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Dispatches from Knife’s Edge

Dispatches from Knife’s Edge

Knife. So they decided to officially call this monster Knife. Winter Storm Knife, cutting across the heart of Erie County.

Maybe it’s meant to evoke some sort of ferocity, but I can’t help but think of it as a little bit kitsch. In Western New York, no one ever refers to winter storms by their proper names. We just refer to them by the features of them that everyone remembers. There is the Blizzard of ’77, for example. That’s all we need as an automatic reference to the legendary Blizzard of ’77, which everyone born after that year knows about. The Blizzard of ’77 is the standard by which every other bad winter storm is judged in Buffalo. I was born four years after that disaster, but I’m old enough to have seen some pretty hefty storms. I have recollections of the famous ’85 blizzard, when then-Mayor James Griffin voiced his battle cry for waiting out snowstorms: “Stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game.” There was the Gridlock Monday storm of 2000, which dropped 35 inches and forced everyone driving home at the time to abandon their cars and walk home. There was the White Christmas storm of 2001, an anomaly in an otherwise mild winter which deposited 83 inches onto the city in four days – pretty much the entire snow measurement for an entire winter.

This current arctic blast currently dropped 75 inches in a little under two days, and it kills me that this is only the second-highest snowfall I’ve ever been in. (So far.) This is definitely beer and football weather; my school has been closed every day this week except Monday, which is the one day I don’t have classes. And so, with all my homework done, I’ve settled into backburner mode, except my version of beer and football so far has been tea and basketball. I managed to get out once to take a few photos during he calm before the current, second wave of the storm hit.

There’s a travel ban in place, so there won’t be any going anywhere until it’s time to visit the grocery store. When things clear up a little bit, I might try to go outside for a quick walk, but that’s out of the question for now.

You would never know right now that most of yesterday and today were sunny. This storm wasn’t simply some snow – it was a squall; a whiteout so complete that in my community, going out to shovel meant not being able to see the street.

There’s an odd process to having cabin fever. When you first realize you’re trapped at home, it’s easy to shrug, smile, call into work, and sit back with a nice beer to enjoy your day off. Snow days rarely go beyond that first day, and by the end, you’re refreshed and happy. You start getting sick of the walls by the second day, though, and not getting to go out starts getting boring. By the third day, you just want the snow to stop so you can get to the bar across the street. I tend to look for a little bit of variety – it’s a reason I like to be outside. Although I’m not at my breaking point right now, my routine during Winter Storm Knife has involved a lot of reruns of How I Met Your Mother and Futurama, college basketball and New York Knicks games, and movies. I usually have my workout done in the late morning or early afternoon, which knocks an hour to an hour and a half off my day between the workout itself and the fact that I’m usually so wiped out afterward that I end up napping at some point.

At some point, I started having some odd thoughts. What is this sudden obsession with putting Fritos on everything now? Is someone out to destroy bacon?

In any case, the city was well-prepared for the storm. It’s Buffalo, and snow happens, and getting hit with it in July wouldn’t surprise us. Before the storm came on Monday, I had an appointment with a podiatrist scheduled, which happened to be very good luck on my part because I was able to bicycle to his office. I was caught in the rain (yes, rain) on the way back, but it was nothing I hadn’t endured during my messenger years. The news outlets had been reporting on this storm for a few days by then, and it was due to hit on Monday night. We knew what we were in for; by late evening, everyone was already tuned into the broadcast stations to see the list of the next day’s closings. I think we were expecting a big whiteout but an otherwise minor emergency; two feet, two and a half tops.

You know things are bad when the newspaper delivery lets up, and this is our third day without a morning newspaper. The owner of the Buffalo Bills started offering $10 an hour plus tickets to the football game to drop by and dig out Ralph Wilson Stadium. Then he was shamed for it while drivers were advised to ignore the offer; people gave up when the snow didn’t stop; and now it was just reported that we’re not going to have a local football game to watch while we drink this week; the game is being moved to a different location altogether.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to tell on the macro level because no one here has been able to see much of anything. I know only what I’ve seen on TV: The Weather Channel is trapped at an inn in Hamburg. One of the local TV stations was trapped for hours at a gas station. Both are giving us periodic updates, mainly as filler: “Hey everyone, it’s still snowing!” Now we know what they must have felt like in the south last winter. All that’s left to do now is wait for the snow to let up and look for ourselves to pop up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report soon.

Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother: The Ultimate Battle!

Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother: The Ultimate Battle!

It just had to be that this year’s finale of How I Met Your Mother was going to share space with the 20th anniversary of the debut of Friends, didn’t it? It seems pretty appropriate; the two sitcoms have been favorably compared to each other through most of their runs. Hell, its even been argued that the two of them might as well be the same show. They both star characters who live in a parallel universe’s version of New York City where there is no diversity and rent control is a thing. Both of them feature years-long story arcs about the romance between two particular characters; both are brought up in efforts to define their generations through pop culture. At first glance, there is some definite evidence that How I Met Your Mother was taking its cues from Friends. When you try to really compare the two of them side by side, though, the real differences start blaring at you, and you’re then forced into one of those corners where you have to take a Beatles/Elvis stance: You only get one pick and you have to hate the other one.

Fine. That’s not something I have too big a problem with. My problem begins with the fact that so many writers seem so eager to automatically throw the statue at Friends, mostly because they grew up watching it. It’s an interesting phenomenon; it’s one thing to believe everything was better back in your day, but it’s another thing completely to refuse to acknowledge if something may or may not be better based strictly on nostalgia for childhood heroes. So now, it’s time to look at both of these shows as empirically as possible. To prepare, I’m binge-watching DVDs and online streams of as many episodes of both shows as I can. I doubt I’ll get to them all, but I can get to an enormous chunk of both. So let’s do this! Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother. One day, I’ll learn.

Friends gave us Rachel Green, Monica and Ross Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, and Chandler Bing. HIMYM introduced Ted Mosby, Lily Aldrin, Marshall Erikson, Robin Scherbatsky, Barney Stinson, and Tracy McConnell (she was one of the main cast characters during her brief stint on the show, so much so that her actress’s name was in the opening credits, so yes, she counts). Some of these characters share remarkable similarities to each other, at least in a few ways: Barney shares the fact that no one knows what he does with Chandler and his tendencies with women with Joey; Lily and Monica share some apparent neuroticism and spontaneity; Ross and Ted both have penchants for romanticism. Characters in both shows reach ridiculous low points – in Friends, Phoebe tried to keep one of the triplets, while Ted made Robin get rid of her dogs in HIMYM. Yet, for all the similarities, the characters all took different paths in their development. The characters on Friends developed and matured in a more subtle manner while the HIMYM gang was more up front about their changes of character. On the other hand, the differences between all the characters in the show were a lot more obvious on HIMYM. HIMYM also stereotyped less; Friends had its ditz, its romantic, its career person, and its man’s man. HIMYM frequently crossed these traits over from character to character; career woman Robin was also the show’s man’s man, for example – she loved guns, hockey, scotch, and cigars. Lily, Marshall, and Barney all shared the role of the ditz.
I prefer HIMYM. Issue one: Phoebe. I love her, and she’s one thing that could be counted on to rescue Friends when it was having trouble, but she’s a waste of space and seemed to be shoehorned in. HIMYM never felt like it was having any trouble trying to fit any characters in, even during the last season, when Tracy was added to the main cast outright. Issue two: The development arcs of Barney and Tracy showed what HIMYM was capable of at its best. Usually when a TV show runs long, all the characters start out as fully realized humans and, as the writers start to feel stretched for creativity, they start to fall back on some of the more unique quirks of the characters, flanderizing them until they’re nothing but quirks. Barney went the opposite route; he was a fully realized caricature through the first few seasons with a few glimmers of humanity; as he developed, he matured, and his better side came out as he decided to settle and form a relationship with his estranged father. (This is why I’m always amazed when critics bitch about HIMYM’s later seasons; did they really miss the old, borderline rapist Barney that much? His development made the whole series very satisfying.) And while we only had Tracy around in one season which didn’t span every episode, her development was so strong that the audience felt totally gypped by the finale. Issue three: The cast of Friends sometimes came across as so interchangeable that it could have melded together at certain times. Trying to tell them apart when they get angry or upset – which happens often enough – can be something of a chore. The characters on HIMYM never fell out of their personas and blended together to such an extent. Of course, that’s an issue with Friends, and not exactly a flaw…

Cast Chemistry
It’s very possible Friends and HIMYM were cast in two different and very distinct ways. The cast of HIMYM looks like the actors were all tested and chosen purely on the strength of their individual character portrayals before being rounded up and thrown at each other, and it turned out to work for the best. Friends seems to have been cast with character chemistry as the first thing in mind, like the actors were whittled down to a particular selection and then tested against each other. HIMYM cast the most talented actors it could find for its characters; Friends cast good actors who made each other look great. The difference definitely shows in the final products. Friends ended up casting six unknowns and making household names of not only Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but also actors Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. The actors flew off each other like atomic particles and were so closely bonded when the cameras were off that the emotion they felt in the final episode was genuine. HIMYM can counter using the fact that its individual performances were better; Neil Patrick Harris and Cristin Milioti could both clearly act circles around every other cast member on either show, and the others were excellent as well. The particular traits of every character on HIMYM were also highlighted more, so all six actors had to perform an exceptional balancing act to see their characters were able to merge those traits into someone whole, and not just a mess of ideas the writers could flanderize at will. They all succeeded.
This one goes to Friends. While the cast of HIMYM did everything right, it wasn’t enough to stop the emergence of Barney Stinson as a breakout character. Although Barney eventually developed into a complete character, it’s still his early Bro Code and Playbook musings which dominate HIMYM popular lexicon. In the meantime, Alyson Hannigan’s name is still synonymous with Willow Rosenberg, her character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make anyone forget Doogie Howser; and Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders are both still remembered purely as Ted and Robin. Jason Segel and Cristin Milioti are popular movie and Broadway commodities, respectively. The Friends cast, meanwhile, are still associated with each other, no matter how far away from the show they’ve gotten. No matter how successful Jennifer Aniston gets, when her name is brought up, she is still just another name among six particular TV actors.

Overdone Romance We Got Sick Of
In the first episode of Friends, we met Ross Geller, a very recent and heartbroken divorcee; and Rachel Green, a runaway bride. Right off the bat, from first to last, the show did everything it could to throw the two of them together. So the two of them took some pretty nasty trips in the ten years Friends lasted on the air before finally settling into their surefire happily ever after in the final episode. The drama between Ross and Rachel took such absurd turns that, at some point, you have to wonder if the writers were intentionally prying the two of them apart and teasing the audience just to prolong the romance. It devolved into soap opera territory. Everything moved right along for the two of them at first; they crushed on each other in the first season; were dating in the second; broken up in the third because Rachel decided she needed an indefinite alone period, in which Ross jumped another girl’s bones; and reconciling only to break up again in the fourth. It’s a reasonable trajectory, but it gets spoiled by the end of the fourth when Ross marries a rebound fling and says Rachel’s name at the wedding, and from there it just got absurd. HIMYM did a bold thing by introducing Ted to Robin in the pilot episode, only to clearly establish in the end that Robin isn’t The Mother. It helped free up the show to give a few romance storylines to Ted and Robin because, since it was established that Robin wasn’t The Mother, the show was able to try anything it wanted for awhile. Like Rachel and Ross, though, it devolved, and by the eighth season they were dredging up the idea of Ted still being in love with Robin, who had been established as Barney’s match for some time by then. Ted’s romantic past with Robin, in fact, hadn’t been any obstacle between him and Robin or Robin and Barney for a long time, but creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided to shoehorn an ending they had written for Ted and Robin seven years before the show concluded.
You know what? I’m giving the edge here to HIMYM. I know I have every reason in the world to prefer Ross and Rachel; after all, Friends didn’t tell us well in advance that Ross and Rachel weren’t ultimately each other’s other halves. It didn’t make a big show of one of them completely letting go of the other one in the final season to show us once and for all that it wasn’t meant to be, over and out, only to renege. Friends didn’t kill one of the main characters, as if she was an inconvenience to the writers, just to make it happen! But what Friends did do that made Ross and Rachel inexcusable was turn their first breakup into a goddamned punchline! “We were on a break! We were on a break!” I’d like to show Ross Geller a fucking break! Besides, between their drunken Vegas wedding, their love child, and Rachel’s final decision to stay with Ross, it’s not like they were lacking for drama.

Resonance With Times
For being a voice sitcom sparked from the grunge era, Friends certainly packed a lot of shining optimism. I’m not saying everything was always wonderful for the characters on the show. Hell, Phoebe sang “Smelly Cat,” which could have fit right into the Lilith Fair lineup. The characters, however, seemed to develop that great Hollywood character habit of failing upward. Setbacks never seemed to affect them very much, and usually they quickly landed on their feet. Friends also came off geared toward a mainstream audience; right in the first season, Phoebe has a quick fling with a physicist who is a little uncomfortable with the idea of romance and spontaneity. It was the typical trope of the time: Nerds are to be ridiculed. In addition, while Friends did deal with homosexuality, it treated homosexuality like an odd character tick; something which was bad at the time, and absolutely inexcusable now. In HIMYM, setbacks were really that; they properly set the characters back. Although it’s treated like an idealistic fairy tale, there is a very dark vein streaming through the world of HIMYM, and the characters regularly end up in compromised positions, frequently embarrassed and humiliated while trying to make the best of what just happened to them. Lily leaving Marshall to pursue her dream of being an artist is one example; Robin’s anchor job on early AM TV is another; and Ted trying to start his own architectural firm is a third. There is also the geek factor; HIMYM actually has TV’s best attitude toward geeks. Marshall, Ted, and Barney are all huge Star Wars freaks, and Barney even has life-size Stormtrooper armor in his apartment; they love to play laser tag; they’re frequently seen playing video games; and they enjoy an annual event called Robots vs. Wrestlers.
HIMYM. Although Friends featured cell phones and laptops long before they were in vogue, and it did improve its view on gays – even showing a wedding between a gay couple long before the current gay rights movement – it still set out to give viewers a look at normal, mainstream people with socially acceptable interests. It perceived outsiders as geeks or thugs in a negative way. Setbacks on Friends barely made any lasting dents in the characters. On HIMYM, setbacks were real stingers, and the characters were frequently seen doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do in mentally broken states. HIMYM also had the more accurate take on geeks – their geek interests, while prominent, aren’t caricatures, and they don’t define the characters. Rather, geek interests and tendencies are treated as side interests of the main characters, who are able to keep their geek lives and professional lives separate.

Emotional Impact
In any good TV show, we need to be able to sympathize with the characters; otherwise, when we laugh, we’re laughing at them instead of with them. Therefore, it helps to have great ways of projecting times and scenes of deep emotions. Friends axed one of the most insufferable tropes that came to define sitcoms in the previous decade – the Full House music, which replaced real emotion with gagging melodrama. Otherwise, emotion was conveyed by the actors and the script, both of which did fine jobs, and music which was performed by professional musicians. Occasionally, the camera would zoom in very slowly on the troubled character or the character would be isolated. HIMYM, being a more surreal show than Friends, would frequently use surrealism to convey a sense of sadness. It was also privy to using its stilted structure to do the same, allowing it to move back and forth between conversations about the character and the affected character. The portrayals of the characters and the music was frequently a big help as well. Friends, however, conveyed its emotion in a straightforward fashion while HIMYM usually had a joke or two waiting to be used to lighten the mood a little bit.
HIMYM. The trouble with trying to provide emotional heft strictly through the affected characters is that it’s like describing the symptoms. Sure, you can sympathize, but there’s no real relation unless you’ve personally been there yourself. HIMYM’s surrealism is more than a quirk; it’s an effective way to paint a very exacting picture of what the characters are experiencing. In one episode, for example, Robin learns she’s barren and can never have kids. Instead of simply saying it, the episode cuts to a pair of kids in a living room which are ostensibly Robin’s as Robin narrates to them. Then they fade away as the room is replaced by snowy Central Park and the sofa is replaced by a park bench which Robin is sitting in, drinking a carton of eggnog, contemplating what she just learned. One later episode of season eight, “The Time Travelers,” so brilliantly captures the true essence of Ted’s loneliness that I have trouble watching it: Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, and Lily meet in MacLaren’s for a night or Robots vs. Wrestlers Legends. Ted is busy the following day and unsure whether or not to go, and debates the pros and cons of going with Barney as well as future versions of themselves. This might sound odd, but it’s a sort of surreal vision the show has come to be known for. Marshall and Robin get into a fight about who named a drink served by the bar. Soon, Coat Check Girl – a guest character from one of HIMYM’s first episodes – walks in. Ted recognizes her and starts to wander over to talk to her, but is stopped by two future versions of Coat Check Girl. Both warn him that a relationship with her would be doomed, and he gets distracted long enough for the real Coat Check Girl to leave. Finally, he returns to Barney and says he’s out for the night, and in an understated and very eloquent monologue, Barney tells Ted the cocktail incident is a five-year-old memory and the rest of the night was a product of his imagination, and Ted was debating whether to go alone the entire night. Ted leaves, and Narrator Ted imagines his past self running to The Mother’s apartment and delivering Ted’s now-famous “45 days” monologue to the unseen Mother. The effect is heightened later; of note, “The Time Travelers” is the final episode which involves any interactions with the unseen form of The Mother. Four episodes later, after years of teases, the conceptual Mother ceased to exist, and the actual Mother was finally revealed. Although the reveal was simple – even anticlimactic – it worked because of the sense we received for Ted’s sadness over the course of the season and the fact that the story’s endgame was now in sight. Ted himself wasn’t aware of it yet, but the audience knew he would be meeting his perfect girl within – in the show’s time – just a couple more days.

Opening Theme
Friends opens with one of the greatest opening themes of all time: “I’ll be There for You” by The Rembrandts. The song is a definite by-product of the 90′s, and it has the rough, unvarnished edges of the traditional grunge sound. It’s a pretty downcast song, too, describing a lot of bad, serious situations before launching into its memorable hook, which promises that, no matter what happens, they’ll always be there for you. It’s one of those theme songs that transcended its opening theme status and became a heavily rotated radio hit. HIMYM opens with an iconic “ba, ba ba ba ba” going along with its title card, but what most people don’t know is that’s the very tail end of a legitimate song called “Hey Beautiful” by The Solids, a band the show’s creators play in. Like the Friends theme, the song is a definite product of the times in a musical sense. The lyrics don’t make nearly as much sense – I’m surmising the second verse is about the song’s narrator trying to gather the courage to talk to a girl he spotted and thinks is beautiful, but the phrasing is a little random and haphazard. It’s a great song, though, and it’s one of the few millennial rock songs which, while it relies on the slow-driving, smoothly-laid harmony and melodramatic vocals, still lets the background music massage the scene instead of dominating the song and destroying rock music for a decade to come. Also, while the synthesizer is used throughout, it’s used in a minimalist fashion.
Friends. The HIMYM theme was an early version of a trend that’s setting rock music back decades. The Friends theme is a great song, and its message about optimism and togetherness through even the toughest of times is more resonant now than it was when Friends was the show to watch. Also, “Hey Beautiful” isn’t the most technically sound song, either. Even with better lyrics, its time signature changes are less than subtle. Face it, there’s a reason you didn’t know “Hey Beautiful” was a full song until you read this.

Format And Structure
Although every story has a beginning, middle, and end, Friends and HIMYM both got around to showing their beginnings, middles, and ends in different ways. Both of them also used heavily serialized formats. Friends took its cues from most every sitcom that came before it, which means it tells its stories in a straightforward, linear fashion. While this makes the typical episode of Friends easy to follow, it also makes it a bit more difficult to jump in the middle of an episode. Since the show is serialized, a big secret revealed in an episode with series-changing ramifications could easily be missed. When Friends performs flashbacks, it does them smoothly, skillfully weaving them into the main structure of the show. HIMYM uses a flashback as the very plot of the show. It’s prone to jumping and stilting around a lot more; a frequent device seen on HIMYM is to place the audience into the middle of a scene and then go back and explain how the characters came to that point. HIMYM tells stories in a much more freewheeling manner. It will use surrealism, roshamen viewpoints, intercutting, and flashbacks and flashforwards in order to get the point across. Both shows demand your attention, but HIMYM will go out of its way to make sure it has it. HIMYM also based its entire existence on a large story arc, which demanded bold risks from the creators when it worked and ended up sticking around for awhile. Some of those risks were good and allowed the show to keep revealing hidden depths to its characters; some were bad and allowed them to prolong the show (Ted and Robin, ahem).
HIMYM. The format keeps finding different ways of telling stories to emphasize small moments which impacted The Narrator’s life. Not only is it an effective way to keep interest in a story, it frees up the writers to splice other scenes into the narrative, make concurrent callbacks, and even reformat the entire show, which is what happened in the final season. Furthermore, the ultimate story arc allowed the creators to gradually reveal the show’s big secrets about how Ted met The Mother. Think about it: What did we know about Ted meeting The Mother in the pilot? They met at a wedding. That was it. After the first season finale had Marshall and Lily break up, most of the the subsequent season finales peeled back more big secrets about the wedding and the meeting. At the end of season two, Ted and Robin broke up, which we knew would happen, since Robin was established in the pilot as not being The Mother. In the season three finale, Ted proposes to Stella, but she isn’t The Mother. Season four, Ted tells his kids that The Mother was in an economics class he taught by accident. In season six, it started really heating up; the groom, long believed to be an offhand friend of Ted’s like Punchy or Ranjit, was shown to be Barney. In season seven, it was the bride’s turn to be shown onscreen; it was Robin. The season eight finale gave us our first glimpse of Tracy McConnell. And the series finale the next season, well, I’ll be nice and just pretend it never happened.

Running Gags
Every good sitcom has its share of in-jokes which, despite being an eternal theme in the series canon, can be easily picked up and appreciated by newcomers. Friends and HIMYM are no exceptions. In fact, they even share very similar running gags: One is that Barney and Chandler both work mystery jobs which no one else on their shows knows. It works better for HIMYM, though, because Chandler eventually gets promoted while Barney – who seemingly drags in endless oceans of money for nothing – reveals that his “eh, please” response to everyone else’s job inquiries is really an acronym for Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything. Basically, if his corporation is ever caught in one of its more unseemly activities, Barney is the one set up to take their fall. Another is they each had a character with a musical career. Friends gave us Phoebe, who sang some of the darkest, weirdest folk songs you will ever hear with an earnestly upbeat attitude. HIMYM had Robin, a former teenage pop star in her native Canada named Robin Sparkles who had one minor hit and was so embarrassed about it that she told outrageous lies to her friends to try to hide it. They both had catchphrase-spewing ladies’ men as main characters – Joey and Barney. Beyond those, Friends introduced us to Ugly Naked Guy, a nudist from a neighboring building. HIMYM had The Bro Code and The Playbook. There was Fat Monica on Friends, and HIMYM had Lily’s odd sexual fetishes. These lists aren’t even close to exhaustive.
This should be even, but I’m giving the edge to HIMYM for a few reasons. First of all, Phoebe’s songs are only written to highlight her ditziness, and sitcom ditzes are a dime a dozen. Robin’s singing career gave her backstory an interesting twist, and her reluctance to ever talk about it added a dimension to her character. Second, Ugly Naked Guy was originally a hidden character who was there strictly for laughs. At some point, though, Friends decided it had to break that rule and give Ugly Naked Guy screen time. There’s a sacred law of sitcoms which have hidden characters there strictly for laughs that says you never, ever show the character. Never, because it would ruin the mental projection of the character the audience built for itself. It’s why all the Maris jokes from Frasier worked so well – they never showed Maris, and we were given unlimited depth to project how awful she was. Third, Friends turned “We were on a break!” into a catchphrase for Ross. It’s with that one Friends torpedoed any chance of winning a battle of running gags.

Friends just got its ass handed to it. Yes, Friends was great when it was good; upon my repeat viewings, it holds up much better than I expected it to. It was one of the major cultural voices of its generation, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a Cheers knockoff which became popular because it came along at the right time. How I Met Your Mother was something that came flying out of the blue, combining the surrealism of Scrubs, flying hijinks of Malcolm in the Middle, and yes, the emotional gravitas of Friends itself with a groundbreaking story structure. Friends was a product of its time. How I Met Your Mother turned out to be well ahead of it.

Be a Better Halloween Candy Giver

Be a Better Halloween Candy Giver

The premise everyone associates with Halloween also seems to be the one everyone is the most prone to screwing up. You can easily liken it to playing soccer or playing piano in that respect: It’s one of those things which you can very easily figure out what to do. Hell, it’s such such a stupidly easy thing to figure out in just doing the act in and of itself that it’s virtually instinctive. The problem is that so many of the people doing it take the skill for granted, and so they end up royally sucking at it, and they see no need to try to improve. For a society that claims to place a ton of value on the well-being and innocence of its children, we sure don’t care very much about giving out decent treats on Halloween. So, in the interest of being a good public servant, I’m now going to give readers a good list of what to give away and what not to give away for Halloween, along with a few quick guidelines on how to give.

1 – It’s okay to expect kids to say “trick or treat” and “thank you.” It’s not okay to expect a “please.” The “trick or treat” is basically a substitute way of saying “May I please have some candy?”

2 – If you must comment on the costumes, it’s a bad idea to make assumptions of exactly what people are dressed as. You can get away with turning it into a question if you really want to, but you don’t want to risk offending some poor kid because said kid looks like a completely different character than who s/he is claiming to be.

3 – There’s no such thing as an honor system on Halloween, especially if you’re giving away good candy. Unless you have an unlimited supply of self-replenishing candy, you can’t afford to leave a large bowl of candy on your doorstep with a note asking kids to take only one or two pieces. If you’re not personally supervising, kids are going to take as much as their palms will allow, and many have no qualms about diving back in for seconds. If you want to monitor how much candy the kids take, you have to personally sit on the stoop yourself, so don’t try to plan anything that will force you to leave a bowl sitting outside.

4 – If there’s a particular kind of candy you don’t like, don’t pawn it off on any kids. Why would you give them anything you don’t personally approve of?

5 – Along those same lines, don’t use Halloween as an excuse to just pawn off leftovers, either.

6 – Unlike a lot of other people who write out these things, I’m willing to personally endorse giving out healthier treats. What I’ll never endorse are pennies or religious literature. Pennies don’t buy anything, and not nearly enough people give them out on any given Halloween night to make them amount to anything; religious literature is not only tasteless, it turns you into a hypocrite as well. If you’re giving out tracts, guess what: You’re still participating in this Pagan holiday you claim to be against.

Good Candy

Mini-candy Bars
These are absolutely gold. All the taste of a full-size candy bar wrapped up in a smaller, more affordable package which can easily be bought and given away in bulk.

Peanut Butter Cups
These are the very best. No matter the size, peanut butter and chocolate is always a winning combination.

A definite crowd-pleaser with 80′s aficionados, Nerds are nice little pebbles of candy which usually combine a pair of fruit flavors.

Peppermint Patties
Not outright healthy, but they don’t do nearly as much damage as a lot of the other candies I’m including on this list. The regular-sized York patties only have two fat grams and 140 calories, so if you’re a health nut looking to maximize the best of both worlds, these are by far your best option.

Junior Mints
Bite-sized, more liquidated versions of the above.

Another tasty option which is friendlier to your body, Starburst candy really does unleash a gush of flavor into your mouth which you can still taste afterward.

These are one of the few fruit hard candies that are served in packages which include a handful in a single serving. They’re delicious, juicy, and it’s easy to eat them in spite of their hard texture.

Necco Wafers
An unusual choice for people with more unusual palettes, I always did like these things. They’re simple and can be popped quickly and easily.

No, Halloween isn’t a good time of year to let your instincts to good health rule you, but it’s easy to get away with it simply by cloaking the raisin in a nice veil of chocolate.

Boston Baked Beans
These fall under the “simple pleasure” category, offering a small shot of sugar covering a regular peanut. Boston Baked Beans are actually a great substitute for peanut M&M’s, except without the chocolate between the candy coating and the peanut. nd while no one should complain about receiving M&M’s of any kind of Halloween, let’s face it: The peanut flavor is dominated by the peanut.

Bad Candy

Candy Corn
Look, I realize these are a sign of the season, but they’re nothing but sickly-sweet sugar packs with a little bit of food dye. They taste nothing like traditional autumn harvest foods, and have nothing notable about them except those dye jobs. They don’t even really look like corn unless you stack them a certain way.

Now and Later
These seem to be ostensibly taffy-based candies. Every time you try to bite down into them, though, they turn out to be hard as diamonds, and then when you finally get them thawed, they take forever to chew and get stuck between your teeth for hours.

Bite-sized Candy Bars
These are nothing but less-satisfying versions of any of the bigger ones. The only reason they exist is because some evil corporation was trying a new way to save money. Plus they’re all wrapped up individually, which makes them a big pain to try to eat in succession.

Bubble Gum
Good for your teeth, so goes the advertisement (the sugar content argues otherwise), but that’s if you take the time to chew it. No one wants to spend ten minutes wearing out the flavor in a piece of gum when there’s chocolate sitting right next to them. Also, a lot of the gum has the texture of concrete as well, and that’s no good for anyone when they try to take that first bite down.

These have the same problem as bubble gum. They’re tough to eat, and they take an awful lot of time to finish off. Without trying to place too fine a point on it, the name Jawbreakers isn’t some exaggeration, either; it’s pretty easy to chip or knock out a tooth with one of these things in your mouth.

Tootsie Rolls
These are supposed to be chocolate-flavored taffy, but your standards for good chocolate would have to be awfully low for these things to qualify. They taste more like chocolate imitation than anything, and the texture reeks of harder candy corn than taffy.

There are a lot of candies that should just be advertising themselves as nothing but generic, processed sugar pops, but no other candy is as blatant about it as Smarties.

Jolly Ranchers
These things can’t even be categorized. They’re another thing you can’t chew. And by that, I don’t mean you eventually can chew them, like Jawbreakers and hard candy, or that they’re soft candies like Now and Later which just got hard. No, Jolly Ranchers were made to be sucked, and they can be stuck in your mouth for upwards of 20 minutes.

If your favorite cleaning product was broken down and processed into dried sugar, these are what it would taste like.

More processed sugar trying to masquerade as fruit flavor, there no no fruit to be had anywhere within. They just baked the sugar, injected some food coloring, and somehow put them at that weird medium where they’re chewy but still very hard to chew to the point where they keep getting stuck in your teeth.

Learning English Again for the First Time

Learning English Again for the First Time

I love my language, and I get a kick out of thinking, toying with, and explaining the little quirks and nuances about English most of us don’t usually bother thinking about. I don’t believe offical recognition of English as an official language is an idea which is entirely without merit, either. But one of the things that drives me crazy about the people who want to promote that latter viewpoint is that they are frequently barely capable of properly speaking English themselves. I don’t just mean throwing a few emoticons into their regular text messages, either; we all do that. I mean that in regular, ordinary speaking and writing, they keep making juvenile mistakes which aren’t exactly major, but still enough to make me question their intelligence.

Well, guess what! In a shocking twist of fate and fortune that could only ever happen to me, upon transferring to my old college, too long had passed since the last time I had taken a proper English course, and so it was time for me to be a good student again and force myself through a whole new English class. And for a person who has been writing semi-professionally for 15 years, knows the language extremely well, and constantly complains that most people complaining about how English isn’t our national language suck at speaking it themselves, I’m rather clueless in knowing exactly what the hell I’m doing in a lot of the problems I’m given in that class. I’m not having some overwhelming amount of trouble, mind you; what’s going on is that when it comes to knowing what’s what in the English language, I’m not quite as smart as I thought I was.

English literature courses rely on cranial flexation in order to understand the theoretical and abstract from any given piece of literature. This is usually music to my ears; the theoretical and abstract are things my own brain gets along with just fine, better than a lot of the course material I’m required to study, in fact. I’ve written interpretations of a lot of movies, TV shows, and literature. You’d think finding and deciphering a theme would be second nature to me by now. As an author who is increasingly writing short stories, though, I am also well aware of the fact that when a writer sets out to write a piece of literature, we frequently write it with just the story idea in mind. Many authors will write up a guideline to help themselves flesh it out, but I feel like that would restrict me on the atmospheric level – I’m only trying it just now, and it doesn’t seem to be going well.

In other words, we have stories to tell. We don’t often write anything up with any idea of what themes can be culled from it; as long as the story itself gets told, I doubt most authors really care how their work is interpreted, and I’m sure most would read an interpretive essay with interest on the reader’s conclusions and how they came to those conclusions. The story I’m currently writing is about a luckless romantic trying to impress a girl he likes, and ending up in a fistfight with Mike Ditka in the process. Read that sentence again, and answer this quiz question: Do you think, with a story like that, I’m really giving a shit about themes or interpretations? I’m not. I’m just going with the flow of the situation, and hoping it turns out halfway decent.

This is kind of my specialty when I try to write fiction. Invent a character, invent an unlikely situation, and figure out how the character would adapt to the situation. I’m also working on a mystery story revolving around a hitman who also acts as a sort of detective for people who live under the law, but that one isn’t going quite as well. In the past, I’ve written works about a rock musician who had an out-of-body experience (that one was inspired by the story of Motley Crue member Nikki Sixx, which he talked about in the band’s autobiography); a guy who found a hidden treasure that made him rich beyond his wildest dreams and exactly what happened after he found all that money; a conversation between God (yeah, that God) and a suicide bomber, and others. I also wish I could write them faster, and that I could figure out where to send them without so much difficulty.

Themes were never the concern with any of them. Sure, I’ve tried to write a few of them within some sort of context, but context is something broader than theme, at least once the rules you’ve established for your fictional world are set up.

In layman’s terms, I think of the unusual situation, and set out to write a story about (mostly) ordinary, regular people in those situations. I tried writing a couple which vaulted off that form of literature – one was a science fiction story that worked nicely, the other is that mystery I mentioned about (I wish I knew how to be good at writing mysteries) – but mostly, that situational stuff is probably my niche.

Besides that, I’ve also got to worry about the subjects of sentences; the verbs of sentences; predicates; sentence fragments; and all those other little goodies that drove us crazy in elementary school which no professional author has ever used. Learning these has given rise to the personal realization that I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever known about them.

To think that, during the past two semesters, I was learning calculus and needed my formal understanding of basic algebra to return to me. What should happen in that instance but my old algebra lessons actually coming back to me, and not being so cluttered or confusing that time. In fact, I was remembering my algebra – a subject I took twice in high school and four times in college – perfectly, and without any of the confusion or clutter that made it such a pain to learn. My second semester, when I took a class in human movement which involved physics, recalling my geometry took a little bit longer, but I still managed to do it when one of my professors was giving me help. Now here I am, fully taking a subject I studied and passed, and having trouble recalling rudimentary aspects of it, even though it’s something I’ve been doing now for a very long time and excelling at. I’m not very fond of my brain right now.

You Know What’s Worse than Working?

You Know What’s Worse than Working?

We take employment for granted in this country. We’re apparently under the impression left in our heads by all those Warner Bros. cartoons we watched as kids, that finding work is as easy as walking into the first store with a “hiring” sign, yanking it out of the window, telling the manager “Here I am!” and getting put on the job immediately. Every job has a single applicant, and employers are so desperate for help, they don’t even bother with an interview.

To what little credit I can offer this overly simplistic viewpoint, I have seen – and even worked – jobs which have operated in this very same fashion. Unfortunately, the only jobs that work in such a way are commission-based, door-to-door sales jobs which force you to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, on the hope that the mathematical law of averages swings into your favor. In other words, they’re scam jobs where the returns on your investments are practically nonexistent. Any real job, in which you can make an actual wage and maybe have a few benefits, requires going out and doing the legwork – filling out applications and hoping you get called for an interview, after which you’ll be made to wait a week or two for your potential employer to give you any kind of word. I regularly read job-hunt books, and most of them say the same thing about that scenario – if the employer says he’s got a bunch more interviews, you’re on the backburner; he’s already hired his guy, and he just wants a few people as backups in case the person he hired decides not to show.

I like to believe most people in this country are aware of this, at least on some level. Unfortunately, even then, the Warner Bros. version of the typical job search tends to prevail in the American imagination. Even in the job search books I’ve read, almost every author makes one of two assumptions: Either that the reader is already working and just looking for an improvement, or that a part-time job is growing on a nearby jobby tree to be easily plucked. Since I returned to Buffalo, I’ve been forced to say no to three jobs I was offered that were totally in the bag, offering reasonable pay and benefits, due to distance. Now that I’m a student, such packages don’t come along every day, but I’m still in the hunt for a part-time position because I want to pursue my career schooling full time. I’m having a difficult time finding a proper part-time position which can get me an income and help me pay off my debts.

I find something a little disturbing in the fact that finding a position like this is so difficult. Finding part-time work shouldn’t be hard. There are people, after all, who are able to find long-term employment after being out of the workforce for years. I managed to go to plenty of interviews, but they all ended with the same message: “We’ll call you back no matter what.” In other words, they’ve made their desired hire and I’m never going to hear from them again.

There has to be some kind of trick to getting whatever job you happen to be interviewing for at the moment, and the people I envy the most are the people who have managed to figure that trick out. You know those people: They’re the ones who are able to hop from job to job, staying on whatever job they’re working for two or three months, then quitting, then, when you talk to them, tell you about how they didn’t like this or that store policy or how their manager was a major douche, so they quit their job and found work someplace else literally the very next day. The jobs they’re constantly drifting in and out of aren’t even skill jobs which require training or education, either; they’re regular, ordinary part-time jobs with a wide glut of people competing with each other to get into. I don’t know what’s more amazing about the people who are able to do that; the fact that they’re able to so callously go in and out of work so easily, or the fact that employers, even after presumably looking at their work history and seeing there’s a better-than-even chance they won’t be around for a very long time, still hire them, apparently convinced they’re the magic employers who have found the secret formula to taming the common job players.

Meanwhile, there’s me, and I plan on staying wherever I get hired for at least the next couple of years so I can finish educating myself. I’ll stay on for longer if I find a job in a media industry – which encompasses my old degree – or the health industry, which is what I’m currently pursuing. I work very hard and haven’t been properly fired since 2006. I’m perfectly capable of leaving my nonconformist tendencies at home whenever I’m on the job. I’ve been praised for being friendly and professional nearly everywhere I’ve been, and the ultimate testament to friendliness and professionalism is that I managed to reel in over $7000 while working to solicit donations from people who watch PBS in Buffalo. These were phone solicitations too, which basically meant I was working as a telemarketer to take these donations. I’ve been able to fit in and get along with every co-worker I’ve ever had, so it isn’t like there are any major issues that anyone should be worried about.

I’ve pinpointed interviewing as my trouble spot, and that’s partly because I’ve received so much conflicting advice over how to deal with interviews that, at one point, I tried following all of it. As you can probably imagine, that didn’t work out very well. So I recently ditched around, oh, say, probably 90 percent of the interviewing advice I’ve ever received and started just going strictly by the basics: Keep my personal life out of it, research the company, avoid asking about salary or benefits, things of that nature. Still, I want to be one of those people who can get any job on the planet and hop from one to another with no trouble. I’m not saying I would hop from job to job at the slightest inconvenience. I’m just saying I hate not having an income and am in search of any infallible secrets which could help me attain one. I have a life I really want to get back to living, you know.

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

If you’ve been living somewhere among the outer planets during the last couple of days, you might not realize that iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams recently died. That means in the coming weeks we’re bound to be subjected to runs of many of his movies, both the good ones and the ones that are not so much. I’m looking forward to seeing the runs of Good Will Hunting, the 1997 indie blockbuster in which Williams won his very deserved Oscar for playing Sean McGuire, the court-ordered shrink to Matt Damon’s titular title character, Will Hunting.

There’s a kind of sad irony in the fact that Williams gave perhaps the greatest performance of his career in maybe the best movie of his career as a psychologist. The official ruling on Williams’s death was suicide, and I’ll spare the platitudes about depression and everything non-sufferers don’t get about it. They’re trickling in at what has to be a record rate, and depression in and of itself really isn’t the point of this post anyway. Good Will Hunting might be my favorite movie from the eccentric filmography of Robin Williams, save maybe Aladdin. Although the movie takes place in Boston, there’s a serious element of Good Will Hunting that really clicks true in Rust Belt cities, and it results in a movie which is able to attack one of the dominant aspects of Rust Belt life while avoiding the kind of condescension and elitist views of the blue collar class which is typical of Hollywood directors. (And the insufferable Robert Altman in particular, whose death I continue to view as addition by subtraction.) The South Boston/Rust Belt commonalities are many and very minute, if Good Will Hunting’s portrayal of Southie is to be believed.

Many American cities like to view themselves as tough, take-no-shit kinds of places, living by examples of bootstrap-pulling toughness even in the worst-case scenario. I can’t think of a single place in the country that tries to exemplify this kind of ethos more than the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt is so hopelessly obsessed with this image that many of the people who live on it will place it before any and all personal progress, bringing the whole toughness thing into every decision they make, be it in family or career or anything else they consider living for. This leads to some very destructive contradictions: Rust Belt people are branded from birth with the idea of lending a hand to anyone in serious need, but when in need themselves, actually accepting such help is considered emasculating. The people who offer the help are always dead serious about it, too; if someone should take up our help offerings, we’ll drop everything in an instant and see our promises kept through right up until the very end. That makes it very bewildering and sometimes tragic that most people prefer to turn down the offered help and make the situation even worse.

Therefore, Buffalo is a strict adherent of the “just” culture. That’s the beloved idea always spouted by Fox News pundits that, whatever the problem is, you can turn your entire life around by merely going out and doing the opposite. Are you poor? Why, just go out and get rich! Are you sick? Hey, that’s easy – you just have to get healthy! It can be summed up rather easily with a single, very famous line from the popular sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where the jobs grow on jobbies?!” If only it were so simple, right? What’s unfortunate is that in most of the Rust Belt, people really do think it’s that simple, and the lower classes which are truly affected are too busy blaming each other to ask themselves why the higher classes – those always being touted as the ones who create the opportunities for the lower classes – have been creating rather less opportunities as of late. Of course, if asked, the higher classes will probably spout the same bullshit comments about pulling ourselves up from the bootstraps. It’s a well-rehearsed routine.

Depression tends to get treated in such a manner on the Rust Belt too. Feeling blue? Just cheer up! This is partially the result of the city’s piss-poor education system, which just this last year brought its high school graduation rate up past 50 percent for the first time in decades. (And even now, the current 53 percent graduation rate isn’t exactly worth writing about.) It’s also because Buffalo also runs around sporting a real 50′s mentality, which means you do your brooding in secret and pray your ass off to a very specific god until you magically turn happy again. Ask anyone from Buffalo, and they’ll tell you that’s all depression is – eternal sadness. Therefore, all ou have to do to cheer up is toss a funny movie into the DVD player or read the daily funnies in The Buffalo News.

The problem with depression on the Rust Belt is less that the people who live on the Rust Belt don’t understand it, but more the fact that they are very adamant in refusing to try to understand it. Being a good Rust Belt citizen means clinging desperately to the ways of the olden days, even though this adherence to the old ways is clearly contributing to the downward spiral of the region. The Rust Belt locked itself in and insulated itself against forward progress as soon as the steel industry started bailing on it, and the whole area is still under the mistaken impression that trying to pretend everything is like it was during the apex of the postwar boom will actually make the various cities prosperous again. The same revitalization that turned Pittsburgh and Philadelphia around came when those two cities finally recognized that the region will never be an industrial dynamo again. Change like that requires the entire populace to start thinking differently, and Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities have apparently performed admirably. Buffalo, not so much.

Unfortunately, this old time mindset leads the Rust Belt to treat mental problems like they’re paper cuts. Those of us who suffer from depression while living on the Rust Belt are therefore forced to deal with the isolation and loneliness through the rather dangerous method of pretending they don’t exist. It’s hard to say we can deal with it through other means; we’re not taught any other means, and if we are, it’s so we get the strict impression that those who do resort to those other (smarter) means are wusses who just aren’t the tough joes we are. Trying to explain your personal depression to people is a quick way to get an angry brush-off statement.

Depression is also easily compounded by the dominant way of life on the Rust Belt. With the 50′s mindset still gripping peoples’ thoughts and lives with an iron clasp, there’s a very strict script creating that terrible illusion known as “normality.” I give the region a lot of shit about its general lack of curiosity, but it’s hard to tell just how much curiosity actually exists here. That’s because anyone who holds any sense of curiosity, intellectual or cultural, tends to keep their interest on the down low. Science in Buffalo is treated the same way they treated witchcraft in Salem, and most people who believe in any kind of religion adhere to the toxic forms of it which propagate exclusivity and teach the idea of self-unworthiness. This adds up to the fact that any freethinkers who live on the Rust Belt have to bottle themselves up and wear their more socially acceptable masks in public. That’s basically a form of mental self-suffocation, and those who are forced to do it for too long tend to fall deeper into depression. Many end up crawling to the bottle and contemplating suicide. I’ve done the latter at least three or four different points in my life sometimes.

That’s why I love Good Will Hunting so much. We see Will Hunting trapped in the Rust Belt tough guy mindset, trying to live by a certain code which has been drilled in since childhood but is clearly against his better interests. Sean McGuire is successfully able to break through every mental defense Will erects against him, finally breaking Will down. The Hollywood ending, with Will quietly leaving Massachusetts to reunite with the girl his mental defenses stupidly made him ditch earlier, is a gratifying one for all. For me and others who go through depression on Rust Belt blue collar terms, the big reward is in seeing the moment when Will is able to change the way his head is programmed. He awakens to the fact that what his blue collar culture instilled in him doesn’t work, and his departure to follow Skylar is not only the right choice for his heart, but a subtle form of rejecting his old culture and his bad habits.

Sadly, Will Hunting’s end doesn’t happen for enough people who live by the rough and tumble blue collar ethos of the Rust Belt, because we don’t have a Dr. McGuire or a Chuck, a best friend who is able to muster enough realism to tell Will he probably would be best off someplace else. Anyone who gets depressed to the point of suicide living on the Rust Belt will likely have to gather enough courage to admit it to themselves before acting on it. And when (if) they do, fortunately, there’s a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline they can call at 1-800-273-8255.

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Marlon Brando died ten years ago this year. Back when all the Brando memorials came out, the acting legend was lauded for a handful of movies he made. That’s all it was, though; just a handful, and there’s a reason for that: Brando’s choices of film roles left a lot to be desired. Many people rightfully single out the handful of truly iconic movies he was in, because he did manage to get his name atop the marquee of some great ones: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now. That there is a Criterion Collection of filmmaking excellence. But does anyone remember The Nightcomers? How about Burn, in which Brando wrote in his autobiography he believed he gave his best-ever performance? A Countess from Hong Kong? Sayonara, which fell out of remembrance in pure spite of receiving an incredible ten Oscar nominations – including Best Actor for Brando – winning five? Yeah, looking at Brando’s total film list, he comes off as less an actor who thought carefully about how good the scripts were and more like someone who just threw until something hit.

While Marlon Brando made a few good movies, he’s best known for his cultural influence, but even more so for what I’m debating now: His acting influence. Brando was the original poster boy of Method acting, which threw movie performances for a loop. For an enormous chunk of the 20th Century, it was common for filmmakers to nab their stars right from the stage, which is why performances from earlier movies are so much different. The Method relied on emotional memory, in which an actor focuses inward to basically bring out the character, in extreme cases turning the actor into a whole different person. Brando’s performances unleashed a beastly wave of actors who perfected what he started, and into this wave during the renegade period of filmmaking – late 60’s through the 70’s – entered maybe the two greatest movie stars of all time: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The 70’s released any number of screen legends – Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman are arguably the most notable among them – but it’s Pacino and De Niro who are scratched into the stars as Brando’s immediate torch-carriers. Before them, there was never a pair of actors who combined such presence, versatility, iconoclasm, and charisma to such a high level of consistency and memorability. Both actors are in their 70’s now, and with the “After Them” period sadly approaching, I’m still not sure we’ve found anyone on Earth who could so much as meet them halfway. Yes, the candidates are out there, but they all lack in one area or another. 

That being the case, it’s still Pacino and De Niro who dominate all the film school best actor ever conversations. Now, it might be unfair to compare two different actors, but Pacino and De Niro have also had such incredible career parallels that Pacino vs. De Niro became a 90’s debate before anyone knew just what the hell a 90’s debate was. Both are native New Yorkers who were taught by Method legends; De Niro learned his craft under Stella Adler (who taught Brando himself) while Pacino makes the case for Adler’s fierce rival, Lee Strasberg. Both performed to acclaim onstage before being noticed by critics in indie movies – Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly. Both rose to stardom in the 70’s in a series of iconic roles from classic movies. Both are popular for their parts in gangster movies. Both hit the skids during the 80’s before hitting their apexes in the 90’s. Both are in paycheck-cashing periods now. (Though De Niro seems to be undergoing a mini-resurrection.) Most importantly, both are among those people who force fans who favor one to bolster the other as much as possible while still defending their choice. So let’s do this! Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro. One day, I’ll learn. 

It’s tempting to say both actors use the same style, but when you take a real look at their performances, you start to notice just how different they are. De Niro tends to understate a lot of his roles, bringing the common idea of quiet strength. Pacino is a lot more explosive, and its given rise to the concept of “Shouty Al,” scenes in which Pacino starts hamming it up and goes over the top. This isn’t to say that Pacino breaks character. He just appears to have a knack for picking roles which give him good five-minute power speeches, and when the final delivery comes in his movies, you know exactly when he’s going to start spouting all the best lines – the ones you’re going to be remembering and quoting for the next decade. It’s fairly safe to say Pacino has the better presence of the two of them, but what De Niro doesn’t use in presence, he makes up with his sheer versatility. When De Niro steals a scene, you can’t help but get the impression sometimes that he’s doing it by accident, and that’s he’s trying to come off as more of a compliment to the movie’s other actors rather than as the marquee star in his own right. 
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….. De Niro by about a hair. Lord knows this isn’t a knock against Pacino, but rather a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that there seems to come times in many of Pacino’s flicks when Al starts to slightly crack under intensity and he needs to let everything out. The reason “Shouty Al” is such a popular idea is because he always seems to include that single scene in a movie which is wrapped up and sent right to the Oscar committee immediately after it gets shot. You know these scenes when you see them, and can easily hear Pacino tacking an “I’M AL FUCKING PACINO!” right onto the end of it. De Niro can be small. Pacino not so much, even when he tries.

Breakthrough Performances
Okay, everyone can pinpoint Pacino’s breakthrough performance: A bit part playing a character named Michael Corleone in a small indie flick called The Godfather. I know, blink and you’ll miss it completely, right? De Niro’s big breakthrough is a little bit harder to spot, but most people are willing to credit the movie which also put director Martin Scorsese on the map: Mean Streets. With Pacino, you have to take into consideration the fact that he was playing what turned out to be an ego-check role, acting against a cast that also included James Caan and Robert Duvall. Marlon Brando gave the movie a major coup, a real marquee name to attract viewers and a small piece of prestige to go with it. It was Pacino who played the main role as Michael, though, and when Mario Puzo – the author of the book The Godfather was based on – learned that, he was pissed off and went around denouncing the movie until it was released. He changed his mind about Pacino immediately after seeing it. Mean Streets didn’t have nearly so much going for it. The cast and director were all basically unknowns, and during that part of his career, Martin Scorsese had done his only major movie, Who’s that Knocking at My Door?, with his Mean Streets star, Harvey Keitel. When Mean Streets came out a year after The Godfather, Scorsese was absolutely convinced that Keitel was going to be his guy, the big name marquee actor who would soon be bringing name recognition to Scorsese’s pictures. He kept on believing it even after the National Society of Film Critics gave De Niro the award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Johnny Boy, and still believed it until he started making Taxi Driver.
This goes to Pacino. Great as De Niro played his role as Johnny Boy, all of the gravitas from Mean Streets was dropped onto Harvey Keitel’s head, and he did justice to the movie. Had Johnny Boy been removed, the movie would be different, but not by much, and it’s pretty easy to imagine Keitel moving on to take up the mantle that De Niro eventually picked up – it isn’t like Keitel is lacking for talent, after all. Pacino not only had to convincingly play the center of gravity in an epic drama, he had to play a very tricky role which required him to subtly shift from a sort of offhand, low-key family oddball into the cold, calculating, domineering head honcho crime boss while also getting an audience to think his character believes in his heart of hearts that he didn’t change at all. Pacino screws that up, one of the great, defining masterpieces of American cinema is totally ruined.

Popular, Acclaimed, and Iconic Roles
Oh god, where to begin? I guess the logical starting point would be The Godfather movies, because both Pacino and De Niro played parts which defined their characters. Pacino, of course, was Michael Corleone. Michael’s father, Vito, is the only movie character in history for whom two Oscars have been awarded to two different actors for playing him. Brando won Best Actor in 1972 for playing classic Vito, while it was De Niro who took home the 1974 Best Supporting Actor prize for playing a younger version of Vito in The Godfather Part II – a role for which De Niro barely spoke a single word in English! After The Godfather Part II, Pacino and De Niro spent the entire rest of the 70′s going head to head in an incredible iconoclast contest, playing meaty role after meaty role in a damn near flawless string of movies. Pacino went on to Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and …And Justice for All, all of which he received numerous award nominations for. He even made a movie during the time called Bobby Deerfield which netted him a Golden Globe nomination, even though most people forgot the thing existed. De Niro ran through a highly successful stretch as well, which included Oscar nominations for Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. After speedbumping through the 80′s, they both hit highs again during the 90′s, Pacino in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, and Any Given Sunday while also reprising his old role as Michael Corleone one more time. De Niro also returned to his gangster guns in the 90′s with Goodfellas and Casino, but also making Cape Fear, Awakenings, A Bronx Tale, and Jackie Brown, and keep in mind I haven’t even scratched the surface with either of them. Smack in the center of the 90′s, they collaborated in the ultimate robbery movie, Heat, probably the greatest unheralded movie ever made when it was released, and now properly revered in hindsight. They also both portrayed brilliant parodies of the gangster characters that made them popular in the 90′s: In 1990, Pacino played Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, the main villain in Dick Tracy, while De Niro waited until the other end of the decade before playing Paul Vitti in Analyze This! And for all we know about their nadirs in the 80′s, both actors still managed to carve out niches. Pacino played Tony Montana, one of the decades true icons and a guy who summarized everything both right and wrong about the country’s mindset during the decade; and playing the lead in an understated but well-liked low-key comedy called Author! Author! De Niro’s 80′s started with a bang: He won his very deserved Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. Although it wasn’t a sign for his 80′s, he still managed to do a few things very few other actors ever would have attempted: Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s supremely odd The King of Comedy; Sergio Leone’s massive four-hour fucker of a gangstar epic Once Upon a Time in America (which I’ve seen, but never in its entirety); and Terry Gilliam’s surrealist and fantastical Brazil before his work in 1987′s Midnight Run and The Untouchables signaled a real return to form.
I’d be a complete moron to try to pick this one. Michael Corleone against Jimmy Conway? Frank Serpico vs. Travis Bickle? Max Cady vs. Frank Slade? I know what my personal preference is, but trying to choose one on empirical evidence is way too difficult to judge. You pick them. Then I’ll commend you for your excellent taste.

Role that Shouldn’t have Worked but did Anyway
You could probably think of a few candidates for both actors – Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for De Niro, Ivan Travalian in Author! Author! for Pacino, Max Cady in Cape Fear for De Niro, Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross for Pacino. But I’m just going to stick with the two that really stick out: De Niro played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. You would expect a movie called The King of Comedy in which Jerry Lewis is one of the stars to be a laff riot, but the movie is instead a very dark comedy coupled with a weird form of thriller with a little bit of drama mixed in. You would expect the lead of a movie like this to try to lighten the mood as much as possible, but trying to play a role directly for laughs means trying to emphasize some moments harder than others and sometimes dialing back the other nuances and intricacies of the character in order to do it right. De Niro, however, usually isn’t the kind of actor who half-asses a character to punctuate particular scenes, so he plays Pupkin straight, and it results in a performance of a character who comes off creepy and a little angry. Pacino’s usual suspect in this category is much better known because it sticks out like a sore thumb: Tony Montana from Scarface. Although Scarface looks like a regular old gangster flick from the outside with little nuances thrown in by screenwriter Oliver Stone clearly making this sucker the typical gangster morality tale, the movie’s entire point flew about three atmospheres over everyone’s head. Instead of seeing a theme about greed doing in a sick bastard of a human being – which was the theme, make no mistake – people saw a story of a man rising up and living the American Dream to an extreme excess, basically reinterpreting the movie. And Pacino’s dynamo of a performance was probably the defining factor. Although Pacino playing Montana should never, ever be mistaken for a good movie performance, it was booming, charismatic, and cutthroat in ways which made an otherwise high-powered cast look puny next to Pacino. 
Pacino. He’s the reason Scarface managed to transcend its medium and why its true meaning has been sapped away in favor of a strict Reaganist interpretation. De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy, while very effective, also didn’t have any real sign of De Niro trying to hoist the entire movie; in fact, De Niro appeared to be acting perfectly in synch with director Martin Scorsese, who appeared to be making the kind of movie The King of Comedy turned out to be. Scarface ended up crossing a thematic line by freak accident because of Pacino, and it didn’t look like Scarface’s director, Brian De Palma, had much of an interest in rectifying what was happening or directing it to any vision of his own. In fact, it looks like De Palma was barely involved at all, and that he directed mostly by mailing in his daily stage notes from whatever vacation spot he happened to be sipping mai thais from.

Down Periods
General wisdom regarding both actors: Even periods are lean, odd periods are awesome. The truth is somewhere in between. The early nadir for both actors is generally considered the 80’s, but that’s a little hard on them from a more revisionist point. Pacino didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the 80’s being a movie star. Pacino made only five movies during the decade: Cruising, Author! Author!, Scarface, Revolution, and Sea of Love. Cruising was roundly bashed by critics and also by gay rights groups who believed it was homophobic. The reception warmed somewhat over the years, but never really thawed. Author! Author! and Scarface were also beat up, but years have been kind to both. Revolution was completely forgotten, and at that point, Pacino took the apparent hint and ducked out of movies for the next four years before finally returning to form with Sea of Love in 1989. De Niro made a lot more movies during the time. He started the decade with Raging Bull, which many consider the crowning performance of his career. While he did make forgettables like The Mission and Angel Heart during the time, he also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s strange movie about love and happiness in a clockwork world, Brazil; and in Sergio Leone’s ambitious epic Once Upon a Time in America; he also played one of his more popular roles, Al Capone in The Untouchables, before his big return in 1988’s Midnight Run. Came the millennium, both appeared to get a little less choosy about their roles as well, so their dreck started to trickle in: Simone, Showtime, The Recruit, Gigli, 88 Minutes, New Year’s Eve, Last Vegas, Jack and Jill…. It’s a list that might have been unfathomable 20 years ago, but it’s happening. 
Let’s see. Who’s down period movies would I rather watch? De Niro’s. Near the end of his career, Pacino can’t seem to help but keep being Al Pacino. While De Niro isn’t exactly testing his range either, he does seem to be having a lot more fun lately. We give De Niro a lot of shit for making more comedies now, but he’s been a sort of stealth comedy guy since Midnight Run in 1988, or 1983 if you count The King of Comedy (I don’t). I actually enjoyed The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and got a kick out of De Niro Yankovic-ing his role from Taxi Driver in that movie, and lampooning his own gangster roles in Analyze This! and Analyze That! He’s proven bankable as a screwball comedy star, and his career is lately rising again: He earned acclaim for Being Flynn, played an uncredited role in American Hustle, and was granted an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, Pacino seems to be on an upward trajectory too, having won a lot of acclaim for playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector in TV movies with the TV industry booming like never before. There are rumors of De Niro and Pacino teaming up for another movie which will be helmed by Martin Scorsese. I hope to god that’s true. 

Underrated Movies
Wow…. For Pacino, it takes work to think of a particular movie I think is completely underrated. Do I go with his screen-winking redefinition of the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate? His disgustingly overlooked …And Justice for All? The Insider? One of my very favorite Pacino movies is Carlito’s Way, a Brian De Palma thriller about a reformed drug dealer trying to go straight. It’s a gangster movie that holds up against anything else either Pacino or De Niro has ever done. De Palma is in top form, there’s a fantastic supporting performance from Sean Penn – who plays the lawyer responsible for leading Pacino’s character, Carlito Brigante, back onto the path he tried so hard to escape – and while Pacino is never small, he nicely understates himself and gives a true heart to his character. In a fashion, Carlito’s Way is a sort of reverse gangster movie. Instead of the head gangster starting with ambiguous morality being taken further across the moral event horizon, Carlito’s Way introduces a gangster who saw the light and is dragged away from it kicking and screaming. Many of the more sympathetic gangster characters want redemption. Carlito already found redemption; what he wants is his ticket out. I’m sure Midnight Run is a popular candidate for De Niro, but that movie has the benefit of hindsight now, and most seem to believe it’s a solid comedy that holds up well, with De Niro playing perfectly into character. The one that really stands out to me, is Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 movie Jackie Brown. Tarantino, at the time, was looking like the direct successor to Martin Scorsese while also being a wholly original screenwriter. Jackie Brown is an adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and one of the few Leonard adaptations that worked the way it’s supposed to. Instead of merely giving us an ordinary story stylistically directed and written (which, let’s face it, was what Pulp Fiction and the grossly overrated Reservoir Dogs both were), Jackie Brown focuses a lot more on creating rounded characters and relationships – so much so that the movie was attacked by some for its slow pace. De Niro plays Louis Gara, a dimwit pothead fresh off a prison stint, who simply goes along with his old cellmate’s idea just because he seems to be bored. It’s one of his last truly great performances in one of the most underrated movies ever released.
Pacino. Great as Jackie Brown is, and great as De Niro is in it, there’s not a single reason to hand this one to De Niro. He’s a supporting character in a movie defined by Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster, and it’s entirely possible a more casual moviegoer or less knowledgeable in the nuances of good film acting would write him off. Pacino, just as he did in his earlier collaboration with De Palma (which happened to be Scarface), carried Carlito’s Way and gave it its beating soul. 

Playing Against Type
Despite the prominence of their movies, this is actually a little harder to think of than you would expect because they’ve both created brands on playing gritty tough guy characters. For Pacino, certainly Scent of a Woman makes an argument, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is a disremembered 1991 romance called Frankie and Johnny. Pacino plays the titular Johnny, trying to woo a woman named Frankie, and that line sums up the whole movie. It’s an odd movie in large part due to its very existence – it’s not a snarky romantic comedy where the characters are either teenagers or twentysomethings with wealth, professional accomplishments, and reputations well beyond their years. Both characters are rutted, in the middle of their lives in which they’re merely existing and searching for some sort of purpose. It might be the sweetest role Pacino ever played, and the movie doesn’t try to spice itself up with any tricks – it’s earnest and straightforward. There’s more playing against type in De Niro’s body of work, since he was the busier and more experimental of the two. Do I go with Flawless? Awakenings? The biting political comedy Wag the Dog? Off-kilter as those were for De Niro, what I’m really going to go with is Brazil. Terry Gilliam’s vicious satire against bureaucracy and high-level incompetence has De Niro in one of his more comedic forms playing Harry Tuttle, a rebel leader and renegade air conditioning specialist who helps Jonathan Pryce’s main character, Sam Lowry, escape a pair of Central Services workers who are actually there to serve a much nastier purpose than their humble service titles imply. For all the actual comedies De Niro made, he was probably used most effectively as Tuttle, who is more or less a caricature of a fast-talking salesman but is able to do the job, along with showing Pryce that his feelings toward the oppressive Central Services are spot-on.
De Niro. Both Pacino and De Niro do drama all the time, and they both excel at it. So while Pacino’s role in Frankie and Johnny is notable in its tenderness, Johnny does tend to come off sometimes as the post-prison Sonny Wortzik (Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon). Although not necessarily a comic role, De Niro’s Harry Tuttle was played rather comedically, and we got a sense of what De Niro could do when he wasn’t losing his temper or brooding. Although De Niro’s appearance in Brazil was little more than a cameo, it certainly left an impression on filmgoers. As for my own personal biases, I’m ever a romantic at heart, but romance isn’t something I enjoy as an entertainment genre. Brazil, meanwhile, is one of my all-time favorite movies, a funny but brutal shot at the idea of bureaucratic control of society. There was never a movie like Brazil before, and we may never find one like it again; this is the kind of movie studios live in abject fear of, because it goes against every ethos Hollywood movies push, and it’s way too elaborate to be made independently. It takes place in a strange fantasy world with little semblance of sanity to start with, and it gradually loses what little ground it was standing on in the first place, culminating in an ending which spirals away from any control or sense, taking you on a path which makes you wonder whether you should be cheering, laughing, or just gaping in amazement…. Before ultimately swiping the rug and absolutely crushing your heart.

Oscar Roles
This one is simple: De Niro won his first Oscar in 1974, the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. He won his second in 1980 – Best Actor for playing Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Pacino won his only Oscar in 1992 for Best Actor, playing Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Honestly, it’s sad that this popularity contest gets so much attention at all, and looking over this category, it’s easy to see why. De Niro got an award for which he not only performed almost entirely in a language that wasn’t his, but which was already portrayed two years earlier by Marlon fucking Brando, who also won an Oscar playing it! His second Oscar was the result of an all-time great performance, for which he had to quickly put on a dangerous amount of weight for two scenes which didn’t last a collective total of ten minutes. Pacino was awesome in Scent of a Woman, yes; he even managed to trick many people into thinking Chris O’Donnell was a good actor for awhile. But Frank Slade had none of the manic intensity of Pacino’s early Oscar-nom roles, and it’s generally accepted fact that the Academy was throwing the lifetime achievement Oscar at him. This category belongs to De Niro.

Although gangster and crime roles actually make up very little of the filmographies of both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both of them are indelibly weaved into the image, defining and redefining the common gangster in much the ways of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney before them. Both actors broke through playing gangsters; Pacino played Michael Corleone, a straight man who eventually became the personification of evil. De Niro played Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, a nutty trench gangster with grand delusions of hitting the organized crime bigtime. When Pacino returned as the Corleone patriarch two years later, he brought De Niro with him to play a younger version of his pop, and ever since I first saw The Godfather Part II, I always thought young Vito’s story was the more engaging of the two. Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana was like a steroid-addled cartoon, while De Niro’s supporting role as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas tricked a lot of people into thinking Jimmy was the center of the movie; a hell of a trick, considering how great Ray Liotta was as main character Henry Hill. De Niro was the reigning overlord of Tangiers in Casino, a cold, calculating, strategy-oriented businessman whose control just didn’t extend quite as far as he thought it did. Pacino was the world’s only gangster with a heart in the sorely underrated Carlito’s Way, and later played Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco – the character De Niro’s Johnny Boy might have become had he lived longer. De Niro was the very face of all-time gangster-dom in The Untouchables as Al Capone, a wisecracking and dominating villain who, in all honesty, is the only reason to watch the movie. Pacino parodied his gangster characters in Dick Tracy, while De Niro made fun of his image in Analyze This! and Analyze That!
I know there are people who are automatically going to throw this at Pacino just because he was The Godfather, but that’s a huge disservice to De Niro which requires forgetting that De Niro also played The Godfather. Fuck this. You choose, and I’ll commend you on having excellent taste.

Wow. Close. So close. If you want to state your defense for Al Pacino, I totally understand, but Robert De Niro wins this sucker.


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