frontiers

mm right guard

At The A.V. Club, I examine how Mad Men uses images of cowboys and astronauts as symbols of freedom — and just as often, as avenues of imagined escape:

These superficially discordant visions of cowboy and astronaut are fundamentally similar: exploring a frontier, expanding the mapped world, and returning home to tell the tale. Astronauts orbit and return to Earth. Cowboys ride the range and bring the livestock home. These connotations of repetition and return undermine the frontier’s twin promises of opportunity and escape.

That contrast is at the heart of Mad Men, which asks whether people are capable of change—and whether they want to be. Amid the show’s flamboyant parade of changing styles and social mores and its characters’ shifting families and career trajectories, it’s easy to ignore how often they lapse into repeating old patterns and recreating the relationships they learned in childhood, no one more than Don Draper.

kill is kiss

Pontypool screenshot

A year ago on The Toast, I discussed Pontypool, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:

St. Valentine’s Day is an excuse to express our most intense or obscure passions. But words can be a frail tool to capture the complications and complexities of this thing we call love: the sweet blush of infatuation, the kinship and kindness of true companions, the frenzy of unfettered lust, the torments of jealousy, betrayal, or heartbreak. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that three films set on Valentine’s Day hinge on the fragility and feebleness of words, creating worlds where meaning and reason fall apart.

pleasure party

Kane picnic

Irony alert:

Orson Welles’ iconic “Citizen Kane” has been set for its first-ever showing at Hearst Castle on March 13 as part of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

The movie will be screened at the private theater at the massive hilltop estate — the inspiration for Xanadu in “Citizen Kane” — for about 50 people. Tickets will cost $1,000 each and proceeds will benefit the festival and The Friends of Hearst Castle preservation group.

No, wait, there’s more. It’s not just that the Hearst Castle is hosting an elaborate, expensive screening of Citizen Kane, the film William Randolph Hearst famously tried to suppress, using every threat and contrivance at his considerable command.

The event will also include live auctions of a pair of Hearst Castle party packages — a movie night for 10 and a pool party for 10 at the indoor Roman Pool — with bidding starting at $7,000.

Because if there’s one message to take from Citizen Kane, it’s that extravagant outings and ostentatious gestures lead to happiness.

“Sure, ya gimme things! But that don’t mean nothing to you!”

Other suggested auction items for the Hearst/Kane pleasure parties:

Starting at $50: One good cigar, wrapped up to look like toothpaste or somethin’, delivered to your door.

Starting at $5,000: Enjoy a week of private lessons from Signore Matiste, vocal coach to the stars. His motto: Some people can sing, some can’t. 10 packages available, schedule inflexible.

Starting at $20,000: Spend one thrilling night as the star of your very own opera house! Only one package available! Bid early, bid often!

Flat $1 donation: An anonymous account will tweet @ you, then delete, an image of a girl in a white dress holding a white parasol. You will see it only for a moment, but you may revisit the image as often as you like for a lifetime.

Benched for the season

Benched - Season 1

I could have mentioned this back when the season started: I’ve been covering Benched, a legal sitcom created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones and starring Eliza Coupe and Jay Harrington, for The A.V. Club. USA wraps up the first season with back-to-back episodes tonight, and you can catch up with my reviews for the full season here.

It started out as a whip-fast workplace comedy that leaned heavily on Coupe’s facility with physical comedy and open-ended rambling and a plausible but predictable will-they/won’t-they romantic angle between the leads to the detriment of the excellent supporting cast. As sitcoms went, it was entertaining and zippy, but nothing special.

But as the season went on, Benched evolved from a show I enjoyed into a show I loved. The characters developed and deepened (including great roles for Maria Bamford and Oscar Nuñez), the tentative flirtation broadened into a friendship, and the show set its sights audaciously on the legal system, portraying a world where there are no villains, no antagonists, no bad guys or good guys, just an overburdened institution and overworked, underpaid lawyers working within it. I began the season happy to review a new show; I’m ending it hoping — hoping — to see it return for season 2.

on cheesecake, or missing my father

I’ve been craving cheesecake lately.

It’s a little odd, because I don’t much care about cheesecake. It’s pleasant, and frankly I make great cheesecake, but it’s not something I’ve ever craved. Not until now.

Thanks to social media, today I’ve been privy to several groups of friends chatting at length about what gifts they should get their fathers. And I realized with a pang why I’m thinking about cheesecake.

It’s almost the anniversary of Dad’s death. And instead of thinking about it, instead of reasoning out my sorrow and loss, my body tells me to eat cheesecake.

My dad never needed much, which meant coming up with a gift for him was either very simple or very complicated. The complicated gifts were fun: The big bag of homemade firestarters, fatwood kindling, extra-long matches, and telescoping marshmallow forks, and s’mores ingredients to make the most of the fireplace in my parents’ new home, about which he was so excited. The big flat basket full of fancy paper clips, pens (appropriate for one leftie, from another), nice paper, and magazines to celebrate the completion of a new room on their house, the study he’d wanted for several years. The balsa-light, elegantly carved wood-and-wool dusting tool to clean the top shelves of its built-in bookcases without taxing his overworked lungs and frail arms.

But most years, there was one simple thing he asked for and one simple thing I gave him: a cheesecake. Nothing fancy, nothing gussied up. He liked it as plain and simple as it could get. That’s how I learned to make it when I was a child, and that’s how I like it, too.

When he was young and stronger, I’d make a whole cheesecake for him to keep in the fridge and eat huge slices of until it was gone. As he got older and his appetite failed, I made smaller cheesecakes, or made a batch of two-bite cheesecakes or bars to keep in the freezer so he could nibble away on them for months. He’d call me up, days or weeks or months later, to tell me how much he loved it, and we both knew it was more than cheesecake he loved.

I’ve made cheesecake since my father died — once, for a party a few months later. I don’t think I even tasted it. I haven’t made it since.

But this winter, I will. I’ll make a simple cheesecake, just cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and a spike of vanilla and lemon in a barely-sweet crust. And we’ll eat it. And I’ll remember my father, who loved complicated things and simple things. And I’ll think about how our relationship was complicated and simple, and how much I love him.