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Larry Sanders: The show behind the show

August, 2012, marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of "The Larry Sanders Show," episodes of which are available on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and DVD. This is Part 2 of Edward Copeland's extensive tribute to the show, including interviews with many of those involved in creating one of the best-loved comedies in television history. Part 1 (Ten Best Episodes) is here.

"Unethical? Jesus, Larry. Don't start pulling at that thread; our whole world will unravel." -- Artie (Rip Torn)

by Edward Copeland

Unravel those threads did -- and often -- in the world of fictional late night talk show host Larry Sanders. On "The Larry Sanders Show," the brilliant and groundbreaking HBO comedy that paid attention to the men and women behind the curtain of Sanders' fictional show, the ethics of showbiz were hilariously skewered.


Emotional fascism -- er, criticism

Ooops. "Emotional Fascism" was the original title of the third Elvis Costello LP, released as "Armed Forces." What I meant to say was that, in my final contribution to The Movie Tree House over at SLIFR, I get all emotional about Mark Ruffalo's teeth, Annette Bening's face and a lonesome cowboy who gets choked up when he calls his mom. Those would be references to "The Kids Are All Right" (again) and "Sweetgrass" (again).

And I bring up the extremely mixed critical reception for "Black Swan" (which is Jason's favorite movie of the year, and one of the ten worst according to the NY Mag/Vulture critics' poll on the subject). Come see what Sheila, Jason and Dennis have to say about it all.

Meanwhile, I'm frustrated to report that, because of other personal and professional obligations, I haven't yet been able to write about "True Grit" or "Sweetgrass" or "Another Year" or "Black Swan" or "October Country," which are among the more intriguing pictures I saw in late 2010 (or the first couple weeks of 2011).


Compatibility and taste: Bad sneakers and a piña colada, my friend

Somebody named Michael Jones -- essentially the same Mr. Jones Bob Dylan wrote about years ago -- appeared on HuffPo recently with a piece called "That Steely Dan Moment" -- you know, about a discovery of musical taste that makes you wonder if you could ever love the person who possesses it. The twist is that he's the one who falls short and doesn't know it. Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening, Mr. Jones.

Anyway, I wouldn't have paid attention except that his story (who knows where or when it originally appeared if it was on HuffPo) reminded me of an article my friend Julia Sweeney did for the February, 1993, issue of SPIN magazine that was written and edited by the staff of "Saturday Night Live." It probably wasn't an entirely original idea then, either, but it was called "Men, Music & Me," and in it she discussed her assessments of collegiate and post-collegiate boyfriends -- using their cinematic and musical tastes as a guide. (Please also see my entry on Carl Wilson's book, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.")


Supply, demand, English food, movies and Paul Krugman

Before I get to the movie part of this post, I want to toast Paul Krugman. He is one of the few public figures I've ever considered a personal hero. (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are, too, and I'm not joking.)

In the bleakest hours of the new millennium -- through 9/11, Iraq, soul-shattering scandals, national elections, and impending financial disasters -- Krugman stood as a beacon of hope and, if you'll pardon the expression, moral clarity in what Nick Lowe (and Elvis Costello) memorably called "the darkness of insanity."

Hired in 1999 as the New York Times economic columnist, Krugman wound up doing what so many journalists, even at his own paper, were failing to do. He reported. Not just what people said, but how what they said compared to independently verifiable reality. Week after week, column after column, Krugman was virtually alone (alongside Knight-Ridder, NPR and "The Daily Show") in pointing out, and explaining the significance of, relevant facts that so many didn't care to notice, even when they were right there in plain sight -- and in the public record, if anyone bothered to pay attention.

He wasn't just a good reporter but a fine critic.


Action: Steven Spielberg & the need for speed

View image Shot #1 (of this clip -- not of the entire sequence). A fairly conventional shot establishing the red car on the left gaining on the orange one on the right. I'd say these shots look a lot cooler on the page (and probably on the computer storyboards) than they do in "action."

View image Shot #2. Red car driver (Taejo) pulls up alongside Snake Oiler (not that their identities are clear from the movie itself).

View image Shot #3. Back to two-shot.

There's no action No no no there's no action -- Elvis Costello, 1978

When I was four years old I went to the 1962 Seattle World's Fair -- the one where Elvis and Joan O'Brien were, according to the ads, seen "swinging higher than the Space Needle" in "It Happened at the World's Fair" (Norman Taurog, 1963). There was a roller coaster called the Wild Mouse, but I was too afraid to ride on it. I did, however, like The Scrambler, which whirled you around in a logical geometrical pattern (although it felt pretty wild when you were on it) that looked really cool when seen from directly overhead, up on the observation deck of the Space Needle. (For years I had nightmares about falling off of the Needle, and if I'd ever hit the ground I would like to think I would have been extra-scrambled by the Scrambler.)


Robert Downey Jr. plays it black

Who's that black guy in between the blonde Jack Black and the tattooed Ben Stiller? It's Robert Downey, Jr.

One of these days I'm gonna play it black Play it black One of these days... -- misquoted Elvis Costello song from "My Aim is True"

What will the Jim Crow "one-droppers" who didn't think Angelina Jolie was "African enough" to play Dutch-Jewish / Cuban-black-Hispanic-Chinese Mariane Pearl make of this? The actor in the center of the accompanying image is Robert Downey Jr., a white German-Scottish / Irish-Jewish actor. He's playing a white actor who is cast in a part originally written for a black actor, so he decides to play it black. The movie, "Tropic Thunder," is a satire of Hollywood actors making an epic war movie. It's directed by Stiller, co-written by Etan Cohen ("Idiocracy," "My Wife is Retarded" -- note that the "h" is not in the first name but the last; he's no relation to Joel) and Justin Theroux (who played a director in "Mulholland Dr." and an actor in "Inland Empire"). Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel and Steve Coogan also star -- along with some big names in cameo appearances.

As Downey told Entertainment Weekly, "If it's done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago. If you don't do it right, we're going to hell." [...]


"I'm F***ing Matt Damon": A critical analysis

Sarah Silverman stands against an overexposed white background, addressing the camera (and her boyfriend of five years, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel). "Hey Jimmy," she says, "It's me." It's the quintessential Silverman line delivery: faux-awkward, sweet and self-consciously cute, but so sharp and precisely targeted that it almost hurts a little. Of course it's her. But where is she?

Well, she's in some netherworld hotel, neither here nor there -- been on the road so long, you know, she's not even sure what city she's in, to be honest -- and she has something on her mind, something she's been meaning to tell Jimmy, that she's been carrying around with her like excess baggage. Dressed in a snug, lipstick-magenta/pink shirt, she stands out, flush and ripe, from the soft pale light that envelops her. She strolls to the right, from one lush, clean-green tropical split-leaf philodendron to another, a sexy and innocent Eve in the unspoiled Garden of Eden (or a hotel lobby facsimile thereof). Her delicate fingers stroke a wistful figure on her guitar, again and again, as she works up the backbone to expose her true feelings. (Insert what we imagine to be a typical candid photo of the happy couple: Silverman draped adoringly over the shoulders of a drunken, blurry-eyed Kimmel.)

View image In the primeval Garden: The moment of first release, the revelation of Knowledge in the Biblical sense.

The segue, if you call it that, is abrupt, jarring. Cut to a close-up of her guitar ("Here it goes...") and a crunching electric riff begins. Medium shot of Silverman as she sings the first line (and the title), with an expression of "Omygod!" on her face, like a teenage girl at a slumber party confessing a crush on the cutest boy in school: "I'm f***ing Matt Damon!" This is inappropriate. Not only is she singing this to her boyfriend, she's doing it on his fifth anniversary show on network TV. She has not only swallowed the forbidden fruit, she has swallowed the serpent: Matt Damon!

Cut to... Damon himself, in tight black t-shirt (like snakeskin!), arms stretched cockily over the back of a white couch as if in post-coital repose. He's been seated just outside the frame, all the time, and he gives the camera a knowing, testosterone-fueled smirk: "She's f***ing Matt Damon!" He's got the cat-with-the-canary grin. The knowledge that he's avenging Kimmel's repeated, disrespectful scheduling slights is written all over his face. He is no longer the butt of the joke, he gets to deliver the punchline. Repeat. Silverman shoots him a naughty-girl look, then shifts her expression to one of rue and sorrow for: "I'm not imagining it's you." Next, in an instant, she grits her teeth and turns into Joan Jett. On cue, Damon launches into a Henry Rollins punk growl and threatens to lunge at the camera, seizing it the way we imagine him grabbing Silverman's waist before they do the nasty title phrase. It begins in a two-shot, with Silverman cheerily bending down into the frame: On the bed, on the floor On a towel by the door In the tub, in the car Up against the mini-barOne can't help but recall Theodor Geisel's seminal "Green Eggs and Ham," in which Sam I Am pesters an increasingly exasperated, unnamed character who does not like the titular dish. In this case, however, Damon and Silverman are turning the tables: The song is an expression of rapacious appetite, and the way Damon delivers it -- with a mad glint in his eyes and a leer on his lips -- is a volatile mixture of lust and vengeful glee. He likes them apples....


Pop notes: 101 essential movies

You must remember this: one of the movies' iconic images.

Further reflections on the 2006 Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO: John Lennon said life is what happens to you when you're making other plans. Life is also the process of finding connections between everything that happens to you (there he goes with that "We're all pattern-seeking animals" thing again!). So, last week at the CWA, three panels I was on ran together in my head in ways I think are interesting. But then, it's my head we're talking about, so I'm probably inclined to think my digressions and free-associations are interesting, otherwise I wouldn't have spent so much time mucking about with them.

Movie Answer Man

Star power overrides ethnicity

Q. I'm curious to know what you think about Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang being chosen to play the lead role in "Memoirs of a Geisha." Ms. Zhang is a lovely and talented actress, but don't you think that in all of Japan there is an equally talented and lovely Japanese actress who could play the part? I wonder if the selection of a Chinese actress to play a Japanese woman will sit well with Japanese fans of the book. Rosanne O'Toole, San Antonio, Texas

Festivals & Awards

The good, the bad and 'De-Lovely'

CANNES, France -- The winners of this year's Cannes Film Festival will be announced at a ceremony Saturday night. As I write, the leading contenders for the Palme d'Or are said to be "The Motorcycle Diaries" from Brazil and "Comme Une Image" ("Look at Me") from France, although there are supporters for "2046" (2005) by China's Wong Kar-Wai, a film I found maddening in its mannered repetition of a few worn stylistic and dramatic strategies. And it is said that Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" will win one of the top prizes; it was cheered longer than any other film in festival history.

Festivals & Awards

Precious cargo

HOLLYWOOD -- There's joy in Middle-earth tonight. "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" led the 76th annual Academy Awards with a record-tying 11 Oscars, including best picture and director. Vanquishing all opposition like the forces of Sauron, it won every category for which it was was nominated.