, but meeting with that woman for a third time without at least one witness? Sorry – even though I can accept male/female twins being mistaken for each other, baby-switching at birth, and reunions after decades, that just stretches my suspension of disbelief to the snapping point), and disliked most of his movies (Spanish Prisoner and House of Games – does he marry women who can’t act, or can’t he direct them?). In the ad, two pretty but grizzled guys pull their cars up next to each other on a dark, rain-slick street and, in a brief dialogue filled with repetition and catchphrases, say that whatever brand paid for the ad is faster or something than some luxury car, and the whole thing seemed like a pretty concise parody of Mamet. When you develop a very simple, highly rhythmic form, its extreme stylization can end up making everything sound alike, or like self-parody. This is a problem with a lot of Hemingway and with some of the so-called minimalist composers. I hope they paid Mamet a lot and he enjoys the new vacation home or whatever, but lots of current ads are more clever and attention-grabbing, though crafted like the great cathedrals by anonymous artisans (I particularly like the ad for Jack-in-the-Box in which an emotionally overwrought wife angrily confronts her husband over the dipping sauce stain on his shirt and he insists that he’s innocent of dipper dining without her, and the stains are from his cheating ways with his secretary Jessica. It cracks me up every time, just like the card scene in The Lady Eve.) Of course, I’m still not about to eat at Jack-in-the-Box, so maybe getting my attention isn’t enough.

Since I’m dispensing pop culture insights today based on absolutely minimal viewing time, I have a message for the people behind All My Children: the Freddy is Zarf is Zoe transsexual plot just isn’t working (I almost put “is dragging on” but I’m too tasteful for such low humor), and ironically the reason is all about style. People use “soap opera” to describe a certain type of plot, mostly involving extravagant complications among a multi-generation extended family, but the Oresteia falls into that category too; soap opera is a style, not a substance. They have a flat, slow-moving, quasi-realist performance quality that plays off the twisting storylines (perhaps this is the effect Mamet is trying for, less successfully, with the roles his wives play). The Agnes Nixon soaps in particular have a history of featuring consciousness-raising “social problem” stories and treating them in an earnest tone that is far removed from shock and satire, no matter how bizarre the storyline. And this is where they go wrong with Zarf, the tormented glam rocker who thinks he might be happier as Zoe and has been launching into agony explanations for months in Pine Valley in a style that seems to be founded on some of the more hysterical Joan Crawford films. In other words, he’s being extravagant with extravagant material, so he doesn’t fit into an aesthetic that presents a subdued normality within an extravagant world. After a while the actor’s camp stylings, which work initially as parody, make him stick out in a world based on a completely different aesthetic, and since they stick out, the viewer becomes more conscious of a certain, shall we say, repetitious quality in them; camp is not a style that does slow-moving well. Ironically, I’ve worked with some people that I knew and some that I guessed to be transsexuals, and they’re pretty much like everyone else, only sometimes a little lumpier.


vicmarcam said...

This is like Christmas and my birthday and the last day of school all rolled into one. A post about AI and AMC.
My brother is claiming that American Idol is fixed because he voted for Sanjaya one hundred times last night and Sanjaya still lost. 100 times! Isn't that like half of 30 million?
I think the powers that be at AMC feel the same way about Zoe since they're sending her off to London to return to her music. But I have to say that I will miss her. I still find the actor's style kind of jarring. I love what you said about him being extravagant with extravagant material. It really made me realize that there is kind of a pact that the viewers (that means me for--gulp--37 years now) and the show enter into. We will get pulled into the storylines and let these characters become part of our lives as long as they continue to pretend that it's absolutely normal for the average person to be kidnapped, have an affair, need a blood transfusion (which leads to them finding out whose child they really are), and open up that hot new club, all in one year.
So, back to Zoe. I suppose it is a testament to the actress who plays the beloved Bianca that I was hoping that Zoe returned her feelings of love. I knew this story couldn't go on forever. How far could it go, really?

sfmike said...

David Mamet makes me anti-semitic. I really, really dislike his stuff, and his sexism, including his shitty directing of his wives, and his shitty roles for women, is all of a piece.

As for the soap opera aesthetics, I know nothing about it but I trust every word you write on the subject, oddly enough. And transsexuals are a lumpy lot in many cases, uneasy in whatever skin they are in, possibly because they transcend gender.

pjwv said...

V, does your brother realize they charge for every one of those votes? Ah, you know the rest.

Mike, Another thing about Mamet (and why the ad seemed like a parody of him): I always get the feeling all the tough-guy attitude is a complete fake. It's like reading a GQ article about low-life gamblers and it's illustrated with high-cheekboned male models, unshaven to indicate how rough they are, and they're wearing $900 lambskin coats designed to make them look like Jersey mobsters. I have the same problem with Tarantino, actually, and even with Godard's Breathless -- it just seems like a film nerd's idea of being a cool criminal.
By the way, I don't think it's odd at all that you trust every word of mine on soap opera aesthetics! (V, you know it all comes from your tutelage. I still think Dorian should have been freed -- there was a reasonable doubt!)