Friday, December 12, 2008

A Blogger with a Slow Hand

It's gratifying on one hand that so many people have commented that I haven't blogged in a while. It means people are noticing.

Well I realized I'm actually, unwittingly, part of the latest trend in blogging: slow blogging. What I've come to understand about this movement is that some bloggers (like moi) prefer to write longer pieces more thoughtfully than the rapid-fire paced and abbreviated length entries that have heretofore defined the medium.

I do like to write longer pieces, and at the same time I've been going through a lot personally such that blogging has not been a compelling way for me to spend my free time. Why blog when you can whine about your failed romances. Just be glad I spared the Internet and faithful readers that woesome drama. There are far more interesting ones on the screen. . .

But I think of all of you out there each time I see a new movie, get obsessed with a TV show, see a play, or now, as I indulge my latest form of entertainment: play a new video game on my PlayStation 3. More on that in a minute.

Also, I've been getting more serious about painting, oil painting that is, and the occasional Mendocino barn.

I'm going to create a separate blog for my painting hobby for anyone who wants to watch my slow (that word again) progress from absolute childish amateur to pompous amateur. That would probably be an audience of one, my mother, who is always encouraging. I love painting, but I'm not good at it. Still, it gets me out of my head. When I was in high school and college I painted a bit. I was one class short from getting a minor in art. Instead I opted for the infinitely more practical minors in History and Theater. I picked the hobby back up in '08 and took lessons in the summer from Rob Langley, American Impressionist and am now studying with Kristine Reiner, American Realist. I'm trying to develop my own style, which I imagine will be somewhere in between.

But I still watch TV and see movies.

Some people said to me: I got hooked on Mad Men because of your blog. Thank you. The second season really delivered, I think. But I'm always looking for something new and meaty, something I can sink my teeth into (couldn't resist). I became obsessed with True Blood.

Vampires R Us

I should have done a whole blog entry about vampires and vampire movies. I could have compared and contrasted the salty HBO series True Blood with the moody movie Twilight. I suspect true vampire snobs will like neither—finding he former lurid and the latter insipid—but for me I fall for almost anything vampire. It’s like candy for me, or candy for me as a boy: Three Musketeers? Sure! Jolly Rancher? You bet. So different, but both satisfying.

True Blood—the series is over, but I’m sure it’s out on DVD or will be, and it's going to have a second season—is sexy, and first and foremost a vampire movie or story should be sexy. It’s set in some fictional backwoods swamplands in Louisiana, so you get a good dose of voodoo mixed in and some sultry Cajun accents, though most of the actors just play the drawl generic southern. The premise is that vampires have come out of the closet (casket), because a new synthetic blood allows them to feed without killing. They want to be accepted, and they want civil rights. Parallels to gays and HIV are everywhere, completely intentionally. The synthetic blood is like sex with condoms, it postures: it does the job but it’s not as fulfilling. And the vampires’ wish to be mainstreamed is met with suspicion, xenophobia, and out right hostility. There are liberals who accept the vampires, and then there are those that see them as sort of a tribe of goth rockers and want to be one of them: “fang bangers” they’re called.

This is trash of the highest order. But it has the Alan Ball signature (American Beauty, Six Feet Under): moody depth and unexpected three-dimensional characters--even in the minor roles. No one is entirely good or entirely evil. Ball is credited as creator, producer and director, and writer of some episodes. (By the way: name-dropping side note. I met Alan Poul at a party; he was Alan Ball's collaborator of sorts on Six Feet Under--they are both credited with producing and directing many episodes, though I think it's fair to say Ball was more the creative genius of that show. Poul is the genius behind Swingtown, though. Anyway, Poul gave me the adjective "lurid" to describe True Blood, though he had some good things to say about it too.)

All vampire stories have their own spin on the vampire myths and both True Blood and Twilight take creative liberties with the garlic, mirrors, crosses, sunlight motifs and create some new twists. In True Blood ingesting a few drops of vampire’s blood is like taking the drug ecstasy, combined with ‘shrooms and LSD. It has street value. It also has healing properties if you’re hurt. In Twilight, vampires can roam about in daytime as long as it’s not real sunny, thus the location: a gloomy northwestern town, shrouded in mist and clouds.

Twilight is very teen-age-girl. (That’s an actual adjective, by the way, because Tina Wang once used it describe her inspiration for a new collection she presented. It’s quite useful to describe many things as teen-age girls control so much of our economic and cultural lives. You may use it, but please cite verymarkmccormick and Tina Wang if you are questioned on its etymology. This will have to do until the new version of the OED comes out and we both get proper credit.)

As I was saying, it’s easy to see why teen-age girls have made Twilight a box-office success. The narrator is a misunderstood, not altogether geeky nor altogether popular and pretty, teen-ager, with a huge heap of angst on her shoulder. Of course she is starting at a new school and the only guy she likes is the vampire (it’s like me at a party: if there’s one straight guy there. . . oy!). And it’s easy to imagine the rest, which is my way of reminding readers that I’m not much for plot summaries. See Twilight for the moodiness, the somber romantic tone. It’s like a Smith’s song. And see True Blood—more Kurt Cobainish—for a weekly dose of sexy, dark, Cajun mystery, some horror show thrills, and the image of Jason Stackhouse’s butt (Ryan Kwanten). It’s in every episode, and I would say it’s worth the price of TiVo. (I swear this could be a drinking game—it’s laughably consistent)

I've seen a lot of movies since I last wrote. I want to do a best of '08--maybe I'll get around to it, but meanwhile, here are some mini-reviews.

Happy Go Lucky--Mike Leigh's new film. He's never done any film that's un-interesting. Check out Naked and Vera Drake. His movies tend to be very, very dark, teetering on the razor's edge of overwrought and emotionally profound. This one is different. It's about a cockeyed optimist. You'll wonder if it's really a Mike Leigh film until a pivotal scene with a driving instructor who calls her on her happiness. I've always said moodiness is not a victimless crime, referring to someone whose emotional state roller-coasters, but even aggressive positivity can be mean in a way as we learn.

Slumdog Millionaire--If you only see one movie in the next few months see this. I don't know a single person who wasn't moved by it. It has that formulaic underdog-makes-it-big plot that so many movies rely on, from Rocky to Billy Elliot to Seabiscuit. I've written about that pattern a few times in this blog. But because the hero comes from the slums of India, and because his wretched life is not sugarcoated at all the fairy tale ending really soars.

Milk--The story here is Sean Penn's performance. Sometimes I wonder why I blog at all about exceptionally good performances that have been widely lauded in the press, but I do think that Sean Penn's work here is astounding, some of the best I've ever seen. My friend Greg said he's channeling Harvey Milk, and it feels like that. There's a scene where they're celebrating an electoral victory of a proposition which would have, in the 1970's, made it legal to fire gay teachers. Its a transcendent moment, because Penn projects the joy so powerfully. I thank Penn for this--we need all straight people to do what they can to advance civil rights of gay people to care enough about us to be inconvenienced and to sacrifice their time and money. To be brave. We can't do this alone. We don't have Harvey now. He was brutally assassinated.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button--I was disappointed in this movie, because the pace was lugubrious, but I did like a few things about it: the message (find what you like and be it). I liked the supporting role of Benjamin's mother, Queenie (Taraji P Henson). I hope she gets an Oscar nomination. Pitt's role was understated, but the art direction and score were overstated, so you get the feeling that this film was pumped up to be an Oscar contender. It's contrived for that goal--you can almost hear it being pitched: "Blanchett and Pitt play characters that age over 60 years during the course of the film!" Well that's a triumph of make-up if nothing else, and computer generated graphics as they had to morph Pitt's head on a smaller body for a good part of it. I did admire Blanchett as she moved into middle age and beyond. She wore the weariness gracefully; I believed she was an aging dancer. The movie is just overly-ambitious. I would have liked to have the same story done with half the budget, half the time, with actors half as famous.

Revolutionary Road--Quite liked this movie in the way I like emotionally charged domestic dramas and period pieces like Mad Men. No I'm not going to compare it. The New Yorker review said that's annoying since this movie is set in the 50's and Mad Men is in the 60's, but it does that have that slice of truth about how suburban women perceived themselves and were perceived as social objects before The Feminine Mystique, The Female Eunuch, Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem, Virginia Slims, Charlie perfume, and That Girl. I don't mean to be glib. The reviews I've read can't seem to agree about the meta-themes of this movie: Is it about a feminist polemic or a commentary on suburban angst or the institution of marriage? Is it general or specific? I think what makes it art is that it is all of these things. I'm wondering--and I would love to hear your comments: Are movies about bad marriages, or rather love / hate relationships like The Squid and The Whale, Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf, and Revolutionary Road somehow more compelling to those of us who grew up in chaotic households? I certainly love a movie like this where the characters psychically eviscerate each other--so long as there's redemption. Honestly there's not much in this movie. But it underscores what for me is the greatest requirement of a relationship: to see someone and be seen. If you don't have that: expect tragedy.

Quick TV note:

Damages is coming back. FX is running first season catch up sessions. Try to catch it so you can be a part of the second season. Glenn Close is riveting. I promise. She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for this role. This is, like Mad Men, True Blood, and a few others, must-see TV.

So What Else Have I Been Doing?
A new genre to my blog: Games. Yes, I've given in, but only for what they call "rhythm games." I have a Playstation 3 now and two games Guitar Hero World Tour (like Rock Band), and Sing Star. I have just one word for this whole world: addictive. I know that gamers look down their noses at TV: they would rather play. But when I'm playing I always think: I should watching TiVo. So don't worry. I haven't turned into a teen-ager . . . yet. But like Benjamin Button, I do feel myself getting younger and younger every day.

Happy New Year everyone. I hope it's better than '08. I'm going to the inauguration. I'm in a state of optimism for many things. Thanks for your patience as I let the blog go for a while. I will keep it up in '09, but I do think the slow blog is -- let's call it a "slog"-- probably my genre. Stick with me, please. And know that your comments and subscriptions keep me going.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Somewhere over this Rainbow

About once a year I get obsessed with an album. And by that I mean I have to listen to it at least once a day. And then I start really listening hard and trying to hear the lyrics, and then I start memorizing lyrics and looking up the ones I can't quite get on the Web. Then I start even listening to the songs I originally didn't like.

Last year it was Silversun Pickups. This year it's Radiohead's In Rainbows. The albums that get under my skin are usually ones that challenge me. Silversun Pickups is a raucous rock band. Radiohead of course is experimental, alternative, sometimes abstruse. I have never really liked an entire Radiohead album until this one.

The melodies are intoxicating, the rhythms complex. Listen to the cymbal and piano at the end of Videotape. It's like they are characters talking to each other. Yorke's voice is sweet and high and you can see how they've influenced Coldplay and a thousand other commercial bands. I'm not saying anything particularly insightful here. Radiohead is a cult and there are reams written about them. But I encourage you to buy this album and study it. My favorite song is Jigsaw Falling into Place. These lyrics about the hopefullness of picking someone up in a bar, before you both get too drunk, is sublime in its subtlety:

Jigsaw Falling into Place

Just as you take my hand
Just as you write my number down
Just as the drinks arrive
Just as they play your favourite song
As your bad day disappears
No longer wound up like a spring
Before you've had too much
Come back in focus again

The walls are bending shape
You got a Cheshire cat grin
All blurring into one
This place is on a mission

Before the night owl
Before the animal noises
Closed circuit cameras
Before you're comatose

Before you run away from me
Before you're lost between the notes
The beat goes round and round
The beat goes round and round

I never really got there
I just pretended that I had
Words are blunt instruments
Words are sawn off shotguns

Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out
Come on and let it out

Before you run away from me
Before you're lost between the notes
Just as you take the mic
Just as you dance, dance, dance

A Jigsaw falling into place
So there is nothing to explain
You eye each other as you pass
She looks back and you look back
Not just once
and not just twice
Wish away your nightmare
Wish away the nightmare
You got the light you can feel it on your back
[A light,] you can feel it on your back
Your jigsaw falling into place

Other albums I've been obsessed with in the past decade or so: Rufus Wainwright's self-titled first album, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's album, Painted from Memory, Chakha Khan's album of standards with the London Symphony Orchestra, Classikhan, Beth Orton's Without Reservation, The Light in the Piazza soundtrack, Joni Mitchell's Hejira.

And now I will tell you a funny Radiohead story. When I was 39 I was having a mid-life crisis, dating a 23 year old named Charlie. I don't think Charlie would mind if I said he was all of these things: brilliant, sexy, troubled. He liked to drink a lot and then listen to Radiohead at loud volumes. I would wait for him to lose interest and pay attention to me, but it was like he was in another world. We had quite an age difference and our tastes in music had overlaps, but our favorite stuff was really far apart--or was it? Once we went to Yosemite and we agreed that we would alternate choosing CDs, but we would bring stuff we wanted to expose the other to. He brought Radiohead, and I brought Joni Mitchell and Sondheim. Too funny. Charlie had some musical sophistication. He encouraged me to remember my high school band music theory and listen to the time signatures of the Radiohead songs. A waltz is 3/4 time, for example. You can't figure it out with Radiohead. It's all over the map, which is what makes it cerebral and dynamic (click on the image above). And I will say he really got the Joni, and I turned him on to other stuff too, like Rufus Wainwright. We broke up after a short time, and he later moved to New York, but we've kept in touch, and I knew I had raised him well when Charlie, now thirty or thirty-one, told me excitedly recently that he had seen Rufus doing his full length re-creation of the famous Judy Garland concert at Radio City Music Hall. And now he will be happy to hear I'm finally young enough to appreciate Radiohead.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teach Me Tonight

A few years ago a great movie came out, Little Children, about a woman in the suburbs who begins having an affair with a stay-at-home dad. Separate but loosely inter-twined plots concern a registered sex offender and a retired cop who is after him. It's a brilliant script and people told me the book, by Tom Perrotta, was even better. The voiceover narratives in the movie, presumably lifted from from the book, were really good. I wanted to read the book but never got around to it.

So when I read the reviews for Perrotta's new book The Abstinence Teacher I was intrigued. Time magazine called him the Steinbeck of suburbia (so what does that make Cheever? or Updike?).

It's a good read, a real page turner, but I did not find it particularly sophisticated. In fact it was a jolt to my palette, because I had just finished Pride and Prejudice (my first Austen). Her prose is psychologically insightful and masterfully florid, definitely a product of its time stylistically, but it's easy to see why we still read Austen.

The Abstinence Teacher is a little too self-consciously political, however. Perrotta has tried create dual portraits, both sympathatic, about somewhat extreme characters on the culture war continuum. The first is about a born again Christian, Tim, who was once an addict, but came under the seductive spell of an evangelical pastor. He finds purpose in the church and eventually even marries a young congregant partly to please the pastor and partly to patch his broken heart. When he was using, he fucked up up his life so bad his marriage fell apart, the usual story. He soldiers on, though, and he's noble. And he's not a conservative Christian jerk. He's an ex-rock 'n' roller, and misses it all. He stays open-minded. To illustrate this, there are long patches explaining why he doesn't agree with his church's stance on gay marriage and other extreme positions.

His foil is Ruth, a sex-ed teacher in town who has braved a controversy caused by her telling her ninth graders that some people like oral sex. She is reprimanded, and the conservative school board adopts an abstinence-based sex ed curriculum she is forced to teach. She's miserable. Add to that, she can't get laid and she thinks she's always going to be single.

They are connected by their daughters' soccer team that Tim happens to coach. Ruth makes a scene one day when Tim, spontaneously, asks the team to join him in prayer after a particularly triumphant win.

They become unlikely friends, and the novel is really about how they are managing their own lonliness and ultimately how they let their attraction for each other (more than physical) subvert their socio-religious leanings.

It's a sweet story and I enjoyed it, couldn't put it down, but it's kind of shallow. A beach read.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elegaic? Yes, but. . .

Elegy will make you think, and it will make you feel, but I'm not sure it's a great movie. I would love to hear what others think.

Without being overly personally and so completely subjective, I will say that the movie struck a lot of chords for me: what is the nature of aging and age and what roles do aging and age differences play in romantic love? What is the nature of obsessive love (the Kingsley character, an aging but emotionally and sexually vibrant professor/writer/critic says of his lover (in essesnce), "I was anxious all day until we would speak and then I was I was anxious afterwards." And what is the nature of sex, romance, intimacy, long-term connection? It's all explored here.

I think about these things all the time; I have lived the situations in the film from all sides. And at the same time I have had, for many years, a negative reaction to one particular Hollywood formula: the on-screen love affairs between male actors in their 60's and actresses in their 30's. Pairing Sean Connery with Michelle Pfeiffer--or in the case of Elegy, pairing Ben Kingsley with Penelope Cruz, is quite simply playing out the masturbatory fantasies of the producers who finance these films. No doubt that the world is full of such romances, but how many times is it the reverse situation? So few: The Graduate, a smattering of others.

Okay, so trying to put aside my personal judgments is not easy nor is it entirely possible or required with this hobby (criticism). Even the Kingsley character David Kapesh says (advancing Roland Barthes' thesis): a book is a different book depending on the reader, and the reader will change such that re-reading a book 10 years after reading it the first time, the reader will experience the book through a diffent lens.

Still, that aside--I am really am trying to get to the point: is the movie good?

I just don't know. I have to think about it more. It's a story of Kingsley as an aging writer, David Kepesh, as I said, who falls in love with a student, Consuela Costilla, played by Cruz. He also has a lover who he sees regularly, the more age-appropriate Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson). He lies to Carolyn about Consuela, and never tells Consuela about Carolyn. He is almost estranged from his son, Kenneth (played by the excellent Peter Sarsgaard who needs a leading role, and soon--I love him) who can't seem to get over his past grievance--how Kepesh divorced his mother and abandoned him. And Kepesh has a best friend, George, played by, of all people, Dennis Hopper, who serves as Kepesh's Id in a way--encouraging him to go for the sex, but not get hung up on Consueala. And believe it or not we also have a cameo by Deborah Harry as George's wife--it's brief but credible. Yes, Deborah Harry!

Re-reading the paragraph above, I realized that, for me, the movie's interesting dimensions were in the relationships of secondary characters. Clarkson is a total favorite of mine, and she delivers another of her intelligent, subtle performances. And Sarsgaard as I mentioned does the seething, aggrieved son quite well--totally believable.

And the movie is gorgeously shot. Meaningful light and shadows, deep colors, sensual angles. It's beautiful, if obsessively mannered somehow--perfectly art directed, a little too perfect sometimes, but pretty to look at.

So what's the rub? As you all know I'm a huge Cruz fan. I can't get enough of her, but I have to say I did not like her in this role. I felt she was objectified, and I felt her stretching too hard to be a serious "actress." (P.S. to Penelope: you already are a world class, legendary talent. You have nothing to prove.) I thought the plot was contrived--you'll understand when you see how a certain body part of her is fetishized and then exactly what disease she gets. I thought her vulnerability was forced and her natural charisma was tempered. I found myself actually kind of angry that she was somehow used. Kingsley, on the other hand, played the role with sufficient depth and found many levels to his character.

I want to hear from others on this. What was wrong with Cruz's performance here, or with the direction? Why did the movie ultimately ring somewhat hollow? I've read zero reviews of this film so far. I'll be interested in your opinions, and the real critics.

Forget After Seeing

I usually don't concentrate too hard on reviews before I've seen a movie that I'm really looking forward to. I will sort of glance at the review sometimes, get the gist, and see the movie anyway, even it's bad. And I try not to read many reviews before I blog about a movie.

The movie I've been most anticipating this fall, the Coen brother's Burn After Reading, has already opened. I saw that the New York Times hated it, said it had no heart. But of course I went anyway.

The preview for this movie is so compelling: Pitt, Swinton, McDormand, Clooney, Malkovich! And the serious auteur filmmakers, returning back to their black comedy tone (Fargo, Raising Arizona) which I prefer over the violently malevolent shades of No Country for Old Men.

Clearly this movie was a palette cleanser for the Coens and their fans. After No Country for Old Men; I'm sure they just needed a break. Problem is, though, you can't go back and make a first film at the height of your career. That's what this felt like.

This movie disappoints on several levels. Pitt is playing a one-dimentional caricature, and frankly so is Swinton, Clooney and Malkovich. You can't like any of them, and worse: you can't really understand them or care about them. There's some giggles, sure, but their talents are wasted here. I really don't feel like dissecting what's bad about each of the performances, but here's a small detail that just drove me crazy: Pitt is supposed to be playing a dumb jock sort of personal trainer. An idiot who gets in way over his head as he tries to blackmail an ex-CIA operative after finding a disc of his personal data. The plot is simply about some how Dormand and Pitt try to get money out of this guy (Malkovich) and then, failing that, out of the Russians. A bunch of little inter-twined sup-plots keep the pace brisk. Anyway, Pitt's character is always carrying a water bottle. When he drinks from it, he holds his elbow up high like a little kid and sucks on the end like a nipple. He does this again and again and it's a piece of body language that is supposed to signal how childish he is, but it's way overdone, and he ends up playing the role (and the directors are at fault here, not Pitt) like a character in a one-laugh Saturday Night Live skit.

As for Swinton, she better be careful. After the (nuanced and interesting) role she had in Michael Clayton as an uptight PR professional, she dons similar hair and affect here to portray a surly adulterous doctor. Swinton could do anything--now that she's proven she can reign her exotic looks and ethereal technique into mainstream Hollywood (yes, the Coen bros are mainstream now), she ought to take a page from Julianne Moore's book and find material that offers more opportunity to display her otherworldly range (check out her early Jarman work) movies that work with rather than hide her rarity.

After seeing the movie I read the New York Times review more carefully and the New Yorker review as well. They panned it. But I disagree with them on McDormand. She's the hardest working actor here, for sure, and though she's plays a raging narcisissist whose sole purpose in life is to get four cosmetic surgeries which she believes will make her more desirable, I kind of liked her. I liked the single-mindedness of her vision. She starts Internet dating and she really knows what she wants, recognizes it when she sees it (someone handsome with a good sense of humor--Clooney), and doesn't take no for an answer--when it comes to the blackmailing scene, not from the CIA, not from the Russians, not from the insurance company who won't pay for her surgeries ("My doctor approved them!"). She kept me chuckling, but one can't help compare and contrast her role here with that in Fargo. In the latter, she was wholly sympathetic and complex.

A few things keep the movie watchable. I loved the short scenes in CIA headquarters--the way the big boss dismisses the blackmailing / murder incident casually, after the under-boss explains sheepishly what's happened. That was classic. And the actor Richard Jenkins (played the dead father in Six Feet Under) plays a really interesting character. So if you watch the minor roles, you'll see some complexity, but it's not enough. And I am entranced by the Coen's camera techniques and quick editing. Also, they can take something that is absolutely gruesome (a character gets shot in the forehead) and make it funny (the shooter freaks out). But this is trickery, not real film making, the kind that moves you and changes the way you see or understand something.

If you like the Coen brothers, I'm sure neither this blog nor wild horses will keep you from seeing this flick. You'll go anyway. I understand. I faithfully march to everything Woody Allen puts out, and usually walk out somewhat disappointed (not this year though). But check out Rotten Tomatoes--the audience rating is in the 70's; the critics' rating in the 50's. I stole the headline from the Wall Street Journal critic. It's appropriate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hamlet 2

If you liked Waiting For Guffman, and you loathe movies like Dead Poet's Society and Mr. Holland's Opus, you'll love Hamlet 2. Standout performances by Steve Koogan as Dana Marschz, the lead character, Catherine Keener as his depressed wife, Amy Poehler as an ACLU lawyer, Elizabeth Shue (as herself), and unknown Shea Pope as the 9th grade theater critic, Noah Sapperstein. He almost steals the show. He had me at Roland Barthes.

It's a story about a crazy-assed, somewhat moronic, but ultimately sympathetic high school drama teacher who stages adapted versions of movies like Erin Brockovich instead of the usual high school fare (West Side Story, Death of a Salesman). Sapperstein, the critic, who pans all of his productions tells him that he should try writing original stuff. It tells you a lot about the movie and the writing and the characters that the protagonist turns to a Freshman dramaturge for advice--and then follows it. In any case Marschz knows he has to do something big to save the deapartment which is being cut due to budget cuts.

To save the department Marschz decides to write and produce a sequel to Hamlet. You may remember that at the end of Hamlet almost everyone is dead. "I have a device to fix that," he tells his wife. "What? A time machine?" she asks. "Yes." And someone named Jesus shows up in the sequel too, inexplicably, but probably just as an excuse for the showcase number Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.

Hamlet 2 is graced by balls-out performances. Most notable is Coogan's anti-hero, the caftan wearing, totally clumsy and admittedly untalented Marschz. But there's als0 the drama geeks Rand, a delightful closet case and Epiphany, a goody two shoes with a dark side.

In a way this movie is solidly in the "lets put on a show" genre, or the genre of British and American formulaic comedies, or inspirational dramas, that show the underdog rising predictably to great glory (Billy Elliott, Kinky Boots, Seabiscuit, Rocky, The Great Debaters, Calendar Girls, The Full Monty, Strictly Ballroom, etc.). Nine times out of ten, I hate this shit, because I like to be surprised

And surprised I was.Here's what got me. The show within the show--I'm not giving anything away by saying that it's a smash. I expected that, but I didn't expect to be moved. I think it was the Tucson Gay Men's Choir singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." Magic. What is better in life than completely unexpected tears?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona Penepole Patricia Javier

Woody Allen's new movie is a delightful trifle. At least on the surface. There's a lot to like about this movie, and not a whole lot to pick at. Take the standard ingredients of a good movie: appealing characters. Check. Beautiful setting. Check. Talented cast. Check. Good writing. Check. Interesting story. Check. This movie has all that.

Now consider what makes a movie great. All of the above plus: standout performance. Check. Absolutely, Penepole Cruz makes the movie. To be honest, I was getting a little sleepy with all the wine, sun, glowing skin, minor conflicts and subplots until Penepole Cruz shows. Have I bored you yet with my proclamation that she is the one woman in the world I would sleep with if I had the chance. Yup, she could turn me. (I mean it worked for Tom Cruise, right?) But I digress. Her performance is riveting. You want more, more, more of this crazy bitch. I would say too that Javier Bardem stands out. I love actors who seem to enjoy themselves in all kinds of roles. In No Country for Old Men he was evil incarnate and here is playboy incarnate, and ironically he holds the moral center of the movie. He is certain about his need for love and affection and for caring about women; all the women around him, though, and Patricia Clarkson (frankly underutilized here) are all somewhat confused about what they want.

So the standout performances are there with Cruz and Bardem, but there is one final element that should be in a great movie: a universal and resonant theme. Here's where I can't decide if this movie makes it. Clearly Allen has something to say about romance ("it's love that can never be"--I think he got that part right), and about all the people in the world (all of us, really, at one point or another) who can never really decide about what they want out of love. Do we want security? Do we want passion? Do we want predictability? Do we want uncertainty and surprise? Do we want to stretch our limits or do we want to comfort and safety? We all want it all and we all want nothing to do with it if it gets too, too messy. All of this is in the movie, to be sure, as the main and minor characters work out their uncertainty. Fair enough, and highly entertaining, but for me, at the end, the stakes just weren't high enough in this film, the neuroses weren't deep enough.

Allen went to Barcelona, but like the characters, he was on vacation. He cast Cruz, but he's no Almadovar when it comes to Spanish intensity. But he tries: the best scene for me was a fight scene between Cruz and Bardem in the street outside a cafe. They are yelling, on the verge of physical violence, and the extras walk by, coached to hardly notice the eruptons, for we are to assume this is the way of love in Spain. In Manhattan, Allen's spiritual home, the psychoanalyzed upper class smother their emotions with Jungian rationalizations and passive aggression. Yet in the best Allen cinema, the tears are real (in Manhattan when Mariel Hemingway (Tracy) says goodbye to Allen (Isaac)--devastating) and break through the intellectual crap. In this movie, notwithstanding the force of Cruz, he is tepid: his sex scenes are from the neck up to emphasize a point that even in our deepest passion, we can't get out of our heads.

But as a summer movie it can't be beat. It's a bitter little pill wrapped in butterscotch candy. It doesn't hurt a bit, yet when summer turns to fall, you might find the warmth of your imperfect everyday love more immediate and real than memories of your "romantic" Spanish summer.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Swing on Swingtown

At first I was excited about this new show, but in a sort of trepidatious way. I thought, "70's swingers; could be fun; could be sexy." I had some high expectations that it could be a sort of period piece like Mad Men, with perfect details (art design) and some pithy insight into the time and place (Chicago suburbs). I watched the first episode and was a bit disappointed, but also kind of intrigued. The disappointment was to be expected, because it is a network show; that means, for a show where a major plot line (swinging) revolves around sex, there is little of it. There was a lot of press about how this could have been a better cable show. I just found it a little predictable at first. The trouble with most network TV is that the characters are so widely drawn they are stereotypes, and the plots quickly devolve to the soap-operatic. Desperate Housewives is a perfect example of this.

So yes, it was kind of predictable and kind of shallow, but for some reason I stuck with it. The characters are all quite interesting and the music and period details did picque my interest.

The series revolves around three couples and their children. Susan and Bruce are best friends with Roger and Janet. They have lived in the same middle class Chicago suburb for years. Their friendship is mostly between the wives, Susan and Janet--as is the case with most two-couple friendships based primarily on proximity. Bruce gets a huge promotion and so he and Susan and their two kids move to a more expensive suburb. That's when everything starts happening--this is all in the first episode. Bruce and Susan's new house is right across the street from Tom and Trina, a coupla wild and crazy swingers. This is like the Chicago version of Ice Storm, but not as dark. Tom and Trina spot Susan and Bruce as they're moving in--actually they're practically drooling at the new meat in town. They are, at first, more like vampires than swingers, but their identity as swingers and the degree to which they prostletyze their lifestyle (yes, I would say this is a lifestyle, so don't go getting all PC on me) becomes very nuanced eventually. They're actually pretty cool about the whole thing, adopting a sort of a "take or leave it, but it works for us" stance that of course makes them irresistable. Hell, I'd do 'em in a minute! Trina is sexy as hell with a killer voice and wise eyes.

Anyway, I digress. Tom and Trina move in for the kill instantly. They invite Bruce and Susan over a party on, I think, on their very first night in the 'hood. Long story short, they seduce them after the party. Oh but I forgot the important part: just as they're about to go over to the party (which they don't know is a swinger party until they get there), who shows up with a covered dish, but their old pals Roger and Janet? So naturally Susan and Bruce invite them to come along. Susan and Bruce just barely fit. At least they are wearing polyester. But Roger and Janet look like chaperones from central casting. The whole point is constantly to portray Roger and Janet as the biggest squares in the world; they're actually complex and nice and even sexy in their own way--it would have been so easy to make them one-dimensional. But Janet, especially, is so tightly wound, and so unforgiving and sarcastic towards this brave new world, and really so deeply hurt that she (thinks she is) losing her best friend to this life of debauchery. So, in brief, their friendship starts collapsing while the foursome of Susan and Bruce / Tom and Trina starts flourishing.

That's all you need to know to pick this up. There are some juicy subplots though, mostly involving Susan and Bruce's' teenage (and lovely, precocious) daughter Laurie who falls in love with her hott(!) Advanced Placement English teacher and tosses aside heartlessly her equally hott, and age-appropriate surfer dude boyfriend (complete with corduory OP shorts). Now that's a predicament I would have very much enjoyed handling in high school. I keep wanting to yell at her "why choose?"

Okay, what I like about this show, and what's most surprising to me, is that the real drama is mostly internal. It's really about each of the characters trying on new roles, new perceptions of themselves and seeing how it fits, then shyly marching around in this new uniform, with a new set of lines, seeing how others are perceiving them. It's touching in a way. The acting is really quite good. I do wish this had been slightly moodier and on Showtime or HBO where it would have more creative freedom. But for network TV it's a wonder: there are no good guys, no bad guys, lots of shades of gray in this moral playground. And they're taking their time to let the story unfold. In the first episode Bruce and Susan lost their cherries to another couple, and now there's a heap of tension around whether they will do it again; they've said it was a "one time thing" but we all know that once you've bitten that apple. . . Now we're wondering if Roger and Janet might be going down the stony end with them. They never wanted to go down the stony end, but once you try pot brownies in some friends' country house where there's a lake outside and inside: (uh-oh!) Twister (!), well anything can happen.

One more detail I'm noticing: the bodies are 70's bodies (except for Tom, above, but he plays an airline pilot and everyone knows they are naturally muscular). Remember before Nautilus machines, before you had two gym memberships? You could stay fit--probably from running, or you could stay thin by chain smoking and watching Watergate hearings all night. But no one was really that muscular. It wasn't a high value. It was more important that you danced well, dressed well, and had nicely feathered hair. At least that was how it was for me, in high school. I never touched a weight machine until college--that was the 80's, and sometimes I wonder: have these pecs made my life any better? What if I had spent that time writing a TV show about Pocatello? Nah, I'll take the biceps.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Yorker, New York Times, New Post!

I know I know, long time no blog. But thanks to everyone who said, "when's the next post?" I have more ideas than time these days, but that's an excuse. My computer got stolen, but that's an excuse too. It's been hot, the fires in California, the film festival, a thousand reasons for what amounts to writer's block.

But I've been running across things in magazines I want to share, and in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and in the daily New York Times. Where to begin?

If you are a Mad Men fan--and who isn't who has even seen one episode--you must immerse yourself in the NYTimes Magazine think piece published a few weeks ago. It's a great look at what makes the series the best thing on TV, how realistic it is or isn't, what's the real social comment that the writers are trying to make (this will surprise you--it's not what you think), but mostly it's a juicy portrait of the neurotic Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner of Mad Men. And the best news of all: the DVD of the first season is out, so you can catch up on it, before the second season starts on July 27th.

One more from the New Yorker. If you didn't read the elevator article (sorry, Ed!) a few months ago, you will be a total loser at the office water cooler. Everyone is talking about it and the accompanying video. Now here's the thing that's most interesting about the article. This guy's life was ruined by the event. Things happen to us that become bends in our life trajectory--it changes everything, but compare and contrast what happened to the guy in the elevator what happened to Laura Bush.

"I Smoke. I read. I admire."

Did anyone read the Maureen Dowd op-ed in the New York Times about Laura Bush yesterday? Someone has written a fictional account of her life. Fair enough, but the editorial by Dowd about the book, had these really provocative paragraphs:

Once in a while, you’ll read about something she’s said, like that legendary line she uttered to her future in-laws — “I read, I smoke, and I admire” — that makes you realize how intriguing it would be to see the real Laura. One with her guard down and outside of the Kabuki-like job of first lady.

But there’s only one vessel that can ferry you past Laura’s moat, and that’s fiction. Ms. Sittenfeld has creatively applied her crayons to all the ambiguous blanks in the coloring book. It isn’t an invasion of privacy. Art has always been made out of the stories of kings and queens. Fictionalizing historical figures is fine. Fantasies about public figures are inevitable. The question of an ostensibly ordinary girl who lives through extraordinary things will always be gripping. For “Madame Bovary,” Flaubert partly drew on the real-life story of Delphine Delamare, a village doctor’s unhappy wife who had lots of lovers and a premature and humiliating death.

And the story of the quiet, pretty librarian who could suffer the fate of being an old maid if not rescued by the dashing hero is a favorite American narrative — from “The Music Man” to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

During her husband’s presidential runs, many reporters shied away from asking Laura Bush about the freakishly horrible accident she had when she was 17. Hurrying to a party, she ran a stop sign in Midland, Tex., one night on Farm Road 868 and ran into a car that turned out to be driven by the golden boy of her high school, a cute star athlete she was believed to have had a crush on. He died instantly of a broken neck.

As Ann Gerhart wrote in “The Perfect Wife”: “Killing another person was a tragic, shattering error for a girl to make at 17. It was one of those hinges in a life, a moment when destiny shuddered, then lurched in a new direction. In its aftermath, Laura became more cautious and less spontaneous, more inclined to be compassionate.”

Laura has rarely spoken publicly about it, except to say in 2000 that “it was crushing ... for the family involved and for me as well.”

How could a novelist not be drawn to such a tragedy? It’s easy to imagine all that guilt, shame, conscience, fear, sex and nightmares in the hands of Eudora Welty or Larry McMurtry.

Wow. Did you know that about Laura Bush? I knew she was a big reader, a closet smoker, but I didn't know about that tragic accident. And she made a pretty good life for herself, except she married the most public idiot of her generation. Still, reading this: I love her. And I love Dowd.

And I love New York, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. I have nothing to say about New York really except see Sex and the City. Even though the NYT review called it shallow. Duh! (And not just shallow, but "the pits, vulgar, shrill, and deeply shallow." Thank god movies can be all of those things and deeply enjoyable at the same time, thank god Laura Bush made it, and thank god for Mad Men.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This and That

Bloggers are their own editors, and that is a sad thing. Because if I had an editor, I'm sure that s/he would find all my misspellings and grammar errors. I often find them the day after I post, and I cringe. And a good editor would never let me get away with a headline like This and That, which is a journalistic cliche that probably went out of style with The Reader's Digest and Ladies Home Jounal. I wish Amanda Lorber were my editor.

Who is Amanda Lorber? Well, just when I thought there was nothing good on TV this spring, I had a verymarkmccormick synchronistic experience: I read about The Paper in the New York Times one day and the very next day on JetBlue, coming back from my friend Tim and Lee's place in the Hamptons for Memorial Day, I caught an MTV marathon of the series, and I have just three words: dee-lish-ous. Oh, and as an aside: I encourage everyone to cut up their United Airlines frequent flyer cards and switch to JetBlue. Costs a little more, but with extra leg room, planes that leave on time, overhead bins big enough for a hat box, 36 stations of mind-numbing television in every leather seat, and all the Lorna Doons you can eat, worth every penny.

The Paper is about a high school newspaper in Florida and its imperious, precocious "love to hate" Editor-in-Chief Amanda Lorber. Actually, though she makes some serious mis-steps in the episodes I saw (she should have joined the team on the ropes course instead of finishing her NYU application), she is a mature manager. She dresses down her managing editor for contradicting her in a meeting, and it was a fine example of one minute management: "look, you made me look bad in front of the editorial team, it was inappropriate, and I'd prefer it if you didn't do it again, and if that ruins our friendship, fine."

It took me back to my days as editor in chief of my high school yearbook, The Pocatellian. In those days we didn't have computers; we pasted things up on graph paper and typed out our copy, put it all in a big envelope and waited three months. The newspaper was mimeographed, I think. Now they've all got Macs, of course. It's a tense moment as all 34 pages are "PDF'd" then burned to a disc. I suppose they take the disc to Kinkos and wake up the next morning to boxes and boxes of four color glory: instant gratification for the particular brand of ego-inflated intellectuals-in-training that comprise high school newspaper staffs (and adult bloggers for that matter).

This seems like a rich high school. It's clean, and the boys are metrosexual, bonding and gossiping over expensive haircuts at the spa. There's a delicious bit of hero worship as the paper runs a feature story on some kid named Jan (something like that--someone please correct me), who can apparently do everything: he is a track star, cello player and has perfect SAT scores. He's like a high school celebrity. But some of the alpha males on the newspaper staff get fed up with the girls' idolatry (and their own ambiguous stirrings no doubt) and challenge him to three duals: Rubic's cube, basketball, and a foot-race. I can't tell you the results!

The teacher /advisor is a gem, though; she will remind you of your favorite teacher from high school. The one you could find at her desk at 4 p.m., ready to answer any question you might have had about "a friend" who thinks he or she might be (fill in the blank): gay, pregnant, an atheist, addicted to marijuana, or have an STD.

The last line of the New York Times review describes the lesson that teens (of all ages) might learn from The Paper: "A whole lot of working life involves talking about work, and the hard-driving loudmouth usually wins"

If you're already a fan of The Paper, and have lots of time on your hands, here's a sweet little interview of Amanda Lorber by a fan:

In finding this, I realized that most of the episodes of The Paper are on YouTube. I'm very late to this craze. Gotta catch up. . .

On a totally unrelated topic--or related by the thinnest thread, TV--can we just pause for a moment and collectively reflect on the American Idol season that just passed? Did it not deliver? I think it did. So many of us (and by us I mean me and my loyal group of friends who gathered on Tuesdays for this frothiest of guilty pleasures) were saying that this season did not have the emotional impact of others, or that the franchise had lost its appeal somehow as its warts started showing (what? you mean the judges watch dress rehearsal and even practice their critiques? ohmygawd!), but that the talent at least this year was good, especially the boys, but soul-less somehow. We fretted about the tyranny of David Archuleta's stage dad, and we fell over ourselves laughing as Paula delivered yet another incoherent, slurring, syntax-mangling critique. (Yet she really nailed it when she said she wanted to hang Archuleta from her rear-view mirror--he was just so cute and talented.) We fell in and out of love with Jason as he slipped into a pot-induced stupor of forgetfulness and apathy. We were embarrassed for Amanda as she suffered through yet another Up With People medley choreographed, somehow, it seemed, by the very same person who must have been gainfully employed in the seventies working for The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and the Donny and Marie Show. We speculated on David Cook's hairline and Ryan's sexuality. We pined nostalgically for our first albums, or the only albums we liked AND our parents liked as Brooke sang another Carole King, another Carly Simon.

In the end, what pushed David Cook over the top? Was it the cougars?

Whatever. It was a good season. And you can make fun of it all you want, but the New Yorker music critic (does anyone know if Sasha is a boy or a girl) finds some merit.

If you're wondering, for my money there is only one Idol and that's Fantasia:

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Yellow Brick Lane

When you watch the Academy Awards, and the Foreign Film category comes up, do you feel guilty that you haven't seen more of the selections? Do you find yourself guessing as you fill out the ballet, then feeling like a total philistine? I do. That's why I was determined to see at least a few films at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Thank god for my cinephile friend Jane who looked at the catalog and picked out a few good films for us to see, only one of which I actually made it to, Brick Lane, which I saw last week with Jane and her glamorous friend Kristina. More on the film in a minute.

Film festivals are a trip. You often have to buy tickets in advance, and if you didn't have the foresight to do that days in advance for a hot film, you have to stand in line for "rush" tickets. It somewhat demeaning, but reminds me of yet another verymarkmccormick film and theater-going rule (I must compile these soon): I have never NOT seen something for lack of a ticket beforehand. If you want to see something, even if it were the hottest, hottest possible show you can imagine, like if, for example, Rufus Wainwright decided to do a three evening set called Just Joni, Just Sondheim, Just Barbra, at, say, The Plush Room (if it existed anymore, which it doesn't, which is sad), and IF for some reason you didn't buy tickets to all three, because, for example, maybe you were away in a third world country, in a village without Internet access for a year, well, you could JUST SHOW UP and SOMETHING would happen to get you in. You have to get there early and sometimes pay top dollar, but what is money for, if not culture (and hair treatments apparently, but more on that later, Miss Lee). Anyway, the only time my "just show up" rule has failed me was once in London to see Alan Bennett's Lady in the Van with Dame Maggie Smith. I was something like eighth in line, for cancellations, and the first seven got it. I was stricken. It took me years to get over that.

Anyway, to make a short story longer, I'm just saying, we stood in the "rush" line and got in.

Rush lines can be good. You can catch up on your reading or get to know things about your friends as you stand there in bone chilling San Francisco wind, making conversation to stay warm. I learned these two things. Jane's hair treatment--she gets it straightened to fabulous effect, both visual and tactile--costs $550, and she has to have it done twice a year. I swear I don't think I even spend that much money on shoes. Maybe. No, definitely not. And Kristina once smuggled a bunch of money into some foreign country. Okay it was barely over the maximum amount, and it was for work, but still: glamorous. If we hadn't stood in line, I would not know these things.

Enough about that: on to weightier subjects. This is really a mini-review with a lot of fluff above, because this movie may not get wide distribution. But I'll make my comments general: the best kind of art experience, I've discovered, is one that mixes at least two art forms--musical theater for example, or a dramatic reading of a poem, or a prose poem for that matter (more accessible than a poem), or even a photograph with a strong narrative, a painting with some text, a dance that tells a story--you get my drift.

Brick Lane works as about three different art forms. As a film it is engaging, with a good plot, likable characters, good actors. It's the story of a Bangladeshi woman who moves to a drab street in London, Brick Lane, for an arranged marriage. It is a loveless marriage, but she endures; she misses her sister terribly, and they have an active correspondence over many, many years. Her sister's life, though wildly unpredictable, is at least full of romance and adventure. Still, her sister pines for an idyllic youth that she remembers as being full of laughter and natural beauty. Her memory edits out the poverty, death, and uncertainty that represented life in her Bangladeshi village. Her husband is feckless at best, and when he loses his job, she starts sewing to make ends meet. She meets a dashing young man who wakes her up sexually and politically, but who ultimately objectifies her ("you are the real thing: a simple girl from the village"--though she is no girl and clearly not simple). But to my point about genre-mixing, the film succeeds, because it has all the elements of a well-crafted film, but it is cinemagraphically magical--stunningly shot, especially the scenes in Bangladesh. And at times it morphs into poetry--the flashback scenes, the letters between sisters, an unlikely scene of a woman in a sari making a snow angel.

I loved this movie for the acting and the look of it, and how it worked as poetry and pure cinematography. Yes, it was sad but satisfyingly redemptive. I would say that every single character grows in some small way, as does each strand of Jane's hair, inspiring this haiku:

Jane's black locks
Shining in the rush line wind
Five Fifty??
See, even a blog entry can be two genres at once!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

White Hotel

Edmund White has been one of my favorite authors for many years. I usually read his work, though I admit I didn't make it through his comprehensive biography of Genet. But his books A Boy's Own Story and A Married Man stand out for me. Though it's been years since I read them--the essence remains: literary fiction about memory, with rich description and a sharp sense of place. I met White at a book signing once and asked him about the literary scandal between David Leavitt and Stephen Spender. He was quite jovial and willing to gossip for a few minutes telling me that both David Leavitt and Stephen Spender (who was to die just a year later and was already ancient at the time of the scandal) had called him asking for advice.

Interviews with White
reveal him to be very accessible, campy, forthright, sexually progressive, and outspoken. He is one of the most celebrated "gay" novelists of his generation (he talks a lot about whether this moniker is appropriate), and he currently teaches fiction at Princeton.

Hotel De Dream is his most current book, though in 2007 he also published two more, a memoir and book of short stories. I picked this up when I was in New York this spring and was delighted that it had so much New York history and took place very near Union Square which is where I was staying.

It's a story within a story, and like Leavitt's book mentioned above, this one takes liberties with a literary figure, Stephen Crane. (And he throws in some delightful imaginary cameos with Joseph Conrad and Henry James, too.)

The premise is that while American author Stephen Crane was on his deathbed, he was dictating a manuscript to his (common-law) wife. The manuscript was about a boy prostitute that Crane had met during his walkabouts of the city where he was wont to encounter and document all kinds of street life. Crane was famous first as a gritty journalist and also as a novelist. He is credited for bringing a sort of gritty realism to American fiction, sort of pre-dating Upton Sinclair who would create fiction as agitprop naturalism--man against cruel society. If you read Maggie: A Girl of the Streets or The Jungle in college, it was probably in sociology. These are kind of like novels as investigative journalism, and they were profoundly influential at the time and The Jungle at least had some influence on public health policy.

I keep digressing. I really just want to say that this book is really a fun read, because there are three stories--the fictionalized account of Crane dying and his odd attachment to the boy prostitute he is writing about, the story of the boy himself, and his journey from upstate New York farmland into a seedy but fascinating underground world of turn-of-the-century New York City prostitution, and finally the story of the manuscript itself, which ostensibly was called "The Painted Boy." It's unclear if it ever really existed. There's a great Postface to the book where White says the whole thing is "my fantasia on real themes provided by history." It's interesting to note that Crane's common-law wife Cora Taylor was a former brothal madam. It's not hard to imagine that this subject matter captured his imagination.

This book really stayed with me and made me want to read more Crane. And White. Postmodern fiction is such a fun blend of the real and the imagined, and the imagined real. This book's structure is a delight and it's a good yarn too.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Story of the Story of the Night

One of the best parts of vacations is that you get caught up on reading. There is something infinitely more satisfying about reading a book in a day or two versus spreading it out over weeks, catching a chapter here or there before sleep or during American Idol commercials (as if I didn't have TiVo. Hah!).

Anyway, I recently traveled to Patagonia, Argentina, and then to Buenos Aires. Two days before I left I had a marvelously synchronistic experience. I mentioned to my Irish colleague and friend Annie Galvin that I recently had occasion to dine with my favorite author Colm Toibin, wondering if she knew of him since Annie is a poet, also Irish. She said of course that he was one of her favorites, and she asked if I had read The Story of the Night, his book set in Buenos Aires. Well, I had no idea that he had written a book set in Buenos Aires and it seemed like the perfect book to take along, so I did.

The book starts out sad, and I almost put it aside, thinking that it might not be the right book for vacation. It was the subject matter that was bringing me down: another gay novel with a closeted narrator, a young English tutor, no less, having only covert sexual liaisons and falling in love with his star pupil. But the book morphs quickly from that familiar plot. Soon the narrator meets some American diplomats (CIA?) and starts a new life as sort of translator/fixer for American businessmen who are swooping in on Argentina in the 80's to start privatizing the industry there. You learn a bit about modern Argentinian history (Peronism, the disappeared activists from the Dirty War).

A note about the style. I don't think I've ever read a book with such carefully controlled sentences and precision, or rather, a book in which the tone is so even. It's a true case of form following function, since Toibin is using the actual sentence structure to say something at once about the repressed nature of the Argentinian culture, the personality of the narrator who is outwardly stoic, and the nature of translation in a secret society. The sentences are uniformly simple and declarative, but with a tension and subtext galore--like every sentence is hiding a deeper meaning. So it reads like an espionage novel a bit, though the main movement is personal and intensely romantic in the best sense--true love found in the most unlikely of situations.

As I said, it starts out sad, and truthfully (and I don't think this is a spoiler) it ends somewhat sad too. But it's a rich kind of sad, a satisfying journey. Take this book on vacation or take it to the park--it's a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Must Miss

I make a few treks every year to New York to see plays.

Last weekend I saw August: Osage County. If you google this play you will see that it is a hands down favorite to win the Tony this year for best play. I don't when a new American play has been so celebrated. By Tracy Letts, the play started in Chicago, and then was transplanted to New York with the original cast mostly intact. I had such high expectations for the play, which makes me think of another verymarkmccormick axiom about theater (and movies ususally): the amount of enjoyment you get out of a cultural experience is very often (not always, just often) inversely proportionate to your expectations. That is, if you think think you're really, really going to love a movie or book or play it will often fail to live up to your expectations, but just as often you can be dragged to something kicking and screaming only to find out: hey, I'm having a great time. I don't know why this is.

The play is an epic length exploration of a highly, highly dysfunctional family in Oklahoma. There's not a problem this family does not have: drug addiction, alcoholism, cancer, estrangement, secrets, lies, violence, money, and even (watch out! just when you thought things were looking up) incest.

The play centers around the mother, Violet Weston. This role has been described as a new "great role" along the lines of Martha in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire. This role is like any great diva role you can think of, magnified to cartoonish proportions. She's a monster. If you like dragons, Tasmanian Devils, or the human embodiment of Hurricane Katrina, this is the play for you.

So I had high expectations, very high, and so it should have been no surprise that I absolutely loathed the play. I cannot remember having a more unpleasant experience in the theater, or my expectations so dashed. I was absolutely astounded at how the people around me were laughing at the production, which I found professional and glossy, sure, but the script left me absolutely cold. And so unfunny (one line--the mother berating the daughter for dressing in a pantsuit toa funeral: "you look a magicians assistant"--and the audience guffawed. Huh? Sitcom humor at best!!)

The characters were insufferable, and the play offered no redemption at all and not single likable character (really, I will not be moved from this point--the characters were really quite literally hopeless, with the possible exception of the Native American maid Johnna, the nephew Little Charles and his cousin/sister/lover Ivy). I suppose I was expecting (from reviews) a combination of Caroline, or Change (a Tony Kushner musical that I loved) and Six Feet Under: that is, dysfunction made meaningful, but what it was instead was some bad post-modern Tennessee Williams (or Faulkner) with possibly one decent brooding theme ("I've got the Plains. . . ") of how we've raped the (Mother) land and must find our way back (thus the final, forced, Pieta image).

If you're going to New York, don't see this, see Spring Awakening.

Yes, Master

Over the past few years when someone has asked me for a book recommendation I usually recommend two Irish writers and two Brits. The latter are Alan Hollinghurst--his best book is The Swimming Pool Library, and Ian MacEwan, most recently famous for Atonement (although Chesil Beach is a gorgeous novella). On the Irish side, its Jamie O'Neall (At Swim Two Boys) and, most eminent of all of these, Colm Toibin.

His book called The Master, about Henry James is a masterpiece. Written in the style of Henry James which makes it once challenging and rewarding it is original, insightful, and at least emotionally accurate, based on everything I've read about James. He paints a portrait of the artist equal parts repressed and brilliant.

I've just finished his short story collection called Mothers and Sons. It is stylistically nothing like The Master, meaning that the diction is not elevated in any way; but it is like The Master in that Toibin has a way of getting to the soulful depths of his characters, and he does favor the shadow side of his characters: that which cannot be said interests him most. The title is intriguing, and I wondered if the conceit of stories about mothers and sons could sustain a collection. Indeed, it seemed almost accidental that each story happened to have a mother and happened to have a son. My guess is that he didn't set out to write a book about mothers and sons, but that he suddenly realized: oh my, look at that, a unifying motif.

I savored every story, especially the novella called The Long Winter which is the only story not set at least partially in Ireland, but rather in Spain. It's the wrenching tale of a young man whose mother disappears into the snowy fields one day. She has gone in search of alcohol, her family having staged a rather hasty intervention. Months pass before the snow melts and proper search for the body can begin. In the meantime the protagonist absorbs hard lessons about loss and longing. This sounds so sad, I know, but in each of these stories there is a strong and subtle feeling of reconciliation with the way things are, and--even in the story of the mother dealing with the shame of her son the priest who is about to be de-frocked--there is hope.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

This Peter Cameron novel has a winning title and a winning protagonist. Booklist said:

"A critically acclaimed author of adult fiction, Cameron makes a singularly auspicious entry into the world of YA with this beautifully conceived and written coming of age novel that is, at turns, funny, sad, tender, and sophisticated."

The YA stands for Young Adult. Hmm. I didn't think it was a young adult novel when I read it, though I recognized it as a story of a familiar adolescence, one that every sensitive young, artisitc (okay, gay) man shares to some degree: feeling more than a little out of place, but also slightly superior to one's peers, feeling a certain dread about college, because of its unknown adolescent bonding rituals, feeling curious and afraid about sex. I think what makes this book a winner, though, is that Cameron has expressed a universal feeling (adolescent angst) with a specific voice. Everyone can relate.

James Sveck, the protagonist, plays the young misanthrope well, but he shields such a soft core that you can't help but route for him from beginning to end. Though he lives in Manhattan, the slightly neglected son of urbane divorced parents, he spends his spare time on the Internet looking at real estate postings in the Midwest. He longs for a simple, quiet, uninterrupted, private life in a well-crafted bungalow somewhere, and he adores his Grandmother for living a version of this life, gracefully and without sentimentality, in nearby Connecticut. He goes to see her often, because she is one of the few people he actually likes.

He also likes John, a man in his thirties (more or less) who works at his mother's art gallery, where James also kinda sorta works. He figures out that John has an online dating profile, and so he makes up a persona he knows John will like and replies. John goes for the bait. I won't tell you what happens after that.

I recommend this book for people who like quick, escapist fiction with a literary flair.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Pop Culture Moments

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I have been taking it easy culturally lately. Well, not that easy. I did manage to see Away From Her and La Vie en Rose before the Oscars. If I get inspired I'll write reviews, but I didn't love either of these movies, except for the exceptional performances of their leading ladies, Julie Christie and Marion Cotillard, both nominated for Best Actress. Anyway I haven't got time for the pain right now. They are wrenching movies.
Away From Her is about a woman who is very self-consciously descending into the mystery of Alzheimer's. Her bereft husband finally puts her in assisted living. She falls in love with another resident, practically right in front of him. It's almost too painful to watch especially since she vacillates in and out of consciousness about the whole predicament. La Vie en Rose is the life of Edith Piaf. When I saw Marion Cotillard on the red carpet I finally realized how brilliant her performance was. She is 100% movie star when she's not acting, and 100% immersed when she is.

I'd rather dish about the latest YouTube hits and American Idol.

OMG, have you seen this Sarah Silverman video with Matt Damon? About 8 million people have seen it. She is of course the raunchy comedian. Her show The Sarah Silverman show good and subversive the first season, but the second season was over-reaching. She dates late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. I've never seen that show. I don't like late night talk shows. But I do like this video. Totally cute.

But the video that Jimmy Kimmel did in response was over the top. Here it is.

Okay, if you're not watching American Idol you are missing a great season. That show still delivers. Granted it's formulaic by now, and all the judges have become kind of caricatures of themselves, but you can't help getting caught up in the personalities and backstories of the contestants, even if this year they might be a little contrived, as some of the contestants seem to have more of a professional than an amateur background.

But the big story this year is David Archuleta. This kid (17 years old) is about as cute and humble and talented as anyone I've ever seen. He comes from Murray, Utah (a suburb of Salt Lake City), but I don't think he's a Mormon. His wiki entry says his mother is Honduran, but it doesn't mention his dad. Whatever, the kid can really sing. He really sells a song. I remember in auditions when sang Heaven in the pre-Hollywood auditions, he looked right in the backstage camera, just before he went in front of the judges and he said, "I'm going to really make them believe this song." He delivers with emotion. He's an early favorite to win, but mark my words: he's totally on top now, but to keep the drama high there will be a fall from grace, then he'll ascend from the ashes again. Now here's something really amusing: somehow he got in front of the first season's contestants (including Kelly Clarkson) and he sang (he would have been about 10 years old "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls. This song is so gay, even from a 10 year old, but man he really nails it! Here it is:

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Treament Treatments: Therapy on TV

I don’t create the zeitgeist, I just report on it. Let the sociologists figure out why we have a fascination with other people’s therapy sessions, as if our own weren’t entertaining enough—and expensive. With all this therapy, who can afford cable?

No fewer than four recent cable series feature the intimate relationship between therapist and patient, and the latest, HBO’s In Treatment is based solely on this. I know you’ve all been thinking: “Mark loves TV (cable TV—I keep having to emphasize this; network TV sucks), loves therapy; worlds collide! Where’s the blog post?” Here’s are the verymarkmccormick mini-reviews of treatment treatments.

Sopranos—The gold standard. If they released a DVD of just Tony and Dr. Melfi's sessions, I would watch it. Lorraine Bracco won awards for her performance. She played it tough and sexy. Her voice was always slightly boozy to me, and she talked slowly; it was kind of like she had just quaffed a martini to steel herself for the verbal and near-physical (and once an actual physical) assaults from Tony. This faƧade was perfect for Tony who was kind of dense when it came to the language of feelings. He’d yell and swear; she’d frown and blink a few times behind those thick-lensed glasses, but hold her gaze, shift in her chair, show some leg, bite back. The real genius, though, came out in her own sessions with her shink, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, played by Peter Bogdonavich. My shrink reports that those consultations were spot-on, the best ever filmed, and of course I wondered: what does he say about me?

Huff—Am I the only one who watched Huff? I loved this show about the psychologist Huff and his less than perfect life. His wife was a complete pill, but his son, brother, and Mom (Blythe Danner! For you youngsters, that’s Gwyneth’s mom) were terrific: complex and good-looking. There were plenty of scenes where he would be administering therapy, but they were kind of soap-operatic: someone commits suicide in his office; another patient stalked him. Best part, like with Soporanos, was his own therapy. He sought out Dr. Lena Markova because she was like the last shrink on earth who still did MDMA therapy. That is of course the pure chemical version of what became the drug Ecstasy. MDMA was used in psychotherapeutic settings until the seventies. It was known to be a truth drug. Some shrinks claimed they could make years of progress in one session using the drug, because it cut through all the bullshit. In any case, can you imagine anything more delicious than a sultry, brainy Anjelica Huston as Dr. Markova, who clears an afternoon of her time, invites him to her swanky house (it was very Stevie Nicks meets Carl Jung) gives him a hit of MDMA then hangs with him as the truth pours out; listening to the tape later, he made important decisions. Sign me up!

Tell Me You Love Me. I’ve written about this show and the therapy scenes. Compared to the others, I would say the therapy itself is less than clinically correct; she seemed too quick to make recommendations that usually take a year or two to draw out. But the acting of the couples was superb. By the end of the season, I cared about most of the couples and about Dr. May Foster.

In Treatment. Okay, it might be too early to tell, but I think this series will become something of an obsession. The structure is simple, but elegant: four nights a week, for 30 minutes we witness "Paul" (played by Gabriel Byrne) and his patients. On the fifth night we witness his session with his shrink, Gina (played by Dianne Wiest (!) Their relationship is clouded—she’s clearly wounded and disappointed by him which suggests a high order of counter-transference is going on. That's shrink talk meaning she's too emotionally involved. That's really the dramatic arc of this show: transference and counter-tranference. In the Monday-Thursday sessions, we see one episode each of the same four patients, so we’re following the progress, and this is going to go on for nine weeks. The series is based on an Israeli series, and apparently it captured the national attention and press. I always think Israelis have good taste. There’s something mysterious about each of the four patients (three individuals and one couple). The cool thing is, if you don’t like one of them, you can ignore that night. I know, you’re thinking, “five nights a week? Come on!” But it’s only 30 minutes. McTherapy.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Puzzle of Atonement

Atonement rounded out my viewing of the best picture nominated films. I had put off seeing it for several reasons. Because it ranks as one of my favorite all-time books, I was hesitant to see it, because movies so seldom live up to books. (I guarantee if you pick it up, the first fifty pages or so will blow you away. I think McEwan is one of the best living writers.) Also, I had heard it was romantic in the way The English Patient was romantic--hyper art-directed, big strings, overwrought plot. I loathed The English Patient for these reasons.

Atonement was a surprise to me, therefore, in that it was remarkably un-self-conscious and carefully crafted, somewhat subtle in its beauty. Still, I could not engage emotionally, and I'm not sure why. It's a compelling story.

I saw it with Mike, though, and he loved it. Listening to him explain why he liked it, I appreciated it more. It has an interesting message about how one little thing, one small decision can change your whole life, and other's too. It's structure is innovative: forward then back, forward then back, and this works to create a certain tension. You don't know what's "real."

I felt enormously sympathetic towards the central characters, but their true time together was so brief, and their break-up so wrenchingly out of their control and protracted, that it just made me sort of sad and anxious, rather than hopeful, and isn't hope the foundation of real romance?

I will say that the ending with Vanessa Redgrave was brilliant. It kind of saved the movie for me. It made the movie truly contemporary, because it became a metafiction, a fiction about fiction. I would like to say I won't spoil it for you by explaining the ending, but the truth is, I'm too lazy and it's complicated, which is maybe the highest compliment I can pay this movie, which I expected to be fluff.