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Washtenaw Flaneurade
22 January 2012
Sound Is The Blood Between Me And You
Now Playing: The Hold Steady--"Banging Camp"

Portlandia (2010-)

My favorite American band of the 1990s was Sleater-Kinney, the lead guitarist of which was one Carrie Brownstein, on whom I developed a substantial crush at the time and since (I started listening in 1997, around the time of their classic release Dig Me Out). Sleater-Kinney (who sadly disbanded in 2005) were the longest-living, most critically acclaimed, and arguably most visible survivors of the Riot Grrrl movement, discussed earlier in this blog through the context of Sara Marcus' superb history Girls to the Front, again well worth reading. On my initial move to Ann Arbor (almost ten freaking years ago), I could only take a CD wallet containing 15 or so CDs, and chose to devote it entirely to the Kinks and Sleater-Kinney. That's how much I loved (and still love) them. As with many of the Riot Grrrl bands (and their one-time fellow travelers, Nirvana), S-K had roots in the Pacific Northwest; members had gone to the famously liberal Evergreen State College in Washington State, and the band took its very name from an interstate (not freeway--I haven't gone that Yankee) exit sign in Olympia. I've never been anywhere near the Northwest, despite a strange fascination with the place since childhood (largely due to its maritime Native American cultures). Many have shared this general interest over the years: Portland, Oregon, ever since I can remember, has rivalled Austin, Texas, as a whirlpool sucking in many of the brightest and most offbeat of my friends and acquaintances (often before occasionally spitting them back out again). Portland's reputation is all the stranger when one considers that the residents famously (and perhaps apocryphally) don't want people moving there, as too much growth might allegedly spoil the place (my chef friend James from Louisiana is, to my knowledge, one of the few non-slackerly successes). As a result, I have no interest whatsoever in moving or living there, despite its serving as home to two of the coolest women (and artistic figures) in the entire universe: Brownstein and, of course, Ursula K. LeGuin. That's okay, though, as I now have Portlandia to tell me what's going on in the twee capital of North America.

Brownstein, after leaving Sleater-Kinney, wrote a music blog for NPR that I mysteriously never got around to reading, and began to collaborate with her friend Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live fame on a TV show affectionately lampooning her famous-in-certain-circles town (spoiler alert: that's basically Portlandia). Armisen was--is?--probably my least favorite major performer (after Chris Kattan) of the third "Great Age" of SNL (1975-80, 1986-93--the greatest era--and therefore 1995-2008, assuming the latter began with the arrival of Will Ferrell--or Ana Gasteyer, in this house--and the departure of Amy Poehler). There seemed to be less to his characters, his Obama impersonation was... impersonal (and, as some have observed, racially problematic), and--though I'm probably the only one for whom this is important--he was the performer who cracked up the least during the premiere of "Debbie Downer." It probably doesn't help, to be sure, that, though I watch SNL irregularly these days (and on Hulu and Splitsider, to boot), I'm a diehard partisan of Bill Hader. Maybe his heart just wasn't--isn't?--entirely in it, because he's great in Portlandia, executive produced by SNL's caudillo Lorne Michaels for IFC. Opening its first episode, "Farm," with a gently anthemic hymn to the city, Portlandia posits the existence of a place where the "dream of the 90s is alive."

Excited as I was to see Portlandia, and as highly recommended as it came from a few friends, I found myself beset with conflicting emotions as I watched. The theme music didn't help; a pathologically chill track from Washed Out, it gave the impression of a world cast in amber, a hermetic bubble in which values that ought to stand forth proudly fold in on themselves and corrode through mutual self-congratulation. That tortuous sentence gives some idea of my uneasiness, but maybe it was just sappy nostalgia on my part. It felt very 2000, weirdly enough, a time when my major formative decade had ended and a more jaded, disastrous time was about to begin, so that might also have something to do with my reticence. Still, the idea that Portland is so unique will sit a little strange with those who live in similar enclaves (or indeed in bohemian locales and neighborhoods set in bigger cities across the country). I'm not sure that the show's sui generis feel is meant literally; something tells me that one of its initial selling points was its applicability to certain viewers nationwide (certainly those who habitually watched IFC). Austin and any number of college towns, including my own, come to mind, but then Portland seems to be more a state of mind than an actual place. 

The show's structure is fittingly vague and elusive. "Fred" and "Carrie" live in Portland as show-business refugees, years of experience under their belts, and serve as observers and participants in the bizarre tableaux the city occasionally delivers. They also play the vast majority of the sketch characters, enlivened here and there by mostly spot-on guest stars (even Heather Graham seems to fit in as an incongruously happy journal-writer lusted after by Brownstein's feminist bookstore owner). Kyle McLachlan (born and bred relatively nearby in Yakima, Washington) shows up frequently as the laid-back, with-it mayor (a phenomenon certain Michigan residents will likely recognize, even if it more or less robs me of a story device elsewhere) who decides to use Fred and Carrie as a cultural assault cadre, coming up with a theme song for Portland and developing the city's major league baseball team. Characters politely, neurotically, and ironically rampage through coffeeshops, bookstores, libraries, and "artspaces" with oblivious abandon, self-awareness a crime unthinkable. 

The sketches are generally funny, but in a way that annoyingly nags at me. It doesn't seem like they should be. Part of this, I think, is down to the show's "have-its-cake-and-eat-it" approach to the specifically Portland nature of the material. Armisen's techno-freakout in "Farm" is pretty common to the entire industrialized world, if Facebook is any indication, and the self-absorption and cluelessness demonstrated throughout the show, bohemian though it is, is hardly unique to Portland. It puts me in mind of Mike Nelson's take (in his Movie Megacheese) on Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998): "It's a bizarre method of satirizing a group of people recognizable only to the eight people being satirized, though it gives me hope for my as yet unproduced film, which satirizes my old roommate Calvin. It's a scathing indictment that focuses on Calvin's annoying habit of using our hot pot to cook noodles in." Strangely, that kind of tunnelvision is pretty true-to-life for "Portlandian" locations, and so the show in some ways represents its subjects a little too accurately. It's reminiscent for me of the hooplah over the term "hipster," "finally" sinking into the non-"Portlandian" "mainstream" via certain media. Living on more than a few margins of mainstream culture myself, I've personally grown weary of the constant, hyperactive self-analysis that produces this kind of debate, and the largely skin-deep comedy that Portlandia  correspondingly produces depresses me just a little. I do like that it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but it also doesn't really add anything genuinely new to the conversation. Maybe I'm just expecting too much, or miss the 90s--some of which were actually quite horrid for me--too bad, or have simply lived in certain places just a little too long. 

And yet... "when you point, I think of a penis." There's enough gold in Portlandia to keep me watching and keep me laughing. The wrongness of some of it works in its favor; I was put in mind of Portlandia friend Miranda July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). I went into the thing largely without expectations, and thought I would hate it at one point. By the end, I adored it, and couldn't quite figure out how that happened (still can't). The emotions weren't as extreme during Portlandia, but the process (if such it was) felt similar. A case in point is the Harajuku Girls bit: two "Japanese hipsters" go to Portland as "coffee culture" tourists. They giggle and point at increasingly smaller cups of coffee to the musical accompaniment of some anime cartoon or videogame--you have to see it, which you can. To an extent, it's Portlandia in a nutshell, making fun of something with which maybe three or four metaphorical people are familiar, and like much of the show, it veers dangerously towards solipsism. Then, they try to hook up with this silent, strange-looking man-boy (dude, if you're reading, which you aren't, then believe me when I say that no offense is intended; I still get carded sixteen years after the big day, even with the Army of the Tennessee beard I'm currently wearing), and things get strangely brilliant. Somehow the stark intrusion of that one character makes it a genuinely surreal experience, instead of yet another tiresome pop culture satire. Many of the sketches that tend towards overlength and the very preciousness they seek to lampoon (which is most of them) are saved in the nick of time by these "stingers"--the dog-loving couple at the restaurant comes to mind. The pre-credits sequence for "Blunderbuss" is another great example, with a fabulous performance by "Jennifer." And then there are simply great sketches with no need for last-minute saves at all, though not many.

The show is heavily veined with music, and this emphasis generates some of its strongest and funniest moments. The episode "Aimee" sees 90s songstress Aimee Mann (a belated favorite of mine) show up as Fred and Carrie's housecleaner, whose employers alternately try to curry favor with her by ripping up images of Suzanne Vega and pinatas of Sarah McLachlan and then browbeat her to clean better. "Blunderbuss" revolves around an all-city music festival, which fends off the attempted entrances of dreamy guitarist "Sparklepony." Wonderfully played by the Decemberists' Jenny Conlee (Colin Meloy and Brownstein's former S-K bandmate Corin Tucker also show up elsewhere in the episode), Sparklepony's recurring fantasies of combing a pony arise in response to every slight and setback. In a fittingly ironic touch, Conlee physically resembles my Decemberists-hating friend in Austin, who pokes fun at my quote-marked Facebook posts and thinks Portland's most famous band of the last decade stole well-deserved thunder from Rainer Maria, whoever they are. There's a Portlandia sentence if ever I saw one.

In the end, though there's a lot of good material, it isn't a particular favorite, not when there's stuff like Parks and Recreation (April herself, Aubrey Plaza, appears a few times in Portlandia) and Community on TV (the first two episodes of 30 Rock's new season aren't very inspiring). I'm not very current with sketch comedy at the moment, and have little idea of where Portlandia stands with its comperes (The Whitest Kids U Know? Are they still around? I didn't really care for their Lord of the Rings sketch). It's become pretty popular among its intended audience, and formed the backdrop for a video from my new favorite American musician. It's funny, but it focuses on too narrow and shallow a target for it to be really satisfying. At any other time, I might have accepted it with little complaint, but considering the personnel involved, not to mention what a televisual embarrassment of riches we presently have on the networks and the Internet, I was expecting a higher game. Still, it's great to see that Brownstein is as charming and engaging a comic actress in Portlandia as she was thrilling and laser-sharp a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney (and is in Wild Flag).

Wild Flag, Wild Flag (2011): Sleater-Kinney came to an end with the release of The Woods in 2005, which had a deeper, more obviously hard-rock sound than their previous releases. Even as their albums grew (slightly) more sumptuously produced in the early aughties (2000's All Hands on the Bad One and 2002's disappointing One Beat), there was still a lean and hungry vibe to the music that had a recognizable connection with early releases like 1995's Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out). The Woods featured fuzzed-out guitars and a marriage of punk and prog aesthetics that threw many fans off but which excited me with the potential of a new sound to revitalize one of my favorite bands. I observed at the time (thinking that the comparison had already been made, though I haven't been able to find it online) that Brownstein, a declared fan of Pete Townsend, had traded him in for Jon Entwistle. Sadly, the band called it quits and the members went their separate ways until 2010, when Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss reunited, with keyboardist Rebecca Cole and guitarist Mary Timony (the latter formerly frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band Helium), to form Wild Flag, which played shows around the country for the next year and then released their eponymous debut, which, as one can imagine, delighted me immensely.

I could just say that Wild Flag is a mixture of the two aforementioned S-K "sounds," but that would be overly simplistic and probably unfair to the band's two non-alumni (Helium had quite the following in the 90s, and Timony and Brownstein have worked together before in side projects like The Spells). It does seem a blend of S-K's professionally seasoned take on the brash, cocky, and urgently necessary challenge of their native musical culture with the timeless appeal of classic rock (the beginning of "Glass Tambourine" almost sounds like it'll turn into a 70s AM classic). Allmusic critic Heather Phares puts it better than I could here, and I think the takeaway idea is that Wild Flag doesn't feel like a rehash. It's a glorious rejuvenation of 90s attitude for a 10s audience that badly needs it (and yes, simply typing that makes me feel very old). "Romance," the first track, cracks in with a radio-ready pop onslaught that left me happily reeling, and the feeling lingers throughout Wild Flag. "Racehorse" comes close to some of the grinding power of The Woods, but feels very much of the moment. The whole album feels like a united front of everything that was good about its influences, and generates a weird aura of invincibility that feels wonderful this morning. Keep your eyes on these ladies, for they bear aloft a glorious banner. 

All Over Me (1997): The Sichel Sisters--Alex and Sylvia--put this little gem together in the immediate aftermath of Riot Grrrl (or at least its music), and future Wild Flag guitarist Mary Timony's band Helium gives a performance near the end of it. The two apparently never made another feature film, which is sad, as All Over Me's a wonderful evocation of the decade, a touching love story, and an inverse celebration of New York (IFC cinema!). Teenagers Claude (Allison Folland) and Ellen (Tara Subkoff) practice guitar and discuss putting a band together. A gay tenant moves into Claude's building, impresses Claude with his lack of concern for other people's judgments, and instills a weird sort of confidence in Claude's more closeted friend and co-worker Jesse (My So-Called Life's Wilson Cruz). Sadly, he also comes into contact with Ellen's thuggish boyfriend Mark (Cole Hauser, who inspired similar loathing in the underrated Pitch Black a few years later), and the results drive a nasty wedge between Ellen and Claude that brings out hidden facets of their personalities. Claude becomes fascinated by the dashing Lucy (The L Word's Leisha Hailey) and Ellen starts to wonder whether her feelings for Mark are worth the appalling price of being with him. All Over Me came out a couple of years after 1995's flashier, more publicized Kids, but it's a much better movie, dealing with similar themes without the sensationalized pomposity of the other (I saw Kids director Larry Clark's thematic followup Wassup Rockers--an Ann Arbor Film Festival featured work--several years back, and it was awful). The homophobia briefly touched on in Kids becomes a central feature of All Over Me, and it's sobering to think that Matthew Shepard's murder took place after All Over Me came out. This isn't a film playing it safe and easy with the issues. The pace and writing flow very well, the music's terrific (the early S-K song "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" on Claude's headphones), and the performances engaging. The big ones here are Folland and Hauser. Though both Folland and Subkoff are good, Folland has the more interesting story, as the "plainer," more introspective partner in the friendship, and she really brings out her character's inner fire, especially when All Over Me's defining event forces her to face off against her friend. It's doubly arresting to watch her quench that fire while learning how to handle her new relationship with Lucy. Hauser, in contrast, manages to render what could have been a cartoonish ur-douchebag dramatically compelling while leaving hardly any redeeming features. I normally frown upon wholly one-dimensional characters in "realistic" films, but somehow Mark seems to work in context. I'm not sure I've despised a character in a movie so much since Eric Colvin's "Man" in the experimental 2006 British horror film Broken. All in all, All Over Me (didn't mean to do that, but leaving it there)'s a great little film in so many ways, not least for giving the viewer a permanent visual entree into a past era, whose many positives are kept alive, however problematically, by bands like Wild Flag and shows like Portlandia.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 22 January 2012 11:23 AM EST
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