Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Today, it prominently features "Dog The Bounty Hunter" in primetime. And when you get down to it, isn't that descriptive clause - "prominently features 'Dog The Bounty Hunter' in primetime" - a working definition of "Smartest Network on TV-on-Opposite Day?"
That's a question worth reviewing because, as in ice climbing or pictures of yourself in high school, you don't realize just how massive the cliff was until you look back at it.
And I want to discuss two shows currently on A&E, one of which is the most unbearable show on the air, a weekly summation of all that's gone wrong (and no, not "Dog" - can there be anything to say about such a show that its title doesn't already shout?)
But it's the other, brand new show I really want to address. Because I'm teetering on the edge of calling it the best show on TV.
So just a few years ago, A&E had “Law and Order” on heavy syndication as its franchise; the dignified and smart “Biography" as it's trophy show; a long list of smart British imports surrounding them; and the occasional well-produced domestic documentary on chaos theory or Egyptian art or Verdi operas or something.
Maybe no one was watching. Certainly everyone talked as if they were.
First, the network lost “Law and Order” to TNT, a devastating blow. In fact, it was a double gut-punch because, for one, at that point A&E and "L&O" were pretty firmly connected as brands. If you caught a new Law & Order on NBC, you'd think, "hey, the A&E show!" But worse, L&O inspired deep loyalty in millions of the most desirable viewers: smart, spendy. nightly addicts. Law and Order was THE guilty TV fix of the 90s, and probably the 4th best thing about the entire broadcast decade, behind Seinfeld, the Simpsons and James Earl Jones-CNN bumpers.
A&E losing L&O was like NBC losing the NFL, Letterman and Cheers all at once.
What was left? Well, actually, less and less.
Soon “Biography” ran out of interesting people (“next week: Penn from Penn and Teller!”) just about the same time they – idiotically – decided to go daily, and then they spun it off as it’s own channel.
When TLC launched “Trading Spaces,” that made open season on stealing good British shows for American audiences. Goodbye to that revenue stream.
Then, as the coupe de gras, Bravo bought the “West Wing," and promptly gave it the complete "Law & Order" treatment - Monday marathon, three times every other day, the latest one at bedtime, first one's free, tell your friends.
And A&E, like a hard-dumped boyfriend, just collapsed. Today, it's probably the worst network on the air, edging it’s sister in faux-dignity, History Channel. The difference is small but vital: History Channel is War porn, while A&E is literally for snuff fans– true crime of the stickiest sort and lots of it.
“Cold Case Files,” “The First 48,” “City Confidential,” “American Justice.” Dreary, utterly interchangeable “real-life” shows about droopy, work-a-day cops paddling upstream against America’s industry of petty killings. And "Dog."
And the network’s signature syndicated series? “Crossing Jordan” and “CSI: Miami.”
Arts and Entertainment, indeed.
So, trying to stop the bleeding, A&E has taken a couple swings at the ‘Reality’ piñata in recent season (Hence, the "Dog" show). I’ve been trying to write about one of the resulting shows for a while, because - in now-typical A&E style – it went not just wrong, but incredibly, fantastically, jaw-droppingly wrong and is now the worst show on TV, full stop.
And the other might be – miraculously - the very best.
I am not one to be mesmerized by the grotesque (car wreck gawking, etc), but I’ve been pulled into the awfulness of “Growing Up Gotti” for 3 full episodes.
I’m over it now, but the scars run deep.
The show is a follow-around of the Osbournes-variety, only the subject is someone named Victoria Gotti, who is related, somehow, to John Gotti. Daughter? Possibly. Evidently, she has written some junk novels and now is a 'gossip' writer for a supermarket tabloid. Not that you can tell from the show.
There are no gangsters, crime or underworld politics on display (which might have been interesting). Just a rich, trashy woman with more money than sense and her three awful sons.
Victoria is mid to late 40s and fading fast, with bottle blonde hair and store bought tits, filthy-helacious rich, living in a comicly palatial Long Island suburban house. Every item she owns, wears or covets screams ‘trash with money.’
But taste isn’t everything so, fortunately, she’s shrill, airheaded and ill-tempered, with ZERO discernable talent, skill, income or even interests. Oblivious to her fabulous wealth, she is bored by the world and pissed that it doesn’t entertain her more. She keeps ridiculous hangers-on around her and spends money without thought or purpose.
One of her vanity habits is to employ young, motivated, smart ‘assistants’ and abuse them terribly.
If it sounds like she is a subject ripe for great comedy, then you've spotted the fatal flaw of the show. Either by contract, laziness or just stupidity, the show takes Victoria completely seriously, even though the world clearly does not. The producers seem to think they are the breathless chroniclers of a dynamic, modern woman's (and a single mom!) fast-paced, high-purpose, deeply complicated life.
Only they aren't. Victoria is a crass, deeply ridiculous, embittered and angry bimbo.
The Smoking Gun seems to get the joke. But A&E can't - or refuses - to see it.
The counter-example is the first season of the Osbourne's, a show which understood it was filming a madman running his own asylum. Every episode, the joke - sick as it was - was on Ozzie (who, to his credit, laughed right along).
Not here. In fact, Victoria is actually the narrator and very nearly the entire script of those narrations are witless jokes about her life that, as she reads the script over the pictures, she doesn’t seem to get (“…but then again, going to dinner with me is always a major production.” Make it stop).
And if it was just her, it would be one of the most boring shows of all time.
Sadly, she has 3 sons. Not for a year of house payments would I have bet that you could produce 3 Italian-American teenagers less appealing than the fictional AJ Soprano. Yet AJ is a regular Sonny Corlene next to the Gotti kids.
Alarmingly feminine and in a perpetual state of entitled preen, the three "boys" (as she calls them) spend thier lives sulking, complaining, joylessly consuming and avoiding eye contact with the world.
Perhaps the show's only real hook is the frustration it inspires. As a viewer, you need to see these three DO SOMETHING. Anything - they are rich, young, the kind of silly handsome that attracts silly girls, and have absolutely no responsibilities or discipline at all. The mind simply can't accept that three such kids would be so willfully dull. As each episode grinds to close, you feel compelled to watch another because - SURELY! - they're about to come to life!
But they never do.
In fact, since the entire show – rich, mafia-linked family living charmed life in the Burbs – is an obvious Sopranos cash-in, a viewer finds themselves jonesing for Christa’fa’ to show up at their door, call them sissies, scare them shitless and take their mink coats for gambling debts.
Yeah, mink coats. Teenagers all, they wear fur coats (well maybe – in one episode, one of them gets cheated out of some princely sum for a “chinchilla” coat that Victoria then pegs as rabbit-hide - hilarious) and piles of jewelry valued in the 5 digits.
Issues like school and the future do not ever cloud their fake-tan faces, and they are the worst kind of phony-tough (in one episode, set loose in a water park full of similar teenagers, they leer at girls like safari tourists and appear frightened of other kids their age).
They lounge, stare at themselves in most of their home’s numberless mirrors, communicate by mumbling and opt out of physical labors large and small (in one episode they let their groundskeeper set up their basketball hoop; in another, they watch him carry mattresses by himself out of a needed room).
The groundskeeper, though a silly man, is the only redeemable character. In one episode, Victoria, terrified that some dinner guests will judge her to be low class (imagine!), she forces him to pretend to be an Italian Count. He does, inventing a ridiculous history for himself as he and the obviously-trash-his-ownself dinner guest get wasted together.
I want to drop some quotes on you as evidence to the show’s mindlessness, but really – like Scott McClelland, nobody says anything worth repeating, not even to make fun of it.
A terrible show, the worst non-CSI production currently on the air. Catch it just to see how bad things can be, and to boycott the sponsors.
And then set the VCR for “Intervention” and send the kids to bed. Unlike anything else on TV.
“Intervention” is clearly produced by the same people who do MTV’s always-rewarding Real Life series and its documentary spinoffs (I want a famous face, etc). In those show, the cameras find utterly ordinary people who have one, deep story to tell – the shows have titles like “I’m a Mu Tai kick boxer,” “I’m a binge drinker” “I’m a professional weight lifter” “I’m a teenage parent” (regard the latter: get a copy; show it to a group of 14 year olds; collect your chips when you get to Heaven).
“Intervention” is a clear spin-off – the pacing, cuts, and even graphics are all the same.
Only the people have much bigger problems. They are big-time addicted to something. And at the end of each episode, their friends and family hold an intervention, forcing them into treatment almost – but not quite – against their will.
I’m no behavioral expert, but the four people we’ve seen so far sure looked like they needed it. As bad habits go, they were about 3 exits past ‘pissed it all away.’
In two episodes, we’ve seen shopping (bankruptcy 2 years ago) and gambling ($200,000 in the hole), pain pills (stealing them from her terminally-ill-with-cancer boyfriend) and ‘cutting’ – when somebody slices themselves as a release/fix.
You’ll never see an American Justice ‘recreation’ with as much blood as the cutter spills on camera after a hard, frustrating night out at the clubs.
And the horror of the show, which is its power, is that they aren’t freaks or losers but people who have lost their way, slow by slow, and before they knew it found themselves in an avalanche of addiction.
If you think addiction is ‘weakness,’ watch this show.
In every single case, during moments of mental collapse (a frequent event in these lives), each of them will drop into word-blurting, and out will come the language of pain:
The gambler, stiff with shame, while begging his mom for money: “I..I Hurt!”
The shopper, suffering panic attacks in the car: “This… Is… Torture…This… Is…Torture!”
The pill popper’s pills are for pain.
And the cutter… well, use your imagination.
Maybe each of them, years before and a million miles ago, committed some dubious sin or gave way to some human weakness that started the slide, but the people you meet in this show are no more ‘weak’ or ‘guilty’ of their illness than someone drowning in a river.
The shop-a-holic is an actress who was on “E.R.” for 3 years (the residual checks fuel her habit) – then she had, in effect, a nervous breakdown and never recovered. Now she hides in her house for weeks, emerging only to shop.
The gambler was a child genius, graduating from UCLA at 14. Only he never grew up and drifted into gambling to escape the adult world (I thought it was clear, though the show never said, that gambling was, to his hyper-smart brain, the ultimate ‘puzzle,’ an unsolvable challenge that his ego forced him ever deeper into). He’s gambled away, among other things, his parents’ house (the mileage on his mom and dad’s faces is unexpressable).
The pill addict was an ex-social worker, who used to be in charge of 41 case workers. She lost it all to prescription pills. Her dying boyfriend both enables her and tries to get her to quit.
And the cutter – a young-20s, super cute party girl from Arizona, popular in school, an artist and musician, surrounded by friends who admire her and two strongly Christian parents at home (mom is grounded and miserable about her daughter, and gives the best speech of all I’ve seen at the intervention; but dad is serene in the Lord to the point of callousness. His reaction to the cutting-thing: “your body is your temple in the eyes of the lord. You don’t want to damage your temple, do you?” – thanks, pops).
They all think they are being filmed for a show “about addiction” and each of them freely talk about their horrors.
And then, under the direction of a psychologist, they are confronted, by surprise, by all of the family and friends they have left.
So far, 3 took it well. Two of them had, I thought, a sense of relief, the other just defeat. One wanted no part of it and let everybody know it. Awesome.
It might not be enough to redeem A&E, but it’s the best show on TV.
At least until Laguna Beach launches season 2.
in the past 2 or 3 months, nobody has gotten after it like
MediaMatters.Org, the David Brock creation. They are relentless, and
yet so simple - ALL THEY DO is hold the bastards to their own words.
From O'reilly and Limbaugh all the way up to Frist and thems - They get
caught lying and say: "I never said that," and MM says, "Only, you
They're the best assassins on the web.
Thursday, April 21, 2005
How'd I miss this? I've been hearing this tune for a month, thinking
"Summer Definer-candidate" - and then yesterday I put together who's
behind it and almost crashed the car.
This was supposed to be the summer that Ludacrs came back to the
pack, of T.I.'s breakout behind "Bring 'Em Out" (and, truthfully, it
still is) or of 50's second album swallowing the world (and if you
missed 50's House Party on MTV, take a lap).
And here comes rap's Nolan Ryan, throwing high-90s, smokin' the
latest Young Guns, speed-bagging Robin Ventura's head. Unbelievable.
Even in the days before Run-DMC launched the revolution, they said
Ladies Love Cool J - and now their of-age daughters do to. The Great
LL - behind Timbaland's best track work in years - crushes one. His
best effort since the Momma Said-era, which was about the time 50 was
watching the Fresh Prince in his underroos.
And he can't, he can't and he won't quit,
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Hotel Rwanda, you should. And I’ll just say it: you should go see Hotel Rwanda while it is still in the theatres so it makes some money there so other movies like it can get made.
Don Cheadle possesses the greatest “Why Me?” face currently working, possibly the greatest ever. Certainly in the same class as, say, a young C. Thomas Howell (pre-Soul Man) and Don Johnson and almost up there with all-time champ John Cazale before he put up the most amazing career in movie history and promptly died.
Where, afterall, have we seen Cheadle? Getting screwed by life, that’s where – One, he was the desperately honest cop in Traffic whose witness gets killed out from under him and who then takes one in the chest himself; two, as the most unbelievable Caribbean gangster imaginable in After Sunset, where he was so not-menacing that you found yourself rooting for the movie’s ‘hero,’ Pierce Brosnan (another eternally miscast guy) to cut him a break; and, three, in his defining role, as the immortal Buck Swope, the would-be-honest “high end” stereo dealer who loses his chance for a legit life because of his porn career in Boogie Nights.
Don Cheadle has made a great career by playing characters who get less than they deserve and react in the exact way you or I would: half-noble bravery, half-pleading self-pity.
Which is why he is so perfect in Hotel Rwanda. He faces hell on earth first as we know we would – denial and panic - and then as we hope we would – with bravery and action.
That’s the greatness of the performance. It evolves as the movie does and is utterly human.
The greatness of the movie is that the story is true.
I don't want to spend a huge amount of time recounting it because you should learn about it yourself, but briefly: In 1994, a civil war broke out in Rwanda that was like all wars – fought for the rich by the poor – but because it happened in tribal Africa, it was much more so. Powerbrokers convinced the nation’s ‘tribes’, the Tutsis and the Hutus, to slaughter each other. As the movie makes clear, the ‘tribes’ of Rwanda are nothing more than the still-standing caste-system set up by the country’s Belgium occupiers who pulled out decades ago. To call yourself a Tutsi or a Hutu had nothing to do with ancient, or even recent, African tribal history. It had to do with how low or high Belgium’s white people let you rise in their servant corps.
Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, whose European name fits perfectly with his job as the manager (more or less) of a high-end hotel that caters almost exclusively to white foreigners. He is a master of the well-thought-out bribe to keep the wheels turning at the hotel (owned by a Belgium-based corporation). He begins the movie – and possibly ends it – with a vision of himself as above any and all possible native Rwandan issues. He works for a European hotel, catering to European tourists and business people. And they love him. In his mind, he’s most of the way to European himself.
And then the world explodes.
Half of Rwanda’s population begins hacking the other half to death, co-ordinated by a radio station and fueled by their own poverty. And suddenly Paul is left alone – his white guests are evacuated by the UN (whose politically handcuffed Canadian commander, in real life made impotent by UN rules, is bafoonishly played by Nick Nolte), leaving his family, his employees and a growing roster of Tutsi's hiding in the building.
With wit and deceipt, skills he once used to steer his hotel through peace-time Rwanda’s social circles, he keeps the jackalish packs of muarading Hutus at bay for at least a few weeks.
In the end, he helps get nearly 1200 people – children and women, mostly – to safety. The movie leaves no doubt that all would have been slaughtered without him.
It’s a terrific story told with patience, humor and, when needed, unblinking cruelty, and it all begins and ends with Cheadle’s desperation – at first, his desperation to not be seen as an African which becomes a desperation to be with them.
“Sahara,” on the other hand, were you to buy it a beer in an empty bar, would probably describe itself as an ‘action’ flick - but what isn’t these days? In modern cinema, if you don’t have at least one boxing/ju-jitsu match under spinning helicopter blades, you’re pretty much begging for the purgatory of ‘art film’ status. You say your final 10 minutes were actually FILMED rather than spit out of a computer? What is this, “Lonestar?”
Well, Sahara is certainly not “Lonestar,” and while we’re on the subject, I think we’re now far enough along the Matthew McConaughey career-arc to officially declare “Lonestar” as the best movie he will ever appear in – his “Good Will Hunting”-moment – but so what?
Damon is going to die with a 9 digit net worth thanks to Jason Bourne and now maybe McCoughney can give him a run for his money with a franchise based on Clive Cussler’s swashbuckling novel hero, Dirk Pitt.
I read probably 4 Dirk Pitt books – I bet there are close to 10 – in early high school. Pitt was probably invented to be an American James Bond, only instead of being a professional spy, he’s a professional scuba diver with vague ties to the government along scientific lines – all of which, time after time, just happens to be exactly the right background to save the world from a long line of dark geniuses, psychotic tycoons and rogue tyrants (needless to say, Pitt always get the girl, too, though that plot point –scuba expert gets laid - was never as difficult a sell). As a teenager, I found the books immensely involving and readable, if only for the sheer size of their spirit. In the most famous of the series, they raised the Titanic and in general, showdowns tended to be on icebergs or on crashing planes or on space shuttles or something. Lost treaure was usually part of the hunt. All hope would almost always be nearly lost several times over in each book. A key moment of inventive brilliance always carried the day.
Terrific reading for a 15 year old - though I thought even then that the hero, Dirk Pitt, was a bit bloated with Hero-ness. He lived in a hanger full of vintage cars? He knew how to actually fly helicopters? He really carried 30 year old Scotch with him everywhere, even into volcanoes?
And – here was the real stretch - America’s greatest warrior-playboy earned a paycheck from the part of our government whose primary service to the taxpayer is… studying weather?
Then came Tom Clancy, and suddenly being a buff, Scuba-diving weatherman wasn’t good enough to fight evil. What was required was usually a degree from Holy Cross or Annapolis, current subscriptions to Jane’s and Barrons, and lifelong membership in the Republican party. America’s fictional answer to James Bond, it turned out, wasn’t an over-sexed, deep-tan scuba playboy, but Oliver North.
Seriously – what DIDN’T the 80s ruin?
“Sahara” shrugs off most of those bonds, but some things have changed for good, so “Sahara” delivers a blazingly tan McCounghey as Pitt, but he’s not a weatherman but rather – try not to yawn – an ex-Navy Seal who now dives for buried treasure.
The movie starts fantasticly – really, for 30 minutes I thought we had found the new “Ronin” – but slowly disintegrates towards typical ‘blow-up-the-bad-guy’ video game fare.
The plot: At the end of the US civil war, a steel plated Confederate gunboat made a run past the Yankee blockade and was never seen again. The movie opens brilliantly depicting this nighttime run, with hardly a single word exchanged onscreen as anonymous men fight desperately to save their ship – dark and cramped as a tomb - and themselves from unseen enemies, who lob firey cannonballs at them from the fog.
Then you get the credits, which roll over a constant, zooming tour of a modern-day room, where every corner and spare inch of wall is covered with newspaper clippings about Pitt and his sidekick and their past searches for treasure (including the Titanic). As the credits wind down, the camera finds the room’s desk, where we discover that the room is actually on a boat which is even now asea seaching for more treasure.
Which McConaughey almost immediately surfaces with.
However, neither the movie, McConaughey nor anyone else in the movie are given time to breathe as several intricate and worthy plot twists are piled on the screen much too quickly (if Pitt, prowling the Lagos, Nigeria underworld, finds his way to a dark shop in a dark alley to retrieve a dark, ancient clue for the plot’s key dark, ancient mystery, isn’t that worth, say, 2 or 3 minutes of screen time and a few strokes of the creative brush, just to get you in the mood? It gets maybe 30 seconds and you sort of end up thinking: is this Nigeria or New Jersey?)
Escorting McConaughey through out is the vastly underrated Steve Zahn. He plays a re-worked version of Pitt’s constant sidekick, Al Giordino. Here Zahn is Pitt’s exNavy buddy, nearly as much a superman as Pitt himself. And Zahn, a master of the comedy of panic, does his best to keep McConaughey loose. The movie would have sunk much quicker without him.
OK, so Pitt and his crew head up river out to find an Ebola-like plague and, maybe, the lost Confederate ship.
A fun boat-vs-boat gun battle ensues, which leaves Pitt and Zahn on camels, which leads to a gun fight with the local army (that fight, by the way, is actually pretty well executed. I’m always grateful when gun-fighting actors, rather than making pained faces or yelling laugh lines or dropping ‘you’re terminated’ quips, actually act like they want to WIN THE FIGHT. Yes, it’s been a while since I saw a Navy SEAL switch from shooting a rifle right- to left-handed, but their heart is in the right place).
Then the wheels start to seriously come off.
It turns out – and this is just laziness- the ‘villian’ is building some kind of, err, perfect toxic waste disposal machine in the desert (within sight, by complete coincidence, of the confederate gunboat hulk – pure chance!). So to be clear: to this point, our villian has killed off doctors and bought off governments and armies, and generally acted terribly; and Pitt and friends discover that his REAL plot is to… recycle!!!!
Only his huge recycler doesn’t work right, so actually he’s… POLLUTING!!!! Not even on purpose.
And that’s it. That’s the big dark secret at the center of the movie. An ‘evil’ tycoon wants to recycle, but is really bad at it.
(ANOTHER thing the 80s ruined – with the Russians no longer a credible threat, there’s no real reason a white guy would ever be an evil genius, at least not where Americans would care. Where once Goldfinger, Drax industries, Spectre and even the occasional free-lancing communist General threatened the world, we now get incompetent garbage men).
After some fisticuffs beneath some rotors (see above), the tycoon hires out the local warlord and his army to find and destroy Pitt and their climactic showdown manages to directly rip-off TWO Rambo movies, simultaneously. I’ll leave you some suspense by letting you figure out which two.
Still, much goes right early and often in Sahara, despite the dead weight of a sexless Penelope Cruz. This was a role for an SNL girl, not Tom Cruise’s ex. By way of making up for it, the movie surrounds McCoughney with plenty of other fleshy delights: smartly picked classic rock tunes – Skynard, Steppenwolf, Grand Funk – raggedy clothes and glowing backlighting. He’s quite a piece, as Mandy let me know several times during our screening.
At one point, before the strings get cut, McConaughey lets go a clever line which Cruz tries to cattily dismiss, but he volleys it right back with his go-to smile and a Dude-that’s-Wooderson-delivery: “The world would be a whole lot cooler if you did.”
This movie isn’t anywhere near great, but it almost was. I hope they don’t give up on the franchise.
with the release of Sahara, McConaughey has now played, by my count, six memorable roles. Not in six memorable movies, or even six good movies. Six memorable roles.
Here are the names of those 6 characters:
Denton Van Zan
(the last is David Wooderson, but Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson is “Wooderson.”)
Does that not read like the two-deep chart for receiver at Texas Tech? Or possibly the ‘featuring’ section of the credits in a porno movie? Dirk, Denton, Palmer, Tip, Buddy, Wooderson. Awesome.
The only marginal role on that list is Tip Tucker, but don’t underestimate it. Tucker was the crazed trucker in Larger Than Life, the widely ignored Bill Murray comedy about an elephant. Oh well – Western Civ’s loss. McConaughey was absolutely lights-out (not to mention unrecognizable) as the raving lunatic Tip.
The others are: Sahara (Pitt; pretty good), Reign of Fire (Van Zan; not a great movie but under-rated), Contact (Joss; intriguing but flawed) and Lonestar (Dees; I’ll return to Lonestar later).
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
- a delightful line from last year's Freak-a-Leak, 2004's most inventive and dancable and rap song (some readers may recall I called it as the Coming Thing in March). the song was, you may remember, Petey Pablo's raunchy, miles-over-the-top ode to himself and mysoginy.
spelled wrong, sorry. that line was in the final fade out of the song, literally shouted over the beat as the song ended (between Lil' John yelps).
it was, i thought, the final, hilariously absurd touch to a song of
absurd hyperbole. A rapper claiming that not only does he party so
hard that he needs to give his gin a shout out, but he's such a major
star that a gin maker pays him for it.
i laughed everytime I heard it - which was some percentage of the
350,000+ times the song played on American radio.
I know that number because, apparently, they WERE paying him for it.
It's the newest thing, apparently: paying rappers to plug products.
Pablo was one of the first. McDonald's just got into the biz this
summer. up to $5 per time the song plays on the radio.
Harry Shearer has the story on LeShow this past week: click on "The trades"
I've just read a superb book, The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr.
it's non-fiction and though I can't put it solidly among my all-time non-fiction favorites, it's definetly the most absorbing book i've read in a year or so.
At a time when Malcolm Gladwell's unfocused, vague and even sometimes contradictory 'Blink' is the "It" book of the Spring, this one is the real thing: a tight, witty narrative about a science problem, with a terrific protagonist and - here's the key bit - a fantastic mystery.
The subject is the sense of smell and the search to discover how it works, which absolutely no one knows. We know the other four, of course: Sight (rods and cones), touch (potassium pump), taste (buds) and even sound (3 interlocked bones per ear so delicate that they
arguably prove Divine intent) are all taught in junior high. Duh.
But smell? Err... well, see, you've got the molecules, right, and they float up towards your nose, see, and... errr...
Not a clue.
Burr opens the book with the terrific observation that not only do we not know how it is done, but if you compare it to the other body systems most scientists assume are most like smell (digestion and immune system), we shouldn't be able to smell anything at all.
Now THAT'S how you start a book.
Digestion knows how to digest a set number of things - from turnip roots to chicken wings to wine - because over 100,000 years of evolution, the stomach has developed ('selected' in evolutionary terms) a certain number of enzymes to take down food that ancient man ate.
And the very second you eat something on the list, your digestive system (alerted by taste) goes to work. But since cavemen didn't eat, say, plastic - or metal or a million other modern molecules - the stomach doesn't know how to digest it. ever.
Now immunization, which is opposite: it can fend off anything,
including amazingly complex and virulent bugs, that were utterly
unknown prior to 1900. Or yesterday. You can be allergic - a healthy
reaction to strange substances - to almost anything. But the immune
system takes time - a new, crazy strain of flu enters your body and you
get sick for a week, not from the flu but because your immune system is
hashing out the right strategy. eventually, the immune system figures
it out and rids the body of it.
To sum it up, imagine you ingest two things that were discovered in
the 70s: the Ebola virus and a Matchbox Car. Let's say you swallow a
Matchbox Car and contract Ebola on the same day. It will take a few
days, but your immune system will wage a war with the Ebola so violent
that you might die in the battle. Immune systems go down fighting.
But if you live (or even if you don't), that Matchbox Car will sit
in your stomach, untouched, until... well, ya know, it leaves.
The digestive system either works or it doesn't, right away. The
immune system takes all comers, but it needs time.
Not smell. Hold your nose to a bottle of the latest, most complex
molecule produced by a chemical factory, and you will instantly smell
it. No human could have ever smelled this molecule, or anything like
it, before - so evolutionary programming is out. And there is
absolutely no delay for the brain processing it - so much for the body
engineering a response.
So why does Northern New Jersey smell so bad? What the hell is
If you want to hook me into your book, that's how you write a first
chapter. And Burr did, so i pressed on.
Enter a French/Italian/English professor (he splits his time between
the three) named Luca Turin who is a biologist but is a life-long nut
for perfume. He writes, on his own, a Zagats-style book about the
world's perfume, just because he likes them and realizes suddenly that
no one has ever written anything like it before. In fact, he suddenly
realizes he is one of the world's leading experts on smells, by
default. He meets perfumers, goes to their secret, huge factories and
the more he sees, the more he realizes that the multi-biollion dollar
industry has no idea how they do it - they produce thousands of random
chemicals and hope they find a dozen that smell good.
And then one day, as he thumbs through some odd, forgotten medical
or scientific textbook just for fun, it hits him like the apple hitting
Newton on the head - he knows how smell works. Now he has to prove it.
And off goes the book.
Turin's answer is - wait for it! - complex. Still, as a book likes
this requires, Burr is very good at breaking it down to basic, "the
electrons are the traffic, the lightswitch is the drawbridge"-level
english. But to give you just the slightest hint, Turin concludes that
smell must be like sight and sound rather than digestion and immune
Here's my farthest dive into science-talk: digestion and immune
response is based on the shape of molecules - in the stomach and in the
white blood cells, the body reads, and attacks, the shape of a molecule
- fine; light and sound are based on waves (of sound and of light) and
specifically frequency - red is 400Khz of light, high-C is 20,000khz of
sound, etc; everyone has always assumed that smell is based on
molecular shape - Turin decides that it must be molecular frequency,
which is - deep breath - measured by how tight a molecule's electrons
are tied to it. OK, that's it for geek-speak.
Using that notion - frequency - it makes perfect sense that a
gigantic molecule developed by Dupont can smell precisely the same as,
say, fresh cut grass. Dupont polymers and grass molecules certainly
don't have the same shape - it would be comparing a mountain bike to a
747. But, if you add up their electrons, just by coincidence they both
vibrate with the same frequency. That's well-accepted chemistry.
And - lookee here - they just HAPPEN to smell the same!!!!
Turin collects evidence like that and then gets into some some crazy
biology-meets-chemistry-meets-physics-meets-perfume geek. I'm pretty
sure i roughly understood all of it.
So it's a good story.
But it's a great book because Burr can write so damn well,
specifically about a subject which is maddeningly difficult to write
about: smell. Over and over again in the book, he credits Turin,
perfume-book-author, with the gift of being able to put smell into
words. But Burr clearly has the same gift.
So you end up reading page after page of wonderfully constructed
essays and description on smells ("an initial note of cumin that
trumpets the arrival, in the background, of not-quite-ripe mango and a
Turkish alley after a strong rain") that, if left to you or I would be,
"like cheese, only maybe like apple." But burr and Turin describe
smells - particularly complex, perfumy smells - like long, intircate
pieces of music or deeply meaningful paintings. Which, really, smell
has every right to be treated as.
(burr recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker about a perfumer for
a major fashion house, which offered a glimpse of this. if you saw
that, this is 300 pages of it).
It's a smart book on just about every level, and if it has a flaw
it's that it sides so violently with Turin's theory over the rest of
the science world. The scientists who believe in the Shape-theory of
smell (which is to say, ALL scientists except Turin) are portrayed as
monkeys. Maybe they are. The case seems strong. but then, the book's
about Turin, so you'd expect that.
Fine. it's Burr's book.
Emperor of Scent. Give it a sniff.