My Oscar nomination predictions:
1. The Social Network
2. The King’s Speech
3. The Fighter
4. Black Swan
5. True Grit
6. Toy Story 3
7. The Kids Are All Right
9. 127 Hours
10. Winter’s Bone
Inspired by Slate.com media columnist Jack Shafer's piece about generic news headlines that we see over and over again, I thought I'd compile my own list of generic headlines, an arts and entertainment edition (disclosure: I'm sure I've been guilty of a few of these):
Is [Insert Artistic Medium Here] Dead?
Are We Living In The Golden Age Of TV?
Movie Star To Appear On Broadway
Movie Star Who's About To Appear On Broadway: "Live Performance Is More Fulfilling Than Film And TV"
A-list Celebrity Or Filmmaker To Do Web-Related Project
A-list Filmmaker Who Just Did A Low-Budget Project: "I Like It When It's Not Such A Huge Crew And No Studio Breathing Down My Neck And It's Just Me And A Camera And I Can Do What I Want"
Burlesque Or Other Vintage Art Form Enjoying A Revival
Underage Celebrity Does Provocative Photo Shoot
Oscar Ceremony May Move To Different Date
Racist Remark Made On Radio
Awards Show Gets Disappointing Ratings
Lots Of New Films And/Or TV Shows Address The Subject Of Our Bad Economy
Play Or Musical Revived On Broadway Because It Relates To War Or Bad Economy
Facebook Or Other Social Networking Site Bigger Than Ever
In the past, I’ve been a bit skeptical of this kind of thinking. I’ve felt that that if we are really aware of how we are experiencing a movie, then we would view the experience in absolute terms, and not in relation to our expectations. I’ve learned to appreciate how expectations can matter.
My top movies of 2009, in order:
1. District 9
I wasn’t even going to see this, as it seemed too science fiction-y for me, but I love the way it grounded the science fiction in real life. I very much enjoyed watching the flawed but sympathetic protagonist, Wikus, a government bureaucrat who is appointed to head up the effort of evicting the aliens from Johannesburg. He’s like a South African Michael Scott. The political allegory managed to be completely obvious but also, somehow, still smart and nuanced — an area where “Avatar” could have used a lesson.
I got 41 correct out of 45 nominees in the major categories:
X = wrong answer [the actual nominee I missed is in brackets]
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Inglorious Basterds
3. Up in the Air
7. An Education
8. A Serious Man
9. Invictus - X [The Blind Side]
10. District 9
My predictions for the Oscar nominations:
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Inglorious Basterds
3. Up in the Air
7. An Education
8. A Serious Man
10. District 9
I’d like to praise “The Drunkard’s Walk,” a book I just finished listening to on CD, written by Leonard Mlodinow, a professor at Caltech. It’s in one of the many books I’ve read in the general arena of pop academia, all of which basically have the same theme — “you don’t know what you think you know.” It’s like on huge Venn Diagram where each circle is a book, so they all overlap, many citing the same experiments, though each one focuses on a different subject. There are the ones that focus on happiness, the one that focuses on crowds, one on split-second decisions, many on economics, etc.
This one is the math one. The theme is: “you don’t know what you think you know about probability.” Our brains are bad at calculating the probability that something will happen.
I started out skeptical, as Mlodinow starts with some very elementary pop academic concepts, like his discussion about how film executives get fired even when they’ve only been in their jobs for five years, and does anyone really know how much their actions actually have an impact on whether a movie actually does well. It’s a concept I’ve heard in other similar books, namely “The Wisdom of Crowds” — that CEOs’ actions don’t always affect a company’s results in the way you think they can.
The book eventually takes us on a journey through the history of the field of probability. For each discovery, he explains the concept and uses various examples to help us understand it. Eventually, the book starts to point some concepts that I’m sure are understood only by a tiny fraction of the population, and which even very smart people don’t know about or completely ignore, and yet are crucial to hugely important situations.
A couple months ago, I saw Steve Martin at Disney Hall playing the banjo, right after seeing the famous tap-dancer Savion Glover perform at the Broad Hall. Both events struck me as surprisingly similar.
Each man is probably the most famous person in his art form, and most audience members I’d imagine showed up because of this. Martin is very much a legit banjo player, as his first album of banjo songs, “The Crow,” released earlier this year, spent months atop the bluegrass charts and got nominated for major International Bluegrass Music Association awards (again, probably at least in part from name recognition). Glover is a tap dancer and has always been a tap dancer, but his fame also came from outlets where his tap dancing mixed with more popular art forms, as in his creation of the Broadway show “Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk” and his choreography for the animated movie “Happy Feet.”
Each one’s art form is a small corner of Americana, one that is easily forgotten and isn’t often written about in big feature stories in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section.
Each one had a band of sorts. Martin had the Steep County Rangers as his backup band, and for a few songs he was joined by his opening act Abigail Washburn and for others the famous banjo player Bela Fleck came onstage, and the Rangers also did a couple songs on their own. Glover’s act was also set up very much like a concert — it was him and two backup dancers, and each had his own wooden platform on the stage, and, as with Martin, the backup dancers at times got their own “songs” to perform.
Each one involved the impressively quick repetition of this tiny staccato noise in order to create a catchy rhythm. There’s the click-click of the tap shoes, and the blink-blink of the banjo.
Last Monday at 9:45 PM I go to the laundry room in my building and put my clothes in the washing machine. At 10:30 I go to the washer to transfer the clothes to the dryer, and the clothes are sitting in about a foot of water — meaning the washing machine had broken down at some point during its cycle. I try taking clothes out, shifting them around, and adding more quarters, but nothing works. Figuring they’ve sat in soapy water long enough to be clean, I wring out each article of clothing and transfer them all into the dryer. The dryer won’t start.
I consider what laundromats might be open, and conclude that there are probably none. My girlfriend calls, and she suggests I bring them to her apartment, but that requires a disgusting bag full of wet laundry. I’m about to start using the second-floor outdoor hallway railing as a drying rack when I realize that there are lots of other apartments on my way to my girlfriend’s apartment. Namely, all the apartments on my block. Our apartment doesn’t lock its laundry room so maybe there are others that don’t either.
In the musical “West Side Story,” currently being revived on Broadway, there’s a line from the song “I Feel Pretty” in which Maria sings, “For I’m loved by a pretty wonderful boy.” For many people, the line is a throwaway. In my family, the line is infamous.
While growing up, my parents played their Broadway cast recordings for my brothers and me during long car trips, and we’d often get into arguments over lyrics, with my mom and dad on opposing sides. These arguments weren’t just about our nagging need to know what the person said. To us, the answers to these questions would define the message of the entire show or color our opinion of the lyricist’s entire oeuvre.
In “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” for instance, there’s a song called “A Lot Of Livin’ to Do.” It’s sung by Kim, the high school student from Sweet Apple, Ohio, and Conrad, the Elvis-like rock star who is supposed to kiss Kim on television before he goes into the army as part of an elaborate publicity stunt. The song is sung during Conrad’s last night as a civilian, as he goes out and parties with the other kids in the town (and, subtextually, it seems, is looking to get laid by one of the kids or perhaps Kim herself).
At one point in the movie soundtrack version of the song, Kim says — and I’m writing phonetically here, so as not to be disowned — “I may break a har-ta-day.” The dangling “ta” is either a combination of the final sound of “heart” and an indefinite article “a,” or the clear beginning of the word “today,” with the fact that a “t” sound from the word “heart” comes right before it being merely coincidental.
Here is my first ever opera review, of L.A. Opera’s “Das Rheingold” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the first segment in Wagner's Ring Cycle, which opened on Saturday night.
Note: the times listed below are wild approximations.
6:32 PM – My date and I start out from Westwood to Downtown Los Angeles. On Google maps, the 10 has red traffic lines all over it, so we take Olympic instead.
6:36 – Using my Treo, I find a synopsis of the opera on the Met’s website and my date begins to read it.
6:47 – My date reads, “Loge, who originated the contract with the giants…” I butt in: “And Loge is now re-negotiating the deal with the giants?” My date: “Yeah.” Me: “So Loge is the Jew?”
7:02 – I tell my date that the show is 2 hours and 45 minutes with no intermission.
7:10 – We stop at a Koreatown gas station convenience store and buy Powerbars and Gummi Savers.
7:24 – We see a sign in the lobby that says the opera is 2 hours and 45 minutes with no intermission, so “please plan accordingly.”
7:26 – Almost all the urinals in the men’s room are filled.
For Oscar weekend, I’ve made a list of my favorite movies of 2008:
1. “Slumdog Millionaire”
What most impressed me is that this is a drama, with the emotional depth of the greatest of dramas, but that it also gave me the ecstatic, roller coaster feeling I get while watching the greatest of action movies. “Slumdog” just went places that were completely risky and surprising, starting with the little kid diving into the outhouse — the most glorious feces scene I’ve ever seen. It’s gross-out humor that tops the best of the Farrelly brothers and their ilk.
A very, very close second. I am continually impressed by Pixar’s batting average, and each hit isn’t just a single, it’s a home run. How is that possible? No screenwriter or director is that consistent. How can a studio be more consistent than the most consistent filmmaker? Every joke is perfectly timed, from Eve completing the Rubix Cube to Wall-E finding the engagement ring and throwing it away the ring in favor of the box. And that whole business with the holding hands always threatens to spill over into sentimentality, but it never does, because the emotion has been earned along the way. My theory is that “Wall-E” is the best Judd Apatow movie ever. It’s a scruffy, immature guy meets a confident, beautiful woman and she helps him grow up.
I was a big fan of this year’s Olympics, and I wanted to share my thoughts after a week of reflection.
First, the fantastic opening ceremonies, which, every four years, as one friend put it, gives the host country the opportunity to put on its own version of Cirque du Soleil. In the past, my family tended to tape opening ceremonies on VHS, and I’d tell myself I’d watch the whole thing. But, typically, after I watched a bit of it, I’d forget about it until three years later, when I would discover it while trying to tape something else. The only moment from past opening ceremonies I can remember was Muhammed Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta.
But I think it’s safe to say that this year’s in Beijing was by far the most captivating in recent memory. At $300 million, it was surely the most expensive theater production in history (not counting inflation — or maybe counting inflation). Opening Ceremonies can make me feel overwhelmed – there are so many countries out there, so many people in the world, and especially in China, where there are one billion of them, for God’s sake! But I felt like Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker who oversaw the thing, did a great job of combining the grandness with a sense of the personal. We saw the beauty of 2,008 people banging on the drums all at once, but we also got to see this little girl in red fly above everyone. We got to see a parade of thousands of athletes, but when China’s most popular athlete, Yao Ming, came out holding his country’s flag, he was accompanied by a little boy who had survived China’s recent earthquake and who had helped save members of his class because, as he put it, he’s a hall monitor, so he felt responsible for helping his classmates (I found it oddly touching — and a little scary — that a silly little schoolroom title is what prompts such heroism).
As for the actual events, I’m always bothered by the sports that are judged, such as gymnastics — while at the same time fascinated by the absurdities of the way they work (It makes perfect sense that artistic pursuits such as watercolors used to be part of the Olympics, in the first half of the century). In most of the gymastics events, the only thing we lay people notice is the landing — whether they stick the landing, or hop a bit, or fall over completely. It’s the same in diving, where the only thing we recognize is the splash. The commentators try — and usually fail — to articulate any other reasons for why points are awarded and deducted. Those reasons must be there, as these commentators seem to instantly recognize what’s a good performance and what’s a bad performance (and in general seem eerily familiar with these sports that are rarely on TV). But we’ll never know what they are. I laugh the hardest at the floor routines, in which they try to extend their arms with a flourish and be “artistic” when all that really matters is the tumbling parts and all that matters in those tumbling parts is whether you stick that stupid landing. It also seems like a half-hearted imitation of figure skating, where artistry is much more of a factor (thus making figure skating silly in its own way).
In these judged sports, they try to make the judging as objective as possible, by creating rules for what gives you points and what requires point deductions, but that still doesn’t work. During one women’s gymnastics event, the commentators said that for one of the medalists, the judges simply didn’t deduct what they were supposed to deduct. And there’s no appeals process afterwards. That got me really angry, until I realized this does happen even in “normal” sports in which the scoring is more objective. In baseball, for instance, an umpire can make a bad call, and that call stands no matter what — which is why baseball is just beginning to use instant replay.
Another absurdity is the fact that in the Olympic’s, the athletes’ final performance determines everything — their medals, their legacy, their self-esteem. Sure, this happens in all sports and there’s nothing to be done: four times out of five, the Patriots beat the Giants, but in the Super Bowl they had an off day. But in the Olympics, the absurdity is made all the more stark, because no variables change. For one, these sports are purely individual — their opponents can’t alter their performance in any way. No variables change from one performance to another. So it seems rather absurd to arbitrarily decide to use this guy’s Wednesday performance instead of his Tuesday performance. Second, they do multiple performances Athlete A could break a world record during the qualifying rounds but then one day later, the final round, since the slate is wiped clean, they could do the exact same routine they could get stuck with the bronze. This happens not only in the judged sports but also in the more objective sports like track and field. World records seem like they should be a huge feat in comparison to a gold medal, but
Finally, I love that countries grade their Olympians on a curve. In the U.S., you need eight gold medals to host “Saturday Night Live.” But in other countries, smaller accomplishments can have a bigger relative impact on the hearts and minds of the people. During the Chinese games, commentators’ introductions during the finals frequently sounded something like, “Joe Smith became a national hero in Sri Lanka after his 2004 bronze medal in the discus.” What is it like to live in such a society? Do they realize they have low expectations, or is ignorance simply bliss?
As promised, I’m (belatedly) posting about my brother’s UCLA business school graduation. One aspect of the graduation that I found rather amusing the fact that UCLA often has multiple graduations on the same day, each one in a different courtyard. So in the middle of someone’s speech, you might hear a loud yell, indicating that three hundred medical students or comparative literature doctoral candidates are throwing their hats in the air somewhere across campus. I also enjoyed watching the lone security guard standing at the top of the steps that went up behind the tent where the business school graduation speakers spoke, having to confront the people trying to come down the steps and shoo them away.
Another amusing parts of the graduation was the “hooding ceremony” that they do for the dozen or so doctoral candidates. Someone would announce the topic of the person’s dissertation — something like “Three essays on marketing emergence binary value quotas” — and then their faculty advisor would put their sparkling new velvet blue and yellow hood over the person. Though of course the hood would often get caught on their hair or glasses or something. After four years, the hooding is stopped short because it gets caught on your glasses – how anticlimactic! I know it seems like no big deal, but the hood and the cool robes that they give you to wear at future commencements, and hooding ceremony itself, somehow makes getting a PhD more attractive. It’s like it brands you, “here’s one of the world experts in this topic.” It’s a mint on your pillow-style psychology trick, because, of course, the PhD involves four to ten years of hard study, not to mention the writing of a document with a title like “Three essays on marketing emergence binary value quotas.” The husband of the woman next to us was one of these doctoral students, and the woman told us that the whole PhD get-up, robe and hood, cost $700.
In typical business school fashion, to make the diploma hand-offs for 360 people more efficient, they rig up this Rube Goldberg contraption in which each person carries a card with his or her name on it, gets in one of two lines at each end of the stage, and the first person in line hands the card to the announcer, the announcers on each side trade off speaking the names, and when your name is called you receive your diploma from the person giving them out on your side of the stage and get your picture taken with that person. On the stage right side you got your diploma from the dean, but on the stage left side other side you got it from the commencement speaker, the head of Johnson and Johnson, which I think would be not nearly as meaningful, considering the dean was your dean for two years and the Johnson and Johnson guy just kind of waltzed in there that day to give a speech.
And finally, my brother gave a really great commencement address, which you can see here:
I remember going to San Diego with my family when I was six, and one day my dad asked if we’d like to go to Mexico or go to a Dr. Seuss exhibit at the San Diego art museum. We opted for Dr. Seuss, though I had always wondered what I had been missing. After I moved to L.A., I was rather blasé about Mexico being right around the corner, thinking it couldn't be that different from the U.S., and I figured I would get there at some point. It was a welcome surprise when, a few weeks ago my friend Ethan came to town, and he wanted to go to Mexico during the first weekend in June.
We left L.A. around 6 PM for a two and a half-hour drive to the border, where crossing into Mexico was no different than crossing into another state. We weren’t stopped, we didn’t’ slow down, nothing. You drive straight into Tijuana, which, everyone told me, was a dirty, sleazy, touristy, no-fun border town. But I was optimistic as a result of the Rough Guide’s positive outlook and various revisionist newspaper articles talking about all of Tijuana’s new art galleries and other signs of civilization.
Unfortunately, the reputation turned out to be true, and it soon became clear that Tijuana would not have been much fun for a six-year-old, or a sixty year old, or anyone. On Friday night around 9 PM, the famed Avenida Revolucion was not the hopping party street I expected. It looked more like Brooklyn’s Fulton Street mall after the apocalypse.
We spent a while getting thoroughly confused on the city streets, especially with the Paris-style, try-not-to-die traffic circles around frightening mega-sculptures that looked like they had been personally selected by Francisco Franco. We finally arrived at Cien Anos, a legendary restaurant written up in all the guidebooks. The books told us that we MUST make a reservation, but for much of the meal we were the only ones there except for a fancy wedding in the next room. The restaurant was fancy, far from a true Mexican experience, and the prices were only slightly cheaper than they would be in the U.S. But the food was fantastic. I ordered a crepe covered in a neon green sauce and filled with something called huilacoches, which turned out to be the fungus that grows on corn, a Mexican delicacy. It was really good, if a little salty. I also enjoyed the steak and the sweet duck dish that we shared for the main courses.
After more confusion on the Tijuana streets, we finally found our way out of the city and drove the twenty minutes to the beach town of Rosarito. Rosarito is apparently the spring break capital of northern Baja California (the name for the long, thin peninsula south of California), which meant, I figured, that on a Friday night in the summer, it would at least have some signs of life. Apparently not. We checked into a huge, tacky hotel rigged specifically for spring break, with its network of pools, bars, dance floors and cheap plastic dragons that lay dormant in its backyard. We walked down the town’s stretch of eight or so bars, each of which looked like a low-rent theme park, with rivers and drawbridges and volleyball courts. There were lots of people outside the bars, shouting at us, enthusiastically trying to rope us in, and even fewer people actually inside drinking. We had one drink at a Mexico karaoke bar and called it a night. The next morning we went running on the beach and I jumped into the freezing, still-deserted pool. Then we started on our way to Ensenada, about an hour down the highway.
The big tourist attraction along the way was a former movie studio that Fox had constructed for the filming of “Titanic.” Other films, such as “Master and Commander,” had filmed there, taking advantage of its huge water tanks (and cheap labor) until it was closed and turned into a mini theme park. We began by walking through a forgettable exhibit on special effects, and a "Planet of the Apes"-themed attraction which involved 100 screaming kids in a room the size of a Starbucks putting nerf balls into cannons and shooting them at each other.
But everyone comes for the guided tour of the “Titanic” exhibit, which includes actual sets and props from the film, including the dining room, the poker room, the room where Leo gets handcuffed to the pipe, and the 20-foot-or-so model of the ship that split apart. We had a fantastic English-speaking guide who filled us in on how extravagant the production was and the ways in which it cut corners just like every other movie — like how the ivory designs in the walls were created by white stickers. The boiler room that Leo and Kate run through was still in the exact spot where it was during the filming, and while in the movie it seemed to go on and on, in reality it was not much bigger than my bedroom. Our guide had been a security guard at the studio when movies were actually filmed there, told stories of meeting James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He had even married his wife in one of the Titanic sets.
We went to lunch in nearby Puerto Nuevo, a small village made up about 100 souvenir shops and pharmacies serving cheap drugs, but better known for its 30 restaurants serving Puerto Nuevo-style lobster -- a Pacific lobster that looks more like an enormous shrimp, and is deep-fried in lard. We picked Restaurant Puerto Nuevo #2, which the books said was the best -- plus, we got right in, while nearby Restaurant Puerto Nuevo #1 for some reason had a line out the door. Each order gets you one and a half lobsters, which you scoop out of the shell and wrap up in a tortilla along with butter and salsa and other fixins. It topped our already fantastic meal from the night before.
That evening we arrived in Ensenada, a beach town that could charm the pants off of Rosarito and had much more activity. We checked into the Hotel Cortez, which was, admittedly, a tourist trap, but two people splitting a $70 room in a prime location wasn’t bad. We started off the night at Hussong’s, the oldest bar in Baja, which was scarily similar to the legendary McSorley’s on 7th Street in the East Village, down to the sawdust on the floor. After that it was one bar after another — a huge bar with a band playing classic rock, a huge outdoor club with a dance floor, a martini lounge, a rock club, and a hipster bar where we talked to some locals, who told us that very few Americans come to Ensenada — it's mostly Mexican tourists.
The next morning I went on a run along the water and took a swim. Then, at Ethan’s urging, we went to a barber shop to get a straight-razor shave, my first. The owner of the shop had what appeared to be the definitive Marilyn Monroe poster collection taking up most of the wall space. As soon as the guy started wiping the cream on my face, I thought of "Sweeney Todd." I've seen the show on stage and on screen, but I never quite realized how vulnerable you actually are when a barber is holding a razor to your throat. It’s a pretty unique situation. When else do we let a complete stranger hold a trigger that could kill us in an instant? To top it off, I spent the entire time staring at 100 likenesses of the most famous person ever to die young. I was relieved when it ended, but the shave, I’ll admit, felt pretty good.
Then it was time for lunch, which, in Ensenada, means fish tacos. We picked the outdoor stand Tacos El Fenix, where our meal cost $8 for two people but still managed to match the trip's other the culinary highlights. We normally think of fish tacos as tortillas filled with slices of grilled mahi mahi. But Ensenada-style fish tacos are a tortilla filled with one strip of deep-fried fish, and you add in onions, cilantro, salsa, lime, cabbage and carrots, which are sitting in bowls on the counter. We also had refreshing mango juice, and while walking down the street we stopped at a stand for the best churros I've ever had. We walked through Ensenada's famed fish market and walked by a flag pole topped by the city's 60-foot-long Mexican flag -- the scale of which caused me to become neauseated every time I looked at it over the previous 18 hours.
We left Ensenada for La Bufadora, a tourist attraction that was supposedly a half hour down the road but ended up a three-hour deal — though, to be fair, we dawdled. We got a fun slice of Mexican life at a makeshift horse track where the horses run straight in a line and a race takes all of five seconds. The drive is along perilous cliffs, and then, after you park, you have to walk down a street lined with about 50 identical shops all selling the same jewelry, candy and sombreros, all identical to the dozens of other shops we saw in Puerto Nuevo and other cities.
La Bufadora, Spanish for "whale blowhole," is a national monument meets a water park attraction. Imagine about 50 tourists standing along a wall on the top of a rocky cliff about 70 feet above the ocean. At the water level is a tiny inlet, where the rock formations are such that every ten seconds or so, water sprays into the air — sometimes onto the tourists, who then yell and scatter and try to cover their digital cameras.
On the way back we stopped to buy tamales and olives — the region’s specialty — and stopped at huge market along a dirt road where the stands were no different than those of a New York street fair. By that time it was almost 8 PM – which, we realized, would cause Ethan to cut it close on his flight to Cambodia that left LAX at 1:30 AM. The border crossing, of course, took much longer than it did coming into Mexico — an hour and a half longer. But we made what I’m sure was record time from the border to LAX, and Ethan was the last person checked in for his flight to Cambodia. On the way to the airport, when we stopped for gas, we were so hungry that we did the unthinkable -- we ordered from Taco Bell.
Both my brothers graduated over the last few weeks. Ezra from Oberlin College over Memorial Day weekend, and Nathaniel from UCLA business school last week.
I've only been to Oberlin four times, once each year my brother was there, for a couple days each time. Oberlin helped me realize what I like and dislike about small towns. I think I would feel lonely living in a place where you could walk across the enormous town square in the middle of the day and not run into anyone. That's probably why, during my stays, I grew attached to all signs of life. Even small places like the campus convenience store, dining halls, and coffee shops. And especially the town's main street area, only three blocks long, which included the college bookstore, an army navy store, a one-screen movie theater, a Ben Franklin convenience store, a restaurant and bar that served amazing hamburgers, a brunch place that was always packed, a burrito place where we went once, a casual Chinese place where we went once, a fancier Chinese place where Ezra never wanted to go, an Asian fusion restaurant that clearly aspired to be Zagat's top-rated restaurant within a 30-minute radius, and a candy store, Gibson's, that looked like it had been there since 1910 and that served chocolate covered fruit that also looked like it had been there since 1910. I enjoyed just walking by these places, like you would with stores in a favorite vacation spot, as they provide liveliness and familiarity in an isolated, unfamiliar place.
But what's amazing about college is that even in this tiny town, in a school of less than 3000 students, Ezra's life was incredibly rich. Each visit, I loved getting a snapshot of that life, and attempting, over the course of two days, to figure out the lay of the land, the rhythms of his classwork and the many networks of relationships. Whenever I would visit either of my brothers at college, they always seemed to be surrounded by a squadron of women, who were all very sweet and smart and whose names I would always get mixed up. Our visits would be one dorm room and party after another, in buildings whose names and locations I would also get confused. During Oberlin graduation weekend, I had a lot of misplaced nostalgia. "Oh, was that the place where we saw that band with that girl and ordered cookies?" No, I was told, that was somewhere else and someone else.
Oberlin lived up to its reputation of being open, liberal, and intellectual (especially as compared to my college). It was the kind of place where no one I met was even considering going into investment banking. It was the kind of place where if they showed that Metallica documentary on the tiny TV screen in the common room at midnight, you wouldn't be able to find a seat (this actually happened). It was the kind of place where if the class commencement speaker is introduced as a die-hard John McCain supporter, he's not exactly greeted warmly (this actually happened). It was the kind of place where the big event each year wasn't the homecoming football game but the drag ball, where professional drag queens from Cleveland came in to host the competition and where even unsuspecting brothers who were visiting for the weekend got roped into putting on Catholic schoolgirl outfits (this actually happened). When I visited during Ezra's freshman year, I had actual late-night talk about the meaning of life. During college! Who knew!?!
It was fun to see the ways in which Ezra and his friends embraced this sense of liberal openness in various ways as their college careers evolved. During Ezra's freshman year, I heard that there was one common room on his hall where you were allowed to be naked. Sophomore year they were in a coop, where everyone had to take turns cooking. This year Ezra's girlfriend lived in a house with seven women, six of whom had boyfriends, and they all appeared to be one big happy family.
I was pleased that, like my other visits, graduation weekend was a series of so many random events that the two days felt like a week. My aunt and grandmother and I saw the Frank Lloyd Wright house near campus.Ezra's girlfriend and all her roommates had a barbecue, which was basically a memory test for all the names of all his friends, which I managed to pass, barely. At night the school's world-renowned conservatory had a concert on the town square, where they lit Chinese paper lanterns and served pie.
After the conservatory concert, Oberlin's steel drum band, O Steel, played on the steps of the chapel. Yes, Oberlin is also the kind of place the steel drum band has twenty members and where people start reserving their spot where they're going to stand about an hour ahead of time. The audience eventually started clapping in unison to encourage the band to start playing, and then started dancing up a storm when it began. I was standing near some high school girls who seemed to be veterans of O Steel concerts and who were really into this one band member right near them who was wearing a cowboy hat, and was shirtless. Yes, Oberlin is a place where the guy banging on trash cans is the campus equivalent of Mick Jagger.
But even more that the graduation events themselves, the thing I enjoyed most about the weekend was, once again, seeing the various layers of my brother's college experience. Over the last year, Oberlin had apparently been plagued by a rash of cover bands, and so our first night there we saw two of them, one for an indie band whose name I forget, and the other for Weezer, a band who I know from songs that came out when all the Oberlin seniors were eight years old. How did everyone know all the words to "The Sweater Song
The following night, I arrived back from the O Steel concert, the night before commencement, to see a dozen people splayed out on the couch, trying to figure out what to do, just like it was any other night. People were cleaning up, figuring out what parties were happening, dealing with girlfriend and boyfriend issues, calling and texting around. I'm sure many were thinking about their future jobs and careers and summer road trips, but they were still together, talking, appreciating and embracing the collective energy that they found at college. In the real world, they're sure going to miss it.
As for UCLA business school graduation, I'll address it in a future post...
Watching the Tony Awards always makes me feel a bit excited and a bit embarrassed. It's as if CBS let all my relatives put on a TV show for three hours, and they decided to perform skits about all our inside jokes. Since these shows that we're honoring haven't been around more than a year (most of them only a few months), and you can only see them in New York (for now, at least), they've only played to a hundred thousand people or so, and many of those people are probably watching the Lakers game anyway.
How many people could possibly be interested in this, other than the few dozen in Manhattan who work between 41st and 51st Street or who live between 59th and 92nd Street? What kind of awards show has a presentation from Barry Bostwick, whoever he is? What kind of awards show has to trot out the network's morning news anchor (Julie Chen), because they can't find other more famous celebrities? Why does CBS let them get away with it?
Adding to my embarrassment is that sometimes the Tonys isn't even displaying the best that theater can be. In each category, instead of picking among hundreds of choices, as you do for the Oscars, you have about a dozen. Half of those dozen are bad on the face of it, maybe three or four are fair, and maybe one or two are good and perhaps one is great. So nominations -- and song presentations on the Tonys -- are given to shows that most people agree were only ok or outright bad, and occasionally awards are too.
You see a little bit of the network's reservations shine through in the number of awards announced before the live broadcast -- the best play revival isn't announced on CBS live? -- but for the most part, they let these theater folk run free.
That being said, this year I was very impressed at how the shows looked on TV, especially "Passing Strange," "In the Heights" and even "South Pacific." Some shows had it tough -- "Xanadu" didn't show off how funny the show really is, and I'm not sure how that particular show could have, in only four minutes. The song from "Gypsy" was fantastic for us musical theater fans but to outsiders I feel like that show comes across as an "in" thing that only musical theater fans can get (maybe that's because before I actually saw and loved the last two Broadway versions, I remember seeing the Bette Middler TV version as a kid and being totally bewildered as to what was going on, and why she was called a stripper but didn't strip).
And if you told me in advance that Lin-Manuel Miranda would rap and Mark Rylance would recite a poem in their their acceptance speeches, I might have made a point to use their categories as bathroom breaks, but they actually came across as very charming.
I guess I should give the audience some credit. Even if some poor schmoes are roped into watching it because their girlfriend made them, or they want to see that cute drug dealer from "Weeds," or their remote control is broken, no one's forcing anyone not to turn off the TV.
Two Mondays ago I went to Disneyland for the first time since I was six. I’ve been to Disney World, the one in Florida, many times since, most recently in college. But I was very much looking forward to returning to the company’s original park in Anaheim.
The occasion was that a friend and his girlfriend came to town, and the friend knew a Disney Imagineer — a guy who designs the attractions — who got us in for free and knew everything there is to know about every ride, such as when it was built, how many people flow through every hour, and the ways they maximize that flow. Like how on one ride people get into Car A, then it moves forward to allow Car B to pick up passengers as Car A is getting checked by a second set of cast members (that’s what they’re called at Disney) to see that everyone’s belt loops are in place. As opposed to people getting in and having their belt loops checked at the same station, while people wait in line angrily. The Imagineer also clued us in on how to best use the park’s “Fast Passes” — passes you can pick up at machines located near the entrances to the busiest rides, which give you a reservation to come back later at a specified time, skip most of the line, and hop on the ride. They’re fantastic.
Here’s a rundown of what we did:
-Space Mountain. As good as ever. I felt like I did when I got laughing gas before my wisdom teeth were taking out — I had a smile on my face the whole time and there was nothing I could do to erase it.
-The Indiana Jones ride, where you’re in a jeep, was trying to be a thrill ride aimed at teens and older people but I just thought it was bumpy and nothing special. The best part was at the end when you thought you were going to get run over by the big ball from “Raiders.”
-The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, which I read through at Barnes and Noble beforehand, implied that Peter Pan was a classic ride that would appeal to people my age. But they were wrong. Yes, it looks cool when you fly over London and see all the lights lit up. But it’s not worth the wait.
-Pirates of the Caribbean was very disappointing. I don’t know how they got such an entertaining movie from such a boring ride. Basically, the town gets taken over by pirates, the pirates get jailed, they escape, but Jack Sparrow finds the treasure first — or so I was told afterwards by our Imagineer friend. I wasn’t sure of the perspective of the ride — I thought we were supposed to root for the townspeople, especially since Jack Sparrow — the Johnny Depp character, who has (since the movies) been inserted into the ride — initially appears to be against the pirates and helping the townspeople. But it seems he’s just out for the treasure. And we’re supposed to be rooting for the pirates. It’s all very confusing. And boring.
-Haunted Mansion was also quite boring. The best part was when the cars tilted back slightly, so I could lie down and rest.
-The big drop on Splash Mountain was one of the highlights of the day. We didn’t get that wet, which was fine with me. Here’s my question: this is a relatively new ride and they based it on the film “Song of the South,” with Brer Rabbit popping up in places. Doesn’t Disney want to forget that movie, since they still get flack for Uncle Remus being a racial stereotype? Though I did think that playing “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” after the drop was a fun touch.
-I don’t know why, but I have a soft spot for Big Thunder Mountain. I think when I was a kid I liked underdogs, and, as I envisioned it in my six-year-old head, BTM never got any respect compared to the more popular Space Mountain and the showier Matterhorn, a big, snowy mountain. So Big Thunder was fun.
-We had dinner at the Blue Bayou, a dimly-lit New Orleans-themed restaurant in a great setting, next to the Pirates of the Caribbean river
-Innoventions was a fun attraction in Tomorrowland with a lot of very advanced video games that have do-gooder themes like solar energy
-The Matterhorn was special because, as I still remember, it’s the only roller coaster at Disneyland and not at Disney World. Doing it at night made for some cool glow-in-the-dark effects and fun views of the park.
-In the relatively new Buzz Lightyear ride, as your car moves through “Toy Story”-themed rooms, each person has a gun and you try to shoot at various shapes and rack up points. I did ok the first time. The second time I think my blaster was broken. You have little idea what you’re shooting at, since your gun creates a little laser-pointer-style dot on what you’re pointing at, but there are two dozen laser pointer dots flying around and you don’t know which one is yours.
-We also took a midday trip to California Adventure, Disney’s park next door to Disneyland, which looks more like a generic Six Flags kind of park and seems to be trying to appease the teenagers who have outgrown Mickey Mouse. The attractions we saw there:
-This generic roller coaster that was ok but mainly gave me a headache.
-An amusing 3-D movie based on “A Bug’s Life.”
-A water ride with the circle-shaped boats. We got a little wet, not much.
-This really great presentation in which the turtle from “Finding Nemo” appears on the screen in computer animation form, and talks to the audience, asking them questions, and then responds. The hundred little kids in the audience didn’t seem to realize what a huge leap forward in technology this is, but to me it was pretty cool. Though the turtle’s surfer dude accent got annoying quickly. I wondered what Sean Penn would say when told that his character Jeff Spicoli was still being emulated two decades later by a computerized talking sea animal.
-Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is the only ride to get five stars from the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland. And it deserves it. It’s one of those towers where you’re strapped in and they take you up really high and then drop you, but with Disney special effects magic to heighten the experience. You start out walking through this spooky hotel, thinking it’s all very corny and no way am I going to be scared by any of these creepy guys in top hats who look like Jefferson Mays from the play “I Am My Own Wife.” Plus, I was skeptical as to whether “Twlight Zone” was the correct branding. While on line, I said, “’Twilight Zone’ is about mystery, and there’s no mystery here. Basically they’re going to pick you up and drop you.” But there is eventually one crucial surprise. They strap you into a seat in the hotel’s “service elevator” — a room with about 20 other people — and you’re watching this video about going into the Twlight Zone and there’s some outer space imagery, and then you’re suddenly raised up to the top of the tower. And then the genius part happens: they open the doors and you look out on Disneyland. Then they drop you. And it’s amazing. What I realized is, opening those doors made it all the scarier, because it connects this creepy “Twilight Zone” hotel world with the real world, making the creepy world seem all the more real.
Our day was exhausting, as I left my apartment at 7:30 AM and didn’t get back until after midnight. But Disneyland did not disappoint.
I saw the touring production of the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line” two Thursday nights ago at the Ahmanson Theater (I also saw in on Broadway a year and a half ago). I don’t know if it was the opening night audience, or the fact that L.A. audiences haven’t seen the show in a while, or both, but the crowd was incredibly appreciative, with applause and cheers coming unexpectedly, in the middle of songs, especially early on.
“A Chorus Line” was the first Broadway musical I saw as a kid. My grandparents took us when I was about eight or nine or so. I think my parents might have taken us to see it on Broadway at another point too. We also at some point saw a small production in Virginia. We listened to the soundtrack during car trips and I knew every line by heart.
As with “My Fair Lady,” which I wrote about a few weeks ago, seeing the show now made me realize how I’ve changed since I was younger. There were little realizations — like that I took turns of phrase literally. The line “married beneath him” confused me. And in the lyric “I stuffed her shoes with extra socks / ran seven blocks / in nothing flat” — I thought “nothing flat” was a reference to that fact that the bottoms of the shoes weren’t flat. Because of the socks.
I didn’t quite get that whole song about the girls’ messed-up childhoods, when they talked about “dug earrings out of the car,” “I knew that they weren’t hers,” and how that meant that their dad was having an affair, and the Indian chief and why she called him daddy, and young girls waiting to see if they’d turn out pretty. I got that there was something bad going on in these people’s families and that the ballet helped them forget about it, because “everything was beautiful at the ballet.” I didn’t really see how ballet could make you forget your problems. I still don’t. I’ll just take their word for it.
The biggest realization I had while watching the show the other day is how little I knew when I was a kid — as compared to how much I know now — about the desire to strive towards success in a chosen career, which is what the show is all about. When I was little, I related all the love references to love for people, like the girls I had a crush on in elementary school, not realizing that “love” in this show, like in the song “What I Did For Love,” refers to love of a profession, dancing. When I was eight I hadn’t really felt rejection. From what I remember, I enjoyed the beauty of the dances, and didn’t care too much about the desperation that the performers showed in every jump, twist and turn, the need to impress and to avoid rejection for the umpteenth time. I remember enjoying the flash and precision of the song “One,” but I don’t remember recognizing the song’s tongue-in-cheek expression of the show’s central dilemma, our desire to stand out versus the need to fall in line. It's nice to realize that having actually faced such dilemmas, and having faced the highs and lows of professional elation and rejection, has given me a more mature outlook on art, and on life.
Granted, my memory of the past is a little distorted, especially since I have stronger memories of listening to the soundtrack, as compared to my much more vague memories of seeing the actual show. Like when I saw it just now, I got chills at certain points, like the part when they all march forward and then put their headshots over their faces. Sure, one reason for that is that I now know how famous that headshot pose is. But I also don’t remember what I felt at that moment while watching the show when I was eight — I only remember listening to the soundtrack, which tended to happen in the car in the middle of Georgia while we were looking for a Holiday Inn.
But I do know one thing: during the song about “tits and ass,” I didn’t know what tits were. Seriously.
I vividly remember thinking as a kid, "I can't believe there are no more Indiana Jones movies. How can I even g on watching movies, now that there are no Indiana Jones movies. There will never be any movies as exciting as those." It seems strange that I thought that, because they weren't my favorite movies, even at the time. And I saw them all on video.
I guess I just got such a rush from them -- well, Raiders and Last Crusade at least. I saw Temple of Doom last, after all my friends in school played it up, talking about how awesome it was -- or rad, or gnarly, whatever word we used those days. I think seven-year-old boys just liked seeing people eating eyeballs and getting their hearts pulled out of their chests. I was not as much of a fan, except for the opening series of scenes, which are fantastic.
I liked Last Crusade slightly better than Raiders, maybe because I saw it first, but perhaps also because it seemed cleaner and more polished and more accessible. And I liked the ending better in Last Crusade -- the ark frying everyone at the end of Raiders freaked me out more than the guy getting his face melted off in Last Crusade did, perhaps because in Last Crusade I was comforted by the presences of that kindly king in the cave ("you have chosen wisely").
Anyway, I now have a new least favorite. When I went to see the new Indiana Jones, I vowed not to join the chorus of people I talked to who spouted the cliche, "Harrison Ford is too old." But from the very beginning, something was off about him. His voice felt very unfamiliar -- maybe because I haven't seen a new Harrison Ford movie since "Air Force One" in 1997. I kept thinking his voice was being dubbed, since they kept cutting away from his face in weird ways. Even in closeups, his mouth didn't match his voice and he didn't open his mouth that wide. Botox? I dunno. Maybe it was just that his voice has changed. But something felt strange. Then of course they kept cutting away during that stunts. You rarely got that anguished look on his face that's so memorable.
Further diluting Indy's presence in the movie was Shia Labeouf, Indy's younger sidekick. I usually like Shia, and he was fine, but the chemistry between him and Indy -- and I usually hate talking about chemistry because I never care about that kind of stuff -- felt a little stilted, it wasn't all there. Indy also had little chemistry with Marian. They got so little emotional mileage out of these -- spoiler alert, sort of -- revelations (which I won't give away, but which even I, who is unable to predict movie plots, saw a mile away) regarding Indy, Marian and Shia.
As for the action scenes, my brother Nathaniel pointed out that the CGI effects here made things seem less real than in the not-as-CGI-heavy previous films. For instance, he noted, the car driving along the cliff, and, even more so, the lackadaisical way in which Indy, Marian and the kid were fleeing from the huge gears that were destroying the path behind them at the end. Very true.
Some things just felt downright unreal, and I know they can be unreal in Indiana Jones, but these went off the deep end. Like Marian drove her car off a cliff and into the river far below, saying "trust me," and I thought that was because it was it was half car, half boat, which it is, but it turned out that she also knew the car-boat would fly into a tree, that would bend and then place it nicely into the river. Yeah, right. Indy could do that, maybe. But not Marian.
Plus, there were random obstacles that felt inorganic or purposeless, like all those natives with bones through their noses that kept randomly appearing. And the waterfalls that they had to go down -- ok, we get it, they're going to go over the big waterfall and survive. I know, I know, we always know they're going to survive, in every action sequence. But this sequence was weird, because it felt somewhat exciting to watch, but afterwards I just felt manipulated, it felt too easy. And that skull that was so magnetic at the beginning was conveniently not-magnetic for most of the movie.
The movie was a bit too self-conscious. Some self-consciousness is ok -- like how the mountain in the Paramount logo morphed into a molehill at the very beginning, paralleling how in Raiders the Paramount logo morphed into a mountain (which my brother Ezra, when we saw this on video for the umpteenth time, on Cape Cod when he was some ridiculously young age, somehow remembered would happen). I like how they went back to that warehouse where they put the ark, but they could have done that reference better -- I (and I imagine many other fans) got that reference when they first when into the warehouse, and then they beat it into our heads by later showing the ark peaking out of a box, which felt like a cheap gag and didn't acknowledge that we had realized that the ark was in that warehouse all along.
Also -- aliens? It didn't turn out to be as horrible an idea as it sounds, but I like how in the previous films the mystery came out of the ancient civilizations themselves. I guess Da Vinci Code had beaten that to death? Either way, I wasn't really into the story and at every point I kept wondering "so where are we and what are they trying to do now?"
Overall, I never felt excited by the exciting scenes, or a sense of mystery from the mysterious scenes. And my contact lenses felt weird for most of it -- I guess that's not Steven Spielberg's fault. Whatever it was, I was just bored.
P.S. No more talk about Cate Blanchett! So she spoke with a Russian accent in a vaguely cryptic manner. Big deal.
I enjoyed and was very much disturbed by "Recount," the HBO film about the Florida recount in 2000, which I saw in a hotel room Monday night and then stayed up for hours, unable to fall asleep.
When I watch films or plays based on real-life events, often the fact that it's based on real events makes it more powerful to me. And as my brain gets really into the story, it starts to naively think that every little bit of it actually happened real. Which is why I worry that the writer is taking advantage of me by secretly fictionalizing the events (like in "The Great Debaters," in which apparently a lot was invented). And I rarely actually go on the internet to find out what is true, perhaps because I don't want to shatter the illusion created by the enjoyable work that I just saw (or perhaps just too lazy). Normally I'm all for freedom of expression in movies, but this is one area in which that freedom makes me a bit queasy.
For "Recount," I don't have too many of these concerns, though. A New York Times article discussed some complaints about the film's portrayal of the Democrats' head negotiator Warren Christopher, in which Christopher himself said the portrayal of him was pure fiction. If he's right, that's somewhat unfortunate, but Christopher isn't too big of a figure in the film and his character is not part of its appeal for me. What I liked was the excitement of seeing the sequence of events laid out before me, getting more and more ridiculous and the case for Bush as the winner seeming more and more uncertain, as Gore's team battles every obstacle. And then you're just whalloped by the result at the end, when they can go no further. It's like an action movie, where you know how it's going to end but you somehow convince yourself that it might not end that way, which allows you to enjoy the ride. Except here it's in the reverse -- you convince yourself it could all turn out ok, but you know ends very badly.
The film came down very hard on Katherine Harris (played by Laura Dern), as the film portrayed her as completely evil, bowing to the worst aspects of the Republican party machine, and being almost knowingly ditzy about it all in the process. She was always making sure she looked perfect, and taking big breaths before going out and deceiving people, like a dumber version of Tilda Swinton's character in "Michael Clayton." She made my skin crawl.
On the other hand, I was always reassured whenever Kevin Spacey's Ron Klain (the lawyer and former Gore chief of staff who was involved in the day-to-day operations in Florida) and especially Ed Begley, Jr.'s David Boies (the famous appellate lawyer Klain hired) was on screen. I always rooted for them as they made their arguments, and they never disappointed.
During the recount, the Republicans were trying to show that the recount was a joke through their PR and protests and repeated questioning of the process. But, ironically, the more you find out about the events, the more the Republican case and the election results and the case for Bush as the winner seemed like a joke.
“Predictably Irrational” is one of several pop social science books I’ve read and listened to (on audiobook in the car) over the last few years. To give you an idea of its place in the spectrum of these books, I’ll give you a quick rundown on each one:
“The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz
This book hit close to home for me, because it was about how the increasing abundance of choice is creating problems for indecisive people. It provided some tips on how to cope with indecision, such as “make your decisions irreversible.” This book has definitely influenced my daily life and I even emailed with Barry Schwartz for career advice, another topic that creates fits of indecision for me.
“The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki
I enjoyed this book for the way it brought a scientific approach to business, using data to poke holes in baseless theories that businessmen have had for years. I especially liked this book for the way it questioned the wisdom of experts and expertise generally, a concept that has always made me skeptical. People think that CEOs or other experts have some special ability to make decisions. But even if those abilities are indeed better than anyone else’s (and let’s see proof of that), they still pale in comparison to an aggregate of the decisions of many people of various levels of education, knowledge and perceived talent.
“Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
I had a great time reading “Freakonomics” over several trips to Barnes and Noble. But I wondered about the response to this book and the controversy surrounding it, which implied that the idea of applying economics to everyday problems was so novel. No one had thought of that before, really?? Perhaps the two authors were simply the first people to market this idea in a way that created a phenomenon.
“The Tipping Point” and “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell
I thought “Blink” had a less original perspective than the other books on this list and less compelling of a thesis (that making decisions more quickly was better than taking longer to make them – but only sometimes), but it was still enjoyable for its various individual stories. I preferred “The Tipping Point,” which felt like a more original, illuminating concept.
“The Progress Paradox,” by Gregg Easterbrook
This book had applications to our everyday lives that were both practical and convincing: for instance, it discussed how money and material things don’t make us happier, and then actually proved it with data and experiments. It also showed the ways in which we fail to realize how great life is, especially as a well-off person living in America in 2008. Though it’s technically a social science book, in reality it’s the best version of a self-help book I could think of, since it teaches you how to live better but its statements are backed by statistics and scientific evidence.
“Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely
Unlike all of the books above, except for Schwartz’s, “Predictably Irrational” was written by an academic, the person who actually did all of the experiments in the book: Dan Ariely, a professor at MIT. The book (which, like “Blink” and “The Progress Paradox,” I listened to on audiobook in the car) is a primer on behavioral economics, a field that explores why people make the decisions that they make, and the ways in which people sometimes act irrationally. The field questions basic principles of supply and demand, which assume that everyone acts in his or her best interests.
Ariely seems to have put his whole’s career’s worth of work into the book, structuring the book so that every piece of his career feels completely cohesive, all leading up to this simple but powerful thesis, that people are “predictably irrational.” Each chapter offers a simple lesson on human nature, and each one includes an experiment or two that Ariely performed that proves that lesson.
Many of these lessons would be invaluable to marketers and entrepreneurs. For instance, Ariely argues that people flock to things that are free, in ways that cause them to give up deals that don’t involve free items but are still far better deals. It explains that when making a purchase, people feel better when they’re comparing similar items, as opposed to viewing one item in isolation. So when William Sonoma introduced a bread maker for $275, people didn’t buy it, but when they added a larger bread maker for 50 percent more, people stated buying the original one. We overvalue the things we own. We’re too eager to keep our options open. We’re affected not only by placebos in pill form, but also placebos in price form: all things being equal, a more expensive pill helps us more than a cheaper one does.
The book was so convincing that I was surprised when Ariely indicated that behavioral economics is a new and very controversial area. That makes me a bit disappointed in the field of economics. Why didn’t anyone think about this before? And why aren’t more people more open-minded to it now? If economists can’t see both sides of an issue, who can?
Tonight, a friend and I saw “Shine a Light,” Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert documentary, at The Bridge. I don’t think I had been there since seeing “Minority Report” in 2002 during our cross-country road trip and then arguing about whether we the guy we spotted standing in the courtyard afterwards was Judge Reinhold.
I have fond memories of my dad and his friend Nate taking me to see the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour IMAX movie at the Air & Space Museum. When Mick Jagger entered with that long, red cape and sang “Start Me Up,” I was blown away.
It is a bit strange to watch a big, exciting concert on a screen with only ten other people on a Tuesday night, our butts firmly planted in the seats. (At the Air & Space Museum, one brave couple danced in the aisle.) But even if our body language didn’t show it, the movie was pretty exciting. I loved how close you got to all those craggily faces. I also liked how, when you see Mick Jagger from this close, you see his shoulders moving, his hips moving, and you realize how accomplished of a dancer he is. I always figured he was just haphazardly jumping around and twitching around. But I realized that this guy could probably be a Broadway dancer.
In terms of the songs, I especially liked “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” “As Tears Go By,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and their cover of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” The Christina Aguilera duet was fun, but despite her technical singing ability, I couldn’t understand a word (and, as my friend pointed out, she looked like a blow-up doll). Some parts slowed, like the songs where Keith Richards did lead vocals, which are always the slowest part of the concerts themselves. And I might have preferred the drama of a huge stadium to the intimacy of the Beacon Theater. But on the whole, I enjoyed myself. I even liked the little interview bits interspersed throughout, and the parts at the beginning where Scorsese tears his hair out trying to find out the set list.
My one question: why was the front row packed with attractive 25-year-old girls? At a Rolling Stones benefit concert, in an intimate theater, with tickets I’m sure costing unfathomable amounts, attractive 25-year-old girls bought up all the front row tickets? Martin Scorsese appears to be — unintentionally, I hope — emulating “American Idol,” which recruits sorority girls to sit in the audience and arranges them so that their distance from the camera is inversely proportional to their hotness, according to The New York Times. On second viewing, I’ll try to tell if these girls know the words.
One main problem with entertainment journalism that I’ve slowly realized: actors are the people we focus on the most, while other people in entertainment have more interesting things to say.
At a “Brothers & Sisters” panel last week, the moderator kept asking the actors questions like “does Tommy still love his wife,” to which Balthazar Getty, who plays Tommy, said, essentially, “Of course.” In many of the questions, she was asking for descriptions of the characters, which isn’t particularly interesting to me. It doesn’t feel like the response to such questions would be a response that only the actor could offer. A lay observer could have said that Tommy still loved his wife. An example of a perspective that only the actor can offer is when Rob Lowe said that people walk up to him and say “I wish we could field a candidate like McAllister,” his presidential candidate character (that, incidentally, was the only sentence Rob Lowe uttered the entire time, since there were about 17 people onstage). Generally, what the actors said paled in comparison to what the executive producer Greg Berlanti — who is involved in charting these characters’ lives — could tell us about how the people in the writers room shaped the show, and indeed, he had the most interesting things to say: for instance, talking about how they first set up that Uncle Sol had some sort of mystery to him but didn’t know what that was, and then were trying to figure out what that was, until one writer jokingly said “what if Sol is gay,” and that stuck, and then how they had to get approval for it from various people, including the actor and the network. Not the most fascinating story, but still probably more interesting than what Ron Rifkin, the actor who plays Sol, could offer (one interesting thing Rifkin did say was he’s almost 70, which was very surprising, since he looks ten years younger).
Similarly, at a “Friday Night Lights” panel at the Paley Festival, most of the questions were directed at executive producer Jason Katims — who was sitting next to the entire cast — because he had the most interesting things to say and he could answer the questions people were most curious to ask. The cast sort of sat there, not doing much. One of the more fascinating aspects was what the actors didn’t know — the actress who played Tyra, for instance, didn’t know what grade her character is in.
Granted, famous film celebrities are more interesting than less famous TV stars, but the attention they get is not commensurate with the perspective that they offer. We resort to talking about the same old topics: their choice of roles, their onscreen persona, their return to theater or TV or wherever they happen to be headed. But unless they have a juicy personal life (as explained in all these identical articles about Robert Downey, Jr.’s recovery and now starring role in “Iron Man,” for instance), it’s hard to make interview with an actor more interesting than an interview with the person who created the story the actor is telling.
Perhaps we need to figure out new questions to ask actors. For instance, I was talking to Angela Bassett for my article about Laurence Fishburne, and she mentioned that after playing Tina Turner, she brought part of that character into her real life, kind of like how after Fishburne played a flashy Othello with an earring, he brought some of that flash into his life. That’s the sort of under-explored angle that I’d be interesting in writing about and reading about.
I was watching the end of the movie “Love, Actually” at 4 AM the other night and I realized something about the octopus.
First, I’ll explain where we are in the story: On Christmas Eve, the prime minister gets a Christmas card from the girl he loves, Natalie, who used to work for him, which prompts him to go house to house on one street to look for her (it’s a fantastic sequence, and I never tire of watching it, especially the part where the prime minister and his driver sing Christmas carols for three little girls).
Finally, he gets to Natalie’s house, where the family is about go to a Christmas pageant. Natalie’s mom complains to the prime minister about having to sew her son’s octopus costume for the pageant. The prime minister says he’ll give them a ride to the pageant. He and Natalie sit in the backseat with the kid in the octopus costume between them, making it awkward for them to confess their feelings for one another. They give some vague apologies for what went wrong in the past, before arriving at the pageant, where the octopus kid finally climbs over the prime minister and squeezes through the door.
Here’s what I realized: The movie itself is an octopus. There are many different love stories, all of which are tied together (at least one character in each knows a character in another). There are, in fact, eight stories:
1. Prime minister and Natalie
2. Alan Rickman's affair with his co-worker despite being married to Emma Thompson
3. Laura Linney loving the foreign guy
4. Liam Neeson getting over the death of his wife while his pre-teen kid loves a girl from his school
5. The guy who loves Keira Knightley even though she's married to Chiwetel Ejiofor
6. Colin Firth loves the Portuguese woman
7. Bill Nighy loves his manager
8. The crazy dude who loves American girls
The mother who complains to the prime minister about having to sew eight legs onto the octopus costume is a stand-in for the writer who — at this very moment in the script — has to sew up the movie. And he does that at the Christmas pageant.
Not convinced? Richard Curtis, the writer-director, is one of the greatest writers alive and a hero in England. As I’m writing this now, the symbol feels, if anything, a bit gimmicky, even obvious. But that’s the point of the movie — the entire thing is gimmicky, schematic. It sets up many different situations in which there’s the potential for love, and in most cases love flourishes, and in a couple it flounders.
I’ve always thought of Curtis as the British Cameron Crowe. Both are romantic comedy writers reminiscent of Billy Wilder. And both are not afraid to be schematic, to be a bit over the top. They’re not afraid to be sentimental. Sometimes they go overboard — Colin Firth getting the new diary at the end of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the entire “Vanilla Sky” — but more often, they make it work brilliantly.
-I took a lot of cabs this past weekend during a trip to New York. Since I moved from New York to L.A., all the cabs got credit card machines. No more asking the cab driver to take me to an ATM machine before taking me to my destination. Does anyone do that? I did it about once a year.
-Cabs also now have TV screens that can show you maps, news, Zagat ratings, whatever you want -- BUT, you can only control what's shown on the left third of the screen. The right two thirds just shows a loop of the same commercials and the same montage of the NBC Thursday night comedy block over and over.
-During my cab ride to my parents' apartment from La Guardia, I felt strange not to be in control of the car. Isn't this guy driving a little fast?
-Whenever I got out of a cab, I felt the urge to click my remote control car lock.
The other day I overheard this conversation in a Blockbuster Video on La Cienega near Beverly Blvd., in West Hollywood:
Hot girl: Do you have "Citizen Kane"?
Blockbuster guy: I don't think so. Let me check. [checks the computer] None of the stores around here carry it. There's one on Hollywood and Western that used to carry it. People take it out and don't return it.
Hot girl: Do you have it in a store that's downtown? I heard one of those stores had it.
Blockbuster guy: That might be a franchise store. The corporate stores don't have it.
The number one movie ever. And you can't find it in any Blockbuster video in the Hollywood area.
When I was little, my parents recorded their Broadway cast recording records onto audiotapes, which they would play in the car during our many road trips. I don’t know what my parents were thinking, driving from Washington, DC to the Grand Canyon with three young kids, none older than second grade, but I suppose they figured that the Broadway cast recordings would make it tolerable for them and would help shut us up.
One of my favorites was “My Fair Lady.” For some reason, in Eliza’s song “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely,” the line “Lots of chocolate for me to eat” would throw my two younger brothers into hysterics, and they would constantly repeat that line over and over, imitating Eliza’s cockney accent. I’m not sure how this inside joke got started. I always figured that one time they heard the record skipping and playing that line over and over again. Not completely sure.
Anyway, my parents rented the movie for us, and I remember really enjoying it. I’m not sure why, considering I was about seven. Maybe I was just captivated by the Pygmalion story. Maybe I just enjoyed the music and didn’t listen too much to the lyrics. I couldn’t possibly have related to the songs in the way that adult audiences do. I didn’t really understand the ending, when (if I remember correctly) Eliza comes back to Henry Higgins’s house and just sort of stands there as the movie ends. “Do you they get married?” I asked my dad. “We’re not supposed to know for sure, but we assume that they do,“ I remember him saying.
Last Thursday, April 10, I went to see “My Fair Lady” at the Ahmanson Theater, in a touring production that originated on the West End, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Matthew Bourne. During the show, I realized that now, at 28, each song has a completely different meaning than it once did.
“I’m Getting Married in the Morning”
I always assumed that in this song, Eliza’s father was announcing that he was really super-excited to be finally getting married in the morning. Here’s this no-good shlub who’s celebrating because he finally found someone who could tolerate him. Why did he keep saying, “Get me to the church on time”? I figured that maybe he’s always late to things. Maybe he can’t afford an alarm clock.
Now, watching it onstage, I realized what this song is: it’s a bachelor party. He’s drinking. He’s going to strip clubs. He’s ambivalent about the whole marriage thing. He wants someone to get him to the church because he might pass out in the street or he might change his mind and not want to get married at all. Sounds simple, right? Though you can see why my seven-year-old self might not realize this.
“On the Street Where You Live”
This song always passed in one ear and out the other. I figured it was one of those generic love longs that these people always said in these musicals: I love you, I want to marry you, blah blah blah. But when I heard it onstage last Thursday, my ears perked up: yes, when I walk down the streets where my romantic interests live, I get that same fluttering in my stomach that this guy is describing. She’s right here, on this street, in that building. I might even run into her! Even a few years ago, I don’t think I would have understood this song: I can only relate to it now that I’m done with college, and living in the in the real world, where I date people who live on actual streets.
But, of course, once those romantic partners come and go, the street still has meaning, but the meaning is different. Now I walk those streets with dread, hoping I don’t run into the person (“And oh, that cowering feeling / that any second you may suddenly appear”) And what about in L.A., where no one walks down any streets, let alone streets where people live? Driving down streets creates similar feelings.
“You Did It”
Unlike the others, I remember understanding this song completely. It is, granted, a simple song, in which Higgins and Pickering congratulate each other for transforming Eliza from a flower girl into royalty. But, in addition, as a kid, I remember reacting strongly to the issue of justice vs. injustice (that was before the Princeton philosophy department unintentionally turned me into a moral relativist). “Les Miserables” used to be my favorite musical, and when I saw the recent Broadway revival it completely brought me back to those strong feelings of injustice I felt while watching it when I was younger — especially in the part where Jean Valjean steals something from the church, and gets caught, and the priest comes out and saves him by telling him he left the candlesticks inside.
While watching “You Did It” in the film, I remember being very sensitive to Eliza’s feelings, and I vividly remember Eliza pointing out to Higgins afterwards, “I won your bet.” Because I remember Eliza’s feelings so vividly, last Thursday the song came across as too blunt. I was very aware of Eliza slinking to the back of the room angrily. I wonder if the directors intended for the audience to be aware of her, or if they wanted us to just focus on the catchy melody and not notice her anger until the end. If we’re at all aware of Eliza, it’s a pretty uncomfortable song. This is a case in which my memory of my seven-year-old self’s emotions during a song helped me understand the song better as a 28-year-old watching it onstage.
In these Westerns, why do all these people give up good lives with very pretty women to go off on some mission to try to kill people. Yeah, it works out in the end, but it seems like a stupid risk to take.
There are lots of ridiculous aspects to this movie, which I just saw at the Aero in Santa Monica. John Wayne is spending five years looking for this girl who’s been kidnapped by Native Americans, just so he can kill her because she’s now one of them? Kill her? For that? Seriously? I actually can’t remember ever seeing another John Wayne film. How did anyone take this guy seriously?
And did John Ford think the West really worked like this? Did he do research into what the Comanches actually looked like in the 1860s and 1870s? Did people talk that way? It all seems pretty unconvincing to me. All that bright yellow and red war paint, the they look like Washington Redskins fans. And the kid is all “gee whiz, pa" and two characters — Mose and George — are so dim-witted, they must have mental problems, right? Or is that just meant to be a sign of the times? Remember how people say “The Godfather” was the best mob movie because it was made by actual Sicilians? I’m inclined to think that Westerns can never reach their full potential because there’s no way they can be made by people who actually lived in the old West.
And on top of that, this film is really depressing. A whole family gets killed. Would they do that in movies today?
Some of it is moving, though. I felt especially sympathetic towards the girl, Laurie, who is rightfully pissed that her true love Martin goes off for FIVE YEARS in search of this kidnapped girl. When he comes back, she says"You sent one letter in five years?" Damn right. Martin, are you stupid? This is the old West, there aren't that many attractive, single girls, buddy. I really liked John Wayne's turn at the end. And I remember reading about that famous last shot with Wayne standing in the doorway, and it gave me chills to see it here, as I wasn’t expecting it.
Westerns are not my thing and I haven’t seen that many of them. But I wanted to try to educate myself by seeing one on the big screen. I’m not sure if the tone of this movie is unique among Westerns, or if it's characteristic of the genre as a whole, but I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a strange hybrid: at times it’s so ridiculous — Wayne is so stilted and the Comanches are so stereotyped and the comic relief is so dumb — that it reads like camp. But at many points it’s dead serious. I stayed for a discussion afterwards with the film critic Kevin Thomas, and he made clear just a few points that illuminated the film a bit — like the fact that John Wayne’s a bitter, Confederate soldier, which explains his racism. And that he’s in love with his brother’s wife, and is avenging her death.
Thomas talked about how the film influenced other quest movies, like “Star Trek.” And, come to think of it, “Star Trek” is rather similar. Stilted, slightly campy, really dumb comic relief (from the bits of it I’ve seen). “Star Wars” too, I suppose, since it’s about a search for a kidnapped girl. Westerns are camp for straight people, science fiction is camp for nerds.
During the discussion, I was standing at the back of the theater and someone came up to me and said, “I couldn’t stand this film and I think John Wayne is a horrible actor.”
The Starbucks at the corner of Broxton and Weyburn in Westwood, where I've been working all day, is amazing. There’s a really nice outdoor area in the heart of Westwood’s people-watching area. The indoor area is large, with lots of places to sit and tables of varying sizes, and lots of sunlight comes through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The bathrooms are big — there are multiple stalls, so there’s no waiting in front of the door in long lines like every other Starbucks. There are a lots of gorgeous UCLA students. And the barista comes by every so often with free pastry samples. I’ve tried the cherry crumble, the cranberry muffin, the bran muffin and the blueberry scone. I’m sold.
Every year I enjoy finding who wins the Pulitzer prizes. For journalists, it’s like our own mini-Oscars. Last year I even got to cover the Pulitzer announcement at Columbia University for Playbill.com, and stuck around until the very end bombarding Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler with questions about how “Rabbit Hole” could have won despite not being nominated (the Pulitzer board overruled the smaller drama prize nominating committee).
While I was at Princeton, Princeton alums and faculty members were getting recognized all over the place. One Monday, during my class with the poet C.K. Williams, he was called out of the room, then came back a few minutes later and announced, “I’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize.”
I’m especially interested in the drama prize, since I’ve usually seen many of the contenders. Plus, a friend and I bet on the prize each year — we have a draft where we make our picks, and the winner buys the other dinner. The year’s recipient — “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts — is completely deserving, though I do feel for Chris Shinn, who in most other years would have won for “Dying City,” though I was glad to see that play get recognized as a finalist. The other finalist was David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” — I also enjoyed it when I saw it at the Mark Taper Forum (though not as much as the other two), and I was glad to see the committee recognize a comedy.
But this year, the prize that really caught my attention was the feature writing category. Gene Weingarten won for his piece in The Washington Post in which he asked world famous violinist Joshua Bell to play in a DC Metro station and see who would notice, just as an experiment. Bell normally performs in front of sold-out crowds paying $100 a ticket. But in the Metro station, very few people stopped to see him for free. It was a brilliant idea: not quite an academic experiment, but an experiment perfectly tailored towards journalism: it’s a celebrity, it’s fleeting, it’s current, it’s a slice of life, it's funny. But it also — in a not-completely-scientific but still very convincing way — proved a larger point: that most people can’t recognize good classical music. It's even rather moving, compelling you to feel that larger point on an emotional level: in the Metro, even the best violinist in the world is just a sad street performer. And I'm sure it pleased the Post's online multimedia side, since the entire performance was filmed.
I read the article a year ago, but it wasn’t until now that I feel compelled to try to think up article ideas like it, ideas that might be a bit outside the box in a similar way. What are other ways in which the journalist might create an experiment that might prove — or at least suggest — a larger point? What’s a way to report on someone of note in a way that isn’t just a traditional profile, that has them out doing something that you think up, or interacting with someone else or some other people in a meaningful, revealing way? How can journalists create or invent a story — but in a good way?
I recently watched this past week’s episode of “South Park,” which poked fun at the writers strike — basically, Canadians everywhere go on strike, demanding more money from the Internet. The best part is the B story, in which the kids create their own YouTube sensation and then go to an office to try to pick up their “money” and find themselves in a waiting room with all the other YouTube sensations still waiting for their “money,” who all end up fighting and killing each other out of frustration.
Through this episode, the “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are saying that if these amateurs like the Numa Numa guy who create something that 10 million watch don’t get any money, why should the TV writers demand any money when people watch their shows on the Internet? The writers asking for money is equivalent to the Numa Numa guy asking for money, which is not dissimilar from Canadians asking for money from some unknown place. I guess the difference is that the writers are asking for a portion of the money the network gets from Internet. But the networks are analogous to YouTube, which is earning money from the Numa Numa guy, who is getting nothing. And we’re totally ok with the Numa Numa guy making nothing.
Sure, TV writers are professionals, and they do this for a living. But how do we know that that entitles them to any more than what they make for the simple airing of the show on TV? How do we know they should get any Internet residuals in the first place? It just seems like the strike and writing for the Internet is in this bizarre moral space where there aren't too many traditional ways of telling us who's right and who's wrong. And the South Park episode was posing a theory on how to look at it, saying "here's one way to look at this," and that theory seemed coherent, or least interesting.
I took the opportunity to catch up on all these YouTube sensations depicted on the show, some of which I had seen (Chris Crocker), some of which I was vaguely aware of (“Star Wars” kid) and some of which I knew nothing about (Tron guy). I saw the baby laugh. I saw the panda sneeze. I felt like I was walking around at 2 AM inside a deserted Disney World. Here I was at this thing that 43 million people have seen and I’m the last one to arrive.
The baby and panda are surprisingly funny. And the Numa Numa is extremely watchable and the song is, of course, very catchy (I was first introduced to it by my students at the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia in summer 2006). They’re all completely throwaways — if my they hadn’t existed, my life would be not much worse — but each one has a streak of accidental genius that sets it apart.
The baby panda's sneeze, for instance, is this incredibly unique, surprising sound, but what makes the video is the big panda’s reaction in the background. The whole thing is economical, like a low-brow, video version of a New Yorker cartoon. How many millions of viewers would the video have lost had the big panda not been there to jump into the air, I wonder?
Since I bought my car last summer, it had never occurred to me to get one a car wash. “I’m not one of those superficial people who cares what his car looks like,” I thought. “Who really cares? I will not get sucked into this L.A. car culture. A car is a purely functional thing.” But I was going on a date that started while the sun was still up, and my dark green Honda Accord was almost yellow from pollen stains. It dawned on me that even if I didn't care, my passengers might.
I hadn’t been to a car wash since I was little, when staying in the car as it went through the mechanical car wash next to the Burger King on Connecticut Ave. was almost as exciting as a ride at Disney World. Do those things still exist? Apparently they do.
On my way to the date I saw a car wash for $6. It was worth every penny. It was still very fun. The suspense I felt over whether the water would slip through some crack in the exterior was similar to the suspense I feel while watching a movie and the hero is in danger — you know nothing’s going to happen but you can’t help feeling nervous anyway. This fake tension was amped up by the fact that since now this was my car — if the water seeped through, it was my ass on the line.
They even give you a free vacuum cleaner to use before you go through! Wow. And there was no putting in quarters, no turning it on — you just putt it off its hook, open your door and suck. My floor mats look like new.
What was I thinking before this? Did I assume I would just live with pollen stains and dirty floor mats until I got the car detailed right before I sold it? All I can say is that for the last few days, walking towards my car has been the highlight of my day. I feel like I’m driving a Mercedes.
So I’m watching “13 Going On 30,” which I recorded on DVR, and I don’t know who it was who told me this was a good movie, but there are so many things wrong with it that I’m going to start listing them. I realize that many people do not care, so feel free to skip this post.
Basically Jennifer Garner’s plays Jenna, a dorky 13-year-old who suddenly finds herself fast-forwarded 17 years into the future to find that she was the prom queen and now works for a dumb fashion magazine. And she's supposed to be a 13-year-old in a 30-year-old’s body. Here we go:
-This magazine editor talking in magazine lingo like “BOB” and “FOB” sounds more ridiculous than authentic. And the fact that her magazine “Poise” and their competitor “Sparkle” magazines always have the same person on their cover (due to an apparent spy) is also ridiculous. That would never happen, ever, for a variety of reasons. The whole point of “Big” is that it’s a supernatural premise set in a realistic world and he has to deal with real issues. Why can't this movie recognize that?
-So Mark Ruffalo — who plays her best friend who was chubby at age 13 and is good-looking now — just believes her when she tells him what happened? His dialogue implies that he believes her without question, when in reality he’d have some questions to ask and wouldn’t just stand there like this is totally normal.
-Even if she’s still a 13-year-old in her mind, Jenna would not talk about her boobs to a random stranger
-She asks this random 13-year-old stranger “Can you tell I’m wearing underwear” and the stranger says “I think that’s part of the point.” First of all, who cares if someone can tell if she’s wearing underwear – doesn’t everyone almost always wear underwear? Doesn’t she mean “can you see my underwear”? Maybe THAT’S part of the point. Or is it? I thought the whole point of thongs — which we saw Jennifer Garner holding in the previous scene — is to hide the underwear. This exchange is needlessly confusing.
-Jenna standing up through the sunroof of a limo is a shameless rip-off of “Big.” It doesn’t read like an homage. It reads like a rip-off
-No one 13 years old would throw the tail of a shrimp onto the floor over her shoulder. Maybe someone who’s 13 months old. It pales in comparison to Tom Hanks eating the baby corn in “Big.”
-Ok, ordering a pina colada at a fancy place feels right to me. I did that. Though not when I was 13. When I was 21.
-What is this party? The magazine editor says that if people don’t start dancing their careers are over? Are you kidding? The fate of a magazine depends on a party being cool? And how did this party get so bad? Who cares? This magazine is more annoying than the one on “Ugly Betty.”
-Whoever thought this “Thriller” sequence could hold a candle to the piano sequence in “Big” was seriously deluded.
-Before the commercials we get commentary from the actors. Jennifer Garner’s complaining dancing in five-inch heels. I have an idea: use three-inch heels. Maybe it’s easier. I’ve danced in them. You don’t hear me complaining.
-So she’s at a bar and Judy Greer, who plays her friend, says that some cute guy was looking at her and that she should go talk to him. She goes and talks to this teenager who she thinks Judy Greer is referring to. That might be funny except for the fact that she’s supposed to be 13, not mentally disabled.
-Of course Mark Ruffalo’s fiancée is despicable. Who is from Chicago and actually refers to it as “The Windy City” in casual conversation?
-Would the Nicolas Cage wannabe she’s having an affair with really say “lie down and take a memo” and then attempt to rape her?
-I can’t tell what Mark Ruffalo thinks. Now he seems to ignore the fact that Jennifer Garner fast-forwarded in time.
-I hate this actress who plays her mom. Hate. In basically everything she does.
I'm done. This movie takes a concept that worked brilliantly in “Big” and executes it a lot less well. Plus, to me Jennifer Garner is not-so-convincing and is mugging all over the place. Do women find it offensive that the female version of "Big" is so much shoddier than the male version? If I were a woman, it would offend me.
I've seen two links, here and here, to websites criticizing "Saturday Night Live" for being pro-Hillary again with its parody of Hillary's "3 AM" ad. Basically, if you didn't see it, the sketch has a pathetic, paranoid Obama calling up Hillary in the middle of the night during a crisis and desperately asking her for advice, which she doles out confidently.
How do people get this so wrong? The parody is clearly poking fun at the Hillary campaign. First clue: it's a PARODY of Hillary's ad. It's making fun of her real ad's contention that Obama isn't experienced enough to deal with a crisis, and it does this by taking that idea to it's ridiculous conclusion. The sketch even begins with Hillary at a desk saying, "I'm Hillary Clinton and I approve this unfair and deceptive message" and later she calls the ad "specious campaign talking points." If anything, those lines make the sketch too bluntly anti-Hillary.
Side note: I actually thought it was one of the better sketches in a show that demonstrated evidence of host Amy Adams's comedic talents but ultimately squandered them. She is getting no love these days, as the Oscars also did her no help -- not only did they fail to nominate her for Best Actress, they put her out there to sing, alone, a song that, in the film, involved her cleaning a house with cartoon birds and rodents. Even one of those goofy production numbers with animal costumes would have been better. And despite her presence, this "Mrs. Pettigrew" movie has no appeal for me.
And back to Hillary: don't even get me started on this op-ed in the NY Times calling the original Hillary ad racist. I haven't seen "Birth of a Nation" so I can't judge if there are any images in the ad that are similar to what's in that movie. But otherwise, this op-ed strikes me as ridiculous. The best argument I can see for the ad being racist is this: the reality is that many viewers of the ad will instinctively assume that the ad's vague crisis that's endangering their children at night is someone in a minority group, so Hillary should refuse to play to those instincts. But I can readily believe that Hillary and her campaign assumed that many people would think the unnamed threat was a terrorist or nuclear war or something more general like that. And so without knowledge of what the campaign was really thinking, I think you can't accuse the ad of racism.
I wonder if perhaps these two incidents of paranoia from the Obama camp relates to this incredible anti-Hillary fervor that seems to be happening lately. Among many of the people I know, almost all of whom (like me) are pro-Obama, this fervor has become so high-pitched that I actually find it rather amusing. It actually makes me rather impressed with Obama -- it makes me marvel at how he has such an incredible hold on many of us that we're willing to shout such vitriol at his opponent, who in any other election we'd be supporting whole-heartedly.
The best television is the television you watch together. Growing up, I’d look forward to watching “The Wonder Years” and “The Cosby Show” not only because of the great characters and stories, but also because it was a family activity.
After college, I began to watch with roommates, and I discovered that the main pleasure of reality television has been the license to yell at the screen with other people. I’ve yelled at contestants on shows from “Survivor” to “American Idol” to more obscure fare, such as Spike TV’s underrated experiment “The Joe Schmo Show.” My roommates yell at me, I yell back at them, and we all yell at Richard Hatch or Paula Abdul or Gladys Knight on the fascinating, short-lived “American Idol” ripoff “American Juniors” (don’t ask). It’s fantastic. I recently moved in with my brother, and we’ve discovered a mutual love for shows such as “Kid Nation,” “Project Runway” and “Brothers & Sisters,” which is a scripted show, but I can’t stop yelling at Holly. I’m not sure brother appreciates it, but I appreciate that he’s listening to me.
But too much of the time I’ve found myself watching TV alone. I like shows that my roommates and my brother don’t, which is unavoidable.
This time of year is collective television viewing season. We have the Super Bowl, when collective television viewing becomes a national holiday. And we have the Oscars and Oscar parties. This year we have the election, and I’ve attended debate-watching parties and even a California primary results gathering. But other than that, aside from sporting events — and cases in which one friend has HBO and the other other doesn’t — there aren’t many other times when large numbers of people gather around a TV.
The problem goes beyond television. The act of watching a piece of entertainment with other people appears to be dying in various ways. Instead of going to the movies, people are watching DVDs and Internet downloads. Theater, classical music and dance are heavily subsidized and always fearful of dying out. Dane Cook aside, standup comedy has passed its heyday.
Individual acts such as reading blogs and listening to podcasts have filled the void. As we walk down Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, we try not to let the street performers distract us from our iPods or cell phone conversations.
Yes, sometimes we gather around a computer to watch a YouTube clip, but, more likely, a friend has sent it to us over email, and we save it to watch at a time when we hope our boss doesn’t walk by. It has come to this: we are actively aspiring to watch TV alone.
Television addicts suffer more than most. Music is now, more and more, experienced on the street, on the subway or at the gym, but there are still concerts. Theater geeks have live theater, however expensive it might be. And millions still go to the movies every week. But while television lovers can list their favorite shows in their Facebook profiles, that hardly substitutes for a conversation about an episode. Some have the water cooler, but that sure doesn’t help the growing number of telecommuters. Traditionally, even private viewing of television shows has seemed somewhat collective in that everyone across the country is watching it at the exact same time — an advantage that the television has over almost every other media. But even that aspect of its collectivity has been eroded by the DVR.
In my view, the television-watching experience suffers becase while the medim is undeniably private, since it’s built and priced to fit in your house, that does not mean that its content is most enjoyable when consumed privately. Why should droves of people gather to watch a mediocre action movie, while very few get together to watch “Lost”? This contradiction is especially true today, as many critics and writers have noted that we’re living in a golden age of television. Television critics have headaches trying to figure out what to leave off their year-end top ten lists, while usually the best that film critics can say is “well, this year wasn’t actually so bad.” Drama episodes cost more than most independent films.
A few months ago I went to a “Mad Men” event at the Paley Center for Media, where we watched the following week’s new episode before a panel discussion with the show’s creator and actors. The pleasure of the event came not only from seeing these actors in person and hearing about how the show was created, but also from watching a new episode with a large number of people, with all their audible laughs and gasps, and the general collective acknowledgement of the pleasure that the show brings to all of us.
One of the main reasons why “The Simpsons” movie was such a pleasure is that, for once, I was engaging with these characters with a large group of people. At certain times, I would start to laugh, hear nothing else, and think that I was laughing alone — only to realize that my brother, sitting two seats over, was the only other person laughing with me. I was brought back to the days when we used to watch “The Simpsons” during its early days in the 1980s. I remember finding out that it was going to be scheduled up against “The Cosby Show,” and we couldn’t figure out how to program our VCR to record one as we watched the other, if such a thing was even possible. While watching the “Simpsons” movie, those moments of laughter with my brother — and the lack of laugher from everyone else — created a completely unique bonding moment. Where else could you have that experience but in a theater filled with dozens of others? (My brother’s likely response to this little anecdote: “What are you talking about?”)
What if we took this concept to its next logical step, broadening our idea of what television viewing should be? How great would it be if I could walk to a bar on a Thursday night and gather with like-minded individuals to watch “The Office” and “30 Rock” back to back? Or if gathering at a friend’s house to watch “Friday Night Lights” was as accepted a pastime as going to a high school football game? Or if “Lost” had local movie theaters show the newest episode at midnight every Thursday? I’m sure there are millions of lonely “CSI” viewers who long to predict the outcomes of each episode aloud to their friends. Nielsen is continually criticized for ignoring viewers who watch shows on other people’s TV sets, so I doubt the networks are hankering for people to watch shows together. But the Super Bowl and the Oscars are among the top-rated shows of the year in part because they bring people together to watch them, not in spite of that fact.
Gathering for sports and awards shows is nice, but watching regular prime time entertainment with others is a slightly different experience. When watching a prime time show alone, it's a dual relationship between the show's creators and the viewer -- as a viewer, we'll have reactions like "that's so great how the creators of this episode are articulating exactly how I feel in that kind of situation." Like when reading a novel. But when others are watching with you, it's a more complex, multi-pronged relationship. Perhaps your friend talking about how he related to a character helps you realize why you related to an character. Perhaps it helps you realize why you relate so well to that friend. In this way, collective viewing helps elevate TV watching into a more fulfilling experience, bringing it further away from the lazy, hedonistic, couch potato activity it's made out to be.
This issue reminds me of a three-week politics workshop I took one summer, where the main text was Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.” The book was about the decline in bowling leagues, rotary clubs, going out to dinner, and other collective activities that create “social capital,” which can help fuel other aspects of society, such as civic engagement. One of the main reasons suggested for this trend was the rise of the TV. But what if TV could be used for social capital after all?
I know I’m being optimistic. Sure, most people don’t want to drive 15 minutes each way to watch 30 minutes of a sitcom. But many people watch multiple shows a night — and with a DVR, you can save up the shows that Tom and Gina like and have Tom and Gina come over every Sunday to watch them all. Sure, most of the time, you’re not talking to your friends during the show. But you can talk more than you do in the dark at a movie. You can talk without people shushing you. And sure, you can talk with your friends about shows when you see them the next day. But what's even better is the immediacy of a reaction that occurs during or right after watching a show.
At the movies, I love the big screen, but I also love the intangible sense of occasion: walking through the entrance, meeting friends, buying tickets, purchasing candy, running to the bathroom, hearing others laugh and then talking about it afterwards. Pressing “play” on my DVR feels small and trivial by comparison. "Ok," I think, "I guess I'm watching 'Lost' now." Yes, I love the convenience, and yes, at times I enjoy watching alone. But many weeks, I’d gladly give it up for the company of others.
“There Will Be Blood” at the Arclight
Great movie. I enjoyed seeing Paul Thomas Anderson work in a period setting, which he combined with a very contemporary sensibility, especially as embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis’s character’s passionately secular outlook on life. And especially in the final scene in the bowling alley, where it just went completely off the rails of reality into this brutal, allegorical netherworld, not unlike the ending of “Magnolia.” The movie ultimately seemed to be an allegory about America, Day-Lewis’s character embodying its economic opportunity, Paul Dano’s embodying religious opportunity, with each referencing the corruption in each arena.
“After the Wedding” on DVD
This was a fantastic Danish movie about the head of an orphanage in India who returns to his native Denmark to ask a billionaire for funding, and gets roped into attending the guy’s wedding, where he makes a life-changing discovery. The film feels like a modern fable, timeless, with dialogue that is perfectly calibrated to bring out the exact right emotions in every scene without seeming on-the-nose, and a completely convincing lesson: towards the end of the film, when the billionaire tells you that family and friends, are the most important thing in life, it feels like a revelation, and you believe him without question.
The film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, but I was disappointed to see all the reviews refer to it as melodrama, which felt unnecessarily dismissive. “Friday Night Lights” is technically a melodrama, and who cares? And what does “melodrama” mean, anyway? Wikipedia’s definition talks about a hero, villains, and a focus on plot over character, but basically any piece of popular entertainment could be construed to apply to that definition, and if “After the Wedding” doesn’t have enough character for you, I don’t know what does. I know melodrama isn’t always intended to have negative connotations, it’s a clinical diagnosis of a story, but that’s just it, it’s clinical. I’ve realized that film reviews — reviews of all sorts, in fact — have this unnecessarily calculated tone. Where’s the passion, when you really like something? Didn’t anyone react to this movie the way I did? Can’t reviews have feeling as well as thinking?
“High Noon” on Turner Classic Movies via DVR
I’m not sure why anyone who just got married to Grace Kelly and was on his way to his wedding bed would care about anything else. Especially when she looks 20 and you look 60 and it’s the old West, where you’d have to travel three states to even find a single woman who’s half as pretty as Grace Kelly. You should thank your lucky stars, move to Mexico or Paris or Antarctica and just hope Frank Miller gets killed or put in jail again before he finds you, which is more than likely what would have happened. All half-kidding aside, I liked the real time conceit and enjoyed it for a Western, which isn’t my genre. And I like old movies in which the theme songs have lyrics. No one does that any more.
“The Colbert Report” on Jan. 22
The show felt like a mini political late-night talk show version of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, or that Andy Kaufman performance I saw in “Man on the Moon” where he just put fun stuff on stage and took everyone out for cookies. Plus, common themes stretched through each section of the show, giving it the resonance of a great novel or play. You might think it impossible for a parody of a conservative talk show host to create a moving MLK Birthday-themed show, but Colbert pulled it off, and then some. First he interviewed Malcolm Gladwell about his article on the illegitimacy of IQ tests, and Gladwell argued that Abe Lincoln took an IQ test today, he would be classified as retarded. Then Colbert showed a brief documentary about a famous hospital workers strike in South Carolina that was a major moment in the civil rights movement and was eventually settled after negotiations that included Reverend Andrew Young on the workers’ side, and a hospital administrator, James Colbert, Stephen’s father. Colbert then conducted a substantive and occasionally moving interview with Young, sometimes drawing parallels between the hospital strike and the writers’ strike. At the end, Colbert brought on the Harlem Gospel Choir and everyone sang “Let My People Go” in a tribute to the show’s writers, as their photos flashed across the screen. When the camera cut to Gladwell contributing the lyric “Let my people go,” it tied the show together not only in a kooky, “Build Me Up, Buttercup” at the end of “There’s Something About Mary” sort of way, but also in a thematic way, as Gladwell himself is half-black, half-white.
Jackie Mason, Live at the London Palladium
I had never really heard an entire Jackie Mason show until I listened to this CD, from the library, and it’s surprising that such an old comic could relate to me as well as people a third his age. I’m fascinated by the ways cultures are different from each other, and this is what Mason is all about, telling us how different Jews are from everyone else. But when he says “Jews,” he often means Jews his age, my grandparents’ age, so it was a fascinating insight into them, their peers, and the general point of view and sensibilities of the their generation. I was fascinated especially by observations such as how Jews can’t stand going into a busy restaurant because they’re jealous of how much “business” it’s doing. I also loved his routines about status symbols, and how people go to the ballet and the opera just so they say they went, even if they don’t actually like it. It sounds like such a simple observation, but Mason takes it to ridiculous lengths.
Morales refers, of course, to the character Diana Morales in “A Chorus Line,” an actress who finds herself the outcast of her acting class. I know this because “A Chorus Line” is my dad's favorite show, and my parents used to play a tape of the cast recording during family car trips.
This is part of the problem.
No, smartasses, it's not that I'm a gay man trapped in a straight man’s body. It's that my life is boring. I grew up too privileged. I showed up to our first day of class Wednesday night with my nine pages of brilliant stand-up ideas I’ve been storing in a Word document since college, only to find out that I am further behind than everyone else, simply by virtue of my upbringing. Morales implies that she doesn't fit in with her class because she's from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I don't fit in because I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Stand-up comedy, my teacher told us, comes from a place of pain. Steve Martin, whose memoir “Born Standing Up” I recently listened to on CD in the car, was treated coldly by his father his entire life. My parents are great people and I have a great relationship with them. Growing up, they took my two brothers and me to see “A Chorus Line.” Twice.
One difference between Morales and I is that she blames her teacher, while my teacher seems like a great guy who’s simply giving me a necessary reality check. At the beginning of the class, the teacher had each person take a turn standing up in front of the class and saying a little bit about himself or herself. I zeroed in on my attributes that I perceived to be unique, boasting about my senior Princeton philosophy thesis on “Seinfeld,” and saying that I was in musical comedy group in which I performed in a drag kickline, the group’s 115-year-old annual tradition. In my world, these are interesting things. Dramatic things. Somewhat rebellious things.
I could feel the room yawning. But perhaps the most damning thing I said was: “I had a happy childhood.” I might as well have stood up in front of my high school class and said, “I used to be a woman and now I am a man.”
The teacher asked more about my childhood, and I offered a sad attempt at sounding interesting, something like, “Well, people think my family’s weird. Like, my brother used to run naked in national parks. Oh, and he used to invent foods. He worked at farmer’s markets selling mushrooms.”
My teacher quickly lost interest and moved on to the other members of the class, a glorious melting pot of alcohol, drugs, death and broken families. The class includes (and I hope they’ll forgive me for revealing these details, but I’ll keep them anonymous):
-A middle-aged woman who traveled around with hippies and dropped acid with Timothy Leary and now rehabilitates squirrels
-A middle-aged woman who used to be a mime and an alcoholic and who now rehabilitates squirrels
-A man who moved to the U.S. from Argentina and escaped from his life of drugs and booze to become a chiropractor
-A twenty-something actress from Wisconsin who is the only one of her siblings who hasn’t been in jail
-A woman married to her second husband who mentioned she was trying to have kids and that she had to rush home after class because she was ovulating
-An Australian whose parents divorced when he was six, and whose sister was killed, which inspired him to become a cop, then a prosecutor, and then, after he had moved to L.A. for acting school, to write, produce and perform a one-man show about the experience.
We then had to write down a few adjectives to describe ourselves, which we could then use to help create a stage persona. We went around the room and shared. Mine were: questioning, analytical, introspective, indecisive, happy-go-lucky, friendly and straightforward. Other people's traits included: dirty, vulgar, sexual, macho, awkward, anti-social, obnoxious, and disgusting.
The teacher didn’t know what to do with my friendly, happy-go-lucky self. I had no tension, no contrast. Comedy requires strong feelings and opinions, he said. One woman said, with a completely straight face, that perhaps my having a happy childhood is what makes me unique. As my teacher rightly noted, that doesn’t make for good comedy.
I replied that I do have strong feelings — and perhaps a certain bitterness — about male-female relationships, both about my own specific experiences, and about the way they work in general. Perhaps my contradiction could be in the way I take that bitterness and, say, make a pie chart to analyze it.” I’m not sure if our teacher was satisfied, but it would have to suffice.
While driving home, I thought about the comedians I liked who seemed happy, comedians whose routines don’t appear to stem from any sort of hardship, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Demetri Martin and even Todd Barry, who has a certain cynicism and world-weariness but who also mocks his own dullness. In one bit, Barry says he worries he bores his therapist. He says (and I’m paraphrasing) that he worries one day his therapist will say, “Todd, that’s great, you got the phone number of the girl who works in the used book store. Todd, the guy coming at four o’clock fucks armadillos.”
I wondered: are there strong feelings and contradicting ideas in the stand-up persona of, say, Jerry Seinfeld? Yes, I realized, there are. I don’t know much about Seinfeld’s Long Island childhood, but he clearly grew up privileged enough that he was forced, in his routine and in life, to have strong feelings about the little details of everyday life. The contradiction is this: he gives these tiniest of details the highest of stakes. On the show “Seinfeld,” when George double-dips a potato chip or eats from the garbage, the action has huge implications.
I realized that I am sometimes quite rebellious. I’ve been told off by Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie. And certain things do make me angry: injustice, hypocrisy, pretension, illogical insults, those theater articles that use bland quotes and repeat tired cliches…Ok, so my experiences aren’t as monumentous as those the people in my class have experienced. But I have to dig right down to the bottom of my soul and find the alcoholic mime inside of me. I have to take those small things that I’m passionate about, and raise the stakes, pretend they’re the most important thing in the world. Like the fact that my parents played me "A Chorus Line" over and over again during family car trips, goddamn it! Now I'm a gay man trapped in a straight man's body!! They screwed me up after all.
I think I've gotten too used to the concept of DVR. In addition to watching almost all my television on DVR, in my car I've mainly been listening to books on CD or iPod, instead of listening to the radio. The other day I turned on NPR and I heard someone talking about Mitt Romney in Michigan, and I pushed the CD rewind button. Unfortunately, the CD rewind doubles as the tuning button, and so instead of hearing more about Mitt Romney in Michigan, I heard fuzz. My mind just assumes that everything can be rewound.
So after seeing what I want to see, I can finally make a list of my favorite 2007 films, in order:
1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
5. There Will Be Blood
6. Lars and the Real Girl
8. No Country for Old Men
9. Michael Clayton
10. Sweeney Todd
Runners-up: Juno, Atonement, Once, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk Hard, The Simpsons Movie, Bee Movie, American Gangster, Superbad, Knocked Up, Into the Wild, Hairspray, Sicko, The Bourne Ultimatum, Gone, Baby, Gone, Charlie Wilson's War
Amy Adams, Enchanted
Keri Russell, Waitress
Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Ellen Page, Juno
Russell Crowe, American Gangster
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Note that I'm counting the films that came out in 2007, as opposed to the ones I saw in 2007.
Update: I've marked the ones I got wrong, and put the correct nominees I missed in parentheses
No Country For Old Men
There Will Be Blood
X - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Juno)
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
X - Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd (Jason Reitman, Juno)
Coen Brothers, No Country For Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
X - Sean Penn, Into the Wild (Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton)
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
X - Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl (Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah)
Ellen Page, Juno
Julie Christie, Away From Her
X - Keira Knightley, Atonement (Laura Linney, The Savages)
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
X - Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age)
Best Supporting Actor
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Casey Affleck, Assassination of Jesse James…
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
Amy Ryan, Gone, Baby, Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
X - Catherine Keener, Into the Wild (Ruby Dee, American Gangster)
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Best Original Screenplay
Lars and the Real Girl
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
X - Charlie Wilson’s War (Away From Her)
Best Animated Feature
X - The Simpsons Movie (Surf's Up)
My closest call was leaving Juno off the best picture list instead of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Little Miss Sunshine made me think twice, but I thought the dramas were too strong this year, and Oscar has a bias against comedy.
On Tuesday night at UCLA I went to see David Sedaris read drafts for his new book of essays, which is due in a month and is coming out in June. He's only doing a few nights at UCLA and did a few nights at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. I found it fascinating that he's trying out how his material works in front of a crowd — similar to a standup comic trying out material at small comedy clubs leading up to his HBO special, or a Broadway musical doing a workshop or an out-of-town tryout — since Sedaris's final product is a book, which is typically experienced on the page, as opposed to a live event.
I had seen Sedaris read once before, in a huge auditorium in Pittsburgh. Afterwards my family and I stood in line for the signing of his then-new book, "Dress Your Family in Cordoroy and Denim," and I asked him how he remembers everything. He said he tries to keep everything as accurate as possible, though sometimes he'll insert something, for instance, that his dad might have said, or tended to say, even if he's not sure he said it right then. That made me feel good, since I keep a journal, but don't write very frequently, and I'm worried that not having a day-to-day record of my entire life will somehow disqualify me from being a writer. I do have detailed journals I kept during my childhood vacations, though they contain extremely small details, things like "We went to the Mesa Verde National Park gift shop, where Nathaniel bought a t-shirt."
On Tuesday Sedaris chose a more intimate setting, and the theater seated only about 250 or so. He read a few very funny essays — the main one was about smoking and his experiences as a smoker. For most of the reading, it seemed that each time people laughed, he made a mark with a pencil.
Afterwards, during a Q&A, he confessed that he was having trouble shaping the smoking essay, which had several sections, as he's been a smoker much of his life, but has since quit. "It just goes on and on and on and on for 75 pages," he said.
He said that his success has created somewhat of a problem when it came to writing comic essays about his life. When he talks about staying at the Four Seasons, for instance, he's worried people might "say 'Well, fuck you.'" Referring to a story he read earlier, he added, "I thought well, maybe if I cut the cake with a credit card, it'll be ok."
He also said that since the age of 20 he's kept a journal, and because of his obsessive nature he's only missed about 60 days in the last 30 years. My heart sank -- I thought you just remembered everything, David! Time for me to write in my journal more. Or blog more.
For the final question, I raised my hand and asked him how these readings informed his writing process in this last month before the book was due. He said that even though people are going to be reading the book, he didn't want them to get to what was supposed to be a joke and not think it's funny. He admitted he marked down what got laughs, though sometimes, he said, "I'd write 'death.'"
At other times, it's not the laughs he's concerned with. Sometimes, when he reads things aloud, he said, "I think, 'That absolutely doesn't have to be there,' or 'it's true but it sounds like a lie'" — a fascinating issue that Sedaris probably has to deal with a lot, though the lay reader might never realize that it's even a potential problem.
On Friday I went to "Friday Night Live," a monthly service run by Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue in Beverly Hills, that attempts to to get "young professionals" (ages 21-39, we're told) into the synagogue whichever way they can.
I went last month and drank a huge cup of coffee beforehand, thinking I was in for, you know, a Shabbat service, but it turned out I was in no danger of falling asleep. In addition to the rabbi and the cantor there's a large band with horns, bongo drums, saxophone and other random instruments popping out of nowhere. The whole service served mainly as an excuse for the songs, which seemed to last about 17 minutes each. A benign-looking prayer of three lines of Hebrew turned into a Andrew LLoyd Webber tune as covered by Jethro Tull. In reality, they sounded kind of like tracks off of Paul Simon's "Graceland." At one point I sang "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes" along with one melody, and it fit perfectly. I kept expecting the ten-man African chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo to emerge from the wings.
And then, the next month — this past Friday — they did. Sort of. For the third straight year, in celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday month, the temple invited a church choir and a black preacher. This time, during the songs, the choir would sometimes participate, and would sometimes sing their own songs, with lines like "God is awesome" — not Christian, really, more just general atheism.
The service was so out of the ordinary that I found it rather hilarious when the rabbi had the audience chant the v'ahavtah in a normal manner, and the audience dutifully turned into zombies again. The v'ahavtah is a prayer that everyone always takes such pride in chanting, or being able to chant, making it all the more ridiculous that no one knows what the hell the Hebrew means. Everyone's earnestness always makes me feel embarrassed and I do my own form of rebellion by chanting half-heartedly while silently reading the English translation. I thought it was rather amusing that the temple seemed to be saying ok, we'll bring the young kids in with our alterno-folk-funk-klezmer cover of the Mi Chamochah, but don't worry, we'll let you chant your v'ahavtah in the same boring old way.
Then the preacher came on to give the sermon and he got pretty animated. Really animated. Like yelling and screaming and flailing about, possessed by the power of his ideas and his oratory. But it was all about very general things. Like Osama Bin Laden bad, America good. And at times verging on anti-religious -- in one line he complained that in the presidential election, the candidates have to show how much they love Jesus in order to get elected. This election? The one in which the only candidate with any sort of religious fervor that anyone cares about is Mike Huckabee? I felt a little bad for him, since the crowd was perhaps the least responsive he's ever faced. bunch. Jews are unresponsive by nature, and these Jews were also shell-shocked by the whole display. One or two people seemed to give a couple "yeahs" and "uh-uhs" but I they were in the choir.
In 28 years of going to services, I've heard maybe one round of applause. This service had a dozen.
Afterwards, as per FNL custom, the "young professionals," ages 21-39, wait in line to get into the "lounge," where Jews are supposed to eat, drink, mingle, so that they may eventually date, have babies and move to Israel. A cop stands at the door making sure everyone is at least 21 and at most 39. He had to kick out two women who looked like they were in their 50s.
Last month, the lounge served one alcoholic drink, vodka and cranberry juice. This month, the drinks consisted of water, beer, and Hanson fruit sodas. But really just water and Hanson fruit sodas, since the beer was gone in about 15 minutes. Oh, and the food on the table was fried chicken, corn bread, and collard greens. The first problem with that is that it's not kosher to put chicken and products made with milk on the same table, which I don't really care about, but which is an amusing oversight nonetheless. The second problem: Who brought this food? Did the choir and the preacher bring it? Ok then. But what if the temple brought it? They might as well have gone right ahead and called it "Black People Night."
I want to note that none of this was particularly offensive to me — as it was to some people — but I did spend the entire time completely dazed and amused. Weirdest. Shabbat Service. Ever.
Last night was the inaugural outing of a new monthly ethnic restaurant dinner group I helped to organize. It’s a continuation of a similar group I had in New York for about a year, where we’d go to exotic, off-the-beaten-path places, such as a Georgian restaurant, a Puerto Rican restaurant, and an Uighur restaurant, serving food from the native Uighur people of Mongolia and Central Asia.
For our first restaurant in the L.A. edition, I picked Babita, an innovative Mexican restaurant in San Gabriel. We ordered a bunch of dishes and shared everything. Our menu follows:
-Fried “macho” bananas
-Chiles stuffed with salmon and strawberry sauce
-Tequila and cilantro sorbet with ceviche
-Chiles en nogada special
-Sea bass with ink sauce special
-Chicken and shrimp “Elba”
My favorite — and the most popular around the table — was the chiles en nogada. This Mexican national dish, featured in “Like Water for Chocolate,” consisted of a pepper stuff with pork, dried fruit and pecans, and topped with a cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. I also particularly enjoyed the Elba, which had a dark gravy-type sauce, plus the cochinita pibil, and both desserts. I was also entertained by the quick wit and lengthy explanations of our waiter, who also happened to be the restaurant’s owner and chef, Roberto Berrelleza.
Despite both having ocean-themed titles, not many people plan a weekend to New York that includes both "The Seafarer" and "The Little Mermaid." Contrary to the buzz I had heard and the reviews that just came out, I found "Mermaid" a very enjoyable evening, my favorite Disney stage show I've seen except for "The Lion King" -- meaning better than "Tarzan," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aida," "Mary Poppins" and the stage version"High School Musical."
In full disclosure, I did write an article for Disney's website about the title star of the show. I also asked for and received Disney stock for my Bar Mitzvah, and every year I looked forward to the annual stockholder's yearbook with Michael Eisner's photo and heartwarming message. Though I can't admit to being one of those Disney obsessives like some people are. I'm currently listening to Steve Martin's autobiography on CD in my car -- and he practically grew up in Disneyland, performing in magic shops and pinning price tags to tropical hats. I didn't even make it out to the "Enchanted" experience at the El Capitan. I wanted to, but I haven't. That explains my half-assed Disney obsession right there. Seriously, I'm a complete amateur compared to some people I hear about.
"Little Mermaid" has its three core solid songs, and there were all done well. And even the new songs that plagued all these Disney shows (the ones that inevitably get skipped on 'The Lion King" Broadway cast recording) are not embarrassing, and one, "She's in Love," I'll admit, is kind of charming. Of course, the stage version of "Under the Sea" could never match the incredible scene from the film, with its ever-quickening cuts from one bizarre sea creature to the next (and hand-drawn, no less). The dancing never got fast enough for me, but I don't think it ever could, especially since most of the dancers legs were encumbered by their fins and scales and tails and whatever else was protruding from their bodies. And in "Kiss the Girl," I missed the frogs coming up out of the water singing "sha-la-la-la-la." But the staging was still quite beautifully done. Rarely are visuals a big draw for me in anything -- movies, musicals, etc. -- but "Little Mermaid" is an exception -- all those colors and lights really did add to my emotional experience in this one. Oh, and I thought those heelys -- the show's much-hyped shoes with wheels that all the performers use to scoot around the stage -- actually do kind of make people look as if they're swimming around.
I laughed throughout last night's "30 Rock," which will perhaps be the last episode for quite some time, because of the strike. Kenneth's caffeine addiction felt too conventional and predictable but everything else was spot-on. They even shot Tina Fey's interview scene in my parents' building.
Now that the show knows it's funny, it's felt comfortable enough to amp up its absurdism almost to the level of Ionesco. Each episode feels as it if emerged spontaneously from the mind of the funniest person on the planet who also happens to have a wholly original voice -- in short, the Platonic ideal of a comedy writer. Which causes me to wonder how a collaboration of mere mortals can accomplish such a feat. How much of each episode is written by the credited writer? How do other writers contribute lines? How are the best lines decided? And what is Tina Fey's role?
I just saw "No Country for Old Men." Great movie, one of my favorites from the Coen brothers. As I walked out, I found myself walking tall and fluidly, turning my head slowly side to side, like the men in the film. My friend and I were walking down the Santa Monica Promenade and my friend pointed to a Sephora and said "That's a new store, isn't it?" And I thought, "Maybe." And we passed a toy store and my friend said "That's definitely new." And I thought "Yeah, I've never seen it before." And we walked in and my friend asked the clerk how long the store had been there, and she replied, "Several years." Then, while walking on Colorado Ave, we were fascinated by the nonsense word written on the back of all the temporary road block signs. I think it was something like "Babalu." And I wondered, what's going on here? I realized that after watching a movie in which each shot seems to mean so much, in which the characters and the shots focus so closely on small objects such as the gold latch that opens a window, we walked out and were suddenly hyper-aware of everything. It was like when you get high and you think that in the period of time that you're high, the world is weirder than it usually is, but it's really that you're hyper-aware of the weirdnesses that always exist. Here, in the same way, we thought the toy store and random nonsense words were strange, but we were actually just hyper-aware of the small things we never noticed before.
Every year in late December, my family goes to Miami Beach, where my dad grew up, to stay with our grandmother, who we call Yaya. Most years, we're there during New Year's Eve.
When we were younger, on New Year's Eve my parents would go out to dinner and my two brothers and I would stay up until midnight with Yaya, who would buy us ribbons to throw and plastic horns to blow at midnight and would also help us create a stage show to be performed the next morning for the other relatives. The show consisted mainly of reenactments of "Saturday Night Live" sketches and my brother Ezra singing old Yiddish songs with my Great Uncle Jerry. It was held annually, and well past the point at which it stopped being cute. The final year, I remember Yaya dragging my brother and me in front of the family and demanding that we perform our impersonation of Mike Myers doing "Coffee Talk" one last time. I think I was 23.
I like telling people I spend New Year's Eve in Miami Beach. "Where did you spend New Year's?" they ask. "Miami Beach." "Nice!" They think I go to some place called Excess or Suave and dance with Lindsay Lohan until morning.
My real New Year's is quite different. Ever year, in fact, my December 31 is exactly the same:
8:00 AM - I'm asleep. Mom and dad wake up.
8:12 AM - Mom wakes us up and asks us if we want to see the fireworks in South Beach that night, and by the way, where should we go to dinner. We wake up but pretend to be sleeping Mom gives up and we go back to sleep.
9:30 AM - Mom and dad go visit Steve, George, Wendy, Chuck, Steve, Wendy, or another of dad's high school friends.
11:12 AM - My brothers and I wake up.
11:29 AM - I eat a toasted Lender's Bagels with whipped Temptee cream cheese, along with the last bit of lox that's left in the fridge. No one in the family likes lox except me, but every year, at the beginning of our week at Yaya's, someone buys lox. Thank you to whoever that is.
11:47 AM - Mom calls from her cell phone and says maybe we should go to South Beach tonight and where should we have dinner, and someone should pick up key lime pie from Joe's Stone Crabs.
11:56 AM - Yaya looks at the breakfast table, which is littered with cups, napkins, newspapers, and croissants, all left over from the previous seven breakfasts. Yaya warns, "Next year, you're all staying in a hotel."
12:07 PM - Dad arrives home and goes to the bathroom, taking with him Dave Barry's annual year in review article from The Miami Herald. We hear intermittent laughter for the next 35 minutes.
12:14 PM - My brother Nathaniel falls asleep on the couch. He doesn't wake up until dinner.
1:12 PM - Dad, Uncle Barry and I ride bikes to Key Biscayne.
2:23 PM - Mom calls me to ask if we should go to a Thai restaurant, and whether we go to South Beach for fireworks, because it's always a problem finding parking and there is no place to go to the bathroom, and someone should definitely go get Joe's Stone Crabs's famous key lime pie. In a good year, my phone is off.
3:02 PM - Yaya looks at the Hanukkah presents still piled up on the living room floor, even though we exchanged them a week ago. Yaya: "Next year, I'll get a hotel room, and you'll all have to clean the house yourself."
3:20 PM - Mom picks up key lime pie from Joe's Stone Crabs.
4:06 PM - Mom puts Joe's Stone Crabs's famous key lime pie into the freezer.
5:05 PM - It's getting dark and we're still not home from biking. Mom calls the police.
5:17 PM - The sun sets as we ride off the Venetian Causeway and pass Leo Grossman Park. My dad informs me that while growing up, Leo Grossman was his pediatrician or dermatologist or cousin or something like that (Addendum for 2007: Dad asks Barry why Leo Grossman Park is now called Maurice Gibb Park)
5:33 PM - We arrive home from biking to find Yaya sitting on the porch, drinking her third glass of wine. Yaya informs us, "Next year I'm staying at the Fontainebleau. And Ellyn Roth is going to kill you."
5:49 PM - Six people take showers in succession. The first two of those showers have hot water.
7:15 PM - We arrive at the Thai restaurant. Only three other tables are occupied. At one table is my dad's friend Steve from high school. At another are the restaurant workers who can't believe other people showed up on New Year's Eve. At another is a homeless family.
7:29 PM - We debate whether to order the crispy whole fish in sweet and spicy sauce. We eventually decide to go for it.
7:38 PM - Nine people order twenty-three main dishes.
9:20 PM - On our way out we grab a handful of mints. Outside, we throw each mint up as high as we can and try to catch it in our mouths.
9:45 PM - We arrive home and watch "Project Runway" on DVR.
10:06 PM - Someone wonders if someone bought key lime pie, and suggests that someone go get it out of the freezer.
10:08 PM - Joe's famous key lime pie remains in the freezer.
10:23 PM - Someone says maybe we should go to South Beach. After all, there will be fireworks.
10:45 PM - We pile into the car and leave for South Beach.
11:22 PM - We find a parking spot.
11:31 PM - Mom has to use the bathroom.
11:42 PM - We make our annual pilgrimage to the the Loews Hotel bathroom.
11:53 PM - We fight our way through the crowd of drunk twenty-somethings in $2,000 dresses and finally make it out to the beach.
12:00 PM - Fireworks start going off. My parents start making out.
12:13 PM - Fireworks end. Whoever is currently dating someone calls the person they're currently dating. As far as I can remember, I have never had to make this call.
12:55 AM - We go to bed.
12:56 AM - Joe Stone Crabs's famous key lime pie remains in the freezer.
4:17 AM - Dad wakes up and eats the key lime pie.
I've always been fascinated by how many joke punchlines are some version of "I want more alcohol." Know what I mean? Ok, here's what I mean: Let's say that in a movie, a character comes home for a family reunion, he walks in, he's alone in the living room, pouring some whisky for himself. And then his mom yells from the other room "Jerry, get my [annoying request]." The guy pauses, thinks to himself, then tops off his glass. Audience laughs. We've seen some version of this joke in dozens, perhaps hundreds of times in plays, movies, television shows, and the like.
On Saturday afternoon I saw "The Seafarer," which uses alcohol in all sorts of ways, but specifically around five or so of the jokes are of the "I want more alcohol" form. Conleth Hill's character drinks alcohol when David Morse's character isn't looking, the audience laughs. Someone tries to take Jim Norton's character's whisky bottle, he pulls the whisky away, the audience laughs. That same evening I saw "August: Osage County" and what do you know, it's all the same except we've switched to Jim Beam. The first scene, the patriarch of the play's Oklahoma family wants more alcohol, and the audience laughs. The next scene, this couple pours themselves alcohol, it gets a laugh.
So why is this funny? And why is it still funny even though we've seen it so many times? In discussing this phenomenon with my parents, I realized that perhaps the laughter here is in line with what some theorists have concluded about laughter, which is that it isn't necessarily a reaction to something funny -- it can result from relief, or excitement, or some other feeling. Perhaps our laughter comes merely from our recognition of the fact that we, too, would need a drink if our mom was yelling at us from the other room. Perhaps we are excited about the drunkenness to come, or nervous about it, or we're anticipating the humor of watching someone stumbling around, or, in certain contexts, we're giggly about the prospect of someone having a drunken hookup with someone else.
One thought: A lot of these "I want alcohol" jokes, I'm realizing now, are about secret or at least private moments (if I remember correctly, my Jim Norton example is a small moment that occurs while multiple characters are onstage, but not all of them notice). It wouldn't work as well, for instance, if the mom in my first example above observed her son pouring the alcohol. It tends to work best if no one notices except the drinker and the audience.
In general, the vocabulary of drugs and alcohol is rather fascinating. At a post-screening Q&A I went to for "Charlie Wilson's War," Aaron Sorkin says that he didn't have Charlie do lines of cocaine because he thinks that the vocabulary of cinema is such that if you have a character do lines, they're instantly evil, and don't get redeemed until they deal with that addiction, and Sorkin didn't want Charlie to down that whole rehab road. It's a comedy, after all.
I saw the Wes Anderson movie "The Darjeeling Limited" -- about three brothers taking a spiritual train trip through India -- last night at a special screening a tthe Hammer Museum. There were some very funny moments, and I laughed a lot, especially at first, but wasn't as grabbed by it as I was by "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums."
One aspect of the film that I appreciated is that the three brothers were constantly crammed into tight, enclosed spaces together -- their train car, the back seat of a car, a bus, two of them hanging out while lying in the same bed -- and you could tell from their faces and body language that they were very comfortable doing so. This completely rings true for me, since while I grew up my family was constantly taking car trips with my brothers and I packed in the back seat together. Even now, at the rare occasion when all five of us are in a car, my brothers and I get in the back seat as if it's completely normal, and if five of us share a hotel room, two of us have to share a bed.
These enclosed spaces create some infantilizing shots -- Jason Schwartzman's and Owen Wilson's characters hanging out while lying together on the bottom bunk, with Adrien Brody craning his head down from the top bunk, for instance. The shot is an example of another aspect of the movie that I liked (and a continuing feature of Anderson's films), which is the way in which it subtly conveyed the idea that these adult characters were still in arrested development, still basically children. I found it comforting to see adult characters -- especially Schwartzman's character, who was probably about my age -- who clearly don't have their shit together.
Like the movie "Into the Wild" and the play "Shipwrecked!" at South Coast Rep, both of which I saw recently, "Darjeeling" is about a young man's spiritual adventure to a new, exotic place. And like those other two two, "Darjeeling" kept prompting my mind to wander off and think about the way in which the story related to me, and there were many -- I've always wanted to travel to India, travel with my brothers, etc. All of these stories hit rather close to home, though too close for comfort, as I do want to travel but I still don't have the means with which to do so. Any travel editors out there?
Finally, as many people will instantly realize while watching the film, given Owen Wilson's character (and I don't want to give anything away), it's an incredible coincidence that this is his first film after his suicide attempt, so much of a coincidence that I found myself wondering if the suicide attempt could have been staged for publicity purposes. The fact that the film has a ten-minute prequel available on iTunes aided this perception, as it shows evidence of a media-savvy director trying to create a buzz and a sort of lore surrounding the film. I'm curious to see what the media will write about this freakish coincidence.
I have also performed standup comedy at venues such as the Laugh Factory, Westside Theater, and ComedySportz.