Music

Today’s Playlist (3/31/09)

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Having an iPod-ready stereo is one of the greatest things imaginable in Los Angeles, where you spend a lot of time in your car. And as much as I love having every album I own one click away, I’ve been falling in love all over again with my collection via the shuffle feature. Some days it’s just an entertaining mix, but every now and then the randomly generated playlist is just what you feel like hearing. There’s admittedly some pretty easy science behind this: I like all my music, which is why I own it and have put it on my iPod in the first place, so the shuffle feature is going to necessarily be jumping between songs I’m predisposed to love. But there’s always the X-factor of how the songs sound together, and sometimes you just get lucky and find yourself coasting through 10 or 12 songs you wouldn’t have thought to assemble but which nevertheless become the perfect soundtrack for that brief drive to work, to home, to anywhere. Whenever those moments happen, I plan on posting the playlist here.
Here’s what I heard on my drive to work this morning:
“Take Me for Longing,” Alison Krauss & Union Station (live)
“Three Days,” Thermadore
“Long Black Veil,” The Band
“Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” Steve Earle
“Joe Bean,” Johnny Cash (at Folsom)
“For You,” Bruce Springsteen
“For No One,” Emmylou Harris
“ELT,” Wilco
“Fall Down Easy,” Uncle Tupelo
“If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time),” Merle Haggard
“Let’s Go Dancing,” Teitur
“One Ray of Sunlight,” Phantom Planet
“Evaporated,” Ben Folds Five

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Battlestar Galactica, TV

No Reason To Get Excited: Looking At The Series Finale Of “Battlestar Galactica”

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[For the forgetful or learning impaired, be warned again that there are of course spoilers ahead.]
Bad TV shows air all the time. Most TV is bad, and there’s only so much that can be really gained from wasting ink, pixels, or breath complaining about how much “Two and a Half Men” sucks. There’s no surprise there, and the arguments are almost too easy to make. But when a good show — indeed, when a great one — tumbles from its former glory and spends its last few moments gasping in a gutter unimaginably far from the heights from which it launched, then it’s necessary and imperative to talk about what happened, and why. That’s how “Battlestar Galactica” ended the other night, with a sputtering fall across the finish line, and I greet its resolution not with applause or joy but with the sad commitment of watching a family member finally succumb to a terminal disease. Things used to be so bright and almost transcendent, but this last season has bludgeoned the joy from the series and turned it into an exercise in how to take a fascinating fictional universe and leave it in ruins.
The entire season was one example after another of aborted storytelling and cheated narratives, but things really began to take a turn for the worse in “The Ties That Bind,” which shoehorned too many subplots into one episode, one of which followed Cally from her discovery that Tyrol was a Cylon to her attempted escape with Nicky to her murder by Tory. The whole thing occupies maybe 20 minutes of screen time, and though it’s an interesting idea that plays on the mercurial loyalties of the crew to each other, it’s a horribly botched execution that mangles what should have taken multiple episodes to unwind. The writers and producers could have mined Cally’s fear of and prejudice toward the Cylons and how she struggled to reconcile that with her unwavering love for Tyrol, which would have deepened Cally’s character and put a specific face on the general atmosphere of paranoia between humans and Cylons. But none of that happened. She was killed and mourned in a cheap memorial that betrayed everything that had come before.
That’s pretty much how the series finale played out, too: as a series of solid ideas ruined by execution, with creator/writer Ronald Moore clumsily swinging a wrecking ball at something that had once towered over the rest of the television landscape. The series began as a sharp, well-rendered examination of what it means to live in a just and free society; what it means to live morally when there are so few people left that laws can barely be enforced; the role of religion in government and vice versa; the slippery slope of the military-industrial complex; etc. But it ended with a suicide mission to save Hera, a human-Cylon hybrid whose importance is never fully explained or sold to the viewers. Cavil believes her genetic code contains the keys to Cylon salvation, now that they’ve had their resurrection hub destroyed, and her blood did beat back President Roslin’s cancer for a while. But Adama never managed to make his decision to save Hera convincing, mostly because her value was never firmly established. Yes, the theory of her relevance was constantly pushed, like when her abstract doodles turned out to be the sheet music to the “Galactica” universe’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” whose notes can be turned into mathematical equations that plot the course to Earth. (As embarrassed as you are to read that, I felt even worse typing it.) But Hera was always a thing, never a person; she never said a word, just sat there looking beatific and trying to look like she wasn’t a randomly invented plot point that suddenly had to become meaningful.
What’s more, the flip side to Hera’s existence as a narrative place-holder is that the Galactica’s final mission wasn’t one to save Earth (or New Earth), or defeat the Cylons once and for all, or to rescue their own society. It was to do something that just didn’t carry as much emotional weight. The effects and presentation were still fantastic, despite the fact that the Cylon Colony existed on the edge of a black hole that was mentioned and then dropped. (Regular readers will now how much I hate it when movies or TV series break the Chekhov’s gun rule.) But the sequence couldn’t hold a candle to Adama’s decision to ride to the rescue at the beginning of Season Three, when he jumped Galactica into atmosphere above New Caprica and launched a Viper barrage to save the imprisoned colonists. That earlier scene had better action and suspense precisely because it was anchored to a greater emotional outcome, namely, the survival of humanity. How would that have changed if Hera had been left behind? Starbuck already knew the jump coordinates, or arrived at them without again consulting the child. What purpose did she serve?
Similarly, almost nothing was gained by the flashbacks to Caprica before the fall, unless someone out there really wanted to see Adama puke on himself again. The characters’ personalities weren’t advanced in any way — Tigh still likes booze and strippers! No shit! — and whatever sense of destiny or fate for which Moore may very well have been striving was smothered under the weight of a bad soap opera. The only revelation about those scenes was Gaius Baltar’s shame in his blue-collar father and how that pushed him to change himself, a moment that actually came home with tender resonance when he was striking out for a homestead on New Earth and broke into tears when confessing to Caprica Six that he did indeed know a little about farming. (I’m still too frustrated to begin to address the way Starbuck up and disappeared, having apparently been a corporeal projection of her own consciousness created after her death on Earth and whose sole purpose was not, as had been foretold many times, to lead humanity to its destruction but instead to guide them to a new home. Gah.) It’s accurate moments like that one that made the finale so disappointing, and have soured me on the ending. The show got close to greatness, but wound up breaking my heart and making me actively upset about its resolution. Only love could inspire such displeasure.
And oh, that resolution. Having the surviving members of the human race wind up in our collective past was a nice touch that underscored the cyclical nature of the series’ mythology, but though that also meant that the cycle of war they tried to break had pretty obviously failed, Moore rammed the point home by skipping forward 150,000 years to modern-day New York. Head Six and Head Baltar, who are apparently angels working on behalf of God (who doesn’t like His name), are roaming the streets and casually commenting on our decadence and (over-)dependence on technology. Moore seems to be setting the series up to continue in perpetuity, as Baltar and Six say that the planet looks just like Kobol and Caprica before their falls, but he’s also delivering a horribly simplistic indictment of current tech, whether he means to or not. As Baltar and Six walk away in slow-motion like, I don’t know, Neo and Trinity, the camera pans to take in the neon indulgences of Times Square before transitioning to — and this was jaw-dropping — a montage of our own robots dancing and smiling as they become ever more “humanized.” I could barely believe what I was seeing. The structural parallel between society’s entanglement with technology and the blurred line between human and human-like has always been a fantastic and well-explored theme for “Battlestar Galactica,” but to reduce it to a clip of a dancing robot set to Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” was laughable and pitiable and just damn embarrassing. (I’m guessing the song’s presence is meant to convey that in every permutation of human society, someone writes a vaguely trippy song whose notes can be converted into three-dimensional coordinates leading to a new home world, which is kind of a disappointing way to explain the song’s use in the series.) Everything epic about the show had been rendered flat and unmoving, and everything complex had been pitifully reduced. The only glimmer of hope is The Plan, a forthcoming “Battlestar” TV-movie that will purportedly reveal the Cylons’ plan and shed new light on the events of the series. I pray and plead that the movie will do what it can to restore the show and its characters to their former heights; I can’t let them go out like this. So say we all.
[For reflections of happier times, or at any rate more interesting ones, I've got a piece about the series' first season, a look at the third season finale, reflections on the current season before it sank into the abyss, and one of my all-time favorite online transcripts.]
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Texas

The Key City To A Door You Don’t Want To Open

I just got a call from a girl attending my alma mater. She’s a senior working the calling center, a storefront in a strip mall not far from the university where ranks of students toil for minimum wage making calls to alumni asking them to verify their contact information and to donate money to the school. This was actually the second call I’d received in as many weeks, but the first one came when I was attending South by Southwest, and when that girl asked if I had time to talk, I had replied, “I gotta be honest, I’m at Ironworks Barbecue in downtown Austin at South by Southwest and I’ve been drinking, so you should probably call back.” I hoped the wouldn’t, but I knew they would.
She asked me to verify my address, which I did, then she congratulated me on my upcoming reunion, which is a weird thing to be congratulated about; basically she’s just telling me I did a good job at not dying in the past five years, which I guess is good. She asked me if I planned on attending Homecoming weekend in the fall, and I said I did. She asked what Homecoming activity I’m most looking forward to, and I said, “Seeing my friends and getting some drinks.” She laughed a little, but stayed restrained, probably because we both know these calls are recorded.
Then she said she wanted to talk about another ACU tradition, and I finished her sentence for her when I said, “Donating!” She reminded me that every gift counts, no matter the size, and my heart went out to her. I could see the script on her desk; I could practically hear the swish of her ponytail. I feel bad for the kids working these terrible jobs, and a lot of my friends at school did their time in the trenches at the calling center. She said something about class gifts that are going to be presented to university president Dr. Royce Money, and I told her that as much as I’d love to give Royce something on top of the checks he already gets every month, I would have to pass. I’m kind of stunned the calling center is hunting for alumni cash with the economy about to revert into a wasteland governed by a bloodthirsty need for fuel and a willingness to kill, but the Wildcats are nothing if not persistent. She knew she wasn’t getting anywhere, but she was nice enough not to seem to mind. She even wished me a good time having a few drinks with my friends, which I appreciated. That’s all you can take from these calls.

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Sports

Filling Out Your NCAA Bracket In Ten Easy Steps

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1. Do you have a pencil? You will need a pencil. Some people fill theirs out in pen, but then what if you change your mind in the semifinals? What then, buster? That’s what I thought.
2. You need to look at the teams playing in each game and figure out which one will win.
3. For people who still need help, even though I explained everything in Step 2, listen up: Start by learning every school’s mascot and win-loss record, as well as how many players are currently injured. Then throw that information away. It’s clouding your judgment!
4. Instead, start by asking yourself, “What school sounds like a winner?” For instance, Gonzaga sounds like Godzilla, who, though often injured, always returned again. That means Gonzaga is strong and will come back from a seeming loss to destroy the city dwellers. Duke is Mothra.
5. If your alma mater is in the tournament, you will be tempted to root for them, but remember: No one cares where you went to school, and if you are the guy who talks about his school at the office, people hate you. So just ignore your school and pick someone else. If your school wins anyway, you’ll be hailed for being objective; if they lose, your bracket advances.
6. Seriously, no one gives a shit that you went to Stanford.
7. When you’re looking at your bracket, you should see little numbers next to the school names. This is the school’s “seed.” No one knows what these numbers mean, so you don’t need to pay any attention to them.
8. Winning teams always have vowels in their names.
9. Your Final Four should have four teams. Keep in mind that these should be four different teams.
10. When in doubt, just remember: You are probably wrong.
Happy picking!

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Film, SXSW, Texas, Work

The Mexican Food Sucks North Of Here Anyway

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I’m going to be out of pocket for a few days as I’ll be attending South by Southwest. It’s my first time at the festival, and I’ll be blogging about it here and also over here. So check it out.
UPDATE: Actually, please don’t read the blog posts at The Hollywood Reporter. They were taken from me and largely rewritten without my consent, eliminating voice and style. I’m embarrassed by them, and consider them unusable.

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Texas

I Can Still Pop The Windmill: Sense Memory And Weird Competitions In West Texas

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I was 19.

I long ago realized I would never be able to explain Sing Song to people, or anyway, explain it to the degree that they begin to understand just how intense the competition can be between groups of boys and girls who rearrange pop songs with new lyrics in a three-minute, choreographed number built around a costumed theme. At Abilene Christian University, the fraternities and sororities aren’t part of a national system, existing solely on that campus as “social clubs.” This adds to the sense of refined isolation sought by the school — to be in the world but not of it — but has the unintended side-effect of making every event feel as if it’s happening in a rarefied bubble, and thus much more important or life-altering than it actually is.

The best example of this is the annual contest known as Sing Song. The clubs compete in this every year. There is no entrance fee or prize money, and (at least in my time) there was a cap on the amount that could be spent on costumes in an attempt to help level the field. The only thing you come away with is bragging rights for a year, and that’s all most students need to get fired up. The young men and women who suit up in satin overalls or fairy wings speak fiercely of dynasties built or lost, of victory sweetly earned by destroying a rival club. I remember those feelings, as well as the lyrics and moves to the two Sing Song acts I was in as a member of my club.

One year, a guy in club proposed to the rest of us that we organize a Sing Song boycott. The event is a solid moneymaker for the school and draws hordes of alumni, but there’s nothing in any club charter that requires participation in Sing Song. We wouldn’t even have had to get all the clubs, just us and the other major men’s club, and the two top women’s clubs, and that would bring down the show. We would do it just for the hell of it. But in the end we decided not to go for it for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that we wanted to keep winning, to keep beating the other guys. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, and maybe we were dumb for thinking of it. But what a way to be remembered.

Anyway, like I said, the acts make total sense to someone who grew up in conservative religious circles in Texas but are going to be just jaw-droppingly weird for anyone else. That said, they’re still a part of my college experience, and I have nothing but good memories associated with these performances and the weeks of rehearsal we put into them. My friends and I look young, and goofy, and impossibly happy. I was 19.
Sophomore year:

Senior year:

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