Archive for November, 2009

A Serious Look at A Serious Man

“[The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle] proves that we can’t ever know what’s going on….But even if you can’t figure anything out, you’re still responsible for this on the midterm.”

So Larry Gopnik, the physics professor at the heart of A Serious Man, tells his class about midway through the new film from the Coen brothers, basically summing up the entire movie.

Most of the Coen brothers’ films follow an Everyman caught up in morally questionable dealings, but A Serious Man deals with moral uncertainty more directly than films such as Fargo or even No Country For Old Men. Part of this comes from the fact that Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) may be the Coen brothers’ most innocent protagonist—unlike Jerry Lundegaard, Llewelyn Moss, or even the Dude, Gopnick doesn’t do anything (as he repeatedly insists throughout the movie) to bring on an onslaught of crises. Life merely seems to happen to him, and he spends most of the film trying to figure out why.

If this seems reminiscent of the Book of Job, that’s because it is. A Serious Man is a loose retelling of the Biblical story set in suburban Minneapolis during the late ‘60s. Stuhlbarg spends much of his time playing Gopnik keeled over, with his head between his knees as he looks for counsel from generally unhelpful sources. Gopnik tries to get advice from the elderly Rabbi Marshak, who is more like an absent Godot than a God: He doesn’t do pastoral work anymore, he just congratulates the Bar Mitzvah boys. Instead, Gopnik has to settle for the junior rabbi, Rabbi Scott, who looks fresh out of rabbinical school, and Rabbi Nachtner, who tells him “the story of the goy’s teeth.”

The story of the goy’s teeth—about a dentist who finds a cryptic Biblical message on the back of a Gentile’s teeth—is meant to be advisory, but ends up coming across as completely impenetrable. This, of course, is the point. A Serious Man presents life in general as totally indecipherable. And yet, Gopnik, like his students, is going to be responsible for this. Continue reading

Monday Medley

What we read while hiding our golf clubs…

  • Food is a big part of Thanksgiving. Which food that is, though, depends in part on what region of the country you’re from. Check out this “infographic” which shows where search queries for different Thanksgiving foods came from geographically.
  • Speaking of baseball and sabermetrics, as free agency hits, here’s an older piece from Patrick Brown of The Millions about baseball and its relationship with the Internet, including an in-depth analysis of gamecasts and the polarizing nature of J.D. Drew.

It’s the Grey Cup!

10:01, TIM — Oh, man, they hand out a Most Valuable Player AND a Most Valuable Canadian? Isn’t that demeaning? (Cobourne was the former, and Cahoon–Canada’s Wes Welker–was MVC.)

9:55, TIM — Well, the real winner tonight was the Canadian Football League. When does next season start?

9:54, PIERRE — It was a good decision at the time, Tim, and a good decision now. And how weird: My team won, your team lost, and yet you seem more ecstatic than I do.

9:51, TIM — It’s GOOD! The greatest Grey Cup ever ends on a 33-yard Damon Duval field goal, moments after he badly missed a 43-yarder negated by a Saskatchewan penalty. The Alouettes overcame a 27-11 fourth-quarter deficit, and the Riders can’t help but think back on that rouge they gave Montreal by not accepting that penalty earlier, and for kicking that field goal at the end of the first half instead of going for seven.

I never told you I told you so, Pierre, but I told you so.*

*I finally worked some Barenaked Ladies in!

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Simpsons Classics: Life on the Fast Lane

In my review of the first season of The Simpsons, I mentioned that “Life on the Fast Lane,” was the season’s only episode that contended for a spot in the series’ pantheon. In “Simpsons Classics,” I’ll do my best to explain why “Life on the Fast Lane” and episodes like it belong in said pantheon.

The first great episode of The Simpsons, Life on the Fast Lane” deals with Marge’s temptation to cheat on Homer with Jacques, a French bowler impeccably voiced by Albert Brooks.

Most Simpsons episodes that consider extramarital temptation in later years do so from Homer’s perspective. Homer is wooed by country star Lurleen Lumpkin, has trouble resisting coworker Mindy Simmons, and even gets married to a second woman in Las Vegas. Each of these episodes places moral culpability on Homer; in other words, it’s never anything Marge does that leaves Homer vulnerable to outside affairs.

“Life on the Fast Lane” is very different. Marge is driven away from her husband by Homer’s own selfishness, illustrated first by his forgetting her birthday (thinking momentarily that it was his own) and then presenting her with a bowling ball—with “Homer” engraved on it—as her present. This reprehensible act of husbandry isn’t even isolated; as Patty/Selma detail earlier in the episode, Homer’s past birthday gifts to Marge include a tackle box and a Connie Chung calendar.

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Fixing the BCS

I’m going to continue a newfound late-autumn Friday tradition at NPI: criticizing the BCS. In case you missed Monday Medley, the BCS has its own official Twitter now, @INSIDEtheBCS, that spouts BCS propaganda and attempts to defend the institution based on 1) its improvements over the previous regime; 2) the meaningfulness of the regular season; and 3) the nefarious and, in its view, inevitable onset of “bracket creep,” where a playoff, regardless of how small it starts, will expand to include an unwieldy amount of teams.

I already laid some of my cards on the table last week, but I figured I’d show you the full deck today. First, the very obvious responses to the three defenses of the BCS:

1. Just because something is an improvement over an old system does not make it ideal. We can already be entertained by radio! What’s the need for this television device? There’s this thing called progress, and smug complacency is not a means to that end.

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Bob Dylan Rankings, #96: One More Night

There is one very important question imposed by Nashville Skyline: Can giving up cigarettes really change someone’s voice that much? That was, of course, Dylan’s explanation for the almost unrecognizable voice that appears on this album, and on “One More Night.” I’ve never smoked (unfortunately), but I can’t imagine this explanation can account for so much. Continue reading

Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins, Calm Before the Storm

One thing we don’t have to be thankful for today is a new episode of The Ruins, as MTV made the prudent, but still disappointing, choice not to air a new episode last night. But some of us still need our Challenge fix, so with a week off before the final stretch of the season, here are the ten highlights of the season so far:

10. Katie’s Departure

Finding a plunger in her bed was the last straw. One more Katie meltdown and an early elimination led Katie—now on her eighth challenge, going way back to the original Gauntlet—to contemplate her retirement from the challenge.

9. Tonya and Veronica Fight

This fight was kind of like a potential 2010 fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield: It’s compelling to see an age-old rivalry renew, but at this point it’s just sad to watch. Tonya seems legitimately unstable now, and seeing her on these shows is depressing, and even Veronica seems to know these games have passed her by. Continue reading

Thankful for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving doesn’t quite make the Top 173 Things in World History, largely because I find the Disneyfied idyll of the First Thanksgiving a little dubious.

But, if I were making a list of the Top Holidays in World History, well, it’s tough to put much ahead of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has a few flaws—I, for one, prefer my holidays to be two syllables or less, thank you*—but they are outnumbered by its two great strengths: food and football. In this way, Thanksgiving is a pretty masculine holiday. We watch the Lions get crushed, we eat a big dinner at like 4 in the afternoon, we root like hell against America’s Team—stopping at halftime for dessert—and then we watch another football game at night.

*At least we don’t speak Spanish, in which case we’d be wishing you a Happy “Día de Acción de Gracias.”

Days don’t get much better than that, and I don’t even like turkey.*

*It’s a long story.**

**Actually, it’s not. I don’t like turkey. That’s the story. Deal with it.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Thanksgiving—for a holiday where I give nothing and get everything, for a holiday that unabashedly embraces masculinity, for a holiday so good that the Canadians decided to start celebrating it, too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Curb Your Enthusiasm Season Seven Review

In case we haven’t made it clear yet, we’re pretty big fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm here at NPI, and we were rather excited for Season Seven. Now that Season Seven has concluded, though, it’s worthwhile to go back and compare our expectations to what we actually got.

Back when F.P., Josh and I went over our expectations for this season, I mentioned that I thought Larry’s relationship with the Blacks would be the main storyline of this season, with a potential Larry/Loretta/Cheryl love triangle developing; the Seinfeld reunion, I said, would be more of a secondary plotline. Well, I was right that the Seinfeld reunion was not the primary story: the show was only central to three episodes, and incidental to two others. But I was way off on the Blacks. Loretta and her family were sent packing in the second episode of the season, “Vehicular Fellatio.”

I can’t say I was upset by this development. I thought there was a lot of potential in the Larry/Loretta pairing, but, as Josh and F.P. each pointed out, there was also the tendency to do trite or obvious jokes with them. Season Six and the first two episodes of this season gave Larry plenty of opportunity to flesh out his dynamic with the Black family. And while the first two episodes were very strong—particularly the second episode (“Do you know what it’s like to have cancer?” “No, but I know what it’s like to be with someone who has cancer.”)—I never really missed Loretta or Auntie Rae during the rest of the season. Continue reading

Unabated to the QB, Week 11: In Defense of Ricky Williams

Over at Deadspin, Will Leitch recently made a list of people who had had a particularly bad decade, or as Leitch put it, “reputations that were devastated by the last 10 years.” This list included Ricky Williams.

That list no longer has any credibility.

Sure, when Ricky Williams graduated from Texas in 1998, he was college football’s all-time leading rusher—a mark that would be passed a year later by Ron Dayne, who really deserves to be on this list but isn’t. Williams entered the NFL with high expectations, generally because Mike Ditka moronically traded the entire draft and his professional dignity to land Williams in New Orleans. Although Williams hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations, he’s still been one of the best running backs of the decade; on Thursday night, he surpassed 7,500 rushing yards since 2000, which isn’t half-bad for someone who had an “awful decade.” Ron Dayne would certainly jump at the opportunity to double his career yardage.

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