Geek Love #2: I LOVE Frasier Crane. And Niles too.

Actually, especially Niles.  Ahem.

I did not used to be a big television watcher.  I blame this on my parents cruel denial of cable television from the time I was about six until I was eleven.  By the time we actually got massive numbers of channels, I was not exactly interested in watching TV shows religiously.  There were only a few during my teenage years that I took any interest in: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Friends.  And Frasier.  I loved Frasier.  And this year, I fell in love with it again.

Don’t ask me why, because I certainly don’t know.  It all began when a good friend of mine had to unexpectedly be taken to the hospital.  In order to distract him from some pretty excruciating kidney pain, Roxy and I began talking about anything we could think of.  We covered music, movies, and literature, and finally settled on television.  Every show we’d ever watched was discussed.  And it became clear that one of the shows we all wildly loved was, in fact, Frasier.

The best shows are the ones that make you happy to watch them, that have actual characters, story arcs, plot structure.  One of the things I always loved about Frasier, back when it was on the air and now, was how kind a show it actually was.  There were no acts of cruelty passed off as humor, no vicious back-stabbing, no jokes for the sake of offense.  The closest they came to being mean was when Daphne gained a lot of weight and fat jokes abounded.  But by that point, we had such affection for the characters, for Daphne herself, that a few bad puns (“It took three Cranes to lift you!”) did not turn the whole show into a mean-spirited farce.

I personally was a huge fan of the Niles/Daphne relationship (as are most people, I’ve come to realize).  Unlike the Ross/Rachel combination on Friends, Niles and Daphne’s romance matured, beginning as a puppy love crush and ending with marriage and children.  It was, in retrospect, an actual ADULT relationship between two adult people.  By the time they finally came to terms with their feelings for each other, poor Niles had had his heart broken several times and Daphne had fallen for him of her own accord.  It was handled with a kindness and, moreover, a seriousness that went far beyond its beginnings as a chance for double entendres.

Frasier opened the way for a combination of incredibly smart humor and excellent, old school physical comedy.  The best episodes are the ones that allow the entire cast to flex their muscles.  And the cast really did make it.  For all intents and purposes, it was a cast of five orbited by a few recurring characters.  The falling off of the last few seasons was mostly a result of lesser writing and too much emphasis on the subsidiary characters (we did not need Daphne’s mother complicating relationships, although I did enjoy Felicity Huffman’s brief stint as Julia).  And there were some weird plot twists: Maris commits a murder, Niles randomly gets a heart condition (a plot arc that ended suddenly and was never spoken of again), etc, etc.  But every great show jumps the shark at some point and, by the end of it, I think that Frasier came back around to what they did best: smart humor, physical comedy and real human emotion.

I’ve seen it written that the end of Frasier marked the end of the sitcom.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up for debate, but at least it was a show unembarrassed by its intellectual pretensions, which can sometimes be very difficult to come by.  All I really know is that when I quote it, at least two people laugh.

“She called my show bourgeois.  I said that anything with mass appeal can be called bourgeois.  Then she called my argument bourgeois.  Which I found to be rather jejune.”

Just One More

This is going to be another brief and sappy post. Brace yourselves.

In almost exactly a month, I’m leaving Edinburgh.  I’m going back to America, back home, to my parents, my family, some remarkable friends, my state, my nation.  I’m looking forward to it, seeing people I haven’t seen, seeing a country I’ve been away from for a year, hearing American voices, eating chili dogs.  Hell, I even miss high fructose corn syrup.

Last week, I had a mini freakout.  Edinburgh suddenly felt ridiculous.  The tourists are impossible for a city of this size.  The road works are confusing.  The preparations for the festival seem to be put there specifically to make life difficult for anyone trying to live in this town.  It’s still cold at the end of July; the sun only makes sporadic appearances.  The pubs close too early.  I hated Edinburgh.  Good riddance that I’m leaving, I thought.  To hell with it.

Which is not true, of course.  I don’t hate Edinburgh.  I’m not in love with it, like some of my friends are, but I don’t hate it.  I’ve enjoyed living here, all things considered.  I like the pubs and the wandering narrow streets, the weird directions, the gothic buildings.  I love the strange otherworldliness of Old Town and the clean Georgian elegance of New Town.  I even kind of love the crowds, which aren’t so bad once you get off the Royal Mile.  I’m ready to leave the city, but I actually think I’ll miss it.

But the worst part is the part that I really don’t want to deal with, or think about.  It’s the people.  I will miss the people.  I’ll miss getting a phone call at 9:30 with those fatal words ‘let’s just go out for one’.  I’ll miss the blow-out parties at Lindsay’s flat.  I’ll miss lying in the Meadows on those rare sunny days.  I’ll miss the coffees we’ve drunk.  I’ll miss the drunkenness and the sobriety.  I’ll miss the faces of people I know so well.  I’ll miss going to the Vue on Saturdays, and getting drunk on Tuesday afternoon (or Wednesday or Thursday for that matter).  I’ll miss sitting down in a pub and the smiles when someone says ‘I wrote a thousand words today!’ I’ll miss the stories.

I’ve left places before.  I’ve left friends before.  Clinton, St. Andrews, New York and now Edinburgh.  People scattered across the world in random nations, states, provinces.  Keeping in touch by facebook.  Hearing about friends getting married, or losing loves, or getting a job, a home, another life.  I’ve managed to stay in contact with a lot of people, and I plan on seeing them all again.  But it’s never the same.  Not because people change too much.  Hell, I’ve got friends I’ve known since middle school and, despite growing up, we’re still friends.  But it’s never the same because something has always ended.  A year at graduate school, at college, at high school.  We grow up and stay close, but the experience cannot be repeated.

All of the philosophical stuff comes out at times like this.  Life is ephemeral.  We only have the moments as they happen and then they are gone.  We should not try to hang on to them too tightly, for we will only live in the past.  All I can think right now, though, is that a good friend is about to leave to go home.  She’s not the first to leave; she won’t be the last.  Toasts will be drunk and promises made and, eventually, kept.  It’s not the end; it’s merely another step along the road.  That doesn’t make it any easier.

Let’s go for just one more.

Gentlemen, You Refuse to Understand Us

Every year on the 4th of July, I sit down and watch 1776, a musical (!) about the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  It never fails to make me feel good about my nation.  But this year was the first that I actually felt affected by it.  Perhaps this is because I have spent almost year out of America, the longest I have ever been away from home.  I’m used to spending 3-6 months at a time away from home, and have been since I first started attending college at St. Andrews when I was eighteen years old.  But a whole year outside the nation of my birth, and the nation that I still feel a deep and abiding connection to, definitely has affected me.  So on the 4th, watching 1776 had a peculiar resonance with me.

It wasn’t, amazingly enough, about the actual object of the Revolution.  It was about what it means to be an American.  I found myself focusing not on what the characters of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were saying, but on what their opposition said.  Not that I agree in any way with the opposition, rather that I began to consider what it means to be an American, in all our eccentricities, our values, and our contradictions.  For our nation was born out of contrast and contradiction, a dedication to tradition given us by our British forebears, and a hope for the future and progress that came with not only ceasing to be a part of the British Empire, but also with the curious mix of ethnicities and races that make up the weird and wonderful place of the United States.

This came home to me watching the arguments that 1776 puts forth.  While not the most historically accurate of films, it does give a sense of the very real controversies underlying American independence.  Most specifically for me, it comes in the character of Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina and one of the leaders (in the movie) of the opposition.

I’ve become positively fascinated by Rutledge, and not just because he gets one of the best songs in the movie (or that John Cullum has one hell of a baritone and looks good in ruffles).  Rather it is because both he and Dickinson, as the most stalwartly opposed to independence, express an element of America that we tend to either vilify or ignore.  ‘Molasses to Rum’, although not historically accurate (the historical Rutledge did not oppose any sort of anti-slavery clause in the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves until after his death), is a powerful polemic against hypocrisy.  While it is easy to vilify Rutledge as a slave-holder, it is a hard pill to swallow when he points out that commerce in America was built upon slavery.  That while the South may have held the whip, the North reaped the rewards of an economy built on blood and suffering.  As white Americans, there’s not one of us that gets to take the high road on this one.  And as a Northerner with numerous Southern relations and background, I feel quite aware of the question.

But beyond the slavery question, the character of Rutledge provides one of the more interesting points of 1776.   America might be divided along North/South, East/West/Midwest binaries, but we are all (and here’s the bombshell) Americans.  This country does not belong to the flag-waving creationists.  But it also is not the sole property of eastern liberals.  Claiming that one man does not (and cannot) understand another because of the location of his home, the state he was born in, the color of his skin, how long ago his ancestors came to this nation, what his first language is, etc, etc, is quite simply a cop-out.  We won’t take the time to listen.  Not to the pundits or the politicians, but to each other.

This is not to say that we’re all going to agree.  We’re not.  Nor is it to say that we should bow down to ignorance, bigotry, or the curtailing of basic human rights.  But, as Americans, we’re stuck with each other.  I’m not going to move to Canada, like some of my liberal friends have threatened (especially after Bush was elected).  Because this is MY country.  I love America.  And I believe in it enough to want to understand the people here.  I have a strange hope that if we were to only stop, all of us, and face each other as Americans, to accept that we are all a part of the same nation, we might actually discover that we don’t disagree quite as much as we think we do, or that at least those disagreements are not as earth-shattering as we make them out to be.  As it is, we refuse to understand each other.  It’s not because we can’t.  It’s because we won’t.

24 Year Old Curmudgeon: Why I Hate Harry Potter

Zappy, zappy.

I hate Harry Potter.  Yes, hate is a strong word, particularly to level at a popular series of novels.  But I do.  I thank God that the last movie is FINALLY coming out.  This will be a diatribe.  I apologize in advance.

I do not know why I hate Harry Potter.  How can I? The books are very popular and well-written…to a point.  I will only concede ‘to a point’.  At the very least they have inspired people to read, which is always good, particularly children.  And fandom is something I can get behind.  I love Ghostbusters and I have friends who are obsessed with Lord of the Rings, comic books, video games, novels, etc, etc.  I have no problem with that.  I get obsessed too, usually over very esoteric things.  To object to that would be the pot calling the kettle, as it were.  So why do I hate Harry Potter? What has he ever done to me?

Well, he’s invaded my cinema, for one thing.  I believe that that was the start of my vitriol.  Before the movies began intruding on my life, I simply did not care about Harry Potter.  I don’t know if I was too young or too old or simply more interested in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to care about wizards.  When the first book came out I was eleven years old and obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.  So I never read the books as a child.  But I have seen the movies.  And even my most Potter-y friends admit: those kids Can.  Not.  Act.  They still can’t act.  Daniel Radcliffe has all the personality of a wet towel; Emma Watson has almost as many expressions as Mr. Potato Head; Rupert Grint whines and whines and whines.  This might be a fault of the source material, of course, or of the scripts.  Regardless, it’s positively grating to watch them on screen.

And what of the Aging British Thespians Brigade? Alan Rickman! Maggie Smith! Richard Harris! Gary Oldman! Ralph Fiennes! Emma Thompson! If you weren’t in Lord of the Rings, you got your chance in Harry Potter.  I love all those actors.  Rickman particularly seems to be enjoying himself immensely, but then he always does.  Every time he talks with one of the kids, I only hear ‘I’m Alan Rickman.  And you’re not.’  Which is fun.  It cannot carry a movie, much less a franchise, but it is fun.

The fact is that the movies are really only supplements to the books.  It’s impossible to follow them without having a serious knowledge of each novel in turn.  As I came to the movies first, perhaps that was my problem.  I was hopelessly confused most of the time.  With the possible exception of whichever film was directed by Alfonso Cuaron*, the movies are fairly dreadful, confused and confusing.  I am of the opinion that cinema should be able to stand on its own, and the Harry Potter movies do not.  So perhaps that is the source of my antipathy.  Like everyone else, I cannot divorce the books from the films any longer and the Films.  Suck.  That is my highly thought out critical opinion born of two years at film school.  They suck.

But even this does not suffice.  Because, the truth is, I should like Harry Potter.  I should like the idea of wizards and good versus evil and betrayal and all that.  I might even be persuaded to endure teenage angst.  I was an angsty teenager once.  I once felt like the world did not understand my intrinsic greatness, like I must be a wizard in disguise.  I love outsiders and rebels and grand adventures.  I should really have no problem with Harry Potter.  And yet…

I can analyze some of the sources of my intense dislike.  The books seem derivative, combining elements of Lord of the Rings, Greek and Roman mythology, folktales and old British traditions, not to mention the ever-present Christ story.  But then so do most books; everyone takes their inspiration from somewhere.  Perhaps it’s that the inspiration comes close to simply lifting whole subplots and characters from other places.

The Christ angle bothers me too.  Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘One who will save humanity (or wizardry) by sacrificing himself for…whatever’.  The Christ story has been done, over and over and over, so that whenever I hear those dreaded words (often phrased differently, but with the same purpose) ‘You are the one…’ I actually cringe.  The world is always coming to an end.  A hero must rise.  Again.  For the hundredth time.

Maybe I’m tired of good vs. evil narratives when we’re living in a world where that simply does not cut it anymore.  To separate characters into good and bad nowadays seems dull, simplistic, and potentially damaging.  Rather than understanding differences, we seek to vilify them.  Rather than examining the darkness and the light within every human being, we draw a dividing line.  We still do it, despite all evidence to the contrary in this world.  Despite the shades of grey.

I know that we need those kinds of narratives, if only to keep our faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.  That was one of the sources of my adoration of Sherlock Holmes: he was the voice of reason and goodness in a terrifying world.  But he was also complex, not always nice, and sometimes not even right.  He believed in the rule of justice, not necessarily law.  I would never argue for always turning the world on its head, for always giving the villains the upper hand, for the defeat of the good guys.  I am not really all that cynical when it comes to humanity.  I believe that all human beings are intrinsically good.  I believe that the human capacity for good is greater than the human capacity for evil.  But I find it dull when it is all made so simplistic, so derivative, so easy to define.

I am a hypocrite.  I have not made an exhaustive study of Harry Potter and I am probably glossing over all sorts of complexities that make those books so popular.  So, I will tone down my language: I do not hate Harry Potter.  I  intensely dislike Harry Potter.  I don’t really know why.  Maybe I’m just contrary.  Maybe I’m a curmudgeon at the age of 24.  Maybe I should give the books another chance.  Perhaps it would change my mind.  I doubt it.  Good for Rowling for creating a character that so many people seem to love and identify with.  But I just can’t.

That said, I kind of want to see the last film.  I want to see Rickman sneer one more time.  I’m just not certain if it’s worth an 8 pound ticket.

*I thought it was Guillermo del Toro.  Thanks, Jon Morris, for pointing out the error.  Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part.*

Bad Men and Why We Love Them

OK, a little misleading.  I’m not talking about REAL bad men.  Not really nasty no-good sonofabitches.  I’m talking about fake ones.  Bad boys.  Bastards.  Assholes.  Villains.

There’s just something about them, isn’t there? They’re not anti-heroes; they’re just the bad guys.  You know that at the end of the movie, or the book, or the play, they’re going to either be dead, or heading to jail, or at least punished for their misdeeds.  Most of the time.  Not always, anymore, but at least in mainstream media the bad guys still tend to get it in the end.  And we don’t really want it any other way.

Effing Mice Not Gonna Sing No More.

I have a fascination with villains.  My favorite character in Disney was I was a little tyke? The cat Lucifer in Cinderella.  He was mean and fat and wanted to eat all those annoying little mice and I loved him.  Not that I wanted him to win in the end; no, not at all.  But I enjoyed watching him be bad.  I enjoyed the fact that he just did not care.  He was a jerk, and I loved him.

Many years on and my fascination with villains has not waned.  Best Shakespearean character? Iago.   And he’s listed as literally ‘A Villain’.  Not a soldier, a commander, a husband, a lieutenant, a friend … nope.  Just ‘A Villain’.  That’s what his character is and he fulfills it, better than any other Shakespearean villain.  He’s mean and evil and hates everyone, including himself.  He murders his own wife, he destroys his own friend, he drives Othello to destruction, he gloats and grimaces and makes the audience complicit in his nastiness.  He’s hateful and cruel.  He has no real motivation, no reason to do what he does … except that he’s a villain.  And he’s delightful.  He’s far more interesting than Othello, at least to me.  He’s defined by his villainy.  At the end of the play, does he beg for forgiveness? Does he confess to all the terrible things he’s done? Nope.  He refuses to say a word.  He’s responsible for the untold destruction of almost all the other main characters and he does not care.  He just doesn’t give a shit.

So, why villains? What makes them so fascinating that they sometimes even overshadow the heroes? John McClane is a badass in ‘Die Hard’, but where would he be without the sneering, sexy Hans Gruber? We all hope Robin Hood saves the day, but Guy of Gisbourne is pretty fucking cool (and he’s Basil Rathbone).  George Sanders made his career out of being an erudite, purring villain.  And he’s more delightful to watch than most of his antagonists.

"In movies I am invariably a son of a bitch. In life, I'm really a dear, dear boy." --Sanders

Part of it, I think, is simple sex appeal.  Villains, often because of their villainy, get to be sexy in ways that heroes simply don’t.  The hero has to fulfill all these stereotypes.  He must be pure, intelligent, gentlemanly.  If he has flaws, he must overcome them.  He never gets to do bad things because he’s the hero.  We’ve got to root for him.  When he does something nasty, he must justify it in the end.  Otherwise we won’t accept his triumph.

The villain has no such difficulties.  Shoot innocent people? Done.  Kidnap the heroine? Sure, why not.  Cancel Christmas? You don’t get any presents.  He gets to sneer and make snide remarks (Rickman, Irons, and Oldman are heirs to Rathbone, Rains and Sanders in that department).  He’s often erudite, urbane, an aesthete, an intellectual.  He tends to get the best lines, in books, in movies and in plays.  He can be mean and sarcastic and do horrible things, and at some level we forgive him, we’re not bothered by it, because he’s the villain and that’s what he does.  The villain, in other words, does not carry the moral weight of the world on his shoulders.

"Why, yes, this beard is natural. Why do you ask?"

Hitchcock understood this.  His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy.  Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.  A duller romantic figure never existed.  The battle of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies.  And Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch.  Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in ‘Rope’, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld.  The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in ‘Notorious’, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin.  And the charming Johnny of ‘Suspicion’, who gets to be both hero and villain in one.

The most distressing of these villains in the Hitchcockian oeuvre is Bob Rusk in Frenzy.  He’s a rapist, a murderer and a psychopath.  He’s also more interesting, funnier and more charming than the supposed hero.  We follow him throughout the film, having seen him murder a woman in one of the most terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever had to sit through.  And what is really disturbing is that we actually begin rooting for him.  He scares the hell out of us, but as soon as he’s caught, the movie’s over.

Rusk is an extreme example of charming villainy, but he makes the excellent point that part of what we like about villains is how easily they charm us.  The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves.  Half the movies we see and books we read (detective stories, thrillers, adventures) are directly wrapped up in the darkness.  We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners.  We want to see good triumph, but there’s something delightful in evil getting its day.  Hitchcock always pushed us closer to discomfort, making us shift in our seats as we realized that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things.  He reminded us that the good guys aren’t always so hot, that there’s something attractive, fascinating in the bad.  It’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s … dark as hell.  But it’s true.

Oh, besides that, villains also look like this:

A Female ‘Hangover’? Sorry, boys, it’s all our own.

 Long ago, in the Before Time, there were funny women.  Or rather, women were allowed to be funny.  Their names were Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Shirley Maclaine, Thelma Todd, Mae West, Lucille Ball … and those are just the ones that I can think of at the moment.  And they played opposite men in comedies and were allowed to be just as funny, sometimes even funnier, than the boys.  They were ‘dizzy dames’ and ‘madcap heiresses’ and ‘newspapermen’.  They were powerhouses of screwball comedy.

Somewhere along the way (I think it really started in the 90s), it became taboo for girls to be funny.  Men were funny.  Men were gross and ridiculous.  Men got to be childish, get drunk, get high, get laid.  The Apatow Factory has produced girls that aren’t allowed to be funny.  They have to calm, sedate, the sober counterparts of those wild and crazy guys, who would put up with the madness and eventually, inevitably, stand by their men.  And, in those moments when the women got their own films, all they really wanted was a man to take care of, lord over even.  They were foils, straightmen, at the most people to be laughed AT, not with.

But there is hope.  Great hope.  With the release of movies like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Bad Teacher’, the girls are getting some of their own back.  Girls get to be funny again.

‘Bridesmaids’ is not, as some have remarked, a female version of ‘The Hangover’.  It’s a whole new thing called ‘Bridesmaids’.  And it’s funnier than hell.  Probably one of the few movies I have seen to accurately represent adult female relationships, in all their weirdnesses.  It’s gross, it’s profane, it uses words that us girls are apparently not supposed to know (unless, of course, we’re sluts).  It’s real.  There are no shopping montages, no hair-pulling, no vicious back-stabbing, no battles over hunky men.  The lives of these women are not fixed by a makeover or a marriage.  And these women do not act like men.  They act like women, real women.  I mean, hell, they act like my friends.

‘Bridesmaids’ doesn’t turn the tables on the guys; it goes off and gets its own table.  Marriage, although it is a central concern of the film (much like ‘The Hangover’, let’s be honest), is not the end game.  Love, friendship, companionship, the trials of being an adult, regardless of sex, are the complications that run through the movie.  There are no easy answers and everything does not get wrapped up in a neat little package.  But the women of the movie — and there are many, of all ages — hold together, fighting, swearing, destroying, rebuilding.  Growing up.  The men are not excluded by a long shot, but it is adult relationships that are celebrated in the most hilarious way possible.  Everyone flounders and everyone, in some measure, perseveres.  ‘Bridesmaids’ gives me hope for the future of comedy, and for the future of gender relations.  The girls get to play as much as the boys, and they do it without being sluts, fashion plates, or that hilarious class of unmarried female who just needs a man to loosen her up and make her life worth living.

Nearing the end of ‘Bad Teacher’ (another recent case of women getting to be profanely hilarious), Jason Segel makes a very *ahem* lewd gesture at Cameron Diaz.  Her reaction is not to get 1) offended or 2) secretly turned on.  She just smiles.  She smiles because she’s found a person, a friend, a man, to be herself with.  A man that won’t save her, or change her, but simply be with her.  A man just as disgusting as she is.  And really, isn’t that all we’re looking for?

In Defense of the Slow and Boring and Fast and Entertaining

Hitchcock explains to Truffaut that he can't remember why he framed a single shot a particular way 40 years ago.

A recent New York Times article, by two critics whom I respect and mostly trust, gave me pause.  The article, entitled In Defense of the Slow and Boring, is a response from A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to another article in The New York Times Magazine by Dave Kois (available here) that purports to describe certain films (I believe we call them ‘art house’) as slow, boring and, above all, not entertaining.  Scott, Dargis and Kois raise some interesting questions (although I do hope that they realize the questions are not exactly new): are films meant to be entertainment or art? Can they be both? SHOULD they be both? And so forth.  What troubled me about the Dargis/Scott article, however, was not that they asked the questions.  It was rather the way they asked them.

Being a film student and proud cinephile, I am not exactly new to the arena of film snobbery.  Ever sat through Michael Snow’s Wavelength? Ever had, by my count, 12 whole minutes of your life stolen by Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? Ever stared blankly at Alain Resnais’s Muriel? Ever prayed for death during Diary of a Country Priest? No? Then don’t talk to me about boredom, confusion or general malaise.  Now those are all movies that I find dull.  But I have friends, cinephiles, who enjoy them.  Who find them fascinating, moving, educational.  And that’s just fine.  We can argue about it, debate the merits of Brakhage, of Warhol, of Resnais and Bresson.  We might not ever agree, but we can find some common ground for discussion.

As I’ve said before in this blog, I also like my fast movies, my stupid comedies, my entertainment.  And I baulk when someone accuses me of snobbery simply because I enjoy Resnais and think Michael Bay should not be called a ‘director’.  That’s not snobbery; that’s taste.  And if your taste is for Bay’s massive explosions, more power to you.  Those films will never go away, and really, we shouldn’t want them to.  Because the people those films entertain are not the idiot masses, as some film critics would have you believe.  Thor does not belong in the same class of films as Solaris, but (and here’s a shocker to Scott and Dargis): it’s not supposed to.  It’s a big, dumb action movie and it’s a pretty good big, dumb action movie.  It aspires to be nothing more; it should not aspire to be more.

There is an incipient disrespect for films at the bottom of the Scott/Dargis argument, not to mention a disrespect for audiences.  Modern audiences don’t want to think, apparently.  I think they do, just not every minute of every film.  Compare to the difference between eating a hamburger and a milk shake with eating a filet mignon and red wine.  You’ll always recognize that the filet is, technically speaking, BETTER than the hamburger.  That doesn’t mean you want to eat filet all the time.

The films that I find most pretentious are ones like Inception, the ones that purport to be full of depth and intellect and are actually nothing more than meaningless amalgams of better films blended with pop-psychology and a healthy dose of Sartre for Dummies.  Films like that insult the intelligence of the audience because they masquerade as something better, deeper.  But that’s just my opinion.  At base, movies (like books and theatre and television) have the capacity to provoke, to challenge, to educate, and to entertain.  Lest we forget that Alfred Hitchcock, the darling of the French New Wave and a massive influence on everyone from Truffaut to Tarantino to Scorsese to (I suspect) Malick, was one hell of an entertainer.

Geek Love #1: No, Seriously, Who ARE You Gonna Call?

No, as a matter of fact, I am not afraid of no ghosts.

I was going to do a review of Thor (big, shiny and sexy, for those who want to know), but then I decided that everything good, bad and indifferent about it has been written.  Go here for a good, comprehensive review by someone far more knowledgable about the Marvel Universe than I.  Instead, I’m going to favor you with one of my continuous obsessions.  One that a lot of people share.

I have a tendency to get really, really excited about certain things.  Books, movies, actors, directors, writers, bands … these usually form the center of my obsessive desires.  I geek out all the time.  But it’s a wide and varied spectrum, untethered by time period or coolness factor.  And there are gradations of obsession.  I was passionate about The Beatles for most of my high school career.  I don’t think there has been a time since I first saw Notorious when Alfred Hitchcock was not my favorite director.  Hunter S. Thompson has been a great hero since college.  And then there’s Ghostbusters.

You know Ghostbusters.  EVERYONE knows Ghostbusters.  It came out two years before I was even born.  When I was a child, I mashed the two Ghostbusters movies together into one gigantic Ghostbusting memory that undoubtedly involved the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man fighting the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson River.  Egon Spengler was one of the first crushes I ever had.  Yeah, that’s right, THIS guy:

I think it was the hair and the glasses and the whole brainiac thing.  Also, being a faculty brat and continuous student, I have a thing for slightly weird academics.  I still think he’s pretty damned sexy, but that’s another post.  I watched the Ghostbusters cartoon, wholly confused by the fact that Egon seemed to be wearing Cool Whip on his head and Peter sounded like Garfield.  I had an outfit, made up of khaki pants and an army jacket that I stole from my mother.  I pinned poorly drawn decals of ghosts to the sleeves.  I WAS a Ghostbuster, dammit!

In the years that followed, my passion for this greatest of American comedies waned.  I turned to other, more esoteric interests.  I became a cinephile and book nerd and looked down my nose at such common things as popular comedies.  Then, one day, I went to Montreal with my parents for a film conference.  And the first Ghostbusters happened to be playing on television.

That was when my little five or six or seven year old self began running around, crying to be let out.  I felt suddenly ecstatic, like someone told me the Easter Bunny was real.  In the days, weeks and months that followed, I basically relived all my childhood.  I wrote a paper for my horror/sci-fi class at NYU on comic apocalyptic imagery in the first film.  I rewatched both films numerous times.  I began watching the TV series again.  While I did not go so far as to, say, build a proton pack or buy a jumpsuit, I definitely did my best to completely geek out.

Ghostbusters for me was not just a really cool movie.  When I was a child, I was frightened of ghosts.  Still am, to tell the truth.  And what Ghostbusters did was prove to me that ghosts were scary, yeah, but they were also funny, ridiculous, something to laugh it.  And when they were scary, well, there were always those guys dressed like exterminators who would show up and stop them.  For me now, Ghostbusters represents New York, home, and the exceptional power of the comic to transcend terror.  In less than a week, I’m going to get a tattoo on my shoulder of the Ghostbusters logo.  It might be a little trite, a little straightforward, but it actually means something to me.  It means that, in the end, laughter will win.  Or maybe it just means that I was born in the 80s.  One or the other.

Writing for the Love of Writing

I can be pretty damned sarcastic (I know how surprised you must be to read that).  But there are times when I want to be completely and totally honest.  And this is one of those times.

Last night, I had the great good fortune to participate in a reading with other members of my MSc class in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.  Over the past three semesters, we’ve been together an awful lot.  We’re a small class, which means that most of us know each other quite well.  When I came to Edinburgh, I was a tad nervous to be in a group of other writers.  I’ve heard of courses where writers compete against other, even come to hate each other because everyone else seems to be a threat.  Thank God, that was not the case with this course.  What I’ve found is a kind, loyal group of incredibly intelligent, talented people, ready to embrace each other’s work as well as provide criticism, understanding and, at times, commiseration.  Trying to become a writer is not easy; it can be a thankless job and few of us will be able to make our livings at it.  It matters a great deal to be surrounded by people who truly love what they do, and who are willing to support each other in the pursuit of a creativity that is simply not as readily rewarded in mainstream society as business acumen or financial prowess.

So last night, after an exceptional day of panels concerning the business side of literature, we got together and read our own work.  In a pub, naturally; we at least fulfill that stereotype.  Now, I do not particularly enjoy spoken word events.  They can range on the spectrum from generally entertaining to mind-numbingly boring.  At the worst, they can be pretentious celebrations of some very undeserved egos.  Every once in a while, you come across an excellent reader or writer, but I admit that I have taken to avoiding them.  Not so last night.

Having come through several semesters of at times painful workshops, I was grateful to hear stories I had never heard, and some that I had.  Grateful to the camaraderie expressed every time someone else took the stage, and grateful just to be sitting with such a spectacular group of people.  I will be shocked if every single one of us doesn’t manage to make a go of being a professional writer.  MSc programs sometimes get a bad rap for being writing factories, producing generic ‘literary’ novelists.  I can say with certainty that this particular program has not done that.  We are all so incredibly different in our interests, in our styles, in the way we approach writing.  This is a result, I believe, of particularly good instructors, but also of our own desires, our own independence.

We were told of the importance of having a community.  What I learned last night was that we do not have to go looking for that community.  It’s right there next to you, in the person you’ve argued with, got drunk with, laughed with, commiserated with.  We have formed our own community and I, for one, am immensely grateful to be a part of it.  And I can say that honestly, without sarcasm or cynicism.

The Hipster Chronicles # 2: The Way of the Douche

“Just to let you know, your facebook statuses are getting douchier and douchier.”

My dear and always honest friend Lindsay expressed this to me several months ago, when I was in the midst of a paper on Nietzsche and postmodernism that was, like, totally blowing my mind.  And my, but my facebook statuses were indeed getting douchier and douchier.  No question.  Since that fateful day, however, I have begun to hear the word douche used in new and exciting contexts.  How douchey can we be? seems to be the question of the day.

Now, the etymology of the word ‘douche’ has a long and complicated history.  When we call someone a ‘douche’, we are not, of course, referring to the actual item of feminine hygiene.  Nor are we particularly comparing said individual to that item.  Back in the day, my father informed me, to call someone a ‘douche’ was one of the worst things you could say.  Now, we say it routinely.  It references someone (very often male) who behaves in a pretentious, obnoxious, or generally … uh … douchey manner.  It continues to be a derogatory term, of course.  Or does it?

Recently, I have heard (and used) the word ‘douche’ in a highly self-referential fashion.  ‘Hipster douchiness’ has become a regular statement among my circle of friends here in Edinburgh.

“Come and be a douche with us!” stated a text message, inviting everyone along to hang out in the Meadows.  When one sits in a cafe, drinking organic coffee, typing one’s novel on one’s MacBook (or, for true douchiness, iPad), one is achieving a true level of douchiness that few ever arrive honestly at.  Dressing like a hipster, saying things like ‘That is sooooo Postmodern’, reading Nietzsche, speaking of one’s existential self, updating one’s blog with ironic referential comments, shopping at Urban Outfitters, complaining of the difficulty of one’s life while lying in the sun, being a barista in any capacity, talking about being a barista, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, listening to obscure folk music … these are not the hallmarks of true douchiness.  No, true douchiness must be achieved by being AWARE of true douchiness.  By the recognition that one is behaving like a total, complete, remarkable, capitalized Douche.

“We’re so hip, we’re going to a band that even we haven’t heard of!”

This, my friends, is true douchiness.  The Way of the Douche is fraught with peril, for the pitfalls might turn you into an acoustic guitar playing juggler on a unicycle who has no freaking idea of how douchey he/she truly is.  It might turn you into a twenty-something would-be novelist in a cafe bitching about how no one gets just what post-postmodernism is.  The Way of the Douche must be carefully discovered, hopefully with people just as pretend-douchey as you are.  For the true Douche is not a douche at all.  Just someone who enjoys a ironic joke, a scene of pop-culture referentiality, an honest moment in the sun with friends.  Someone who can laugh at themselves.

So, verily, I say unto you: go and discover the Way of the Douche.  I know I have.