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Have a happy happy Chanukah

©Joyce Millman

©Joyce Millman

I’m not a huge fan of Adam Sandler, and I’m not a religious Jew, but, oh, how I love “The Chanukah Song.” Sandler nails exactly how it feels to be the kid without the Christmas tree, looking from the outside in every December. Sandler’s litany of famous Jews is an in-your-face self-esteem booster: “David Lee Roth lights the menorah,” and so do James Caan, Fonzie, the Three Stooges and halfsies Paul Newman and Goldie Hawn (“Put them both together, what a fine looking Jew”). There really is no finer declaration of Jewish pop cultural pride than, “You don’t need “Deck The Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock”/ ‘Cause you can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock — both Jewish!”

Yeah, I know, Sandler’s voice is annoying, and the rhymes are juvenile. But I give Sandler props for taking the Jewish parlor game “Is he/she Jewish?” mainstream. Yes, we really do keep a running tally of famous members of the tribe who make us kvell with pride. It’s a conflicted remnant of the immigrant experience; our grandparents, off the boat from Europe and persecution, desired to assimilate and not stand out as an Other, but paradoxically, needed successful, famous Jews — superhero Jews, out and proud, so to speak, Jews — to look up to. The roots of “The Chanukah Song” are embedded in that experience, and in the way it’s still played out today, even in successive and more secure generations of Jews. (“The Chanukah Song” was possibly more immediately inspired by the Saturday Night Live skit “Jew, or Not a Jew?,” a game show parody that ran in 1988. Sandler joined the show in 1990.)

I don’t go to synagogue, I’m actually an atheist, but my identity as a secular Jew must go deeper than I thought;  I am inordinately thrilled by the fact that both Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) are Jewish. And I’m deeply ashamed of Bernie Madoff and Ryan Braun;  yes, that’s the flip side of “Is he Jewish?” — I remember my parents’ great relief at finding out that Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz was adopted.

There’s one important thing about this game that I should mention. Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman are certainly kvell-worthy, but even non-Jews know that they’re Jewish. Ideally, what you want from this exercise is to be nicely surprised, the better to feel that surge of Semitic pride. And Sandberg accomplishes this in the immortal lyric, “We got Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby/Harrison Ford’s a quarter Jewish — not too shabby!”

Wikipedia and sports websites like Jewishmajorleaguers.org have made the “Jew or not a Jew?” game much easier (and also settled many a dispute in my home during baseball season). I recently found out that three-time Academy Award winning actor Sir Daniel Day-Lewis is half-Jewish. Not too shabby. And if I were rewriting Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” this season, I’d find a way to get San Jose Sharks forward Mike Brown in there. That’s one tough Jew.

Here’s Neil Diamond (“The Jewish Elvis”) singing “The Chanukah Song” –

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The eternal Chrissie Hynde

Courtesy of chrissiehynde.com

Courtesy of chrissiehynde.com

Chrissie Hynde took the stage of San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Dec. 2 to a recording of Sam Cooke singing “The Great Pretender.” Glittering in a silver mesh riding jacket, with knee-high boots of an animal-friendly material sprayed over skin-tight jeans, she stood with the white spotlight lending a silver sheen to her hair and bouncing off her dangling metallic earrings. She looked like a goddess poised to throw bolts of lightning.

At 63, Hynde is as commanding a presence as she was on the Pretenders’ first U.S. tour in 1980, all sharp angles and feline grace. She still sashays rather than charges around a stage, she still spits out the lyrics to “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys” with a fine-honed contempt that could cut through glass. Throughout her career, she has made tough music about love, sex, rape, abuse, addiction, infidelity, birth, motherhood and mortality. But it’s shot through with a deep vein of tenderness, carried in the dusky beauty of her voice. The shivery vibrato, the way she plays with drama and intimacy, with words sometimes spit like nails, sometimes teased like taffy — nobody sounds like Chrissie Hynde.

At the Masonic, Hynde’s vibrato remained as supple as ever, as she led a new band — called Will Travel, though it featured the guitarist and bassist from the 2008 version of the Pretenders —  through a 100-minute set. The song list was heavy on tracks from her first solo album, Stockholm (2014)as well as a liberal dose of Pretenders’ songs with the emphasis on their first album. But this didn’t feel like an oldies show;  it felt like an artist embracing her past while announcing her intention to not fade away. The Stockholm tracks sounded as bright and current as they do on the CD. Produced by Swedish indie pop musician Bjorn Yttling, Stockholm is a gorgeous showcase for Hynde’s voice, and her Scandinavian collaborators force her out of her comfort zone where melodies and song structure are concerned. She sounds vivacious and dance-floor ready, but still wholly Chrissie, on “Sweet Nuthin,'” “You or No One” and the single “Dark Sunglasses,” all of which she performed at the Masonic.

Speaking of being wholly Chrissie, Hynde is still walking the walk when it comes to her animal rights stance. A PETA table was set up in the Masonic lobby, and notices on the concession areas informed patrons that no meat was being served by request of the artist. There were also numerous signs asking audience members not to use cell phone cameras during the show and to be “in the moment” and not “behind the screen.” Amen to that.  She interrupted a song to scold a camera- wielding audience member who was in defiance of the signs and, oh, how I adore her “don’t fuck with me” face, which always was and ever will be a majestic thing to behold.

But her edgiest move of the night was the surprising (or not) inclusion of the obscure, enigmatic ballad “977,” from Last of the Independents (1994).  Hynde sings “977” with great empathy (both on the record and live) from the perspective of a woman abused by (or maybe engaged in a BDSM relationship with) a male partner. The lyrics equate the violence with intimacy and love (“he hit me with his belt/but his tears were all I felt”). It wasn’t exactly a safe choice, especially as the third song of the night; perhaps it was meant as her take on the current high-profile domestic violence and sexual assault cases in the news. Then again, during “977” I flashed back to that 1980 Pretenders show, and how Chrissie introduced “Tattooed Love Boys” with a remark to the effect of, “This is for all the women who’ve ever been beaten up twice by the same guy.” Maybe the empathetic, un-ironic way she sings “977” comes from a deep place indeed.

By the end of the handful of slow-burning rare and new numbers that opened the show, Hynde had shed her sparkly jacket, picked up her sparkly guitar, and teased the attentive audience (“Scared you, didn’t I? It gets better.”), before launching into “Talk of the Town,” prompting the first stage-rush of the evening.

I can’t remember ever seeing Hynde so chatty and playful. At one point, with the audience on its feet for one of many outpourings of love, Hynde said, “Now, you’re just embarrassing me,” but when, a beat later, a guy yelled out, “You’re beautiful!,” she responded, “All right, keep going.” She and guitarist James Walbourne (who also played a lovely opening set with wife Kami Thompson as the folk duo The Rails) pulled a fast one before “Down the Wrong Way” from Stockholm, when they led us to believe that Bay Area resident Neil Young, who plays signature fuzzed-out guitar on the track, was about to make a surprise appearance. Hynde and Walbourne looked into the wings and called, “Neil?,” before ‘fessing up that Mr. Young was, in fact, not in the house. (In his stead, Walbourne looked like he was having a great time going all psycho on the whammy bar.)

Chrissie even mellowed on those camera phone admonishments near the end of the show, thanking the audience for (mostly) cooperating and then calling out with a smile, “Take one now!” After two encores, Hynde still seemed reluctant to call it a night, returning for a tour premiere of the Pretenders’ beautiful, yearning Christmas song, “2000 Miles.” (A Bjorn Yttling-produced re-recording of the song is set for release next week.)

It was an excellent show, a revitalizing one. But I also found it unexpectedly moving, and I suspect that I’m not the only woman of a certain age who felt that way. Thirty-four years ago, we watched Hynde stand on stage, bangs in her kohl-rimmed eyes, saying “Thank you, girls!” after every song (as opposed to calling the audience “guys”); we watched how her male bandmates deferred to her authority. In that moment, it felt like rock and roll belonged to us girls, truly belonged to us, in a way that it hadn’t before. I felt that way again, seeing Chrissie all these years later, so clearly comfortable in her own middle-aged skin. Still rocking that eyeliner, her lean arms bare beneath a man’s suit-vest, she prowled the lip of the stage in that panther’s glide of hers and crouched over her guitar, throwing lightning with her bare hands.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Just some guys talking about Bruce

albumbox

Below is a promo video for the forthcoming boxed set of Bruce Springsteen’s first seven albums, which have been remastered on vinyl from the original analog tapes. In the video, a select group of Springsteen’s “most loyal” fans (that’s the wording the official Springsteen website used to introduce the video today) get a sneak preview of the remastered albums and share their thoughts.  Let’s watch, shall we?

Notice something missing?  To recap, the participants who are filmed discussing the new boxed set are, with one exception, middle-aged white guys. There is one younger African American guy and one young white guy who proclaims himself a “vinyl snob”. There is a blonde woman who is quickly seen in one of the first pan shots, but we never see her again and her opinion is not included. There is an older blonde woman in the background when some of the guys are talking, but she never speaks. Oh, and there’s a reflection of a woman passerby in the window of the record shop in the first shot of the storefront where the listening session takes place. Probably on her way to the nail salon down the street.

Look, I don’t know what happened when this focus group was created. Maybe the women spoke, but were edited out for one reason or another. Maybe an attempt was made to invite more women, but everyone had other commitments. Maybe the guys never got the memo that they were each supposed to bring a female Bruce friend. Maybe it’s a truth universally acknowledged that only guys can hear the subtleties of remastered sound quality.

All I know is, if you told me that this was an SNL Video Short spoofing Springsteen’s perceived fan base, I’d believe you. Actually, I’m still hoping it is. Just drop Bobby Moynihan as Chris Christie in there, maybe Taran Killam in a “Born in the U.S.A.” bandanna — boom, instant classic.

I have spent 36 years trying to explain to non-fans how wrong their stereotypical view of Springsteen’s music and his fan base is — the Boss isn’t just for (now, old) white guys, honest!  But, hey, if official marketing material is going to reinforce that stereotype, why should I bother?

The irony is, Springsteen himself has long ago put the image of the E Street Band as a boys’ club to rest. The band has women in it, and their voices were an integral element of the 2012-14 tour. The audience has women in it, now more than ever. And think about these classic lyrics: “So Mary climb in, it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling out of here to win”; “Come on Wendy, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” The Boss never excluded women from the journey, the rock and roll adventure. Which makes our exclusion from this promo all the more glaring. We are in this conversation, whether we’re invited or not.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

From the vault: Twin Peaks, in its time

TwinPeaks_openingshotcredits

To be honest, I’m a little surprised David Lynch and Mark Frost are going there again. And a little worried. Twin Peaks was so far ahead of its time in its time, will it meet itself coming backwards when it returns as a Showtime series? Because of Twin Peaks, viewers weren’t put off by the mind-bending metaphysical and supernatural touches of shows like The X-Files and Lost. Because of Twin Peaks, we now watch dramas — whether The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad — with a scavenger-hunt eye out for portents and clues.  What more can Twin Peaks offer to the medium it helped to change?

I wrote about Twin Peaks extensively when I was the TV critic for the old San Francisco Examiner. From the show’s premiere on April 8, 1990, to its cancellation after only 30 episodes (but a lot of doughnuts), I was under the show’s spell as both a critic and a fan.  I wanted to link to some of those articles here, because they capture the sense of what it was like to watch Twin Peaks at the moment it became a cultural phenomenon. But, sadly, the Examiner is not digitally archived.

I do have hard copies, though, and if I can find a way to scan the oversized daily-paper clippings, I will. I did find one immediately scannable piece that I wrote for Image, the Sunday magazine published by the Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle (the two rival papers put out a joint Sunday edition, thanks to an operating agreement too complicated to get into here). I’m proud of this piece, and I don’t think I can write anything better about Twin Peaks right now, not having seen the show in 23 years. So here’s a scanned copy of that essay;  if you’re reading on anything larger than a tablet, you’ll have to click and use your zoom in/out tool to adjust the image. It’s a little clunky, but it works.

I apologize for the use of “Chinese puzzle” in the subhead (which I didn’t write) and the use of “midget” instead of “dwarf” (my usage) to describe the Little Man;  this was written in a less enlightened time. There are also some weird typographical errors in the original, with words randomly hyphenated where there should have been line breaks. Please ignore.

Now, please join me in the Wayback Machine. The dial is set for full immersion, as we travel back to Twin Peaks mania, 1990.

 

TP1

 

 

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

“As the Parallel World Turns” ©The San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, 1990

 

 

The Outlander post, continued: Like a virgin

And so, to bed. (Starz)

And so, to bed. (Starz)

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Seven episodes into the first half of its first season, the Starz series Outlander finally got down to serious business and wedded and bedded its protagonists, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a time traveling British Army nurse from 1945 mystically cast back to 1743 Scotland, and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Highlander outlaw.

The hastily arranged marriage was engineered by Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie of Clan MacKenzie, of whom Claire is a guest/hostage, in order to save Claire from the sinister Redcoat captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. An ancestor of Claire’s left-behind husband, Frank, Black Jack Randall is a sadist tasked with smoking out Scottish traitors plotting rebellion against British rule. He has a special interest in Claire, who he suspects of being an English prostitute spying for the French, and a very special (read: homoerotic) interest in Jamie, who he flogged to within an inch of his life when Jamie was his prisoner.  If Claire is married to a Scot, she becomes a Scot, and can no longer be compelled to obey Randall’s order to present herself for further questioning. Which is imperative, since Randall tried to rape her on their first meeting, and brutally punched her in the gut on their second.

But enough about that. Let’s get to the sex. Because the wedding episode of Outlander did some very interesting things, sexually speaking. Claire is a strong, adventurous heroine who, at 27, is four years years older than her bridegroom. She’s a married woman in her 1945 existence, and flashbacks have shown her to be a passionate lover, comfortable in her own skin, with a wry self-awareness. Jamie, on the other hand, is a devoutly Catholic virgin at 23. So, added to Claire’s anxiety at becoming a bigamist (of sorts) in the episode was the fact that she had to initiate Jamie into his first sexual experience. It’s not often that series TV presents an older woman/younger man love story, let alone one with the heroine taking the lead in deflowering her mate, in which the relationship is not played for laughs and the woman is not portrayed as a rapacious cougar.

But Outlander, like the book series on which the show is based, leaves such cliches behind and unfolds with a proudly estrogenic storytelling swagger. The wedding episode hewed closely to how author Diana Gabaldon portrayed the scene in book one of her series. Written by Anne Kenney and directed by Anna Foerster, it was a marvel of candlelit sensuality and revolved around a ratcheting eroticism that reminded me at times of Jane Campion’s masterpiece of female-centric erotica, The Piano.

Claire and Jamie began by drinking glass after glass of wine and simply talking to break the ice, like any couple getting to know one another. Claire finally worked up enough liquid courage to guide the gentlemanly but eager Jamie into an awkward coupling — he couldn’t even wait for them to get fully undressed before plowing into her. The result is brief and, as the polite but distracted half smile on Claire’s face lets us (and Jamie) know, unsatisfying .

And that happened just within the first 20 minutes. The rest of the episode moved back and forth in time, from Claire and Jamie in their bedroom, to the preparations for the wedding, to the dramatic ceremony (blood was drawn from a knife slash to each one’s wrist, and mingled in a hand-clasp tied in a white ribbon as they took their vows in Gaelic). We saw Claire remove her husband Frank’s ring and shakily begin to accept her alternate reality, to transfer her affections and loyalties to Jamie.

Jamie is an idealization of the perfect man. He’s brave and strong, but also sensitive and sweet. And kilted. And he has this wild mane of ginger hair and that charming Scots burr and the bluest eyes … Sorry, where was I?  Idealized man. Well, of course he is; Outlander is fantasy-sci-fi-historical-fiction-erotica for women, and more power to it.  There is manly man stuff in the saga, like soldiering and boar hunting and fighting and being brutish 18th century sexist dirtbags. But the story’s tension comes from how pointless and idiotic this all looks through Claire’s WWII-weary modern eyes, compared to the near-invisible daily strengths and struggles of the women she meets.

In one episode, a father dragged a teenage girl before the MacKenzie clan chieftain asking that she be corporally punished for her waywardness. In another episode, Claire watched village women setting dye in wool by dipping it into their own urine. She used her nursing skill to diagnose a case of poisoning in a child who was being treated with exorcism, in defiance of the priest who accused her of being a witch. This is the overtly sexist and misogynistic world into which Claire has been hurtled, and to which she must adjust her modern sensibilities if she is to survive. The delicious subtext of Outlander (and the novels) is that as Claire is pulled into Jamie’s physical world, she pulls Jamie into her inner world, and molds him into a prototype of a modern, considerate, but still strong, male partner.

The molding started in the wedding episode. After that first meh coupling, Claire and Jamie fell into more drinking and talking and a mutual opening of hearts, and as they relaxed and became more comfortable with one another, Claire realized that she was well and truly screwed, in the best way possible. She was falling in love. In an electrically fizzing scene, she told Jamie to stand up and take off his clothes, because she wanted to look at him. The camera looked at him too, as Claire walked around his well-muscled body like a museumgoer inspecting the statue of David. We saw plenty of Jamie’s rear and as much front as possible without being full frontal. There hasn’t been this much female gazing at a TV hero since that one season of Buffy where Spike was naked all the time.

Then Jamie gave Claire a crooked grin and told her it was her turn, and she obligingly dropped her nightshift. With the couple getting more turned on as they admired each other’s bodies, they finally toppled into bed and made some of the most joyously un-self-conscious love ever seen on series TV. The scene played as it had in the book — with intense tenderness and intimacy. And hotness. Like pancake batter on a griddle. (Much admiration to Balfe and Heughan for deftly navigating all of the emotional shadings in this episode and giving us a believable portrayal of awakening trust and love.)

Later, Claire took sexual charge again and introduced Jamie to fellatio. And in a reversal of the oft-repeated movie and TV scene where the camera fixes on the face of a young woman experiencing her first orgasm, here it was Jamie’s face registering surprise, arousal and ecstasy. The framing of the shot pulled us, the viewers, into Claire’s perspective; Jamie’s reactions clearly conveyed the power she held over him as lover and sexual instructor. And in giving Claire the power usually reserved for men in scenes like this, Outlander also acknowledged the sexual power of its female viewers. The moment was made all the more stunning and convention-busting by Claire’s obvious enjoyment of going down on her man, an act that has been used on testosterone-infused shows like Game of Thrones and Deadwood, to name two, as a signifier of male dominance and female whorishness. Instead, Outlander gave us a bedroom scene for the ages;  it never lost sight of the “love” in love-making and celebrated female sexuality, instead of denigrating it. I wish that didn’t seem like such a strange thing to see on TV, but it was.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Earlier in the Outlander thread:

 The Story of ‘O': Outlander comes to TV (published 8/8/14)

The Scottish CosPlay: What they'll be wearing next year at Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)

The Scottish CosPlay: What they’ll be wearing next year at Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)

HERE BE SPOILERS! PROCEED WITH CAUTION! THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING!

You never forget your first spanking — of the literary kind. For me, it was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Chapter 22, which will heretofore be known as That Scene.

I had innocently picked up Gabaldon’s sci-fi-fantasy-historical romance page-turner at my local library’s sale of used paperbacks. Eight hundred pages for $2 — what a deal! I knew nothing about Outlander except that it was some kind of best-selling genre series. Harry Potter had ended and all I wanted was another thick, juicy, reasonably well-written escapist read to take my head-space somewhere else. So I gave it a shot.

I settled into the tale of Claire Randall, a British Army nurse during World War II, who comes home from the war to a society, and a husband, with whom she has fallen out of sync. Independent, resourceful, passionate and stubborn, Claire has been useful during the war, patching up casualties under the constant adrenaline-rush of danger. Now, she’s back in post-war England struggling to find a sense of purpose within the shrunken parameters of life as a respectable homemaker. Her husband Frank, a courtly Oxford professor who was a spy-runner for MI-6 during the war, wants to start a family, but Claire hasn’t been able to get pregnant.

The novel opens with Claire and Frank trying to get to know one another again on a post-war second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. The atmosphere is foggy and pagan; they witness a Druid sun-worshiping ritual, the locals speak of ghosts. Then, Claire wanders off to pick wildflowers (she’s studying their medicinal properties), gets too close to some Druid standing stones and — whoosh! She wakes up in the same woods, except it’s 1743, and there’s a Redcoat who looks just like Frank trying to rape her, but she’s saved/taken prisoner by a clan of Scottish rebels, one of whom is a big, ginger hunk named Jamie Fraser, and, merrily a-bodice-ripping we will go.

I don’t want to completely ruin the new Starz TV adaptation of Outlander (the first episode has been running on the Starz website and on various cable platforms for a while, but the series officially starts on August 9) for potential viewers, so let me say this one more time: SPOILERS A-COMING!

Claire and Jamie strike sparks, even if he can’t understand half the things this uppity “Sassanach”(outlander) is saying. Jamie is, in his own way, a lost soul as out of sync with his times as Claire is with hers. He’s a deeper, more curious, thinker than his rough-hewn cohort, with a dry sense of humor. He’s also an outlaw, but it was all a misunderstanding, really. They spar; they bond; they make wild, passionate, dirty (as in, it’s 18th century Scotland and everything is filthy) love while the clan plays cat and mouse with Frank’s sadistic ancestor, British Army captain “Black Jack” Randall. Yes, Outlander (which is the first in an eight-book series) had me from page one. I was enthralled by the boldly insane plot, I adored thoroughly modern Claire and her sometimes ill-advised attempts to bring feminism to the kilted savages. Eventually, I got to Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”), nearly 400 pages into the book, where Claire attempts to find the time portal to get back home, and ends up endangering the safety of the clan and Jamie has to discipline her with a belt and HELLO, WHAT THE HELL AM I READING?

Surprised as I was by Chapter 22, I had an, um, intensely favorable response to That Scene’s extreme hotness. As a feminist, this sent me into a crisis of conscience. I put the book down, unfinished, for a few weeks. I searched my soul. I started the book over from the beginning. I liked it just as much the second time through. I finally said, Screw you, conscience, if this is my kink, so be it.

For years, there has been plenty of discussion in reader forums about That Scene, and there will be plenty of discussion when it finally airs somewhere down the line (executive producer Ronald D. Moore is on record promising that the series will be faithful to the book). Is That Scene violence against women, domestic abuse? Or is it a sexy development that arises naturally out of the story, given the personalities of the protagonists? My feeling about the way it plays out in the book is that it’s more the latter than former. Gabaldon sets her story in an overtly brutal and sexist era; a belt-wielding hero feels right at home in this milieu.

If your mind is going to the icky — and totally invented for TV — scene in Game of Thrones where a crossbow-wielding Joffrey orders prostitute Ros to spank, then gruesomely beat, another whore, stop. That scene was the reason I gave up watching Game of Thrones, although I have devoured all the books. It was gratuitous, demeaning and brutalizing to the female characters, and, at that point in the story, unnecessary — we already knew Joffrey was a sadistic monster.

On the pages of Outlander, by contrast, the punishment to which Claire finally acquiesces in much the same way a mutinous soldier accepts military discipline, is a complex act, more than just a one-sided male-titillation or hack “taming of the shrew” theatrics. It’s a face-saving necessity to keep the clan from turning on Jamie and meting their own much more brutal “justice” upon Claire for her recklessness. In That Scene, Gabaldon makes it clear that Jamie and Claire are in this together, the good and the bad, as a team.

For Chapter 22 alone, Outlander is often compared to Fifty Shades of Grey. But there is nothing sexy in the latter’s tedious BDSM-ish romance, mainly because Christian and Ana are not truly partners in their dom-sub contract; she enters into it only because she wants to Reform Him With Her Love, and he is a raving, damaged stalker who often crosses the line from S&M play to outright abuse. But it’s also difficult to give a crap about two characters as ineptly drawn as Christian and Ana, particularly when you can feel E.L. James blushing and saying “Ewwwww” behind every sex scene.

Diana Gabaldon is no blusher, which is part of what makes Claire such a robust heroine. Outlander is written from Claire’s intelligent, confident and adaptive perspective, and that perspective is deeper and more reflective than Ana prattling on about her inner goddess. Claire likes sex. She would prefer not to be stuck in a time warp while having it, but there you go.

It’s a relief to see how well cast the show is. Sam Heughan is suitably beefy as Jamie, but with a pleasing vulnerable cast to his good looks. He doesn’t appear until the first episode is more than half over, and the pace quickens considerably when he does. Heughan has a demanding role ahead of him, embodying a literary character who ranks up there with Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff in the eyes of some women readers. I wish him godspeed.

Irish actress Caitriona Balfe is Claire in soul and fiery, sensual spirit. There’s a scene in the first episode where Claire and genealogy buff Frank are exploring the ruins of a castle and she perches on a dusty table, opening her legs to reveal that, underneath her crisp traveling suit, she has gone commando. Balfe’s sexual confidence in this scene is breathtaking. But Balfe makes just as forceful an impression in the prologue of the first episode. Elbow deep in the gore of a wounded soldier in a battlefield medical tent, Claire barks orders to the men around her, and is obeyed. A beat later, peace is declared and she doesn’t know what to do with herself . As nurses, medics and soldiers celebrate, she stands apart, dazed and covered in blood, and hoists a bottle of Champagne to her lips.

The scene is a foreshadowing of the dirk-wielding, herbal healing “medicine woman” Claire is to become when she falls through the wrinkle in time: Fierce, courageous, unflinching Claire is a warrior at heart, which is what draws her to Jamie. In post-war England, her wildness has to be tamped down, her promise stunted, but in her alternate universe with Jamie, it’s allowed to fly free. In turn, Jamie — who’s more civilized and thirsty for knowledge than he can let the clan know — recognizes Claire as a strong, enlightened mate, much more interesting than the local lassies.

Episode One gave me faith that producer Moore (of the Battlestar: Galactica reboot) would at least give Outlander a fighting chance to transfer to screen with its spirit undiminished. Moore is no stranger to sci-fi with rich layers of subtext, and Outlander is bursting with possibilities. Is the Highland fling with Jamie a manifestation of Claire’s restless, war-excited and war-traumatized inner life made flesh? Is this her conflicted psyche working out her fear of/longing for motherhood? Her anxiety over subsuming her identity and independence to make a proper marriage with Frank? (Adding fuel to that psychological fire, the same actor, Tobias Menzies, plays both Frank and Black Jack.)

Outlander has already been called the feminist answer to Game of Thrones. But I think the more apt comparison is the feminist, gender reverse of Doctor Who. Claire is a time traveler who can’t go home, but minds her exile less and less; she roams through time and space, healing, enlightening and fighting the patriarchy with as much female love, hope and ass-kicking energy as she can get away with. Instead of The Doctor’s (almost unanimously) young, attractive female companions, though, Claire has a strapping lad in a kilt. And on this wild ride, knickers are optional.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Can we talk?

 

Before Amy Schumer …

Before Sarah Silverman …

Before Bridesmaids …

Before Chelsea Handler …

Before Kathy Griffin …

Before Sex and the City …

Before Roseanne …

Before Gilda, Jane and Laraine and all their Saturday Night Live daughters …

Before The Golden Girls …

Before Rhoda Morgenstern …

Before Bette Midler …

There was Joan Rivers.

And when she walked out on a stage and said, “Can we talk?,” she wasn’t really asking for anyone’s permission to be loud. To be raunchy. To be abrasive, sexually forthright, honest, ambitious, Jewish, herself.

Most of all, she wasn’t asking for anyone’s permission to be funny, or to be a woman. And in telling, not asking, she became a being so powerful that some men in her field still deny that such a creature exists:  A funny woman.

Because of her, we’ll never stop talking.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Courtesy HBO

Courtesy HBO

I always thought Robin Williams bore an uncanny facial resemblance to the double masks of comedy and tragedy.  With his prominent nose skewing toward his prominent chin, he could go either way, and he took you along with him, whether into the blazing, manic hilarity of his stand-up, or the unforgettable cry of grief that ends the 1986 PBS “Great Performances” film of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.”

Williams was a genius of comedy, agile, fearless and riffing at warp speed;  his 1980’s stand-up appearances on The Tonight Show, hosting Saturday Night Live and HBO specials were watershed moments in the era when comedians became rock stars. But his funny movies never quite did his rapid-fire, inventive, anarchic comic spirit justice, maybe because the camera always caught the hint of the tragic mask peering through. On film, he was better suited to serio-comedy, like Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning Vietnam, or drama leavened by a flash of gentle humor (his Oscar winning role in Good Will Hunting). Ironically, the movie that really “got” Williams, that knew what to do with him, was one in which his own face didn’t appear — Disney’s animated Aladdin. Watching the blue genie is like mainlining the purest distillation of  Williams’ sly, exuberant mischief.

Robin Williams’ death has sent the Bay Area (where I live) into deep mourning. He was a long-time resident of Marin County, he worked the San Francisco comedy clubs (often unannounced), he was a regular out and about, at Giants’ games and rock concerts (I lost count of how many times I saw him at Springsteen shows) and lending his talent to just about every worthy cause in town. Right now, I can’t imagine San Francisco without him.

That such a large-hearted life-force was struggling with private despair and demons is almost too tragic to bear. So let’s end this on a laugh, and let the comic mask be the one we remember best.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

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