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 fa├žade 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.