Monday, June 28, 2010

Movie Capsules from the weekend

I saw a few movies this weekend. It’s been a while, actually, since I’ve seen this many in a short amount of time. I had sinus surgery, and needed to get out of the house. Movies are great in that they really only require you to move from sitting one place to sitting another. A friend had tickets for a musical, and I knew I wasn’t up for that, but a few movies, that I could do.

Toy Story 3. It made me cry, and then I couldn’t blow my nose becuase of the sinus surgery - darn you, Pixar! That’s some kind of torture. They just hit this one out of the park. It’s definitely action/adventure caper that you’d expect from a sequel, but underneath is an exploration of childhood, friendship, purpose, and saying goodbye. I really was blindsided, even though I was warned, at how affecting it was. The voice talent and animation are top notch, and it manages to be clever and inventive without ever feeling like it’s reaching for a joke. I can’t remember the last narrative live action film I was this moved by. That’s saying something.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Go. See. This. Film. She’s certainly complicated, and the glimpse I took of the reviews indicate that one’s reception of the film will be colored by one’s opinion of her. I doubt, though, that you will be able to come away from this movie without a healthy dose of respect for her. She does define the term “workaholic”, but you leave the film uncertain if that’s a bad thing. Depending on your view, she might be a tragic figure, unable to enjoy the fruits of her outsize labor; a survivor who has not let a lifetime of pain stop her from her dreams; a unquenchable personification of ambition that ultimately has no satisfaction – a kind of Tantalus. I left with a great respect for her work, her no-holds barred self-assessment, and her big heart. I don’t know if she’s hiding an inner depth, or some deep pain that she’s not in touch with – there is exploration of her husband’s suicide and their relationship as well as with her daughter, but nothing of her formative years that sound like they may have been painful (when a heckler tells her he has a deaf child and she’s not funny, she responds that her mother was deaf and we have to laugh at life to deal with the pain). At several points, you see how she has struggled, and her belief that live is above all hard – after delivering a Thanksgiving meal to a woman in a wheelchair with MS who had been an art photographer she bluntly says, “Life is so…mean!” No matter, though – she doesn’t dwell on it for very long, and doesn’t present herself as a nut to crack. She’s fascinating, though, and funny, funny, funny. I think the filmmakers have taken a little heat for this being too sympathetic, but it doesn't feel puffy to me at all. If there's anything you can say about her, it's that she's certainly ruthless in her own self - assessment. After playing a tribute at the Kennedy Center she is asked how she thought she did and she says "Funnier than some, not as funny as others" and then it's on to the next gig.

Io Sono L'Amore (I Am Love). I will right away say this is not a film for everyone. On some level it feels like a showcase for Tilda Swinton, but what a showcase it is. It’s reminiscent of Sirk, Visconti, heavily visual, even sensual. In fact, it’s probably the closest you’d get to a completely sensual film without reaching out and touching anything. Tilda Swinton plays a Russian woman who has married into a wealthy Italian family, has three children about college age or after, and is having an awakening. I’ll leave it at that. I will say, though, that the scenery (both natural and man-made) is luxurious, luscious and swoon-inducing, as is Edoardo Gabbriellini (managing to be not ridiculously perfect but perfectly what he needs to be), who is part of her awakening. The interiors of the house, the clothes, and then the countryside around Sanremo are just voluptuous. Heavily visual, it nevertheless packs a wallop story wise, and was unexpectedly moving. Swinton is just so fascinating. Her face is mask-like, in that it never seems to betray great emotion, yet is full of it. She’s completely in control of her faculties. It’s a joy to see someone at the top of their game, and even more in a role that’s so delicate. She’s a walled-off character, somewhat reticent, and her bloom reflects that as well. She can be unbelievably ravishing or plain, blend into walls or make you forget there's anyone else in the room. She never is seeming to work hard - it's all effortless. There’s also an amazing, amazing scene with Maria Paiato, who plays her maid, which is almost shocking in how affecting it is. These are my favorite moments in films - when some emotion has been quietly building that you don’t even know is there, and it reveals itself in full force. An incredible supporting cast in this, too. Marisa Berenson turns it out as the family matriarch. Note perfect. A scene when the women close ranks against a beau who has been rejected tells you everything you would need to know about the super-rich, or the super-rich in this world. I love the formalism - how it's just so film-y, for want of a better word, using the medium as an illustrative, impressionistic, emotional tool. I gasped at one point.

Well, I guess between that and Toy Story, it was quite an emotional weekend.

Let the Right One In – Okay, so this is a couple years old. Norwegian film about an unhappy 12 year old boy and the girl vampire that moves in next door. I had heard great things about it and wasn’t disappointed. It’s definitely not an American movie – it takes its time to set up both the suspense and the relationship between the two kids. The violence is disturbing and gruesome, which is kind of a nice change from the current trend of sexy vampires everywhere (that sounds like a movie itself). There is some humor, hapless adults, the true unhappiness and loneliness that can beset a kid of that age – especially an unpopular, bullied kid. Their relationship is wonderful, and allowed to develop at a pace that makes sense while the world is circling closer and closer to her secret. Lina Leandersson plays Eli, the 12 year old vampire with a centuries old soul, and is - I don’t even have the superlatives. Suffice it to say she’s brilliant, and I was floored at her pulling it off. It’s a great story, and both she and the boy were great, but she just blew me away. I was surprised how much I liked it. Kind of a haunting film. I hope they don’t do a crappy American remake. Fingers crossed. I love American movies, but a lot of times they remake a great European movie and miss the point. People should just rent this one. I mean, it won 60 International film awards, so it’s gotta be good, right?

I would highly recommend all four films. That's a great average - been a while since I could say that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Perfect Endings

I had my heart broken a few times this weekend. I was listening to short stories again.

At the suggestion of a friend, I listened to couple from the New Yorker podcast, Richard Ford reading John Cheever’s “Reunion”, and A.M. Homes reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I hadn’t heard either, surprising I guess from the sound of the podcast, as it sounds like it’s taught in schools.

The Cheever is gorgeous, short, sharp, like a razor - you’re unaware of the damage until it’s already cut. It moves so quickly, and ends abruptly. That ending is what makes it for me. Not only is it a brilliant moment in a relationship between father and son, but it gives nothing away but starts the moment they start relating, and ends the moment they stop. It’s enough, though, to leave you with a heartache for the father and son. Ford said he wrote a story inspired by it, and reads his classes his story along side Cheevers –brave. It sounds like a great exercise – not just the inspiration, but to have an assignment to write a relationship like that – a scene that stands by itself as a full story. I tend to like those – compact, succinct, with enough room for my imagination. Ford said he goes back to it again and again, and I can see why. You almost want more, more juice, more to explain, but there’s no need. It’s a great balancing act. Heartbreaking.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” I didn’t know, though I had been warned from the pre-ample that something was going to happen. I started to guess about half way through, but thought it couldn’t possibly be what I thought it was. Interestingly, when it was published in 1946? 8? hundreds cancelled their subscription, horrified by the story. It’s intense, with almost no indication of what’s going to happen, but it circles closer and closer inevitably as the story moves along. It’s tight as a rock. The language is so simple, and once again, it ends almost shockingly abruptly. This and the Cheever are so brilliant in their resistance to tie things up, but leave you speeding up – almost as if they have pushed you up a ramp they’ve created, and the ramp ends with you in mid-air and nothing to catch. Both are quite exhilarating. It’s interesting that Homes and Deborah Triesman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker, talk about how she’s fallen by the wayside. Holmes suggests it’s because there are no women writers from mid-century that are read now. I was in my car thinking “Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter”. They didn’t hear me.

A few other highlights as well – I’m probably sounding like a broken record using “beautiful” and “gorgeous” to describe these, but I did love and think was beautiful Lorrie Moore’s story “Dance in America” that Louis Erdrich read on the New Yorker podcast. I can’t even go into how subtly heartbreaking this is, but to do this kind of thing in a short story is like amazing song writing. You listen over and over and can’t figure out how something so short can be so packed. It was so full in fact, I found myself making up alternate stories in my head out of the small details just thrown about. A woman meets up with a man she hasn’t seen since college while teaching a group of elementary students dance in the town. He lives with his French wife and his son with cystic fibrosis in an abandoned frat house. This one manages to break your heart and salve it at the same time. How is that possible?

I guess I listened to a lot – there’s a beautiful story read on Selected Shorts called “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coates that John Updike selected for the best short stories of the century. Looks like he also selected a Jean Stafford story, and I’d love to read more of her. Wild Plums, though - once again magical, simple, surprising – was written in 1929. I was overwhelmed with the desire for this Kansas farm girl to eat a wild plum and break out of the stern control of her parents. Once again, the perfect ending.

How do they do it?

Thursday, June 17, 2010


I’m 42 today.

I would usually start off the year with an intention; or perhaps an intention to have an intention but end up with a bad feeling about not having an intention.

But not this year.

This year, I’m just enjoying it. And although my other shoe-dropping mentality made “you’re going to die in your sleep” pop into my head right as I was setting my alarm last night, once again it was wrong. I did wake up. And at 7:17 EST, I turned 42, so I’m in the third year of my 5th decade.

So I had coffee with friends, lunch with work friends, and now dinner made by an old friend to spend with friends. How lucky is that?

I feel very grateful and gifted. Perhaps it’s the glow from my first acting award nomination. It’s certainly not that I’m behind 19 chapters on War & Peace to keep on my 365 day schedule (skipping a few days can really get you). I have a feeling about Andrei and Natasha – it’s all very exciting at the moment, but you know Napoleon and Waterloo are just around the corner. But I have sinus surgery next week, so that will keep me low enough to catch up on some chapters.

And maybe catch Tilda Swinton in “I Am Love”. This weekend’s a trip to Arizona to see family, so much podcasting – catching up on Short Stories, History, and Science. I love that.

There will be more to write about. My intention is manifesting itself just by being and see what’s next at the moment. And that’s a lovely place to be.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Short Stories

My friend Ted posted a question on his blog bookey-wookey if people preferred short fiction or novels. It's an interesting question.

I have a wierd relationship to them. I love Chekhov's short stories, but I do not choose to read stories as a genre. In the New Yorker I almost never do, unless it's Sherman Alexie or some writer I love who I just can't skip (he's another short form person I admire and find very readable). For the most part, though, I'm impatient with them. I'm kind of impatient with fiction lately anyway - maybe it's a function of aging - but some writers can still catch my eye. I haven't given up totally. Like everything, I'm sure it's cyclical. And, like everything, if it's an amazing short story, I love it. Joyce's Dubliners, Sherman Alexie's collections, Rachel Ingalls' novellas, Grace Paley - great writers. And I love essays, too, so it's not the shortness. Maybe it's just a hard form.

Then, I discovered the Selected Shorts podcast, and discovered I love short stories being read to me. That was revelatory. There's something wonderful about being told the whole story in voice, whereas books on tape leave me completely cold.

In fact, Joanna Gleason reading St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is thrilling. That story I still remember - visceral, beautiful. I thought it would be a gimmick, and then it's unexpectedly about assimilation, adolescence, and pain. Stunning.

Another one that recently blew me away is on the New Yorker fiction podcast, where authors pick other authors' stories to read. Hilton Als read Jean Stafford's Children are Bored on Sunday, about an alcoholic woman's first foray after a breakdown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I actually wrote about these a little in my podcast entry when I started them. The stories are beautiful, so I guess that's my answer - I really love short fiction when it's being read to me.

Of course, I'm currently in RadioLab hole, and can't stop listening to the last 5 years of podcasts. I just listened to amazing stories about spindle cells, anthropomorhization, and animal brains on my way to work this morning. So all my friends are hearing about space, science, and brains. Which is a good story, too....

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


A friend of mine was telling me at lunch he was in kind of a bad mood, and writing haikus. I asked him if one was

f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck
f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck
f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck this

I am so eloquent in verse.

It was little flip, but it made me laugh. I'm in a good mood, though, and this beatiful piece of writing popped into my head for some reason - the MFK Fisher essay Borderland, in which she talks about roasting tangerines on a radiator in France. I think it's pretty well-known, probably because it manages to be so sensual and have a such a specific sense of place. It's gorgeous, so enjoy if you haven't read it. Thanks to this google books link, you can read the whole thing.

After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but -

On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.

All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension's chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o'clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.

The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.

There must be someone, though, who understands what I mean. Probably everyone does, because of his own secret eatings.