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Portland in the Spotlight

On a recent visit to the Smithsonian Institution, I was surprised to see an exhibit about the Hollywood District in Portland, Oregon. The idea was that the booming, post–World War II car culture made Hollywood’s main drag, Sandy Boulevard, into a lively commercial strip catering to both pedestrians and motorists. I grew up near Sandy Boulevard, and the huge Technicolor dioramas of stores, drive-in restaurants, a Mediterranean-style movie palace and even the re-creation of an automobile showroom brought the neighborhood vividly back to life. The family that owned the car dealership lived down the street from us. I saw my first film, Ben-Hur, in that tile-roofed movie palace, and, gosh, to think, just six years later I was tossed out on my ear for lobbing water balloons off the balcony during Shenandoah. We certainly didn’t think of ourselves as part of any significant cultural shift. It was just the neighborhood. My good-natured mom, usually eager to get my friends and me out of the house, would give us a dollar to go to the Tik-Tok Drive-In (nostalgically glorified in the exhibit) for Cokes. The height of sophistication was Fred Meyer, a huge local emporium that still sells just about everything anyone would ever need—in those days this came down to candy bars, school supplies and weekly editions of Mad magazine and Archie comics. The pièce de résistance was that Freddy’s accommodated cars with a rooftop parking lot (the Smithsonian exhibit made a big point of this), connected to the shopping floor below by escalators. To bored kids stuck in the neighborhood, an escalator was tantamount to having an amusement park ride in your backyard. But our welcome came to an end when a friend and I decided to ride our bikes down the up escalator. Portland_connects_sideEnough with the nostalgia. I indulge in it only because I was annoyed to see my childhood so neatly packaged as a part of Americana. Historic Americana, at that. As a native of Portland, though, I should be inured to seeing the small city of my youth in the spotlight. When I was a kid, no one could find my provincial backwater on a map; now it’s everyone’s favorite place on the planet. Portland is famously hip, weird, wine-savvy, creative and all sorts of other things that, I have to admit, come together quite appealingly in an easygoing but exciting way. Maybe I should learn to tame the tinge of resentment I feel every time I come upon an episode of Portlandia (which I will never like) or read yet another New York Times article about the Portland restaurant scene or the city’s ubiquitous food carts. After all, I can still enjoy my memories of moody, rain-slicked streets and the ever-present scent of evergreens. Maybe I should be flattered that the scenes of my childhood are considered worthy of a museum. Photo courtesy of darynbarry/Flickr

by Stephen Brewer

Mar 2, 2015

To Fear or Not to Fear?

Black Mirror is a good, thought-provoking show, but it isn’t revolutionary. It’s exactly what we should have expected. The British drama focuses on modern technology—screens being the titular black mirrors—and it’s brutally critical of our contemporary existence. But with episodes set not now but in a future “10 minutes from now,” networks (and viewers) can still pretend it’s not about us. Of course, it is, though. The six episodes that comprise seasons one and two deal with issues like cloning, the impact of online opinion polls on political behavior, an elaborate theme park set up to punish a woman who aided and abetted a child murderer and a future in which people gain financial credit by pedaling stationary bikes and not blinking as they watch an endless stream of bad TV. It’s all just a little too far out there to be believable, except that it kind of is, you know? That’s the sick part—and what makes it so hard to look away. Many have noted Black Mirror’s similarities to The Twilight Zone, and show creator Charlie Brooker (How TV Ruined Your Life, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, You Have Been Watching, among others) acknowledges that Rod Serling’s eerie 1960s series was indeed an inspiration. The sci-fi conceit, Brooker points out, allowed Serling and The Twilight Zone to address controversial issues despite vigorous network censorship. “If he wrote about racism in a southern town, he had to fight the network over every line,” Brooker notes. “But if he wrote about racism in a metaphorical, quasi-fictional world—suddenly he could say everything he wanted.” Brooker wants to make us wary of technology, to get us to think about the way we use it, obsess over it, depend on it. Obviously there’s some irony that this is happening on TV (one black mirror) and that we’re talking about it on the internet (another). So my question is, is the medium for this message purposeful, unavoidable or an error? For Brooker, it’s probably both purposeful and unavoidable; he has made his living critiquing TV on TV for years. But does this background qualify him to address such issues or render him too close to do so? One may well ask the same of viewers. Are we truly capable of being critical of technology? Or do certain story lines fuel our fantasies about future possibilities? In the episode “The Entire History of You,” people can pay to have a “grain” implanted behind their ear that records every moment of their life (and almost everyone does), so a jealous husband uses his wife’s grain to prove she’s cheating on him. In “Be Right Back,” a grieving woman is introduced to a new technology that brings her lover back from the dead—sort of. Are we actually horrified by these episodes or a little turned on? Black_Mirror_connects_sideJust as modern advertisers have figured out how to convince us we’re in on the joke, Black Mirror is in some ways a brilliant new phase of marketing, wherein the very idea of “must-watch TV” is subversive. Watching the British prime minister screw a pig on TV (“The National Anthem,” the series premiere) is unthinkable. Yet Black Mirror’s self-selecting audience—savvy viewers enmeshed in modern culture—must watch the show in order to critique it. What’s presented on Black Mirror is terrifically disturbing, but we’ll keep watching because the alternative is even more frightening—our own faces, alone, reflected back to us in a black, empty screen. Photo courtesy of Everett

by Emily Burns Morgan

Feb 27, 2015

Shamelessly Living on the Edge

When you first think of the term antihero in today’s television world, you probably think of names like Walter White, Carrie Mathison, maybe even Frank Underwood. But what you should be thinking of are the Gallaghers—the crazy yet lovable TV family living recklessly on the south side of Chicago in the Showtime series Shameless. First, there’s Fiona, the oldest of the kids, recently arrested for accidentally letting Liam (the baby) get into her cocaine. Then we have Lip, the smart one who left his drugs and girl problems on the south side to go off to college. Next is Ian, who has a violent boyfriend named Mickey. There’s Debbie, who may have gotten an older guy drunk in the hopes he would take her virginity. Also Carl, who became convinced he had cancer—all so his dad could cash in on the insurance. Finally, we have Frank (William H. Macy), the alcoholic, homeless paterfamilias whose mission in life is to figure out who he can scam next for drinking money. Even though each character on Shameless is completely insane in their own way, you can’t help but love them for the underdogs they are. They’ve grown up having to take care of themselves, and they look out for each other when the chips are down. This sets them apart from families in similar shows (such as the Botwins in HBO’s Weeds), in which drugs, crime and downright dysfunction pile on. The Gallaghers clearly love each other, and they have a redemptive quality of familial pride that seems to increase with each passing episode, rather than diminish. Shameless_connects_sideA remake of a U.K. show of the same name, Shameless started out strong in 2011 and has actually gotten better over the years because the characters grow in unconventional yet wholly believable ways. The writers push boundaries of insanity I’ve never seen on any other show, and they know which storylines to emphasize to make things ridiculously entertaining. For example, the unlikely relationship between Ian and Mickey gets tested as Ian discovers he may have inherited bipolar disorder from his mother. This happens right around the time when the cops shut down their primary source of income: the prostitution business above the neighborhood bar, with Mickey’s pregnant, Russian wife as the goods on offer. With the exciting surprise reappearance of Fiona’s old boyfriend, Debbie fist-fighting the mean girls on the street and Frank trying to crash in the room of the dead kid from whom he got a liver transplant, I’m excited to watch how the chaos plays out. Photo courtesy of Everett

by Stephanie Adams

Feb 25, 2015

An Uncommon Friendship

Thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs is the thoughtful and appealing young narrator of Esther Freud’s skillfully observed new novel, Mr. Mac and Me. Set in a small fishing village on the Suffolk coast just as England enters war with Germany in 1914, Mr. Mac and Me centers on Thomas’s friendship with Charles Rennie Mackintosh during the Scottish architect’s years of exile. Thomas’s curiosity is a delightful window onto this world, framed by his innocent pleasures: running through the woods, checking on a bird’s nest, doing his nightly rounds to ensure the village’s safety. But Thomas’s life is not without worry. For one, his father is an abusive alcoholic. Thomas is also acutely aware of his role as the family’s only living son, and with their finances in peril he is anxious to keep his position with Mr. Allard, the local rope maker. Because of a slight lameness in his leg (as well as his mother’s protectiveness), Thomas has to stay close to home, even though the men he most admires make their living at sea. He can’t sail on the boats he loves so fiercely, but he makes several attempts to sketch them, and these promising but unschooled attempts are what bring him the attention of the Scottish newcomer. Mr_Mac_largeThrough Thomas, Freud follows the lives of the villagers, as well as their growing unease surrounding Mac. In this time of unrest, Mac’s brogue and propensity for walking around with binoculars, which are mistaken for “spy glasses,” arouse the suspicions of the local citizenry. The villagers don’t like it, for example, when Mac sticks around after war breaks out, and they’re encouraged by the newly published Defense of the Realm Act to inform on any odd behavior, large or small. But despite his being a stranger, Thomas befriends Mac, and their relationship illuminates Mackintosh’s mysterious, worldly life. Thomas is deeply curious about Mac, his artist wife and the mercurial nature of their habits—not to mention the troubling letters and paintings labeled in German, and the circumstances surrounding their frequent separations. By turns attentive helper and ardent spy, Thomas has concerns about his friend’s activities, and does his best to help Mac navigate unseen dangers. With lovely and engaging prose, Freud draws every piece of small-town life to evoke the privations of war. Thomas’s irrepressible wandering introduces us to the inns and taverns and the customers they serve, notably his father. We see Mr. Allard lament innovations that will render his rope making obsolete. We see the business opportunities, the romances, longstanding friendships and all the villagers who make this world turn. While it’s easy to be swayed by the heroism of combat stories, Mr. Mac and Me is equally powerful for portraying the quiet sacrifices of those who escape the battlefield without escaping the war. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Nicole Bonia

Feb 24, 2015