Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mini-Review: "The Office"

The original BBC television series "The Office" debuted in 2001 and ended in 2003, but thanks to Netflix, I just finished watching it last night (actually, early this morning). Yes, there is a current American iteration on NBC that is doing quite well in the ratings, but I wanted to understand what the quiet little fuss over the original was all about. Plus, it is not very likely that I will dedicate extra time to a sitcom, so since I essentially had to choose between the original and the follow-up, it was the Brit version for me. (My recent appreciation of certain other aspects of British pop culture had little to do with my decision; that would just be pretentious.)

First, the disclaimers. If you have never liked British comedies, if you found Monty Python to be a noisy mess, if you think "Shaun of the Dead" was only a sub-par slasher flick, the BBC "The Office" may not be for you. If watching a show that is ostensibly in English with subtitles on is too much work (or, ahem, if you can't see the subtitles clearly), this is definitely not the show for you. If awkward silences caused by unforgivably offensive buffoonery make you watch the TV through your fingers, cringing ... well, you might just enjoy this.

The premise is relatively simple, and has been followed many times before: workers in an office, whose actual work is of little consequence and may actually be sucking their souls away on a daily basis, must put up with a distressingly self-important manager while trying to preserve little shreds of their humanity in any way they can. The blunderbuss boss, played by Ricky Gervais, is an astonishingly indecorous boor, whose tragic flaw is that he believes he is making his employees' lives better by trying to be their friend, when he is actually a spectacularly inept, corporate-speak-spouting insecure little man. It is not an understatement to say that Gervais' David Brent is a classic character in television history for the depth of his self-delusion and cringe-inducing attempts to explain himself and his philosophies. Admittedly, part of the jaw dropping effect of Gervais' portrayal comes from the occasional jarring crudity that both British culture and British television permit as a matter of course (fair warning: I do mean crude; if you blush easily, this may not be the show for you). However, while the British expression of the uncouth may be outlandish to America ears, there is certainly an equivalent in American life; the slang may be different, but the sentiment translates perfectly.

The supporting cast is relatively small, with a number of essentially nameless office drones and a few well-drawn featured roles. Brent's sycophantic deputy, Gareth, is a particularly memorable character, almost horrifying in his inability to filter his base impulses. Like Brent, he trudges through life seemingly unaware of what others think of him.

The surprising element of the show, however, is the office romance between Tim, the relatively sane fellow who graduated university a few years ago, is holding down a respectable job in the office, but can't quite figure out what to do next, and Dawn, the pretty receptionist who is engaged to a lunkhead from the warehouse who is (of course) unworthy of her. While the unrequited office romance is a relatively stock trope, it is handled here with great delicacy and charm, which is all the more sweet in the midst of the prevalent indelicacy surrounding them. The furtive glances, the gentle touch to the arm that only the would-be lovers think appears innocuous, the emotional charge in the few unexpected moments of connection ... the show plays it all to perfection by underplaying all of it.

The documentary style of the filmmaking relieves the show of the need to add cue music or audience laughter, which allows the many awkward moments (the show's stock in trade) to fester without an external auditory break to relieve the tension. The camera also has the freedom to close in on Brent, in particular, allowing him to fill the screen with his nonsense as he speaks to the viewer, wherein his explanation of his actions inevitably leave him looking the worse for it. The show also uses a long zoom shot to good effect, capturing the reaction of the entire room as well as the actions of others from afar, heightening the voyeristic feel of the viewer's intrusion into often very private moments.

That's a lot to say about a silly little sitcom that ran only 14 episodes. However, it is rare that a television show will introduce characters that are this memorable, most of whom are simply slightly more pained and painful versions of people we know rather than cartoons played for slapstick laughs. The BBC's "The Office" is certainly not for everyone. It is often uncomfortable, and nearly impossible to understand without subtitles, but if you like that sort of thing (and if you like a nice romance, surprisingly enough), it is well worth the time.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Riviera Review

HDTV may have raised the bar considerably when it comes to experiencing sporting events from your living room, but nothing compares to going to a sporting event in person. Golf, in particular, is so well packaged on television that attending a tournament in person is quite unlike watching the same event on TV. If you enjoy golf at all, making the effort to go to a professional tournament in person is well worth the time and expense. (Warning: this is long, so you should probably tune out now, Chris.)

We had the opportunity to spend the day at the Riviera Country Club watching the PGA Tour's Nissan Open. In 80-something degree weather, we experienced much of what a golf tournament has to offer. Amidst the fragrant eucalyptus groves, we saw wiley veterans execute deft chips, young guns crush fairway bombs, superstars remind us why they are, and unknowns show us why they deserve to be on the Tour. We joined huge crowds that reduced our vision to a mere sliver of the action, stood nearly alone only seconds later simply by switching holes, heard the distant roar that told of a hole-in-one, and helped create roars of our own with several thousand other viewers in the natural amphitheater of the 18th green.

Among the highlights: we started our day in the middle of the first fairway, and followed the second group we saw (which included PGA winner Steve Elkington and British Open winner Ben Curtis) to the green. We found an open spot along the rope behind the green away from the pin. Serendipitously, however, it seemed that any player who missed the green long sent their ball right at us. In very short order, we made way for Corey Pavin, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington, all of whom were forced to make difficult chips out of an uneven, tamped-down lie, over a rise to a hole tucked just on the other side of the hillock on a very fast green. Pavin made a brilliant, full swing flop shot, Harrington had a middling effort, and Garcia fluffed his first attempt, failing to get it out of the rough (he parred the whole anyway, though). For each of these events, we were within six feet of the player at times.

After the final group played through, we explored the course a bit. As soon as the huge crowd that followed the leading Phil Mickelson dispersed, we found ourselves moments later nearly alone at the 11th green watching two relative unknowns putt out. On our way to the back end of the course, we paused to watch Jeff Quinney, a Tour rookie who has been in contention for the Sunday lead in three tournaments already this year, absolutely crush a fairway wood to reach the 11th green, a par five, in two shots. The casual grace with which Quinney and one of his playing partners executed this terribly difficult shot is a clear indication at how skilled these guys are. If the ball ever comes off of any of my clubs with the kind of power and sound that these players generate, I'll quit my job and take up golf full time.

We spent a few minutes in the small grandstand at the par three 14th hole, long enough to watch Mike Weir clear the green, toss aside a television microphone embedded in the green, make a nice chip onto the putting surface, then two-putt for a disappointing bogey. On our way once again, we stopped along an adjacent fairway just in time to see Jim Furyk and Ernie Els, whom we had seen a little while earlier at the first hole, play masterful iron shots into the seventh green. On we went to the par three 6th hole at the very end of the property, with its unique bunkered green. We arrived two groups ahead of Mickelson's threesome. We watched the players hit over our heads, then juked and dived for a view of the green as the players finished the hole.

We proceeded away from the huge gallery following Phil, hiking nearly alone up the hill along the 5th hole, stopping under a tree by ourselves to watch a couple of groups hit their approach shots down the hill to the 5th green. Then we continued up the hill to park ourselves for a while at the famous par three 4th hole. At this point, only the players who were well down the leader board were playing the low-numbered holes, because they had all started their day on the 10th hole, and were now into their last nine holes of the day. Nevertheless, we had excellent green-side seats on the grass near the hole to watch several groups come through. We had the opportunity to see how creative professional golfers can be. The 4th hole is a long par three guarded by a fearsome bunker in front. Most of the shots we saw trickled off the back into a collection area. From that location, we saw players hit high flops, low pitches, running chips, putts with drivers, and conventional putts. Amazingly, no one method was any less successful than any other.

Finally, we grabbed some lunch and followed Vijay Singh up the 18th fairway to the bowl-like 18th green, where we parked ourselves and watched the leading six groups finish their day. There I saw more evidence that these guys are not like you and I. A relatively unknown player, John Rollins, had pushed his drive into a grove of eucalyptus trees, which blocked his route to the green both laterally and vertically. His only direct play was right at us on the hillside, which would do little to improve his score. While the player in me conceded and prepared for some sort of short sideways play, Rollins hit the perfect shot: a controlled slice that never rose more than twenty feet above the ground, touched down on the apron in front of the green and rolled to a stop two feet from the hole after missing the pin by about an inch. All of this from 200 yards away. Incredible.

The opportunity to get close to the action in unexpected places is a key feature of a golf tournament experience. Television does not show you how close the various holes are to each other, that just beyond the huge gallery watching the featured player is a completely open greenside where another supremely talented golfer plies his trade in near anonymity, that the bunkers are truly frightening (if you are a casual golfer, you have never seen anything like these man-eaters), that the players engage in easy banter with each other and the crowd. For those who do not enjoy golf in any form, attending a tournament will not likely cause a change of heart. But for those who enjoy the game, watching a tournament in person is fun and illuminating.

And as always with golf, even on its worst day, if nothing else it is still a walk in a beautiful park.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Silence on the Tee, Please

So this is where we will spend tomorrow, under a beautiful February SoCal sky:

(That's Riviera Country Club. They're having a little get together this weekend.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Needle Finder

I love the internet. There is almost no question that cannot be answered (as long as you are comfortable with an answer that may not be, um, factually correct), and almost no product that cannot be found.

This weekend, I indulged myself by getting a container for my guitar effects pedals. For the uninitiated, the sound of a guitar can be tweaked through the use of little foot pedals that electronically manipulate the sound. These pedals are fun, but they all must be wired together, and they all require power. Unless you are Mr. Duracell, a DC converter is the only way to go. When you have several pedals, though, a powerstrip is required just to provide power to all of the converters needed for the various effects pedals, to say nothing of the snake pit of power and signal wires that results. Portability is also hamped by this arrangement, as all the pedals, wires, cables and converters must be toted in some kind of container, and then must be tediously pieced together before playing. Thankfully, it is possible to buy a travel-worthy case that not only carries the pedals, but keeps them permanently hooked up for both signal and power, with only a single converter powering the whole thing. As is the case with some of my new modeling tools, I've wanted one of these things since I was sixteen, and I finally got it.

As in many markets, however, logic does not always prevail in the land of effects pedals. Although the case comes with a "daisy chain" to provide power to all of the pedals, not all pedals take the same kind of adaptor connection. The case, made by Boss, is well-equipped to handle pedals made by Boss pedals as well as contemporary pedals of other manufacturers. Unfortunately, not only is one of my pedals not made by Boss, it is also about 20 years old. So, then, the search begins. Is there such a thing as an adaptor adaptor, as it were? And if so, where can I buy such a thing?

Enter my pal, Google. After a few different searches, I finally found an online retailer that sold a DC converter that not only had a daisy chain of connnectors, but also had a variety of adaptors for the various different kinds of DC sockets that various manufacturers use. The problem, of course, is that I did not need the whole converter outfit, just one of the adaptors. So I tracked down the manufacturer's website, and sure enough, they sell the adaptors separately. Four dollars (plus six for shipping) later, I have a six inch adaptor cable on its way to me, the perfect solution to my problem.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Peace In Our Time

At last, the news we have been waiting so long to hear ...

Apple and The Beatles have settled their trademark dispute, for the third time. As you may recall, Apple's expansion of its business into music quasi-publishing prompted the Fab Four's business managers to file suit for breach of the last trademark agreement between the two companies, a lawsuit that Apple eventually won at trial. Although Apple now has clear permission to use its name and logo, even in connection with iTunes (Apple's expansion into music quasi-publishing prompted the band's most recent lawsuit), it is not yet known whether The Beatles will finally consent to place their recordings on iTunes for downloading. Steve Jobs' rollout of the iPhone last month included lots of Beatles references; as with the very name "iPhone," and as with the use of the name "Macintosh" before it, Jobs has promised something that his lawyers will have to buy for him after the fact. Ah, well, you know, he's a visionary. One mustn't let the vagaries of intellectual property ownership law confound his muse.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

You Can Go Home Again, A Little Bit

My main contribution to Michael's Christmas was a plastic model kit. After all, what little boy doesn't like to build cars out of fragile pieces of plastic? I was excited about it, anyway, since building model cars was one of my main hobbies as a kid.

After our adventures with Legos, Michael enjoyed snapping the Corvette together.

I think I enjoyed a little more than he did, though.

As I suspected might happen, building a model again inspired me to work through some of the unbuilt kits I've had for years. We managed to find a great little table at IKEA that fits into the only remaining corner we have, and it even has a little shelf under the tabletop, a perfect platform for serious model building. One quick trip to the hobby shop for paints, brushes and knives and I was all ready to go.

The interesting development is that I can now afford to spend a couple of dollars on really good brushes, so I no longer have to paint details with shaved toothpicks (which never really worked that well). I'm also ready to attempt the proper sanding techniques for multiple coats of spray paint, something I had never attempted in the past.

As for my subject, there really was only one choice:

Paint and assembly is about half complete. Stay tuned.