Friday, December 31, 2010

Billy Elliot: The Musical--A Warning

I expected to love Billy Elliot: The Musical.  I mean--a musical about dancing and the importance of the arts!  Okay, so I was a bit concerned when I remembered that the music was by Elton John, who is just so darned. . .Elton John-y.  But some of his tunes were catchy, and the soundtrack to The Road to El Dorado isn't the least bit annoying.

And dancing.  Theater and dancing. And such great reviews and its been running in London literally since the coal strike of 1984 and it won every single Tony Award since it opened on Broadway, including Best Musical, Best Non-Musical, and Best Use of Natural Materials and the President's Trophy from the Rose Bowl Parade.

And as a bonus, I hadn't seen the movie, so it wasn't like I already knew everything about the story.  Sure, I knew the outline: coal strike in the north of England, young boy who discovers he loves to dance, conflict with his father who equates dance with homosexuality.  No wonder Elton John was drawn to this story, right?

So the four of us from Chez Evil joined another family for dinner and a show.  Lovely family, lovely dinner, lovely conversation, lovely theater.

Bad bad bad play.

First of all, the sound was heavily over amplified and badly mixed.  Not the fault of the play or the actors, and probably the fault of local sound engineers and thus locally contained.  But who let Nigel Tufnel onto the sound board?  As a result, everything was loud and flat, hard to listen to and inspiring an instinctive desire to duck behind the seats in self protection.  If there was any charm to the music, there was no way to hear it because it was delivered with all the subtlety of a brick aimed at your face.

Okay, so maybe I just should have put my earmuffs back on and listened that way.  There was still the dancing, right?  Again--hard to tell, due to being presented with the same level of nuance and delicacy as the sound.  It was so fast, so frenetic, flailing arms and scurrying, as if the dancing had been choreographed at 33 1/3 RPMs  but performed at 45.  (Yes,  I'm that old.  Let's try for a simile from the digital age)  It was as if the whole show had been filmed, and then digitally compressed to fit a shorter running time.

By the third scene, I was seriously worried that once again, it was my cold dead heart making it impossible for me to experience something transcendent.  I decided I was going to be seriously miserable if I didn't find a way to enjoy this play.  So during the "Expressing Yourself" number, I just gave up.

Let me sketch that number for you, in case you haven't seen the play--at least my pain can be used to prevent yours.  Billy, wee bairn that he is, is taking some heat about liking to dance and words like "pouf" and "poncing" are being thrown his way.  Because everybody knows that no heterosexual male would want to spend time surrounded by scads of girls wearing leotards--honestly, I do not understand men sometimes.

Anyway, Billy, being eleven, is being forced to defend what is probably a still unemerged sexual identity.  Now his dance teacher has told him that he's talented enough to try to get in to the Royal Ballet School, and he doesn't know what to do so he goes to visit his best friend to get some advice.  And he walks in to find his friend wearing a frilly skirt and shaking what we in America here call "his booty."  And Billy is appalled.  So Michael makes Billy dress up as well, leading to this bit of enlightened dialogue:

Michael:  Here, put on my mam's dress.
Billy: But we'll get into trouble!
Michael: Nah!  Me dad does it all the time.

Yes, folks, in 2010, Elton John has brought us a vision of sexual identity that is as sophisticated as an episode of "Three's Company."  I was deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable with a show that actually instructs us that while ballet dancing doesn't equal homosexuality, cross dressing and show tunes do.  Get your stereotypes right!

And so the rest of the night fell into every predictable plot device: Billy misses the chance to audition, because his father and brother find out about it and forbid him from dancing.  Billy dances an angry dance (not as good as this one) and. . .intermission!

Act Two opens a year later, and Billy has given up dance.  Except that a few minutes in, he's alone in the community room where he took lessons, and he dances again--even better than in Act One, because nothing hones a dancer's techinque like a year of not dancing and then not even warming up before launching into a personal version of "Swan Lake."  Actually, this was the one bit I liked, as Billy danced with an adult doppelganger, engaging with his dreams of who he could be.  And, yes, I'll go out on a limb and state for the record that Tchaikovsky is a better composer than Elton John.

Of course, his dad sees this, is deeply moved, and so changes his mind, but now Billy has to go all the way to London (which in actual geographic terms is like going from Boston to New York) which is a problem because everybody has been on strike from the coal mines and fighting with policemen and harassing the scabs, which means they don't have money for bus fare.  But then everybody pitches in their widow's mite, and. . .there's still not enough.  But somehow, one of the scabs has magically heard about this impromptu donation campaign--okay, that's pure hokum and not even remotely explainable except by "Musical physics" and the Theory of Narrative Causality--and donates some obscene amount of cash.  So Billy goes, has some "funny" adventures where dad meets a danseur in tights!  Oh!  The visual humor!

(Rudolph Nureyev is not a joke)

Add in a Glasgow accent, and that's Comedy Gold(TM)!  Get it?!?  He's a poncey dancer and dad's uncomfortable with the costume and the evident maleness, but he's got a working class accent and dad's expectations are confounded!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . .okay, it's not funny at all and rather insulting actually.

Blah blah blah audition blah blah blah wait for the letter, pretend you didn't get in because this is exactly how real people act around their heart's desire and the union caved and the strike is lost and Billy goes off to London and then we have a final number that is the curtain call as well The End.

When a play is this painful, you have two choices: either you leave, or you find something to think about.  Leaving was not an option--the kidlets were really enjoying it.  So I found myself admiring the enthusiastic dedication of every last person on stage.  I began to wonder if they all learned their lines phonetically in order to approximate a Northern English accent.  And I began to wonder about the miners.

Coal mining is not a job I have any connection with--I have never lived in mining areas, don't know anyone who has ever been a miner.  It strikes me as a horrible job--you get up in the morning to go down into the dark, you do mind-numbing and dangerous physical labor for hours on end, then you come back up into the night.  It's not a life I can imagine, and not one I'd necessarily want for my kids even if I did it.  Add into the mix that the strikers are actually coming to blows with the police, and I don't know why Dad Elliot doesn't take any chance to get his kid out of there.  Really--even if the strike succeeds, wouldn't he be better off somewhere else?

Which of course lead me to wonder about what happened to those mines in the intervening 26 years?  Do those communities still exist?  What do they do now?

According to the Durham Mining Museum, there is still coal mining going on in the Easington colliery, the one at issue in the play.  There was an uptick in employment 1980-85, (the strike happened 1984-85) but generally employment has trended down after 1930.  It was this Wikipedia page that really made me think.

Prior to 1984, coal mining was both nationally owned and heavily subsidized.  Margaret Thatcher, whatever you think of her politics or techniques, was not crazy for thinking that it was a waste of taxpayer's money to keep coal mines open when it was cheaper to actually import coal than it was to mine it in Britain.  Her goal in 1984 was to actually close the mines.  So what brain trust was in charge of the coal miners' union that thought that the proper protest against closing the mines was to go on strike and effectively close the mines?

Maggie Thatcher: Close the mines!
Coal Miners' Union: Don't close the mines!
Maggie Thatcher: Don't close the mines!
Coal Miners' Union: Close the mines!  Fire!

Remind you of anything?


Add to that fundamental stupidity the fact that since the previous successful strike of 1970, most of the UK has switched to gas and heating oil, diesel and electricity to run homes, power plants and railroads.  Coal was just not the foundation of the economy any more.  Then Thatcher's government had foreseen the chance of strikes--how could they not--so the industries that required coal had already stockpiled in order to survive a strike.  Not to mention that they could have apparently continued to import coal from Australia more cheaply than buying it locally.

To pile onto the doomed nature of this strike--apparently, the union never actually took a vote on the strike, meaning the strike itself was illegal.  As a result, according to the wiki page:
Many miners were forced into debt as the union did not make strike payments to its members, only paying money to strikers on picket. The problem was compounded as the union's failure to hold an official ballot meant that the strike was illegal and social security rules prevented benefits being paid to participants of illegal strikes. Further, the rules meant that any benefits paid to partners or dependents of striking miners were calculated as if strike pay was being received.

So, who were the venal and corrupt idiots at the union?  Frankly, this reads to me like something out of stereotypical Chicago politics, where the union leaders were embezzling from their members and selling out for their own benefit.  Which is not to excuse the brutality of the government using police against their own citizens, nor the designation of them as "the enemy within."  I'm sure there are many ways the whole situation could have been handled better from all sides.

But hey!  It's all worth it if we got a Broadway play out of it, right?


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More Whovian Goodness

Because I am a complete geek and want to share the love, this website is brilliant: all my beloved Doctor Who characters animated Simpson's style.  Treat yourself to some wasted time with all the variations.  There's even a version of Eleven wearing the fez and carrying a mop. 

Like I said:  brilliant.

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

I am a complete fan and addict of the "New" Doctor Who, and this Christmas just confirmed it. Not that I'm entirely a recent convert to the Doctor.  No, I had my first Doctor back when he was Tom Baker.

Such wonderful insanity he brought to the role.  I even have cloudy memories of trying to decide how I felt about Romana vs. Sarah Jane as companion.  But the broadcast schedule back then was different.  Each story was broadcast as a (roughly) half-hour show, with four or five episodes to complete the story, and it wasn't always possible for me to catch all of the individual episodes, much less follow an entire season's worth of episodes.  Things got in the way.

It's hard to remember that back in those long ago days, we didn't have many choices to watch anything: no VCRs, no Tivo, no streaming, no Hulu, no On-Demand, no Netflix.  You watched what was broadcast when it was broadcast, or you missed it.  It was deprivation, I tell you!  Worse than walking to school through snow up to my neck, uphill both ways!  Kids today have no idea how we suffered back then!

Disruptive kids have no idea how easy they have it these days!  

I watched more than a few episodes back when PBS ran Tom Baker's episodes, but I never actually reached critical fan-girl mass. So while things like college and life got in the way of my Doctor Who fan-initiation back then, I don't have to suffer any longer, due to the glory of Netflix streaming.

As a result, I was able to gorge on a veritable feast of New Who goodness, starting with Christopher Eccleston's turn in the re-boot and gobbling away at episodes through Tennant's tenure in a matter of mere months.  And boy, was it good!

Which one is "your" Doctor--Nine or Ten?

But then. . . then. . .then came Eleven.

I love this Doctor.  Love him to pieces.  He's so damn alien!  It's like Russell Davies wrote sci-fi and then had wonderful actors find the humanity in the madness.  Now, Steven Moffat writes stories that probe the humanity of fairy tales, and has Matt Smith to make them odd again.

But he's so much fun!  He's so light-hearted in a way Nine really wasn't, and Ten could only be occasionally.  Admit it--Eleven danced at Amy's wedding exactly the way Nine could never have done.  Actually, I think Eleven may have wormed his way into my heart by the fish-fingers-and-custard debacle, after he tossed away a plate of buttered toast and ordered it "And stay out!"

Which brings us to "A Christmas Carol."

Wouldn't you think Doctor Who had already done "A Christmas Carol?"  Hasn't everybody?  I admit, I set my expectations rather low, because we've seen everybody and their aunt do Dickens at Christmas.  Plus, I had been gorging on entire seasons of Doctor Who.  Now I had to revise my consumption habits--if one episode was weak, I wouldn't immediately have another one to watch.

Turns out, the Doctor was in very good hands.  The episode started out (literally) at warp speed.  A troubled space ship was bouncing around, the bridge staff hollering orders and emergency protocols, the whole thing a satiric riff on "Star Trek:" the lay-out of the bridge!  The snappy quasi-military ambiance!  The gratuitous lens flares!  And then the African-American navigator with the eye-hardware shouting "I'm flying blind!"
Geordi LaForge--the original

The doors open, and Amy strides onto the bridge in her policewoman kiss-o-gram outfit, joined shortly thereafter by Rory in his gladiator wear.  Oh, right--you're the people from the honeymoon suite. . . .
Things slow down as we drop to the Planet of Steam Punk!  Michael Gambon is the resident Scrooge, who actually gets some pleasure out of denying other people's requests.  No!  I won't let your relative out of cold storage for Christmas!  No, I won't clear a landing path for the spaceship!  No, I won't talk to the president just because he called me!

And then the Doctor arrived.  And we got one of my favorite versions of the Doctor--puckish, talking a million miles a minute, gawky, awkward, and yet so bloody brilliant that you know he's going to save the day somehow or other.  His entrance was literally down the chimney, which he then lampshades by saying "Christmas. . .all the chimneys. . .I couldn't resist."

Is there any point in summarizing the plot?  Michael Gambon  is Scrooge, called in this version Kazran Sardick.  He lends money to poor people and takes a family member as collateral, putting them in suspended animation, which also serves to lessen the population of undesirables: a solution Scrooge would have approved.  He also controls the clouds on the planet, which serves to keep sky fish out of people's hair.  Literally.  But the Doctor needs Kazran to clear the clouds so the Star Trek clone ship can land safely, saving all 4003 people on board.  Including Amy and Rory and their cos play outfits.  Kazran won't do it, because there is nothing in it for him.  In a nifty bit of reasoning (reminiscent of Moffat's other recent triumph, Sherlock) the Doctor concludes that Kazran's better instincts can still be reached.
This being Doctor Who (or more accurately, Steven Moffat's Doctor Who), he does it by going to Kazran's past and re-writing his memories.  And we are treated to the delightful paradox of watching Michael Gambon watching a home movie of himself as a child as that past changes by the doctor's arrival.


His memories are being re-written as the past is re-written as we watch!  "Who ARE you?" Kazran demands, and the Doctor answers coolly, "Tonight, I am the ghost of Christmas Past."


All this, and we're about, what, ten minutes in?

There's more--there's much much more.  There is a Tiny Tim-esque urchin who throws a rock at Scrooge, there is a beautiful woman who is unfrozen for a series of Christmas Eves with the Doctor and the younger Kazran, there is a mad carriage ride through the sky pulled by a cloud shark, there is half a sonic screwdriver, there is enough plot to fuel five or six episodes of any other television show all crammed into a stuffed Christmas goose of this special episode.

But most of all, there is the Doctor as I love to see him--all ADHD and random and delightful and utterly rubbish at being human.  Several of my favorite moments below, bulleted for easy digestion:
  • "Santa Claus.  Father Christmas.  Or as I know him--Jeff.  See--here we are at Frank Sinatra's lodge.  Christmas 1952.  See Albert Einstein in the back with the blonde?"
  • Fezzes!  (Fezzes are cool.)
  • The bow tie discussion!  "Why do you wear that tie?"  "Bow ties are cool."  "What makes them cool?" 
  • The young Kazran is a delightful skeptic.  "Are you sure you are my babysitter?"  Who wouldn't wonder when your new "babysitter" is actually jumping on your bed?  With his shoes on!  Not proper babysitter behavior.  And a shout-out to Mary Poppins.
  • The failure of the infallible psychic paper!  "I am universally acknowledged as a mature and responsible adult."  Kazran: "It's just a bunch of wavy lines."  Doctor: "Hmm.  Shorted out--finally a too-big lie."
  • Jaws!  Just the fin showing above the condensed fog in the storage room.
  • The Doctor failing prestidigitation--he makes a card appear inside the cracker and it still isn't the right card.  "Are you sure that's not your card?  I am very good at card tricks."
  • The Doctor accidentally getting engaged to Marilyn Monroe.  Of course he did.  She had extremely good taste in men.
  • Poor Kazran, having to look to the Doctor for advice about women.  "My advice is to try to be rubbishy and nervous."  "Why?"  "Because you're going to be anyway, so if you pretend you mean to be it gives you some illusion of control."  That and "Either you go kiss the girl or you go to your room and invent a new kind of screw-driver.  Don't make my mistakes."   
Sure, there were things that didn't work, things I could nitpick about. *cough* Blinovitch Limitation Effect *cough*  But that's like complaining that you don't like almonds in your stuffing, and ignoring the absolute groaning sideboard of a Christmas feast. This episode was the television equivalent of that feast: I was literally laughing out loud and bouncing in my seat with joy.

In fact, I think I'd better to watch it again.  Because, unlike in the bad old days, I CANAnd then I order the DVD/Blue Ray and watch it again and again. . . .

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Unnecessary Items

So I'm paging through Amazon's (online) toy store looking for Christmas gift inspiration for the various members of my family.  Because not only do I need to find gifts for my family, but also find ideas to pass on to other members of the family who want to buy gifts for us.

Having the blackened nubbin of a cold dead heart is SUCH an inconvenience this time of year.

When, lo!  And Behold!  I stumbled across this!

Power Wheels Single Battery Toddler 6 Volt Charger

I didn't know you had to charge your toddler!  Maybe that explained my kids' lethargy and good sleeping habits?  Toddlers are quite small, so 6 volts seems about right to me.  Such a pity that I found this after my own kids are no longer toddler sized.  It would eliminate that pesky problem of having to actually feed them every day.  How can you tell if your toddler is a "single battery toddler" rather than, for example, a "multiple battery toddler?"  Does this come with an instruction manual?  I could have used one of those for my kids when they were toddlers.

Oh, wait.

The product description seems to indicate that one is not supposed to plug the Actual Toddler into the wall.

For use with certain 6-volt Power Wheels vehicles. This charger must only be used with a Power Wheels Toddler 6-volt lead acid battery (sold separately). 


Well, so much for Truth in Advertising.  It DOES say it's a "6 Volt Toddler Charger!"  What was I supposed to think?  Never mind, then.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Norris Church Mailer

Norris Church Mailer died this past week. I just saw the headline.

Did y'all know I met her once?  Really, I did.  I had this wonderful friend who was an English professor at Concordia College in St. Paul, and she was tapped to organize a conference for the International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society and she called a bunch of her friends to be on the planning committee.  Which I did for a bunch of months, and it was wonderfully planned and mostly I just sat an was awed by all the wonderful ideas that my friend came up with and that she actually made happen.

One of the events for the conference was this great Reader's Theater performance of selections of letters by and between F. Scott,  his wife Zelda, and their frenemy Ernest Hemingway.  Even better were the actors--George Plimpton was divinely suave as FSF, Norman Mailer was appropriately grouchy as Papa Hemingway, and Norris Church Mailer was her gracious Southern self as Zelda.

They were all staying at the Saint Paul Hotel after doing their Reader's Theater performance, and I was Mr. Plimpton's driver.  (Dare I call him "George?") 

At any rate, I had toddled down to the hotel to take him to the airport, and Norris wanted to come out and have a picture of the two of them with the statue of FSF just across from the hotel.  Since there was no reason for me to be in the picture, I was the photographer.

And she was so delightful!  So full of fun and life--and so unlike cranky and grumpy old Norman, who was probably suffering from arthritis as well as a hang-over, if what I overheard was correct.  But Norris was gracious, and generous, and swept even reserved George Plimpton into posing with the statue.  She wanted several shots, and was so obviously enjoying herself and engaging everyone around her. 

I was pleased to see she had a new book out, but then this seemed so sudden.  Nothing I had seen around the book publicity said anything about ongoing battles with cancer. According to the article I saw in the Washington Post, it had been going on for something like eleven years.

So now all three of them are no longer with us, which kind of shocked me.  She was so much younger than her husband and George Plimpton, she should have been around for decades.  I'm rather sad, as she was such a wonderful personality, so delightful to be around, and now she's gone and the world is just that much dimmer without her.

Photo by Christina Pabst from NYT.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Terrific Typos

From LitLovers Blog:

Rowlings sentences are chock-full of clauses and phrases, comas and semicolons, some stretching out to 50 words!

 Well, yes, there are indeed characters who are in comas--Neville Longbottom's parents in particular, if I recall correctly.  Not sure that qualifies as "chock full" however.

Oh, and it's no surprise, but I endorse the position taken on Harry Potter--do go out and read them all if you haven't.  Or if you haven't recently.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Why Reading Matters

This is a rough draft of some thoughts that have been simmering in the crock-pot of my brain the last few days.  See, I have decided to go back and try to take the road not taken, and apply for a graduate program in English Literature, and a key part of that process is to spend some time thinking about WHY I want to do this and where I want to go with it. 

The first and easiest answer is that I want to do it because literature, and studying literature, and thinking about literature in a structured and critical way just makes me happy.  It's like champagne for the soul, finding a great book and then rummaging around inside it and parsing why I enjoyed it so much.  It's like eating chocolate, or crawling into a freshly made bed, or eating a really fine meal: it's a pleasure so great, it's physical.

So I can explain to myself why I want to spend time doing this, but there is really something more.  I mean, I have a lovely life where I could just read books and think about them without committing to something as grueling as graduate school.  There is something I want to do in addition to just reading for my own pleasure, some larger goal I have in the back of my mind.

The obvious end to graduate school is teaching, isn't it?  People who become English professors don't get ther without going to graduate school, for instance, and there is a part of me that sees teaching English as a seductive career path.  But why go to graduate school?  Why not be a high school teacher, for example, or even do something entrepreneurial and write a book or monetize a blog or free lance for a newspaper/magazine?  Why, and especially at my advanced age, go back to school?

I think that I want to go to school in part because I need the structure and support to launch myself: I don't really have the passion for launching a business venture, and the dreary necessity for commercializing oneself is draining my enthusiasm.  At least from where I sit.  Of course, one markets one's self even in academia, but before I do that, I'd like the chance to get my intellectual ducks in a row.  And I need some deadlines and mentoring and expectations, etc. to motivate myself properly and get that accomplished.  And THEN I can go do the monetization/networking/self-promotion as necessary.  But I need a little space to think first.

Which brings me to the point of this post: what do I think about when I think about literature?  There are two different answers.  First, there is the activity of reading a particular work and analyzing it.  Looking at the structures, the historical context, the plot, the themes, all the elements that make a book great.  Great writers put a lot of thought and craft into a great book, and it often takes a lot of thought to figure out what all goes into a truly meaningful work.  That's a lot of what I did as an undergraduate, and it's what I continue to do as a social reader.  I drive my friends nuts, because what I have to say about a book often takes longer than a book club wants to spend on something most of them just read cursorily.

Second, though, is the larger question about why literature matters at all.  And in this election season, I've been thinking about the importance of narrative and its role in our society.  It's not just in books any more (if it ever was), but the stories we tell ourselves are incredibly important to things like what we do about Guantanamo, or who we elect as president, or whether we work to reverse health care reform, or how we engage internationally.  History and diplomacy and foreign policy and politics and myriad other things are all fundamental exercises in narrative and that affects everybody.

I practiced law for about a decade, handling various disputes over medical care and automobile accidents and even a divorce.  But only one, and even that was an appeal on a larger issue.  But what makes law work the way it does is fundamentally about narrative.  And the issue is how do the facts of a case make a compelling narrative and how does that narrative fit the prejudices of the judge? 

Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d 501 (Minn. 1989).

In one case, there was an issue about a divorce before the supreme court where I clerked.  The man and woman had amicably settled their issues and went their separate ways.  The wife had declined spousal maintenance (what most people know as "alimony"), which she had an absolute right to claim.  In the final divorce decree, they had agreed to language that stated "there shall be no changes made to this decree."  Well, of course, something changed.  In less than five years after the divorce (the details are hazy, but I could look it up) the former wife was diagnosed/contracted MS and could no longer work.  Now, it was important for her to have some form of spousal maintenance, because she really couldn't support herself alone.  The issue for the court was whether there was some mechanism by which she could get some money from her ex-husband.

The details were technical and legal: did these people have the authority/ability to deprive the court of jurisdiction to amend the divorce decree?  I mean, in a civil society based on laws, can two people agree that a court is not allowed into a area--an area that courts traditionally have every reason to be in--even if one of them changes their mind later?  Can you ask a court to enforce the provision of a divorce degree that says the court has no jurisdiction over the divorce decree?  At what point do the interests of the larger society have an interest in asking a husband to pay spousal support rather than having the woman go on welfare?  These were juicy legal arguments, but in the end, they were really just ways of asking: was it fair, in light of the way the situation had changed?

There is a saying: where you stand depends on where you sit.  And among the clerks, we felt there was a strong message of denial from the male justices.  Post-feminist, young people that we were, we read it as a case of men insisting on the fiction of a fresh start.  Of course, the husband in question had already remarried, and had a baby with his new wife.  I thought at the time, and I continue to think, that there was a strong message of wish fulfillment that a man could walk away from decades of marriage as if it had never happened.

Of course, this played into the then current disapproval of dead-beat dads: it was the same narrative.  A man felt he was entitled to walk away from a marriage of however long a duration, and have no lasting ties to the woman or the children of that marriage, and that was just wrong.  It was bad for the children, it was damaging in the case of changed circumstances, and it was a moral hazard.  You might not still be married, but you are not "status quo ante."  You can't go back to where you were before you married, and there was no reason society should allow that.

At the time, the court had five men and two women on it, and the oldest and closest to antediluvian was the most vocal of the right for a man to walk away.  On the morning of oral argument, there was a deep rift between the judicial camps, just as there was between the parties.  The clerks, the parties, and the judges all went into the courtroom with the same two narratives, arrayed on one side or the other: the right to tabula rasa post divorce, and the continuing obligation of social ties in light of changed circumstances.  She could have asked for spousal maintenance, and the court would have absolutely had the right to amend the amount of that maintenance and could have made it permanent.  I certainly saw it as a gift she had given to her ex-husband, and I felt it was churlish and obnoxious for him to refuse to help her in this situation.

We were surprised, therefore, when one of the amici curiae stood up and pulled the roof down around all our ears.  "You cannot go into this decree and alter its terms," she thundered, "because to do so is to establish the precedent that women are incompetent to contract.  Women have fought since the Victorian era to be allowed to own their own property, to make their own contracts, and to be allowed to control their own legal and economic destiny.  If you alter the plain terms of this divorce, you are doing so because you believe that this woman was not competent to make her own decisions and that you have a paternalistic right to go back and alter the plain terms of her wishes."

What this amicus had done was to change the narrative.  It was no longer a division between the pro-wife and pro-husband forces.  It was no longer an esoteric consideration of the ability of parties to deprive a court of its traditional jurisdiction.  It became a question of whether women had the right to make their own decisions about their future and have those decisions be respected, regardless of what happened in the future.

And that became the dominant way of thinking about that case, at least among the men who still wanted to have the chance to walk away from a failed marriage without any lingering ties.  They could decide in favor of the husband without being selfish or obnoxious--they were "honoring" the woman's wishes!  Sure, it was a bad bargain she had made, but that was no reason to nullify it, right?

Okay, in a subterranean way, the final decision carried more than a whiff of paternalistic stink.  It was a bad bargain.  It was a bad enough bargain that it felt fundamentally unfair to enforce it.  But if we considered that we were enforcing it against a disabled woman for her own good that made it okay!

A good feminist critic could parse this better than I can, but I'll give it a shot: a woman made a bargain that turns out to be against her best interests, although she couldn't have known that at the time.  Once the unfairness became apparent, she sought to amend the deal.  The court decided she couldn't amend the deal, because that wouldn't be in her own best interests, albeit in a vaguely theoretical way that was of no help in the present instance and that offered only limited prospective relief against a theoretical future hazard of future contracts involving theoretical women who were not in any way before the current court.  Presumably, the next time Frima Karon got divorced, then, she would remember NOT to put a clause in that divested the courts of jurisdiction.  Because there's no point in alleviating a difficult situation that is right in front of the court when you could imagine vague future circumstances that might be handled.  If they ever happened.

But we were young, and had been ambushed.  There was no way the clerks were able to assemble a compelling counter-narrative, especially since this one enabled the fantasy of no-strings divorce while dressing it in pro-feminist disguise.  The reality of the court practice at that time was that the court retired to their conference room to make their decision immediately after oral argument, without consulting clerks or having any court staff present.  And the amicus argument won the day.  This is from the published decision:

Amicus for the Family Law Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association stated at oral argument that setting aside the stipulation and decree is insulting and demeaning to women. Counsel who argued on behalf of the association is a woman. She took that position in response to counsel for respondent's implication that women involved in divorce cannot understand or act to protect their rights even when represented by counsel; therefore, the state must protect them in the manner it protects children in the role of parens patriae. Amicus's argument is compelling.

Moreover, what effect would affirmance have on other contracts entered into by married women? Would such a decision supporting the respondent ultimately lead to turning the clock back, outlawing not only antenuptial agreements, but also allowing parties to contest the validity of all instruments and contracts entered into on behalf of married women? Would we also question the validity of deeds of conveyances and purchases of expensive personal property? Where would the protection end? In short, intelligent adult women, especially when represented by counsel, must be expected to honor their contracts the same as anyone else. Any other holding would result in chaos in the family law field and declining respect for binding agreements as well.

Four of the five male justices voted to deny the change in maintenance.  Unsurprisingly, both the female justices dissented, as did my personal favorite of the judges (other than the one I worked for).  Even today, Minnesota has what is now known as the "Karon waiver" as a tool of family law.

Narrative matters, and often matters more than logic, or past precedent, or demonstrable fact.  Climate change is a matter of demonstrable scientific fact, as is that fact that a significant portion of that change is caused by human activity.  Yet people still deny it.  In order to understand why they deny it, it is important to understand a number of complex things about their thinking--which amounts to understanding the narrative they tell themselves.

In the most recent elections of November 2010, the voters of Oklahoma approved a law that prohibits the courts of that state from applying sharia law.  Conservative commentators have decried the alleged goal of Islamic fanatics to use sharia to "impose a theocracy" on the United States.  One can't help but wonder, however, if these commentators have any objection to using "Christian principles" as the basis of lawmaking?   And while the logical inconsistency is apparent to me--sharia and "Christianity" are equally theocratic when used as the basis for legislation--there are people who subscribe to a different narrative than I do, that allows them to see the one as a threat, and the other as good governance.

The Women and Men of Brewster Place

What literature we read shapes our approach to social narrative.  Back in 1982, Gloria Naylor published the book "The Women of Brewster Place" which assembled a number of short stories about African American women in more or less desperate circumstances.  What these women had in common was that they all lived in the same street, and many of their harrowing stories were the consequences of the actions of bad men.  Oprah Winfrey adapted the novel into a TV miniseries in 1989, and there was such a kick in reading stories where you could so easily be angry at the horrible men who had done such horrible things.

Then, in 1997, she published "The Men of Brewster Place" and suddenly all that self-righteous anger that had felt so good went sour.  Because she was (and is!) such a talented writer, Naylor went back to the horrible stories of her earlier novel and re-imagined the men's roles.  And surprise!  The men weren't just monsters, but were flawed and stumbling human beings who were trying to do the right thing too.  And it was no longer possible to just dismiss the women's misery as the fault of men, but a reader had to truly look at what happened from more than one perspective.  Naylor demonstrated that there was more than one narrative that contributed to the "facts."

It is the underlying narrative that allows us to make sense of our lives and our world.  Conspiracy theories make no sense to me, because I have never met anybody who would be able to sustain a successful conspiracy for any length of time.  Obviously, other people have no difficulty accepting that George Soros and ACORN are manipulating large swaths of public activity for their own purposes.  It's a compelling narrative to somebody, and the only way to overcome that mind-set is to understand what that narrative is and why it works.

So, as I look forward to the study of English literature, I find myself wanting to go beyond the realm of books.  Certainly, since I was an undergraduate, the realm of social discourse has grown fantastically.  Back in the old days, we had books, magazines, and a few TV and radio stations (which had the requirement of the "Fairness Doctrine" which meant that they had to broadcast "both sides" of an issue).  Since that time, our choices for consuming narrative include an infinite number of broadcast, streaming, podcast, satellite, MP3, YouTube, and blog outlets.  Fiction comes in the form of books, movies, YouTube videos, cable news, and any number of other formats.  Yet the nature of narrative remains the same: our understanding of them as narrative may not yet have caught up to the reality of our media-saturation.  And that fascinates me. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What You Should Do RIGHT NOW.

What are you doing right now?  No, seriously--what are you doing?  Do you really need to do that?  Right at this minute, especially.  I mean, surely it could wait, right?

Fine. Then I will wait until you are finished.

Okay, NOW--stop everything and go watch "Sherlock" from the brilliant minds of Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, running Sundays on PBS.

It's Sherlock Holmes in 21st century London, but still the same prickly, irritatingly brilliant, self-absorbed charcter who used to stalk the foggy streets of Victoria's age. And amazingly, the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same: John Watson, former Army doctor, wounded in Afghanistan.  He still writes about Holmes's adventures, but on a blog.  And what Holmes can tell about a man from his cell phone rivals anything the 19th century version could tell from a bowler.

It's fast, it's sharp, but still it has all the flavor of Conan Doyle's aggravating hero.  Kudos to the design team who found ways to use modern editing techniques to illustrate the Great Man's ratiocination (and isn't THAT a Victorian word!)  Moffatt is currently Much Beloved for his masterly work on the rebooted Doctor Who series, and obsessives fans like me can see a great deal of similarity between the first episode of "Sherlock" and the first episode of Matt Smith's tenure as the Eleventh Doctor.  In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock could easily be transplanted into the Tardis and be completely believable as the Doctor.

I have great respect and affection for Martin Freeman's Doctor Watson here as well: he's dazzled by Sherlock, but not such a fool as many Watson's have been.  Freeman makes a wonderful foil--he is more human, if a bit PTSD, but every bit Holmes equal in heart.  Which I wouldn't necessarily have expected, given that I know Freeman solely from his roles as the porn star stand-in in "Love Actually" and as Arthur Dent in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie.  In both of those roles, he was rather bumbling and overwhelmed by events.  Here, however, he dives into Holmes's life and immediately fits in.

Sadly, there are only three episodes of this series--damn you, you wily Brits, and your insistence on quality over quantity!  However, there have been promises of new episodes in 2011, which will have to be filmed around Martin Freeman's starring role as Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming "Hobbit" movie.

Yes.  I am a geek.  But just watch, and tell me you aren't glad that I am, so I could point you to this!

Bryan Ferry's Latest

Yes, the man who gave us "More Than This" still has it.  Sadly, the video director seems to have spent too much time perusing "Hot Russian Women Seeking Husbands" sites and three color processing effects from the 1960s.

So maybe it's not an accident that the album cover looks like a live action Vargas drawing?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tarot For the Day

Just for kicks, I downloaded a Tarot app to my DroidX phone.  Yes, it's an upgrade--previously, all my fortune-telling chores were handled by a virtual Magic 8 Ball on my iPod.  But tarot--that's like having TEN Magic 8 Balls all at once, or something.  At any rate, even with a completely random, free app, tarot card reading, at least you get more than a mere yes-or-no answer.

So, offered for entertainment purposes only, here's my tarot reading for the day:
  1. Your Position: Temperance.  Keep emotions in balance.  Synthesis.  Create something new.
  2. Cross/Opposition: Nine of Swords.  Sense of despair or dread hangs over you.  Temporary.
  3. Immediate Future: Ace of Pentacles.  Luck.  Financial propositions, business opportunities.
  4. Recent Past; Eight of Swords.  Fear, doubt and anxiety.  You can escape, but with some bruises.
  5. Distant Past: Judgment.  Recurring illness or problem.  Old debts, old scars come back.
  6. Long Term Future: King of Swords.  Calm and self-assured, with a deep sense of inner strength and conviction.
  7. Position You Will Soon Be In: Seven of Wands.  Deep purpose and valor.  Stiff competition and opposition.
  8. External Influences: Six of Swords.  Moving away from strife/difficult times to calmer waters.
  9. Hopes/Fears/Concerns: Two of Pentacles.  Success is achieved through skillful manipulation of goals and objectives.
  10. Final Outcome: The Devil.  Temptations.  Addictions.  Raw, primitive instinct.

As I was reading these, I went through the five stages of fortune-telling:
  1. Hope that it would tell me something; 
  2. Skepticism that these things ever mean anything; 
  3. Consideration that maybe there was something in what the cards mean that I could at least take as ideas about things to do in my life; 
  4. Critical skepticism, trying to figure out how often a mix of "working toward calm" and "escaping old bad habits" would come up and be applicable to how many millions of people; 
  5. Total WTF?!?!?!  The Devil?  After all these cards saying that I am temperate, escaping doubt and anxiety and old scars and moving away from strife to calmer waters--and I end up with Addiction and Temptation?

 Who knew that calm and inner strength, deep purpose and valor were the harbingers of addiction?  Does that mean that the Buddha got Nirvana and heroin addiction confused? 

Well, Kurt Cobain seemed to have, so maybe that's not a hard mistake to make.

 [Drum hit here: Ba dum shish!  I'm here all week!  Try the veal!  Watch for me on HBO!]

But seriously, if you think of people with whom you associate the terms "temperance" and "inner strength" and "conviction," don't you think of --well--the Dali Lama, or Gandhi.  Not so much "raw, primitive instinct."

Oh yeah, right.  "Entertainment purposes only."  Well, I guess that was fun.

Let's Do Word Problems!

Stick with it--I know you can do this!

A thirsty person has a lovely 22 oz. glass with some ice cubes in it.  She has one-quarter of a 24 fl. oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi

and an unopened 12 oz. can of Diet Coke.

If she pours all the Diet Pepsi into the glass, and then fills the remainder of the glass with Diet Coke, does the resulting class of trademarked brands interact like matter and anti-matter and bring about the end of time and space as we know it?  Or does the presence of the ice cubes operate as dilithium crystals, making faster-than-light speeds possible?

You know that Starfleet Academy gives this test to incoming cadets--I think it was originally posited by Montgomery Scott, who was perhaps enjoying his own lovely beverage at the time.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Henry VIII, a Review

So much promise, so much wrong.

Back in 2005, when the Famille Evil went to England for the first time, one of the first things we did (after overcoming jet lag) was tour the Tower of London.

Yeah, so do everybody. I know. Shut up.

One of the first things the Yeoman Warder said on the tour was that "Henry VIII was the most despotic and tyrannical of English kings." And I was startled, because that was not the image that I had of the man.

Sure, he'd married a bunch of times, and cut off a head or two, but---Tudor England! The English Renaissance! The flowering of music and poetry and Protestantism! Finally the end of civil war, and a king whose first job was not to don armor and lead troops, but to write music and woo women and travel from palace to palace in a peaceful land, right?

Well, partially true, as all things are, but also Henry had a lot more people beheaded than I had realized, and the worst of it was how many of them were the people who had served him closely for years. A man who observed the letter of the legal process but bullied it to get his way. A man who would be interesting to see played by Ray Winstone.

And to be sure, we get a thug of a king. A man whose outsized desires and will simply flatten anyone who gets in his way. There is some charm, and in the early years he's rather attractive and you can see his charisma. He's terribly short of elegance or subtlety, things that the real Henry VIII is said to have had, but you can certainly find him appealing.

Coupled with Helena Bonham Carter, who acts the hell out of the role of Anne Boleyn, and you can see the greatness and the disaster of that marriage. Bonham Carter's Boleyn is fiery, whip smart, sensual and challenging. Why wouldn't a competitor like Henry insist on conquering her?

It is here, however, that the series takes its fatal wrong turn: Henry decides to get rid of Anne when she doesn't give him a son--but he starts skulking around outside the chamber doors to listen to the "trial" and to hear the verdict that was entirely pre-determined. And then. . .he cries. He cries! He actually stands in an empty hallway, half in shadows behind a column (as if THAT was ever going to happen--the man was positively surrounded by people at all times) and cries!

Oh boo bloody hoo, you jerk! YOU'RE the one who made the decision to throw her to the wolves. If you loved her so damn much, then you didn't have to do that. Instead, it becomes this pathetic pity party he throws for himself--the woman he loved is going to die and he did it and he didn't have to but blah blah blah whineycakes. Shut up.

It doesn't make the character complex, or more likeable, or anything, actually. It just makes him self-pitying and delusional. The rest of the series continues to fall down the melodramatic rabbit hole, to the point of being unwatchable. A real low point is his discovery that his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, is unfaithful. His advisor, Thomas Cranmer, can't bring himself to actually tell the king to his face, so he leaves a note on the prie dieu for Henry to find while at prayer. (He remains skulking behind a column to watch that Henry actually reads the note--a nasty reminder of the earlier scene.) Ah, but Henry does him one better--he reads the note, crumples it up in his fist and raises his hand to the sky while bellowing "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"

Ah, melodramatic posturing. It cracks me up every time.

Because of course it's silly. It's ridiculously silly. It's like bad opera, with him on his knees, his fist raised to heaven, shouting his denial to an unhearing god. . .except not that believable. At this point, my sympathies are all with Katherine Howard, played by Emily Blunt who is far too intelligent and far too good an actress to be saddled with this terrible role.

Of course there is no way to cram the entirely of Henry's reign into a mere four hours of screen time, and the focus on the six wives is a handy way to structure his life. I'm not even going to object to the various historical errors. What I object to is the cheap and cliched picture of the man that is presented here. The series opens with Henry at his father's deathbed, being told the most important thing for him to do as a king is to have a son. That vow to his dying father is then the presented as the most important thing for him to do, which has to be ridiculous--he made a vow to his father, but what about all the vows (coronation vow, marriage vows, etc.) he makes to God? What about his obligation to his own soul? Those are issues that would have been important to Henry, and which were thrown into question in his quest for a divorce from his first wife, his allegation that Anne Boleyn was a witch, and on and on.

But no--for the purposes of this mini-series, Henry has only one vow he needs to fulfill, and all the attendant chaos and death that attends his single-minded quest to have a son is just to be seen as hardships he has to face. It's too bad Anne Boleyn was beheaded, but the real sadness is that her death was uncomfortable for Henry, who had no choice, because he had to fulfill his promise to his dad.

Not buying it. Not liking it. Not recommending it.

Friday, July 09, 2010

My Darklyng, or Journalism Obviously Does Not Pay

It's summer, you're looking to change things up a bit. Journalism is taking a big ole hit, and you need something to freshen up the dreary news thing. So, take a look around--what's hot these days? Vampires! YA fiction about vampires! Moody and beautiful YA vampires who don't actually attack anybody and who hang around directionless and personality-free high school girls!

But--seriously? My Darkling is what you give us?

I cannot begin to tell you how badly written this is. Truly bad. It makes Stephanie Meyer's books look like Nobel Prize-winning material. It makes your middle-schooler's posts to look like a collaboration between Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. It makes the back of your breakfast cereal box read like Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Don't just take my word for it, let's have a sample from the first chapter. Our Heroine, teen Natalie, is obsessed with a fictional series of vampire novels written by a fictional author named Fiona St. Clair. For some reason, there is an open casting call for models to come audition to "play" the characters on the book covers. Natalie has slipped away from her normal suburban New Jersey life to come to the audition in Manhattan, which is taking place in room 701:

Natalie caught her breath: 7 was the second digit in 17, which was the magic number that unlocked some of the darkest mysteries in Fiona St. Claire's universe. Was it just an eerie coincidence that the casting was taking place in room 701—17 backward, with a 0 between the numerals?

Seriously? I mean, SERIOUSLY? If the call had taken place in room 908, you could add the 9 and the 8 together and even add the 0 and get 17! Or, room 435, where if you multiply the 4 and the 3 and then add the 5, you get 17! Or, room 8, which is what you get if you add the 1 and the 7! Just think how many "eerie coincidences" you could possibly have in any given building. Especially if you take the zip code the building is in and divide it by the area code, subtract the number of floors in the building, and add in the subway fare. . . .

My Darklyng is posted every Friday, and as of today, there are some 18 chapters. (Is it just an eerie coincidence that if you subtract the 1 from the 8 you get the second digit of 17?) Slate's introduction to it called it a "serialized vampire novel" and "a juicy summer read." So far, there are no vampires, and the thrills seem to consist of wondering if Natalie's mother will find out that Natalie took the train into the city without permission. My God! The nail-biting suspense of it all!

So, the high concept of this serialized novel (are they writing as they go? Surely something this bad is just whipped off late on Thursday night in time for posting on Friday) is the parallel social media links. Several of the characters have Facebook pages and/or Twitter accounts so you can follow what happens in "real time." You know, in case you don't have enough real people to follow, now you can follow two-dimensional fictional people as well.

Also, the story is "illustrated" with photos that purport to be of the characters and their surroundings. I'm not convinced that this is all that new or worthwhile, but if you are going to do this, shouldn't the photos actually look like what is described in the story?

For example, take this photo from Chapter 3--supposedly of the house where Natalie lives with her mother and step-father:

I'm not sure what you would call this architectural style. Italianate Queen Anne, maybe, or Cape Cod Second Empire, or even Collegiate Gothic, maybe--or just a hot mess of styles kluged together. What you would NOT call it is a "rambling ranch-style house at 65 Maple Crest Lane."

This is what a "ranch house" actually looks like:

Notice the fact that a ranch house is only ONE STORY TALL. Notice the fact that it is long and even--dare one say it--rather "rambling." Notice how a "rambling ranch house" is NOT three stories tall with a tower on one end.

I mean, geez, people! If you are going to specify the architecture and post a completely different type of picture on the SAME DAMN PAGE--why should I even click through to your Facebook and Twitter feeds? Because I'm sure the same attention to detail you spent on the ACTUAL BOOK PAGE is going to be higher than on the ancillary sites.

If you do click though, you get very little related to the plot of the book, and a lot of random internet crap. Remember the "Leave Britney Alone" video from a few years back? Well "Natalie" just posted it, because that's how you stay ahead of the internet.

In the end, this is not only badly written, but it's apparently failing to generate much interest on Slate. As of today, there are a total of 8 comments--cumulative from the six weeks of posted chapters. OMG--is that another eerie coincidence? Because 8 can be broken down to 1 plus 7. . . .

So, go ahead, see if you can stand to read this. If you can read all 18 chapters, I have a book I'll sell you--it's entirely composed of the subject lines of emails from my spam folder.

In Which I Contemplate Changing the Name of This Blog

In which I only sort of contemplate changing the name of this blog. Because everything I'm seeing on the internet today is triggering a "Are You SERIOUS" reaction. So maybe I should just have a blog where I post the things that irritate me, or make me wonder whether there is Stupid Juice in everybody's triple-shot-mega-skinny-latte. Or juice-box, if you're not a coffee drinker.

Because while a Mistress of All Evil would obviously concoct some drippingly acidic potion that slimes greenly over the edges of a bubbling cauldron, that's just too much effort for the lameness that has presented itself from the internet today. I mean, do Diane Krueger's hideous shoes (terrible as they are) really merit using up the last of the eye of newt?

Photo credit: from Photobucket via here.

This is merely the worst of the recent trend in platform soles making an unfortunate comeback. I mean, we have photographic evidence of the 1970s--did we learn nothing? I guess it's true--those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. And boy, when it comes to platform soles, do I mean doomed.

I like Diane Kruger--I really do. She's lovely, she's ridiculously normal in the National Treasure movies, and she's never done anything to me personally. So why did she voluntarily put on these shoes. There is no way white shoes with thick soles will ever look like anything but Nurse Shoes/Old Lady Nursing Home shoes. Sure, she tried to make them look like sandals, what with the straps and all, but nope. Doesn't work. Just doesn't. They make her legs (fabulous movie-star legs that they are) look like sticks stuck into marshmallows. Hmmmmm, marshmallows. Suddenly I'm thinking about s'mores. And I hate s'mores.

Moving on., I'm talking to you next.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

On the Nature of Man

Met my parents at a trendy restaurant to celebrate JoMama's birthday. This is a restaurant famous for its tea, and as you might expect, there is a line for the restrooms. In a bad move, the restaurant has only two bathrooms--not rooms with stalls, but single person-type almost-like-the-one-back-home type bathrooms.

Somebody came up with a way to make the best of a bad situation, or perhaps they just bowed to the inevitable, and rather than designating one room to each gender, they are labeled for both. This means that about 85% of the time, they are ladies' rooms. There are no urinals--I told you there were almost like the one you have at home. And so you share, just like you do at home.

So this afternoon, I ended up using the one after a guy. This was unusual, as there were four women in line waiting, and probably only about 2 male customers in the whole place. Nevertheless, I was the woman who got to use the bathroom after the man did.


It happened.

Do you even have to ask?

Of course you don't.

Because he did.

He left the seat up.

*Disclaimer: Capt. Sweetie never ever ever ever EVER leaves the seat up, because he is a civilized person, and everybody in our household puts the WHOLE DAMN LID DOWN every single time. Because really? Who wants to look at a toilet bowl anyway.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Glee + Madonna: Less than the Sum of the Parts

The much hyped "All Madonna" episode of Glee aired last night, and there were some great moments, but overall, not nearly as strong a show as one would want. I could recap, but Heather Havrilesky of summed it up so wonderfully, there is no reason to.

However, I had to grab and keep this:

It's a great homage to vintage Madonna, nicely choreographed, well sung. . .and the best parts are totally the guys' reaction shots. Kurt is all but dancing along in his seat--how adorable is he? Meanwhile Puck is looking dubious, and Finn is apparently distracted some something shiny.

Meanwhile, the girls are totally working the hell out of those satin bustiers.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Not writing. Too busy reading.

For the first time in ages I have more books waiting to be read and reviewed than I have ever had at one time. At least, since I finished my English degree, that is.

I posted a teaser and three book reviews over at the Book Blog of Evil. Go on over and check them out.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Julie & Julia: A Review

So, you know that scene toward the beginning of the movie, when Amy Adams, as Julie Powell, is having "Cobb Salad Luncheon" with three of her alleged friends? And one friend keeps taking phone calls about the $190 million real estate package she's trying to put together, and another one is bragging about her new position as Vice President of Blahblahblah, and the third wants to interview Julie, but can't find a time to "fit her in," and there sits Julie, with her barely above entry level job and living in a walk-up in Queens over a pizza parlor?

Yes. That. Exactly that.

And okay--Julie Powell decides to cook her way through Julia Child and blog about it, and before the end of the year of her project she gets interviewed for the New York Times and literary agents and publishing houses are calling. So she gets a happy ending. But she's a totally narcissistic and self-absorbed jerk and she's mean to her husband and is in no way a role model.


And of course I'm not jealous or second guessing my own life or anything, just because this blog will be five frickin' years old by the end of the month, and I'm waaaay past 30 and of course I'm not wondering what the hell I am doing with my life, and whether I matter to anybody outside the tiny bounds of my own little life.

Of course not.

So--Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep is a National Treasure, and if Nicolas Cage makes another movie in that franchise he better bloody well find HER at the end of the trail of clues left behind by Woodrow Wilson and the Trilateral Commission or something. We watched the movie with both of the girls, and they literally cheered, cheered, when she came on the screen. Capt. Sweetie and I used the movie as parental propaganda, encouraging them to only date and marry guys who were as good to them as the husbands in the movie.

What is there to say about this movie that hasn't already been said a hundred million ways? Meryl Streep was fabulous, and it's hard to imagine a time when Julia Child was just a diplomatic spouse, and not Julia Child! If I got the time line right, she spent the better part of a decade on that first cookbook, retyping it with carbon paper and onion skins, and all those years she was just Paul Child's wife, moving from post to post across Europe. Only after he retired and they moved back to the US did she find a publisher for that first book. Only then did she become the icon of French cooking we know her to be.

Stanley Tucci--what a wonderful husband he made. He can marry my daughters if he wants to, as long as he remains in character as Paul Child. Amy Adams--is still darling and winsome and even as a self-involved and whiney proto-author, I'll still watch her. Nora Ephron directed this movie, which wasn't "The Hurt Locker," but also wasn't a "typical female rom-com" and she deserves some real credit for this movie.

Because I knew this was going to be what we did this evening as a family, I made more of an effort than I usually do, and I cooked. I mean, I cooked. We had a thyme chicken stew that took two hours to cook on the stove, and I made creme brulee, and since Sursels doesn't really like creme brulee I made two different flavors--white chocolate and dark chocolate, with fresh raspberries and whipped cream and I started researching recipes this morning and I went to the grocery at 4:30 and I COOKED until 8 this evening, when we had the stew and started the movie.

And the food was delicious and my family was wonderful and we all loved it. And when the movie was over we all went into the kitchen to torch the creme brulee, and Capt. Sweetie turned on "Burning Down the House" by the Talking Heads and we all danced around the kitchen and turned on the butane torch and melted the sugar and plopped fresh raspberries and squirted the Reddi-Whip and we all said "Oh man! This is delicious!"

For that kind of response, I would even cook more often, I think. But I will not do so with Julia Child's recipes, because they are still too hard. But I love her anyway.

Hold Your Horses!

This is frickin' brilliant!

70 Million by Hold Your Horses ! from L'Ogre on Vimeo.

I came across this after wondering a bunch of links--isn't the internet amazing? Aren't humans wonderful sometimes?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Oscar Backlash! The Ryan Seacrest Experience

The New York Times has the latest of Oscar backlash. No, not that Kathryn Bigelow isn't "really" a female director since she directed a "boy movie." No, not that "Avatar was robbed." Not even that Giuliana shouldn't have been stuck upstairs in the skybox. (Okay, I made that up. Nobody has said that.)

Ryan didn't ask about the designers. When interviewing A list celebrities, many of whom were actually nominated for their performances, he failed to make "Who are you wearing" his very first question, or even a question at all.

This from New York Times article.

The fashion designer Nicole Miller said she, too, was disappointed (and not just because Mr. Seacrest didn’t chat up the “True Blood” star Deborah Ann Woll, who was clad in a Miller gown). “It was almost like he wasn’t that interested in the designers,” Ms. Miller said. “He seemed more interested in the celebrities and their careers.”

Um. Yes. Given that the man had about 22 seconds per Famous Person, and the event was the Oscars--you know, that thing about MOVIES--and was NOT "Project Runway."

Don't get me wrong--I love the Oscars, and a very big part of what I love about the Oscars is the fashion. Well, obviously. But "who are you wearing" is not really a story. It's advertising. Learning what designer someone is wearing is why Al Gore invented the Internet. LOOK IT UP.

Maybe next year, stylists and publicists will make their clients' information available so E! can post it on the lower screen crawl, so people who care can read it.

Maybe the real "story" here isn't that Seacrest failed to ask about designers, but that the only people the NEW YORK TIMES (you know, the one that used to be called "the paper of record") interviewed about this were themselves fashion designers? It's not that there is a broad based backlash against Ryan Seacrest, as the article promotes--it's that people who care about the clothes than the people inside of them were disappointed. You know what? Mammogram technicians were also disappointed by the lack of X-ray films carried on the red carpet as well.

---The Mistress of All Evil is NOT wearing Marchesa or Armani Prive while producing this post.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Tiara Woes




Because, dammit, I am already married and not planning to ever do it again, I will never open Parliament, and I will never go to a Royal Ball in an outfit created by a fairy godmother where I will accidentally forget to give my prince my cell phone number so I will be forced to leave behind a glass slipper that he can use to trace me via DNA typing with the help of Gil Grissom.

So, for my birthday I am wearing a tiara, and you know what sucks? I keep trying to pull it down onto my face because I think it's my reading glasses.

Guys? I waited too long to start wearing a tiara.

Oscars 2010 Fashion Mistakes -- Sarah Jessica Parker

SJP here is one unfiltered cigarette and John Hamm away from a cameo on "Mad Men." It's all about the accessories.

Oscars 2010 Fashion Mistakes -- Charlize Theron

You don't even need me to comment on this one.

When you wear John Galliano, you get more than just "body conscious." You get "anatomically exaggerated."

I saw a performance of "How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying" about 30 years ago. In one song, every woman shows up at the office party in the identical "Irresistible Paris Original" dress, which was a black halter dress with a large white flower at the neck. The only dress any of the men noticed was when the slutty secretary showed up with two large white flowers, pinned over each of her breasts.

Who knew Galliano was there too?

Oscars 2010 Fashion Mistakes -- Elisabetta Canalis

This may be mean, since poor Elisabetta is not herself an Oscar invitee--she's a "plus one," and it is hardly fair to assault someone who's only claim to our attention is that she is dating George Clooney.

That's a fair assessment, but this is a fashion mistake. Maybe we can blame somebody else for it, though.

It's her undergarment. You can see it pretty clearly here, just as I saw it on television. It's a corset or something, with a panel that runs in a triangle down her abdomen and points straight at her ladybits.

Now, maybe, she decided she wanted to wear something sexy and glamorous under her red satin gown, something that would make her feel more fabulous than a pair of Spanx, and really, who can blame her? I mean, why pull a Bridget Jones buzzkill on Oscar night with a pair of practical and unattractive underpants.

Fortunately for her, somebody must have spotted it early in the evening and whispered in her ear, because most of the rest of the night she has her clutch or her wrap conveniently posed to hide the lines.

Oscars 2010 Fashion Mistakes -- Cameron Diaz

You know I love the Oscars with an unreasoning affection--and I have to say beforehand that the fashions this year were uniformly great. Sure, I have quibbles, or personal preferences, but there was nothing this year that made me slap my forehead and scream "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING" at the screen.

And that does happen sometimes.

So even the "worst dressed" are only so in comparison--and are still better than just about anything anybody wore from about 1972 to 1990--just to pick some dates at random. So realize that most of these "mistakes" aren't really Big Mistakes. On the other hand--there is still Room For Improvement.

Let's start with Cameron Diaz.

Give the girl her due--in the past, she has looked like she just rolled out of bed and grabbed whatever was closest.

This was 2002, and whatever she meant to accomplish with the kimono inspired dress and International Festival accessories, it was the messy hair and lack of make-up that guaranteed this was going to be considered a very expensive bathrobe.

She has atoned for that look in the past, which is weird. I mean--why is Cameron Diaz at the Oscars so often? It can't be for her body of work, can it? Does the Academy value "Shrek" and "Charlie's Angels" so highly? Sure, fine, there was "Gangs of New York," but even Leo DiCaprio hasn't been to as many Oscars as our girl Cam here.

Cameron at 2007 Oscars

Cameron at 2008 Oscars

Which brings us back to the 2010 look.

It's fine. It's just fine. It's golden, it's formal, her hair and make-up are lovely.

It's just--meh. Frankly, the look is both generic and matronly. It makes her look "middle aged," which is a phrase I hate, but it's accurate. She looks like she's over 40 (she isn't) and she's got a bunch of kids in a minivan parked somewhere. She sent them off to hockey practice and came on over to the school fundraising formal.

I mean, whether you liked that 2002 bathrobe or not, it was unique. You couldn't imagine it on, say Drew Barrymore, like you can this one. Or just about anybody, really. Susan Sarandon could wear this, or Demi Moore, or Carey Mulligan. It just is a lovely shiny dress, but it fails to give us a quintessential Cameron Diaz look, and that's what I'm looking for at the Oscars.