Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Life Intrudes

I watch very little unscripted reality TV outside of the Great British Baking Show. I am too young for the Real World phenomenon and have a vivid memory of walking in while my brother and mother watched an early season of Survivor but never really watched that show. I have seen the odd episode of a lot of shows, but I generally don’t find either the contestants or the “game” compelling.

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the current season of Top Chef from the beginning, never having seen a single episode to this point. As I wrote several times, I fell in love with this show. In part, the focus on simple excellence and limited direct competition appeals to my sensibility, but I also found the judges and competitors charming — sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the reality show editing of each episode.

Top Chef: Portland was filmed last year in a bubble and the editing gave the season an isolated quality that reminded me of the GBBO tent. The competition obviously put mental and emotional strains on the chefs, and talking about how much they missed their families were poignant vignettes at a time when travel restrictions kept many people from their families.

Striking this season was the lack of a villain. The contestants seemed to genuinely like one another, particularly by the time the show reached the back half of the season when the smaller number of chefs allowed more air time for each one.

The season finale, which aired this past Thursday, maintained this same atmosphere. The finalists chatted with one another, they each got an assistant from the last three eliminated to make their dream meal, and the all-star guest judges who had joined the bubble made them a meal on the night before judging.

Oh, and they all made incredible food.

The illusion was complete and a winner was crowned. He calls his family and shouts out the largely Latinx kitchen staff at many American restaurants.

And then real life returns.

Reports recently came out that Gabe Erales, this season’s champion, had been fired last December from the Austin restaurant Comedor where he was executive chef for repeatedly violating sexual harassment policies.

(He maintains that he had a consensual relationship with the woman and then reduced her hours because of performance issues, but the restaurant’s owner disputes this account.)

At the same time, Top Chef edited guest diner Eduardo Jordan out of the final altogether after recent allegations of unwanted touching made by fifteen women.

I genuinely enjoyed this season. I was blown away by Dawn’s Nashville Hot Fried Tofu, I want to learn to make some of Gabe’s Moles, and even when they cooked things I never could I appreciated the skills and techniques on display. I also liked that the contestants came off as likable people.

But what one sees on Top Chef — like any reality show — is a fantasy created in the editing room.

This is not to say that it was all feigned. Some aspects of personality are going to shine through, but everyone was also likely on their best behavior throughout filming, knowing that the cameras are rolling. At the same time, the artificially level playing field of a show like Top Chef is going to eliminate the power disparities that can lead to some of the most toxic behavior in restaurant industry — even taking Gabe’s story at face value, his sexual relationship was with someone whose hours he could cut. The result is that Top Chef did not face the same concerns on set that reared their heads back at the restaurant.

Production had wrapped by the time the allegations came out and they couldn’t very well edit the winner out of the show.

Top Chef is great television, but these stories break that illusion. Real life inevitably intrudes on the most idyllic scene. The food might be great, but there is a long way to go in these other areas that, ultimately, matter much more.

What is Making Me Happy: Hemingway

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Hemingway

It should be of no surprise to anyone who has seen my list of favorite novels that I am fan of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. I started reading his work after coming to graduate school, starting with The Sun Also Rises when I was maybe 23 or 24-years old — old enough to appreciate Hemingway’s writing, but young enough to be deeply moved by what a friend of mine describes as a “young man’s novel.” Over the next eight years or so I read most of his other novels and even developing my own idiosyncratic pecking order of his oeuvre. I suspect that nobody, including Hemingway himself, was quite as taken by To Have and Have Not as I was. Something about that flawed book, which I now know doesn’t have have a functional plot because it was a Frankenovel made of two short stories and some connective tissue, just clicked with me on the level of sentence and scene and was an early case of coming to appreciate how writers can improve from their early work.

Naturally, I was looking forward to the three-part Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about Hemingway that I recently watched.

Hemingway is an ideal subject for a Ken Burns project: a character whose life, writings, and tall tales merged to form a thoroughly American myth. To that end, the Hemingway documentary series is a straightforward cradle to the grave documentary that interrogates the relationship between his psychology and literary output, but always handled with a Burnsian breeziness that both mentions the negative aspects but doesn’t dwell on them. This approach often works. For instance, in childhood Hemingway’s mother often groomed and dressed her son to look identical to his sister, a quirk that replicated when Hemingway encouraged his first wife Hadley to do the same with him and that made its way into his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden. The documentary also spends time asking literary scholars about ways that racism of his time works its way through his work, balanced by ways in which Hemingway’s external machismo often cause his gender politics to go overlooked. At the same time, though the breeziness causes instances of domestic violence (at least once physical, quite possibly more frequently psychological) to go underdeveloped.

At its heart, Hemingway is about contrasting the man with the myth. The myth is a macho man who lived a life of poverty in Paris in the 1920s and who, at one point, insists that he is going to take down a German U-Boat with his fishing boat and crack crew of Jai Alai players.

The man is a more complex figure in ways that make him both more and less sympathetic. A philanderer who often lived off the wealth of his wives, but also a man who did not deal well with being alone and often relied on their expertise to produce his art. A hunter and bull-fighting enthusiast who also was sensitive to life. Hemingway also lived many of his later years in Cuba and had sympathies with Fidel Castro’s revolution. Some of the saddest moments came in the third episode when an aging Hemingway living in Idaho was suffering from a neurological disorder that the Mayo Clinic treated him with electro-convulsive therapy that left him effectively unable to keep short-term memories, let alone write, which must have been agony for someone who wrote for hours every day.

I had a few small complaints with Hemingway and some of the beats moved across familiar ground, but I appreciated the series both for a lot of the backstory, including interviews with his son, and as an opportunity to revisit Hemingway’s work.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.

What is Making Me Happy: The Story Of

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: The Story Of

I recently burned through five short music documentaries produced by VICE and posted to Youtube, part of a series called The Story Of. Each video examines a single hit song, exploring the song’s origins, route to release, and what happened from that point. There are commonalities between each video, usually involving how the artists came to music and the behind the scenes of the recording industry, but each documentary goes in a rather different direction.

The Story of “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, for instance, explores the unlikely path to collaboration that Eiffel 65 took, and their subsequent falling out. By contrast, The Story of “Last Resort,” by Papa Roach goes into how the singer Jacoby Shaddix, while still in high school, wrote the song about suicidal ideation about a friend he was living with at the time, only to later have it hit even closer to home. Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” touches both on his unusual singing style that he developed while serving in the Marine Corps and how the song very nearly flopped until a DJ in Hawaii downloaded the album from Napster and just started giving it airtime.

None of these songs are exactly my jam, but I know them all. I should — they came out when I was in middle or high school and they were all enormous hits. What I find so interesting about these documentaries is how they explore the uneven path songs take to release, let alone success. I am sure that the specific songs were chosen for their particularly compelling stories, to be sure, but there is something inspiring about the producer who just loves the song talk about going to bat for it at a time when no-one else in the company believes in it. The videos are a nice reminder that while one person might get credit for a song (or any another piece of art), they generally have a team of people working behind them.

I have also enjoyed the small touches that place this series squarely in the time of COVID. The Papa Roach video intermittently shows people masked. The most recent video, The Story of “A Thousand Miles,” by Vanessa Carlton interviews her living with her parents during the pandemic.

What is Making Me Happy: Bagman

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Bagman

My podcast listening tends toward conversation, sports, and current events and while I am periodically on the hunt for a new show I am rather hit and miss with “true crime” investigative podcasts. I didn’t give in to the Serial fad, for instance, but was quite taken by Crimetown. The latter hit a sweet spot for me in that it looked not just at a single crime, but at institutional corruption, which is also the subject of Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz’ limited run podcast turned book Bagman. However, rather than painting a portrait of a city at a given time, Maddow and Yarvitz take aim at Spiro Agnew.

I have taught US history, but I would never describe myself as a specialist. When I cover the end of Nixon’s administration, I focus on the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and give the students something to analyze for themselves in the form of Herb Block’s cartoons. I mention Agnew in passing, mostly in order to set up how Gerald Ford became president—probably trotting out the standard line that Agnew was forced to resign because he was under indictment for tax evasion. What I’ve told students in the past is not wrong, but only by the most technical definition.

The false memory about Agnew’s time in office is the starting point of Bagman. In point of fact, Agnew had had a meteoric rise from winning an election as Baltimore County executive in 1962 to becoming governor of Maryland in 1966 to vice president in 1968 and, along the way, built a corruption ring based on his control of government contracts that he doled out in return for cash.

Maddow and Yartvitz take the audience back to 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was beginning to heat up: George Beall, the US district attorney in Maryland, had opened an investigation into the sitting Baltimore County executive on suspicion of a bribery ring. What he found was not only that the ring had been developed by Agnew, but that Agnew’s activities had continued throughout his term as governor and into his time as Vice President. When Agnew heard of the investigation—in February 1973—he immediately set about trying to discredit the attorneys and quash the investigation, but eventually, was forced to resign. Thus, as Maddow and Yarvitz told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, their purpose was two-fold: first, document the Agnew story; second, explore how the prosecutors’ primary aim of removing Agnew from office and the series of events worked together to allow people to remember Agnew’s crimes as tax evasion rather than political corruption and obstruction of justice.

I am currently halfway through this limited-run series and am consistently fascinated by their account of Agnew’s fall from grace. I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to pull off the second half of their objective, but I am looking forward to finding out.

What is Making Me Happy: The Sopranos

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: The Sopranos

I am perpetually late to television shows and can count on one hand the number of shows that I would consider myself a devotee of by the time that the Sopranos went off the air in 2007. Most of those are cartoons.

My viewing patterns changed somewhat in grad school, when Mad Men became appointment viewing by about season 3. While I’m still not particularly fluent in TV, I have in the years since ridden a few of the more recent trends (e.g. Succession) and backfilled my cultural consciousness of a decent number of shows (e.g. The Wire). On a recent whim I started watching The Sopranos.

For the five people who haven’t watched The Sopranos, James Gandolfini plays Tony, an Italian-American mobster living in New Jersey who has recently been suffering from panic attacks that lead him to seek help with a psychiatrist. The first season unfolds through these therapy appointments where Tony minces words to avoid revealing any crimes to his therapist Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco), while the action on the scene dramatizes what actually happened. This is an effective device and Tony has many real issues that self-consciously take on an aura of cool because of the mobster content—as the various characters frequently mention while bringing up other media portrayals of their work.

Tony has ordinary sorts of family stress, including raising children (played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler) with his wife (Edie Falco) who he is frequently unfaithful to and his relationship with a disapproving mother (Nancy Marchand). But Tony also has workplace stress that is exacerbated by that line of work being organized crime, and one of the main arcs of Season One is a brewing clash with his uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) over the direction of the family. However, what elevated this season of television for me was the way in which these therapy appointments forced Tony to grapple with topics like his own masculinity, first to let himself be vulnerable with a woman and then when people begin to find out that he was going to therapy, leave alone that he was going to therapy with a woman.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.

The Sopranos is populated by awful people with few, if any, redeeming characteristics, but it is compelling television. Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is a brooding, storming, menacing anchor at the center of the screen. You get the impression that he’s not the biggest, strongest, smartest, or fastest person, but he nevertheless carries himself with such barely-restrained violence that he is not someone to mess with. And yet, Tony can only carry a show so far without its surrounding cast. I particularly appreciated the two central women in Tony’s life. Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi offers a vision of placid, delicate, almost naive competence who is simultaneously horrified and aroused by Tony Soprano. Falco’s Carmela is more complicated. She appears to have genuine affection for her husband and the father of her children, but she is also clear-eyed about his infidelity, once acknowledging that she almost appreciated that he took his dalliances elsewhere while she raised the children, even as it puts strains on their relationship.

I still prefer Mad Men and The Wire to The Sopranos, and not merely because I saw them first. In terms of prestige TV, there are aspects of the filming of The Sopranos that feel to me just a bit immature (in part owing to when it was created—home entertainment centers with DVD players are a big deal!) and some of peripheral characters seem like flat caricatures of mobsters, but as an ur-text of the anti-hero genre in live-action television I am finding The Sopranos compulsively watchable.

Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

Alexander (2004), revisited

For the entirety of my academic career, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander has been an object of ridicule. I praised a handful of casting choices when it came out (Angelina Jolie as Olympias, even if I don’t love what they did with the character; Anthony Hopkins as old-man Ptolemy), but otherwise loudly complained about the way the film warped history and have particular issues with the work of one of the main historical consultants.

In short, I was in line with the 16% score Alexander received on Rotten Tomatoes.

Outside a handful of conversations I hadn’t given thought to Alexander in a decade when I decided to show it this semester in a class called “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” Then two things happened: first, I discovered that 67% of reviews on Amazon gave it either 4 or 5 stars; second, I discovered that the movie is not as bad as I remember it.

First, despite hitting a few of my pet peeves in filmmaking (e.g. how will we know we’re in Greece if there aren’t schooling scenes with broken columns???), it is beautifully costumed in ways that show the increasing distance of the expedition away from Greece. I’m not wild about the script and Colin Farrell looks too old for teenaged Alexander, but the look is gorgeous and immersive, nicely capturing the fact that the Macedonians were leaving a relatively poorer part of the Ancient World for territories that were older and wealthier.

Second, Alexander tries to offer a psychological portrait of a king. I think this is where the critiques that it is a talk-y epic come from. I can appreciate the ambition even as it hews too far toward “Alexander the Idealist” for my taste, and the theatrical cut is overly concerned with an Oedipal interpretation that is deemphasized in the later cuts. However, this big swing also comes with drawbacks. For instance, one of the hallmarks of the ancient sources like Curtius Rufus and Plutarch is that they struggle to reconcile the great, humanistic idealist with the brutal and ruthless monarch.*

In fact, since all of our surviving narrative histories of Alexander campaign date from several hundred years later, they offer as much a commentary on monarchy and power as they do evidence for Alexander’s reign.

Stone’s Alexander struggles in much the same way, trying both offer a humanizing portrait of the great man and a soup-to-nuts biopic that covers the warts and all. The result is an uneven movie that swings from Alexander espousing idealistic platitudes about how Asians are people, too, to a wedding-night rape scene, to Alexander the tender homosexual lover, to him killing his loyal followers in a drunken rage, to showing his perpetual struggle for the approval of his parents. Trying to put it all in a single film that focuses this closely on Alexander lays bare just how contradictory our original sources can be.

*There are a number of books on this subject, my favorites being Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander the Great and Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander.

Third, I was much more forgiving of how the movie warps the chronology, combining and compressing the battles. These scenes dragged in the film as it stands, so I could see how doubling or tripling their run-time would have just bloated the movie further without supplementing the attempted psychological portrait.

The obvious solution is that an entire Alexander story cannot fit in a movie. But Alexander predates HBO’s Rome (2005–2007), let alone Game of Thrones or a show like the Crown. The space afforded by a prestige drama, whether a single season on Alexander culminating in his death a la Ned Stark and multiple seasons on the period of the successors or an eight season run with three on Alexander is a much more appropriate format for this story, both because it better fits long-form storytelling and because a series would allow the creators and writers to develop characters other than Alexander, both Greek and Persian––an under-appreciated requirement for any successful adaptation of this story.

Fourth, one of the really interesting things that Alexander does is to frame it as being told by old-man Ptolemy, now a king in Egypt, in the process of writing his history of Alexander’s campaign. As with other points, I picked nits with the scenes, including that there is a fully-completed Pharos lighthouse and a statue of Philip with a Pericles helmet, but since Ptolemy did write a history of this period he is a natural surrogate as a narrator in the same way that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins tell the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and Samwell Tarly writes Game of Thrones. The problem is that this framing device has layers of consequences for the story that the movie utterly disregards, leaving both superficial narration and a generic amalgam of the Alexander story.

To be clear, Alexander remains a hot mess of a movie. It doesn’t have much time for women, doesn’t do enough to get at the fundamental violence of Alexander’s reign, or spend enough time either humanizing the non-Greeks or exploring the sense of alienation that Alexander’s men, any of which could have made for a more compelling film than its psychological portrait. But it is also a hot mess with ambition in ways that give it more to think about than most movies that fail this spectacularly.