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.