April 13, 2014

Cult Novels

I'm trying to catch up on the experimental novelists that are cult favorites. In such pursuit, I've recently read:

Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

And have put these novels on my list:

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
Neuromancer, by William Gibson

What else do I need to add to my to-read list?

April 5, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor

On Tuesday, April 8, the final installment in the Daughter of Smoke and Bones trilogy will be released. It's been a long time since I've been this excited about a release date!

April 2, 2014

Why We Read Fiction, by Lisa Zunshine


Strictly for book nerds, Zunshine's book expounds on the application of Theory of Mind to literature. Theory of Mind is the activity of assigning a kind of reliability rating to information based on how that information was delivered to us. This involves "source tagging," in which we keep track of who said what, also called "metarepresentation."

Zunshine talks about the evolutionary importance of source tagging and how literature allows us to exercise our metarepresentative muscles. This is, for her, one of the chief pleasures of literature because it allows us the joy of using abilities that we have and gives us the reassurance that we are good at using them.  Metarepresentation is so constant in our thinking that we are barely aware of its existence, but certain types of literature—like rich psychological novels and detection fiction—really take it out to the jungle gym for a workout.

My favorite part of the book was the section on Lolita. Zunshine explains that our minds can't deal with excessive unreliability, a situation in which almost everything is untrue. We aren't made to function in that type of environment. We are made to pick out individual statements of an obviously dubious nature. This explains why we are more likely to be skeptical of a friend who tells us our outfit is bad than of a stranger who tells us an astounding story about his identity with a straight face. And it explains why so many readers, past and present, continue to view Lolita as the story of a tempting nymphet rather than of a brutal pedophile. Every reader knows that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, but that doesn't keep many from still, still, absorbing his version of events. This is because Nabokov is such a damn good writer and uses every trick at his disposal to subtly encourage us to identify with Humbert's point of view.  Zunshine takes us on a little history tour of the novel's marketing past as well, quoting editions and reviewers that claimed it was literature's "most authentic" love story.

Zunshine also tells of the reception of Richardson's Clarissa back in the day. Clarissa ended up as a kind of 18th-century Lolita in that readers failed to see through the author's all-too-clever narrative techniques. Richardson was so upset by readers' celebration of his loathsome protagonist, Robert Lovelace—an aristocratic lothario who spends the entire novel orchestrating Clarissa's ruin—that he actually rewrote the novel to make Lovelace more obviously villainous.

I should mention that the book is occasionally on the dry side. For those concerned about this, you may instead want to watch the video I ran into during an online search. Also a treatise on Theory of Mind and literature, it has the more promising title "Why Does Fiction Work? Hint: Boobs."

March 29, 2014

Guess the Source

Here are some nice lines from recent novels I've read:

Of a woman, a longtime spy by profession, who survives a stabbing:
"She did not die on the doorstep. She had not died more times than she could count."

Closely observed nature:
"A few persistent weeds had sprung up in the cracks between the paving stones, but they'd withered to sepia wisps."

Self-explanatory, this one:
"Early morning is the best part of the day. . . . It's the only part of the day we haven't already mucked up with our fretting and strutting and carrying on."

A conversation between sisters, one of whom was cautious and one not:
"'You always put things at risk. If you fell out of a tree as a child, I'd clean you up and bandage your knees, and next I looked you'd be out climbing again. You never learned your lesson.' Oh, she'd learned her lesson: Climb harder."

Sources? All romance novels:

The Black Hawk, by Joanna Bourne
The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan
The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, by Grace Burrowes
The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

March 26, 2014

Remedial Math for Kim Kardashian

So Kim Kardashian met with Alexander McQueen's designer Sarah Burton to work on her wedding dress. The resulting dress, according to Kim, made her feel like a "real-life Carrie Bradshaw." Here's the thing, though. In the first Sex in the City movie, Carrie buys a simple, tea-length dress to marry Big at the courthouse. It is only when Carrie is photographed for Vogue wearing poofy designer dresses that she ditches her modest plan in favor of a big princessy wedding with tons of guests, a cathedral site, and, yes, a beautiful, statement designer dress. And this decision—to go big and public—RUINS HER RELATIONSHIP. The entire point of the movie is that she should have eschewed the designer dress and the public eye!! 

Designer Wedding = Misery

Simple, Love-Focused Wedding = Happiness

March 19, 2014

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes


Light spoilers.

This Man Booker-winning novel is narrated by an old man who is looking back on his youth, his friendship with an unusual newcomer named Adrian, and his first big romance with a young woman named Veronica, an enigmatic siren from a wealthy family who puts the narrator, Tony, on edge. Tony torches his relationship with Veronica, who subsequently starts dating Adrian. 

The first half or three-quarters of this novel are really enjoyable, despite one tragic plot point. It's what I was expecting from a witty British novelist: wry tales of a young man's transition to adulthood, sprinkled with psychological and philosophical observations. All good. Maybe a little light for a book that received such critical acclaim.

Then the novel takes a turn. Tony, now an old man, receives a communique that sends him searching the past for answers. He reconnects with a bitter Veronica, who admittedly feels a bit like a tool employed by Barnes to slowly pay out answers; she knows what happened but just drives Tony around to odd places, lets him observe odd interactions, and angrily repeats, "You just don't get it. You never did."

What actually happened is not really as important as Tony's reevaluation of himself. In the first half of the book, he recalls those early events as he experienced them at the time, as a victim of Veronica's perverse cruelty and her family's condescension. Since then, he's had no reason to revisit his own perception of events, and so that narrative has stuck.

Now he does reevaluate. There's a mean-spirited letter he sent to Adrian and Veronica when they started dating, one that shocks him with its cruelty. There are memories that rise to contradict his certainty of Veronica's playful disdain toward him. A dozen little things that he now sees he interpreted in the most unflattering way possible—small moments of uncharity that ultimately had huge repercussions.

The Sense of an Ending reminded me of other works that explore the impact of a youthful, thoughtless mistake: A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, and Atonement, by Ian McEwan. Strangely enough, it also reminded me of an episode of 30 Rock in which Liz recalls how mean some girls were to her in high school and then, upon seeing them at a reunion, realizes that it was she who was the mean one. Such a common moment in later life, to realize what could have been if only you'd been less of an idiot. Add to this Barnes's beautiful structuring of motifs and themes, and those philosophical observations (e.g., guilt is feeling bad for one's actions; remorse is feeling bad for  actions that can now never be fixed or atoned for), and you have a novel that really deserved that Booker.

March 16, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Many auteur directors spend years developing their style and writing, their movies bumping along with a mix of originality and awkwardness. And then, years and years into their career, they make that movie in which everything works. The movie in which they've mastered their own creativity and ironed out their tics and shortcuts. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like that movie for Wes Anderson. He's always been a cult favorite, with Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. But his films tended to be slightly exasperating. His oddball characters could be cloying, and his poetic interludes dragged. The Grand Budapest Hotel pushes past all that with its snappy rhythm and characters who are all likability and irreverent charm. It's beautifully shot and acted, but most of all it's fun. 

A dose of commercialism can be a good tonic for auteur directors, because commercialism involves a kind of balance of the elements of filmmaking. So most turning-point movies are their directors' first huge commercial success as well. Here are some I'd put in that class:

Woody Allen: Annie Hall
John Waters: Hairspray
Mike Leigh: Secrets and Lies
Pedro Almodovar: Matador / Volver
David Cronenberg: A History of Violence / Eastern Promises

March 9, 2014

You Don't Think Miley's a Feminist?

Shakira recently told Billboard Magazine that her boyfriend doesn't "let" her do music videos with men anymore. Think Miley would put up with that s**t?

March 5, 2014

Who Wears the Black Hat?

I'm obsessed with this question: How do we decide what to dislike? This is the unusual topic of Chuck Klosterman's book of essays I Wear the Black Hat. It covers everything from hating certain rock bands (the Eagles) to not hating Muhammad Ali (who smeared the reputation and ruined the career of a good man, Joe Frazier, who had been particularly good to Ali himself). He observes that, regarding problematic TV figures who become fan favorites, "audiences supported whoever the narrative told them was the hero." He makes simple but innovative statements like: Nobody really thought much about TV before the late 1990s. And questions like "How do you know the program you're watching is supposed to be art?"

Klosterman's comments about the cinematic allure of the charming con man made me think about why I like David Mamet's House of Games so much. I like it for the same reason that I like Lolita: It cons the viewer/reader. At the end, you're proved a fool, if you're smart enough to know it. It's amazing to me that there are still people who think Lolita is about the dicey-but-let's-be-honest real attraction of the barely legal rather than the extended kidnapping and rape of a child.

The reader of Lolita is tempted into that former interpretation because Humboldt is sophisticated and clever and Lolita's mother is stupid and insecure. It's fundamentally the same reason every Jane Austen lover hates Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park: She's the one Austen heroine who is good without being witty—and ultimately we'd rather be witty than good.

The nuances of our pop culture judgments are myriad and contradictory. If you like to think about them, Klosterman is a good confabulist.

February 25, 2014

Outlander and Its Spin-Off

Outlander was quite a surprise for me. I'd heard about the novel for years and knew it to be about time-travel. So I was expecting something a little, I don't know, Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. It took me a good hundred pages to realize that it's a flat-out bodice-ripper.

But a great one! When twentieth-century Claire gets transported back to eighteenth-century Scotland, she meets the handsome, strong, gentle (but not too gentle, wink, wink) Jamie Fraser. The plot rips along, danger is confronted and vanquished, episodes of hot sex alternate with passionate fights and soul-searing confessions. It's fantastic in a totally pulpy way.

The novel and its sequels are being made into a series by Starz, and I can't wait. I'm hoping it will be a kind of Game of Thrones with fewer naked women being cross-bowed to death and more hunky Scots with their shirts off.

February 21, 2014

All Hail Holofcener

Film math theorem: Nicole Holofcener = Alexander Payne. 

Both writer-directors of smart and funny dramas. Not epics or genre films. Not tragedies or slapsticks. Depicting ordinary lives: teachers, retirees, salesmen, office workers.

Holofcener's latest is Enough Said, starring one of my primo girl-crushes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and James Gandolfini, in his last role. It's a good place to start if you've never seen Holofcener's films. Lovely & Amazing is another favorite. Almost all of Holofcener's films feature Catherine Keener as well, so that's an automatic win.

February 13, 2014

Women Turning Down Food in Fiction

I'm reading Outlander last night, and I come across this all-too-familiar scene. The heroine of the story, Claire, has time-traveled, almost been raped, forced onto a horse for hours and is thoroughly traumatized. By the time the rough gang of Scots who have abducted her arrive at their clan's castle, it's been more than 24 hours since she has eaten. She has endured all this while wearing a light cotton dress, and when they arrive at the castle in the dark, she stays up several more hours dressing a man's wound before finally collapsing in bed.

When she wakes up the next morning, she "sips" a cup of light broth, but has "no appetite for the bannocks and parritch that Mrs. FitzGibbons had brought for my breakfast, but crumbled a bit and pretended to eat, in order to gain some time for thought." I don't even know what bannocks and parritch are, but I'm 100% sure they're more hearty than a sip of light broth. And she goes on to pretend to eat some crumbs? A bit later she is taken to the laird of the castle, who has a tray of refreshments brought in. Claire "nibble[s] sparingly at these; my stomach was churning too vigorously to allow for any appetite."

I cannot tell you how many time I have read scenes just like this in fiction. It's actually a trope at this point: women in physical distress or exhaustion turning down an offer of food. Why are we so damn afraid to let a female character eat? Why does that enhance her character?

I'm sending out a call here: Help me out and post, in the comments section, any similar passages you come across in novels. Could be a very interesting list.

February 12, 2014

Characters in Time

A few weeks ago I wrote about movie characters who appeared, for a significant chunk of the movie, in at least two different eras in their lives and made those two selves specific and convincing. Here are the two movies that I think do this best of all:

Blue Valentine: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams portray characters at both the beginning and end of a relationship.

Career Girls: A strange but masterful film by Mike Leigh about two college students still forming themselves as people and their meet-up many years later. Like all Mike Leigh films, the naturalistic acting makes you realize how stylized most movie acting really is.

February 11, 2014

Immersion Art

A dark movie theater. A silent museum. The opportunities to be truly immersed in a work of art for any length of time are growing ever rarer. Even when we manage to tear ourselves away from the DVR and the earbuds, the theater has its ads and whispers, and the museum may have crowds, so that you end up straining on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of that Vermeer rather than contemplating it in leisurely wonder.

Which is why it was such a treat last week to take a long drive from Atlanta to Charlotte, wending my way up the Cherokee Highlands Scenic Highway. I stopped at lookouts and hiked to waterfalls. But mostly I just drove through silent mountains and hills and soaked in a great work of art, John Mayer's Continuum. For hours on end, with the CD player set on repeat, I listened. Mayer is not only one of the best guitar players and vocalists, but he's an amazing songwriter. The music is complex, and the lyrics . . . I think he's the best lyricist working today.

And he's a brave lyricist because he attempts, and succeeds at, the most difficult challenge in art: writing about happiness. Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike and all unhappy ones unhappy in their own way, but that's an outright lie. Unhappy families do have built-in drama, though, and a certain leeway in tone. When you write about happiness you have to hit the emotional note just right: conveying warmth and joy without cliché or sentimentality.  Packing in import and complexity without the assist of conflict. A child may be equally shaped by a parent hitting her as by a parent lying in bed with her each night to hear about her day, but one is a lot easier to make art about than the other.

So I really admire art that eschews the crutch of unhappiness. Pink's "Glitter in the Air." Taylor Swift's "The Best Day." Midsomer Murder (whose star, John Nettles, deliberately set out to create a detective who was happily married and well-adjusted instead of the stereotypical flawed hero of most crime series). Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. And John Mayer's "Stop This Train."

"Stop This Train" is an almost unbearably sad song about mortality and death. But its sadness emerges not from waste and hurt but love and happiness: the experience of having a loving family and good parents, and then, as a young adult, starting to see the writing on the wall. "Don't know how else to say it / Don't want to see my parents grow old."

Come on, now (as we say in Baltimore) . . . How many great pop songs are about the artist's parents?? The only other one I can think of off the top of my head is "The Living Years" by Mike and the Mechanics, back in the 80s. A really good song, but it's about a troubled relationship, and, of course, not at the same musical level. But it's still worth listening to today, for its beauty and the rarity of its subject matter.

February 6, 2014

Boycott Sochi

Russia is turning into an ever more sick society under Putin. How much do these thugs resemble German Nazis? A lot. We can't do much, but we should do what we can. Boycott Sochi.

February 4, 2014

I Shall Be Near to You

My favorite novel of the past year is now published and available for your deep enjoyment:

January 19, 2014



Philomena has been one of 2013's most praised films, for good reason. It tells the true story of Philomena Lee, who got pregnant as an unwed young woman in 1950s Ireland. Her family rejected her, and her father left her at one of the infamous Magdalene laundries—convents that housed unwed young mothers, kept them in indentured servitude, and sold their children to adoptive couples. Philomena eventually left, married, and had two daughters, but kept her first, lost child a secret for 50 years. When she eventually told her daughter about her lost first-born, her daughter arranged for her to meet with a struggling reporter to investigate what happened to her son.

The movie, in terms of its filmic qualities, was hit and miss for me. In Judi Dench's portrayal, Philomena's personality is a bit indistinct, and I couldn't reconcile her horrific experiences, her doggedness in pursuing her son, and her meekness and occasional uncertainty. The storytelling left some issues hanging, like Philomena's reaction to the little girl who was adopted by the same parents who adopted her own son. Philomena had known this little girl as a baby and toddler; her mother had been her best friend. And yet Philomena doesn't react emotionally toward her, doesn't talk about how she and her son had been friends as children, doesn't reminisce about the girl's mother. It felt strange, just . . . off.

This story, however, is incredibly compelling. No matter that the filmmaking isn't perfect. At times you could hear sniffles throughout the entire theater as people suppressed their crying. It was just heartbreaking. And I can't shake it. I'm home, still wondering if any of the perpetrators of these whitewashed gulags were ever prosecuted or held accountable. And for anyone who has lost a child, the film beautifully portrays the enduring pain of that loss, which never goes away and can only be turned aside from in order to get on with life.

It's a shame that the distributor felt the need to market the film as a kind of light-hearted, strange-bedfellows road trip movie:

This is what I'll remember instead:

January 17, 2014

Disney's Gamma Ray Anatomy

I love Disney. I really do. From the still-amazing hand animation of Snow White to the visual pyrotechnics of Mulan, the wit of Finding Nemo, and don't even get me started on 101 Dalmatians, the greatest movie ever made. But the Disney movies with traditional heroines (not talking about EVE from WALL-E here) have become harder and harder to watch because they keep inflating the size of the girls' eyes. It's actually become uncomfortable to watch. Just compare the early looks of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty to the heroines of Tangled and Frozen:

For pity's sake, give these girls normal eyes. They look like mutants.

Old Masters, Like New

The director Rino Stefano Tagliafierro took images of Old Masters paintings and subtly animated them, adding music as well. At first the process seems prosaic, but as the minutes pass a type of wonder sets in. The slight enlivening of the human figures truly does make them real(er). And Tagliafierro's curation of the images is masterful: the images are alternatingly disturbing, pretty, pornographic, horrific, and moving. The paintings seem more powerful and, ultimately, weird than ever before.  Here's the link:

The Work of Rino Stefano Tagliafierro

(Discovered thanks to BuzzFeed. Note: BuzzFeed provides gifs of some of the altered images, but they're no substitute for watching the entire film.)

January 13, 2014

2014 Golden Globes

1.  How great was it to see some of the guys with elaborate hairstyles at the Golden Globes this year (Jared Leto, Alex Ebert)? You're in the film industry, people. You shouldn't all look like Wally Beaver.

2.  I wouldn't mind never hearing the words "I didn't prepare a speech" again.

3. Biggest shocker: Zosia Mamet was best dressed. Beautiful.

4. Amy and Tina, you are the funniest.

5. Amy and Tina, your audience collaborators were also the funniest.

6. Amy, I'll now always hate you because you got to make out with Bono.

7. How gorgeous is Bono's wife, still??

8. Ha ha . . . "Irish Alzheimer's: you never forget."

January 11, 2014

Smithsonian American Art Museum

This is possibly my favorite museum in DC, mostly for the wonderful contemporary Lincoln Gallery. But one of my favorite pieces is this amazing sculpture of Gertrude Stein, which for copyright reasons I will only post a link to:

Jo Davidson's "Gertrude Stein"

December 29, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild got a lot of attention last year, including an Oscar nomination for its young star, Quvenzhané Wallis. For those who haven't seen it, it's the story of a young girl and her father who live in a insular, poor community in the Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub and how they fare when a destructive storm hits their community. After viewing it last night, I made my way online to read reviews and eventually to cultural critic bell hooks's harsh critique of the movie.

bell hooks is one of those thinkers who gets blasted a lot, like Camille Paglia. And like Camille Paglia (whom hooks loathes), she's someone whose legitimate insights can be obscured by her goofier statements. I've only read one book of essays by hooks, but I remember feeling really moved and convicted by her intense jeremiad against consumerism and middle-class indulgence and then equally baffled by her assertion that she drives an expensive car without guilt.

hooks was horrified by Beasts of the Southern Wild. She sees it as (1) eroticizing the children in the movie, (2) naturalizing violence and poverty, and (3) perpetuating the myth of the strong black female (for her a racist stereotype that implies that abuse and oppression don't damage their victims).

Of all of these charges, I find (1) the most baffling. Yes, the movie has shots of the girl Hushpuppy from behind, but not in any obsessive or exclusive way. She's just climbing around on little hills, being a kid, in a handful of shots. There's a later scene in which four girls from the Bathtub go to a local brothel for help and end up being coddled by the prostitutes, even slow dancing with them. bell hooks finds the scene sexual and threatening, but the film clearly portrays it as a kind of mothering; these are tender gestures that the girls, starved for nurturing, soak up like sponges. Hushpuppy, picked up by one woman and held in her arm while she sways, states as much, saying she can count on two fingers the number of times she's been picked up in her life.

hooks conflates this issue with the flashbacks of Hushpuppy's mother, whom her father, Wink, is describing to Hushpuppy and who is visually portrayed in shadows and mostly from behind. This is clearly an erotic view, but he is, after all, describing what is for him a powerful moment in his life, when Hushpuppy was conceived. To see his desire for the mother as patriarchal or reductionist is, well, reductionist, since desire is a normal part of romantic attraction and is a legitimate ingredient in many of the most powerful moments in anyone's life. It's also worth noting that the film is deliberately obscuring the identity of the mother, which feeds into a focus on her body rather than her face.

A more legitimate criticism is (2), the naturalizing of poverty and violence. The residents of the Bathtub live in squalor, drink a lot, and are occasionally (but not usually) violent. Early in the film, Wink smacks Hushpuppy in the face when she questions him showing up in a hospital gown after several days' absence. Hushpuppy is sometimes scared, often at least startled by her father's erratic outbursts. What hooks seems to ignore is that the film itself is saying this. hooks sees herself as reading between the lines, seeing what the movie is trying to hide. Though it's true that viewers sometimes romanticize images of poverty (something that can't always be helped by the filmmakers), the movie itself is perfectly clear about how horrible many of the facts of Hushpuppy's existence are.

Maybe what hooks finds objectionable is that Hushpuppy's existence is not seen as only horrible. One of the elements of the movie's greatness is that it is such a complex, full portrayal of this community. The kids are hungry and ill-clothed. They are unshielded from adult affairs. They are cowed by the adults around them. But they are also cared for by the adults around them, taught by those adults, toughened up by them. The community is above all resistant to absorption by the outside world, an attitude that is both destructive and, by the end of the movie, somewhat understandable. Hushpuppy's father is a source of occasional fear and wariness, but also a source of fun, care, and love. He teaches her to fish, plays around with her, takes her everywhere, tries to prepare her for the trying times ahead.

This feeds in to hooks's other main objection: (3) how the movie perpetuates the myth of the strong black woman. I'm sympathetic to the view that this stereotype can be used to minimize abuse and oppression, to imply that black women are undamaged by these destructive forces, maybe even born to endure them. Point taken. But as with all portrayals of specific demographics (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), the point is not to eliminate all representations that might coincide with a stereotype but to widen the range of representations so that nonstereotypical traits are equally included. We don't want girls to be represented only as princesses in need of rescue. We want them to be heroes, we want them to rescue, or to be quiet or straightforward or whatever . . . all the things that girls can be. But that doesn't mean the princess narrative should disappear from our culture entirely; it should rather be just one among many representations. Likewise with gay stereotypes. We don't want every gay man in film and TV to be a flouncy queen—the fun, bitchy best friend. But we don't want to never see another Jack McFarland, do we?

So it seems short-sighted to me to demand that a young black girl can never star in a story of endurance and overcoming adversity. What a shame that would be, especially when we're talking about a role like Hushpuppy, which Quvenzhané Wallis plays with such naturalness and variety. She's never just tough or defiant. She's scared, joyful, kid-like, worried, stubborn—all of the things that are so often missing from kids in film, who tend to be overly self-assured and precocious.

Actually, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminded me most of another movie about a child who interacts with an imaginative world in order to face the difficulties of life: Where the Wild Things Are. Hushpuppy often reverts in her mind to a story that her schoolteacher told about beasts of the northern wild, boar-like aurochs who were a terror to all around them and whose remains were preserved through the ice age. Hushpuppy is threatened by them (as they represent both the encroaching forces of the storm and the loss of autonomy by "dry land" do-gooders). But she also identifies with them as fierce wild creatures able to dominate their milieu.

Getting in touch with their primal rage—and strength.

Child against nature:

Facing down their fears (with Snow White for good measure):

The story of a child gathering strength in the face of adversity is universal. It belongs to all children.

December 24, 2013

American Hustle


Tone is the holy grail of art. You can have decades of singers sounding like Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, and suddenly Louis Armstrong comes along and bam: Vocals now sound, feel, a way they never have before. You can try to pin adjectives to tone (Macdonald and Eddy's tone is maybe careful, balanced, and cool, and Armstrong's unpredictable, warm, and colloquial) but individual words can't fully convey the feeling and mindset conveyed in tone.

(Light spoilers ahead.)

David O. Russell's American Hustle is great for so many reasons, but perhaps most of all for its tone. A lot of films combine comedy and drama and deal in the same tropes: the intricate con job; the gung-ho guy who's in over his head; the stylish editing. But not many are this funny while feeling this tragic. The whole cast is superb, but I give special credit to Jennifer Lawrence. She's a riot, but she plays the character from her own headspace, never as just comic relief.

And the ending felt really, really sad, especially considering it's based on true events. A lot of movies of this type end with the smart guys winning and the players getting their comeuppance. But American Hustle is different. Enormous energy has been put into trying to achieve something worthy, even if those trying to achieve it are flawed. And after all that passion and effort spent, the good or relatively harmless are punished while the evil get away scot free. And you end up feeling like this is probably what most of life is, most of what all pursuit of justice is: Enormous expenditures for paltry gains.

December 23, 2013

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

"You're welcome!" (American Hustle)

When the Oscar-worthy movies start coming out!!

December 16, 2013

How's This for a First Line?

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

(Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol")

December 13, 2013

Antihero? Walt Sucks, Jax Rocks


Convalescing with a fractured arm this week, I finally caught up with the series Sons of Anarchy, which I've been intending to watch for approximately the last four years. I was ready to confess to my own hypocrisy in loving Jax Teller and some of the other characters, despite the fact that they are mostly worse than Breaking Bad's Walter White, whom I loathe. But here's the thing: Jax and the other bikers are straightforward about who they are. They don't deceive and set up the people closest to them. They don't wage psychological warfare with the people they claim to love. And although both series have a fairy-tale aspect to them, with the scripts manipulating events just so so that the antiheroes escape the worst moral approbation, Jax is at least legitimately likable as he is. I hated even the original, "good" Walter White, who was a hypocrite to his alleged friends, secretly despised his brother-in-law, and brought exactly nothing to the lives of those around him. You don't have to be an ATF agent or pharma millionaire to be a worthwhile human being and to win the admiration of those around you, but that's what Walter White believes. Wanker.

P.S.: I'm only through season 1.
P.P.S.: How awesome is Katey Sagal?
P.P.P.S.: How awesome is the ENTIRE CAST??

December 7, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club


What a movie. This story of the early days of AIDS and one Texas redneck's startled entrance into the ranks of the afflicted is lit up by Matthew McConaughey's portrayal of protagonist Ron Woodruff. McConaughey reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis's as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father, another movie based on a true story

The great thing about these roles is that the actors portray their characters' transformation over time. To create just one really full personality onscreen is something hardly any performance achieves. To create two—the early personality and the personality transformed by events—and have the second feel like a realistic evolution of the first . . .  it's amazing. Especially without the aid of a-ha moments, melodramatic turning points, or confrontations. In these movies there are no single events that flip the character; no charged arguments that end with the protagonist speechless, realizing in one fell swoop the errors of his ways; no intimate tete-a-tete in which the character confesses how wrong he has been. It's just that person—that very specific, particular personality—living and being changed by life, day in and day out. Fantastic.

Another thing the movies have in common: super bad (but period-appropriate) hair. We'll see if the styling team gets an Oscar alongside McConaughey.

December 2, 2013


Elan Gale's note war with a lady on his flight was all over Twitter, with fans gleeful over his nasty takedowns of the annoying complainer. Here's my question: Would he have written "your lazy ass" and "eat my dick" if the complainer was a large, fit, black male rather than a middle-age woman?

December 1, 2013

This Way Up

Animated film is one of my favorite art forms. "This Way Up" by Smith & Foulkes is perfection.