Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Oscar Nomination Reactions

I didn't even set my alarm clock, woke up only five minutes before the announcements, dashed off the predictions that I abandoned last night, and proceeded to see how terribly I had mind-read the Academy. But this, in large part, was a good thing.


* The New World for Best Cinematography! Mark those ballots now, people.

* I love years where they spread the wealth. Brokeback leads with eight, the fewest nods for a front-runner since American Beauty in '99. Also, the categories do not just slavishly mirror one another (even where they usually do, like between Art Direction and Costumes, or Picture and Film Editing).

* Terrence Howard gives me someone to root for solidly in Best Actor, but AMPAS didn't go overboard with a double-nod, as I thought they might (for his Supporting work in Crash)

* Only three nominees for Best Song! AMPAS knows a bum year when it happens, and they didn't even fall for the Mel Brooks stunt of scribbling off a new song... a cheat that worked for Chicago and, much worse, for Phantom.

* A big deal: no Editing nomination for the Best Picture front-runner, Brokeback Mountain, which I think is just as it should be. Way too little connecting material holding the film together as it continues, and in my mind, a Zulema-style smackdown to Ang Lee for switching editors. (The late, brilliant Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor are hard to argue with, but where's the loyalty? Was Tim Squyres just busy?)

* No Walk the Line for Best Picture! I didn't think this would happen anyway, but I'm still jazzed that it didn't.

* I had predicted the Capote and Munich Best Picture slots for Cinderella Man and The Constant Gardener, and not only do I think the Academy chose much the better films, they're actually my two faves in the lineup. (I'm surprised how pleased I'm feeling for the Munich crowd; that strange film has really lingered well with me.)

* No Shopgirl sneak attacks. (I was worried about Adapted Screenplay.)

* No Cheadle or Hoskins emptily taking up space in Supporting Actor.

* No overestimation of Narnia in the tech categories.

* Howl's Moving Castle over Chicken Little and Madagascar for Animated Film.

* Amy Adams keeps Junebug alive in popular film memory.

* Woody Allen can have his Screenplay nod for Match Point, but the Academy didn't fall for the myth of his resurgent abilities any more than that.

* Tech-group excitement over Geisha did not translate into any above-the-fold nominations. By contrast, Pride & Prejudice worked a little of its magic all over the place, from Actress to Art Direction to Original Score (though, sadly, no Screenplay nod).


* I'm still not over the exclusion of Grizzly Man, even though it dropped from competition over a month ago.

* Canonization of unremarkable acting: Giamatti, Phoenix, Dench, Gyllenhaal, Hurt

* The North Country gals are better than people who haven't seen the movie are likely to assume, but this still feels like excessive praise

* No New World for Art Direction, Costume Design, or Makeup? Um, okay.

* Indeed, the Makeup derby is absurd. Hayden was looking ragged in Star Wars, Episode III (more than necessary, I mean), Narnia wasn't all that accomplished... and Cinderella Man???

* Crash, a film I respected quite a lot when I saw it, has been souring lately in my memory, and all the nods, even though I predicted them, are for some reason damning it further in my mind. Gonna hafta rent that one again.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Everything That's Wrong with This Year's Awards Season

Zhang Ziyi is nominated for an NAACP Image Award. I know you don't technically have to be African-American to qualify for these things, but, just... I mean. Doesn't this just seem like some kind of last straw in some over-active publicist's carpet-bombing of awards-voting bodies? (In another note to the NAACP nominators: that Best Actor slot you doled out to Laurence Fishburne in Assault on Precinct 13 or Shemar Moore in Diary of a Mad Black Woman might have hung a little better on, say, Jeffrey Wright in Syriana.)

Anyway, it's a crazy busy week around here, but I really will try to scrape together some Oscar nomination predictions by Tuesday morning. It would help if I cared about any of this year's front-runners. Aside from outside shots for Joan Allen, Terrence Howard, Jeff Daniels, Maria Bello, or Amy Adams, or anything for The New World on the technical side, it's hard to even think of a nomination I'd truly be excited by. I always thought it would be a grand day when David Cronenberg finally made the Directors' list, which I expect him to, but I just don't dig A History of Violence enough to get jazzed about even that prospect—and even at that, I'd take him in a cake walk over Lee, Clooney, Meirelles, Spielberg, Haggis, or, for God's sake, Woody Allen or James Mangold.

Whatever. I'll throw something together, but in a turn of events so mind-bogglingly mismatched to everything I thought I knew and understood about my life, I am waaaaay more eager to find out who gets Auf Wiedersehen'd on Wednesday night than I am to watch Good Morning, America on Tuedsay at 8:30am.


SAG Diary

Woulda live-blogged, but my broadband cord doesn't reach.

8:01 Why do I love S. Epatha Merkerson so much? Happily, she makes up for Patricia Heaton.

8:02 People can say what they want about Thandie Newton's acting, but is there any real argument about how gorgeous she is?

8:03 Also sssssssmoking tonight: Patrick Dempsey (duh), and Catherine Keener

8:04 I'm so done with hearing the whole Crash trope about "people who reside in the same city but only touch accidentally"; if Match Point hadn't rolled up with that unbearable and relentless tennis metaphor, it would easily be the most overdone conceit of the year.

8:05 Where is Nina Garcia when you need her to trim the ribbon off the front of Eva Longoria's otherwise lovely dress?

8:06 ACTRESS (TV - DRAMA) Doesn't Patricia Arquette always look like she's about to retract her head back into her shell? Prediction: Oh; Win: Oh, who can't walk in her shoes but looks real purty. And I'm always about the group shout-outs, even if none will ever be as good as Camryn Manheim's "This one's for the fat girls!"

8:09 Is Ted Danson blushing about Felicity Huffman's joke about wanting to flirt with him? I mean, look at that shit-eating grin. I feel so sad for him.

8:11 ACTOR (TV - DRAMA) Prediction: Laurie; Win: Sutherland, who not only remains preternaturally handsome from year to year, but is always beautifully dressed and always exceptionally gracious in his speeches. Seriously, did anyone watching Flatliners or The Lost Boys see this dapper re-incarnation anywhere on the horizon?

8:15 For months, Cinderella Man has been evincing the single most desperate save-this-flop ad campaign I've ever seen. Now, on this ad for Cinderella Man on ComCast pay-per-view, they actually exhort you to "Rent the movie today, and pause or fast-forward during all your favorite knockout scenes!" Wtf? What if I want to pause at the moment when Renée Zellweger opens her eyes?

8:17 I am really psyched about the Hustle & Flow Ensemble Cast nomination; if the Capote cast weren't so exceptionally smart, subtle, and well-coordinated, I'd vote Hustle no question.

8:21 ENSEMBLE CAST (TV - DRAMA) Prediction: Lost; Win: Lost, who clearly knew this was coming

8:24 SUPPORTING ACTRESS (FILM) Chris Cooper prefaces this category by citing Renée Zellweger in Cold Mountain and Judi Dench in Chocolat as past winners, thus immediately squelching any appeal this award could possibly have. I'm so glad that Amy Adams' clip includes her priceless split-second impression of a meerkat. I'm less sure about including Michelle Williams saying "Jack Nasty," and I'm extremely unsure why Williams seems to have graduated from the Zellweger Academy of frowny and awkward awards-show expressions. Prediction: Williams; Win: Weisz, happily emerging as the front-runner in this derby, and even more happily freed of that sarcophagus of makeup that encased her at the Globes.

8:27 Must awards-show directors always cut to the Desperate Housewives, even when they're just inanely sitting there? Say, with Eva Longoria sitting on Marcia Cross' lap?

8:32 Fuckin' Shatner. Now I can't even enjoy these interviews with commercial actors without being distracted by how much I've hated the two episodes I've ever seen of Boston Legal, and how appalled I was by his performances in them.

8:36 ACTRESS (TV - COMEDY) Naveen Andrews and Yurtle the Arquette look, sound, and are boring, and so too are these nominations, though I'm impressed with the one-housewife quota. I do, however, love how Huffman's clip, set in a loud barroom, makes it sound like the actual SAG crowd is cheering for her. I love that Allison Janney wants Mary-Louise Parker to win. Prediction: Huffman; Win: Huffman, whose win sure pisses off Ray Romano. Why?? And why didn't Felicity and Marcia figure out they were wearing the same color? Hey, Alfre's in lavender, too! One more question: I love love, love being in love, love other people in love, love it all—so why am I always so put off by the unique kind of bubblehead Felicity Huffman becomes whenever she talks about her husband?

8:43 ACTOR (TV - COMEDY) Prediction: Shatner (&$#%); Win: Sean Hayes???? I guess he's been enormously stretched by his last season of work on W&G. I do think he looks very nice. Love the tie. It's sad when his rhetoric backfires: "To all the actors who thought this actor had an ounce of talent, I thank you." What if they didn't mean that nicely?

8:44 ENSEMBLE CAST (TV - COMEDY) What need has the world of Ellen Pompeo? Prediction: Everybody Loves Raymond; Win: Desperate Housewives, of whom Alfre Woodard is the most gorgeous by a mile. Oh, look, there are some men in this show, too! Who is this kid talking? Is he in the cast? I know we are all presumed to know this, but help me out here.

8:47 Reese Witherspoon has special sensors implanted in the back of her head that alert her whenever a camera, even a distant one with a zoom lens, is on her face.

8:54 SAG president Alan Rosenberg pumps up a room of actors about the awesomeness of actors. But I wonder.... even Rob Schneider? Even Bridget Moynahan? Even Jessica Alba?

8:56 And so, with a whisper of what looks like sequined linen, and with a Shirley Temple doll in her hand, the era of Dakota Fanning as awards-show presenter began. But hey, she's way better at it than Robin Williams. In fact, she does much the best job of anyone we've seen tonight. May I admit, though, that whenever I see clips of old Shirley Temple movies, the only thought I can muster is how glad I am that I wasn't alive then.

9:00 CULTURAL/HISTORICAL INANITY OF THE EVENING The "friendship" between toddler Shirley Temple and Mr. Bojangles, her tap-dancing manservant, three generations older than herself, is held up as a model of racial harmony. I wonder how this played at the Hustle & Flow table. (I would wonder about the Crash table, too, but something makes me ask myself if Paul Haggis even got how strange this is.)

9:03 Jamie Lee Curtis! Always a gift. Always well done-up.

9:04 How come the scripters never reflect that underlining the "natural" and "believable" screen presence of someone like Shirley Temple is rather akin to admitting that she, um, wasn't really acting. I have no doubt that she is a fine and accomplished person in all other departments, including her massive celebrity. But Lifetime Achievement in Acting? Call Gena Rowlands. Call Donald Sutherland.

9:11 Isn't that Jim Gaffigan in the Sierra Mist ad? Perhaps SAG could include a featurette where actors who once headlined their own short-lived sitcoms are now overjoyed to be paying the bills with soda commercials?

9:12 I'll say it again: Catherine Keener looks fabulous. Even better than 40-Year-Old Virgin fabulous. Admittedly, she's not very good at this. And In Cold Blood isn't a novel. And it hurts when we overhear Hoffman saying to Keener, albeit with the best of intentions, "well-done."

9:14 SUPPORTING ACTOR (FILM) Zhang Ziyi looks fantastic, sounds uncomfortable, and experiences yet a new pronunciation of her name over the intercom. Prediction: Dillon; Win: Giamatti. Which, I'm sorry, but the hoopla behind this performance is completely ridiculous. Not bad work, but it shouldn't have any bearing in an awards race. Clooney, Dillon, and Gyllenhaal would all have been better choices, but they all at least have the consolation that they. are. total. foxes.

9:17 Samuel L. Jackson sees dead people. I know I'm going to tear up again at Anne Bancroft. I always did like Barbara Bel Geddes, too. At least half of these people, I've never heard of. Maybe two-thirds. Boy, did I love Teresa Wright, though. And Piglet! And Ruth Hussey! I can't say I loved Shelley Winters, but I'm still sad knowing she's gone.

9:22 Overheard in a commercial: "Ask yourself, is your shampoo designed specially for you?" Um, no. "Designed to give you a special, unique style each and every time?" Still no. Should it be?

9:23 Dammit, is Paul Giamatti really going to get an Oscar nomination for that role? [Still sinking in.]

9:26 The SAG Awards are now padding out their own show with flubbed takes from last year.

9:28 "Please welcome David Stritharin!" Really, it's not that hard a name.

9:29 ACTRESS (TV MOVIE OR MINISERIES) Amy Adams and Benjamin Bratt are both looking sharp in black. Prediction: Woodward; Win: Merkerson, who always gives good speech, so let's hear it! The public shout-out to her divorce lawyers is hilarious.

9:34 ACTOR (TV MOVIE OR MINISERIES) Angela Bassett, gorgeously overdoing it as always, literally stuns William H. Macy into forgetful silence with the sheer muscle of her vOWels and her KoNSoNaNTS! Prediction: Newman; Win: Newman, Hottest Man Alive Emeritus, who is 81 years and 3 days old. Happy birthday, Paul!

9:40 Heath Ledger, drunk, cocks his hand sassily on his left hip. Both men giggle and stutter through their introduction, clearly because the prose they are reading is so purple—though I must say, it might be nice to prevent TV audiences from thinking that the storyline they are narrating is the joke. Again, clearly unintentional, but I can't shake the feeling that they're reading this exactly the same way that two homophobic party boys would.

9:42 ACTRESS (FILM) Pierce Brosnan, as in all the worst student essays, begins with a reference to a dictionary definition. Prediction: Witherspoon; Win: Witherspoon, allowing me a piquant foretaste of how glum I will feel when this happens again in a month. "Sometimes I just can't shake the feeling that I'm just a little girl from Tennessee."

9:47 ACTOR (FILM) Hilary Swank, busy in front and too tanned. "Strathairn," at least, gets its due as a name. Prediction: Ledger; Win: Hoffman, seeming less and less beatable. Behind him as he stands, you can see how excellent Patricia Clarkson looks in buttery yellow. Hoffman gives a gracious speech about actor solidarity, and gets extra points for singling out Clifton Collins, Jr., even though balloting period is already over. Oh, by the way, who stinks at predicting? ME.

9:57 ENSEMBLE (FILM) Morgan Freeman, in a bold spectrum of purples. Prediction: Brokeback Mountain; Win: The Penguins. Just kidding. Crash. A total Brokeback shutout, but still a boring show. And TBS picks exactly the wrong space-hogging font for those of us trying to peer behind the credits in order to see who's hobnobbing. Whatever. I'll be taping over this pronto.

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New on DVD

I recently signed off as a Cinemarati critic, but as they say, when one door closes, another opens. Stop Smiling Magazine just published my short review of Image Entertainment's DVD of Derek Jarman's The Last of England, a film I love almost as much as Andrei Rublev. There may or may not be more opportunities to write for SS (prospects look reasonably good), but it's already a treat to sing the praises of such a great and often-overlooked film.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Andrei Tarkovsky and Heidi Klum

I'm so excited for my public speaking gig tomorrow at the Real Art Ways cinema and gallery space in Hartford, where I will be giving one of two post-film lectures after a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Andrei Rublev. Literally one of the greatest and most inspiring films I have ever seen, Andrei Rublev is a breathtaking spiritual epic orbiting around the life of Russia's most famous painter of orthodox icons. Before you get nervous, a lot of the magic inheres in how thoroughly Tarkovsky sidesteps biopic conventions—we never once see Rublev paint, and he is a witness to more scenes than he is a participant. Instead, we are treated to some of the most rapturous crane and aerial shots in cinema history, starting with the prologue's curious episode of a man attempting to fly off the top of a church tower with a homemade balloon as support, and climaxing with the spectacle of a naked woman fleeing the village where 14th-century Christian soldiers are violently interrupting a "pagan" ritual. She runs into the river to avoid capture, and the camera's whirling and yet poignantly static tracing of her escape is the very essence of visual poetry. All through the film, imposing architecture resonates against the fluid movements of water and bodies, and the palpable grittiness of earth, iron, and fire is shot and edited into transcendental, almost conceptual purity. It's truly awesome. In fact, this will be my third time seeing Andrei Rublev on a big 35mm screen, and I've been boning up for two days on the religious history of Russia, the revival of Rublev's personal mythology under Stalin and Khrushchev (of all people), the always strained relations between Tarkovsky and Mosfilm, and the philosophical and aesthetic undercurrents linking Andrei Rublev to other Tarkovsky films like Stalker and Solaris.

Or at least, this is what I am TRYING to do. Because in a cruel twist of fate, which I blame ENTIRELY on Gabriel and Nathaniel, my entire consciousness has been flooded in a giant tsunami of Project Runway.

Four days ago, I not only didn't have cable, but I hadn't had it for six years, except for the fact that in three of those years, I subscribed for 4-6 weeks apiece stretching from the Golden Globes to the Oscars, promptly cancelling the service on the morning after. Time Warner of Ithaca was straight irritated at my not-even-seasonal subscribing, but they'd still schlepp to the house and hook up the box, knowing that I'd walk it back to headquarters in a month's time. Now, on why I just don't care about TV: it has less to do with derision for the form (though, I admit, there is some of that) than with personal appetites and desires. I do. not. want. to experience characters once a week at some appointed time, in open-ended storylines. My life and my job satisfy those roles just fine. My art is supposed to come in discrete packages that have been shaped and concerted and filigreed with infinite nuance so that I have single, intense experiences of stories or people, which I can turn over and over like crystals in the light, rather than stringing them along like tinsel on a tree. Unless it's Once and Again, it just doesn't turn me on.

But as someone I know would say, f*** me running, because I love Project Runway. I am its newest convert. I accidentally saw the last two-thirds of this week's episode on Thursday night, when I was connecting my VCR to my cable box and activating a timer-record on the next channel down, until I got com-pleet-lee absorbed in Nick's crisis of conviction, in Daniel V.'s friendly and adorably unpushy counsel, and in Zulema's right to switch her models (which I wholly defend, even though it came at the expense of by far the best model-designer pairing on the show). I watched that funk till the end, and though I personally would have given a slight edge to Andrae's stunningly creative translation of brackish gutter water into flowing fashion (I wish there were a picture or, better, a video of that fabulous back in motion), I wholly applaud Daniel V.'s inspired sartorial take on the beauty of the orchid. I marveled at the stunning, Aristotelian completeness of this episode—the ironic reversal of fortune (Zulema's), the qualified healing of the wounded (Nick), the cosmic blessing of the most loyal comrade (Daniel V.)—an exquisite hour-long drama which all came together in perfect synchronicity with the just desserts of the garments in question. That was some Euripides-style jelly, people.

So you know my timer-record just went Physical all day on the eight-hour marathon of the season thus far. While I sit here reading my little treatises on Tarkovsky, I am gobbling Runway like it's cheesecake, till I'm caught up like Usher. The banishments have been so utterly just (shades now of Sophocles!), and the victories so deserving. Even in weeks where something amiss took place—I think Kirsten's outfits were worse in the series opener than either of that week's booted victims—justice soon takes its course in a following episode. It is hilarious how the carry-over contestants always look like they want to coo over Heidi's growing bump at the beginning of each episode. Santino's hubris feels utterly believable, not just amped up for insta-celeb effect, and I do think that dude is talented, so I really don't hate him, and I think it makes sense that he's still around, even after some close brushes. The judges, with the occasional exception of Michael Kors, reply tartly to the outfits without being gratuitously mean, and without trying to go for the big water-cooler catchphrase. I love how Nina Garcia is a dead ringer for Dominique, the imperious senior editor in High Art, a movie that is not unlike the dark underbelly of Project Runway for boho photographers. I loved when Alabaman Heidi got the axe, and when the Heidi breathed out her customary "Auf Wiedersehen," tragic Heidi blurted with perfect sincerity, "I don't know what that means, but Bye!" Best of all, I have never understood or cared about fashion AT ALL, and even less about reality television, but this show really is training my eye about what to look for and think about with regard to runway ensembles, and it's such a pleasure to see contestants judged on their ideas and creativity instead of some canned, parodic version of personality.


(Only gripe: now that I know the show, I am even more incensed by the non-inclusion of Shannon Maddox, whose sensuously detailed theatrical costumes have amazed me in two productions, and whose quick but non-bitchy wit would have been purrr-fect for this show. Really, why'd we have Emmett all that time when we coulda had this?)

(One more gripe: I'm not getting much work done. Gabriel and Nathaniel, you are the Hekyll and Jekyll of my life. I do not even want to know Galactica's time slot. Seriously, y'all need to keep that shit to yourself. To punish you for colonizing my precious work time, I am going to hit Reload one less time on each of your blogs tomorrow than I usually do. Seriously, I'm limiting myself to 8 or 10 clicks a day, and that is final.)

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Picked Flick #62: Best in Show

Sometimes you see a movie in the theater and you like it okay, but you wouldn't consider seeing it twice, except that your friend hasn't seen it yet and you're happy to go along. For whatever reason, you like it better and laugh much harder than you did the first time. Then you actively anticipate the video or DVD release, more avidly than you are awaiting movies that you enjoyed or admired much more. Then you watch the movie repeatedly, incessantly—why does it keep getting funnier? In ten years, I've had this experience twice, the first time with Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, and then with Christopher Guest's Best in Show. How do you account for humor, even your own taste in it, your own laughter? I have no idea how I sat through my first screening of Mars Attacks! and only laughed once—and that because Sarah Jessica Parker's chihuahua wouldn't stop barking at Michael J. Fox over breakfast. I am, apparently, a groundling. Nor can I say anything illuminating or precise about why I roar through that movie now, why the simple, never-changing "ack ack" of the aliens is enough to set me off.

The case of Best in Show is even odder to me, because it doesn't, like Burton's film, require any stylistic acclimation, and its comedy emerges much more through conventional means like one-liners and parodic personalities than, as in the Burton, through camp reenactment and sustained eccentricity. I read my original review of Best in Show now and, though I still wonder about the film's allegiance to mockumentary and am well aware of the jokes that don't score, I can't figure out what the hell I was being so stingy about. I probably quote Best in Show more often than any other movie I've seen, save three or four, but you wouldn't know it from my frugal little write-up. But I don't think I was just being a stick-in-the-mud. I am not a flip-flopper, though I might occasionally be blind and deaf. I can't believe how many of my favorite moments I didn't fully appreciate or even notice until the third or fourth go-round, like when John Michael Higgins' Scott looks at Jane Lynch's desperately primped dog handler Christy Cummings and expertly sizes her up as looking "like a cocktail waitress on an oil rig," or Higgins and Michael McKean having the world's most politely submerged argument about over-packing a suitcase, or Catherine O'Hara's perplexed look at husband Eugene Levy when he tries to avert a credit-card disaster by paying with traveler's checks, even though they don't have any.

But most of what I love about the movie are the jokes I liked to begin with, which have proven uncannily memorable, and bizarrely applicable in more situations than you'd think, and wonderfully convivial, too, because everyone seems to love this movie. Jennifer Coolidge's ditzy deadpan is just as funny when she says something demented ("So I'm just waiting, until I get another message...from myself" or "Those act as flippers") as when she runs rough-shod over the feelings of her eventual lover, Christy, of whose privately owned, proudly assembled kennel she sharply reminisces, "It was a shitbox." On repeat viewings, you learn how to live with the extreme stress inducements of Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, and you can simply enjoy their brilliance at ratcheting up the neurotic hysteria. The two words "Busy Bee" can make me lose it in public places, thinking about Posey's fearsome dressing-down of Ed Begley Jr.'s head concierge as well as the toy store employee, and of the wild swoops of her caftans when she erupts into one of her fits, and of how she alternates being pressure-cooked inside a mean helmet of hair and tying it back with a head scarf because even her hair drives her crazy. Fred Willard is more than inspired as the fatuous commentator at the dog show, but the more you watch, you further appreciate Jim Piddock's comparable knack at playing the slow burn of the affronted expert. Levy and O'Hara's couplehood isn't quite as rich as in A Mighty Wind, burdened as they are with that laborious business of her multiple ex-boyfriends, but I'll still watch O'Hara do anything, and her costume designs are terrific, and the sweetness in their rapport serves the movie eautifully. Improv comedians could learn quite a bit from this movie, including how not to flee from feeling.

Oh, and the best dog wins. Isn't that a peach? (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Almost There!

I know this is just a horrible thing to talk about period, much less on a blog, but I know I'm not the only 20-something out there with a big old Beloved-sized credit-card haint haunting my house and my life, and I was getting to the point of thinking these balances are impossible to beat. Now I've wiped out two out of three. I feel about this the way some people feel about their food diets or their course grades or their, um, painkiller addictions. You really can quit with a little determination each day! What's worked for me:

1) Sign up for an Account Protection or similar service through one of your credit cards that includes, as a complementary feature, free quarterly credit reports. Admittedly, this can backfire—credit-raters don't like to see that you've requested too many reports, because it makes you look skittish, even alarmist about your own standing. But I think I needed to see a real-world document and a little line graph that was coming closer and closer to Touching the Void in order to really snap to. (Note: my quarterly credit rating has actually gone down as I've paid off the cards, which has been a blessing in disguise, albeit, to steal from Lucia DeLury, a fucking good disguise: my incentive to spend less didn't dissipate the first time I saw a bump in the right direction.)

2) Keep focused on how little you really need to shop. Frankly, I've never been much of a spender, I just spent more than the pittance I made as a grad student (hard to avoid). Coming into a real salary was a huge relief, but can also be a real lure into upping your spending to match your new means. Just don't. If you're a grad student, read all those books you already own, and which sunk you into debt in the first place: you save money and feel like you're finally making some intellectual headway.

3) Fewer restaurants. It's more fun, healthier, and cheaper to cook anyway. Even with friends or guests, making food together is a blast. I was so lazy for a long time about buying too many meals instead of walking to the grocery store, even though I like making food. Bad scene.

4) Strictly categorize what you'll charge. Trying to go totally cold-turkey on the charge cards didn't work for me, so instead, I confined their use to a) travel expenses, or similarly big one-time expenses, b) store-bought groceries, and c) movie tickets, which I refuse to feel bad about buying, but which also have a reliable ceiling: you're not going to spend more than $10 at a pop, ever.

5) Write more checks to charities and NFPs. Another good idea with the added bonus of helping on spending. If I write a check, I know the money is "gone" in a way it doesn't feel "gone" on a card, and it keeps me more alert to my spending. (I'm a rigorous checkbook-balancer.) If you send the money to someplace that really needs it and that you care about, instead of just acquiring some more stuff you don't need, you still feel the nagging pinch to spend less afterward, but feel good about where your money has gone, and you get used to making donations a regular part of a monthly budget that's well within your means.

Thus ended the post from your uncouth and presumptuous financial advisor, who has no business being anybody's financial advisor, but when you and all your friends are broke, sharing money-saving tips is just a gossipy version of swapping coupons. If you've got more advice, post it below (comma) yo.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Picked Flick #63: Magnolia

One of my favorite moments at the movies happens when the lights go down and, whether through electronics or pulleys or some other device, the margins of the screen are adjusted to suit the aspect ratio of the film. This instant, disappointingly pre-empted whenever the screen is sized before our arrival, is most titillating when the panels or curtains keep moving, moving, moving past the point of expectation, exhilarating the still-blank screen with the pure, implied scope of what is about to come. Like it was yesterday, I remember the side-panels at Magnolia parting so widely they almost didn't quit, as though making room for a locomotive or a stampede or a Biblical exodus.

Hurl a stone in a contemporary movieplex and you're bound to hit some screen where a passel or fleet of Los Angelenos fumble their way toward self-consciousness, corraled by the freeways into smaller and smaller circles until we realize that they all already know each other. But Magnolia, in contrast to most of these movies, barely bothers to fix its locale as a worldly place, a place of real, waking lives. Magnolia, as wide and colorful as someone's bursting imagination, knocks its fluorescent scenes of kilowatted personal crises against one another, lighting faces so brightly that they pool with black shadows even bigger than personality, listing and tracking through hallways and suites and offices and conference rooms until the movie feels like a series of aftershocks. But they aren't tectonic aftershocks. They are psychic reverberations, prodigious ones, even in a movie whose off-kilter score, outsized characters, and rudimentary plot conflicts abolish any sense of realism. Is it too much to say the film derealizes psychology, even as it spelunks straight downward into its grottiest crevices—fathers who menace their daughters, sons who abjure their fathers, women trying to scale some terrible epiphanies just as they are dawning? Somehow, Anderson's baton-twirling virtuosity with his camera evaporates even more irony than it introduces, since the characters are, almost universally, experiencing their lives just as floridly as the film portrays them. Jason Robards' canker of angry loneliness, Julianne Moore's centrifugal self-dispersal, April Grace's surgical defrocking of Tom Cruise's panther pride (where is she now, when we most need her?), Jeremy Blackman's suffocation within his absorbent genius, Melinda Dillon's bitter medicine—these are all delectably reckless acting turns, a fine vintage of supporting performances packed into one robust buffet. But there's an idea inside all of this rococo reaching, because at least as I experience the movie, its tragic aspirations only work because of how, in the film's relentlessly forward and sideways velocity, all of the most extreme emotional states get windshield-wipered by all the other ones. No one's breakdown stands in much relief from anyone else's, and California, America, the now, they all become a pop-art collage of interchangeable secrets and miseries—the source, too, of all the vividness and life in the movie, so we're never less than thankful for them. Anderson doesn't add these figures into any polemical sum, just one film's picture of the way things are, possessed of rather less variety than the sprawling cast and shifting style imply. Amidst all of this, the song (you know) and the frogs (you know) feel much less incongruous than the movie's two hints of connection: a stammering policeman's date with an addict and, even more miraculously, a relay of awkward telephone calls that succeeds against all odds at locating the person it seeks. Amazingly, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, two congenital over-actors, have finally found this least likely of movies in which to rein it all in and offer compelling, affecting snapshots of the normal. Threshold of revelation!

It's the nature of the beast that Magnolia teeters too far in some directions: young Stanley's soliloquy of protest is one too many, and a bit much for the mouth of a babe; Reilly's procedural mishap with his gun just sits inert on the screen, haphazardly slung together; and William H. Macy's scenes are aggravatingly garish in text and image. But who cares, compared to all the goodies tucked around the movie in unexpected cracks and corners: Cleo King's insolence and Felicity Huffman's observant invisibility, a great performance from some invisible actress who convinces Frank T.J. Mackey to contact his father, the hilarious production design of the What Do Kids Know? quiz show, the comic-book blue of Tom Cruise's black hair, Macy being dogged by the same truncated pop song, the epidemic rash of dissolves into Robards' poisoned lungs, the sound of toads hitting pavement, the wry question "Do you still want the peanut butter, cigarettes, and bread?", and every single cut that joins a symmetrical shot with some violence against balance, often a chiaroscuro close-up pushing against the edge of that wide, wide frame. I liked Anderson's Boogie Nights but have been blithely indifferent to any impulse to re-see it; I savored the sound and technique of Punch-Drunk Love, but I admit to having craved a more populated party; I have owned Hard Eight on second-hand VHS for almost five years and still haven't popped it in. But Magnolia seduces, pulls, lures me in, time and again, as though it has some gravitational pull. Flamboyant characters make their way through a world that is and isn't ours, and I can't stop watching. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Where's the Beef?

'Tis the winter of my discontent, as I look out on yon cinematic horizon and see... nothing. My life has taken a turn for the science-fictional. How can it be that I am so utterly un-compelled to see anything that's out, or coming out? Of course, then I remember that this happens every year around this time.

At least I have Something New to look forward to, whose well-advertised trailer is so utterly beguiling that I'm hoping it's bonafide, instead of another Hitch. Sanaa Lathan has such charismatic comic authority in this preview, the dialogue zings ("Are you sneaking off to the O.C.?"), and Simon Baker finally looks sexy, instead of looking like some Hollywood casting intern's idea of sexy.

But after that, there ain't jack. Sure, I'll see Freedomland, cuz of Julianne, even though I bet it's worse than a midwinter studio dump; if you've followed the tortuous process of its changing release schedules, it seems to have gone from a rush-job timed for awards consideration (dulllll) to a springtime postponement (uh-oh), then briefly back to the even more certain doom of the late-December shuffle (serious lack of studio confidence), and now back again to February, as though to avoid Worst of 2005 lists. Jesus H. Christ! But yes, I'll go, and I'll see the Pulse remake, too, because that's just the sort of thing I do. But seriously, that is it for about six weeks, barring the potential for a NYC jaunt to see this or this or this or this or this. But this doesn't count, cuz there's always stuff to see in Gotham City. But why can't there be something for the hometown? I've scratched Casanova, since whatever its chances with the Art Directors and Costume branches, I've seen that trailer a jillion times, maintaining my gaze despite every execrable wig, and I just can't find it in me to give a **** about that movie. (Fill in your own expletive; they all apply.)

For the next few weeks, then, it's just Sanaa, plus some return trips up the mountain and around the world.

Picked Flick #64: Bullets Over Broadway

"I'm an artist!" John Cusack bellows in the first line of Bullets Over Broadway, the last Woody Allen movie that needn't be embarrassed of such an opening. What is truly, wonderfully disarming about the movie is that Cusack's David Shayne, for all of his obviously Woody-ish mannerisms, doesn't sap the air out of the movie like most of Allen's recent alter egos have, especially when Allen has played them himself. Sure, it's probably a flaw that the scenes in which David bellyaches to his girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), agent (Jack Warner), and best friend (Rob Reiner) about the proper role of the artist make so little impression. Still, the formulaic punchlines and underserved characters don't weigh against the movie because Allen, for the first time since The Purple Rose of Cairo, aspires as much to entertain his audience as to sell his ambitions or gnaw away at his philosophical obsessions. Don't get me wrong: I don't necessarily favor Woody's comedies over his dramas, as higher entries on this list will verify. But Allen's humor can be so vivid and his direction so encouraging to comic actors that it seems a shame he has become so parsimonious with those gifts. That co-scripter Douglas McGrath's own subsequent movies felt so weightless, in absolute contrast to Allen's crushing self-consciousness in Deconstructing Harry and Match Point, implies that their partnership on this screenplay was an especially inspired and well-timed stroke of luck. The movie also has a reasonably credible beginning, middle, and end, even if the plot grows overly obedient to rather inane moral arguments. Finally, I think it's Allen's best-looking movie since Manhattan, achieving the kind of playful zest in its Damon Runyon interiors and pop-colored palette that his other Depression-set movies have often nodded toward but never fully attained. Jeffrey Kurland's costumes are especially marvelous, as giddy and plush with outrageous comic abandon as are the movie's dialogue and its performances.

But let's not bury the lead: Bullets Over Broadway lives, sparkles, even jubilates because of its dialogue and its performances. Why does it feel a little embarrassing to say so? Perhaps mainstream film criticism places such exclusive emphasis on words, story, acting, and character that it feels almost regressive to praise a movie so roundly in those terms. But there it is, and happily so. The narrative conceit of David Shayne's turgidly sub-O'Neill script, God of Our Fathers, is brilliantly borne out by such believably lumpen lines as "The days blend together like melted celluloid, like a film whose images become distorted and meaningless"—a line, in fact, that wouldn't feel at all out of place amid the strenuous solipsisms of Interiors (though, at least in that film's case, I take the solipsisms to be purposeful). As the plot requires, not just Shayne's writing but his way of speaking is utterly shown up by the perfect, vulgar concision of Chazz Palminteri's Cheech, who screams of David's play, "It stinks on fuckin' hot ice!" Dianne Wiest's Oscar-winning turn as the boozy, stentorian Helen Sinclair remains the movie's most famous calling-card. Like the movie itself, Wiest's broad overplaying yields so many dozens of delightful moments that you don't care how often the seams show in what she's doing, how Helen is so obviously more of a joke machine than a character. Even the justly celebrated running gag around the line "Don't speak!" is regularly excelled by Wiest's camp modulations and leopard growls at other moments, snaring David's ego through well-calculated praise in a bar, parading him around the roof of her Manhattan apartment, huffing out her love for the dark, empty theater where they rehearse with a perfectly pronounced, Hepburnian "Look! would you look!" When David enters her apartment and praises her exquisite taste, her purring retort—"My taste is superb, my eyes are exquisite!"—is almost literally killer. Indeed, her floridly self-conscious style of seduction, previously unknown outside of those species of insects that eat their young, is a gift that keeps giving, full of glorious, histrionic silences in which Helen mentally assembles her next audition for the Baby Jane-ish role of herself.

But you know, as I've belly-laughed my way through sixth and seventh and eighth viewings of the movie, the frizzed, helium-filled performance of Jennifer Tilly has come to rival Wiest's, revealing real creative ingenuity; look how many of her best scenes are delivered with her back to the camera, as when she lobbies in vain with David to protect the one speech she has managed to memorize ("But I like to say it..."), or when, also on-stage, her fabulously flubbed exclamation "The heart is labynthinine!" is somehow made even more uproarious by the perfect timing and ostrichy posture of her walk. But wait! The single funniest bit of physical acting in the movie isn't Wiest's or Tilly's but Tracey Ullman's. Just watch as Eden Brent, Ullman's own accelerated riff on actressy eccentricity, becomes the first among David's cast to publicly endorse one of Cheech's dramaturgical tips. It's a one-second tour-de-force in a film that just brims with instants like this. You can watch Bullets Over Broadway with the sound off and have a thrilling time. You can listen to it from the next room and achieve total bliss. The fullness and variety of its pleasures still don't amount to Allen's best movie, not even one of his best five (and bully for him for setting such a high bar), but of all of his pictures, I do think Bullets is his most easily, frothily, and durably enjoyable. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Happy B-Day to This Lovely Lady

More likely than not, if you read this blog, you know this woman, which—when you consider the 6 billion people in the world you could have met in her stead—is a major stroke of good luck. Some of you do not know this woman, and that is something you should really get working on. Either way, I want to see the Comments section get burned up today. Consider it your own private donation to Nick's Flick Picks (again, that stands for Not For Profit), a tiny tithe that I extract every few months in exchange for any scrap of pleasure you find or have ever found on this website.

Please be so kind as to shout, sing, exclaim, extemporize, bellow, blow, and beat-box some Happy Birthdays for this gorgeous gal. Let's make her day.

If it helps to know why you are doing this, She—who posts anonymously, so I'm keeping her secret—She is an undisputed, uncontested Life Force of an English Ph.D. program in a wintry mountaintop town. I know a lot of grad students read this blog, including some non-Cornellians, and if there's anyone in your program who smiles at you and hugs you and encourages you every time you need it, who remembers everything about your life from your birthday to your shirt size to some joke you made five years ago, then you know how it feels to know the Lovely Lady. You recognize how a drab linoleum hallway, a slow line at the xerox machine, a bored lull at the seminar table, an awkward silence at a talk, a grey month in a grey season, how all of these things need a sunny-side optimist and a caring friend to put the pulse back into them, which is what She does.

As the above picture amply illustrates, she is so much fun, she gets you smiling like some kind of deranged Osmond.

If you have ever moved to a new place, even as an adult, by which time you feel you really should have mastered the skill of meeting new people quickly (you were so outgoing in your previous digs, so surrounded by friends!), and yet you're still having trouble figuring out where you'll fit in.... please look at this woman's face, and trust me that she is the person who invites you out to the front steps of the building where you both work now, and she exchanges confidences and confides insecurities and includes you in her goals and introduces you to her raucous, unembarrassed laughter, and you know without a doubt that you've just made the closest friend you are going to make in your cohort.

If you ever sat around a seminar table, or in a meeting, or at a reading group, and you wondered, Why do people still read literature? How will I ever catch up? What right do I have to insist on my own instincts, my own way of doing things, which keep appearing to lead me into trouble? And how do I know this degree I'm pursuing isn't a self-indulgence? then this is the woman you are so whole-heartedly grateful for, the woman who commiserates with your bouts of self-doubt and self-criticism, because she has plenty of these bouts herself (and you wish so much you could relieve her of these, find the magic mirror that shows her the She that we all see, whom all of us admire and adore)...... and yet, she doesn't doubt the value and worth of what you're there to do. She sees the beauty in your work and the promise in your ideas when you don't, she feeds the institution and the profession just when you're feeling most cynical about them or aloof within them, and she inculcates in you a desire to be of service, to be active and engaged and engaging, and to trust that everything you're doing is for a noble purpose, and for the sake of its own pleasure (no small thing!). These, after all, are an unbeatable tag-team of reasons to choose a profession.

She introduces you to people, some of them standing right in the room with you, some of them—Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Kara Walker—faraway ideals that turn into shared idols (and some of whom, if enough years go by, are suddenly standing in the room with you, too).

She gives herself no credit for being beautiful, but she is, as is so manifestly clear in photos like this one (my favorite). I don't remember ever seeing her dressed this way, but something about the frontways Hurston-tilt of the hat, the radiant grin, the mischievous twinkle, the lovely indigo color of the blouse, the fact that you wonder what's in the locket, the fact that she is so obviously happy to be sitting on someone's floor (because none of us own enough furniture to sit on, and we're used to this, and who are we kidding, it's fun)... all of this captures how terrifically vivacious she is, how unexpected and memorable her humor is. The longer you look at the picture, you realize with a start that apparently, some graduate student in the tundra of Ithaca actually succeeded in keeping a plant alive in their apartment, and you can't but credit Her with some of this achievement. She is photosynthetic.

She is a terrific and generous cook, unembarrassed of spice and flavor. She sends you gifts when it isn't your birthday, or your anything. She keeps your secrets, and you keep hers. She lets it bump with the BEST of them. She is full of love for her family. She is so full of love for her friends that it's like being in her family. She speaks truth to power. She laughs infectiously when Grandma Vargas tries to hand Victor over to the state, with all of his belongings tied in a Hefty bag.

She makes. a huge. difference. All the time. She'll keep making a difference. People who care and who follow these sorts of things, her sorts of things, will know her name. In her own words, she doesn't want to be one anymore... and she doesn't have to be, and she won't be.

For now, she's the birthday girl. Now give it up for her!

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Top Ten of 2005

Commentary will follow, but for now, they are...

Nearest misses: Capote, Tropical Malady, Last Days, Murderball, and Wolf Creek.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Party Like It's 1995

Why am I up so late? Because, mere days before the semester starts, I am in the classic mudhole of making last-minute but drastic revisions to syllabi that I thought I had finished weeks and in one case months ago. I think all the changes will help—I'm mostly pruning, to keep viewing and reading loads more manageable—but I'm also driving myself crazy, and there's gotta be a better balance.

Having put the syllabi to bed for the night, I spent a couple of extra hours on a musical thought experiment. A group of my friends in Ithaca, ring-led by Ann, got into a habit during the last semester I lived there of exchanging mix CD's once a month around a mutually agreed theme. I haven't been able to participate since I moved, because a) I've been a scatterbrain and typically shaky correspondent, and b) my CD burner has been on the fritz since October.... and actually, here's a question to all y'all out there. When a CD/DVD drive in a laptop stops being reliable, does it make sense to buy an exterior/portable drive to take its place, or is that a big pain in the ass? I tried to get my regular, internal drive repaired while it was still under warranty (through December), but Best Buy couldn't ever find a problem with it.

Anyway, the most recent theme for the CD Club was "1995"—auspicious for me, since I graduated high school and started college during that year, making it the kind of year where you remember a lot of music. Despite the heroic efforts of the past three hours, I'm still being foiled by the temperamental burner, which is only accepting the dread CD-RWs (???). And I just got an e-mail from Ann saying that, actually, the 1995 exchange has come and gone, and they're already on their next CD.

I suck. But I did try. Here, for your own enjoyment and/or horror, are the tracks I would have crammed onto my disc. I tried to avoid big gimmies like "Gangsta's Paradise" and "You Oughta Know" and the CrazySexyCool jams, but since I think I've established by now that I don't often stray far from Top 40 zones (even less then than now), I tried not to fill the whole disc with the radio-ready R&B dance tunes that were my main dish that whole year. Honorable mention, though: I hate that I don't own a copy of Skee-lo's "I Wish," and that iTunes doesn't seem to carry the song.

Anyway, this is what I'd come up with, but since it was tougher than I thought, let me ask you.... what would you put on a 1995 time-capsule CD?

1. "Baby (All-Star Party Mix)" by Brandy - That's a decoy link, cuz iTunes only has the acceptable but inferior radio edit of the song. So glad I used to buy CD singles! It will just have to burn your soul that my bomb opening to this CD is for my ears only, at least until I fix this CD-drive situation.

2. "1979" by Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out at the end of '95, even though "1979" wasn't released as a single till '96. Still a killer hook, or slide, or whatever that "bum bum bum bum bum bum bum WWOW WWOW" bit is called. Again, I never professed to know anything about music.

3. "Brown Sugar" by D'Angelo - Though he seems to be turning into the Ben Affleck of neo-soul with alarming speed, going to pot in more ways than one, we still hail the glory days of D'Angelo, don't we?

4. "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By" by Method Man & Mary J. Blige - Like the Biggie song further down on this list, this is one of those songs that gets me right out of whatever I'm doing and right on my toes. It only takes those first two notes. Surprise plays on the radio are like cosmic gifts.

5. "Dead Man Walkin'" by Bruce Springsteen - The Boss' spare and haunting title cut, give or take a final "g," to one of 1995's best American films. I won't hurt you by saying too much about the song that stole Bruce's Oscar (he at least got nominated), but here's a hint: think "blue corn moon."

6. "I Think I'm a Mother" by PJ Harvey - I really tried to avoid being so g***amn predictable by picking PJ, but when her best-ever album came out in 1995, it just wasn't in the cards to leave this out.

7. "I Like for You to Be Still" read by Glenn Close - One of my favorite poems, certainly my favorite Neruda, read brilliantly by Close on the Il Postino soundtrack. Ignore that Amazon calls the poet "Pablo Nevuda" all the way through the track listings, and you'll just feel better.

8. "Shy Guy" by Diana King - More famous later on for her dancehall cover of "I Say a Little Prayer" on the My Best Friend's Wedding soundtrack, Diana King kicked it in her trademark bare feet for this cut from the Bad Boys soundtrack. It doesn't feel like a dance song at first, but watch how it fills the floor. Great re-mixes on the CD single, but I went with the standard radio edit, which also appeared on Diana King's own album.

9. "Ladder" by Joan Osborne - For me, one of the great underserved artists of the 1990s was Joan Osborne, who became so synonymous with "One of Us" that way too few people noticed how wild and rich the Relish album really was. Early Recordings is a blast, too, but I had the whole '95 thing to stick to.

10. "The Modern Things" by Björk - Of the many consummate pleasures offered by Björk's music, one of my favorites is how you sometimes don't notice that she's switched from English into Icelandic, and you suss out these totally nonsensical English lyrics that are actually fully credible, because is there any phrase Björk wouldn't sing? "The Modern Things" is a fun song, but its most fun attribute is when she appears to wail the words "Chairman Mao!" in different pitches and cadences as a sort of call-and-response refrain to herself. Even though, obviously, she doesn't really.

11. "My Funny Valentine" by Chaka Khan - One of the most oft-recorded of all the famous standards, but I still love Chaka's typically Chaka rendition the best. No one is less scared of his or her own crazy-ass upper register than Chaka Khan is. She will just happily let fly with that s**t, whenever. And I dig it. (From the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack.)

12. "One More Chance/Stay With Me" by the Notorious B.I.G. - Does any song require less justification than this one? The only explanation anyone should need is why he bothered with the album cut when this radio remix was so delicious. Waaay better than Welch's grape, and a close rival to T-bone steak. (Yeah, I said it!)

13. "Tell Me (6 Karat Hip Hop Mix)" by Groove Theory - Apparently, I was all about the remixes in 1995, even though I'm usually not. What's amazing to me about this song is that if, like me, you love the original version, it proves itself so adaptable to remixes of almost any genre: R&B, Hip Hop, House, Reggae. Whither Groove Theory?

14. "May This Be Love" by Emmylou Harris - As the world turns, there is never a nanosecond when Emmylou Harris isn't cool, though she hits particular heights of cool every now and then, like she has lately by singing the Golden Globe-winning song on the Brokeback soundtrack. She hit another peak in '95 with her Grammy-winning Wrecking Ball album, where, among other feats, she does an incredible rendition of a Hendrix staple, nailing it even more strikingly than Me'shell NdegéOcello did later on the Bitter LP.

15. "Waiting in Vain" by Annie Lennox - Plenty to love on the Medusa album, but I'm especially partial to the way Annie's never-wavering voice can make even plaintive, very nearly sadsack lyrics like these sound so emotionally commanding. Extra points for popping up later in Jane Campion's underrated film In the Cut.

16. "Always Be My Baby (Jermaine Dupri Mix)" by Mariah Carey, Da Brat, and Xscape - Finally, a remix that's available on iTunes, but only because Mimi put out that remix CD a couple years ago, to help gobble up output obligations on her recording contract. In my experience, even people who hate Mariah often like this song, but don't even rain on my parade if you feel differently.

17. "Outside Looking In" by Michael Nyman - End this with an orchestral soundtrack suite, a nine-minute killer by Michael Nyman that girds the climactic sequence of the movie Carrington, when nothing more eventful is happening than the artist Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) sitting outside after dusk - on a stoop, I think - looking inside the lit rooms of a house, where people are in love with people other than her.

Now, don't forget your instructions. Quid pro quo, music fans who are older than 11...


Picked Flick #65: Claudine

Praising American movies of the 1970s is like praising British literature of the 1920s. Who but the sourest contrarian could possibly dissent? What would be the point? And yet, the most familiar versions of that decade's litany of crown jewels—Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, the Godfathers, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, The Conversation, The Parallax View, Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President's Men, The Deer Hunter, Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now—surely are a white and boy-clubby lot. (Surprise!) All the more reason why I wish that John Berry's funny and lusty and pertly political Claudine were more widely celebrated. Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, both of them instantly addictive, are cast as a sort of Loren and Mastroianni of the Harlem walk-ups. She's a housemaid and he's a trash-collector, but unlike the steaming heaps of movies where these roles would go utterly unquestioned for African-American actors, even major stars like Carroll and Jones, Claudine is all about how poverty, even where it's pervasive, denaturalizes life—though I rush to add, this is not some kind of abstruse thesis or clinician's pronouncement. Claudine is bawdily, turbulently down in the trenches, palpably at home in closet-sized kitchens and shit jobs and impossible day-to-day predicaments, against which the film and the characters push with spitfire aplomb.

The first shot of the film finds Claudine and her bumptious brood crossing a street, an image that will repeat at the film's conclusion with only one major change, which is either momentous or negligible depending on whether you favor a personal or a structural view of the film—an impossible choice, everywhere precluded. Claudine and Roop meet at work, though he works for the city and she for a family, and so nothing happening between them is happening on their own turf. Work keeps her from arriving on time to their first date, which begins in her own home, where she has to hide appliances and amenities from the surveilling eye of the Welfare Office case worker, who hears about Roop from Claudine's neighbors, whom we never meet because she never has any time to interact with them, because she's off working the job that the case worker also mustn't discover, in order to feed the kids who phone her incessantly on her first night in Roop's bedroom, which is no less permeable to espionage and intrusion than Claudine's bustling pad. Claudine doesn't keep this all in balance so much as she bends and flexes impressively to hit back as many of the balls as she can, and just as impressively throws her racket and stomps her foot when she knows she's losing a set. Meanwhile, she can't get away from her kids when she wants to but also can't find them when she wants to. Her eldest son Charles is absorbing himself in militant youth politics that the film ribs without dismissing. He swears that if Claudine really loved him, she would have killed him, in the manner of murderously protective slave mothers about whom he has heard, and yet his garbled, comically judgmental anger stems from evident and ubiquitous sources. Her eldest daughter Charlene all but draws knives on Roop when he comes a'courting, but later finds herself tearfully defending the achievements and battered honor of black men, when her unplanned pregnancy riles Claudine to majestic, literally violent fury ("I guess it's a shame you didn't get knocked up by Frederick Douglass!"). The film switches tones and registers on a dime, over and over and over again. Its candor in matters social, sexual, and political, just like its expressively bright color palette, is like an icy splash of river water, even though the film is as inveterately urban as a Spike Lee joint, and defiantly proud of its own dirt.

James Earl Jones upends his typical typecasting with his cheeky, sexy turn, and the juvenile cast is one of the best I've ever seen, especially Tamu Blackwell as Charlene. But of course it's Carroll who reigns over this movie, cocking her brows and lashing her tongue against a world of statutory double-standards and black comedy (pun intended). She's a tornado of sweetness and ire, craving romance and reliable help in equal doses, aghast that her own children view her 36 years as the thick of senior-citizenry. The magic of her performance, and of the film, is that with each new scene, as a new and specific hurdle tosses itself into Claudine's path, we see some new facet of this woman's resilience, sometimes ornery and sometimes humorous, and none of them bear the face of cliché. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Picked Flick #66: Dream of Light (El Sol del Membrillo)

My friend and comrade in cinephilia Tim Robey treasures the film Vanya on 42nd Street, naming it as a personal favorite though he has only seen it once—in part, it seems, because he has only seen it once, or even more specifically, because it imbues its viewers with an impulse to see it only once, to savor it as a memory rather than as a living-place or a possession. I can easily see how the empyrean theatricality of Vanya, ranked at #74 on this very list, could engender this kind of self-imposed and almost sacralizing distance, which I take to be a kind of loyalty, and a recognition of those precious instants when cinema shines its light on the magic essence of some other art form. A different film, Victor Erice's Dream of Light, is my own touchstone for this kind of closely harbored adoration. Like Vanya it offers an awe-inspiring marriage between two arts, and does so with such absolute humility and such expert, inviting simplicity that you trust and absorb it immediately. The corroboration of further viewings feels unnecessary, perhaps even undesirable.

Dream of Light is a Spanish film. Its original title, El Sol del Membrillo, translates more directly as "The Sun of the Quince Tree," and several prints name the film as The Quince Tree Sun. Only in America, as far as I know, was the film released as Dream of Light, and this confusion over titles both augments and reflects how elusive and ephemeral the movie is. Tracking it down, looking it up, even invoking it in conversation is a serpentine process, a series of choices that circle the film instead of leading right to it. The subject of the film, also deceptively simple, is the languid, patient process by which the painter Antonio López Garcia commits the image of a quince tree to his canvas. The process of painting, the interplay it requires between eye and mind, its status as a dynamic rather than a static art, was never really clear to me before I saw this movie. That López Garcia labors over a still-life of a tree, not a Pollock eruption or a Bacon abjection or a series of Van Gogh swirls, only enhances the revelation. His eye measures the tree and its bounty of leaves and fruit each hour of each day, so attentively that the viewer gradually shares in this observant acuity, if only for 135 minutes, and with greater and greater admiration for how López Garcia, aided by mundane tools and scrupulous geometrics, translates such seeing into a new, existing object. At least cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who achieved international fame a decade later with The Others and Talk to Her, has got the jump on us here, judging and rendering López Garcia's world with a comparable grace and luminescence.

Happily, and credibly, López Garcia's painstaking devotions to both his subject and his art are not conveyed as something that excludes him from the group. His days percolate with dialogues—with his wife, with visiting friends, with fellow artists, with workers helping to renovate the house behind which he paints. Dream of Light explodes the romantic myth of the solitary artist with zero fuss or fireworks, even as it makes transparent how inward, idiosyncratic, and unlinguistic the work of the painter is. Positioned as one among many kinds of laborer, as one amid a slightly ragtag but genial and hospitable community of talkers, watchers, and creators, López Garcia emerges more fully as a character than do the protagonists of almost any fiction films or documentaries. The fact that Dream of Light blurs that distinction, too, evaporating its relevance almost from the first scene, is another of the major coups of this peerlessly modest but truly singular movie. When I reminisce about Dream of Light, I get so enamored of what I remember (perhaps even wrongly so!) that I feel briefly compelled to seek it out, to watch it immediately and regularly, and to learn how much more it surely contains and reveals. But something keeps me from doing this, and for now, I'll keep listening to that something. But I hope you won't. At least once. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Let da Music Out

So almost every other blog I know and love makes some effort to clue you in to some good tunes, or at least to what's most recently been hooking the blogger. I really am trying to branch out a little in my music-listening, though none of that is really reflected in my first sidebar batch of iTunes links. Mary J. Blige's "Enough Cryin'" is my runaway favorite track from her souped-up and spectacular new album The Breakthrough. Props to findfinishfreedom for hooking me up with this LP on Day 1, before my dumb a** even figured out that I don't live anywhere near a record store anymore. (In fact, remind me again why I'm not at a dance party in Ithaca right now?)

Redman's "Let da Monkey Out" has been stuck in my head ever since the first scene of Syriana, where it underlines a swanky and druggy private party in Tehran. "I got so much game I could con Edison" is just a perfect rap lyric, especially if you've ever paid a utility bill in New York City, or you know someone who has. The Talking Heads and Macy Gray tracks are perennial faves that I've caught myself humming in the last few days. Belting out "BO DO DO DA" in Macy's distinctive, emphysemic register is a fun thing to do when shopping the grocery aisles, I tell you. Lastly, "Will I?" from Rent, so beautiful and sad, was one of many tunes from that show that I didn't know before I saw the film. It's been a fixture on my iTunes rotation ever since.


The Hot 100

I'm about two weeks late, but while I was in Virginia, I did in fact revise my other Top 100 list, the one that's intended to reflect the 100 best films I have seen (as opposed to the pets and favorites that are my Picked Flicks). The image at left is from Shohei Imamura's The Ballad of Narayama, the highest-ranking of 16 new entries in my Top 100, and one of three movies in my Top 10 that still isn't available on DVD. (The others are The Earrings of Madame de... and Harlan County, USA.) Why there is a Criterion Collection edition of Armageddon but not of these bonafide masterpieces is not remotely clear to me. Especially since Criterion, DVD culture more generally, and the entire home-format industry are supposed to revolve around my own tastes and wishes, etc.


Picked Flick #67: Mask

Mask makes me cry, extravagantly, every time I watch it. If you've ever seen a photograph of Iguazu Falls or beheld a tropical monsoon, you have some idea what my face looks like by the end of Mask, and the funny thing about this is that I always expect that this time, the movie won't work, that I won't be so affected. I first saw Mask in 1986, when it debuted on HBO, and perhaps the fact that I so associate the movie with my being young and first discovering my attraction to the movies is the reason why I always underestimate it, why I always expect its power to diminish over time. Plenty of films became personal touchstones and guilty pleasures in the intervening years, but whereas Steel Magnolias and Dances with Wolves and Ghost feel so antique to me now—enjoyable, but emblematic mostly of their time and place in my life—Mask doesn't subside.

Nothing about Mask is ostentatious, which is particularly remarkable given that it draws on so many tropes that typically embroil Hollywood productions in a tar-pit of tonal trouble: a socially ostracized protagonist, a lower-working-class milieu, a female lead who is "brassy" and "no-nonsense," explorations of teen romance and adult alcoholism, necessarily conspicuous prosthetic make-up, and a foretold trajectory into early death. Somehow, despite the boneyard of palpably phony movies that ventured into these same territories—several of them major Oscar winners—Mask feels true and naturalistic, give or take the bathetic accents of a mute acquaintance who achieves language at a climactic moment. Eric Stoltz and Cher, as the cranially disfigured Rocky Dennis and the mother who both champions him and cuts him zero slack, are such confident and open performers that they forbid the film from drifting into histrionics. Their house is believable. Their quarrels are believable. One of Mask's quiet but marvelous scenes follows Stoltz's Rocky as he follows his mom around the house, reciting to her a poem he has written in school, and for which he has been praised. It sure doesn't hurt that the poem, written by the real Rocky Dennis, is, like much of the movie, a marvelously minimalist piece of work—unforgettable, I suspect, to anyone who's seen the movie. What's most memorable about the scene, though, is how Cher seems so casually indifferent to the poem and to her son, and how Stoltz keeps reciting as though her evident preoccupation doesn't bother him. A simple scenario, played out in daily lives all the time, but seldom realized on-screen, particularly given the usual Hollywood stranglehold that characters must at all times be either 100% appealing or, temporarily, 100% unappealing, at which point the film's job is to strenuously redeem them. Here, too, Mask is modestly exceptional: when Rusty and Rocky fight, their reconciliations are not perfect; Cher's embodiment of brave, protective motherhood stays in the same general temperature range as her scenes of negligent and cruel motherhood; and as the film progresses and martyrdom approaches, Rocky actually becomes less easily "likable," his disappointments and frustrations souring his personality in a wholly plausible way.

Laszlo Kovacs' widescreen photography ensures that Mask never feels less than cinematic, but its intimacy and recognizability as an almost mundane human story, limned and cruelly truncated by one extraordinary obstacle, make it feel like something happening in your own neighbor's house, or in your own. Rocky Dennis' cranial deformity is never incidental to Mask, but rather than treating his condition as a relentless and limiting point of focus, the filmmakers commit to characterizing his life with an empathy and humility that wondrously embrace everything else in the movie, too. And what a terrific final tribute to Rocky: to have his life depicted in such a way that his clever, moody, compassionate ordinariness, and not his otherness, is the essence of his story. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sending Flowers to Myself...

...on the occasion of the first birthday of this blog. All the pleasures of infancy without any of the teething rings or the ear infections. Though it occurs to me I am still up at odd hours with this thing. Anyway, thanks for continuing to read!

That first day of blogging was occasioned by last year's Golden Globe Awards, most memorable to me now as the occasion when bogus winner Leonardo DiCaprio implored audiences to "keep giving help to the tsunami." Even without a year's distance, I can't say I have much to add about this year's Golden Globes, either. For the third year running, I'm almost totally unmoved by this year's crop of major awards contenders. At least in 2003 I could make a personal obsession and enormous mea culpa out of Charlize Theron's Monster performance, and nearly alone among my friends, I really admired Million Dollar Baby last year. Almost all of this year's front-runners are more palatable to me in concept than in point of fact, to say nothing of straightforward mediocrities like Walk the Line and Match Point. This year's ceremony, which I only observed as a sort of corner-of-my-eye affair on Derek's roommate's tiny TV—featuring the kind of reception that a cheap antenna in Queens is likely to buy you—reminded me of the movies it honored: polished, unembarrassing, but unremarkable beneath a pleasing, gleaming surface.

It is symptomatic of my dyspepsia about this year's awards season that all of my favorite Globes moments came from the TV actors. Two of them came from Geena Davis alone: reminding us what a knockout she often managed to be at these kinds of affairs, especially in bright red, and hooking the whole audience with that hilarious bit of apocrypha in her acceptance speech. It suddenly didn't matter that the two episodes of Commander in Chief I have seen have been so tepid and milky, not least because the writers seem so scared of fully realizing Davis' character and because she hasn't done much to raise the game of her own accord. I loved when Sandra Oh, looking like a million bucks for the second year running, described the nervous rush of the winning instant—"I feel like someone just set me on fire!"—and I loved that S. Epatha Merkerson, virtually alone among repeat Globe- and Emmy-winners (or Globe- and Oscar-winners) managed to give two distinct speeches that were both funny, warm, and sincere: "I am 53 years old, and this was my first lead in a film," she semi-tearfully confessed, before adding, "and if I weren't in the middle of a major hot flash, I would have something to say about that." Merkerson also had, in Jesse L. Martin, the dreamiest date of the evening.

No real fashion praisesongs to deliver, though Eric Bana and Viggo Mortensen sure cleaned up good, and Maria Bello, Felicity Huffman, and Kate Beckinsale stole Uma Thurman's good idea from last year in brilliant white. (Beckinsale's only worked, though, when she ditched the ridiculous fur wrap.)

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Theater 1, Film 0

Okay, so I'm officially back in Hartford after a month away. There is nothing in my fridge or pantry, there is next-to-nothing in my checking account, and there are only five days before the next semester gallops apace. How is any of this possible?

I did get to spend a good long weekend in New York City on my way back up here, during which I saw five movies, but none of them were as good as the production of Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro that Derek and I saw at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, up on St. Nicholas Ave and 141st. Admittedly, Funnyhouse of a Negro is probably my favorite American play, top five easy, and yet it's so rarely staged that I probably would have been tickled by any production. But director Billie Allen, the star of the original 1964 off-Broadway production, has done exquisite justice to the rich figures, the starkly beautiful language, the brutal historical kaleidoscopes, and the frightening Artaudian cruelties of the piece. How many American plays are this rich in narrative and character but also invite, even require, such stunning attention to movement, voice, sound, masking, and makeup? The full cast of actors—not just the brave lead actress Suzette Azariah Gunn but, even more so, the exemplary artists who embody her historically-derived alter egos—are in stunning control of the text and its ritualistic choreographies. The piece is perfectly suited to the small, dark space of the Harlem School for the Arts, and the play's heavy demands on the lighting and tech crews are fully met across the board. New Yorkers and nearby outliers, you have until Feb. 12 to buy a ticket and better your life.

In the wake of this event, the movies I caught were bound to be also-rans, although Michael Haneke's Caché (which I was lucky to catch with Nathaniel) works very proficiently as a paranoid thriller and a probing character study. Eventually, the thematic implications become a bit cut-and-dry, not as textured as what Haneke achieved in The Piano Teacher or as chilling as his underrated Time of the Wolf. Still, Haneke's images retain their formidable obstinacy, somehow implying that they are staring you down much more forcefully than you are staring at them. Watching the movie at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is sort of a kick, because the social caste that Caché critiques is basically the same one plunked down in front of it; I was fascinated to sense the moments when the audience's enervated glee paled into a kind of nervous disavowal of the film.

In other news, I found Duncan Tucker's Transamerica to be a rather winning experience, without too much of the mushy sentiment that adheres to adjectives like "winning." The actors are good, even when creaky story-motivations require some surmounting, and the pressure to affirm the heroism of the protagonist or to simplify the perspectives of the people who surround her is much less than this kind of movie often demands. Moving down the ladder of value, Merchant-Ivory's The White Countess boasts a very strong performance by Ralph Fiennes, a bewitching sound mix, a typically good score by Richard Robbins, and a preposterous screenplay that keeps threatening to sink the whole thing. If Ivory had directed the verbal repetitions, stock figures, and clunky social collage so that they felt more purposefully irreal—as in some of screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro's more dreamlike novels, like The Unconsoled—then things might have hung together. Unhappily, The White Countess starts as a polished film with quaintly banal notions of history, before lowering itself into the truly unpardonable dialogues and contrivances of its finish.

It gets worse from there. Mrs. Henderson Presents sells out its virtues to its inanities in an even more galling way than The White Countess does, because at least what works in The White Countess is unexpected, idiosyncratic. Mrs. Henderson Presents is much more conventionally dispiriting: a period comedy with luscious costumes and make-up and an agreeable song score, all vainly recruited into the kind of movie that espouses nude vaudeville as a soulful protest to the indignities of global war. Judi Dench's protagonist isn't a character so much as a machine for prodding guffaws at her faux-outrageous quips. Jennifer Aniston puts much more effort into her lead turn in Rumor Has It, but without the slightest wisp of anything to play, she can only sell individual lines and moments. There isn't a single thing tying this movie together except its uniform garishness of tone, look, and scenario, all of them bordering on the lewd. You know the kind of "romantic comedy" where you wish the beleaguered boyfriend would file a restraining order against the protagonist instead of reconciling with her? This is that sort of gig.

Tim R. has correctly diagnosed me as an "Oscar completist," which is the only reason I would pay to see a movie like Mrs. Henderson Presents, and why I'll almost certainly squeeze in Memoirs of a Geisha, Casanova, and, God help me, The Producers before the nomination announcements January 31. (Note: "Oscar completism" transcends the high-profile categories and requires seeing anything short of The Polar Express or Bicentennial Man that might swipe even an Art Direction or Original Song nod.) The only major milestone of 2005 still to arrive to my eyes is Terrence Malick's The New World, which finally opens in Hartford this Friday—quite possibly in a re-edited version, given that the film was yanked from all of its metropolitan screens early this month and that rumors have run rampant about Malick and/or the studio tinkering with the tepidly-received epic. As a dyed-in-the-wool Malick devoté, I'm hoping for the best. In any event, my Top 10 list for 2005 will be posted once I've seen it, with the Nick's Flick Picks honorees in all categories soon to follow.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Where I'm Blogging From

With apologies to Raymond Carver, and to any of you reading, my wee but loyal party of chums. I am neither a) dead, b) near-dead, c) undead, nor d) trapped under something heavy. I am just finishing my last night of a three-week stay at my mother's house, helping her convalesce from a recent illness. Happily, all signs are looking good for her at present. Meanwhile, through diaphanous spiritual algorithms possibly unique to middle-class suburbia, it seems that a woman's health improves in direct proportion to how many household chores you can do in her stead and how much yard work you can perform at her behest. Helping to prepare meals and outfits, encouraging her through physical therapy workouts, etc., were helpful at the time, but appeared positively minuscule compared to the moment on New Year's Day when two fellows appeared unsolicited at our doorstep and volunteered their services to clean and flush the gutters surrounding the roof. This event was greeted as something akin to a cracking open of the heavens. And nothing apparently says I love you like raking a backyard that has, of necessity, gone untouched throughout a heavily deciduous autumn. Having spent an entire two days filling 68 of those 30-gallon Glaad bags—the ones with the plastic yellow drawstrings that look like police-emergency tape—I finally attained something of The Zone described to me by certain marathon-running acquaintances. Call it a raker's high.

All of this plus a last-minute job interview that went deliciously well (Chicagoans: prepare for a long-in-coming visit!), a bout with a nasty bronchial cough, an 81-year-old grandfather undergoing sudden surgery (he's fine), the delicate choreographies of post-divorce Quality Family Time, a worrisome addiction to my older brother Nathan's PlayStation version of Galaga, and a household where dial-up is the only internet option but the phone-line has to stay clear all day for doctors, well-wishers, and pinch-hitters from the office.... all this and no broadband makes Nick a dull blogger.

You can see on the sidebar that I did at least squeeze in some movies, mostly with Nathan. Syriana, a film which I felt I had no need to re-visit, actually got much more legible and more interesting on a second viewing, and I'm wondering about the degree to which I might have undersold it. I'm considering an upgrade to B+. Werner Herzog's indifferent documentary The White Diamond only throws into further relief the superior qualities of Grizzly Man; Graham Dorrington's tetchy inner conflicts aren't a patch on Timothy Treadwell's flamboyantly embodied contradictions, and The White Diamond is diverting without raising any great questions. Most recently, Woody Allen's Match Point proved to be a weirdly anaesthetized experience, creepily absent of ambient noise, and marred by bovine lead performers who repeat lines and looks quite frequently. Altogether, the film tends to steep almost everything that works or almost works in a thin tea of everything that doesn't. I'm doing my best to extend benefit of the doubt, but I still think Tim R. has nailed it here.

I've also been reading. Ed Bullins' We Righteous Bombers, a pseudonymously written adaptation of Camus' The Just Assassins into the militant idioms and cultural contexts of late-60s Black Power politics, is a sprawling and complicated play, fertile with a kind of theatrical imagination that excites even on the page, though its multiple characters, layered realities, projected images, and Genetian betrayals would be most absorbing in performance. Look for it in Bullins' own anthology New Plays from the Black Theatre. I'd love to say the same for August Wilson's Radio Golf, the last play in his famed 10-part cycle devoted to the 20th-century social history of African-Americans, especially in Pittsburgh. Read it for yourself in the November '05 issue of American Theatre magazine, but—as much as one hates to speak ill of the recently deceased—it's a sadly disappointing piece, limned within very proscribed arguments about ownership, political viability, and preservation of traditions within an upwardly mobile segment of the black middle class. The characters, unfortunately, just don't convince, the scenario pales beside the messier but more confident yarns of the other plays (Jitney is the only other clunker), and one can't help feeling, or at least I couldn't, that the ailing Wilson had to finish this play too fast if he was to finish it at all. If the play gets you down, hop back into Ma Rainey's Black Bottom or Joe Turner's Come and Gone or Seven Guitars and feel better.

Finally, I'm a little over 100 pages into Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and on balance, I'm really enjoying it. I am not much buying the dialogue that issues forth from any of the younger characters, and the Howards End parallels often feel too forced; the transliteration of Leonard Bast's unintentionally nicked umbrella into a brief wrangle over swapped Discmans creaks like a poor transmission. But there's wonderful and quite funny narration throughout, the unfolding of extra- and intra-marital intrigue is succulently paced, and as much as it irks me that novels about academia are almost inevitably satires (does no one really believe in it anymore?), Smith's comic observations are trenchant and specific instead of just twee. She's particularly good at the absurd frictions between intellectual solipsism and the worlds outside that tower: "The flight from the rational, which was everywhere in evidence in the new century, none of it had surprised Howard as it had surprised others, but each new example he came across—on the television, in the street, and now in this young man—weakened him somehow. His desire to be involved in the argument, in the culture, fell off. The energy to fight the philistines, this is what fades."

I admit, though, that these later sentences froze my blood a little: "Christian, under [the wine's] influence, looked properly young for once. You could see him permitting himself some partial release from the brittle persona that a visiting lecturer of only twenty-eight must assume if he has ambitions of becoming an assistant professor." Now, technically, I am a visiting assistant professor of only twenty-eight, but still, I am now going to be so on-guard against brittle party behavior that I am probably doomed to exhibit it. Thanks, Zadie.

More to come from that book on the train tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, in a few days' time, I'll be back at my normal station, ensconced in Hartford and glued to my laptop. More to follow then—just in time for this blog's one-year anniversary on Wednesday. À bientot!

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