Getting To The Root Of The Problem With ‘Family Tree’

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Before I get to my thoughts on HBO’s newest pilot, Family Tree, I thought I’d give a little back-story on me: I fucking love Christopher Guest and I think ‘Waiting For Guffman’ is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. In fact, if you snapped your fingers at me right this second and said “Go, fatboy!” I could probably act out the entire film before your very eyes. At least up to the “Penny For Your Thoughts” segment. Phew, ok, so that’s cleared up. Anyway, last night I watched the Pilot episode of Family Tree on HBO. The only concrete pieces of information I had on this show were that it was created by Christopher Guest (check), it stars Chris O’Dowd (check) and it’s an HBO Comedy Series that doesn’t chronicle the lives of Manhattan Debutantes with buckets of money and lifestyles predicated on garnering male validation via sex (double check!). I had heard previously that the premier opened to “soft numbers” in the ratings, but I pay no attention to something as abstract as statistics in viewership! Having now watched the first episode, I will say that this show is not exactly off to a rip-roaring start.

The first scene of the show takes place in a car where Chris O’Dowd and some other British chick are having what I assume to be a conversation although I understood/could intelligibly hear about every 9th word so Jury’s still out on what was actually going down. The thrust of the scene was that Chris O’Dowd’s character had been summoned to see his father for some yet unknown reason and that’s where he and this chick were going. Also, there was a monkey doll in the back seat which to me read like: “Insert quirky element here”. We then learn that Chris O’Dowd’s Great Aunt had passed away and that she left him this chest of dusty old mementos she’d collected over the course of her life. And might I just say that while Michael McKean’s English accent was flawless, there was very little that was funny or dynamic about his relationship with his father. From then on, we see Chris O’Dowd casually decide to investigate the contents of this chest, introducing his somewhat annoying and thoroughly tedious “best mate”, a small reveal about one of the items from the chest, a bad, flatly-written first date and then the show was over. I genuinely felt like there were seven scenes missing.

Generally, It felt like each scene softy and timidly crawled into the next, but there was very little vigor or life-force to the show propelling the story forward. I think the problem that I’M having with this show is that none of the characters are especially interesting or funny. I mean, let’s be a little bit real, Christopher Guest’s films are so hilarious because of that sense of spontaneity, experimentation and obviously improvisation with the actors. I’m fully aware I only have 1 episode to go on here, but that sense of freedom and chemistry certainly seems to be lacking. The whole thing felt very dry, which for any fan of Guest sounds like absolute nonsense. The relationship I really couldn’t get a handle on was Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and his best friend. It seemed entirely underdeveloped and, unfortunately, not terribly compelling. They had this ambiguously pugnacious interaction but had no pizazz or inherently funny details to keep me interested from scene to scene. And don’t get me wrong, I love Chris O’Dowd’s charming, cute “everyman” quality but for Christ’s sake can you give this man SOME defining character traits!? You might as well have put skinny jeans on a shamrock (like because he’s Irish?) and fed the lines through Roger Egbert’s unused voicebox and left more of an impression. Maybe I’m just too loyal to the old gang but I wanted to see some Catherine O’Hara and some Parker Posey and some Eugene Levy! I miss them. I will say by the end of the episode I ALMOST warmed up to the chick with the monkey but she just seemed like such a 1-note that I remain unconvinced.

The story’s delightfully simple premise didn’t really shake out the way I wanted it to either. It just felt there was so little urgency that I kept thinking “what’s the point? Where is this going?”. And the idea of Tom searching through his family history wasn’t framed in anything. Like WHAT was Tom doing before this that would logically drive him to dig through his lineage? Where was the set up? It just felt like the whole show was kind of drifting aimlessly in this contextless world with a very tenuous idea struggling to anchor the whole operation with something interesting. Ok, ok, I feel myself unraveling into a hostility puddle here but the more I think about it, the more I realize that nothing from this show really landed properly. And as I’m sure you’ve gleaned from this, I had pretty high expectations. Let me just say, Christopher, I expected better my friend ­čśŽ

Here’s hoping the first episode was a fluke and the subsequent season turns out to be the most genius and hilarious piece of television that ever was!

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Aiming to Shed Light on Urs Fischer’s Installation at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.

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Art is something that, the older I get, I seem to have less and less of a grasp on. As someone with little to no formal education on “fine art”, I always feel glib in giving my interpretation of artists’ work or attempting to assess exactly what art is. And that value on what makes art important certainly seems to evolve with a person’s age (certainly for me). I think too that so much of what a work of art is hangs off the place it happens to be. A rusty old soup can on the street is just that, but resting atop an ivory podium in a glass case in the Guggenheim it obviously takes on a whole new dimension of “meaning”.

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With that in mind, I wanted to impart my thoughts on the new exhibit at the Geffen Contemporary Museum at MOCA. The exhibit is spearheaded by Swiss-born American artist Urs Fischer. Urs actually has work displayed in both MOCA locations downtown. The concept of the piece is this: 1,500 people in the Los Angeles area were invited to the Geffen and handed a mound of clay at their disposal to create anything they wanted. Having walked through the whole installation, I will say that in my somewhat glib opinion, it is everything art should be. In the past, I’ve always harbored this sense of ambivalence about typical museum fare; “Am I moved and inspired because I feel like I should be or because the art is that powerful?”. Well, walking into this exhibit I had little to no expectations and my immediate reaction was truly one of awe! I walk in and shuffle down a corridor past the entrance where you see a massive, life-size “Last Supper” display completely fashioned out of clay. It was a pretty staggering thing to see. Once I passed by, there was a ramp towards a clearing where I suddenly realized how massive the installation is. Like a monochromatic war-zone, there’s an endless array sculptures, scraps and shrapnel pieces all composed of clay strewn all over the floor. It was quite a sight to see. Each individual, handcrafted piece of at had its own completely unique identity (obviously since it was made my different people). Although I do think the fact that each piece used the same material gave it all an air of subtlety so that everything had almost an interpretable aura to it (especially in the context of the work around it). If there’s one word that immediately came to mind it would be immersive. It’s not a work that’s contained in a space so much as a work that becomes and transforms the space. And in that sense, it becomes a more visceral artistic statement because the notion and the condition of the space doesn’t influence the work.

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The rest of the installation was spread across a concatenation of rooms and platforms and each little nook had its own display. Some certainly larger in scale and scope than others. Some of the pieces were beautiful, some were scary, some were vulgar, some were pretty funny and some were downright perplexing. The most powerful piece to me was arguably the “centerpiece” of the installation and was a nearly two story tall roman statue composed almost completely of wax. It depicted three people climbing on top of each other towards (in this case) the skylight in the building. At the top of the highest figure you could see it was melting from a series of wicks inside it that were lit on fire. It was absolutely gorgeous. The face of the highest figure was black and charred from the flame and literally melting to the ground while the other two figures were etched with expressions of horror. It was beautiful albeit unsettling. In some of the rooms towards the back of the museum there were a few pieces that had splashes of color: a life-size wax mold of a man wearing a suit and an orange office-chair. Both of which were lit like the statue by wicks and were actively melting. From a purely visual perspective, this little smattering of color cast against an otherwise drearily uniform grey palate, created this wonderful pop that I personally found wonderful.

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What I appreciated too was the sense of immediacy it all had. There was a balance of intricately crafted sculptures with haphazardly molded mounds. But the notion that it was all assembled IN that one space seemed to break a barrier of “placement” that I often feel in museums. There were smears of clay on the floor and little scraps hanging on railings and walls in a way that made the art feel “live”. It felt created rather than placed. I think there’s something to be said about art that was created at the place of its exhibition. Not to get too far into it but it harkened back to my college days studying Walter Benjamin and his theories about the fading aura of art in the “age of mechanical reproduction”. There was very much a sense of authenticity and immediacy about all the work. On a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder how the hell they were going to get these 100’s of lbs of clay out of there but I digress.

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Urs seems to really utilize the SPACE he’s given to its absolute full potential, bending even breaking it to suit the work he’s creating. And what I find inspiring above all else is how collaborative his vision is. It’s incredibly modern in scope: in the age of crowd-sourcing and YouTube propelled talent, I think it’s incredibly refreshing that Urs didn’t hesitate to engage a community of people in realizing an idea. This collapses another barrier of identification between spectator and art. The lingering idea that not just artists but everyday people produced this work that’s hanging around a museum aided to a sense of connection with the piece. The collective work also has a history and was part of a process, which lends to its sense of being “live”. It’s a wiki-art project and I dig it.

Urs Fischer is clearly a talented and dynamic individual and this is utmost representation of that as far as I’m concerned. With his newest work at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, I take it as a little nudge to create something meaningful in my own life.

TV Review: Inside Amy Schumer – I Want You To Take Me Deeper, Amy

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Comedy Central’s latest piece of original programming, Inside Amy Schumer, just made a big wet splash in cable ratings last night. The series premier, nestled into a 10:30pm time slot, just exploded into the homes of 1.6 million Americans last night (making it Comedy Central’s biggest hit of the year). Oddly enough, for a show so grounded in the plight of the modern woman and so saturated with pussy jokes, it seems to be doing especially and remarkably well with young adult males. Perhaps all the hapless dudes in the dating pool are just taking copious notes on what not to do during their next sexual encounter.

I had pretty high expectations for this show. I hadn’t exactly been a long time champion of Amy’s being that she’s only been visible in the industry for a few years, but I DO think she’s really fucking funny. Maybe it’s my inner gay man that loves all the “naughty chick humor” but I could watch Amy change her tampon and read the phone book and be laughing. If you have the balls to make a joke about Patrice O’Neal’s grandmother’s asshole to his face then I’m on board. So, then, having seen the first episode of this show, I can say that I will certainly keep watching but I wasn’t exactly blown away.

The show has kind of a jarring format. It’s essentially a sketch show intercut with her stand-up, street interviews and sort of candid conversations with other people in entertainment where she can be “real” but still be “funny”. Now this all sounds fun and groovy in theory but given that the show is only a half hour, some of it feels a bit like filler attempting to zip it all up and keep it fresh, keep it moving. Amy is so naturally funny but, unfortunately, suffers from the stand up comedian’s affliction of not really being able to act that well (*cough* *cough* Jerry Seinfeld). The skits, which are the meat and potatoes of the show, were certainly the strongest part (some more than others). As someone who used to be super overweight, pale and sexually confused, I literally couldn’t have crafted a more on-point oeuvre as the “One Night Stand” segment: Amy has a one-night stand with some dude, and the rest of the piece is done in split-screen showing their subsequent, respective days: Amy is researching this guy’s whole life story online and picking out a wedding cake while he poops and takes a nap. That’s real. A little too real.

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The rest of the skits were perfectly funny, although I almost felt the subject matter was a bit desperate at points. It’s almost as if she sat down, and said “Ok, what do edgy comedians joke about? Race, sex, STD’s…got it”. The skits where she’s the most self-depricating, glimpsing into her horribly misguided dating life, were by and┬álarge┬áthe most effective. If I’m going to go ‘Inside Amy Schumer’ I want to see what’s really going on in there. Although perhaps the problem is that sketch comedy isn’t really her niche. Judging from one episode I’d be curious if she can even sustain new material for the rest of the season. And having listened to her interviewed on Howard Stern, she seems to be the funniest behind the artifice and letting it all hang out. She may just be a Kathy Griffin, rather than a Tina Fey.

That being said, I’m certainly not ruling this show out just yet. And I certainly haven’t cancelled any recordings on my DVR. I just hope that a┬átepid premier┬ácan be attributed to the whole operation still figuring itself out (like me my first year in college). But next time Amy, I want you take me deeper!!!