The weather this week has convinced me: Fall is here. For some reason, most of the significant efforts in this country's art scenes on the large scale occur in the next three months. So, let's take a very opinionated view of what's coming down the pike.
First among all, I mention "Bleeding Edge", the new novel from Thomas Pynchon, which just became available this week. ( I got my copy yesterday.) I'm planning to savor it, not devour it, and at 500 pages, it should be a good part-time read for the fall. A second successive detective novel, this one features a female New Yorker fraud investigator operating in the period between the burst of the dotcom bubble and 9/11. To me it screams "Crying of Lot 49", more than "Inherent Vice".
Next we move to "the tube", though of course there's no tubes involved anymore. For me, television is programming transmitted over a specific channel at a specific time--the other stuff is "video", which is a form of entertainment but, because there is no shared simultaneous experience, not the same thing from the point of view of impact on popular culture.
The critics seem all convinced that this is a (Second?) Golden Age of Television, that it has surpassed the movies, not only in social importance or entertainment value, but in artistic quality. This is an opinion to which I do not subscribe at all--there is more good TV out there than there used to be, but it is a function of quantity: the number of channels has multiplied exponentially, and so have most forms of programming. A few categories have multiplied disproportionately--I would name college football games both major and minor, programs in which people cook and other people rave convincingly about the delicious flavors (too far ahead of the inevitable development of "Smellovision Channel"), programs about obscure groups with unusual behavior patterns and other exhibitionists (e.g., "Duck Dynasty", "Wife Swap", "America's Got Talent", etc.), and programs about violent crime and the justice system. Particularly the latter--I am so sick of programs about cops, about forensic crime research, prison drama, courtroom drama, criminal capers, legal hijinks, that I can no longer stand to watch even the better ones ("The Wire"?--I couldn't take it).
Anyway, to focus on the good side of TV, I guess a good place to start is with the Emmy awards tonight (Sunday, Sept. 22). The Emmys do not have the same cachet or dramatic intensity of the Oscars, there are a whole lot of awards for things that are not very interesting, and they have had a historic tendency to give the same award to the same show or performer year after year (John Larroquette won how many times for "Night Court"?), but I think the profile of the awards has begun to rise. I will be rooting for Tina Fey and "30 Rock" in their final Emmy appearances, and for her SNL compadre Amy Poehler of "Parks and Recreation", though "Modern Family" and its cast will be the huge favorites to repeat in the comedic categories. (Fey and Poehler's performance in the combined TV/Movie Golden Globes, itself nominated for an Emmy is an example of what the Emmy program should strive to achieve.). In terms of drama, I guess it's "Breaking Bad"--gritty meth crime isn't overdone so much yet-- over "Mad Men", "Downton Abbey", and "Homeland" (counterterrorism surely is), though I would've loved to see "Boss" (also outgoing) or "Newsroom" (based on its last episode, also halfway out the door).
In terms of the fall season, it's going to come fast and furious after this weekend. I think it's Monday that we will finally meet Ya Mutha, as in "How I Met Your Mother", after years of tease. Most of the major networks' regular weekly series will begin this week. In terms of new programs, I will give a look to 'The Goldbergs" (NBC, Tuesday) and an eponymous Michael J. Fox show (Thursday). The most successful program in TV history, "The Simpsons", returns next Sunday for what I believe is its 25th full season, and the second-most successful, "Saturday Night Live", will begin its new season next Saturday with Tina Fey as host, a bunch of replacement cast members, and SNL fave Arcade Fire as musical guest--will it be another slack period, and can it survive another? Tune in next spring.
What else? I'm going to try to watch "Scandal" more; "Mad Men" should be interesting as it heads to its final episodes, "Dr. Who" is supposed to debut a new Doctor (so my daughter tells me; she's only OK with the selected new hero of time and space), and the BBC series of "Sherlock", starring the ubiquitous and ludicrously-named Benedict Cumberbatch (note: in the future I will refer to him as simply BdCb), is supposed to return for a few teasing episodes sometime around the holidays.
Mostly, though, I watch news programs and sports--the first can have no preview, and the latter will be considered in a separate post, as I still believe it qualifies as something other than just TV.
The big, built-up album of this fall is the two-disc follow-up to "The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire. One song, "Reflektor" (also the title of the album), has been released so far: it sounds like the band, but disco. I certainly sympathize with the challenges of maintaining the momentum from a superior release and sudden, massive fame, but "going disco" is not the correct response--not in this century, or any other one for that matter. We will see if the song is the exception or the rule.
Two major artists who have promised to go back to their roots in their new releases are Paul McCartney, with "New", and Elton John, with "The Diving Board". Meanwhile, Elvis Costello literally has gone to The Roots for his, joining the band from Jimmy Fallon's late-night show for a funky new one, "Wise Up Ghost". I've heard one song, and it sounds like something good, not the lounge lizard act I heard on Elvis' last two albums.
Anything else? I'm hopeful about Katy Perry and her maturation process--she has an album coming out called "Prism" (slightly different light-bending effect than Arcade Fire's), which suggests she is trying to turn the excessive light constantly upon her into something colorful and beautiful. Good idea, if you can pull it off. And U2 is working on a new album, though it's unclear whether it will make it into the market before the end of the year.
The best trailer of the summer--the one that piqued my curiosity, not that showed off the best effects or jokes--was for Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon". The memorable line--repeated for effect--is that he just cares about a few things in his life: "his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and...his porn." Gordon-Levitt is a young talent; he's taking it to a new level as a first-time director. The story of Don Juan, the mind of the seducer and his undoing with the right woman, is a worthy challenge that has drawn the talents of many of the greatest over the centuries, including Byron, Mozart, Kierkegaard, and Shaw. He's got Scarlett Johansson as his foil, that foxy mix of naivete and worldly that she can do so well. It starts next weekend, and I think this combination of old and new values, sex play both subliminal and overtly indiscreet, just might find the right moment in the key movie-going demographic, teens and young adults.
As always, there is a flood of the best movies this time of year. The timing seems slightly different this year, as some of them are already out there in the film festivals, so the season will not be such a tease, with the real film powerhouses only hitting your neighborhood multiplex next year. This is a definite improvement--I may be missing something, but none of these have phony openings in the last week of the year.
I think the glum political outlook, which is likely to turn soon into bad economic feeling, will translate into movie viewers looking for solace, escape, and ways to express their suppressed anger. I've ordered the major studio releases for the fall based roughly in my level of skepticism about the projects' artistic and commercial success, from "Highly Doubtful" to "Little Doubt", but what do I really know about them at this point?
"Fifth Estate" - Looks like a whitewash of Julian Assange's story (with BdCb). Data doesn't want to be free, it lies there waiting to be manipulated. Are moviegoers any different? This one says "yes".
"Winnie Mandela" - see "The Fifth Estate". Taking advantage of Nelson Mandela's name, when he will be too weak to say anything to the contrary.
"Great Expectations" - I never even liked the book, and the story seems ripe for political posturing: the poor just need rich patrons and all will be fine.
"Enough Said" - I think it will be creepy to see the late James Gandolfini in a hopeful love story. Enough said, indeed.
"Prisoners" - Teen-age abduction drama, with Hugh Jackman in the Liam Neeson "Taken" role as the Angry Dad. Looks ugly, feels unnecessary.
"Carrie" - Didn't like it the first time; don't need it again.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" - The Scorsese/DiCaprio combo is fine by me, but I think I've seen too many of these Wall Street dramas where the big jerk gets his comeuppance at the end.
"August: Osage County" - All-star cast (including BdCb), Broadway stage play, but it looks too stagey for the big screen. I'm sure it's no fun, but will it provide the uplift we want?
"Diana" - Naomi Watts looks dead-on as the martyred Princess, but it's either a phony conspiracy play or boring.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" - There are a couple of items I'm looking forward to seeing (Smaug's dwarf-built cavern, the Wood-elves, BdCb as the Voice of Smaug), but mostly I think a relatively short novel is being dragged out into four full-length parts for bad reasons.
"Rush" - I would never underestimate Ron Howard's ability to produce a popular spectacle, but I think the heyday of Formula One auto racing is over for most people.
"Catching Fire" - Will people connect the dots between this dystopian society and ours, or is it just a good flick with Jennifer Lawrence? Either way, it should be reasonably successful.
"All Is Lost" - Just Robert Redford and a sinking boat. Somehow I think it will be OK.
"All is Bright" - Looks like a holiday charmer with Pauls Rudd and Giamatti.
"Gravity" - Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Space travel drama is the best possible genre for 3-D (slight edge over aviation), and Cuaron makes powerful film. It could be awful, but I'm thinking 70% probability of magic.
"12 Years a Slave" - This story of a freed black man captured back into slavery could break hearts, if it manages to tell its story in a way that's not too familiar.
"Nebraska" - Alexander Payne has the strong track record of drawing great performances, not overplaying his hand.
"Captain Phillips" - Not a sure thing, and we do know how this Somali pirates vs. US merchant ship drama will turn out, but Tom Hanks will deliver the goods, as always.
"The Counselor" - Very little substantial information available, but it looks like it could be a powerhouse (Ridley Scott directing, Cormac McCarthy story, with Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz).
"Ender's Game" - The sci-fi special of the season, a genre classic finally adapted for the big screen, with a teenage boy hero. Should be a commercial success, even if not Oscar material.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" - The Coen Bros. are a sure thing, as far as I'm concerned. Their popular success correlates negatively with my appreciation, but the latter is never too low. I like this one, so it may be only a moderate public success.
My summary is a lot of ambitious, expensive failures, a few small-scale successes, few if any certain winners. Maybe they are right about TV?--I hope not.