Archives for the Month of February 2009 on Cereal Monogamist
TV Recommendation: The Amazing Race
To anyone who's never given this show its proper chance to enchant you: the new season of The Amazing Race has begun and it's better than ever. I'll save for later a more exhaustive review of the awesomeness that is this show; but please consider these points:
For those who have trouble catching the show in its usual 8pm Sunday time slot, this season, it has been rerunning at 8pm on Friday nights on the Travel Channel.
This season features competitors like teeny stuntmen brothers, a deaf kid and his mom (who are dominating thusfar) and Mike White, the guy who wrote School of Rock, racing with his gay minister dad.
In the first episode, the racers had to transport gigantic wheels of cheese down a slippery hill in the Swiss Alps. Watch and enjoy.
Mad Men Watch-a-thon: Episodes 3 through 6
I said in my last entry that this show was engaging in a slow burn, and I haven’t come here to revise that statement at all. I vaguely remember early reviews of this show—when everyone had seen the commercials with the cool music and the striking images of broad-shouldered ad guys in their James Bond suits and was wondering if the show was worth watching (because…AMC? the American Movie Classics channel that today is apparently airing a Stallone marathon?)—and the reviews were mixed. There was a lot of “it’s pretty, but there’s nothing there.”
For my part, I’m still holding out that there’s something there. It won all the Emmys and everything for a reason. But right now, the show feels a bit remote; it’s offering me a lot of stuff, but it’s not the stuff I want. It’s like the show is Don Draper and I’m Don Draper’s wife.
Speaking of, I’m kind of tired of Betty, Don’s wife, already. I thought a show set in an ad agency would spend more time in the ad agency. So far, there’s a LOT of suburban ennui, the home lives of the mad men and their mad wives. And though I like Betty’s mouthy friend (the chain-smoking pregnant one, played by that actress who got killed off House), I think Betty herself adequately fits the description of “it’s pretty, but there’s nothing there.” Yes, she’s deliberately cultivating that image. I get it. I saw her in Episode 6 putting lipstick on her tiny daughter etc. etc. Yes, I know The Feminine Mystique is still a few years in the future for her. She still kinda bores me.
At least some of the other characters are getting fleshed out—Joan, the vivacious redheaded secretary, has got a plotline, finally. Also, in Episode 6 Peggy (the girl with the bangs who played Bartlet’s daughter on The West Wing) inadvertently reveals her smarts by saying something particularly well-expressed to an ad guy. He’s like, “That’s very funny, who told you that?” and she’s like, “Um, I thought of it myself…?” and he’s like “does not compute…” I can’t wait to see her discover the proverbial glass ceiling. (Actually, I’m ‘spoiled’ as they say, because I know what happens to Peggy further on down the season. Still, I’m enjoying her character.)
It is interesting that, other than Betty, and other than Joan in Episode 6, the women in the ad agency are sort of shuffled off to the side. Their “plotlines” as such are more like longing looks and wistful sighs. Not giving the show’s women proper attention is just as sexist as the behavior they encounter in the show. Maybe the show intends to express the sexism of the 60s through some postmodern metacommentary, both literally and figuratively. Or maybe I just need to watch some more.
Anyway, the details are still exquisite, which is great; good writing is so often in sharp details. Episode 2 (I think—it’s been a week or so) featured a birthday party for one of Don’s kids, where the kids were playing the most realistic game of “house” ever: “get your shoes off the couch!” “I don’t like your tone!” Peter expressed his frustrated creative drive by claiming that he invented direct marketing: “I thought of that! Turned out it already existed, but I arrived at it independently.” Possibly the funniest scene so far was in Episode 6 when Don Draper’s mistress took him to a club in Greenwich Village to see all the beatniks and commies and whatnot. Jon Hamm does a great bemused expression.
Great News from Friends
It must be engagement season! We've had lots of good news from friends this week, and congratulations are in order.
On Sunday, we learned via text message that Jeremy's best friend Matt will marry his longtime girlfriend. Congrats, Matt & Carlyn!
Today, I heard from Becky (in an e-mail coyly titled, "Trip to Seattle?") that she and longtime boyfriend are also engaged. Congrats, Becky & James! (See their wedding site here. I highly recommend a trip through the hall of bears.)
Try not to plan your weddings for the same day, guys. It'll be like we as a culture learned nothing from Bride Wars.
Also, this news has been out there for a few weeks now, but since we're on the subject of expanding families, our friends Amanda and TJ are expecting their third child in the fall. Congrats, Stewart family!
The Oscars Day-After Recap
I watched the whole show, yes. I had a lesson plan to do for the next day, reading, all of it; I still watched all three hours of the Oscar telecast as well as two hours of red carpet.
Here are my impressions (and I'm putting in a jump, because this is gonna be a long one)...
I’m going to start this review by patting myself on the back: I did not jump on the bandwagon to see this movie. I was more like a pioneer in seeing this movie; I was the Lewis and Clark of this movie. I had read about way before it was news, did some online detective work and found a free screening in town before it hit wide release. Jeremy and I saw it in Shaker Square back in December.
I already knew the director, Danny Boyle (in short: Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later and Millions), and the story sounded awesome. It’s about a young guy who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, India, who is participating on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and doing quite well. He’s doing so well that they believe he’s cheating, and demand that he tell them how he knows each answer. As he tells the stories, we learn about his rough childhood, including the girl he loved who he struggled to save from the streets.
Anyone who reads my reviews is going to find out that I adore a non-linear narrative, flashbacks, any unconventional narrative device, really. Plus, this is a story set in India, and I have a fairly inexplicable, probably colonialist and un-PC fascination with all things Indian. I saw The Darjeeling Limited a bunch of times. I read Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee and Kiran Desai. I get incredibly excited when The Amazing Race goes to India. I drink Indian tea.
Anyway, I loved the movie; it was just what I expected and wanted to see. It was wistful and epic, heartbreaking and life-affirming all in the same moment. Some reviews have complained that this film relies too heavily on coincidence, and I always take issue with this point of view. I did it back when Signs came out (because in that case it wasn’t even coincidence, it was the hand of God, duh) and I do it every time we read a Dickens novel in an English seminar. As it happens, Slumdog Millionaire is hugely Dickensian. The young protagonist is orphaned and survives by his wits on the streets. He’s ambitious, and rises to a position of gentility, albeit an unsteady one. The love of his life, meanwhile, is in the clutches of an evil man. And through a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences, the protagonist and his love overcome their obstacles.
The class struggle is classic Dickens, too—the effect of the Industrial Revolution on England made some men rich and gave the rest black lung. In Slumdog, the industrialization is equivalent to westernization. In one scene, the protagonist and his brother stand at the top of a building and look over the part of Mumbai which was once the slums where they lived and is now a solid mass of skyscrapers and condos. The characters may be “better off” now—they have regular meals, probably, and clean clothes and cell phones—but a part of their national identity has been lost, just like the employees in call center where the protagonist works use English names and accents.
But all I’m really foregrounding here are the more sober elements of the film, and the fact is, it’s a lot of fun. There’s some violence that some reviewers got really squeamish about, but I’m pretty desensitized to movie violence thanks to Freshman Film class (1999) where we had to watch Full Metal Jacket and Alien and The Exorcist and The Shining etc., not to mention the Steven Seagal movies my dad had on the TV throughout my entire childhood. There’s dancing, there’s against-all-odds awesomeness. It was just amazing on all counts.
The review in brief: Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture!
Happy birthday wishes to Jeremy, today! I'll reveal his age only in riddles: today he is as many years old as there are hours in the day. His age is also the numeric title of a TV show about terrorists and the gravel-voiced badass who kills them. Finally, his age is twice a dozen--but not a baker's dozen, which would certainly be more appropriate.
Here's the gift I got him (from Cafepress.com):
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Let me start by saying that I did not hate this book. Most of what I’m going to say about it is negative, but I keep a list of the books that I read and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5 so I can look back and remember what I liked, and I settled on a 3 for this one. That would probably translate to “liked, but didn’t love”; or “liked well enough”. “Didn’t throw it away but probably wouldn’t save it in the event of a fire.”
The book is a memoir about the author’s experiences growing up under the “care” of her father, a shiftless alcoholic with the mind of an engineer, and her mother, an enormously self-involved artist. It was doubtlessly compelling, all the way through. I kept listening (it was an audiobook) through the whole thing, feeling depressed with the family’s disappointments. I’d say I rejoiced in their successes, but for two things: 1. they scarcely had any and 2. it was 99% their fault that they didn’t. The author paints her parents as brilliant eccentrics who couldn’t be constrained by their responsibilities, but the fact remains that (if she is writing the truth) they were two people who let their children starve, walk around dirty and shoeless, and live for eight years in a rickety house with no indoor plumbing, electricity, running water, refrigeration, or heat, and all because they couldn’t be bothered to have jobs or obey city laws or take pride in caring for the children they brought into the world. It was really difficult, as a sane and relatively productive member of society, to listen to those characters endorse their senseless philosophies and to witness them subjecting their children to them.
The book is not particularly well-written, either. So many of the experiences she describes are poignant and alarming, and yet they are often repetitive. Again and again, anecdotes reinforce that there wasn’t enough food, that their conditions were subpar, that her parents were neglectful but dazzlingly intelligent, that the family pulled together through the rough times, but that her father continually let her down, but that she loved him anyway and etc. etc. etc. and yet so much is missing. Memoir as a genre requires a certain degree of personal response to give it its reason for being. So many variations on “our life was really hard,” with nothing to the tune of “what it meant to me, what it did to me, what I took from it, what I want to tell you about it,” misses the entire point of the enterprise.
If I’m enduring through 10 audio discs (which translates to 288 pages, according to the ‘net), I’m looking for something a little more insightful than the chapter that closes out this book. After several years apart, the siblings and mother reunite for a family dinner, and someone wants to toast their dead father. Three hundred pages about this deeply flawed, charismatic man who left an indelible emotional mark on all of them, but especially Jeannette, and this is the toast we get? “Life with him was never boring!” In the words of Seth (and formerly Amy) on SNL’s Weekend Update: “Really?” That’s all we get? Really?
I’ve been Googling a little bit, as well as checking some book forums I frequent to see how people feel about this book, and even though some other people have had the same reaction as me (see, for example, Amazon’s 1-star reviews of the book) the vast majority of people found it touching and moving and a triumph of the human spirit and other various cliches. They’re also listing all the other memoirs they’ve enjoyed, which seem to be mostly of the “I survived a hardship” variety. Maybe this is just an interest I don’t share, but I don’t really want to read about people’s struggles with abusive childhoods or addiction or prostitution or bad haircuts unless I get something out of it besides a sensationalistic thrill. I especially want to avoid memoirs which are written by people who are overly eager to share their experiences with abuse and addiction and prostitution, and I can’t help but put Walls in that camp.
One interesting thread in The Glass Castle (which went nowhere, of course) is late in the book when Walls is ‘making it’ as a journalist with a column about the comings-and-goings of VIPs. She describes a lunch with one of these people wherein she carefully dodges questions about her upbringing and her parents. She remarks elsewhere about how she kept her family and her past secret from friends, colleagues, everybody. I would be interested to know at what point she decided she wanted to disclose everything. That’s a pretty significant emotional shift; was it brought on by a particular event? Over time, did she become more numb to the pain? Or perhaps less numb? It began to haunt her and she wrote the book for cathartic effect?
Maybe this is unfair, but my guess is that the moment of change occurred just as a publisher told her, “Write it, and I’ll get you seven figures.”
Mad Men Watch-a-thon: 1st and 2nd episodes
This show has been enjoying a lot of critical acclaim lately, and I kept saying, I’ll watch it soon enough. Recently, spurred on by (star of Mad Men) Jon Hamm’s recent appearance on 30 Rock as the dreamy doctor who may date Liz, I obtained the complete first and second seasons.
Of course, I’m in school, which means I can’t get sucked into a binge that lasts like, an entire weekend. (And it would not be the first time I’d lost a whole day or whole weekend to some TV show.) So I’m doling out episodes a couple at a time, and I thought I’d comment with early impressions.
I wasn’t blown away by the first two episodes, but I wasn’t underwhelmed, either. I can tell this show is going to be a slow burn, which I like; it means they’re spending a lot of time introducing characters and setting a nice tone, and, if they do the slow burn right, the plot will pick up momentum and head out of the season on a roll.
Plus, most of the things I didn’t care for were clearly symptomatic of the show being new. For example, in the first episode, a lot of the dialogue felt a bit unnatural because every character was stuck saying these hugely representative things. Nobody could talk naturally about the daily business of the show because they were too busy speaking in mission statements.
What I did like: the tone, the music, how crisp and sharp everything looks. I love the closeted gay guy (Salvatore) and his “so people live their life one way and think the complete opposite? preposterous!” Little details, such as those that subtly remind viewers how things had changed since Kennedy. (The best example of this: the scene in the second episode when Don’s wife sees her daughter wearing a plastic bag over her head and gives her the old “come here, young lady,” warns her the dry cleaning better not be on the floor, and sends her off again.) Another really perceptive detail is the way the men respond to the women; mostly they leer at them and glower at them with condescension. But in at least one moment, when some ad business was urgent, the men passed by Peggy without the slightest visual acknowledgement, like she was a ghost in the room.
There’s a lot of sexism on the show, of course—that’s a simplified term for what we’re seeing in that moment. There’s racism, too—there would have to be to accurately reflect the era. What makes a modern show inherently not sexist and racist itself is how it treats those themes; that’ll be interesting to see.
Isn't it romantic?
How did we spend Valentine's Day? Well, the day having been set aside primarily for a birthday outing for Jeremy (he turns twenty-something-or-other on Thursday), we went at his request to the Great Lakes Science Center on the lovely Cleveland lakeshore. Some highlights:
Jeremy feeding dialogue to a talking robot (talking robot: "I like ribs! At lunch I'm going to put ribs in my belly!")
Me feeding dialogue to the talking robot (talking robot: "Jeremy is a geek!" made extra funny by the fact that the robot thought the word was pronounced 'jeek')
Playing a giant tilting pinball maze game
Building a Roman arch out of padded blocks and then excitedly destroying it by removing the keystone
Having electrical current run through us (in an exhibit which warned against people with pacemakers taking part in it and which Jeremy mostly made me do)
After the museum, we had lunch at Rick's Cafe in Chagrin Falls, then came home, where Jeremy went immediately to bed (he's mostly nocturnal now, of course) and I did some studying, watched about three hours of videos on VH1 Classic and had cheese and crackers for dinner.
All in all, a really nice day! Much preferred to some of the more hackneyed Valentine's traditions.
Movie Review Double Shot
Sean Penn was amazing in the movie (glad that he won the SAG award a few weeks ago, though I imagine Mickey Rourke has him at the Oscars). I say this even for the benefit of people who seethe with hatred for Sean Penn (Shout out--Andra!) because he is remarkably un-Sean Penn like for the entire movie. He scarcely looks like himself, in a way I can’t quite describe, but which seems to have something to do with an elasticity in his face, neck and shoulders that he’s usually lacking. Also terrific are Emile Hirsch (who I only like sometimes) and James Franco (who was the only watchable element of The Crapapple Express) and especially Josh Brolin (who’s awesome in everything lately, but who tops off this performance with the best seventies hair ever).
So, this kind of movie is usually primarily about the performances, and, like I said, the actors didn’t disappoint. Still, one thing I got that I did not expect to see was a seriously compelling glimpse into the ultimate grassroots campaign; a primer for how a fight for rights insinuates itself into government. I didn’t know that much about the real Harvey Milk, and I couldn’t believe how many times he ran for office and lost before he finally ran and won. He chipped away at hate, prejudice and indifference for years. There was so much vigorous activism onscreen, that I—well, basically, if I had been able to walk out of the movie and into some kind of freedom march I so would’ve done it. The awesomeness of the scenes where the characters would assemble and walk to City Hall made me long to take part in some political action, this despite all the violence and frustration the activists in this movie faced.
Though that verb should not be in past tense, should it? It was savvy of the filmmakers to release this film right now; people are still hot (and rightfully so) about California’s Prop 8. It’s a vivid reminder that prejudice didn’t die with seventies hair.
There’s plenty in this movie about violence and racism and the increasing anachronism of alpha male posturing, but I’ll direct you towards other reviews to muse on that. Metacritic is a great place to start.
What I want to talk about is how totally alien almost all the characters in this movie were in the way they interacted with each other. The weirdness was leaking out of the screen. The characters all related to each other like they had all been born in laboratories and were just growing accustomed to human interaction. This occurs from the very first moments of the movie, and the way everyone acts at the funeral of Clint Eastwood’s character’s wife. First, the priest who’s trying to reach out to him, who continually addresses him by his first name (which escapes me at the moment) despite the fact that Clint demands that he not do it. Who does that? The grandchildren also slouch around the house and check their text messages like it wasn’t their grandmother who just died. Of course, all of this is in service to reinforcing Eastwood’s theme of “it ain’t like it used to be.” Kids today have no respect. Not even that little pipsqueak priest.
We see the same thing with his adult son and daughter-in-law, in the birthday scene. We open at the dining room table where Clint sits in front of a sad, tacky birthday cake while the others stand awkwardly at his sides. Then, they awkwardly hand him extremely thoughtless birthday gifts—not wrapped, of course. He sits there and grumbles, and we’re meant to commiserate with him as, yet again, assholes surround him. And in the theater I’m saying, “Sit down. Why are you hovering like that? Sit down.” I couldn’t help but feel that these scenes were directed (by Eastwood) to be purposely awkward, to make the audience join the character in his discomfort. If that’s the case, it was certainly effective.
Either that, or this is just how people act around Clint Eastwood, and he’s doesn’t realize it’s not normal.
Isn't this site ugly?
I just thought I'd head off criticism at the pass. Yes, the site's an eyesore. Unfortunately, I can't change the screen colors or the font without knowing HTML. The platform is Movable Type, and even though I have a user's guide, it's a bit opaque for someone who doesn't know anything about programming (which really highlights the necessity of technical writing education such as I offer on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2 to 3).
If anyone knows anything about Movable Type, or wants to offer me some HTML advice, I'm listening.
I have embraced the inevitable. I’ve started a blog.
I figured as along as I have free space through school, I would use it. It’ll give me a chance to keep up my recreational writing (i.e. the writing that’s not getting graded, which is the overwhelming majority of what I write at the moment) and it’ll be fun to establish a presence on the web.
So, what can you expect of the blog? Mostly book reviews, probably, but also some blathering about movies and TV, teaching, chocolate, lake-effect snow, and even an occasional Skylar story.
I spent a long time thinking about my blog title--probably that's not something I want to admit--but in case you're curious, it's (obviously) a pun on "serial monogamist". It came to me first thing this morning when I tried to convince Jeremy that there was a goddess of cereal and he tried to convince me that I was completely wrong. [Cue Googling sounds]
Thus, I present the overseer of the blog: Ceres, Roman goddess of grain.
Anyway, hope everyone out in Internetland enjoys it!