The Sopranos

Has it taken me more than 20 years to watch the greatest TV show of all time? Maybe: I’ve only watched the first season of The Sopranos. Now, in December 2021, it’ll be hard to find anything new to say about the show.

I’ll discuss various aspects of the show, putting each aspect in the contexts of time and of other highly-praised shows.

First, it’s more like the movies than the TV of its time (late 1990s in to the 2000s) in terms of cinematography, production values, and so on. In this, it reminds me of an earlier show: The X-Files. In some ways, each episode is more like a (half-length) movie than it is like an episode of a TV show. These shows have established a tradition: for example, each episode of Breaking Bad is like a well-produced movie.

Second, let’s consider the question: is this a show about its central character, or about an ensemble? My favorite answer to this question is: yes! Tony Soprano is of course the central character, superbly played by James Gandolfini, and his role is surrounded and enhanced by many other well-written and well-performed roles: his wife, his uncle Junior,… (I am yet to be as impressed by his psychotherapist, Dr Melfi, but that’s for another post, after watching more seasons.)

My favorite example of a central/ensemble show is Breaking Bad. Brian Cranston’s performance as Walter White deserves mention the same breath as James Gandolfini’s as Tony. The ensemble around Walter is similarly impressive. The Breaking Bad team have been effusive about their debt to The Sopranos. You can do central/ensemble well without live action: take a bow, Bojack Horseman!

Third, let’s recognize that the show deals in stereotypes. It’s about Italian-American mobsters who know and love The Godfather and similar movies. A Jewish character, Hesh, can be considered part of the ensemble. A rapper, Massive Genius, is central to episode 10 of the season; he has a collection of people and weapons as stereotypical as it is striking. MG demands that Hesh pay what he owes to the families of African-American musicians he used to manage.

So, the Sopranos is stereotype soup. I think it’s a very well-made stereotype soup. I wonder if it could be made as well, or in the same way, in the “woke” 2020s.

Talking of soup, food is prominent and vital in the Sopranos… but that, along with technology, belongs in another post. This one is long enough already. Thanks for reading this far.

Movie Theater Musings: From Scotland to Korea

On the day I was due to be born, I went to the movies instead. My parents, having been credibly informed that I was not going to appear on December 11, went to see Treasure Island in Thurso, Scotland. They enjoyed the movie (not sure whether I did), and I remained in the womb until December 22.

As this century unfolds, movie theaters (or theatres, depending on where you live) are in trouble. That was the case even before Covid. Do I want to have to travel to a theater that I may have to share with inconsiderate people and their cellphones? Do I really need to see that particular movie when I can watch thousands of movies at home?

It depends. It depends on many things. I’ll focus here on the movie itself. I recently tried to watch the much-praised Korean movie The Handmaiden at home: to be specific, on an iPad. I couldn’t, for reasons including: it’s very slow; there are many other things I could be doing (e.g., YouTube, Kindle, faster-paced movies); I don’t understand Korean…

I think I would enjoy The Handmaiden if I saw it at the movies. It would probably be in an arthouse with an attentive audience.

What sort of movies do you particularly want to see at the movies, rather than at home?

Dune at the Movies

More than month late, I saw Dune, aka Dune Part 1 or Dune (2021). I wanted to see it on a big screen, more than I’ve wanted to see any movie in a theater for many years. I’m glad I saw it on IMAX and with Max, my teen son.

I’ve read the book a few times, but not for many years. Max hasn’t read the book yet, but I hope that he’s about to start it. I suspect that I was in the sweet spot to see Villeneuve’s movie: if I’d read the book recently, I’d have been frustrated at some of the things left out of the film; on the other hand, I remembered some of the exposition that’s in the books but not the movie.

My overall impression and comment is that it would be hard to do a much better job of filming this notoriously unfilmable novel. I still find Frank Herbert’s world fascinating, about 60 years after he wrote the novel. Villeneuve brings it to the screen wonderfully, mixing huge shots of ships, buildings, and the desert with intimate close-ups of the characters.

My only reservation bigger than a quibble concerns the sound. When I asked Max how he liked the movie, his first comment was that his ears hurt. Mine hadn’t been comfortable either. I mainly blame the theater and its wish to show off its sound system: my ears were assaulted from the start of the preview for Top Gun: Maverick.

That said, I’m not sure that Hans Zimmer’s score is entirely innocent. It’s about as subtle as a Top Gun preview.

I’m about to go over to my Letterboxd account and give Dune the full five stars. My reservations are tiny compared with Villeneuve’s achievement in bringing Herbert’s huge fiction to the big screen.

Getting Back Into Movies

I haven’t been a regular movie-watcher for far too long. There have been many reasons for this, including parenthood, Covid, and attention span problems. Now, as my attention span returns, I’m returning to movies, mostly through the internet rather than movie theaters.

You can see what I’m watching by visiting me on Letterboxd. I mean to keep logging the films I watch, rating most of them, and reviewing some of them.

My favorite source of movie reviews is the YouTube channel deepfocuslens. Maggie is my favorite kind of YouTuber: what I term an ELK, one who is Enthusiastic, Likeable, and Knowledgeable.

I must get to a theater soon to see Dune, which I have been looking forward to seeing on a big screen for years. My most regular movie-going years were during graduate school, when the theaters in the mostly-dead malls between Amherst and Northampton (Massachusetts) used to have “twilight shows” for $2.50. That was cheaper than renting a videotape. (That comparison will illustrate how long ago I was in grad school.)

What is your current view of movies? Eclipsed by TV shows? Products for the dying institution of the movie theater? In a golden age made possible by new technologies of production and consumption?

Beeswing: Richard Thompson’s Memoir

Richard Thompson is my favorite musician. Between 1967 to 1975 he was involved with some of my all-time favorite music.

So I read his memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975, as soon as it was published (on April 6, 2021). If you need a sample of RT’s work, you could do worse than the song “Beeswing” (which is set during and after “the summer of love”).

Beeswing the book was well worth reading, especially for the painful passages related to Fairport Convention. If you don’t find painful stuff worthwhile, then you’re probably not a fan of RT’s music, and won’t enjoy this book. One of those passages describes the 1969 road accident that took the life of Martin Lamble, Fairport’s drummer: an excerpt is available at Rolling Stone.

Other passages are wrenching without being deadly, such as the sacking of Sandy Denny, and Richard’s decision to leave Fairport.

RT’s book, like his music, made me laugh amidst the darkness. I loved the scene in which he and Nick Drake were on the same Tube platform. RT “had to strike up a conversation, or what would pass for one, between two socially inept introverts.”

I loved Beeswing because I love RT. I think I love it more than it deserves: towards the end, RT seems uncertain about what to include and how to cover it. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles is in many ways a better account of the same scene. To use the Goodreads 5-star systems, White Bicycles is a 5, whereas Beeswing is “only” a 4. But I’m very glad to have bought it, and will re-read it at least once.

Rick the Musical ELK

An ELK is a content creator who is enthusiastic, likeable, and knowledgeable. One such is Rick Beato: musician, teacher, and much more. Rick has just posted to his YouTube channel the 100th entry in his series, “What Makes This Song Great?”

In each entry, Rick demonstrates how the different parts contribute to the whole track. My favorite example is the third in the series, on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”, with a great account of Larry Carlton’s guitar solos.

Who are your favorite MusicTubers?

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

Rights are being declared, death is being dealt with support raised by the rhetoric of rights. So it was in France and elsewhere in the late 1700s. There are many ways to make this time even more dramatic. One, of course, is to write a rap opera about Alexander Hamilton. Another is to write…

A novel that adds magic to the revolutionary mix. That’s H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. It features many different points of view (PoV) and places. We start with Fina, a girl of six, being taken from Africa to the Caribbean as a slave.

We soon move to England to join William Pitt, then a twenty-year old lawyer concerned with a case about magic use. “Even Commoners are allowed to use magic to defend themselves,” he points out to a senior colleague. Other PoVs include that of Robespierre, thus giving us a French revolutionary perspective. Multiple PoVs can be confusing, but they are not here: it probably helps that many of the PoV characters are famous from history.

This is a big book in terms of themes: rights, slavery, politics, loyalty,… and magic. Parry mixes the themes well. For example, what limits can and should be placed on magic? Is magic use a right for those who have magic powers? How, if at all, should governments curtail the use of magic?

It’s also a big book in terms of pages: there are over 500 of them. I might have enjoyed the book even more had there been fewer: in particular, there is a lot of conversation.

Parry set herself a big task, and achieved her ambition. She blends historical character and fact with a magic system. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which I gather will be very France-focused. I don’t think we’ll meet Alexander Hamilton–who was by the way consulted by the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But perhaps a third volume might tell of the role of magic in the American Revolution?

Senior ELK Plays Bass on YouTube

My favorite YouTubers are ELKs: they are enthusiastic, likeable, and knowledgeable. Many of them are young, but youth is not necessary. Today’s ELK is even older than I am.

Leland Sklar has been a professional bass guitar player for over fifty years. Wikipedia lists some of the hundreds of artists he’s worked with, and projects he has worked on.

Leland’s YouTube channel is wonderful. My favorite videos are those in which he plays along with tracks, as well as talking about the people and songs involved. Today, Leland went way back, with a recording (and play-along) of a rehearsal featuring James Taylor and Carole King.

Leland is a great musician. He’s also a warm and compassionate person. Today’s video shows all of that, along with his impressive white beard.

Legendborn: Finished, Enjoyed; Sequel?

I finished Legendborn, Tracy Deonn’s debut novel, full of admiration for the way she brings into present-day southern USA black history and white legend. To be specific about the latter, she draws on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

So there’s magic, and Merlins. As we get in to the novel, there are other magics. Deonn is very good at combining opposing elements: different magics, past and present, black and white.

Legendborn doesn’t get a five-star review from me, although it has many five-star reviews on Goodreads. It is clunky at multiple points and in multiple ways. In my previous post, I remarked on an early scene that made me almost abandon Legendborn. Leaping to the end, I felt that the author was jumping up and down telling me that I should be frantic for the sequel.

That said, I think I’ll read the sequel. What about you?

Legendborn: Good February Read, Not Great Start

Legendborn is a book I almost did not finish (DNF, as we say on the bookweb), but am now enjoying greatly. Please let me tell you why I’m glad I got through the first fifty pages (of the US hardback edition, numbers may differ between editions).

Debut novelist Tracy Deonn tells Legendborn in the first person. Bree, the protagonist, describes herself as “Black” and “a smarty-pants”. Legendborn starts in February: Black History Month, and the month in which Bree’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run, crushed inside her car. Later the same year, Bree and her friend Alice move to Chapel Hill to start an early college program.

This is a young adult (YA) fantasy novel: Bree is 16; we encounter fantastic elements, including memory manipulation and monsters, from the start of the book. I tend to like YA fantasy, although I am hardly young.

I particularly enjoy fantasy when it draws on myths and legends. Legendborn, as the title suggests, does just that. Some of the students at Chapel Hill are descendants of knights of the round table, one a descendant of King Arthur Pendragon himself.

I love the way that Deonn intertwines two strands of Bree’s experience: present-day Black, and ancient Arthurian. There are actually more than two strands, but combining these two is impressive enough. Arthurian legend is the palest lore this side of Snow White. Bree’s entry into the Arthurian white kids’ club presents a challenge for Bree and for the author. Deonn writes it superbly.

And yet I almost gave up on Legendborn. Why? Early on, the writing annoyed me. There is excessive use of italics. There are some very. Short sentences. Some of which don’t have a. Verb. Then there is… well, let me provide an extended quote by linking to a photo of page 17 (again, page number may differ in your edition, but it’s the scene in which Bree meets Selwyn Kane). I shuddered so much that I almost DNF’d right there. The next 200 or so pages have rewarded my perseverance.

I’ll post again about Legendborn when I finish it, which I will do in the next few days: so in the first half of this Black History Month. In the meantime, what do you think of Legendborn, based on your own reading, on this post, or on opinions expressed elsewhere. By the way, thanks to the booktubers whose enthusiasm for Legendborn got me past the DNF stage.