Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cheerleader Addendum

When I wrote my Johnny Weir post last week I originally went off on a pro-cheerleading rant in the middle of it which I subsequently erased. But Lily Stark White expressed sadness at my doing so, so here it is in all its ranty glory.

*The point is made very well in Bring It On. In the film, Eliza Dushku's character, Missy, cheers because her school doesn't have a girl's gymnastics team. But none of the girls in that film give much of a shit about football or whatever. They have their own (maligned) sport. Hey. Have you seen what those girls can do on ESPN? If curling qualifies as a sport, so can cheering. Another thing I find kind of interesting about cheerleader hatred, is that it seems somewhat divorced from jock hatred in that many people who loath jocks and were victimized by them in high school, enthusiastically watch football and basketball and baseball. With cheerleading, the skill of the girls who participate is pretty much dismissed, and all that remains is a pretty broadly felt contempt. The images of both cheerleaders and football players have been highly sexualized by our culture, the difference being that with the boys who play football, these perceptions are pretty solidly tied to what they do, i.e. play a sport. With the cheerleaders, the sexy mean girl image is seen more of a state of being centered around the heavily fetishized outfit, rather than tied to the activity itself.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Apocalypse Girls 1: Rite of Passage, Forest of Hands and Teeth and Uglies

From what I understand, there are numerous possible causes. Over-population. Nuclear war. Regular war. A bacteria that attacks gasoline. Famine. And, of course, zombies. I'm talking about apocalypse. Disaster, Armageddon, or as the Greeks had it: revelation. I think in some way, what comes after the destruction is what will be revealed. Don't worry, I'm not getting all fatalistic and doomy - I'm talking about literature. Over the past few months I've read five (count 'em - five!) books that were post-apocalyptic in one way or another, all with teen girl protagonists.

All were interesting, all were worth reading to varying degrees. Two were from the late 60s, and the other three have all been released over the past couple of years. Young Adult fantasy is incredibly popular right now (Twilight. Duh.), most of it with female protagonists, much of it very good indeed. It just seemed such an odd coincidence that I read all these books in such close proximity to each other. As someone on a YA book board recently exclaimed: "Is post-apocalyptic teen fiction now a genre?"

When Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin first came out in 1968, it won the Nebula and was a Hugo Award finalist. So it's not like is was exactly ignored upon its release. At first, I wasn't going to include it in my post as this is actually a re-read. It was one of my favorite books when I was a teenager, so it seems like a total shame that kids now don't seem to be reading it much. The story is set about 150 years after the Earth became uninhabitable do to overpopulation, famine and war. Mia Havero, who is eleven years old when the book starts, lives aboard one of several large, city sized ships that escaped Earth before its final destruction. Numerous colonies have also been set up on various planets. One thing that surprised me upon rereading was how unlikable Mia sometimes is. She's prickly, impatient and intolerant. She throws around the word "mudeaters", the slur the ship dwellers use to denigrate the people who live on the planets. She is smart and arrogant. But she's also brave and intellectually curious. In a closed society like the Ship's, there is little disease, few accidents and people live a very, very long time, so population control is of prime importance to the ship's counsel. One of the ways this is effected is through "The Trial". When kids turn fourteen, they are put down on a planet and have to survive for a month. They are given extensive survivalist training in order to ensure that a good number make it through.

By the end of the book, we view the Ship as being a kind of lazy Death Star without the histrionics, Nazi iconography and ultra-militarism. Ship society has become decadent, complacent and arrogant (much as Mia was at the beginning of the book). No one creates any new art, they take resources from and exert ultimate control (via the threat of nuclear annihilation) over the planet colonies, withholding technology from the hard-scrabble, mostly rural planet dwellers. What's so interesting, and feels so real about the book is that Mia's father who is a firm supporter of all the policies outlined above, is also in the ordinary, day to day sense, a very nice man. Everyone thinks they are right and working for the ultimate good in their own quiet way. There is no mustache twirling, no clear villains and no easy solutions. There's no rebellion of the planet dwellers creating a new egalitarian society. There's just one girl's awakening to the fact that the way her Ship operates isn't right and that she will do what she can to change things. If I've made this sound overly dry, I apologize. Though Panshin is a slightly chilly writer emotionally, Mia's month long Trial is super exciting (and - bonus! consequence-free teen sex!) and her adventures aboard ship are loads of fun, and there's lots of regular coming of age stuff with friends and school. The title "Rite of Passage" may be heavy handed, but the book isn't. I have a feeling one of the big problems with people not reading this book are the really unfortunate covers it has been saddled with for the past 2o years. I mean, really.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by first-time novelist Carrie Ryan, is a muted Zombie Apocalypse romance that is full of dread. I mean that in the nicest way possible. She never uses the word "zombie" in her book, the creatures in the forest are instead referred to as the "Unconsecrated". Becoming unconsecrated is viewed as both a disease and a curse.

The novel is set some generations after the Unconsecrated have seemingly overrun the earth. Mary lives in a small, fortified village in the forest which is run along strict religious lines by an order of Sisters, backed up by the force of the Guardians who patrol the borders. I say "seemingly" because there don't seem to be any lines of communication open between Mary's town and the rest of the world. She isn't certain there is a "rest of the world". The town is bordered by a fence, beyond which is the Forest of Hands and Teeth - the hunting ground of the unconsecrated.

I took a look at a few reviews before writing this, and everyone describes the book in the same way. They use simple fairy tale sentences. There is a girl named Mary and she lives in a town surrounded by woods. The first half of the book is extremely powerful. It doesn't feel entirely unlike a story about a medieval village when the black plague comes to town. She hits that sweet spot between specificity and universal allegory that is very, very hard to do. You can get a pretty good feel for it from the lovely first paragraph:
My mother used to tell me about the ocean. She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away. She once showed me a picture that she said was my great-great-great-grandmother standing in the ocean as a child. It has been years since, and the picture was lost to fire long ago, but I remember it, faded and worn. A little girl surrounded by nothingness.
I think the book falls apart a little at the end. Mary and a few others wind up traveling down a fenced in path, the unconsecrated hoards constantly trying to break through. Look. I'm all for zombies. But after a week of them traveling like this, I began to ask, "What is that fence made of?" Ryan seemed to lose control a little bit as the masses of zombies swamp the narrative in yuck and gore. There are just too many of them. Which I guess is the whole point of a zombie apocalypse so I can't complain. But all of Ryan's missteps feel like rookie errors and she has a sequel on the way which I am very excited about (called The Dead-Tossed Waves. Out in March.). From the advance materials, it looks as if it doesn't pick up directly from where Forest left off, but skips a generation or so. I think this was a smart move and I'm curious to see where her lovely prose and morally complex zombie world wind up leading.

Scott Westerfield's Uglies books have an interesting premise (out of the four, I read the first two: Uglies and Pretties), but felt overly simple in execution. I enjoyed the first book. Our teenage heroine, Tally Youngblood, lives in a post-apocalyptic, post-scarcity, seeming utopia. When each person turns sixteen they are made "pretty". i.e. they are given head to toe plastic surgery and move to "New Pretty Town", a kind of late adolescent Pleasure Island of parties and cocktails and fun and decadence. Kids who haven't yet had the surgery are called "Uglies". Tally wants to be pretty more than anything. If you smell a dystopia looming, you'd be correct. It's creepy as hell, and Tally learns a few things that puncture her pretty-perfect view of the world she was born into. She learns about the big brother-like Secret Police (called Specials) who have been surgically altered to be strong, fast and monstrous. She also learns about, and eventually makes her way to "The Smoke", a camp of deserters who live in the wilderness, un-surgeried. While there, even more sinister facts emerge. The new pretties aren't so up and "bubbly" (and, wow, will you get sick of the word bubbly in the second book) because their lives are now so fabulous, but because they've been essentially lobotomized, and made docile.

This is spooky, potent stuff, and Westerfield tells an exciting tale. But something about it felt overly simple to me. Some of the technology he has thought up is awe inspiring (particularly in "Pretties") and creative, but sometimes they felt like plot contrivances. The Specials are completely evil. Which I guess is partly my problem - in contrast between Mia Havero's nice father deciding to push the button to annihilate an entire planet because he really, really thinks its his only choice - we have what I call mustache twirling. Evil for evil's sake that delights in its own evil. I mean, they do say they want to preserve their way of life and look what happened before, etc. But they practically kick puppies. Also, the major betrayal and the reaction to it felt off. It's over a boy that Tally's friend liked first. And when he likes Tally better she becomes completely evil. Which is just stupid. The characters are at the service of the plot.

If I can get it for free, I may read "Specials" to see how it all turns out (here's a hint: evil loses), but Westerfield's world, while very sparkly indeed, lacks depth. And maybe it just hit me wrong, but Westerfield seems awfully enchanted by the Pretties outsides, while bemoaning their insides. Which doesn't sound very different from certain dystopian aspects of our our current, non-apocalyptic world.

Apocalypse Girls will continue with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games and Angela Carter's Heroes & Villains.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Weeping, The Pink Tassel, The Ersatz Russian

I have pretty much zero knowledge of technical skating, but I think I can spot a crazy artist when I see one. I love the Olympics and I love watching individuals compete. Team sports leave me cold. I guess I should clarify and say "professional team sports leave me cold". I made a pretty solid blanket decision that I am pretty much completely disinterested in any activity or institution in which I would never be welcome to participate (except in a cheering capacity*).

Back to the Olympics, or specifically, figure skating. Actually, the much mocked men's figure skating. The American who won the gold seems like a very nice and gracious man. He is clearly very talented and apparently almost preternaturally hard working. Thankfully, the days when the US men figure skaters felt they had to butch up are pretty much gone - it was always kind of a losing battle anyway, so lots went for "boyish". The two American contenders were in full flamboyant glory. Evan Lysicek, the winner of the gold, dressed like Hamlet for both programs (once with feathers, once with silver snakes). It was like he had stepped straight out of the Ballet Russes in its Parisian glory days. Obviously, he's a very, very good skater. But he's not an artist. Really.

I don't even know what to say about Johnny Weir's long program that doesn't sound cliché. It was an absolutely heartfelt triumph of popular entertainment. He skated like Callas singing until her voice was in tatters, like a ballerina in red shoes leaping in front of a train, like Jackson Pollack bleeding on the canvas. It was so completely over the top. I don't know exactly what he was saying through skate, but he really, really meant it and said it well. At the end of his program he collapsed on the ice in tears. The audience jumped to its feet en masse. And he didn't even place.

(photo via

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Said Romance Was Dead?

Over this past Valentine's Day weekend it may have been me saying it. But personal drama aside, I'm really not cynical enough to completely disbelieve in it altogether. Like all good Americans I've gotten pretty much all my ideas about romance from the movies, and I often wonder if all my real life relationships haven't been totally sabotaged in advance by all that movie watching.

Last week, Nora Ephron published a list of her favorite romantic comedies in the Daily Beast. It's a very good list, but there are a few truly glaring omissions and one inclusion that truly baffles me. I mean, there's no arguing with likes and dislikes but calling Casablanca a romantic comedy at all strikes me as bizarre. One important thing she fleetingly mentions as being very important are plots. That romantic comedies seem to work best when they're about something besides the romance. This was also discussed this week here, on Alyssa Rosenberg's excellent blog. I completely agree with her that the exclusion of The Lady Eve and Trouble in Paradise are completely indefensible. I think what everybody is really talking about here is stakes. Which in the current crop of romantic comedies, simply don't exist. If the girl and the guy don't wind up together, what exactly will happen? Um, nothing. I mean, who cares? And the movie isn't about anything else so it becomes a totally pointless exercise and incidentally totally unromantic because it's just completely annoying and solipsistic and you wonder who would put up with these stupid self-centered people for more than five minutes. That's one of the reasons Jane Austen's stories still work so well. The stakes are sky high. If the Bennett girls or Anne Elliot don't marry they are doomed to terrible lives of penury.

There are some other films that I think are really worth talking about in the context of romance. Ephron's list has very few films from what we'll call the modern era: Hannah and Her Sisters, Splash and Sense and Sensibility (which hardly counts). None from the past ten years. I'll probably be pilloried for this, but I honestly believe something from the Apatow oeuvre belongs on the list. Crass they may be, but they are actually funny. They are surprisingly romantic and the women in his films fare much better than they do in most current Hollywood product.

But the biggest modern omission of all is Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. This was one of the best movies of the '90s and completely and criminally underrated and ignored. Granted, much of the movie focuses on crime and prison and heists. But the romance provides the structure and it's achingly romantic in a way movies have mostly forgotten to be. I think it's George Clooney's best performance by about a mile and Soderbergh somehow managed to wrench a decent turn out of Jennifer Lopez. There's a scene early in the film where Lopez, a Federal Marshall, is being held hostage by Clooney, who has just escaped from prison. The two of them are locked together in the trunk of a car and they begin to talk. They mostly talk about movies, and it's one of the great falling in love scenes in film. He's certain that he's found his perfect woman, but the obstacles are legion. He's a bank robber who doesn't know how to do anything else. And she's Federal Marshall who wouldn't ever even think about neglecting her duty. After that great early scene, they only meet face to face three more times. Once, he waves to her from an elevator as she stands with the SWAT team sent to capture him. Then they meet in a bar, half pretend they are other people, and have sex (he refers to it as a time out, from their real lives, from crime, from inevitable disaster). The third time, she shoots him. But it's essentially a comedy, if a dark, violent and bittersweet one.

But to get back to Nora Ephron. I think this is as good a time as any to take a look at her directing career and to add her to my sporadically added to list of women who direct movies. She comes from a family of screenwriters (her parents wrote Desk Set), and was once played in a film by Meryl Streep. Her first screenplay was for Silkwood (also starring Streep). I saw it in the theater when it came out and have been using the phrase "scrub oneself like Karen Silkwood" pretty much ever since. I haven't seen the movie in almost 30 years, so I hesitate to say much about it. One thing I do remember was it was the first time I ever saw oral sex being performed on a woman in a movie (very eye opening). She also wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally. The first film she directed, This Is My Life, is mostly forgotten, which I think is unfortunate as I liked it. In it, Julie Kavner (most famous for being the voice of Marge Simpson), the single mother of two young girls (Gaby Hoffman and Samantha Mathis), begins a new life as a stand up comedian. I love movies about women and their careers and their relationships with other women. They so rare, I can basically count them on my fingers. Bedchel's Law is rarely adhered to in Hollywood (or anywhere else to be perfectly honest). This is the point in her career where things get a little dicey. She proceeded to direct the two most successful romantic comedies of the 1990s - neither wound up on her list, by the way, and rightly so. They both starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The films are not aging well to say the least and the second one (You've Got Mail) is particularly risible for both its moral sogginess and its desecration of The Shop Around the Corner. She made a few other forgettable, poorly received comedies. But then last year she made Julie and Julia. She went back to writing about what I believe she's best at - women and their careers and their relationships with other women. It's adapted from two memoirs (Julia Powell's titular one and Julia Child's) so she doesn't get all the credit. But there are so many places where this movie could have gone wrong and it didn't. Both women have men in their lives and to my great joy, they are each relegated to the roles most commonly played by women: the spouse who either spends the whole film going, "I believe in you, honey, go do that thing you do!" or conversely, saying, "This thing you do is tearing our family apart!". But it's a wonderful film, about hard work and food and finding joy through one's passion and through marriage. My feelings about Ephron are so mixed, as what I'm now referring to as her mid-period was just completely horrifying to me. But in many ways both her first and her most recent films point to a mainstream, feminist cinema that seems to reflect the sensibilities of ordinary, modern, working women.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

See More Glass

People I've never met die all the time. And people I've never met, but have admired and in some cases almost loved, have been disappearing pretty regularly. But I've never cried before when one of these strangers died until a couple of weeks ago when J.D. Salinger died behind his fortress of implacable silence.

It's taken me a week or two to get my thoughts in order which is why I will never be a journalist, but I'm glad I waited. I'm still not sure why this stranger's death felt so meaningful to me. I've never harbored any dreams about making a pilgrimage to New Hampshire and being "the one" he would spill his guts to after all these years. I mean, how awful would that be? I prefer to keep my illusions intact.

The Catcher in the Rye has never been that big a deal to me, though I hesitate to say exactly what I feel about it as I haven't read it in well over 20 years. And I've never wanted to meet Salinger. So all this feeling is tied up in the 300 or so pages that comprise Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (in honor of my completion mania, I'll throw in Seymour, an Introduction, too. I love the part where he's describing his middle class Manhattanite mother-in-law as being incredibly heroic).

When I read Nine Stories in high school I thought I had found God. After Franny and Zooey, I knew I had. After Salinger's death I reread the stories which I don't think I've done in about a decade. I still loved them and I was pleased to discover that I remembered them very accurately. My enormous love for the Glass family was intact and undiluted. For those who haven't read the stories, here's a rundown of the basics: Vaudevillian parents, Irish/Jewish Manhattan upbringing, seven kids - all of whom appeared on the radio quiz show, "It's a Wise Child". Seymour, the oldest, committed suicide. Buddy, the second son, is clearly Salinger's alter ego. Franny and Zooey are the two youngest, both actors. For a while I used the piece where Franny goes off about how awful actors are as my audition monologue. When I worked on it in class, my teacher said, "Your acting problems aren't acting problems. Go see a shrink." Probably rightly so. Salinger was also (along with Maugham's The Razor's Edge) my first introduction to Eastern philosophy* which opened up some new avenues of thought for me.

"The Laughing Man" though one of the Glass-less stories may be my favorite. I think I've been hopelessly influenced by it, as upon rereading it, I saw bits and pieces of this 15 page story in nearly everything I've written. The whole idea of the Paris-Chinese boarder may be one of my favorite things in any story anywhere, and have loved imaginary real places ever since.

I read these stories and fell in love with them long before I was capable of analyzing why I liked anything, but certain things seemed really clear. His writing is pitched emotionally in a place in which I am very, very comfortable. I've said the same thing about Wes Anderson's movie "The Royal Tanenbaums" which was my favorite of the past decade and was heavily influenced by Salinger's stories. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't find any of the emotional content embarrassing. The people in these stories feel recognizable to me in ways that fictional people rarely do.

There is also a solid New York City vibe in the stories - to the extent that upon rereading I realized that I didn't just feel as if I knew these people, I actually knew them. The Jews and Irish of upscale New York and environs were all I knew growing up in West Egg. And Salinger's mid-twentieth century Manhattan was the city of my parents and my uncles who worked in television and my grandparents who lived on the Upper West Side until they retired and flew south. The Glass children were alienated from the same world I was alienated from.

So to get back to why this death seemed like such a big deal to me - I'm still not sure. My life has been full of endings recently. Virgodog and I are splitsville. A dear family friend passed away. My best friend and collaborator parted ways from me about a year ago. So maybe I was just wide open and ready to be moved by the death of a stranger. Or maybe I'm just waiting like everyone else to see if there are any new stories. I half-believe he left instructions to have everything burned upon his death like Kafka and Emily Brontë did. I'm torn. Joyce Maynard said there was at least another entire novel. But maybe it's best if we're just happy about what we have and not always want more and all of us should stop thinking about more Glass family stories and that lost novel of Emily's that Charlotte consigned to the flames. Strangers are still strangers no matter how many of their books we read.

*Okay - maybe Kerouac, too, but I could never stand him. I've gotten into more arguments with more people defending my loathing of Kerouac than almost anything else.