Friday, August 28, 2009

Books like Slogs Need a Good Editor

Since I visited India in 2004, I've been fascinated with the place, and as I write this I am sitting in the US Airways international first class lounge getting ready to go there for three months. For that journey I will blog not slog at Please follow along. . .

So books about India hold a lot of fascination for me. Usually. The book kept Shantaram kept appearing to me; friends were reading it and recommending it; it was being reviewed in popular press. But I found the size daunting. Finally someone convinced me that if I was going to India I should read it. It would teach me a lot about Mumbai (Bombay).

Indeed it did; indeed it does. But that doesn't make the book successful. Though it is epic in scope and fascinating at times and even occasionally wonderfully transcendent it is too long by half.

What has happened to the role of the editor in crafting the modern novel and film? Fodder for another entry would be my contention that Gen X and Y, the millennials were so pampered that they have become a generations of self-indulgent artists: brilliant, because they got all the right training, but of the belief that even their shit is golden and shouldn't be touched. My case in point is always Paul Thomas Anderson. I believe Boogie Nights and Magnolia would both be brilliant films if an editor were behind him, advocating restraint. Of course There Will be Blood is a masterpiece, and also long, so my own theory has holes. Still.

But such is the case with Shantaram. The narrative is just too damn wordy, the plot too episodic.

But there's something there. Particularly if you are man. If you are a man's man and love street fighting, dangerous adventures, the love of comrades, elusive women, courtly romance, grand gestures of selfless sacrifice, you will like this book.

A few more good things about this book, but first the plot and the problems:

It is a story of an escaped ex-con from Australia who makes his way to Mumbai and little by little insinuates himself and is coaxed and coerced and manipulated into the Mumbai underworld, the mafia. Like all mafia stories, there are street fights, blood battles, illicit trade of all sorts (currency, passports, guns mostly--this is an honorable gang that shies away from the dirty crimes of pornography, prostitution, and drugs). Honor and courage among men form deep thematic rivers and symbolic rituals that run through the story.

And the first person narrator--we are made to believe it's the actual author, and the author's bio supports this--is pretty self-aggrandizing. Among his many adventures, he teaches himself to be a slum doctor and saves many lives at his own peril. He rescues a pretty American prostituted from an evil, cartoonish, Madame. He fights in the Afghani war out of love for his godfather. He's constantly rescuing, saving, fighting for his brothers without question, and somehow, amazingly, and most contrived: throughout all of the bloodshed and killing melees he's smack in the center of, he never once kills anyone. This is important for him to be a true hero (and probably, if it's autobiographical, for him to escape being sent back to prison).

The book is at it's best, to me, when he's not neck-deep in some mafioso scheme. Here is a passage describing ghetto life, where he practices a sort of folk medicine:

In a sense the ghetto existed on a foundation of those anonymous, unthankable deeds; insignificant and almost trivial in themselves, but collectively essential to the survival of the slums. We soothed our neighbor's' children as if they were our own when they cred. We tightened a loose rope on someone else's hut when we noticed it sagging, and adjusted the lay of a plastic roof as we passed by. We helped one another, without being asked, ans if we were all members of one huge tribe, or family, and the thousand huts were simply rooms in our mansion home.

He spends time in an Indian jail, framed for some crime, and even that is a story of his heroic survival, and compassionate sacrifices for prisoners even less fortunate.

He is like a superhero and as such he has his kryptonite. A mysterious woman named Karla, who is the, at times, the latent motivator for his every act. His love for her is boundless and profound, and yet when he has the chance to really possess her, a greater power calls: a duty to his godfather, the mafia boss Khaderbai. He writes of this patriarch (and there are many stunning, insightful sentences like this, but also page after page of self indulgent crap) "It was vassal-love, one of the strongest and most mysterious human emotions."

Another well-drawn character is his friend Prabaker, a sort of cock-eyed optimist, full of common wisdom and deep loyalty. He captures his manner of speech perfectly and the nuances of the Indian side-to-side head wag. Americans nod their heads up and down, shake their heads back and forth, but Indians also do a side to side wag which is a sign of friendship and trust and can mean many other things as well, depending on the facial expression and tone of voice. Last time I went to India I came back using it as one sometimes acquires an accent in a foreign country.

Prabaker at one points says to Lin, the narrator, "'He is down at the seashore, you know, at the place where he sits on the rocks, for being lonely--the same place where you also enjoy a good lonely." Nice.

Speaking of Karla, the sections between them really crackle, but as my friend Robin pointed out: it takes him 300 pages to get in bed with her, and then it's over in three paragraphs. Still, he does romance well, and about another woman he writes, "We were lonely, Lisa and I, and at first we talked to one another as lonely people do--in fragments of complaint, and corners clipped from conversations that we'd already had with ourselves, alone"

But what did sustain me is that it is a good portrait of Mumbai! I mean it's really, really detailed about the culture there, both the local's and expat's habits, hangouts, gestures, motivations, and values. It's a travel guide I intend to use next week to discover some of Mumbai's interesting sights. The city itself is a main character in the book, and in a way the author treats the city with most respect. He writes of it lovingly and with acceptance, recognizing its oozing travails and beauty. Shantaram's Mumbai is a complex portrait of a place of cosmic and tranquil humanity. I can't wait to try on the milieu and surrender to its complexity in a way I was not able to do with this novel. Still, oddly, I do recommend it. Take the good with the bad.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Something Old, Two Things New

Four quick things:
1. I was on vacation and the only DVD in the house was Ice Storm. I hadn't seen it since it came out in the late nineties. It is an amazingly good movie. If there has been a better American movie made since it came out I can't think of it (maybe In the Bedroom, maybe The Hours, maybe Capote, maybe Juno, maybe anything with Penelope Cruz and a few others--these might be as good, but they're not better), and don't say American Beauty; it is a pale imitation. I love this move so much that I rationed it out over three nights. Watch it again if you haven't seen it in a while. It's funny, sad, wise, beautifully shot, and you can actually see how Ang Lee made this and then a few years later Brokeback Mountain.

2. Speaking of good suburban literature, check out the Franzen short story in the summer fiction issue of the New Yorker. I loved The Corrections and this has the same tone.

3. New season of Weeds just started. Is it just me or has it gone the way of farce like Desperate Housewives and Big Love. Can't watch it anymore; it's episodic and unbelievable. I liked it back in the early days when Nancy was a simple drug dealing surburban mom grieving her dead husband.

4. Finally, I just finished the pilot episode of Nurse Jackie on Showtime. Oh. My. God. I know I was excited at first about United States of Tara, but this is even better. Starring Edie Falco as a drug addled, adulterous, manipulative and conniving (for the good) nurse, it's the best written TV since possibly Six Feet Under, or West Wing. It's even got Anna Deavere Smith in it who I love (from her one-woman shows Twilight: Los Angeles and others as well as her turn in the West Wing as Defense Secretary). Jackie even has a gay best friend and hot husband. It's full of blood, foul language, shocking emergency room drama that wouldn't go on network television, and most of all humor and heart. This could possibly get us through the summer TV doldrums.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sister Dearest or Pop Porn, Summer in the City

Hi. I know it's been forever. My friend Jeffrey said I'm taking slogging (slow blogging) to new heights. I've been trying to finish this post, but maybe I feel guilty that I read this yummy piece of trash book about Madonna. Meanwhile, I've seen lots of movies (new Star Trek: super duper fun joyride; see it in iMax if you can), and had lots of serious thoughts about film (like how Kirstin Scott Thomas's performance in I've Loved You So Long is compelling and heartbreaking) and superficial thoughts about TV (Adam was robbed, yes, but Kris is so damn cute!). But first I have to get this entry out of the way.

Read all the way to the end for a verymarkmccormick scoop!

Madonna's brother Christopher Ciccone has written a tell-all book about what it's been like living in his sister's shadow. It's positively the worst book I've ever read, absolute trash, and I couldn't recommend it more highly! Three words: dee-lish-us!

Everyone knows that I've had a nearly three-decade long fascination with Madonna. (Not adoration, fascination; they're different.) It started when I was in college, about 18 years old, working in a Record Bar store in the Pocatello Mall. The manager put on a record, Madonna's first self-titled album. We couldn't believe it was a white girl. It's hard to imagine now with Brittney, Kylie, and dozens of other imitators, but in those days white girls didn't sing like that. We loved it and played it all the time. And we sold the shit out of that record.

Many years later I made a short film about Madonna, starring moi, making the point that most people, especially gay men, have a story about some Madonna song that formed the soundtrack to an important event in their life. That little movie I'm proud to say played in film festivals all over the world.

A story I would have liked to have told in Madonnalogue, but it didn't even occur to me was how being Madonna's brother, and being gay, and having aspirations as a performing artist, even a fine artist--well that could really fuck you up. And it did for poor Christopher.

Basically, he puts the psycho in sycophant. At the same time you can't help but feel for the guy. This is his side of the story, no doubt, but it rings true. Her Madgesty is impossibly imperious from early childhood. There are lots of stories of the "she always got the most cake" variety from their childhood. And still he always craved her approval and attention. She encouraged him to study dance, as she did. And that ensured him a role in her early years as a perfomer. When she was just starting, playing small gay clubs in Manhattan and then London, Paris, and other places, he was a back-up dancer. Through all of this she was at best decent and at worst a total and completely self-serving bitch. And the stories ring true, because they're all so consistent with each other and with what you can hear any night of the week on Extra and Access Hollywood.

The entire arc of the narrative is simply a series of fights about tours, houses, husbands, drug usage (his, not hers--that girl is clean) and email battles. It's written in first person present tense, which can really get confusing when he flash-forwards from the present, to, um, the present. It's an awkward tense; blame his co-writer, no doubt hired to bring semi-coherence to his rambling litanty of slights.

As I said, it's tours, houses, husbands, and drugs. The tours and houses parts are easy to explain. Madonna hires him as a dancer, then dresser, then art director on many of her tours. She treats him like shit, doesn't pay him enough, but gives him just enough affection for him to come back for more. Lather, rinse, repeat. This guy is a glutton for punishment. The exact same pattern is true of her houses: "Christopher will you decorate my house?" "Sure. How much will you pay me?" "A pittance." "Oh, Madonna, you're such a bitch; you underappreciate me; I'm living on the edge of poverty, but okay." "Good, you little fucking ingrate; now I'm going to be the most demanding client you can imagine and then I'm going to withhold the palty sum we agreed to, because I've heard you're doing drugs with supermodels and actresses and that really pisses me off." "Oh Madonna you are so mean. Naomi and Linda and Demi and Farrah--they're all so nice, and they really understand me, and we're hardly doing any coke at all--now give me my fucking money or I'll never speak to you again." "Check into rehab and I'll think about it." "I hate you! But okay. . . dammit!" On and on, I swear, through every goddamn tour and house. Christopher tries to be even-handed in the telling of this, because he wants you to sympathize with him. Sometimes it works. But he'll never work in Hollywood again.

Madonna and Her Husbands
The best parts are the dishy chapters about Sean, Warren, and Guy. He relates how each of them treated him, focusing on how they handled his homosexuality. Here's the summary.

Sean was decent. He treated Christopher well. Sean apparently had a sort of man crush on Charles Bukowski of all people. He was always around the house. Sean was into male bonding rituals and once had Christopher cut his thumb whereupon Sean cut his and they became blood brothers (years later, Christopher was incensed when Sean approached him at a party and, referring to the blood brother incident, asked him if he had AIDS).

Warren was the best of them all. He was secure in his own masculinity and entirely comfortable wtih Christopher's homosexuality. In fact he showed quite a bit of personal, and seemingly purely platonic, interest in Christopher's sexuality.

Guy was a jerk. He was boorish and homophobic, at least in the beginning; much of Christopher's impressions of him were based on their early time together, because during most of Madonna's marriage to Guy, she and Christopher were estranged. Guy and his buddies liked to use words like "twee" and Christopher found it all maddeningly homophobic.

So while reading I couldn't help wondering about the overall veracity of the story. Luckily verymarkmccormick is very connected: Here's the scoop! I once met Randy Taraborelli, who wrote a very good biography of Madonna, semi-authorized I believe. He's a friend of a friend. And he how has now done me two massive favors. The first was that he delivered the movie I made about Madonna to her personally. I was having the hardest time getting it into her hands. I even have another good friend who is close to her longtime publicist and manager Liz Rosenberg. He gave me her address. I sent it to Liz a few times and always heard back, through my friend: "well we didn't get the disc" or "well I'm sure it's here somewhere; I'll make sure she gets it." But I wanted to know that it was in her hands. Randy took a disc to the Golden Globes or some awards ceremony and later said in an email to our mutual friend, "I put it in her purse and said, 'This guy has made a short film about you and it's really good, and I want you to swear by all that is kaballah that you will watch it.'" I have not received the adoring note I had hoped from Madge, but I'm glad it made it into her posession.

Second favor: when I finished Ciccone's book I wrote to him and asked him what he thought. I wanted to gauge how accurate the portrayal was. Here's what he agreed to let me quote:

I loved that book, actually. I devoured it. But then, when I finished I was a little sickened by both brother and sister. Both appear to be hopelessly flawed, at least by his interpretation. She will survive it, of course. Nothing in there was exactly surprising where she is concerned. Not sure about him, though. I think that might be it for Christopher, maybe in the business -- because who can trust him now? -- and most definitely in his sister's life. But I guess he was willing to take that chance.
So listen, I know we're all verybusypeople. But if you have any pool or beach time this summer, this is the perfect accompaniment to your Ban de' Soleil and icy beverage. They should sell a version in a brown paper wrapper.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Love is as Love does

I haven't liked a movie more than Two Lovers in a long time. See it. It's like a foreign movie in many ways: subtle, beautifully shot, surprising, and in the end, nourishing.

Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing as Lenny, a guy too old to live with is parents, but too depressed to be trusted alone. He works in the family dry-cleaning business in Brooklyn, but not the cool part of Brooklyn. His mother is Isabella Rossellini. She's a Jewish mother, but one of the nice things about this movie is that no one is a stereotype.

The story is quite simple. Lenny's parents are trying to set him up with the daughter of a their new business partner. She's lovely and lovable, a completely round character, surprisingly, and he is in fact smitten with her. But he becomes obsessed with his neighbor Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who I think he sees as someone even slightly more fucked up than himself.

That's it really. He loves two girls in entirely different ways. He makes a hard choice, between these two and in the end he makes a bargain with love to save his own life.

I couldn't stop thinking about this movie, and what it said about lonliness, obsession, about familial love and expectations, and about filmmaking. The plot is so, so simple, that the success of the film can only be credited to the director, writer, casting agent, production designer, cinematographer. These elements are ochestrated finely, and the result is like a Kronos Quartet version of a complex little sonata.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Wish I Had a River I Could Skate Away On

There's still time to catch Melissa Leo's Oscar-nominated (and Critics Choice Award-winning) performance in Frozen River before the Oscars next Sunday. It's out on DVD, even BlueRay. Directed and written by Courtney Hunt, the film is also nominated for best original screenplay.

This is a quiet, small, powerful film about motherhood. The plot involves a woman, Ray Eddy (Leo), living in a northern border town near Canada, who's husband has recently left her to go on another gambling binge. She's left with two sons, a sweet five year old, and an angry, hurt, sensitive 15 year-old. The timeframe is a few weeks before Christmas until the day after. I won't repeat to say how it transpires that she ends up getting into the people smuggling business--transporting illegal aliens from Canada to the US--but suffice to say she is doing it out of desperation. She needs money. She has a dead-end job and a deposit on a double-wide trailer she's going to lose if she doesn't come up with the balance / balloon payment. Also, there's no food in the house (but always food for lunch money even if she has to dig under the cusions) and no presents under the tree.

To get the aliens from Canada to the US she and her partner in crime Lila (Misty Upham) have to drive across a frozen river and transport the poor souls back in the trunk. It's a dangerous business with shady characters on both sides, and neither Ray nor Lila are saints. They are purely mercenary and lose a bit of their own humanity every time they make the trip.

The dramatic movement is between the two women as they go from enemies to business partners to friends--in all cases their bond evolves over something related to the unbearable burden of being a mother in poverty. Lila's son has been "stolen" by a sister-in-law, because Lila couldn't take care of it, and Ray's oldest son blames her for driving the father away. In one sub-plot, Leo accidentally seemingly kills a baby of a Pakistani woman and then Lila and, according to Lila, divine providence, bring it back to life. The scenes between Ray and her son are terribly affecting, and I have to say hit me very deeply and personally: I won't go into detail here, but my mother was quite a bit like Ray, our family situation was similar, and sadly I recognized me and my two brothers in the portraits of the sons.

A mother's love will always melt a frozen heart, but like the blowtorch the boy uses to melt the frozen pipes under the trailer one frigid night, sometimes the heat is so intense it can burn the whole house down.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wrestling with Oscar

I haven't done any sort of pre-Oscar slog entry and I've seen a bunch of the contenders. I wrote about Benjamin Button, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Happy Go Lucky, and Revolutionary Road here, but I'm a little behind with the rest. Okay a lot behind, but remember, it's a slog not a blog.

I'm always surprised to find out that everyone hasn't seen the major flicks, hasn't read the reviews and is, in fact, waiting for verymarkmccormick to weigh in. Kidding of course: I sense that people are really apathetic about movies this year. So much real-world drama: Michelle forcing Ty to rename the Mahilia and Sasha dolls (I would NOT want to be on Michelle's Obama's bad side), more sex scandals from Ted Haggard, Michael Phelps getting his wrist slapped for a little bongage (don't get me started), Wells Fargo executives swinging from chandeliers in Las Vegas (not), plus who can see movies when they're obsessed with Facebook (I'm just sayin') and keeping their jobs.

Well here are a few mini-reviews, so you'll know how to vote at your Oscar party.

The Reader

Liked it more than I thought I would though I am generally over Kate Winslett. And tired of hyper art-directed movies about the Holocaust. Still, it's a fairly gripping and complex story with a very open ended question at its core: why doesn't the young man say what he knows about his former lover who is on trial for war crimes, knowing that the truth would both shame her deeply, but free her from a lifetime of imprisonment.

I can't even write about The Reader, more than that, because I am humbled by the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis who said it best (stand and up applaud for this fine paragraph--it's so FUCKING true (Sorry, I feel really strongly about this. Emphasis below is mine):

"Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation."

Rachel Getting Married

Loved it. Loved Anne Hathaway in this, and even was sympathetic to her character. You probably won't be. But if you grew up in a wildly dysfunctional family, then were at the center of terrible family tragedy, and then you became a drug addict because of the combination of those two situations, you might be a narcisssist too. Wouldn't this make a lovely double feature with Margot at the Wedding? Date night!

Man on Wire

Up for best documentary. At least I've seen one in that category. Every year I say I'll see more. I think this will win. Vote for it. It got tons of press and rave reviews. It's about the guy who strung a line between the World Trade Center towers and walked across, in the 70's.

The Wrestler

Wow. Really didn't expect to like this. Don't like wrestling, don't like Rourke, don't like the director Darren Aronofsky all that much (though he's super cute in a retro way--very 1940's moustache). But this movie moved me and impressed me. The father / daughter dynamic is intense, and I cried. I love to cry at movies. And the filmmaking is just fantastic. I don't like the handheld camera all that much, but Aronofsky just makes you face this guy's face and life and sorrow and predicament head on. You CAN turn away but try not to. I'm sorry, but I had to when he was slicing the meat at the deli--I just knew he was going to cut himself. I have no idea why this was completly unbearable to watch; the wrestling was much more gruesome, but somehow that blood was pure theater, even though it was real--are you with me? Maybe not--I'm still catching up myself. I just saw the movie a few hours ago. I loved the way the movie plays with reality vs. drama, fiction vs. fact in a sort of dizzying meta way. Rourke and Tomei, play a washed up wrestler and dancer, and they are perfectly cast of course, because of their status in Hollywood, and the wrestling is theater, but Hollywood is a real battle, and the erotic dancing is a total fake as is the transitory beauty of actresses. In that way it is no less conceptual than Aronofsky's Pi, but far more entertaining.

So I would see all these movies, but my money and my heart is still on Slumdog Millionaire for best picture.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tara Tara Tara

I'm watching The United States of Tara, third episode.

This is THE new show of the season. This is the new Weeds, the new Mad Men, the new Six Feet Under, the show you'll all be renting next season to watch the first season, because you read it here first, and then soon you read it everywhere, and then everyone at work was talking about it, and then it won a bunch of awards, and then you were behind. So just set your DVR to record it now. It's not one of those shows where you have to watch every episode to "get it."

There are about a thousand things I like about this show. Here are a few:
1. The premise. When I was a kid I couldn't get enough of split personality books and movies (Sybil, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden). This show is about a woman with associative identity disorder, which is, apparently, a controversial diagnosis. Who cares? It's intriguing in a magical sort of way. Who wouldn't want to have more than one personality? (Or "alters"--the clinical term). With more than one personality you have someone else to blame for all stupid shit you do, someone with courage to chew out people you hate, someone with unrepressed sexual desires and lots of self-confidence, which--if you just could just get it through your head--is really all it takes to get laid as often as you want.

2. Toni Collette. She played, of course the quirplucky (invented word: quirky plus plucky) heroine from Muriel's Wedding. But she's becoming the go-to actress for the sympathetic, harried housewife. Her character in its unaltered state is sort of like the character she played in Little Miss Sunshine. But she really chews up the alters: a prissy, but supremely bitchy housewife, a truck driver dude, and a teen-age nymphomaniac.

4. ALL of the minor characters. The husband played by John Corbett, dreamboat from Sex and the City and (remember? god, you're old) Northern Exposure. The kids are fascinating, especially the young precocious, gay son (lots of signals, but the kid's not out yet--he's 13) who gets all the best lines. The family is sweet, because they all tolerate their mother's illness. They are totally embarrassed by her, but at the end of the day they stand by their mom.

4. The writing:
Marshall (13 years old, precocious, trying out for the school musical, Grease) : I can't believe they're mounting such a trite production. I wanted to do No Exit.
Petula (His friend, another prococious teen age girl who has a crush on him): Even something mainstream like Miller or god forbid Wilder. But sex crazed teenagers-it's not even good on an ironic level.
Marshall: (dreamily looking at another student): Is that Jason Moraz auditioning?
Petulia: No I think he's just on crew.
Marshall: I always assumed he was dumb, based on the whole Santana fetish, but his take on Roshomon in film class last week was pretty good. . .

5. The Showtime gloss: They do a great job with production values like art direction and music. It's slick but it looks real, and there's the de riguer indie soundtrack.

So: watch it. Don't wait. Be ahead of the curve. And embrace your inner Tara.