SouthLAnd: Coker plays the blues

In Fixing A Hole, writer Cheo Hodari Coker got to play the blues with his script, laying down classic grooves, finessing new phrasings, and blowing hard when he needed to. This script was like the jazz in Kerouac’s On The Road: raw, real, skillful and powerful.

The episode was also notable for finally bringing Yara Martinez in from the periphery of the show. She has a quietly hypnotic acting style that consumes her scenes in the best kind of way. Up until now, playing Nate’s widow Mariella Moretta, she’s been doing beautiful, haunting work with the briefest of screen time, but in this episode she got to take center stage with her warm, emotional artistry. In fact, this was something of a theme: Fixing A Hole was all about taking control, moving forward, taking your moment in the spotlight. What you do with that moment is what defines you.

It was a simple blues in some ways, asking the question, what makes a man or a woman who they really are?

Whether it was Lydia and Josie wrangling their alcoholic witness, Cooper and Sherman chasing down leads to find out what had really happened to 9 year old Michael Peterson, or Sammy taking his suspect out to the desert and making him dig his potential grave, the characters had to deal with or face up to their own darkness, or the darkness of those around them.

Coker invoked old time Hollywood as well as his usual perfectly chosen and delivered array of pop culture references, everything from Charlie’s Angels to Transformers (C. Thomas Howell nailed Dewey’s line, “where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”), to the king of crime and old-school 40s Hollywood, James Ellroy himself. “I had a callback for L.A. Confidential,” says Lydia’s witness as they have dinner at the Pacific Dining Car (“James Ellroy’s favorite restaurant”), “then I found out Kim Basinger was interested. Story of my life.”

These kinds of references really make the script pop; they give it swagger and life. Coker is a master at this game, but he can write lines that fly at you like roundhouses. When Sammy tries to persuade a bank teller to waive a rule to make things easier on Mariella as she deals with Nate’s accounts, he clinches his case with “he was killed protecting your right to give her shit.” Damn. Elsewhere, Michael Cudlitz had the line of the episode, as Cooper loses his shit with a social worker. She tells him she has a master’s degree, to which he explodes, “And I have a PhD in street, who gives a shit.”

The episode was beautifully shot by Christopher Chulack, who is a maestro of the RED One cameras and the way they capture light. Chulack always finds the most interesting and yet utterly unobtrusive angles from which to play each scene. Allison Anders did a beautiful job finding the angles of truth in her episode Sideways, and Chulack did the same here.

Interestingly, SouthLAnd has always been deliberately sparse musically — aside from the pilot and one or two episodes after that in season one, it never used soundtrack music. That changed with Coker’s Punching Water episode earlier this season, which featured a montage to music. And with Fixing A Hole, Coker brings music to the streets again, introducing the great, booming blues song “Something On Your Mind” by Big Jay McNeely (I think this is the right version), first within a scene (as Sammy shows up to get his suspect), but then over the final shot of Sammy coming to grips with all kinds of realizations about himself, and his complex relationship with Nate’s widow. In many ways, SouthLAnd is the raw, painful ballad of Los Angeles, and Coker is one of the show’s finest players.

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I’m a freak bitch, baby

So, 2009 is over, and 2010 beckons: The Year We Make Contact, as the movie states. It’s always interesting, reaching years that have been movies and books. I’m sure 1984 was a surreal year, with the 1984 novel-inspired imagery of Ridley Scott’s Apple ad, and the subsequent breakthrough of Apple macs. Now we wonder, what will we make contact with? Truth, beauty, enlightenment, the Apple Tablet, also known informally as the “everything-killer”? It feels as though – culturally at least – the last 10 years have been a climb to the summit; the horizon of a new world is sweeping into view. 2009 is just a glimpse in the rearview mirror now. It’s vanishing so fast that there’s no time for a full recap; instead, I propose a little game: name the cultural event of 2009. The lists are always segregated: personality of the year, books, movies, albums, songs. The prize should be greater, all pitted against all: the 2009 Ultimate Culture award. Kind of like ultimate fighting, but more cozy, and with cups of tea. What one thing/person/event really captured the essence of 2009, defined it, represented it, distilled it? Something new, innovative, groundbreaking: it has to be an evolution, taking our awareness of what culture can be to a new level. Something we’ve never seen before. First contact. There are several, possibly many contenders. New Moon, Where The Wild Things Are, Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner, Glee… These swirled in the cultural eddies of 2009, but we need to be more ambitious in our search, looking for the lunar forces that drove the cultural tides upon which these other things were carried. Using criteria of boldness, execution, brilliance, and impact, I nominate the following:

1) Jay-Z, Blueprint 3
2) U2 360 Tour
3) James Ellroy’s novel, Blood’s A Rover
4) Lady GaGa. Nothing specific, just Lady GaGa.

Jay-Z stepped up with a groundbreaking, brutal assault on the future, delivering his eleventh number one album in an unforgiving display of redefinition; U2 expanded the concept of the stadium show exponentially, taking it into space; James Ellroy’s prose crackled and punched with violent arcs of raw electricity, each word a sharp spark, each page a cascade of live wires flipping with the power of the current flowing through them.

But. Lady Gaga. Hard to compare to any one of the previous three, let alone all at once. But Lady GaGa was, simply, everywhere, and not just famous for being famous; propelled into the cultural stratosphere by actual talent and creativity. Innovative costumes (Kermits! Spinning geometric hoops! Bubbles!), intricately brilliant, baroque-ly constructed operatic pop-dance mini-epics… It was as though 2009 considered what it needed, really sat down and thought to itself, what would best sum me up, and lo, it created Lady Gaga, a pop star and musician totally of 2009, totally of the moment, created by the moment, built from the moment. 2009 was a year for brilliance, boldness, confidence: we had recovered from our Y2K anxieties, the horrors of the start of the decade, the paranoia about what to call the damn decade (the aughts, the zeros, the noughties…), there was even a start to economic recovery – we surged forward with our bold Star Trek remakes, our uncompromising adaptions of Sendak picture books, really launched ourselves into an ever more densely packed cultural landscape (vampires, werewolves, Yankees), happily embracing more than ever world-changes wrought by visionaries (IMAX 3D, Harry Potter, iPhones, Pixar – seriously, Steve Jobs = man of the decade), and we found our stride this year, and in a moment of Taoist brilliance, the universe rewarded us with the perfect reflection of all of this: Lady GaGa. What a year. To use two of James Ellroy’s many thousands of brilliant sentences to describe 2009: “It was all dizzying. It was re-situating, re-wire-all-your-circuits shit.”

Empire State Of Mind / falsetto prophecies

It takes a certain state of mind to never settle, never accept; to always move onwards, deconstructing the past to make something never seen before. A certain kind of ruthlessness. To be new all the time is a fierce position to take. Constantly remaking your world is not an easy thing. Writers, painters, musicians, TV execs, all face the challenge of reinvention; sustaining relevance. Take Californication’s third season: it’s darker and more complicated, rougher than before. Its beautiful soul, in the form of Natasha McElhone, has drifted to the periphery of the show, at least for now. Without its soul it is lost somehow but still has its wayward charm, despite the rawness, the darkness. You fear for it, like you would fear for a charming alcoholic with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The intelligence and wit are there, but with more of an edge, a presence of rage beneath the surface. It’s like a Kris Kristofferson blues, a Warren Zevon comedown lament. Like days ending. The sky darkens, the night brings rain, whispering on the surface of our minds. Massive Attack’s new EP is that whisper. It’s a remixed promo for a forthcoming album – remixing the future this time – a pensive set of tracks. Beauty and loneliness in peripheral vision, half-dreaming. It’s a quiet yearning, an aching that never seems to stop. Much less quiet, disrupting the night with sound and fury, is Jay-Z, whose Blueprint 3 was recently released to a roar of critical approval, and the #1 spot – his 11th. It’s a monument to the relentless pursuit of being the best, the newest, the one and only contender; the Ali of rap, the Beyonce of pop. The album is like a triple-triple-espresso in every beat, like the sentences in James Ellroy’s latest opus, Blood’s A Rover; brutal, condensed violence, densely packed yet overarching, epic – it has much in common with Blueprint 3. This Jay-Z of novelists went so deep into the darkness of his characters to feel them truthfully that he lost himself in a breakdown. It’s the ongoing theme – the danger of journeying into the dark for art. Fortunately Ellroy made it back; truly a giant of American fiction, of any fiction – looming over the literary landscape. The U2 of fiction, towering like the Alien Claw set on U2’s current tour. The monstrous structure rising out of Giants Stadium like a mothership about to lift off, past the intense line of the Manhattan night skyline ripping the night alive, heading away from NYC into a shimmering oceanic density of thousands of glittering lights. The entire structure rippling thousands of times a second with light roaring majestically into space. It’s philosophically astute, this Spaceship set. It shocks you out of your usual ways of experiencing and your perceptual expectations like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, opening your mind to the pure, unmediated experience; what you “know” set aside in favor of what is. Exhilaration, over the top, like the skyline, too beautiful to be real; an empire state of mind. All writers need this state of mind over their own literary kingdoms. We need to build our spaceships and not be afraid to take off. Vision. Vertigo. The two often go hand in hand. Creating the blueprints for the future to rise alongside the skylines we’ve already made. Always hustling, looking for the greatest line, the most perfect four minute song, or riff, or story, or novel. Each one must be the best, better than the last, better than the rest. “I move onward, the only direction, can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection,” raps Jay-Z in On To The Next One. What joins them all is the bold vision that deconstructs what went before and refashions the future according to their creativity, their souls. Like Lady GaGa deconstructing pop to build the mezzo architecture of Paparazzi, then deconstructing Poker Face into a metallic heliosphere and her own unprocessed voice, dizzyingly, exhilaratingly pure, her naked voice the most beautiful it has ever sounded, as though through the metal and light she’s revealing her soul to us with eerie intensity. Like the Weather Project, like U2’s mothership, the lights and fury and sheer unexpectedness of it all shock our perceptual framework sideways and then we experience unmediated exactly what the artist wants us to. With Lady GaGa, it’s her lonely, lovely voice that strips back the meaning of the song and rebuilds it again. U2 do it with I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, utterly dismantling the song and retrofitting it into a pusling techno behemoth that could only exist beneath the Claw. Ellroy does it in Blood’s A Rover, attacking and restacking his narrative style. This might be the mark of the truest artist; they can fragment what came before into something new and beautiful, then deconstruct and remix their own creations into futuristic, stripped back yet magnificent new versions. Striving for the new, finding a new visual, verbal or musical language, a new language of movement in choreography; new ways of moving us and touching our souls. Like Michael Chabon’s Trickster In A Suit Of Lights, the exuberantly talented mischief-maker who exists in the spaces between the things we know. Bono embodies this literally during Ultraviolet towards the end of the show, in his suit covered with red laser-like lights, hundreds of red lines piercing the blue otherworldy glow around him with chaotic geometry. The Trickster looks for the action in the borders between things, the places where new directions take form; this is where U2 dwell, more experimental and progressive than many give them credit for. After two straight-up rock albums, they returned with a quietly ruminative piece, from which they launched one of the biggest rock tours of all time, journeying around the planet in their Spaceship/Alien Claw creation, bringing out of the hushed quiet of No Line on The Horizon the behemoth of the 360 tour. True tricksters (in the best sense) of hearts and minds.
“I’m going in for the kill, I’m doing it for the thrill…” La Roux
This played before the U2 show, as the sun set beyond Giants Stadium, a cool breeze flowed around the massive set and 84,000 people slowly appeared, the crowd intensifying as the sky grew dark and Muse unleashed their stadium-sized post-apocalyptic bombast via screaming, squalling brutal guitar riffing, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto prophecies ringing out loud and clear as the band roared out from beneath. Then the lights went out, U2 lit up, and for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the future came back through a massive rift in the time-space music continuum, spinning and flashing wildly, a close encounter with a future state of mind, an empire state of mind.