Friday, May 22, 2009

Cruel and Unusual Comedy

MoMA's slapstick film series got off to a good start this Wednesday with some violent, cross-dressing slapstick comedies (Stan Laurel in a wedding dress, Wally Beery in an old-fashioned bathing costume) and I look forward to the rest of the series. There was a slight mishap when the wrong print of Good Night Nurse arrived, but you can catch the Fatty Arbuckle version on DVD, it's still funny even on tiny screens.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

"I see old women who were beautiful young leading women in my pictures and it shocks me. Men don't but women do. The aging of a woman is always a shock when you haven't seen her in a number of years. They're attractive, but they're somebody else -- brand-new personalities. Men don't seem to change that way. They're idiots in the beginning and never get over it."
- Allan Dwan

Well, Allan's being cute, of course, but there's something kind of awesome about getting older. I turned thirty yesterday and do I feel like I've crossed some kind of threshold? No. But when I jumped up and down last night squealing, "I did it I did it, I'm a grownup now!" I did feel very adult.

And the above passage? It was inspired by Dwan running into Shirley Temple in a hotel lobby, yeas after she became a very grown-up woman with "Shirleys of her own." Dwan barely recognized her until she ran up to him and hugged him. The fact that I burst into tears when I read this? Makes me very happy to be a girl, and a completely grown up one at that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Brothers Bloom borrows wisely

I was immensely gratified to read Rian Johnson's comment in IFC news, on the Wes Anderson comparisons:

"But there are so many other films that I stole from more! I'm more surprised I don't get called out for stealing the whole scene on the steamer ship from "The Lady Eve" ...

Ah ha! I noticed it when I read the script! This makes me feel very clever indeed!

Now I've got another thing to add to my ever-growing list of shows to take in (look for a slighter better-informed film review soon-ish). It's a lucky thing I am a lady of leisure.

UPDATE: But it SUCKS. Rian, what the fuck was up with that third act? Argh! do you want us to hate you?

Angela Lansbury!

Oh, I definitely have to see Blithe Spirit after reading this article about our beloved J.B. Fletcher playing a martini-guzzling, ectoplasm-sniffing medium. I mean, I knew about the play and was excited about it, but I take this lengthy profile piece as a sign from the heavens that I should really go now (because it often takes supernatural intervention to get me out of the house). I only hope I'm halfway as awesome as she when I'm 83. Sigh...

Anyway, look for a poorly-informed theatre review soon. I'm no Waldo Lydecker but .... well, that's probably a good thing, actually.

Friday, May 15, 2009

See, this is why people hate us

This writer complains about how hard it is to live on his $120K base salary as a reporter for the NYT. Before you fire up the torch and call the posse, though, remember the whole idea of "status-income disequilibrium" has a wee bit of merit... although bitching about how you can't afford to shop at Whole Foods? Maybe not going to garner so much sympathy. I say, if you live anywhere near a Whole Foods, you're probably not poor.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Trivia Night!

The Bowery Boys second annual trivia night is tonight at the Municipal Arts Society. Be there and get schooled. Seriously. You may think you know NYC trivia, but these questions are hard!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gentrification Mysteries, Pt. III

"Invitations to a magic party with ghosts were obviously going to be very rare."

And now for the best of the lot: Cesar Aira's Ghosts. Brilliant. I loved it. Not strictly speaking a gentrification mystery at all, though it does deal obliquely with class and housing. (And with all the condos that have been sitting around Greenwood Heights for two years, empty and abandoned, and next to a cemetery no less, it's no wonder the damn book appealed to my sense of the macabre and love of human folly.) It's mysteries, though, are a little more ... divine.

The better a novel is, I find, the more difficult it is to describe. I'll give it a shot. I found Ghosts to be very cinematic in its structure. Visually evocative. Subtly set up, brilliantly paid off. Oddly leisurely, dreamlike. Beautifully multi-layered. And minimal, yet crammed with little asides that led off in fantastic directions.

Perhaps a sample would be better:

"But she didn't go down those mysterious passageways, preferring to remain on the surface of her frivolity, because there was also a dialectical relation between thought and secrecy. Or, more pertinently in this case, between thought and time. It would be like a painter who has to delay the completion of a picture for technical reasons, say to allow certain layers of color to dry, and meanwhile is assailed by new ideas -- a figure, a mountain, an animal and so on-- which go on filling up the painting until the pressure of multiplicity makes it explode."

The story takes place over a single day, New Year's Day, in a luxury high rise that is not yet finished. The place is lousy with ghosts, who appear only to the caretaker's family. The ghosts show themselves to the family's adolescent daughter -- she's at the poltergeist age -- and invite her to a magical party. Throughout the book, her mother reminds her that one day she'll have to find a real man. The ghosts are all men. Real men? Perhaps.

At one point, the daughter tells a story of Oscar Wilde's in which a little princess in her tower becomes bored with her life and runs off to join a ghostly party ... I wondered if this was a real Wilde story. I know his short fiction pretty well, having read and re-read much of it as a child, but I don't know this one. If anybody out there does, please tell me. I'd love to read it.

As for you, get out and buy a copy of this book.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Gentrification Mysteries, Pt. II

Richard Price's Lush Life was miles better than Lake House, though not without its flaws. The main difference being, of course, Price can write. Here's how he sums up the "atmosphere of massive archaeological discovery" that is the Lower East Side:

"But for all this reborn carriage house's ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts -- pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners -- that still held sway for him, Matty already having been afflicted with Cop's Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went."

The plot's very basic: a kid, Ike Marcus, gets shot on the LES, two cops bungle the investigation and spend the rest of the novel getting it back on track. "The rest of the novel" being 350 pages or so. Mainly, it's an exploration of the neighborhood, with a failed writer/actor-bartender at its center. The failure, Eric Cash, has been characterized as what you start being "when the hyphen stops."

"He’s modeled partly on [myself]," says Price, "He’s me if what has been hadn’t been. I’ve always been interested in when the hyphen disappears — you know, actor-waiter, cabdriver-writer — and you have to settle for who you are."

In a way, this is a far subtler characterization of becoming an adult than Laken's narrative was. The moment when you realize your dreams are never coming true? That's when you grow up. The depressing nature of big box stores is nothing but adolescent whining compared to that.

Lush Life has other brilliant touches, beside just the exploration of failure.

Other standout scenes include the awful parade of egos at Ike Marcus' funeral, emceed by a self-involved hipster par excellence, an awful aspiring actor named Steven Boulware. Price's skewering of the trust-fund set is dead on, awkward, embarrassing, hilarious. One obnoxious girls, who calls herself Fraunces Tavern, uses Ike's funeral as a venue to discuss their sex life, completely traumatizing the kid's little sister. Then the parade of hipsters in sleeve-garters and handlebar mustaches give Ike an old-timey jazz funeral send-off, complete with the band-leader handing out his business card at the end of it.

Characterization, other than the great caricatures of hipsters, and the bitchy passive-aggressive cop, Yolanda, was a bit flat. Matty, the other cop, had flaws that were just a bit too on the nose (in a story about a son dying, Matty's got problems with his own sons ... meh). And the little ghetto kid who writes bad raps in his notebook I'm sure is supposed to be "authentic" but comes off as merely monodimensional. However, the bad raps themselves were perfect:

I'm a player a slayer
so be understandful
of the handful
that I am

Obviously, the most important character is the LES itself, and that, my friends, is masterfully developed. I loved the scene in the Chinese funeral supply store, and Price's descriptions, as above, are dazzling. It's also fun to play the roman-a-clef game. Do you think the bar Chinaman's Chance = Happy Ending?

Price says, “This place is like Byzantium. It’s tomorrow, yesterday — anyplace but today," adding that "he thinks of the neighborhood as a very busy ghost town, where many of the ghosts milling around still speak Yiddish." Price points out the irony of 5th generation kids whose ancestors clawed their way out of there now paying 2 grand a month for the privilege of residing in former tenements. Circle of life and all that.

The main symptoms of gentrification, besides the condos, of course, are "the liquor stores [that] no longer sell Thunderbird." Liquor stores, I think, can be seen as the ultimate litmus test. Walk into a liquor store, and if the counter is behind bulletproof glass, your neighborhood is not gentrified. Try it, it works.

Of course, what's really interesting is reading the book from a post-economic collapse perspective. There's a fabulous conversation where the cop, Yolanda, tries to get a kid on the straight and narrow, advising him to get a construction job because, well, he'll be sitting pretty then! Oh, what a difference a few months makes. Better off sticking to a life of crime, kiddo.

(Above quotes from: NYT)

Gentrification Mysteries

The Lower East Side is a ghost town. Ann Arbor smothers under the weight of its own preciousness. Unfinished luxury high-rises are the setting for surreal interactions between the living and the dead.

I love it when all my novels line up thematically.

I recently read Lush Life, Ghosts and Dream House and found all these great common threads that would make a kick-ass post, but a very long one. In the interest of not boring anyone, I shall present it Dickens-style: serialized.

I'll start with the disappointment.

In her review of Valerie Laken's Dream House, Times critic Marilyn Stasio writes, "[she] has written the perfect haunted house story for these unnerving times. While the ghosts that come with this property don’t rattle chains or shake the bed at night, they manifest themselves in subtler and crueler ways, by reminding us that the homes we love may not love us back."

What a pretty couple of sentences. If only the novel were as interesting as the description. It has potential: a couple moves into a house where a murder took place 18 years ago. Good stuff. Solid stuff: "Unbeknownst to Kate and Stuart, the killer has served his 18-year sentence and is now standing outside in the garden."

Off to a good start. And then, "having assembled the plot machinery for a sturdy thriller, Laken does none of the expected things." Oh. "Instead, she uses the framework to support an ambitious study of people in search of a home — 'home' being a metaphor for the elusive something that defines and validates the self." Sometimes, Marilyn Satsio is too kind.

Laken does none of the expected things all right. In fact, she kind of does nothing, basically. She gives us a great premise and then retreats into what I call "MFA writing," which is probably an unfair categorization on my part, but nonetheless my pet name for any over-subtle, far too restrained and airless writing.

Laken's written a bloodless (if you will) story stuffed with obvious metaphors (haunted houses!) and her central conceit, that each house like each person, tells a story, is not enough to fill a book. This thin and labored premise is too weak. Perhaps Laken knew this and so tried to add another dimension to the story: the home as metaphor for the rite of passage of growing up. First house, first marriage, first divorce, first trip to a big box store you never thought you'd find yourself shopping in. It's all there.

Suddenly the premise goes from too little to too much, and the story goes from too metaphorical to far too overt, even (awkwardly) announcing its premise in the final paragraph. The protagonist finds a letter from a German immigrant from 1928, which tells of "the struggle to hold lives together, to make shelter and lose it, to hope, to endure, to be lonely, to be lost, to injure, to remember. The author of the letter .... was trying to sound brave and strong, optimistic, trying to tell the people who knew her back home that she'd be all settled soon, and ready for visitors, and they'd be amazed at what she built there."

Just in case you missed it.

Perhaps I'm a jerk to point out flaws in a first novel -- cause I've written so many, you know -- and heaven knows I'm no critic, but I'm curious to see if someone will mount a brilliant defense of this thoroughly average novel. Also I wanted laugh publicly at the notion of gentrification in Ann Arbor, the way New Yorkers laugh whenever anyone else in the country complains about high rents: bitterly, and with contempt. This didn't strike me as a novel of gentrification so much as a novel of renovation, though it does touch (sort of) on shifting identities and the ghosts of old neighborhoods waiting to be excavated ... it was just so ... cluttered, yet empty.

Luckily, Lush Life and Ghosts were better! Stay tuned ....