reviews

Book review: Clumsy

I blather on quite frequently about The Truth and my devotion to it, but I'm starting to think I should either start writing graphic novels or get down with being forever relegated to the piker scrap heap of truth-telling history.

This revelation courtesy of Clumsy, Jeffrey Brown's first graphic novel. It chronicles in gorgeous, embarrassingly painful detail the rise and fall (and rise and fall and rise and plummet) of Brown's year-long relationship with a woman whom he initially writes off as a sort of "dirty hippy."

One night in the close proximity of a shared sleeping bag blows that perception to smithereens (I'm starting to see why the kids like their camping); immediately, the two are off to the races on their long-distance love journey to madness and back again.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Clumsy (other than its blatant honesty) is that the story is told out of sequence. Brown opens the book with the strip "My First Night With Theresa" and immediately follows it with "My Last Night With Kristyn"; having those writing-on-the-wall, it-tolls-for-thee panels of doom of the latter butt up against sunny optimism of the former the casts an interesting, grayish pall over the proceedings. I felt forced to look at this relationship with a more analytical than voyeuristic eye. (Or maybe that's just me being nutty, it's been known to happen.)

The fascinating thing about Brown is his dichotomy. I was struck over and over not only by his fretting over the state of the union and his poignant longing for the phone to ring, but by his boundless courage in laying it all out there like that. In an interview, Brown discusses the separation from character that he goes through to write, basically, he backs away from his characters and goes into author mode, which allows him to get the distance he needs to best tell the story.

Brown has even made sport of (and additional cash off of) his own sensitivity by releasing Be A Man, a parody edition of his own work several years later where he retells the Clumsy story from a more traditional, macho-boy perspective.

The communicatrix is kinda cheap and all (she checked out Clumsy from the glorious deliciousness that is the BHPL), but for three bucks, I think I can let my curiosity get the better of me just this once.

Besides, sensitivity is sexy and worth a visit, but sensitivity coupled with crazy-ass bravery? That's where I wanna live, baby; you gotta support that shit.

xxx
c

P.S. Lots more cool stuff at Jeffrey Brown's website, which he shares with some other great illustrators.

UPDATE (12/3/08): In a shameless and transparent act of caving, I've been replacing book and DVD links with Amazon affiliate links throughout the site. I MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE. Like, a full 1/4 cent or something. Whatever. I'm happy if you borrow it from a friend or the library, or buy it used (I like half.com and alibris online) or, praise Jeebus!, from your local independent dead tree retailer. Seriously. The main thing is, read. Absorb. Enjoy. Pass it on.

Has Been

WARNING: The review you are about to read was written by a musical moron. That is, by the way, my standard caveat. Having grown up on a steady diet of showtunes, Top 40 and Bad 1960's White People Music (Mitch Miller! Steve and Eydie! Up With People!), I am woefully unqualified to judge anything as "cool" or "uncool" unless it resides firmly at one or the other end of the spectrum. And frankly, if it hadn't been for the stray Ella LP slipped onto the phonograph stack or my cool Uncle George's lifesaving, intermittent interjection of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles (kind of musical triage, now that I think about it), I might not even be able to discern that much.

But even a musical moron knows the instant she hears One For The Ages. There's something visceral about hitting the sweet spot that anyone can see: that piece of art that reaches across the room and grabs you by the heart; that novel that seems to be reading you; and that song...oh, that song...

As the person who turned me on to Has Been put it, "It's oddly compelling, isn't it?" You got that right. With songs about his dead wife floating in the swimming pool, the off-again relationship he has with an estranged daughter and arrangements that make you wish the word "eclectic" was not so overused as to make it useless in defining this, Has Been is odd to the nth degree. And yet, I have been unable to remove the CD from my car player since I put it in a week ago.

The outrageous success of this album is probably due in no small part to Ben Folds, whom the kids tell me is the opposite of a musical moron. I mean, I heard William Shatner's first go-round and all I can say is that I ain't putting 'Windmills of Your Mind' on a mix tape anytime soon. Still, William "Bill, to you, Ben" Shatner's honesty is pretty staggering, especially in light of the rather difficult truths that make up his life.

My current favorite cut is 'Real,' the last track on the album. It's weirdly humble and pompous all at once. Shatner talks his way through it, as he has every track I've ever heard him on since 'Windmills,' but damn if that boy doesn't have some fierce rhythm, all the same.

Maybe that's the appeal: full-on truth, yes, but also a resounding respect for form. Say what you want about the guy, but I think he gets it. And he digs those kindred souls who also get it, even though their own truths may manifest themselves in vastly different ways.

Before I heard the album, I'd have been hard-pressed to come up with William Shatner and Ben Folds as the perfect people to make beautiful music together. Now that I have, I just can't wait to see what they come up with next.

xxx c

Book review: cheat

cheatIf the title wasn't tipoff enough, the flirty glances between (married) Janey and (also married, but not to Janey) Davis on page four of Christine Norrie's graphic novel pretty much give it away.

As the story opens, Janey and her workaholic husband, Marc, are moving into a new apartment secured for them by their attractive friends, Anna and Davis, who live in the building. It's clear that the True Romance has gone out of Marc & Janey's marriage; five years of living and working together (Marc writes travel books which Janey coordinates marketing and publicity for) have taken their toll.

Having sexy Davis within easy reach (heh heh) is too much temptation for the attention-starved Janey. She pushes Marc the rest of the way out the door, metaphorically speaking, encouraging him to take the solo research trips she used to resent him for taking...and then, in a moment of drunken weakness, finally and fatally (for her marriage, anyway) gives in to the crush she's been nurturing.

Drawn and written in the over-the-top, sex-as-cautionary-tale style of the old romance comics, cheat feels breezy and disposable, the graphic novel equivalent of potato chips, but the glossy surface belies the gut-punch of the story's close. Perhaps it's because, dramatic design and impossibly pretty character drawings aside, the story behind cheat is small, sordid and true. Have I used the descriptor "Chekhovian" around here lately? I'll do so again. That krazy, konsumptive kossack knew that the mundane often makes for the most poignant and true storytelling.

cheat is a strange, sad little tale that uses an odd medium to sneak up on your emotions from behind. And damned successfully, I'd say.

Old Anton would be proud...

xxx
c

UPDATE (12/3/08): In a shameless and transparent act of caving, I've been replacing book and DVD links with Amazon affiliate links throughout the site. I MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE. Like, a full 1/4 cent or something. Whatever. I'm happy if you borrow it from a friend or the library, or buy it used (I like half.com and alibris online) or, praise Jeebus!, from your local independent dead tree retailer. Seriously. The main thing is, read. Absorb. Enjoy. Pass it on.

Book review: The Lovely Bones

bonesI'm suspicious of runaway-best-seller fiction. The few times I've broken down and grudgingly read it second-hand or leaning against the bookcase at Borders, I've invariably been proven right. Oprah's outreach program notwithstanding, it's so rare that a truly well-written book appeals to anything but a slim section of the book-buying public that really, it's safer just to stay home and ride these things out. Besides, I'm cheap.So I gave The Lovely Bones a wide berth when it first came out. On top of its status as freak super-seller, the violent murder that drives the story just wasn't a big draw for me. (Never made it through Dave Eggers's cancer book, either.) My outlook was black enough in my 20's and 30's to tint the rest of my days without ever having to dip into the existentialists again, and this is assuming the good, long life genetics would appear to have in store for me.

At the same time, that violent act was a draw, in its way. Given what I'm going through with my own work, finding the universal (and the funny) in the very specific (and oft-grim) reality of me and chronic illness, I was curious to see what she'd done with this dark little story to touch such a nerve.

What's clear from the beginning is that the violent act itself, while not gratuitous, is really a device, a jumping-off place, to explore the wherefore of connection. When I started the book, I was deeply afraid that the title referred to the sad leavings of the narrator's mortal self. (SPOILER FOR THOSE ON NEWS BLACKOUT THE PAST THREE YEARS: the story in The Lovely Bones is told by a murdered girl from her new residence in heaven.) But as The Lovely Bones wears on, the story slowly morphs from one of shock and bereavement and the desire to bring a killer to justice into the real story: how people come together and fall apart; how areas of overlap shift and change with events and need; how we find our way through change, even impossibly horrible, violent change that is thrust upon us, to the other side and our new selves.

These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections, sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent, that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredicatable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.

Alice Sebold writes beautifully and clearly, which is a good thing. The story is fanciful enough; fancy writing would likely kill it. Still, I felt a little lost in the heaven sequences. I'm curious to see Peter Jackson's take on The Lovely Bones. While on the surface, it would seem to be wildly different subject matter for the Ring-master, I think Jackson's unparallelled ability to fabricate a world that feels whole and complete will serve this material well.

But do read the book first. Best-seller or no, it's a ripping good yarn.

xxx
c

UPDATE (12/3/08): In a shameless and transparent act of caving, I've been replacing book and DVD links with Amazon affiliate links throughout the site. I MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE. Like, a full 1/4 cent or something. Whatever. I'm happy if you borrow it from a friend or the library, or buy it used (I like half.com and alibris online) or, praise Jeebus!, from your local independent dead tree retailer. Seriously. The main thing is, read. Absorb. Enjoy. Pass it on.

"Medium"

Coming off of a self-imposed, five-year cable hiatus, it figures that my first real Destination TV airs on network. "Medium" (NBC, Mondays 10/9pm) stars Patricia Arquette as Arizona psychic Allison Dubois. Nominally a show about the super-dooper mental powers she employs in the service of various tricky cases for the D.A.'s office (she sees dead people), the real draw here is the juicy-real relationship Allison shares with her husband, Joe (Jake Weber). Yeah, they're both hot (they're TV stars!) and yeah, their exchanges are way better written than the usual i-dotting, t-crossing pap you see on TV (Glenn Gordon Caron of "Moonlighting" fame is at the helm, and his deft ear for dialogue is evident), but oh, oh, the restraint!

Example: upon returning home to find his lovely wife pouring herself yet another fatty vodka or family-sized glass of red (it quiets the voices), instead of a comment, cutting or no, or even a small-but-meaningful glance, we're treated to...nothing. Just the enormity of his pain as he takes in the whole picture and steamrolls over his own impulse to scream or smack her or take her in his arms and shake her before he collapses against her, weeping. Just that, with no fanfare.

Talk about an impulse to weep. I wasn't sure whether to sob with joy or leap to my feet with a "Hallelujah/A-men!" to the heavens and the network heads.

There's also a bunch of stuff in "Medium" about dreams and visions and all the other woo-woo stuff that generally fascinates me in real life, along with some flashy visual F/X-y stuff. But frankly, up against the anomaly of a real, live, everyday relationship on primetime TV, all that sparkly stuff feels...

Well, kinda ordinary.

xxx c

Book review: David Chelsea In Love

Chelsea_coverSeveral months ago, the Beverly Hills Public Library, a.k.a. the BHPL, a.k.a. The Greatest Library In All The Land, added a graphic novel section. This is perfect for people like me who are geeky enough to appreciate graphic novels but not geeky enough to frequent comix stores (and too cheap to buy any book over five bucks sight unseen via the internet).

The collection is pretty boy-heavy (as opposed to "pretty-boy heavy", next up: Eats, Shoots & Leaves) but there are a few items on the girlier end of the spectrum: Julie Doucet's My New York Diary, Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year, Ghost World and suchlike. And that's what I like: story, story, story, the blacker, the better, but without all those silly superpowers and man-tights cluttering up the thing. To me, girly (read: auto/biographical) graphic novels combine the best of both childhood comix worlds, the human interaction of the Archie crowd in all its fascinating, Chekovian mundanity plus the firece filmic drawing of the Marvel house, minus the restraints of cartooning for kids.

David Chelsea gives gooooood autobiography; he's as dark and brooding and crazy as they come. He's also in possession of mad Rapidograph skills, which are rivalled only by his ability to employ them in pouring his messed-up life onto the page.

Chelsea2The story takes place mainly on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Chelsea is (barely) eking out a living as an illustrator, and in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, where he travels (by bus!) in never-ending pursuit of the Girlfriend Action that eludes him in New York. Minnie, the central object of his affection, is a gawky philandering Portland actress; from the moment they meet cute at a party given by friends of Chelsea's sister, he's fairly obsessed by her. Of course, as one gigantic (literally) bundle of neuroses and bad judgment, she's the worst kind of person to get involved with. Narcissistic, solipsistic and completely unable to commit herself to one man or one city, Minnie keeps Chelsea teetering between the maddest kind of love and the worst kind of despair, much like Chelsea himself does with the women he treats as rest stops between bouts of Minnie.

Chelsea1Of course, the real love story in the book is the one between Chelsea and cartooning. At the end, in a sort of "where are they now" kind of summary, the now married-with-kids cartoonists admits to having given up la vida loca for the pleasures of true coupledom, which, as he says, he likes even better "even if it lacks the drama of a good graphic novel."

But the accompanying "photos" at the back of the book, really a series of photorealistic illustrations likely copied from real snaps, are as lovingly detailed as any manic sequence in David Chelsea in Love. He may not be the angst-ridden youth prowling the early-80s wilds of the East Village, but he's just as jiggy with the pen and ink as he ever was.

Let's hope he stays crazy-in-the-good-way for many, many years to come.

xxx
c

UPDATE (12/3/08): In a shameless and transparent act of caving, I've been replacing book and DVD links with Amazon affiliate links throughout the site. I MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE. Like, a full 1/4 cent or something. Whatever. I'm happy if you borrow it from a friend or the library, or buy it used (I like half.com and alibris online) or, praise Jeebus!, from your local independent dead tree retailer. Seriously. The main thing is, read. Absorb. Enjoy. Pass it on.

Project Life, by "Project Runway" Part II

plaidWhew! We're really behind on our Project Life/Project Runway Lessons, so I'm going to have to move a little faster to get us caught up. (Don't want to get caught in LIFE with our pants down, HAHAHA!) In Episode 2, the eleven remaining designers (sorry, Daniel, hopefully, you're making the most of your resources back in Hollywood) were each given a big bolt of cotton tubing and told to depict the deadly sin, ENVY, which is the enemy of LOVE. (NOTE: I did not know that last bit but I found it out on the internets, which are excellent for getting truthful information of all kinds).

For instance, another thing I learned is how much fashion design has in common with international diplomacy:

Lesson 4: Step Back and Be Objective

"One of Kara Saun's greatest strengths is her ability to objectify her work; that is, examine it as though someone else created it. This temporary disengagement gives her the ability to diagnose issues and prescribe solutions to her designs; solutions that work. Too frequently, our intentions and our efforts serve to impede our judgment."

—"Tim", from Project Runway

Wow. Condie's pretty lucky she's got a lock on that new gig! Sounds like Kara could give her a run for her money! Plus I bet KS would look better on TV in those foxy outfits. (Note to self: buy embroidery hoops to use as earrings.)

Lesson 5: Challenge Yourself

Okay, this one is easy. All Mario did was take his tubing, pull it over the model's head and make bloody bullet hole thingies to portray the envy because "the fashion industry is cut-throat, so his muse was shot." WTF?!? Lesson by Colleen: Get off your lazy ass. If you cannot get off your lazy ass, you lose.

Lesson 6: Edit

We should have known that Starr had an editing problem. I mean, look at her name: if she took away an "R," then she would be a real "Star" and maybe have a regular TV gig and a big wedding with a bunch of free stuff.

Anyway, Starr's first dress had too many tumors. (Don't ask.) Then she took a bunch off, which is EDITING, and she had...a dress with less tumors. But she lasted another round, which is more than Mario. Everything in moderation, including moderation. Didn't Ben Franklin say that? He was kind of an editor, sort of. You should edit more! More than that! More still!

the other janLesson 7: Be Yourself

Crab, crab, crab. These designers are always crabbing. For instance, Vanessa was crabbing that the challenges were too restrictive, that they didn't let Vanessa shine through. So Tim says: "Ask yourself what it is about your point of view and design philosophy that transcends all forms of presentation. Think: How would Balenciaga have morphed his work so that it would sell on QVC?"

Touché, my little rag trader, touché...

Lesson 8: Listen and Learn

Big fat old Wendy made it to the third challenge by the skin of her pinking shears. But did she act like the LEW-sah she might well have? No, ma'am-a-rama! As Wendy said herself of this opportunity to design "real" clothes, "If I can't design the winning dress for this challenge, then I shouldn't be here. I am Banana Republic!"

Be like Wendy. Take the note. Knock that chip off your shoulder. And when life hands you charmeuse, cut on the bias! (But carefully!)

Lesson 9: Make It Pretty

Poor Starr. As Tim says, "The dress for this challenge looked like a mixture of Poiret, Erte, harlequins, and jesters, worthy inspirations, indeed , but the color relationships, the proportions, the awkward jerking of the fabric as the model walked the runway all screamed "H-E-L-P!!" It was sad. Make it work. Make it pretty."

Bring the Pretty goes hand in hand with Lesson 6, Edit. After all, even the most exquisite Harry Winston jewelry looks likes poopoo if you wear it all at once. Apparently, Starr likes to drag out all the baubles for her weekly shop at the Ralphs. Sorry, Starr. Next time, make it pretty.

xxx c

P.S. Don't forget to watch Episode 8 tonight! The communicatrix is a little caught up in another show right now, but she'll be back on fashion track pretty darned soon!

Fat City

I bought an Oprah magazine on my evening walk to read in the tub tonight (gotta do something to make this semi-invalid lifestyle palatable) but when I got home and checked my email, I saw (cursed Yahoo!) that Fat City was on at 7. So much for that hot bath.

Have you seen Fat City? It's one of the great American 1970s movies and, after Sierra Madre and The Misfits, my favorite Huston flick. Not only does it have the strong sense of place that more and more I think is the main common denominator of the movies I love, it's set in L.A., it's got a killer soundtrack and it sports one of the greatest performances by an actress (Susan Tyrell) ever caught on film.

Fat City is nominally the story of two boxers, one, played by a peachy-faced Jeff Bridges, on the way up and the other, played by a not-too-craggy Stacy Keach, on the way out. But it's really a story about dreams and choices and what happens to the former when you don't keep a firm hand on the latter. There's a real spirit of my boy, Bukowski, about the thing, probably the wine-soaked Oma (Tyrell), the dingy residence hotels, the fringe dwellers pulling shifts at hopelessly dead-end jobs in a vain attempt to get a hair's breadth ahead of the eight ball.

Oh, hell. Just watch it. If you've got the Sundance Channel, it'll be on again Wednesday, February 9th at 3:35p and again on Sunday, the 13th at 12:20am.

And really, if one of you rich folk would TiVo it for me, I'd love that. Mostly because I'm dying to see what other gems the magical electronic box might unearth...

xxx c

The Station Agent

In my capacity as ornery cuss, unless I can screen them pre-buzz, I generally sit out wildly popular movies on principle. Often, this proves wise; in the case of a genuinely worthy film like Sideways or The Station Agent, I'm only punishing myself. That there are similarities between the films (strong sense of place, a rock-solid script, actors who look like real people) doesn't surprise me. I've always had a weakness for the indie film; I'll generally cut it more slack than a studio picture, just because I know that for as hard as it is to get any movie made the right way, the sheer force of will that's required to pull together the resources needed to make an indie deserves support.

But too often, indies piss away that good will with aggressively quirky stories or hackting. That The Station Agent is set in super-smalltown rural New Jersey and is populated with a train-loving dwarf/loner, a chatty Latino hot-truck operator with a lust for life, and a kooky painter who meets cute with the dwarf by nearly running him over not once but twice in her SUV, didn't bode well.

But the film unfolds slowly, ever so slowly, confident in the reality of the world it's creating, with beautiful, in-the-pocket performances by almost the entire cast (I had a wee problem with a couple of actors playing the local tough-guy losers winking at their characters instead of just playing them). I'm a fan of Patricia Clarkson's since her genius performance in High Art, and after seeing the unbelievably self-possessed Raven Goodwin knock it out of the park both in this and Lovely and Amazing I would like someone to please explain to me why this incredible little girl does not have a huge movie career, her own TV show or both.

Enough. It's on DVD now; if you're an asshole like me who sat it out while it was in the theaters, you can put it on your Netflix queue and no one will be the wiser.

xxx c

Illness, wellness and a guy from Cymru

RescueremedyIt is hard to undo a lifetime of bad habits. For most of my years on the planet, I favored the power-through method of life management, recklessly using whatever tools I had at my disposal, caffeine, various unregulated pharmaceuticals, my considerable will, to do so. It's a dangerous combination, that mix of stubbornness and not-enough-ness that many of us seem to be gifted with. Very easy to do yourself considerable damage without even realizing you're doing it.

Housesmall_2And now, heading into Week Four of being laid low by some virus/bug/whatever, my own stupidity is clanging madly in that space between my ears. Why did I think it was a good idea to hit the gym twice last week when I needed a cup of coffee each time to do it? Why do I say "yes" to yet another project/outing/favor when most days I'm too tired to wash a sinkful of dishes? And mostly, Why am I not well? Why me? What did I do to deserve this?

BedWell, I know exactly what I did, how long I did it for and even why I chose to do it in the face of all reasonable evidence that I should not. People with weakened immune systems cannot get away with the kinds of shenanigans that people with healthy immune systems can. Period. And yet I insist upon trying to sneak one more infraction by my poor, hobbled body, one more class, one more meeting, one more cocktail with a friend. So, to paraphrase a thousand woo-woo wits, I will continue to receive the same lesson in different forms until I choose to learn it: Crohn's disease, the cold that won't go away and perhaps (oh, please, God, no) ME/CFS.

PicklesThat would be the chronic fatigue disorder that Michael Nobbs was diagnosed with back in 1999. It crept up on him like the Crohn's crept up on me, but apparently, he kept on pushing through it for a few more years before he hipped himself to the reality that he might have to slow down a bit. I don't mean to sound superior, here; if wasting, fever and shitting two pints of blood hadn't kept me tethered to my bed, I'd have been pushing, too. (And in my way, I pushed, too, believe me.)

SundaypapersAnyway, I've a cold now (as the Brits would say), and have had (as they'd also say) for going on four weeks. I get a little better. I run out and do a million things. I get a little worse. I collapse, then rouse myself with a cup of drug-of-choice (coffee or tea, depending). I run out and do a million things. I collapse and retreat. Cancel everything. Rest. Feel a wee bit better. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

And Michael?

Shop2I wonder if I've been out and about just a bit too much and am finally paying for it. I've got a cold which seems to have gone to my chest. I'm hoping it won't last. I've been enjoying my regular visits to the outside world so much of late and don't want to have to give up on them again. No reason to of course. Everyone gets colds. They come and go. It's just I'm always very nervous about a complete health downturn and am hoping this won't be one.

MedrawsmallIs it any wonder I fell in love reading his blog? I mean, if the wonderful drawings (that so remind me of the late, great, Louise Fitzhugh's) weren't enough, his deceptively simple, bell-clear descriptions of his heart's map would.

LemonjuiceI've remarked on my obsessive crushes before; this time was no different. Greedily, I burned through much of Michael's site. Then I ordered a picture. Then I ordered his journal, which arrived yesterday, and which I greedily burned through in about ten minutes. Now I'm re-reading it slowly, the way Michael created it. Call it my zen meditation for today. Since the journal is so delightful, it's not a particularly effortful practice, which makes it a useful meditation for a hard-ass like myself.

Onelast2I love the Internet. I lose hours here, not minding, stumbling upon interesting sites like Michael's that introduce me to even more interesting people, places and things. I also like the mirrors they hold up for me, complete with wonderful life hacks for crazy folk who have a tough time learning our lessons.

BeanycoverYou will be doing Michael a solid if you buy his journal. It is hard enough earning a living sometimes when you are well enough to work; for the ill, it becomes exponentially more difficult. But really, you will be doing yourself a favor as well.

And me. Because I want The Beany to be so successful, the next issue comes out in colo(u)r.

xxx c

All images © 2002-2004 Michael Nobbs

Book review: The Namesake

Like my favorite movies, my favorite novels seem to share a strong sense of place and a deep, inchoate longing on the part of at least one of the characters. And, perversely, I return to these favorites, Moon Deluxe, Ed Wood, Ham on Rye, Showgirls, over and over again.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is filled with characters who are filled with longing; most are either Bengali transplants to 1970s Boston or their 1st generation American children, and all of them seem to pine for some sense of belonging to something, a family, a country, a person, that will give their lives shape and meaning.

Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and I can see why. Her writing beautifully evokes mood and place without ever feeling fussy or self-conscious, and damn, her sentences are just plain elegant. Here she describes the transformation of a young woman who marries the title character:

Suddenly it was easy, and after years of being convinced she would never have a lover she began to fall effortlessly  into affairs. With no hesitation, she had allowed men to seduce her in cafés, in parks, while she gazed at paintings in museums. She gave herself openly, completely,  not caring about the consequences. She was exactly the same person, looked and behaved exactly the same way, and yet suddenly, in that new city, she was transformed into the kind of girl she had once envied, had believed she would never become.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I did find my interest flagging at roughly the halfway point, just about where the narrative perspective shifts from Ashoke and Ahsimi, the parents, and their son, Gogol/Nikhil, the namesake of the title. Short stories or novellas are quite different animals from novels, and perhaps Lahiri is less comfortable with the longer form.

Still, it is a magnificent story and, for the most part, a compulsively good read, the best new-ish novel I've read in some time.

And now I have all those good stories to look forward to...

xxx
c

Book review: The Year Of Living Famously

I cadged a couple of books from people on my Chicago trip, including The Year Of Living Famously by one Laura Caldwell, which looked suspiciously like an seconds table also-ran from the Chick Lit department. It was given to me by Jan's fabulously loopy godmother, Noni, who got each of us one for Christmas, insisting it was a terrific read and we would love love love it. I had my doubts, but the stack by the bedside was looking extra-grim, what with the crappy weather and global disasters and suchlike, so a couple of days ago, I cracked the sucker and hopped into the bathtub.

Well, it is Chick Lit, but damned if it didn't read like a house afire! I was halfway through this piffling little story about an orphaned Manhattan fashion designer (yes, really) who meets a dashing young Irish actor (I swear to you) in Vegas, of all places (no, no, seriously) and, after a whirlwind romance, moves in with him in L.A., marries him, gets her very own stalker and then, a year later, teeters at the edge of divorcing her now-supahstar husband who has won an Academy Award for Best Actor because she can no longer (after what...three months?) take the constant strain of living in the public eye (okay, okay).

Thing was, I was buying e v e r y t h i n g, wondering how the hell this Adjunct Professor of Law who lives in Chicago with her husband knew jack about the Hollywood game, when she made her fatal mistake: having the main character hire a "graphic designer" who was going to turn around her classic, "ivory, heavy paper, simple, elegant" wedding invites in one week. For cheap. HA! In your dreams, sister.

Still, it's a bitchin' good single-portion read, kind of like a literary bag of Oreos, and it's got me ready for something meaty. I'm thinking B.F.'s Daughter since I've burned through the Richard Yates oeuvre and I don't feel exactly Cheever-y. Thank you, Old Hag...

xxx

c

Kinsey

My friend, Patty, with whom I saw Spanglish, has been bugging me mightily (albeit nicely) about seeing Kinsey, mainly because she wanted to know if she was the only one who found it a little, er, hard to get into. I am sorry to report that she is not alone in her experience; for a film that's all about bringing sex to the forefront, Kinsey is decidedly unsexy. It just floats along on its pretty pictures and clever editing (although the retro/CGI montage of the Kinsey team's data-collecting trek across America was pretty disturbing, visually) and nice Carter Burwell soundtrack. No teeth, no electricity, no surprises and a bizarre, wearying kind of self-importance. Did someone decide that dialing up the pomposity would make a big, bad s-e-x movie go down better (sorry) with a still-Puritannical American audience? I don't know how true-to-life Kinsey is, but I'm of the opinion that you either play fast and loose with the facts and make a great fucking film or you hew to them like a maniac and make a great fucking documentary.

Other than that, I'm not exactly sure why Kinsey doesn't work. The script seems sound enough, there are more great performances than you can shake a stick at and Kinsey's own trajectory is a pretty fascinating one. I'm frankly baffled, because I thought director Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters was a superb film, thought-provoking, moving and finely calibrated in its emotional portrayals. And it was a period piece, too, although it felt timeless where Kinsey feels more like it belongs alongside the bloated, bland Hollywood epics of the time it documents.

Ultimately, I'm just not interested in analyzing exactly where Kinsey falls down. I'd rather revisit the  11-year-old Ed Wood or Crumb or the 15-year-old Reversal of Fortune for a fifth time (each) than watch this logy, lumbering Quaalude of a mid-century throwback again.

xxx c

Book review: Sideways

In the acknowledgments of his mid-Coastal road-trip buddy novel, author Rex Pickett thanks co-screenwriters Alexander Payne (who also directed) and Jim Taylor for their faithful adaptation of Sideways to the screen.

I'd thank them, all right, but not for being faithful.

The events of the story are, in fact, almost identical, save the exclusion in the film of a strange boar-hunting odyssey (which, ironically, I can almost imagine Pickett thinking as he wrote it, "Damn! This'll be great in the movie!"). There is a strong sense of place in both the book and the film, Pickett is clearly a SoCal denizen who has either logged a lot of hours in a lot of mid-Coastal non-hotspots or he has a keen eye and deft hand for recreating them.

But the film is so much more charming and nuanced and relaxed than the book it was shocking. Pickett, according to his back-o'-book blurb, "is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. This is his first novel." I know all of us writerly types are supposed to hew to the show-don't-tell maxim, but it's a screenwriter's stock in trade: let the pictures tell the story.

Instead, Pickett's novel is littered with insistent narrative assertions about the characters' smarts, sex appeal, inherent goodness beneath it all and, worst of all, their senses of humor. There is such extensive cataloguing of people's response to quips and jokes and witty one-liners that I actually stopped being annoyed and became fascinated. How many "i"s did this guy feel like he had to dot, anyway? Was this some kind of word-count padding? Or was it possible there existed a writer with lower self-esteem and belief in himself than me? Maybe I have a shot at this writing thing, after all...

The book did do an even better job than the film of piquing my fledgling interest in wine. But the film, with its confident, unapologetic and ultimately winning portrayal of complicated, flawed, but ultimately sympathetic characters, made me want to make art.

I wonder what Alexander Payne saw when he picked up the novel (or had it funneled to him by a minion or agent or however these things happen). Perhaps the answer lies in this archived Elvis Mitchell interview with Payne and Davis from KCRW's "The Treatment." I think I'm gonna have to listen. Sideways, the novel, isn't exactly a sow's ear. But it shares a pedigree with Sideways, the film, which is definitely a high-end jewel, and rare for being so.

xxx
c

Spanglish

I'll admit, I went into Spanglish not wanting to like it. I was one of three people who didn't like As Good As It Gets but my loathing was deep and pure enough for three million. My particular creative bugaboo has always been Wasted Potential, and believe you me, if you'd read Mark Andrus's brilliant, dark, tender, touching original screenplay for AGAIG, you'd be pissed off, too. I'm a lot older and a little bit wiser and I don't fall into deep, hopeless chasms of righteous indignation like I used to. Spanglish was...well, good. In a way. There are some charming scenes and some terrific laughs and some enchanting performances, Cloris Leachman is her usual crackerjack actor self, Adam Sandler has a few great moments and Paz Vega should be in every movie made until she dies.

Sadly, Spanglish was also very, very bad, in exactly the same way that AGAIG was. I'm beginning to think that the chief trick to good art is, as Albert Einstein said about, well, everything, to "make everything as simple as possible...but no simpler." Which is why it's as easy to go from rococco to kitsch as it is to go from Mies Van Der Roh to some tacky steel and glass box.

There's a real story about real people somewhere in Spanglish that I'd have liked to see. As the daughter of a charming, well-meaning, intelligent but often thoughtless drunk much like the one Leachman portrays, I know all about the damage mothers can inflict upon their children, and, by extension, their children's loved ones. But I don't know too many saints of the variety played by Sandler and Vega, who are given exactly one (delightful) flaw each, while poor Téa Leoni gets to play a skinny blonde antichrist. (Oh, and that whole thing about Leachman's character just giving up drinking after 60 years , and without anyone noticing for three weeks: Not. Gonna. Happen.)

To be fair to Brooks, had he cast a more inherently likeable actress (say, Renée Zellweger) as the unhappy Deborah Clasky, the character might have been a scoche more sympathetic. But it was his part to cast, he wrote and directed, and I'm guessing none of the producers had final creative control over casting, and he clearly opted for the shrillest of brittle harpies he could find. Maybe it's that i-dotting and t-crossing that's born of TV writing; after years of cramming problem, complication and resolution, plus a laugh every :30, into 22 minutes of sitcom, it's probably hard to recalibrate yourself to the delicate rhythms of (good) filmmaking.

But until he does, I'm afraid the James L. Brooks films I do see I'll see the way I saw Spanglish: free. Or on video.

After all, maybe they'll look better on the small screen.

xxx c

 

Closer to Python: My Mike Nichols Day, Part II

As I'm currently in the process of converting a play with music into a musical play, I'm newly fascinated by musical theater, especially the newer forms cropping up today: Avenue Q, Caroline or Change, all of Ken Roht's work, the Ramayana 2K4, which I guess better start calling itself R2K5 so it doesn't sign its checks wrong next year. Normally I have to wait for these things to come to the hinterlands (a.k.a., Los Angeles) or haul my carcass to New York, not an altogether unpleasant proposition, but generally a pricey one. So imagine my delight in learning that Spamalot!, the new Eric Idle musical based on material from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was having its pre-Broadway run here in Chicago during my stay! For which I had already paid!

It's selling well, which is a good first sign. The Chicago run opened on Tuesday; I bought my ticket on Wednesday for Thursday, which was mostly sold out. Fortunately, the one good single ticket they had was really good: I was third row center at the Shubert, so I pretty much had Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria singing in my lap for 2 1/2 hours (including intermission, so you know, not really).

They were all wonderful, as was much of the show. The supporting cast is staggeringly good; I particularly enjoyed the drag stylings of the very Python-esque Steve Rosen (who has some sort of Crohn's connection I'm anxious to bond over) and all I can say about Sara Ramirez is "you heard it here first, folks", that combination of good, gorgeous and funny comes along slightly less often than Halley's comet.

It's not an unqualified hit...yet. I'm hoping my issues with the show can be fixed in the Chicago run so it plays a good, long time in New York (and the hinterlands). Right now, it's a little draggy in parts, (especially Act One), it feels a bit repetitive and, for as clever as it often is, it's not clever enough. Maybe I've been spoiled by local (i.e., hinterland) geniuses like Ken Roht and Robert Prior, but I'm used to an extraordinarily high level of inventiveness; compared to Peace Squad Goes 99 or R2K4, Spamalot! does a lot of coasting on old material and not enough in the way of chewy surprises inside.

It's not devoid of them; I won't spoil anyone's possible future enjoyment by giving away all the treats, but there are some hilarious little fillips in many of the show's numbers, the kind of unexpected stuff that has you poking the person next to you and saying "look there!" and them poking you back to "no, look there!", which is pretty damned great. And the show as a whole does a great job of sending up musical theater.

But so did Peace Squad, and on a much tighter budget with far less lead time. Hell, I think we did send-ups on musical genres that hadn't been invented yet.

I wanted to give Spamalot! my unqualified love and affection, but at the end of the day (or the show), I just didn't feel like leaping to my feet like everyone else.

Nor did I feel like stopping by to congratulate Mike Nichols, the director of the hullaballoo, who was sitting there unrecognized for most of intermission (god, I love Chicago) along with his gorgeous wife. And I'm a big Mike Nichols fan, overall; I just wasn't feeling the love enough to blow his cover. (After all, what was I gonna say: congratulations...I didn't love your movie, either?)

In no way is this a pan of the show; I have no problem telling people to get their butts in the seats for this one. I only hope that by the time it gets to Broadway, it's as good as it can be...as it should be.

That is, as good as those shows in the hinterlands already are.

xxx c

Closer to Python: My Mike Nichols Day, Part I

The old McClurg Theatres are gone. It's kind of sad, among many other films, I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia there (the re-release, sonny) as well as walking out of Ishtar. However, my disappointment was short-lived because they have been replaced a block away by the River East Theatres, a 20-count-'em-20, state-of-the-art theater complex with stadium seating (which is what happens when you finally let a short person design a movie house).

I dragged my friend, Jan, to see Closer. Well, not "dragged," exactly; I just warned her that I didn't think it was going to be very good, but that I wanted to see it anyway (we've been friends for over 40 years, so she's used to such perversity). Last year, I saw a stage production of Closer at my old acting studio in L.A. that was absolutely loathsome, not necessarily because of the performances (fairly strong) or production values (low-budget, but inventive and uniformly excellent) but because I felt the script was a modern example of a butt-naked emperor, albeit a well-spoken one. I remember leaving the theater that evening feeling not only vaguely unclean over my complicity in perpetrating a hateful, useless piece of "art," but with a gnawing feeling of anger that grew rather than dissipated with the passing days.

I am delighted to report that I feel precisely the same way about Mike Nichols's filmed version of the verbally facile Patrick Marber's play, Closer: it's a big fat shiny turd. (I'm mostly alone on this, but it's not the first time.)

The production values are superb, from the melancholic smart-and-lonely-loser songs of the soundtrack to the understated palette the designers use to dress and backdrop the actors. London itself has never looked more elegant, sad and chilly, in one scene where Natalie Portman is wearing a tank top in what you'd think would be summer, you want to throw a sweater over her little shoulders even before she mentions how cold she is. There is no respite to be had in any corner.

And that, I suppose some smarty-pants people will say, is the point: life is hard and love is brutal. To which I say "so what?" That's a revelation? That's a reason to drag my ass out in zero degree temperatures and pay $8.50 and give up two hours of my life?

Smarty-pants art is no longer acceptable. I don't care if you can write (really) pretty words and find (really, really) pretty people to say them. I need a little illumination with my non-news, thank you, along with some characters, even one character, I actually care about. If I want to see that life is hard (in London), I'll watch any Mike Leigh film. If I want to see that love is brutal, how about or Little Voice, The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne or even the original Alfie?

One note on the talents of the more visible people involved: they are uniformly top-notch. Each one of the cast delivers a pitch-perfect performance, and I have to say I was blown away by Julia Roberts who gives a far, far richer and more nuanced performance as Anna than she did as showy blowhard Erin Brockovich. And Mike Nichols has an excellent understanding of what motivates these people and how they interact with one another.

What I don't understand is his motivation for spending a year of his life on a project like this. I'm aggravated to have spent the two hours I did.

xxx c

*Which was, I realize now, a lovely piece of symmetry in that it was directed by Mike Nichols's former comedy partner, Elaine May.

Sideways

Some good things take a little extra time and effort to truly enjoy. Sideways, the terrific new film directed by Alexander Payne (based on the novel by Rex Pickett) is one of those good things. Not that it isn't immediately enjoyable on its surface; Sideways has a cracking good script and some of the finest, funniest performances I've seen on film all year.

But like the wines the characters savor within it, the film itself has subtle charms and notes that only reveal themselves upon greater (and quieter) reflection. My writing partner and I laughed pretty much non-stop through an extended sequence where the two main characters, one-time college roommates who are making a pre-wedding pilgrimage to Santa Barbara wine country, make a detour to the best man's mother's house. But it was only after the movie, or at least well into viewing it, that we realized how remarkable it was that we cared so much about two characters who are, on the face of things, pretty darned despicable.

I won't spoil the film by going into detail. I'm not even sure whether details are the best way to sell someone on this really beautifully crafted gem of a story. I think the most remarkable feature about Sideways is its reality: it pretty perfectly creates a world and then does an amazing job of drawing you in.

Fine performances, an awesome script, pretty pictures and a bitchin', homage-to-Saul-Bass poster, Sideways is like a media home run.

Hmmm...no wonder the communicatrix loves it.

xxx c

See SAW?

sawI love scary stuff, but I am a big baby. My workaround is to see all scary movies early enough in the day that there is still loads of daylight to wash away the creepy.

My movie-going friend, Lily, feels similarly, so we hit what we knew would be the very scary Saw for the first show at 10:45 a.m.

Not early enough. This movie makes Se7en look like Bambi. There are some fine performances (although the first few scenes are a really badly acted exception), it's super-stylish, and it's a really good story with only minimal barriers to belief (as Lily pointed out, are there two cops anywhere who would [a] visit the dark and creepy lair of a sociopathic serial killer without backup and [b] do so armed only with their service revolvers and a smoke machine?)

But the torture/killing in this is so sick and heartless, it makes you wonder who could come up with it. Well, apparently handsome, young Leigh Whannell, who plays lead opposite a (sadly) puffy Cary Elwes, can. He shares story credit with the director, James Wan, and has sole screenwriting credit.

Yow.

Well, I guess congratulations are in order. Young man wrote a big hit. He can act, yessir. And he scared Lily and me so bad we had to walk it off in the shoe department of Nordstrom's for a good half-hour afterwards. No purchases; just a Holly Golightly kinda thing.

Wait a minute, just got an idea for the perfect psychic palate cleanser...

xxx
c

Out of the Past

out of the past

It won't nudge Double Indemnity out of the top slot for me, but I am thrilled to have discovered this glorious specimen of the noir genre this late in the game.

The male cast is outstanding, Robert Mitchum is solid and sexy and right in the pocket, as usual, and Kirk Douglas is a perfect foil, but that Jane Greer...yowsa! She was a girl of 22 when she filmed this and she walks away with the damned show. She's tantalizing and maddening and gloriously feline. It's magnificent.

As a side note, I'm now viewing it again as I type this (I looooove my Cinema Display!) and the commentary by James Ursini is excellent as well. It's not super-gnarly, Criterion-detailed commentary, but thorough and pretty engaging.

xxx
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