So many affronts, so little space. Ergo I will call out only six middle-brow cultural irritants that make me ponder the arc of civilization. Expect a sequel. For now, this:
David Sedaris — Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, an author and humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll pieces about his family, his lover and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is surprisingly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed. Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan, he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees.
U2 — Because Coldplay is too obvious and Wilco too irrelevant, I’m picking on the most deserving of all bloated, self-important, grandstanding white-people bands. As much as I appreciate the group off-stage — humble, bleeding-heart humanitarians, endlessly concerned with leftie causes and global injustice — as a rock band they represent bombastic blandness. Recycled guitar riffs, repetitive drum beats (if Larry Mullen isn’t rock’s most boring drummer, I don’t know who is), Bono’s predictable pleas for world wonderfulness, and stadium shows of gargantuan gaudiness that exemplify the elephantine excess U2 so vocally rails against. They are an enigma, and forever annoying.
Wes Anderson — Once upon a time the promising filmmaker was so good — inventive, with witty stylistic flourishes and a big, boyish heart: “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” But amid and after those gems, the dandy-as-director became the worst: a manic, preening showoff. Fussy, hyper-designed, mannered, cloying and overwritten — I’m looking at you, “Grand Budapest Hotel” — his movies are like stuffing fistfuls of pure cane sugar into a mouth filled with painful cavities. Cinematic sadism.
Jimmy Fallon — Television’s embodiment of cutesy, mugging, please-love-me sycophancy. Dancing, playing charades, lip-syncing, giggling like a tipsy toddler, pitching guests marshmallow questions while fawning over them with googly eyes and panting tongue — “You’re so awesome!” — he’s the only TV personality I know of who looks like he’s going to piss his pants at any moment.
Outdoor Music Festivals — My nightmare epitomized. I’ve survived many of these, from Pearl Jam at San Francisco’s Polo Field to numerous Lollapaloozas and Days on the Green, to al fresco jazz festivals. Terrible, all of them. Acoustics meant to reach 100,000 people are stretched to gauzy echoes — bands have never sounded worse. Bare, sweaty, whooping flesh is crammed together in slick seas, unbudging, except for girls wiggling on their boyfriends’ shoulders blocking the view of miniature musicians on stage (thank god for JumboTron). Crushing summer heat. Rip-off food and drink booths. Hemp and beeswax candle vendors. Misting tents. Fragrant porta-potties with show-missing lines. Two more words: tie-dye.
Man buns — This is simply inexcusable. Enough has been made about how embarrassingly stupid these pseudo-samurai top-knots are and yet men, mostly young, insist on sporting them (invariably with metrosexual beards, no less). Begging, wheedling, outright shaming, nothing can stop them. It’s a mass delusion — they honestly think they look cool and that these baleful hairballs are not the ultimate caricature of hipsterism run amok. I’ve actually seen seemingly sensible women with their arms around man-bunners. Yes! True! I have! Shoot me now.
She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.
Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.
First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?
From a blog at HoustonPress.com, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:
“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”
No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”
Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.
“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo.
We spoke to Courtney because we had to. We had to know if she was real or just a cartoon character. If she was at all like the effervescent Flo. If she really wore that much make-up and, hey, who does your hair?
Courtney has been playing Flo for several years. Which makes her the face and voice of Progressive, a peer of the Geico gecko (do they ever hang out, compare rates?) and the old Verizon guy. She follows in a heady tradition of corporate mascots, from Palmolive’s Madge to Tony the Tiger.
It’s been quite a ride for Courtney, a senior member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. It began with a simple audition for a commercial. She showed up in a polo shirt and ponytail. She did some improvisation.
“They wanted someone with a lot of personality,” Courtney says by phone from her Los Angeles home.
They liked her and signed her.
Then, the look. That look.
They cut her hair, gave her bangs. They subjected her to two hours of hair and make-up.
“They tease my hair, spray it and stick the headband in it,” Courtney explains.
“And the makeup is like painting a portrait on my face,” she says, laughing. “It’s insane. It totally changes things on my face. It’s like having a mask on.”
One of Flo’s best-known lines is: “Wow! I say it louder.” (You had to be there.)
Courtney has popped up in the movies “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Blades of Glory,” and was one of four leads in the smart adult comedy “Melvin Goes to Dinner,” which won the audience award at South by Southwest in 2003. She also had a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show “Mad Men.” And you may have seen her doing yoga in a Glade commercial.
The job pays well, Courtney hints. She doesn’t have to worry anymore about pesky things like rent.
How much is Courtney like flamboyant Flo?
“It’s me at my silliest,” she says. “You start off with a script, but at the end they usually let me put a little zinger in there. We put a little mustard on it. That’s when it gets fun.
“Flo could be one of my improv characters, always on and sort of cracked in a weird way.”
But who is Flo? What is she? People wonder …
Like this blogger: “Is it her fabulous comic timing, her over-the-top facial expressions, her cute-as-a-button retro flip? Or is it the slight hint of a bad girl that lies just under the surface? The promise of a tattoo under that checkout girl uniform? The possibility of a motorcycle parked out back?”
Her character has been compared to a vintage Vargas pin-up girl, ’50s burlesque dancer Betty Page and, adds Courtney, a “fetish chick.”
“I don’t know what it is,” she says. “The way I play her, she’s pretty much the most asexual thing on TV right now. I think the Geico lizard puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does. But I do think the cavemen are totally crushable.”
Though Courtney is married to a sixth-grade teacher, Flo appears alluringly single. So pine away, in the same brunette-crush way you did with Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” and Velma on “Scooby-Doo.”
Because things couldn’t get much stranger than they already are for Courtney. Top this: People are dressing up as Flo for Halloween.
“That makes me so happy. But I do have to warn them that it takes two hours in hair and make-up,” she says. “I wish them luck.”
The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.
unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.
From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.
These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.
Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.
Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.
But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).
* “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.
* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.
* “Wendy and Lucy” — A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)
Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.
Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.
On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.
“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.
An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”
But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.
For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.
Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server carefully tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown-pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Excavating the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.
Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.
Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.
The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.
“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.
A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.
Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road,” which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.
It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.
If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.
The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unbudging agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.
For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting again.
Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.
Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.
The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a pinch of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.
This one’s a no-brainer: “Freaks and Geeks” had Judd Apatow producing and starred Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Martin Starr. The whip-smart dramedy about outlier high school cliques, the stoners and the nerds, captured school days more incisively, humorously and humanly than any work of art since “Dazed and Confused.”
And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.
When people ask what I think of the sci-fi Netflix series “Stranger Things” — the hot streaming show last summer — my guard goes up, I tense a bit and, mealy-mouthed, I say it’s OK, not bad, pretty good.
In truth, I want to say it’s not that great, it’s overpraised, it’s kinda, well, meh. But I don’t. It’s exhausting being that guy, the crossed-arms critic who can’t “let go” and “enjoy.” (Brother.)
(I bring up the series because the trailer for “Stranger Things 2” is now out here. Season 2 arrives on Netflix, four days before Halloween.)
I didn’t not enjoy the show, he said defensively. It’s entertaining, vivid, sporadically funny. And yet — and this is vital — it’s almost never scary. As much as I stuck with it and went along for the ride, I wanted it to be less of a wholesome family show and more of a spooky supernatural thriller, which is what its premise — a boy is abducted by unknown forces and the fraught search for him is aided by a mysterious girl with psychokinetic powers — promised.
With its largely youngster cast, “Stranger Things” reminds me of a glorified version of ‘90s kiddie show “Goosebumps,” a would-be creepy anthology series that supplied as many chills as a camp-fire spook. Not much is chilling in the Netflix show either, at least nothing you haven’t seen in superior movies from which the Duffer Brothers, the show’s twin-sibling creators, poach and pilfer. The result, as many have noted, is a studied pastiche of ‘80s supernatural thrillers, horror, sci-fi and scrappy kid adventures like “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “The Goonies,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Stand By Me.”
Set in 1983, the show looks good, persuasive in its (at times ham-fisted) period detail, murky cinematography and all. But the Duffers don’t seem to know where to go with their fetishized homages, from obvious period pop tunes and a tinkly synthesizer score worthy of John Carpenter,to apt fashions and hairdos. They coast on the easy fumes of nostalgia that GenXers and retro-mad millennials are so eager to huff.
What plays like a rote missing-persons drama, with bonus scenes of sinister figures in hazmat suits and a slimy monster-thingy, finally feels empty, clunky and too familiar. The show never brushes the sophisticated originality or creep-outs of, say, “The Twilight Zone.”
The Duffers also over-emphasize how cute the boys are with their dweeby tween banter and precocious smarts of incurable nerds. That said, all of the young actors, even the mysterious girl who’s mostly a saucer-eyed cipher (Millie Brown), are quite good.
What actually is scary in “Stranger Things” is ‘80s screen queen Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s shaken mother. Locked in hyperventilating hysterics, she’s strained and haggard, like she might be hurting herself. Shrieking and puffing a cigarette with a quaking hand, it’s a repetitive performance and, if it wasn’t so irritating, a risible one.
Never mind all that for a moment. “Stranger Things” is critics’ catnip. It’s racked-up several Emmy nods and enjoys a 76 out of 100 score at Metacritic and a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I stand baffled, if not bowed.
Again I feel like the ornery outlier, the curmudgeon who won’t play along, lean back, pull out the popcorn. But as a teenager tells his younger brother in the show, “You shouldn’t like things just because people tell you you’re supposed to.”
Like most of the series, it’s not an original idea, but it’s one I’ll stick by.
Perhaps it’s sacrilege to say, but the funniest, most outstanding performances on Aziz Ansari’s great Netflix series “Master of None” are by Eric Wareheim and Nina Arianda. (Yes, by two white people on a brown person’s show. Deal.) I’m talking funny factor and acting wattage. Ansari is himself a crack comic actor — a laser-witted, rubber-faced, helium-voiced mensch, remarkably sensitive, graced with an unassuming authenticity. Wareheim and Arianda are better. They’re eccentric, wild, take more comedic chances. They’re sort of bonkers.
While Wareheim appears in most of the 20 episodes in the show’s two seasons, Arianda was a one-shot guest star in a single episode during season one titled “Hot Ticket,” a masterwork of comic ingenuity, including Ansari and a fine cast spritzed by the deadpan Lena Waithe and the wry and dry H. Jon Benjamin (who also, btw, provides the voice of Archer).
One episode! And she’s practically the best thing that’s ever happened on the show. Arianda makes her blowzy mark during roughly six minutes of screen time. She’s like Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein,” stealing the show with a fizzy vigor that throws the whole affair off its axis.
Let’s be clear. “Master of None” is consistently good and frequently superb. Following the professional vagaries, friendships and turbulent love life of 30-ish Dev (Ansari) in New York, the show throbs with feeling, a millennial “Seinfeld” but with pathos, whose observational insights are both funny and socially and racially attuned. Excellent episodes abound — season two grazes Woody Allen heights of romantic complication — but I find myself returning to “Hot Ticket,” which gets funnier on each viewing.
Wareheim — half of the gloriously deranged “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” — plays Arnold, Dev’s best friend, a 6-foot-7-inch bearded man-baby. Rather thick in the head, Arnold provides uproarious seasoning to Dev’s occasional blandness. With his adenoidal voice and pursed lips, he often traffics in dry, surreal laughs. (Note in “Hot Ticket” his query to his pals: “What if someone sent you a picture of a turtle climbing out of a briefcase?” Believe me, it’s a gut-buster.) When Dev, Arnold and pals gather to watch the BBC’s “Sherlock,” Arnold has to hush them up. “Dudes, can we please not talk during the show? Respect my Cumberbatch!”
Wareheim’s Arnold is reliably present on “Master of None,” yet always a treat. Arianda, who plays a waitress named Alice in “Hot Ticket,” is a novelty to be savored. Her big scene comes when Dev invites her to a VIP concert. He barely knows her, but that changes fast as she performs loud impersonations of Cartman from “South Park,” demands Dev take obnoxious Vines of her, dares herself to give a stranger a blowjob in public and tops things off by stealing a girl’s jacket, then proposes they do some coke and play laser tag. She a gorgeous nightmare, and all Dev can do is watch horrified before running for his life.
Arianda is so good as Alice, she shakes all of us up. A Tony-nominated Broadway performer (“Venus in Fur”), with roles in films like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the actress has a scratchy voice and elastic facial features. She’s pretty and protean, and her Alice might be one of her most off the hook turns. Season three of “Master of None” is a done deal. We can only hope she didn’t scare off Dev too much.