Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thank you Jebus!

Thanksgiving is a fabulous time for drunks. At no other time of year can we enjoy gin and tonics with a turkey dinner. A propos of nothing, can I just say how awesome this book is?

If you're looking for a little light reading for the plane, please allow me to recommend it. I couldn't put it down; I laughed out loud; I've started calling my boss Giant Chuy. I used to watch the show mainly because I was like, "This is so bad, what the hell is this? Who are these 'panelists'!?" (Ms. Handler is quoted as saying, ""The worse the guests are, the more pathetic they are, the funnier the show is.”) And then I was all, "Wait a minute, this bitch is kind of funny. And, um, she has a Mexican midget sidekick!" And I've been a fan ever since. True story.

Chelsea's the best. She goes to a birthday party for an insane woman no one likes and re-gifts a board-game called "Rehab"; she takes her pants off in a restaurant in London whereat the primary conceit is that you eat in the dark; she spends a night in jail after a routine DUI goes horribly wrong; she takes three kickboxing classes and thinks she's badass, only to get beat up by a group of tweens. A passage about sliding a McNugget through a car window reduced me to tears.

If I ever met her in person I like to think we'd be friends, or at least drinking buddies, but in actuality it would probably be kind of awkward. So I'm content to remain a fan and say hers is definitely the funniest collection of humorous female-penned personal essays I've read this year. Admittedly, the only other collection of humorous female-penned personal essays I've read this year was "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," but Sloane Crosley's tales of getting locked out of her apartment seem kind of tame next to Chels's pantsless adventures. Crosley's about as edgy as a Jane Austen heroine but she kind of knows it, so she goes for an innocent ingenue tone and pulls it off. She turns a good phrase and if she ever starts leading an interesting life, things could really turn up roses for her. But until you've peed your pants in a fake cop uniform and gotten fleeced by a drunken midget, you really can't compare to Chelsea Handler.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Serial Killers: Kind of Silly

When reading "Heartsick" by Chelsea Cain I wonder if it's a metaphor for the way we love people who hurt us, returning to them again and again despite knowing we shouldn't. Possibly. Generally, I have no patience with people like that.

Reviewers seem to agree that it busts the serial killer genre wide open, and I'll have to take their word for it since I'm not seasoned in such things. For some reason the idea of someone who kills compulsively and repeatedly, often for pleasure, was never top of my list of things to learn more about. Like Tom Ripley, I detest murder unless it's absolutely necessary. Expediency, cover-ups, becoming King of Scotland, these are motives I understand. Killing because your dad raped you and made you drink drain cleaner? Meh. I don't know ... Psychological motivations always seem a little weak to me, perhaps because I have so much disdain for it as a field of study and as a literary device (backstory, schmackstory).

Cain relies on a few classic Agatha Christie moves to confuse the reader -- 1. give the villain an alibi so the reader will dismiss him as a possible suspect, 2. provide a parallel mystery for a smokescreen (a young girl who was raped by a senator) -- and relies on heavily psychologized characterization, flashbacks, and many, many clothing descriptions to fill the spaces (we know what the Girl Reporter wears in every scene). The action speeds along with nary a dull moment, but I didn't see anything really earth-shattering or sophisticated going on. Maybe I'm just not familiar enough with the genre, maybe she's playing with themes I can't even begin to understand. The only nudgy-winky reference I got was when Gretchen calls the Girl Reporter "Clarice" when she asks for a profile of their current killer. Silence of the Lambs, right? Got it, self-referential.

It's not a horrible waste of time by any means, but if the only twist on the genre is that the detective and serial killer are in love with each other (kind of) then I guess I'm not easily impressed. In the penulitmate sequence Gretchen asks Archie if he knows what Stockholm Syndrome is. Is this supposed to bea revelation? Why vocalize what every reader figured out in the first few pages? Other clunky sequences get my goat, like the scenes with The Girl Reporter (Susan) in jail with Gretchen. She sums Susan up in about forty seconds and Suze is immediately shattered by this magnetic woman's profound, searing assessment (daddy issues). So ... I guess I'm underwhelmed, is what I'm saying. Wait -- is the twist that she's ... pretty? No, that's not it. Hmmm ... What can't I put my finger on? What is this tweaking of the genre that I'm missing?

And for pure crazy, Gretchen can't hold a candle to this bitch:

The problem is that neither the killer nor the detective is very smart or subtle. As a New York Times review puts it, Archie Sheridan "stops if not exactly outsmarts Gretchen Lowell." And, again, I just can't get over the weak motivations. I mean, this drama teacher kills because a student broke up with him? And the mere mention of her name makes him snap and kill her young dopplegangers? We're meant to believe that Gretchen's wiles implant this idea into his head, but we never see her prowess in action, save for that one pathetic scene with Susan in the visiting room at the State Pen.

Cain's strength lies in her ability to tie all her action to the overarching theme. Power, authority, inappropriate attraction, these themes permeate the narrative throughout and help to unify all the action. And it's a fairly good story, if you can overlook some of the leaps and coincidences that help further the plot, and suspend your disbelief at Gretchen's cartoonish supervillainy. And while we obviously all love deeply flawed protagonists, there's something inherently off-putting about Susan, and something faintly impenetrable about Archie, that left me cold.

But, again, everybody else seemed to get a total boner for this book so clearly I'm in the minority. Or am I? This tepid comment failed to make it to the book-jacket: “'Heartsick' is not as elegantly conceived as its model [Silence of the Lambs] .... Hannibal’s preternatural intellect allows him to penetrate Clarice’s mind, her soul. He opens her without a scalpel; prison bars and shackles can’t protect a person from his kind of plundering. Gretchen, shattering ribs and force-feeding Archie drain cleaner until he vomits blood, is comparably clumsy in her approach."

All I can say is that there was one detail that bothered me intensely throughout the book, a detailthat would make me question a witness' testimony were they giving it to me: in the opening chapters, Cain describes Susan as wearing her hear short, in a flapper-esque bob. And then goes on to describe her repeatedly as tying her hair back, putting it in pigtails, ponytails and what have you. Perhaps if she hadn't emphasized the flapperness of it, and the 1920s aspect to her face, I would have overlooked it (you can tie a long bob back into a stubby ponytail after all). But a "flapper" bob is generally no more than chin length at the front, and simply can't be tied back. That's just silly. In fact, this might be a metaphor for how I feel about this whole book. Heartsick isn't devastating or clever or thrilling or fascinating or sickening. It's just kind of ...silly.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Blinded By The Earnestness

This just in: a bunch of nerds at M.I.T. have devoted lots of money, brains and robots to lamenting the state of storytelling in cinema. They're all atwitter over Twitter, Guitar Hero and any other number of recent technological developments that they see as eating away at the fabric of fine, classical dramatic structure (best personified by Homer, Shakespeare and Spielberg). God forbid language and storytelling structure should evolve. (Don't you think it's a wee bit ironic that MIT is on an anti-technology rant?) But it's not just the technology that's the problem, it's also the damn, stupid public. They want what they want, and what they want is convention! Bobby Farrelly bemoans a lack of current movies with complex narratives, like The Graduate. So, what this article is saying is that storytelling that's too avant-garde will turn them off, and yet there's a dearth of classical three-acts out there right now? And it's Guitar Hero's fault? I'm confused.

But don't worry, 'cause the dorks at Sundance think the state of storytelling is just fine. “Storytelling is flourishing in the world at a level I can’t even begin to understand,” said Ken Brecher, the institute’s executive director. So there!

In a related story, Gary Giddens at Slate thinks The General is just grand. But the subtitle under the headline irks me: "Yeah, it's silent. So what? You'll barely notice. It's that good." ARGH!

OK, I have to stop thinking about "storytelling," Sundance, and silent movies or I'll choke on my own rage. The antidote? This quote from Tom Stempel, a response to a student's question on three-act versus five-act structure:

“The three-act structure ... comes from the Broadway theatre of the 1930s and 40s. Almost no stage play written now uses three acts. They are either a long one-act, or two acts. Shakespeare, by the way, used what was then the traditional five acts, so I supposed you could use a film of one of his plays as an example 9of a movies with five-act structure). Is this whole question to settle a bar bet? I can't imagine it has a serious purpose.”

* Not that there's anything wrong with The Graduate, per se. Or Bobby Farrelly, for that matter. My vitriol is not directed at them, let's just be clear on that. I still wish "Honey and the Beaze" was a real TV show.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Josef von Sternberg: Crazypants

I recently finished Fun In A Chinese Laundry, and in lieu of trying to review or make sense of this monumental memoir (which has been called "perversely inaccurate"), I shall instead share some choice quotes from the man who was capable of such insights as, "Even when human beings were thrown to the wild beasts in ancient Rome, the providers of entertainment were, no doubt, faced with the problem of not boring an audience."

On actors:

"How can the sculptor be honest with the piece of clay that considers itself more important than the hands that mold it?"

On Underworld:

"I had fooled neither the audience nor the sales force. Without a moment's hesitation they had detected a sinister artistic purpose and had recognized it for what it was -- an experiment in photographic violence and montage."

On screenplays:

"No manuscript of mine could indicate what was in my mind, as images and sound cannot be put on paper. A script, at best, for a work which I plan, can be no more than a technical instrument for the material that has to be ready in time, and I was always grateful if the players had no preconcieved notions of the task ahead, for they were invariably invalidated."

On directing in Hollywood:

"It is like trying to catch a sardine with a mile-long line that dangles a thousand hooks."

"The essential difference between my deportment and that of other directors is that I don't applaud after every scene ... It is a failing of mine; I can't applaud. If something impresses me I like to think about it, though I never think twice when someone rantipoles across my stage."

"I worked for a sum that was too much for what I did and too little for what I could do."

"To work in films may be degrading, but to seek employment in the film industry is the most degrading of all."

"When I look at films I am like a surgeon watching another operate. If the operation does not succeed and the patient dies, but it is interesting to watch, then I like it."

The function of the director inspires no one with reverence.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Carole Lombard

For you New Yorker's, there's a Lombard retro at Film Forum starting November 21st.

"Something that’s out of proportion, like an inflated ego, should strike you funny, particularly if it’s your own inflated ego. Otherwise you are pathetic and quite hopeless.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Old Timey Movies!

I've also been on a 1930s kick lately, which I can only imagine has been prompted by the worldwide financial collapse I've been convinced was coming most of my adult life (yes, I'm one of those people that has an irrational Depression-phobia and is convinced the next Big One is coming in her lifetime -- perhaps there's a word for that?) and what better to go with a downturn than Jimmy Cagney ... and Al Jolson!

Last week I watched a strange little musical called Hallelujah, I'm A Bum! starring Jolson, Frank Morgan and Harry Langdon as a communist trash-collector who berates all the bums living in Central Park. Frank Morgan plays the mayor of New York who loses his girl to amnesia when, distraught after a lovers' spat, she jumps off a bridge in the park. The girl is promptly saved by Jolson, who fishes her out of the drink (and who happens to be buddies with the surprisingly egalitarian mayor). The girl and Jolson fall in love, but complications, of course, ensue. Aside from its very unusual class consciousness, the film is distinguished by tinny musical numbers and a very sad penultimate scene which every guy who's ever lost a girl to a mayor can understand. It's unremarkable for its casual 1930s racism, which made me feel sorry for poor Edgar Connor who played Jolson's sidekick, Acorn, and the inevtiable facial cramps one must get from all that damn grinning.

My other noteworthy 1930s comedy was Jimmy the Gent, starring James Cagney and Bette Davis, pre-code goodness that's eminently quotable, including such gems as:

"What would you do for $500?"
"I'd do my best!"

One of the film geeks in my shabby little office likes to say that James Cagney is one of the few actors that justified the use of sound in motion pictures, and I'd like to respectfully agree with her.

****** ****** ******

Stay tuned for further posts in which I talk about the unmitigated delight of reading Chelsea Handler's latest opus, "Are You There Vodka? It's Me Chelsea," and Josef von Sternberg's utterly insane memoir, Fun In A Chinese Laundry. Plus pictures!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Recently viewed:

In the past couple of weeks I've been treated to some shivery movies (just now getting their long overdue post-Halloween roundup) one 1934 musical that the other Big October Event put me in a mind to watch (that's the 79th anniversary of the crash, y'all), and a Jimmy Cagney gem at the MoMA.

Interestingly enough, two of the shivery films -- Dead Ringers and Let The Right One In -- made me surprisingly sentimental.

I know Dead Ringers is supposed to be creepy as hell, and admittedly the wonderful credit sequence gave me a frisson, but ultimately I found it to be essentially a tragic tale of two men with one soul. Witty, yes, macabre, yes -- and hell, yes, Jeremy's indeed iron* -- but more than anything just profoundly sad. Maybe gynecological stuff doesn't really creep me out cause I've got all the bits, but whatever the case, I wasn't bothered by it. The imagery was amazing and those freaky instruments were great, and yes it was quite mad. Oh, Chang and Eng, Chang and Eng! And the final shot, a sort of fraternal pieta -- so sad! Well, anyway, I was genuinely touched.

So obviously I'm crazy because Dead Ringers made me sentimental, but Let The Right One In is actually meant to make you weepish, so cue appropriate emotional reaction right there. (Phew!) And while the film had some sweet-ish moments (oh god, I've just made a terrible pun) I don't think it will stay with me, honestly. Visually I didn't find it gave good snow, or anything else for that matter, and the story was just meh. A standard coming of age tale doesn't becomg magic simply by adding a few vampires, though I did like certain little touches, like the Morse code, the Rubick's cube, and when the little vampiress scampers up the wall, Dracula style. Not a masterpiece, and certainly don't go out of your way to see it unless you're a Twilight fan, but it's a sweet film nonetheless. Plus it manages to fit genuine horror-movie moments into its diegesis quite neatly without ever breaking the fragility of the young boy's story. Oh, and I did have one crazy moment -- when you see a shot of the vampette's pudenda, I swear I thought her girly bits were sewn shut. That's hoenstly what I saw -- no one else saw it so I can only conclude it was a hallucination. Interesting.

The last film in my personal fright-fest was José Mojica Marins's At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. I was prepared to hate it after Mister Spinster referred to it as a "hipster horror movie" but I actually thought it was a pretty good straight-ahead ghost story. No more, no less.

* Here's a Simpsons reference!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Spinster's Folly

Lately I've been dreaming about houses. Country houses with cranberry bogs, airy kitchens, porches ... just the basics, really. There's nothing I'd like better right now than to ride out the winter in a farmhouse somewhere upstate, armed to the teeth with books, DVDs and indexed recipe cards. But apparently they have this thing called money now and if you take the whole winter off, you don't get any.

However, I've been doing a fairly decent job riding my bike around Brooklyn and pretending I live somewhere else, going for rambles in Green-wood Cemetery, and making spiced apple cider to make the kitchen smell more like I imagine my country house, Spinster's Folly, would smell.

Before this devolves into the most wistful post ever, let it be said that I've been doing just fine as far as the barricading/DVD/book thing is going, and that, really, you can do that just about anywhere. Also, in the country you have to drive.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

There's never been a better time for change

I'm talking about screenwriting, of course ...

"If you're a screenwriter, don't be a slave to the three-act structure. And if you're a critic, try to seek out, and evaluate on their own merits, films that don't hew to the three-act structure. The mentality that judges all movies according to the tenets laid out in how-to-write-a-screenplay paperbacks is a big part of the reason why the modern commercial cinema is so boring and predictable. Don't be a part of that mentality."

Found this great quote here and just haddddd to share it.

When read in tandem with the following --

"White elephant art goes in for ravishing technique, viselike consistency, sustained meaningfulness; every detail is pregnant, and enslaved to an overarching scheme that passes for vision ..."

-- it realllllly makes ya think.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Get Back to Work

Sometimes I need a strong dose of obituary to make me sit up and realize I've been neglecting that thing-I've-been-meaning-to-do for far too long now and someday, this will all be gone, vanished into ether or ground into dirt, depending on whether you're talking about the fate of Spinster Aunt or my mortal flesh-prison, and today that thing is reading "Working" by Studs Terkel.

To honor the man's life and and work, I plan to read excerpts of the book online while at the office. I especially look forward to reading the interview with Roberta Victor, hooker.

Though part of my fascination is based on the subject matter, I must also admit that I just really, really like the name Studs Terkel, and that has a lot to do with wanting to read his shit. (Before the year is out, I plan to read at least one book by Booth Tarkington, for the same reason. I just love those names.)

In any case, I think the following quotation should be painted onto the ceiling of the 42nd Street subway underpass, instead of the current bizarre de-motivational scrawl they've got up there (the "late for work/get fired" poem) so that we can contemplate this every morning:

“Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”