Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Setting the bar low: Cops and Men


There's an argument I saw highlighted last night on Twitter, put forth by folks who would defend the cop who assaulted a petulant girl who wouldn't leave her seat at Spring Valley High School the other day. Chris Hayes of MSNBC had asked a simple question:

Among the responses was this nonsense:

Apart from the fact that for a large portion of the population, compliance won't always protect you, this kind of logic is, in its own way, tacitly contemptuous of cops. The idea that cops are, like bears, some kind of wild, dangerous force that you have to go out of your way not to provoke in any way, takes a dim view of the expected cognitive abilities and situational awareness of cops. Sadly, many cops, including this fellow, seem determined to live down to these societal expectations. Was she being disrespectful? Sure. Was she being stubborn? Absolutely. But that in no way justified this sudden escalation of violence.

It reminds me of an argument I've heard made, especially by the Christian right, with respect to sexual assault. The idea is that being flirtatious or dressing provocatively, but then saying that no, you don't want to have sex, is like presenting a dog with a steak and expecting it not to eat it. Again, a pretty low opinion of men, here, that they have the self-control of a dog. (Of course, dogs are pretty smart, and can learn, apparently unlike these men.)

I think we can, and should, expect better of our civilization.

A couple of stray notes at the end here:
1. Heartbreaking to read that a white friend and bandmate of Corey Jones, the drummer killed in FL by a plainclothes officer in the middle of the night on an I95 offramp, had been with Jones at his vehicle for some time prior to the killing. He'd tried to help with the car, and went home while Jones talked to roadside assistance.
2. Remember: the so-called Ferguson Effect is a myth. Very disappointing to hear the FBI director invoking it, despite the lack of evidence.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fargo Season 2 as a Pan-Coen Fever Dream

Season two of FX's "Fargo" series premiered this week, and so far, I'm really enjoying its mix of dark, dry humor and affection for its setting and characters, musical excellence, and a new cinematographical boldness featuring lots of split-screen. And, as a fan of the Coen Brothers' filmography as a whole, I love seeing the little references and thematic echoes from their films with which show runner/writer Noah Hawley has seasoned his show.

I'm going to use this post to collect the references I've noticed. If you see that I've overlooked one, please let me know in the comments (but please wait until after I've added a given week's episode, as I watch with a day or two of delay, and would like to see it fresh. By the same token, spoiler alert!).

Whole Season:
  • The whole series, of course, borrows the title, Minnesota/Dakotas setting, genre (bad plans or a lack of plans blow up into desperate, bloody fiasco, while stoic cops chase down the perpetrators), and tone of the namesake 1996 movie.
  • Like that film, both seasons claim (facetiously) to be based on true stories, and include the same disclaimer regarding names having been changed.
  • Via Season One, the series has a plot element that suggests a shared narrative universe: the ice scraper and buried money suitcase from the film.
Episode 1: "Waiting For Dutch" (10/12/15)
Episode 2: "Before the Law" (10/19/15)
  • "Also, [Floyd Gerhardt], 'chinaman' is not the preferred nomenclature."
  • I swear there's a scene in a Coen movie where a dog happily eats human remains. Cannot recall.
  • The typewriter salesman's half of the conversation into the phone could have been taken word-for-word out of the mouth of Jerry Lundegaard in the movie.
  • It's early yet, but Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) seems to fit into a long tradition of powerful killer characters in the Coen's filmography. Frequently portrayed as an unstoppable evil force, they are sometimes, but not always, also quite talkative. See: Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona, Visser in Blood Simple (also: Lorne Malvo in the first season of the TV series).
  • Meat grinder : this episode :: wood chipper : the movie.
  • Across the street from the butcher shop in Luverne is a "Mike Zoss Pharmacy." A Mike Zoss Pharmacy also appears in No Country for Old Men, in the scene where Chigurh steals supplies to tend to his wounds. The Coens' production company is also named "Mike Zoss Productions," all are named after a real Twin Cities pharmacy where the brothers hung out as kids. 
  • Added 10/28 - Floyd is in good with "Carter B. and the Solkirk crew." Carter Burwell has long been the Coens' go-to composer, and he composed the score to the movie Fargo, which sometimes stylistically inspires, and is sometimes directly quoted, on this show.
  • Added 11/18 - Lou's conversation with Hank about their respective tours of duty, and the latter's belief that the Vietnam Vets "brought the war home," accounting for his perception of an increase in senseless violence, echoes Sheriff Bell's conversation with his Uncle Ellis in No Country for Old Men about the changing times and his feeling "over-matched."
  • Added 11/18 - the Japanese-language funk song "Yama Yama" in the opening credits is from a project called Yamasuki by French musician Daniel Vangarde (father of one half of Daft Punk). Another song from this project was used over the closing credits of the 2014 film "Kumiko the Treasure Hunter," a dramatization of the urban legend in which a Japanese office worker died in northern MN while she was trying to find the briefcase full of money from the movie Fargo.
  • Added 3/8/16 - Just realized today that Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Peggy's coworker (boss?) Constance, played the adult Mattie Ross in True Grit.
Episode 4: "Fear and Trembling" (11/2/15)
  • Lou tells the Blumquists that they have no idea what's coming, again echoing Sheriff Bell from No Country, trying to warn Carla Jean of the danger she's in.
  • The end credits song is a cover of one that Ed (Holly Hunter) sings as a lullaby in Raising Arizona.
  • The framing of the doctor and the Solversons in their scene together is reminiscent of Coen scenes involving a meeting with an authority behind a desk, notably the funeral home in Lebowski and Rabbi Marshak in A Serious Man. The doctor also appears to share a taste in eyewear with Jeffrey Lebowski (the pillar of community, not The Dude) in that film.
  • That same Lebowski's haranguing of The Dude, telling him "Your revolution is over! ... The bums lost!" is put a bit more gently by Mike Milligan, talking about the 70s as the hangover of the 60s.
  • The framing of the hotel hallways are pure Barton Fink
  • Joe Bulo wonders whether The Gerhardt boys will, like the Dude, "abide"? (The Dodd does not abide!)
  • When Mike Milligan and the Kitchen brothers shoot Otto's nurse, there's a burst of down from her coat, like from Walt Gustafson's in Fargo.
Episode 5: "The Gift of the Magi" (11/9/15)
  • Bruce Campbell, who appears as Ronald Reagan, has been a repeat player in small-to-near-undetectable roles for the Coens (Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers).
  • Not sure if this version of Reagan's City on a Hill speech is word-for-word, but it reminded me of the contextual use of George HW Bush's "line in the sand" comments in Lebowski
  • Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man seeks to live as the titular phrase, including family, religion, and integrity in his definition. Mike Milligan seems to define "a serious person" to Simone Gerhardt as a person who gives him useful intelligence against her family's interests.
  • Dutch admits to Lou that the film from which he's drawing inspiration was merely "a boxing picture." Barton Fink is hired to write "a wrestling picture" (could be a pip!).
  • Jeff Tweedy of Wilco covers Jose Feliciano's "Let's Find Each Other Tonight," which Feliciano sang in Fargo. (See this MPR piece on the music of Season Two for some fun insights!)
Episode 6: "Rhinoceros" (11/16/15)
  • Lou: "I'm just imagining you parachutin' into the Mekong Delta, telling the Black Pajamas to leave your husband alone."
    Donnie: "Who was in pajamas, Walter?"
  • Lou seems to define A Serious Man in his conversation to Karl as being a man with serious intention to use his gun.
  • End credit music: a cover by Blitzen Trapper of "Man of Constant Sorrow," made famous by O Brother Where Art Thou?
Episode 7: "Did you do this? No, you did it!" (11/23/15)
  • Floyd talks about her father-in-law's generation of organized crime with its "tommy-gun bloodbaths."
  • If Ed Blomquist is a sleeper agent for KC, Hank will cut off his own toe.
  • Mike Milligan refers to Floyd as the materfamilias.
  • He also presages The Stranger from Lebowski: "Sometimes... there's a man."
  • The scene of Bear taking Symone into the woods is almost pure Miller's Crossing, from the circumstances, to the bare tree trunks, to the victim pleading desperately for their life (fellow Fargo fan Josh Carson notes that "You don't have to do this" was a line of Carla Jean's in No Country when Anton Chigurh comes to call, under very different emotional circumstances). [There really are not a lot of great Miller's Crossing clips on the web.] 
  • The Pearl Hotel's hallway remains very Finkian.
  • The episode really wants us to think that The Undertaker is this season's equivalent of Anton Chigurh, or Raising Arizona's Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. He's... not. Hanzee fills that role more successfully.
  •  Three covers of past Coen musical selections this episode: "Danny Boy" from Miller's Crossing, "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou, and "Condition" from The Big Lebowski. Will we get through this season without a cover of "Please, Mr. Kennedy"?
Episode 8: "Loplop" (11/30/15)
  • Primed as I was to watch for allusions, I saw the bowling ball in the Blomquist basement and immediately thought, Lebowski! But they're the second generation of one family occupying a house in small-town Minnesota, of course there'd be a bowling ball in their basement.
  • Dodd ends up tied up in a cabin with a pillowcase on his head, just like Jean Lundegaard in the movie. And there's even somebody banging on the TV to fix the reception.
  • Took me a while to realize what Peggy's obsession with faddish self-help reminded me of: it echoes Frances McDormand's quest for plastic surgery in Burn After Reading. Peggy seems like she ends up with quite a bit more agency, though, especially in this episode.
  • The art in Constance's Sioux Falls hotel room, like that of Maude Lebowski, can be commended as being strongly vaginal.
  • Peggy pins Dodd's foot to the floor in the same way McDormand pinned Visser's hand to the window sill in Blood Simple.
  • Would-be ransomer Ed wants "no funny business," just as Lebowski's would-be ransomer nihilists wanted "no funny stuff." 
  • Mike Milligan likes Ed's style.
  • Hanzee's encounter with the clerk in the Rushmore General Store is straight out of No Country for Old Men. This episode cements Hanzee as the unstoppable figure of malevolence, following the Visser/Lone Biker/Anton Chigurh mold.
  • Hanzee is the third character in the Fargo universe to be driving to find a car in the woods, though he is less noble in intentions than Gus in Season One and less excited about it than Marge in the movie.
 Episode 9: "The Castle" (12/7/15)
  • The framing structure of this episode feels far more Wes Anderson than Coen Brothers, but it does bring back Martin Freeman from Season 1 to narrate the History of True Crime of the Midwest.
  • "Chickenshit outfit" may very well be an allusion to Aliens as much as anything else, but the "outfit" word choice reminded me of Pete asking Ulysses who elected him in O Brother.
  • "Prowler" is similarly, a specific word choice for the cop cars that puts me in the mindset of the movie Fargo. I dunno -- maybe that's common real life nomenclature for rural upper midwest cops.
  • Bloody shootout at a motel, far more sprawling and deadly than the one in No Country.
  • And the other UFO shoe finally drops, having more impact on the plot than it did in The Man Who Wasn't There.
  • We end the episode with Spoon's Britt Daniel covering CCR's "Run Through the Jungle," previously heard on the Dude's Creedence tape in The Big Lebowski.
  • Added 4/6/17 - It has been brought to my attention, due to a momentary lapse of recollection on the part of the excellent Alan Sepinwall, that Wayne Duvall, who plays the stubborn, doomed South Dakoka State Patrol Captain Jeb Cheney in this episode, also played reform candidate for MS Governor / KKK Grand Kleagle Homer Stokes in O Brother, Where Art Thou.
Episode 10: "Palindrome" (12/14/15)
  • Betsy's dream of the future borrows from H.I. Mcdonnough's dreams in Raising Arizona right down to the "that night I had a dream" opening phrase. The moment when "War Pigs" winds up and the bottom drops out of the vision's optimism, and we see Hanzee through a wall of flames, recalls H.I.'s nightmare of the Lone Biker.
  • Mike Milligan calls the dude from Buffalo (MN, not NY, I assume) "friend-o," again borrowing from Anton Chigurh.
  • "Fargo, ND," Carter Burwell's theme from the movie, makes its end-of-season appearance as Ben and Lou put Peggy in the prowler for her return to Luverne.
  • Adam Arkin, as Mike Milligan's new organized crime middle management supervisor, is another Coen veteran in the cast. He was previously a lawyer in Ron Meshbesher's office in A Serious Man.
  • His story of a mailroom worker climbing the ladder is like a criminal Hudsucker Proxy.
  • The final, domestic scene of Lou and Betsy in bed and, for now, at peace, closes out the season with the same sense of familial contentment and tranquility that Molly and Gus found at the end of Season 1, and that Marge and Norm enjoyed at the end of the movie.
 And that's it! I'm sure I've missed something, so if you notice anything, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Six -NO! EIGHT!- Economical Uses of Hand Claps in Pop Music

Pop music artists can create entire rhythmic frameworks, or complicated breaks, around the first percussion instrument we learn to play: the hand clap (apologies if you're that one weird kid who could play the guiro before she could walk). Memorable examples abound. Your Beatles. Your Spoons. Your Dixie Cups. Your Roses Royce. But some musicians have the courage of their convictions, and know when enough is enough. They deploy only a small group of claps, let them say what they need to say, and then get out. Today I celebrate a few of these, presented in reverse order of efficiency.

Steve Miller Band - Take The Money And Run: 2x5 = 10 claps
Never been a big SMB fan, but this is fun, as their songs go. "Texas" rhymes with "facts is" rhymes with "taxes." I guess.

David Bowie - Space Oddity: 4x2 = 8 claps
Added 6/10/15, 4:00PM
I am embarrassed this one didn't occur to me, as Bowie is a favorite of mine, and this one should have been obvious. Thanks to Donovan S. for pointing out my omission. Anyway, the four pairs of claps adorn the grounded, acoustic-guitar-led opening lines of the two matching instrumental bridges. The second of each pair marks the lift-off into the spacier, air-and-fuzz electric segments that follow.

The Boomtown Rats - I Don't Like Mondays: 4x2 = 8 claps
Added 6/10/15, 4:00PM
Don't know why this one popped into my head now, other than listening to Space Oddity put the clapclap [pause] clapclap pattern in my brain, and my brain retrieved this. Two pairs of claps end two instrumental intro sections, leading into the first two verses. Serves the same function as the Bowie claps, but in reverse.

Buffalo Springfield - For What It's Worth: 3x2 = 6 claps
This song has become linked in the public consciousness with Vietnam-era protest, and its lyrics pretty well capture the memory of the 1960s as it's been trapped in amber by popular culture. Only CCR's Fortunate Son can rival FWIW for its ability to effect a shorthand for "America + Vietnam + late 60s." (It is apt, therefore, that both appear in the Vietnam sequences of Forrest Gump, the most successful popular 1960s shorthand culture.) Three sets of two claps punctuate the lines of the last verse, which could be about any movement of disenfranchised people protesting authority.

Here's the punchline: For What It's Worth wasn't about Vietnam at all, but was written in response to riots in Los Angeles, themselves a reaction to new curfew laws aimed at reducing late-night traffic in the vicinity of Whiskey a-Go-Go. It's to Stephen Stills' credit that he wrote the lyrics in a general enough way that they captured a spirit that was associated with an entire half-decade.

The Rembrandts - I'll Be There For You: 4 claps
It gives me no joy to bring up this song that was, for the summer of 1995, inescapable. But the Rembrandts, one of whom was the husband of a Friends co-creator, dropped in one iconic quartet of hand claps at the end of the first lyric. That's right, drunk people at the karaoke joint: four, not five. You're thinking "Take the Money and Run."

I read a rumor that the song was offered first to They Might Be Giants and REM. Given that the Rembrandts' sound kind of comes across as a watered-down version of one of these bands', I guess I could hear that, except that both of those bands trade in lyrical irony, metaphor and imagery, and this song is as saccharine-sincere as they come.

Feist - I Feel It All: 3 claps
It took watching the video for me to nail down how many claps are in the last verse of this one. The joyfulness of this song, about taking control of your own emotional destiny, easily could have supported a full complement of regular hand claps. Remarkable restraint on Feist's part.

Bill Withers - Use Me: 3 claps
Withers' fuzzed-out, funky masterpiece features one of the all time great bass/keyboard lines, and exactly three individual hand claps in the last verse, punctuating the "baby"s. I always liked when the Robinson Caruso Organization would play this, for two reasons: it meant a short break for the horn section in the middle of a long set, and I got to listen to this song. If you were at one of these shows, I was the guy in the back of the room with a glass of ice water, clapping three times.

Elvis Costello - Welcome to the Working Week: 2 claps
Less than a minute and a half long, packing in three verses, a bridge, and two and a half choruses. Costello kicked off his debut album with the epitome of rock & roll efficiency. Costello gives us a single pair of claps in the middle of the outro, as if to say "job's done."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Pluto: not a planet, still exciting

I was ten years old when Voyager 2 reached Neptune. It was a really big deal for me at the time. It was so cool to me that this was a simple, clear example of a small piece of human knowledge and understanding being expanded. Science can explore very complex and arcane ideas, but it can also seem as simple as "we didn't really know what this thing looked like; we threw a camera at it from a few billion miles away, and now we do." That there were new, easy-to-understand discoveries in things like planetary astronomy and dinosaur paleontology while I was a kid, hooked me completely.

The best photo of Neptune, and its moon Triton, as of 1988... (JPL/NASA)
...and what Voyager 2 showed us in August, 1989. (NASA)
And so, I am very excited that this year, on my birthday, the New Horizons probe will reach Pluto. Unlike some in my generation and the preceding one, I don't care that Pluto's not a planet. It just isn't. Calling Pluto a planet means calling a bunch of other little things that aren't planets, planets (basically, we can have eight planets, or 16-20, but 9 doesn't work). But that doesn't make the New Horizons mission any less exciting. Pluto is still major enough to have been called a planet for decades. It's still the tenth most massive thing orbiting the sun. And I am really curious what the thing looks like.

NASA's keeping the hype going with these images that New Horizons sent us the other day, showing Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. When these were taken, NH was further from Pluto (~120M mi) than the Earth is from the sun (93M mi). And it's going to close that gap in 6 1/2 months.

Charon orbiting Pluto, last week.
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

About the best photos we had of Pluto prior to New Horizons.
Pluto, of course, is not the only game in town. Nor is it the next biggest thing in the solar system after the planets and the seven largest moons. That honor goes to Eris, another dwarf planet, discovered in 2005 and the impetus (not Iapetus) for the Pluto-reclassification arglebargle. It's bigger than Pluto, but, like Pluto, has a big elliptical orbit that crosses Neptune's (in fact, it's much larger and more askew).

Caused less violence but more grade-schooler sadness than the apple its namesake tossed at the Greek goddesses.
Pluto also isn't the only dwarf planet in the press this week. While New Horizons zips along, the Dawn probe approaches Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. It's the only dwarf planet in the belt, and — get this — it was discovered in 1801 and considered a planet for about 40 years, along with asteroid neighbors Vesta, Juno, and Pallas. Anyway, NASA released some new photos of Ceres that Dawn took on Wednesday, and while Ceres maybe doesn't capture my imagination like the more recent planetary reject, it is pretty cool. Between these missions and the Mars rovers, it's a pretty exciting time for planetary astronomy.

Ceres. Pluto's mother-in-law, if you're into mythology. Gotta feel bad for Juno that the asteroid that achieved hydrostatic equilibrium and therefore dwarf planet status was the one named after her little sister. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)
What will Dawn find on Ceres?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Car Talk Puzzler

I'm having a car problem that feels the same size and shape as a Car Talk question, but with no opportunities to ask Tom (RIP) and Ray, I've decided to bring it to the hive mind.

I have a 2005 Camry with standard equipment. I'm down to one key -- the others have gone missing over the years, though I suspect one is still in my house. I do not have keyless entry or those RFID chips in the keys that verify your key when you try to start the car. Just flat metal cut to a shape. About a year and a half ago, my key started to have some trouble unlocking the passenger door. A little hitch at first, then you'd really have to waggle it to get the lock to turn, then nothing. I thought it was something with the lock, that I should get it serviced. But when a service place told me it'd cost on the order of $90 to even diagnose, I decided I could live with unlocking from the driver's side only.

I came to recognize that the problem was not with the lock but with the key. Part of this was because while the key couldn't unlock the passenger door, it had the same problem in locking the driver side door. Incidentally, both of these tasks require you to turn the key counter clockwise. That doesn't make as much sense if it's a problem with the lock, but a metal key's sharp edges, and its peaks and valleys, abused over time by years of metal-on-metal friction (as well as occasional off-label use as an ad hoc box cutter), could get worn down and no longer align the tumblers properly. More recently, in the last couple of weeks, I started having problems unlocking the driver's door and the trunk. My positions of laziness and cheapness were no longer tenable.

You can't just copy a worn key without getting a worn copy. So I looked into getting a worn key fixed, and called the dealer. Walser Toyota, where I bought the thing nine years ago, told me that if it's a plain metal key, they can re-code a new key that would essentially restore its factory pointiness and sharpness. They'll do it, for about $5 a copy, if you show them your title and ID. (That price is only good for plain old mechanical keys. If it's a chipped key, it's $68 a copy, and more if you have a built-in remote entry fob. I miss keyless entry, but this is a pretty great feature of low-tech car security.)

So they made me some copies. Their long edges are all sharper than the original, which you'd expect since the cross-section of a blank key will always be nice and rectangular. I was surprised, though, that the teeth of the new keys seem just as rounded-off as the original. Anyway, here's what I've ended up with:
  • KEY 0 (or, if you prefer, KEY PRIME) - the last surviving original. Unlocks driver, locks passenger, unlocks trunk, starts car. Exterior lock performance is hinky, as described above.
  • KEY A - new copy. Locks & unlocks both doors and trunk, starts car. Turns the locks more easily than I think any key ever has. Locks the trunk so it can't be popped from inside the cabin, which I don't think I've ever tried. The King of Keys and Key of Kings.
  • KEY B - new copy. I think I got this one to unlock the driver door once. Does nothing else. Worse than the original.
  • KEY C - new copy. Worthless garbage. Might as well be for another car, for all it operates on this one.
To look at them, Keys A through C seem identical. After I discovered their surprisingly diverse ability levels, I went back to Walser. They were stymied, but wondered if it was a problem with the locks, and sprayed in some rust reducing agent to take a stab at it. They say if that doesn't do it (it didn't), I should come back sometime. But the locks obviously aren't the problem, right? If it were, one of the keys they made me would not have been the One Key to Rule Them All, and I'd be having problems with all of them, right?

So, dear people who might know more about cars than I do, what now? Was Walser giving me crappy copies of my old key, instead of grinding a new one to the factory code? If so, why is one so much better at its job? And what do I do now? Take it to a different Toyota dealer? Call a locksmith? In short, what the hell?