Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Titian Haired Sleuth Turns 80!

I just discovered via facebook that today is the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Nancy Drew. Coincidentally, when I saw it, I was in the middle of a blog post about Agatha Christie's early (and much maligned) adventurous flapper books which I think sprung out of the same post-war cultural moment as Nancy Drew.

I love mysteries more than any other kind of book, and although the Nancy Drew books weren't the first ones I read (that honor belongs to Peggy Parrish), I first read them when I was very, very young and they influenced me tremendously. I love them, and for a while, when I had the money, I collected them semi-seriously (they might be the only thing about which I am seriously, embarrassingly geeky. I mean, I know about endpapers).

I think lots of women and girls take Nancy Drew very personally. She's just so perfect. She's smart and beautiful (titian haired, slender, dancing blue eyes) and kind and athletic and is freaking good at everything from ballroom dancing to car repair. I know some girls who are a little angered by her. But I loved all of it. The mysteries which were easy to solve as whoever was rudest always wound up being to blame, her friends Bess (timid, chubby) and "Nancy's boyish friend" George (every girl's first literary lesbian!). Her father, famed lawyer Carson Drew and her beloved housekeeper Hannah Gruen. Nancy lived in a world where she would simply leap into her blue convertable and dash off on adventures involving moss-covered mansions, ivory charms, tapping heels, whispering statues, brass bound trunks and missing maps. She never had to worry about school or money or seemingly anything except solving mysteries and helping the downtrodden who were always being victimized by mean rich people.

The books were consistently well written, mainly because a very small number of people wrote them and great care was taken. If you are interested in knowing who the writers were behind the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, I highly recommend the wonderful book Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. The re-write that was inflicted on the books in the late 50s and 60s still makes me angry. The prose was flattened and simplified, and much of the charm and quality was lost. Go back to the earlier versions which are still pretty widely available, or the facsimile versions that came out in the 90s.

Nancy Drew stands like a colossus over girl culture. She is the first truly important figure of the modern age and the fact that she is still being published and read is staggering. I don't think there is a teen girl cultural icon that even comes close. If you go into Books of Wonder on 18th Street and ask them about why there are no Nancy Drew books in their (remarkable) rare and out of print section, they will tell you that whatever they acquire never makes the shelves. They are purchased instantly. The demand outstrips everything.

The Royal Tenebaums; or How Can Gwyneth Paltrow Be So Unaware of Our Complicated Relationship?

The Royal Tenenbaums was my favorite film of 2001, and may have been my very favorite of the whole decade. It's one of those films I love so completely and so indiscriminately, I've been having a lot of trouble writing about it. I feel a bit as if I'm just going wind up quoting my J.D. Salinger blog post, as lots of what I had to say about the Tenenbaums also applies to the Glass family (who inspired them). So I think I'll just make a list of thoughts as coming up with anything coherent is clearly an impossibility.

1. The film inhabits a New York City that seems both fictional and achingly recognizable. I think it takes place in the pretend NYC that shows up frequently in my dreams.

2. The characters are based more on people out of books than real people and therefore feel more realistic to me because I've spent more time with books than with actual people.

3. Margot Tenenbaum is a reclusive playwright with few life skills, is extremely secretive and is sad much of the time. Recently, I've been sort of unprecedentedly happy, but for most of my life this would have been a fairly good description of me.

4. That Fendi mink is gorgeous. I don't care how wrong or bad - I totally want it. Sue me.

5. The soundtrack is perfect.

6. The Tenenbaum children have all kinds of weird talents and obsessions and were strangely brilliant when children, but have a great deal of trouble negotiating the world as adults. Traits that (intentionally) mirror Salinger's Glass family and also I think to an extent, my own.

7. I love that everyone has a uniform that they wear throughout the film.

8. The house on 144th street that Wes Anderson chose to play the Tenenbaum house is just a few blocks away from the gigantic, sprawling apartment my mother grew up in on Riverside Drive.

9. I have a weirdly conflicted relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow. I think she has the slight misfortune of being a beautiful character actress. She's great in this movie and also really terrific in Running With Scissors. On the other hand, in real life, she's clearly insufferable. I know a couple of people who knew her when she was at Spence and they just hated her (to be fair, I also know one girl who liked her very much). And the whole Goop thing is an unbelievable embarrassment. And don't even start me on the Batali show.

10. Gene Hackman is the greatest American actor of the past 40 years. He's great here.

11. The paintings in Owen Wilson's apartment.

12. I know everyone hates narration. I love it. And I love nothing more than finding out what happens to everyone after the story ends the way Dickens sometimes used to tell us. They do that here and it's lovely, and Alec Baldwin is perfect because he doesn't add any annoying false sentiment as often happens.

13. The zebra wallpaper in Margot's room.

14. Several years ago my mother wrote a letter to Wes Anderson via the New York Times. He replied with a letter hand written on hotel stationary.

15. The whole Chas story is just so lovely. It's the only film in which I've been able to stand Ben Stiller.

16. The movie is completely contrived in every way possible except that it feels emotionally honest.

17. The scenes with Royal having unsafe adventures with Uzi and Ari are so hilarious and fun (set to "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard")

18. An old boyfriend of mine worked on some of the graphics.

19. The reveal of Margot's secret life is just priceless.

20. Dalmatian mice.

This is the second entry in my favorite films of the Aughts series.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Doctor X!

Any film in which Lionel Atwill is the least creepy mad scientist is a very special one indeed. Such is the case in the spooky and wonderfully campy (yet flawed - more on that later) Doctor X from 1932. This rarely seen pre-code technicolor horror gem has a lot going for it. From the early autopsy scene, in which the removal of a pectoral muscle from the murder victim can only mean one thing - cannibalism - I pretty much knew the film would be a really good time.

Lionel Atwill stars as Doctor Xavier (I guess this is before his mutant days) who is assisting the police in solving a series of grisly murders. As the murder weapon is a scalpel that is only used within the medical school Atwill runs, and the students are all on holiday, the police know the killer must be a member of his staff. This medical college is one of the best things I've seen in a movie in a long, long time. It's supposedly situated somewhere in Manhattan, but looks more like German Expressionist Gothic City to me. I'm also unsure as to what they teach. Atwill introducing the police detectives to his staff one by one, may be one of the most entertaining 20 minutes or so I've seen in a while. Each is creepier than the next, and has a disturbing back story to match. Two were shipwrecked and it is implied they ate a third companion. One (who also has a prosthetic hand he screws on and off) is an expert in cannibalism. Another has bizarre facial scarring and his medical coat is covered in blood splatters (unexplained). The next is first seen in a Satanic silhouette. The last zips by in his Strangelovian wheelchair. I can only assume that graduates of the school receive their MSD degrees (Doctorate of Mad Science).

The scene soon shifts to Dr. Xavier's Long Island mansion. Look. I grew up on Long Island, and I promise you that nothing like this place ever existed. The rocky coast evokes Cornwall and the building itself screams Castle Dracula. Guests arrive via hansom cab. It's wonderful and entirely inexplicable. While there, Dr. Xavier concocts the most bizarre sting in the history of film. It involves elaborate wax figures, 40 foot tall glass beakers full of green liquid, the Doctor's spooky butler pretending to be the killer, heart monitoring devices attached to the suspects, and a dramatic reveal of the full moon outside the window. It's basically the most complicated lie detector test ever devised. It's absolutely wonderful to watch and completely ineffective.

I think I should now write about the one major, crippling flaw in the film. This would be the newspaper reporter protagonist (I saw Doctor X as a part of Film Forum's program of newspaper themed films) played by Lee Tracy. I have a strong suspicion the character was fine at the script level, but as played by Tracy, he's inappropriately comic and slapsticky. He bumps into stuff, stammers broadly, spit takes and expresses fear with all the subtlety of Abbott and Costello in the face of Dracula. His performance has nothing to do with the rest of the film and I can't imagine what anyone was thinking. There are other laughs in the film, but they fit in with the sophisticated look and feel evoked by the German Expressionist sets and the old-style mad doctor performances by the largely European cast. As with the drunken publicist in Murders at the Zoo (which also starred Atwill) played by Charles Ruggles, it's as if this reporter has wandered in from a different movie being shot in a neighboring lot. The love interest is the lovely and gorgeously gowned Fay Wray playing Atwill's daughter, and when she bafflingly falls into Tracy's arms at the end, it is far more disturbing and confusing than any of the violent murders or dismemberments seen earlier.

The movie looks great and is well directed, which makes the Lee Tracy aberration even stranger. Again, as with Murders at the Zoo, I'm guessing front office meddling. The director, Michael Curtiz, was no slouch. He went on to direct films such as Captain Blood and Casablanca. He knew how to work with actors and get funny, believable performances out of them.

The ending of Doctor X is beyond satisfying. I won't spoil it for you, but Synthetic Flesh has lots to do with the crimes!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tim Gunn: Master of the Universe

"The costume's all important. Semiotics."
- Tim Gunn

This is such a wonderful video, I couldn't resist reposting it. Below, see Tim Gunn intelligently critique the costumes worn by Spidey, Cat Woman and others. Whenever I see Tim Gunn I think maybe I should have gone to Parsons. C'est la guerre.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Antarctica in Baltimore

Glass Mind Theatre Company's production of my play Antarctica will be opening this Friday in Baltimore, which is very exciting news indeed. Information and tickets can be found here.

I'm sort of a legendary control freak, so this just sitting back and waiting for the curtain to come up is pretty much an exciting new adventure. When we were doing the production of the show I directed in 2007, we constantly asked "are you a Winnie or a Magda?" (we were going to create an internet quiz, but never got around to it). Obviously, I have turned into a total fucking Magda. But when my BFF from high school saw the show, she thought Jessi Gotta, who played Winnie, was pretty much playing me. So, yeah. I'm the writer, so I'm both. We did decide that the worst kind of people were Winnies who mistakenly thought they were Magdas.

I know I harp on Ernest Shackleton and fairy tales pretty much constantly, but please read his book South and East of the Sun and West of the Moon if you haven't already. Really.

But if you're in the Baltimore/DC area you should definitely go and check it out. I will likely be there at some point the last weekend.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Time Step!

Most people who have talked to me extensively about theater know that I sometimes bemoan what I refer to as "all that pesky talking". And one time I complained about being dragged to a film because it was about "boring relationships." Another time I flat out refused to go to a movie because I was worried it was about "learning and growing" (in that case it turned out I was absolutely correct to give it a miss). In other words, in my lazier moments, I have the artistic taste of a bright seven year old. Okay. Not really. And this is likely a really insulting way to introduce Parallel Exit's Time Step, which was completely not my intention.

What I mean to say is that sometimes the simple pleasure of watching people dance is really all I want to experience. And in their show there is also funny comedy, mostly physical, done beautifully. As per usual, this isn't completely unbiased as I know the director of the show and artistic director of Parallel Exit, Mark Lonergan. The pleasure of watching people dance is simple, but there is nothing harder in this world to achieve as a performer than effortlessness, so their achievement is mighty indeed. Just go. Kids like it, too, so if you have them, bring them.

And in the spirit of reciprocity (which is always so important), my delightful escort has a much longer review of Time Step here.

Lycanthropy: Ginger Snaps

Ginger: Okay. Search and destroy. Go.

Brigitte: Okay. Trina Sinclair.

Ginger: Excellent selection. Continue.

Brigitte: Trina Sinclair DOA in the hair dye aisle. Perished while seeking matching barrettes on nothing but diet pills and laxatives.

Ginger: Likes her shorts stuck up her ass crack.

Brigitte: Favorite homework excuse? [unintelligible. believe me. I listened to the line like ten times] ate it.

Ginger: Basic pleasure model.

Brigitte: Your standard cum-buckety date bait.


Ginger: Good one.

- "Ginger Snaps"

It's April and I never bothered to do any end of decade lists. It all seems so arbitrary, and I feel like I don't see enough films or read enough current books to make any kind of critically viable sermon from the mount-like top ten decisions. So I'm just going to post here and there about some of my favorite films of the past decade. This post will be devoted to the excellent Canadian teen girl werewolf flick from 2000, Ginger Snaps.

Werewolves are almost universally portrayed as male, which if you think about it for five minutes is super counter-intuitive as the entire idea of werewolves is deeply entwined with the lunar cycle, and who thinks of boys when you think lunar cycle? No one. But there are all kinds of prohibitions at play in turning women into sharp-toothed, hairy, aggressive animals on film. Jezebel touched on a couple of them in a post in February. Werewolves aren't pretty, or more importantly to American movies - they aren't hot. Our culture is deeply uncomfortable with hair on girls, with directly aggressive girls (as opposed to girls who use passive aggressive machinations to get their way), and particularly with sexual aggression in girls. And no one wants to talk about periods in films, right, which would be kind of inevitable with all that lunar cycling. Ginger Snaps knows all this and uses these prohibitions to create one of the best horror movies of the past ten or fifteen years. More than almost any other film I can think of it feels like not just a horror movie about girls, but a horror movie for girls. Boys, seriously - if you are at all squeamish about period blood, this is not the movie for you.

Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are sisters, less than a year apart in age and possess an almost twin-like closeness and understanding. They live in a horrible suburban subdivision where all the houses look the same and everyone lives in a series of identical, interlocking cul-de-sacs. Ginger is a few months older and more traditionally attractive than Brigitte (as two of the awful boys in their high school say: "You want to do a Fitzgerald?" "Not the little dweeb. The redhead with the rack."), although they are both genuinely weird and alienated in a way you rarely see in movies. The sisters seem to spend most of their time in their bunker-like bedroom talking about suicide pacts and how horrible everyone is except for them. For a school project (I can't begin to fathom what the actual assignment was) they create a series of photographic tableaux of violent death: murders, suicides, accidents.

Late one night, the girls are out in their neighborhood, playing a prank on one of the popular girls who is mean to them (the film is smart about this dynamic, too). Just as Ginger gets her first period, she is attacked by - something. Bear? Dog? Wolf? The girls run through the woods to escape and the thing is run over by a van driven by the local pot dealer who works in a greenhouse. As he says later: Lycanthrope. But Ginger has been scratched and bitten. She doesn't want to go to the emergency room as she's scared she'll get in trouble. Then her wounds start healing with alarming quickness. And then the changes start.

The parallels between lycanthropy and adolescence are obvious, but the way the movie explores them is brilliant. It feels both modern and mythic at the same time - an incredibly difficult achievement of tone that is shockingly difficult to hit, one I go after again and again in my own work and have touched upon briefly elsewhere in this blog. People have been telling the same fairy tales for hundreds of years because they are real. As Ginger's wolfy nature starts taking over, she both enjoys her new power and is scared absolutely shitless by it. Brigitte dashes around, trying to protect her sister both from others and herself, and to figure out what is going on with her, eventually with the help of the pot dealer who, it turns out knows a thing or two about other herbs. Aside from the blood lust and the tufts of hair and the tail (Brigitte helps Ginger tape it down before gym class), she is also suddenly both sexually available and sexually aggressive. Ginger finding her inner hotness is a cliché (in one of the films few lazy moments, she does the traditional babe walk down the hall at school in slow-mo as all the boys check her out), but her aggression is not.

Portraying any sort of sexual aggression in young women is still pretty rare. As Ginger fools around with a boy in his car, her enthusiasm causes him to say, "Just sit back and relax." She immediately snarls back at him that he should be the one sitting back and relaxing, and she pounces. Her aggression is real and it's not played for laughs. There aren't a great many female werewolves to compare Ginger to, but I don't think we can even begin to talk about sexual aggression in young girls and supernatural allegory without talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I read one review a while ago that summed up Ginger Snaps by saying it played like a particularly good episode of Buffy, and they do seem to occupy the same psychic space. I think there are more sexually aggressive young women in the seven seasons of Buffy than were seen in all the rest of the history of television combined. I mean, what other show has the title character embark on an intense sexual relationship that results essentially in a months long hate fuck born of rage and suicidal self loathing during which she blames herself for being a Bad Person but when she fesses up, her friend (likely voicing the feelings of the show's writers) says, "Look, it's always more complicated then that.". Interestingly, there are still people on the internet who blame Buffy (the character, not the show) for emasculating vampires - or maybe men in general, who knows. I loved that they showed men being constantly freaked out by her strength in a kind of primal way. And don't even get me started on the murderous and damaged Faith who seduces Xander, the ultimate beta-male in season three and then nearly strangles him to death. The one time a female werewolf made it onto the show, it was a little disappointing. She was the voice of unrestrained desire, but she was also kind of evil, and was eventually punished for it.

if you start googling terms like female werewolves menstruation, the hits you get most often cite Ginger Snaps and Angela Carter (for real. I'm not just trying to shoehorn in my favorite writer). Her most often read (and her most often taught) book, The Bloody Chamber, ends with three wolf stories. In her most famous story of all, "The Company of Wolves" (later made into an intriguing, but unsuccessful film in collaboration with Neil Jordan), the girl in the red cloak laughs in the wolf's face when he says he is going to eat her up and she winds up in her dead grandmother's bed with him, sleeping between his paws. In her stories, women turn into tigers and wolves and the forests are never safe.

But more than anything else, Ginger Snaps is a story of sisters. The story belongs as much to Brigitte as it does to Ginger. She is smart and resourceful, and the protective love she feels for her sister is truly affecting. It is she that provides the forward momentum for the story as she does everything in her power to make things okay as she sees Ginger slipping away. There is a desperately sad scene late in the movie when Brigitte walks into their shared bathroom and sees her sister covered in blood and in tears as she has tried to cut off her tail. Which sounds silly in print, but it's so awfully sad in actuality. Another kinship between Ginger Snaps and Buffy is they both possess the courage to take one's story to its logical conclusion. Ginger Snaps ends tragically, as it should. There is no reset button.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Revolution Girl Style Now

That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood
She's got the hottest dyke in town
That girl she holds her head up so high
I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah

Rebel girl, Rebel girl
Rebel girl you are the queen of my world
Rebel girl, Rebel girl
I think I wanna take you home
I wanna try on your clothes oh

-"Rebel Girl" Bikini Kill

I have no idea if the above lyrics were written for Joan Jett but they sure as hell could have been. She did, however, produce and play on the track.

I finally saw The Runaways flick the other day after waxing rhapsodic in hysterical anticipation about it all over the internets. I didn't see it right away pretty much because of equal parts fear of a let down and the enjoyment of the anticipation. This month has been about all kinds of delayed pleasures, with my veiled and tiresomely vague mentions of making out on park benches, and maybe after all the disappointments in the past, both romantic and cinematic, for a while pleasurable anticipation seemed the way to go. But anticipation is over and done with and gone on all fronts, and The Runaways was awesome and so is the over the top intensity of a brand new romantic entanglement.

As anyone who is a part of any kind of group that has been marginalized by the larger culture knows - whether you're a girl or queer or black or whatever - there is art that is outside the culture looking in, which isn't necessarily terrible, but doesn't so much speak to the people inside the group as to the people outside of it, and then there is art that is positioned inside, shooting outwards. The Runaways film made by first time feature director Floria Sigismondi (she's directed tons of music videos and done lots of installations and video art) definitely lives inside of girl culture and is filmed from that perspective. There have been some (understandable) complaints that the film should have been more overtly queer, but, like, baby steps. Susie Bright's amazing blog post on the film and about the LA '70s underground punk dyke groupie slut subculture is a total must read. What's kind of interesting and sad to me is that the reaction of some men to the film ("Hot teen girls!") has been pretty much exactly the reaction to the original Runaways back in the '70s ("Hot teen girls!").

So many of the problems with many movies about teen girls stem from the fact that they are made by men who don't understand teen girls at all. There has been gallons of ink spilled on how teen boys view teen girls and about objectification and sex and bros before hos and on and on. Now, in many narratives, teen girls are seen as being much more relationshippy and full of Deep Feelings about the boys in their lives and have all these Important and Meaningful Thoughts about Boys and on and on. Look. I will fully admit I know absolutely nothing about teen boys. I started dating boys when I was a teen, and I think maybe I have a tiny handle on grown up men people after all these decades. But I know girls. Teen girls are Awful. They are solipsistic little monsters who gaze at themselves and each other endlessly and dramatically. And they are just as angered and mystified and often as bored and annoyed by boys as boys are by girls. The most important relationships in most girls' lives are with other girls. Boys are fun and all, but to many, many, many girls, it's other girls who Matter. I don't know why this is such a confusing concept. After all, when you're 15 (and sadly sometimes long after) Boys Are Stupid. Boys: whatever horrible things you think the girls in your class are thinking and saying about you, the reality is likely far, far worse. If they even bother to think about you at all.

You can pretty much judge the quality of a teen girl movie by seeing how important relationships with girls are compared to relationships with boys. Foxes (co-starring Cherie Currie). Clueless. Mean Girls. Ginger Snaps (the greatest Canadian teen girl werewolf movie ever made). All these films Get It. The Runaways is entirely about girls. Boys simply don't figure into it. They were all a bunch of baby dyke rock stars with no romantic attachments except possibly to each other. Does it get any cooler than that? This is one of those movies that reminded me completely viscerally how much fun it was to be really young and hot and bratty and immortal. I had so much fun back in the early '90s when I ran wild in the East Village in my vinyl boots (I had four pairs. FOUR.) and my burgundy suede hot pants and my vast collection of mini-skirts and my silver tights and and my black leather coat that I wore until it fell apart. But of course I was never a rock star as I was handicapped by the lack of even the smallest, rudimentary drop of musical ability. But I totally could have played one on TV. Oh, the arrogance.

Dakota Fanning is good as Cherie Currie. I do question the sad pouty face at the end, though. She has a crappy retail job post-Runaways, post-rehab and I guess we're supposed to feel sorry for her, but she got to be a ROCK STAR for a minute and a half. From what we saw of her home life, without the rock star interlude she likely would have been working a similarly shitty job in the Valley. So. Hair aside, she doesn't look much like Currie, but she does a nice job. I thought Kristen Stewart was awesome as Joan Jett. The slouch, the attitude, the reserve, that pretty face - she just nailed it. It was great to see her just killing it without being hampered by some fucking sparkly vampire.

I grew up worshipping at the shrine of Patti Smith, but as I've gotten older I've become slightly ambivalent about her. The thing with Patti is that she's pretty much always the only girl in the room. She's all about exceptionalism in some ways, which bugs me. I mean, has she ever even had a female friend? Joan Jett may be the opposite. She's done endless work on the behalf of other artists, working with The Germs, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, The Gits and others throughout her career. She's still playing, still recording, still touring, and through some kind of deal with the devil she has managed to hardly age a day. And below are the real Runaways being big in Japan.

Friday, April 2, 2010

J'aime le printemps!

I was supposed to be working on my totally late in the year and kind of bullshitty list for my favorite films of the aughts. But it's so incredibly lovely out and when springtime is staring me in the face, my thoughts immediately turn to the film collaborations of Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. The films they made together in the 60s are among my all time favorites. Karina loved movie musicals so a lot of their films have at least one musical number of some sort included. Not Alphaville, though. But I think their marriage may have been on the rocks at that point. C'est dommage. So, instead of blathering on about my opinions, I just decided to lazily embed some clips.

Everyone has stolen from Bande à Part. Including me.

The two songs from the wonderful and anarchic Pierrot le Fou:

Une Femme est Une Femme:

The song on the Metro, also from Bande à Part:

And finally, the silent comedy short that is the film within a film from Cleo From 5 to 7, directed by Agnès Varda and staring Karina and Godard.

Now go outside everybody!