I’m Updating This Again


Blogs can be really annoying. Last winter I was unhappy with my job and decided that I would try the proven method of starting a blog and, within a year, having 50,000 followers and enough leeway to do whatever I wanted, vocation-wise. Yes, I was stupid. I was also writing for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t hate writing the posts, exactly, but I felt a lot of pressure to churn out “content” at a regular rate despite how I was feeling about said content.

Now, it’s about a year since my previous post. I’m attending grad school. Recently, I’ve discovered a newfound pleasure in writing every day. I am trying to focus on this process rather than the product. I’m starting to publish a few things, such as this review at Ploughshares: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/review-bright-shards-of-someplace-else-by-monica-mcfawn/. I am also having urges to write, even when I cannot really think of something to write about. I think this blog will serve both those purposes for me.

My goal is to attract people here not by incessant posts on Facebook (something I always felt guilty about) but by plugging this blog when I get something published. I’m no longer very worried about the 50,000 followers. I’m much happier simply to have a place I can write whatever I want. Hopefully it can be a place where I can consider myself a writer even if the ideas for short stories and nonfiction essays come less frequently than I want.

Happy belated New year, all. It feels great to be writing again.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa Has an Unexpectedly Good Point


ImageI have a weird compulsion of needing to watch every movie nominated for an Oscar in any category before the awards every year (or, at least the ones that are available, which is usually all but about 5 or 6).  This year, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, which just pissed me off, seeing as 1) I hate the type of humor in these types of movies and TV shows, 2) I think the Academy likes to nominate a film like this every year just to seem edgy, despite the fact that there are many legitimately good edgy ones that could be given a chance (even in one of the major categories), and 3) I didn’t think covering Johnny Knoxville in old man makeup was really all that impressive.  In fact, halfway through the movie, I started to see right through the disguise, and I imagine many of his “marks” (the word they use to describe the people they are going to prank) did as well.

In short, this is a 90-minute quasi-narrative about an old man who is unfit to be anybody’s father figure, taking care of a foul-mouthed grandson whose mother abandons him.  It would be quasi-accurate to say that the father corrupts the boy and teaches him a slew of bad habits a la Adam Sandler in Big Daddy, but the kid is honestly kind of a little brat even before the grandpa interacts with him.  The film is shot to be a road trip wherein the “bad grandpa” is ostensibly trying to get the kid to his biological father, but he slowly learns to appreciate his grandson along the way.

The reason this doesn’t really work as a narrative is kind of ironic: most of the “side characters”—the people whom the grandpa and grandson interact with—are real people reacting to what they think are real situations.  This seems like a semi-neat effect in theory, but it makes for a weak narrative because the story is largely based on these people’s reactions to the family.  Never once do we feel like we are watching a story in the form of a movie; we instead feel like we’re watching a Punk’d or Jackass marathon featuring the same idiotic crew. 

Another weakness is that almost every scene of the movie could be classified as some sort of vulgar prank.  There are a few semi-funny pranks, though they tend to be overly crude and scatological in nature; there isn’t a hint of subtlety to them.  If I had to pick a best one, it is a certain “dance scene” performed by the boy (in drag) at the end of the film—but I don’t think I even laughed then. 

A much more interesting aspect to the movie, though, is in the reactions that this lewd group of actors got from the unsuspecting public.  The people’s reactions and comebacks were often funnier and more clever than anything the Jackass crew had written (as I’m typing that, I realized that will probably not surprise anybody). 

Example: a good 30% of the movie features the grandpa character hitting on middle-aged women who most people would not consider conventionally attractive.  None of the featured women get offended or insecure at this guy asking them to come back to his hotel room; instead, they often brush him off calmly with a laugh.  This happens on the street, at a fast-food drive-thru, and at a Ladies’ Night at a strip club.  The women look like they’re from the middle class or even lower class; there is even a scene shot in a Bingo hall with several people on oxygen and/or with missing teeth.  They generally at least pretend to be flattered, and some of the women even quasi-flirt with the old man, though I’m sure they thought they were just being polite. 

Another genuinely touching scene involves a group of bikers at a bar towards the end of the film, who are watching an act of emotional child abuse take place.  It is heartening to see them make the right choices as soon as they see what is going on, but at the same time I felt bad knowing that they were just minutes away from figuring out they weren’t really committing a good deed.  (They were all told about the nature of the movie after the scene had filmed, but I couldn’t figure out if they were given any monetary compensation for their time.  In many cases, they deserved to be.)

There are a few people in the movie who overreact, though what’s a store manager to do when two hooligans are eating groceries without paying for them?  There are also a few who for some reason don’t say anything during the cruder setups (such as the boy “chugging a beer” with his grandpa at a picnic table alongside a running trail).  For the most part, though, this is a movie about people who are good-natured, kind, and often funny even when faced with actions that are extremely rude.  I don’t know if that is what the Jackass crew was looking for, but it’s what they got.  (I also don’t know what implications this has for our society—does this mean that our everyday lives are so full of these kinds of situations and characters that we no longer blink when confronted with them?  I hope not.)

In the end, I learned a good lesson from this movie, even though I don’t think it was the one its makers intended.  Good lord, I hope the Oscars next year are Jackass-free.

A Netflix Streaming Movie You’ll Probably Love


If you have a Roku or any device that gets Popcorn Flix, go through it just for fun and look at all the hundreds of titles.  Do you see a single movie that a) looks good and/or b) you’ve ever heard of before?  Nope?  I didn’t either. 

When I first got Netflix, that is what I expected—to be watching B movies or rejects from the SyFy Network.  I’ve been impressed with the variety that the company has been able to maintain (though it did have somewhat of a lull about 2 years ago).  In terms of independent movies, it is often the first place you’ll be able to see one affordably if you don’t live in Los Angeles or New York City. 

Today, I am imploring you to watch one of these indie movies: Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.  It is a wonderful story about a 27-year old NYC resident trying to figure out her life.  If most of the movies you watch are the mainstream variety, there are a few things in this one that might throw you off at first.  There aren’t many big-name actors in it.  It’s shot in black and white.  It often seems like an 85-minute episode of Girls.  There are swear words in it–which will apparently be a deal-breaker for some people…

Noah Baumbach directed Greenberg before this, starring Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig.  When it first came out on DVD I was working at the customer service department at Target.  A lady brought the movie up to the register, complaining that it was “just trash.  Everything that came out of [Ben Stiller’s] mouth was so vulgar.”  She demanded her money back, and because it was the holiday season and nobody wanted to endure another minute of her moralizing, we gave it to her.  What I wanted to say was, “Ma’am, you’ll have to take this up with the Motion Picture Association of America.”

Back to Frances Ha.  It stars Greta Gerwig, who is mostly known from being in Greenberg.  The only other person in this movie you might know is Adam Driver, who plays Adam on Girls.  Not that this is a badly cast movie—everybody shines, and Gerwig is even currently nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.  Here are other things you might like about it.

  1. It has the same kind of humor as Girls (a show I just LOVE), but it doesn’t have some of the aspects that so many people hate about Girls.  There isn’t a lot of nudity, and Frances comes of (in my opinion) less entitled than Hannah Horvath. 
  2. It is about being in your 20s and not having a clue what you’re doing.  I am currently in this phase of my life, and there are points of the movie that captured exactly what I was going through.  If you’re in this stage as well, my bet is that you’ll love it—but my mom watched it and enjoyed it despite being a lot older, too.
  3. There are also plenty of light-hearted moments.  Frances tends to mess things up, and even though I think we’re supposed to like her, we’re also supposed to laugh at her.
  4. It isn’t super long.  At 86 minutes, you can just watch this instead of going on Facebook or playing Candy Crush for one day, and you’ll hardly notice the time difference.
  5. It does have some great lessons to teach, but it doesn’t go over the top with preaching.
  6. If you mostly watch mainstream stuff and hate “artsy films,” this is a good one to watch to make yourself feel sophisticated, but you’ll still enjoy it and get it the first time you watch it.

Well, that’s about it.  It’s on Netflix streaming, which pretty much everybody has on every device they own, so you have no excuses.  Then come find me (or just post something below) and tell me what you thought about it.

How I Fell In Love With Film


It was the spring of 2012, and I wasn’t much of a moviegoer.  I was not averse to watching movies in the way that some people seem to be—the people who dart glances toward the exit twenty minutes into a film—but I was not the list-making, multiple movie per day-watching fanatic that I am today.  I had really gone to the theater more as a social interaction opportunity than due to any excitement about the film itself.

The film was Titanic, rereleased in 2012 due to the 15th anniversary of its original release, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, James Cameron’s newfound penchant for 3D, or a combination of all three.

I am old enough to remember when the film originally came out and caused the mammoth reaction from everyone who saw it.  I was in 5th grade then, and I watched the movie at my house as soon as it was released on VHS.  The few things I remember from the film were:

  1. having to put in a second VHS tape halfway through the film because it was too long to fit on one
  2. watching my mom cry and wondering if something was wrong, and
  3. viewing that final scene where Old Rose takes the locket and throws it into the ocean.

I was not old enough to appreciate anything else about the movie, and I probably got bored with its 3:14 runtime.

I have, however, enjoyed the pop culture detritus that has surfaced since the film, most notably Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (a song I’m sure she absolutely loathes by now but which I can still unabashedly enjoy today—and whose music video I would even watch repeatedly by myself for fun as a painfully shy college student) and a tendency of shouting “I’m king of the world!” and wrapping my arms around a nearby person (usually someone I know) whenever we both are in a relatively prow-ish location.

Thus, I went into the movie theater that day in 2012 having a general familiarity with the movie but not necessarily being a fan of it. I know that it has had its detractors since it came out, many of them deriding it as a movie for people who hate movies.  It also won eleven Oscars and earned Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart nominations (though Leonardo Dicaprio would be snubbed for the first of many times in his career).  What I remembered more than any of these reviews and accolades, though, was watching my mother cry in our living room fifteen years earlier.  Within 30 minutes, I, too, was an unashamed fan.

There have been entire books written about this movie, and people with much more knowledge of the film industry than I possess have already exhaustively reviewed almost every aspect of it.  My goal here is not to explain why it is a great movie or defend it against those who deem it vastly overrated, but to explain exactly what I liked about it—and why it led to a certain fanaticism with movies I still have a year and a half later.

  1. The story has been considered kind of hokey: Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, is on her way to the United States to marry a rich man whom she has no interest in marrying.  She meets Jack, who is nowhere near her social class but who saves her from (admittedly, melodramatically) jumping off the boat to her death.  He then acts adorable for about 70% of the film and generally teaches her the ins and outs of authenticity—at least as he understands it in his 22-year-old mind.  By the end of their 3-day affair, she has resolved to marry him and is in love enough to jump off a life raft once the Titanic starts sinking, preferring to brave it out with him (to what many have pointed out is his ultimate demise).  She survives partially because of what I guess is his selfless act of letting go from the life raft they are both clinging to but which only one of them can hold onto.  She claims that she’ll never let him go, and in the last scene of the movie, Rose has made pretty good on her promise: the last scene has her envisioning herself as young Rose (or entering heaven, depending on who you ask), rushing to a balcony where she is reunited with Jack to everybody’s applause.  (There’s also the aforementioned part about throwing the locket into the ocean, which is a touch gesture that represents… what, exactly?  We’ll talk about that later.)

    The story does have some plot holes to it—if you think of it as demonstrating normal behavior.  My interpretation is that we were never supposed to regard it as such, and that it is beautiful because the kind of love Rose and Jack experienced is so rare and fleeting.  Had the Titanic missed the iceberg and stayed on course for the last few days of the journey, they might have even “come to their senses” and broken up.   And if they had landed and gotten married, there’s a good chance that the lovebirds would have been at each other’s throats within a year.  There’s just not much to do in Wisconsin, as fun as the prospect of fishing with Leo DiCaprio may seem.  (I like to think of Revolutionary Road as an alternate universe in which Jack and Rose got to live with each other for ten years, their ideal delusions slowly slipping away.)  In a sense, Jack dying is the perfect ending to this love story because Rose never has to deal with that inevitable next stage in their relationship.

    (Some have lambasted the dream/heaven sequence at the end of the film, mostly because Rose had presumably been married for decades with somebody else by the time she died.  Why didn’t she dream of that person instead of somebody she hung out with on a boat for three days?  I actually think this is an honest and brilliant portrayal of love; the heart wants what it wants, even if we spend our lives denying it.)

    The movie knows that Jack and Rose are doomed, even if they reach shore.  There are too many factors in the way, and even if they do defy society’s expectations, they’ll only have the honeymoon stage for so long.  Yet the movie argues (truthfully, in my opinion) that those exhilarating moments of love make whatever hardships come with it worth it.  Thus, I think this is probably one of the best scenarios of young love out there, assisted by…

  2. The Titanic as a setting.  A luxurious cruise ship (with plenty of room for Jack’s kind of people as well) provides a visually appealing setting for the majority of the movie—and through its climax.  I also thought it was the perfect metaphor for youth: strong, beautiful, promising, seemingly invincible, and completely unsuspecting the icebergs hidden in the water, just waiting to take it down.  If the theme of the love story is supposed to be that you should go for what your heart says, despite what your brain says, a secondary theme has to be that beautiful, young things don’t stay that way long.  This second message was assisted by two factors:
  3. Gloria Stuart died only a year before the rerelease of the movie, living to be over 100 years old.  I had read that in the newspaper, and watching her scenes about mortality when she actually has died made them more significant to me.  I realize this will be a nonessential factor as years go on—already, she’s going to be “the lady who died two years ago” instead of “the lady who just died.”
  4. Leonardo Dicaprio.  Can you imagine this movie with somebody else in the male lead role?  Believe it or not, the only movie he was in that made any money prior to this one was Romeo + Juliet.  This was the film that showed the world exactly what Leo’s talents were in terms of acting: he can pull off characters who are likeable yet tough, young and fresh yet competent, sensitive yet hardened.  He was often referred to as “androgynous” for the 2-3 years after this film, though he has played numerous “manly” roles with critical and box office success, and I think he’s become more and more masculine as he has matured.

    And, of course, he was probably hotter in this movie than anybody in any other movie I’ve ever seen.  Almost to an absurd extent—did poor Jack Dawson spend all his hard-earned money on conditioner and daily moisturizer?  I remembered girls (and older women) going practically crazy about Leo when the movie first came out, but in my naïve preadolescence I couldn’t determine why.  Needless to say, I figured it out pretty quickly in the theater that night.  If the movie had come out a year later, I literally might have realized certain, ahem, things about myself years earlier.  However, I would argue that he doesn’t have anywhere near this physical appeal anymore.  When I watched Gangs of New York, the movie itself and Leo’s performance were both good, but his looks did almost nothing for me.  In movies today, there are flashes of incandescence in his performance where I can tell he’s an attractive guy, but nowhere near the full-on pulchritude (for lack of a less generic word) he exhibited for the entirety of the Titanic.

    (Apparently not everybody thinks this way; some have attested to the fact that they think he and Kate Winslet are about equally attractive, and others have said they think he looks better now with his maturity and fuller face and goatee.  However, Leo himself has said that he has never been as popular as he was during that time—and I think a good part of it was the way he looked then.)

    Thus, Leo’s looks, which have (again, for me) devolved from a perfect 10 to an 8, represent the same theme of “nothing gold can stay” that is already presented so often in the film.  James Cameron couldn’t have known that this was the pinnacle of Leo’s looks (though 22 years old is a pretty good guess for the pinnacle of anybody’s looks), and it would not have been as readily evident to the crowds watching the film in 1997 as it was for me watching it in 2012, with the “new” DiCaprio in mind.

  5. I’m sure everybody else in the movie was pretty good too.

Of course, nothing I said here is really provable, and I think a sign of good art is a certain degree of ambiguity.  I also think another sign of good art is that people either love it or hate it, which seems to be the case here.  Many of the reasons I walked out of the theater in awe that night are time-based.  I wonder if I watch the movie again in 2 years, whether I will like it as much: I certainly know TONS more about the moviemaking process and the traits of novel storytelling than I did then.  The point about this whole experience is that the movie elicited such a strong reaction in me that I wanted to find out more about movies.

That night, I went home and made a list of the movies I really wanted to see.  From then on, I’ve seen most of the Oscar bait from the last 4-5 years, as well as a fair number of the classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 8 ½, Wild Strawberries, and even a few more of Cameron’s movies.  I’m becoming known more and more as the guy who never shuts up about movies, and I’m also becoming the type who can enjoy movies as an art form with a unique capacity for storytelling, rather than as some brainless time-passing activity.  And a showing of Titanic that I wasn’t even particularly excited to go to was what started it all.

Welcome to the Blog!

I have decided to start a blog sharing book and film reviews, observations, and a few other random notes and Internet finds (though positively NO cat pictures).  Right now in my life I am trying to do it all: write a novel, get in shape, watch every Oscar-nominated movie, and pretty much live life on my own terms.  Not unlike most other 20-somethings, I know.

In a way, I’m in the process of reinventing myself–writing has always brought me intrinsic joy, and this is the first of many, many steps to the career I truly want.  The blog is also a result of reading Gary Vaynerchuk’s Crush It and asking myself the question, “Could I really spend my life following my passion?”

A problem that I’ve had in answering that question in the past is that I seem to have too many passions: I run marathons and train 60+ miles a week, I read voraciously, I watch 5-7 movies per week, and I try to write whenever I’m inspired (a habit I hope to amend to every day).  For a while I thought I was spreading myself too thin and that I needed to pick one area.  Then I realized that, to me, all of these things are really one area named ART.  Even the long-distance running, which with me often resembles some grotesque performance piece.  When I think of my dream job, I don’t think novelist or director or screenwriter or speaker, even though I’d love to do all of those things someday.  I think artist.  (This, despite the fact that I have never been very good at drawing or painting or those other more typical kinds of visual art.)   Thus, this blog is going to seem pretty wide-ranging at times, but only because I myself can’t seem to specialize.  I’m hoping it will turn out to be a strength, not a weakness.  Time will tell.