Summer Brain Dump

I have no way of prefacing this except by saying it’s July now, and I haven’t written or debriefed about life in a meaningful way since May and a lot has happened in that time. And tonight I finally felt like writing it all out.

I have to move again, which sucks. No other way to put it. Our current landlords raised our rent $900/month ($300/person/month next year) so we had to find a new place. The good news is, our new apartment is in the same neighborhood. And, our rent will be cheaper. And, I get to stay with my wonderful roommates. The bad news is, we have to move everything from one apartment to the next. Little expenses keep coming up for things we took for granted in the old place that don’t exist in the new (like a toilet paper roll holder!). Plus, it’s summer and it’s hot and miserable and all your stuff is getting moved around. I sound really grumpy about this, don’t I? Well, I am a little. I told my roommates that if, this time next year, I have to move for any dramatic reason (i.e., another massive rent hike), I will recognize it as a sign from God that I am supposed to leave New York City. No sane person can tolerate four moves in as many years.

Perhaps moving is a little bit of my motivation for writing tonight. All my stuff is in boxes. Evidence of an upcoming transition is right in front of me. I want to write down what’s happened lately so I don’t forget it once things start to change.

So, item #1. Summer obsessions. I never notice it in the moment, but with a few years, months, or even weeks in the rearview mirror, I start seeing how clearly defined a certain time was by the cultural obsessions gripping me in that moment. At the beginning of June, I started an obsession with the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, which has carried me through the entire summer so far and taken up a lot of my cultural-obsession real estate. It started with Maron’s interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. I’d known about WTF for awhile, even listened to a couple episodes, but the show re-entered my mind when I was doing some podcast research for work and I decided to listen to the Terry Gross episode on a run. They’re magic together, and it was the first time I appreciated Maron’s real skill as an interviewer. I was hooked.

The podcast has been a welcome companion on some of my summer travels. I got to visit LA for work and polished off his chats with Jason Schwartzman, Parker Posey and John Mulaney on the plane. I was in LA the same day he interviewed President Obama and relished the national conversation surrounding that episode. I started my Maron fandom just early enough that I could listen to the Obama episode as a devotee, not a bandwagoner. (Recent gems have included his interviews with Constance Zimmer, Ed Asner and Vince Gilligan, and the Obama post-mortem episode he recorded with his producer.)

Sir Ian McKellan is the guest on today’s episode, and he asks Maron about who typically listens to his podcast. “I don’t think I have a demographic; it’s more of a disposition,” Maron replied. I smiled when he said that because it made me think of a paragraph that caught me from his email newsletter earlier today: “It rained a lot here in LA the other day. We needed it. I get weird when it rains. My mind drifts. It’s not necessarily bad but it’s not great. I can’t really put into words what happens but there is sort of a romantic, hopeless feeling to it all and it’s okay. I need it. It’s a deep feel. I don’t think I could live somewhere where it rains all the time though. It would be hard not to become goth.” I pretty much identify with every sentence there, which I think means I am of the target disposition.

 

 

Another cultural interest this summer – I don’t know if I’d call it an “obsession” per se – has been the new movie crop. It’s a good summer, in my estimation. To date, I’ve seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Love and MercyInside Out and Amy and would recommend each one. (I saw Amy just this past weekend and it’s all I can think about, really. Incredibly well-told and sensitive, but watching it, your heart breaks for the brilliant Ms. Winehouse.)

To mark my 25th birthday earlier this month, I made a list of 25 things I want to accomplish in my 25th year, and one was to write about each new movie I see this year – whether it’s a new-new movie like the ones listed above, or a new-to-me movie, like Philomena, which I watched on the plane ride home from my trip to London and Paris (more on that later). I have some catching up to do in the writing department, but I feel like I’ve seen some meaningful films in the last couple months.

Item #2. The Europe trip. It was freaking amazing. I’d never been to Europe before but had been dying to visit. I really need to write a whole post about the trip – I have notes and thoughts scribbled everywhere but I should pull them together before I forget too much. Already, I find myself remembering little things here and there that I already started forgetting – meals we ate, cool subway stations I liked, that kind of thing. But the larger feeling is still intact. I hadn’t really gone somewhere new since moving to New York three years ago. I went to Disney World, or Portland, or Chicago – all places I’d already been. So it was invaluable to experience something completely new. To be somewhere with a language barrier. To spend almost two weeks away from the city, all its responsibilities and assumptions.

The place that felt newest was Versailles. Of course London and Paris felt new, but they were still cities. I could at least understand how they felt, in a way. Versailles was out of this world. I couldn’t believe I was on my own planet. There were gardens that stretched on forever and rooms walled with marble in a shade of purple that I can’t get out of my mind.

What struck me most about London was the constant juxtaposition of old and new. You get that in New York to a degree, but in London it’s amplified. It’s an awesomely designed Tube station in the shadow of a tower built in the 1000s. And it’s like that all over the city.

I fell in love with the museums in both cities. The Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Modern especially drew me in during our London leg. In Paris, the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. I discovered some new-to-me artists whose work I want to further explore, like the illustrator George Condo whose wry sketches fascinated me at the Tate, or the post-impressionist Felix Vallotton at the d’Orsay (that museum in particular had a layout conducive to better understanding the timeline of certain artistic movements).

There is oh-so-much-more to talk about when it comes to that trip. It whet my appetite for travel and I can’t wait to visit Europe again. In the meantime, I’m trying to take the wonder of that trip and apply the same feeling to my normal life. That’s going alright so far.

As “summer things” go, those are the biggest items. My head feels clearer having them down on the page. And now I need to finish packing.

Movie Appreciation: Amadeus

I guess I’m kind of revealing my own personal Internet secret here, but for over two years now, I’ve had a tumblr that I use expressly for my pop culture obsessions. It started as a home for pictures of New York and the Beatles but morphed into something more when I started caring about movies. I didn’t want to put my name on it and a 49ers game was on TV when I decided to make it, so I threw “harbaugh” in the username, and added 71 because 7/1 is my birthday.

The posts are mostly expressions of whatever’s in my head, an overflow of the moments and quotes and scenes that fill my mind. Looking at the first page of my tumblr this morning, I thought the three most recent posts were an especially good representation of three movies that have lately had an affect on me: Silver Linings Playbook (I’m pretty much always watching that movie but I went to Philadelphia yesterday and had it playing in my mind all day), Amadeus, and Some Like it Hot. And because it’s Sunday and I want nothing more than to sit on my bed with a cup of coffee and write while looking out my window across a sunny New York City, I’m just going to start writing appreciations of those three movies. First, Amadeus.

Amadeus floated to the top of my mind because it was just added to Netflix. When I wanted to watch it for the first time a couple months ago, I ended up buying it on iTunes because, to my knowledge, it wasn’t streamable or rentable. But somehow watching a movie on Netflix seems easier and more accessible than watching a movie I already own.

It quickly became one of those easy-to-watch movies for me, where you just know and love it so well that you can pick up at any place, have it on in the background while doing other stuff and not miss anything (actually, Silver Linings Playbook and Some Like it Hot are like that for me, too, which is probably why I feel the urge to write about them).

I started retracing my steps to remember how I decided to watch it in the first place. It started in January, when I re-watched The Grand Budapest Hotel in preparation for awards season. I like that movie a lot, and who doesn’t love Ralph Fiennes, but the whole beginning part, set in the 60s with Jude Law as the young author, is my favorite part. And I’d forgotten that the whole movie is basically presented as a story told by F. Murray Abraham’s character.

He doesn’t have much screen time, but there was something I liked about Abraham in the film, so I went down my usual Google/IMDb rabbit trail and found that he had won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985 for his performance in Amadeus. At that point, the only way I knew about Amadeus was from a 30 Rock joke – when Tracy briefly lives with Liz and she gets mad at him for charging pay-per-view adult movies to her cable bill, she asks about a movie called “I’ma Do Us” and Tracy replies, “It’s a pun on Amadeus, dummy!” I knew that was a movie and I guess I assumed it was about Mozart, but truly – that was the only way Amadeus ever entered my consciousness before a couple months ago.

[SIDE NOTE: I just Googled “30 Rock Amadeus” to confirm that line, and learned there is AN ENTIRE AMADEUS SUBPLOT in the episode “Succession,” from season 2. So of course I just sat here and watched the whole episode. Fitting for a Tracy and Frank storyline, it again involves adult films, with Tracy as Mozart and Frank as Salieri as they attempt to create a pornographic video game. I’d never watched that episode with the context of Amadeus, so obviously the parody was completely lost on me until now. Just another layer of that show’s brilliance.]

Where was I? Oh, the actual movie. I watched it after learning F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his performance, and I loved it right away. It was totally different from what I expected, and totally unlike anything else I’d seen. I assumed it was a boring biography movie. I wasn’t expecting Mozart to be portrayed as a disruptive, punk-ish revolutionary who wore pink wigs and had a ridiculous laugh.

But that’s what I love about it. In this movie, Mozart is the Beatles, basically. No one knows what to do with him, or how to accept this totally revolutionary force. He doesn’t act like anyone else and he doesn’t make music like anyone else. He is completely original and effortlessly brilliant.(Roger Ebert named this to his “Great Movies” list, and the Jordan-to-Barkley, Kennedy-to-Nixon comparisons he makes with Mozart and Salieri really helped me understand Mozart’s creative power.)

I think this scene, from early in the film, is a perfect illustration:

 

I didn’t really think much of it in my first viewing, but I’ve been watching pieces on Netflix over the last couple days and am now head-over-heels in love with the colorful wigs. Mozart’s, of course:

mozart pink wig

But also Constanze, his wife, who – and maybe it’s just the way it looks with her outfit – wears a colorful look of her own.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.04.54 PM

F. Murray Abraham won the Oscar, and I wholeheartedly think he deserved it, but Tom Hulce was nominated as Mozart, and his performance is probably my favorite of the two. Well, actually, it’s probably more that Mozart is my favorite character. They’re both insane performances. Watching Amadeus is probably the first time I’d consciously realized that the film was great because the performances were great. With any other actors, it would have been different, and…less great.

At the height of my obsession with the film, I watched a feature called “The Making of Amadeus.” Typical DVD bonus stuff, like behind-the-scenes photos, interviews with Milos Forman, the actors, etc. The most interesting part is the discussion of casting, especially when Forman talks about casting the smaller roles, and how it was important for all those actors to be distinct. He said it drove him crazy when you couldn’t tell minor characters apart in a film. I totally agree. (Other best part of that feature: Forman talking about his decision to shoot in Prague, saying it was perfect because the city still looked exactly the way it did in Mozart’s time thanks to “communist inefficiency.”)

One other major thing I love about this movie is how the characters speak in totally modern, Americanized English, using contractions and phrases like “they shit marble.” Of course they didn’t actually speak like that, but who cares? It’s the best way to convey the essence of the characters and their time.

There are a million other aspects to this movie I adore, but a lot of them are subtleties in performance that are hard to put into words. It should also go without saying that the music is fantastic, too. The whole thing is big, colorful, perfectly acted, and a pure joy to watch.

All My Random Thoughts on House of Cards, Season 3

Where do I start with House of Cards? I finished season three last night – that’s record binge-viewing time for me – and each time I think about it, new theories, thoughts and questions pop into my head. This was such an intriguing season, and it was definitely my favorite of the three so far.

I realized a few episodes in that this was my favorite season of HoC because it’s the season that can be most easily compared to The West Wing. This New York Times Magazine Beau Willimon profile from last year made a perfect connection between the two – that each generation gets the political show representative of its moment – and, yes, even last year as Vice President, Frank entered the realm of the White House. But now he’s really in the White House, and his supporting cast more closely mirrors that of The West Wing.

Throughout the season, I found myself comparing House of Cards characters with their West Wing counterparts. The Underwood-Bartlet comparison doesn’t amount to much, or at least it didn’t to me. The one I found myself thinking about most often was Remy (Underwood’s Chief of Staff) and Josh Lyman (Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff). It actually didn’t dawn on me until right now, as I write this, that Josh is never actually Bartlet’s Chief of Staff – he’s only the deputy in that administration. But I think the comparison holds; Josh and Remy are more comparable than Leo and Remy, age-wise, so maybe that’s why it sprang to mind, but I also think Josh does more Remy-like things than Leo. Anyways.

This is where I couldn’t get it out of my mind: When it’s clear the hurricane has turned and the America Works program will die because Frank’s signed that bill, he leaves the situation room and asks Remy what can be done to stop it and get the AmWorks funding back. Remy doesn’t know what to do, and basically tells Frank it’s hopeless. Faced with the same situation and the same amount of time, Josh Lyman would have gotten the bill back, rescued AmWorks, and given Donna a condescending explanation of whatever Constitutional loophole he used to accomplish the previous feat.

On a more peripheral level, I’m always interested in the way different politically focused shows and movies concentrate on different players. I mean, I get it – each show chooses who they want to tell the story through – but I just wonder how those decisions are made, and why. There is no Toby Ziegler or Sam Seaborn in HoC (or at least no depiction of their counterparts, because the real Sam and Toby would probably flee the country if Frank Underwood was president). In the same way, The West Wing never had (if my memory serves) a U.N. Ambassador present during tense moments in the situation room.

Aside from the ease with which West Wing comparisons can be made, HoC season three was my favorite because for a long time, we don’t know where it’s going. Season one, these characters and this story are brand-new, and we don’t even know what we could assume. Season two, it’s fairly obvious Frank will become President. But season three, Frank is President. So where will it go?

I loved watching Frank struggle with the day-to-day issues of the presidency, rather than make the broad-strokes moves to get there in the first place, which we saw in the first two seasons. You remember he actually has a job to do. But even though that’s why I loved the season as a whole, it’s also why the ending left me dissatisfied. It felt like the finale concentrated on storylines that hadn’t been considered much at all in the previous 12 episodes. Of course Doug has to find Rachel, and of course we have to get some idea of what’s going on with the Underwood marriage (this Vulture piece articulates a lot of frustrations I had with the season’s end, as far as Frank and Claire’s relationship), but I was disappointed we didn’t get a closer look at how Heather Dunbar narrowly lost the Iowa primary, or get some idea where Jackie Sharp’s headed next, now that she’s done campaigning and admitted unhappiness in her marriage.

Slightly disappointing ending aside, though, I still thought this was a fabulous season. These are my other lingering, random thoughts:

  • End of episode two, when Claire cracks those two eggs into a pan. WHAT DOES IT MEAN.
  • Even if there weren’t direct comparisons to all the characters, there were some moments that reminded me of West Wing Frank’s visit to the bishop reminded me of when Toby went to chat with his rabbi. Heather Dunbar’s surprise announcement of her candidacy reminded me of CJ’s surprise when that awful Peter Lillianfield gave a surprise press conference about alleged drug use among White House staffers.
  • I liked Thomas Yates, the author Frank hired. But I will never love a writer on this show as much as I loved Janine Skorsky.
  • This scene – Frank sings a little ditty for guests after the Petrov dinner – is straight out of my fever dream.

frank singing!

  • The dialogue between Claire Underwood and Michael Corrigan, as they negotiate in his prison cell, is insanely good. As is the dialogue between Frank and Claire later that episode, when they’re fighting on the plane.
  • This show reminded me how House of Cards season one really introduced me to the greatness of Kevin Spacey, who is now one of my most beloved actors. I’d seen him in movies before this show, but I remember watching the first season and then wanting to know all of his other stuff. I watched L. A. Confidential not long after finishing season one, and it’s now one of my favorite films. I kind of forgot until this weekend how HoC was responsible for my love of Spacey.

So, I’m sure tons of other thoughts and theories will come to mind as I chew on this season and discuss with others. Here’s to season four.

Musicals are Fun!

A couple months ago, I watched a trailer for an upcoming film adaptation of The Last Five Years, a popular Off-Broadway musical. I had never heard of the show but was taken by the music, particularly snippet of one song, “The Summer in Ohio.” The few lines featured in the trailer stayed in my head, and I indulged in the whole song once the soundtrack was released.

I watched the full movie tonight (I rented on iTunes but it’s also showing at some theaters), and looooooved it. Given my previous life as a small-time community theater kid, I’m a sucker for a good musical, and I’ve really been craving that kind of music this winter; I’ve caught myself nearly singing “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” aloud more times than is probably healthy. Maybe, subconsciously, I’m using song-and-dance numbers as a way to cope with this brutal cold. They put you in an undeniably good mood.

Whatever the case, I’m loving musicals right now, and I devoured The Last Five Years. I can’t compare the film to the stage version, but all 90 minutes of the movie were entertaining, and I’m not sure what more you could ask for.

Really, it’s all about Anna Kendrick. She’s incredible. I know nothing intricate about music and can’t say anything articulate about why she’s so great in this, but I just love her voice (“On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods has also gotten a lot of play in my world this season) and I think she’s an incredible performer. The music in this movie is fantastic, and Jeremy Jordan makes for a great co-star, but Anna Kendrick’s performance is the heart of it all.

anna kendrick1 anna kendrick2 anna kendrick3

So as winter wears on, if you see me roaming the streets of New York with my headphones in, maybe mouthing the words, maybe letting a few sounds pass my lips…I’m just trying to memorize The Last Five Years‘ soundtrack.

*Fabulous gifs from Tumblr.

When Life Gives You Lemmon

Whenever I’m not feeling well, I have this compulsion to watch old movies. I don’t know what it is. An expected level of comfort, of relatively uncomplicated plot? The idea that something might remind me of a happier time? I can’t diagnose it. But I know I felt pretty awful on Sunday, so I watched an old movie.

Said movie was The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film. I don’t know why I chose that title specifically for my sick-day viewing, but I’d scrolled through it on Netflix so many times and always said, “oh, I’ll get around to it.” Sick days are made for watching the stuff you never otherwise get around to.

I absolutely loved every second of The Apartment, and it was pretty much all because of Jack Lemmon’s performance. It was a sight to behold.

When I think about why I love the movies I love, I gravitate toward a film’s overarching theme, or a certain funny scene, or a quirky character, or the way a movie channels history. I’m trying to get better at appreciating performances – recognizing when an actor is just going for it, and it is not the character I love but what the character is because of the performer.

Does that even make sense? Well, it’s all I could think of when watching Lemmon play C.C. Baxter. I loved his physical comedy, not just the way he moved about a space, but his facial expressions, too, and quick gestures. And I loved the way he played Baxter’s sweeter, softer side. That it never came on too strong, but was always a believable part of his whole character.

Actually, I loved that about Shirley MacLaine’s performance, too. Sometimes with older movies, it’s hard for me to buy the way characters turn on a dime to realize this person they despise or simply tolerate is actually the person they love. With Kubelik and Baxter, I totally believed it. I’d seen them weather enough together and apart to believe their story could happen.

Watching The Apartment made me realize how long I’ve now been cheated out of appreciating Jack Lemmon. I think I have a pretty solid knowledge of old Hollywood stars, but Lemmon actually falls outside the window of time inhabited by the ones I knew best, like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. If Jack Lemmon came up in conversation before Sunday, I could say, “Oh, yeah, I know who he is,” but I couldn’t have pointed to his photo.

But now I can, and I can’t wait to become well-acquainted with his work. Actually, when I reading about him after the movie, I realized that day – February 8 – would have been his birthday. I’m choosing to view that as a sign from the movie universe that I need to watch more of his stuff. And I will, once I’m recovered from my obsession with The Apartment.

“Mysterious and Utterly Reliable”

I recently watched The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time all the way through since I saw it in theaters early last year. I almost think I may have lessened my enthusiasm for the movie as time went on, convincing myself that it was good but not too good, or anywhere near as good as The Royal Tenenbaums. 

It may not be, but I thoroughly enjoyed the second viewing, and came to appreciate it as its own film, not just as another volume in the Wes Anderson library.

I find it hard sometimes to write about lines that stood out to me in a film, because there’s no way to convey with words how it feels to watch something and have some random phrase rise up from the rest of the work and go straight to your heart. In my recent Grand Budapest viewing, it was a line spoken through voice-over by Jude Law’s character, the 1968 version of the author whose book, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” frames the movie’s story. He explains how his chance meeting came about with the hotel’s owner, which leads to him learning about the establishment’s storied history:

“…until, in what I’ve found to be its mysterious and utterly reliable fashion, fate, once again, intervened on my behalf.” 

This really makes no sense out of context, and I can’t find a clip of this exact moment. But I just thought that was a really beautiful way to describe fate, or whatever force you believe causes events to happen. “Mysterious and utterly reliable.” You never know what will happen, but when whatever happens does happen, it seems to be perfectly timed.

and a split of the brut

Also, as is my wont, I have developed a newfound obsession with an actor in a movie whose performance I enjoyed but who I didn’t know much about. That would be F. Murray Abraham, and I’m working on watching more of his stuff. Though I did already know – because everything in my life has some weird Watergate connection – that he played one of the cops who busts the Watergate burglars in All the President’s Men.

One other random movie tidbit: I was so distraught over Oregon’s loss to Ohio State in the college football title game on Monday that all I wanted to do to cheer myself up was watch Juno, so I could reminisce about the role that made me love now-Golden-Globe winner and Oscar nominee J.K. Simmons.

Juno is one of my all-time favorites, and while Simmons has a smaller part, he plays it perfectly. You totally buy everything he says and does. He’s a small-town dad who has a simple life but who works hard for his family and knows the little things are the most important. And his wife is played by Allison Janney! The best couple, basically.

I love awards season. For some reason all the races and the controversies and the glamour are fascinating to me. And while there’s obviously a fair share of big names nominated this year (and a lot of love for Grand Budapest), I love that J.K. Simmons, the dad from Juno, whom I’ve known of for years because of that role, finally found the role that’s getting him his due.

 

Christmas Break Catch-All: Movies, Books, 2015.

Time acts in strange ways. Certain days can last forever, certain weekends are gone with the blink of an eye, certain months can feel like they never even happened. What always seems strangest is when time makes you feel as if you’ve lived whole lives between a point A and a point B, when in reality, that span of time only lasted two weeks.

That’s how I feel about this holiday break. I am lucky to have a job where things slow down around Christmas and the New Year, so I spent a week at home in Oregon and then spent a few days hanging out back in the city.

Before I forget them (though I’m kicking myself for not doing this even sooner because now the Oregon portion of my break seems like a long time ago), here are a few highlights from the holiday…aka a rundown of the books and movies and moments I most want to remember.

1. Me Before You

In my parents’ neighborhood, there’s a house with its own little library out front, where people can take and leave books as they please. I passed it while on a walk with my mom and sister, and I took Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, a book I’d pondered buying before but held off because I was in the middle of something else. I was pages away from finishing Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and this was early in my trip, so I figured I could polish off Moyes’ book in time to return it before going back to New York.

Maybe it sounds dumb, but this book became like a friend to me. I just wanted to spend time with it. Before this book, I’d read the first two Hunger Games books (sounds easy, I know, but fantasy/dystopian books are just not my cup of tea) and A People’s History of the United States, so in hindsight I realize I was probably just overjoyed to have a book I could breeze through. But it was more than just an easy read. It was a delight. Just about every night I was home, I’d stay up late and read it in the light of the Christmas tree.

I’ve had a serious crush on England for the last year and a half, so I loved opening it to find the prologue set in London and the rest in an English country town. All its characters were distinct and developed, and the central romance was sweet – obvious the whole time, but built to in a much more satisfying way than I could have anticipated. Even cynics like myself need a good love story every now and then.

2) New Movies

Since I had some time on my hands the last few days, I wanted to get a jump-start on watching some great new movies in 2015. Instead, I mostly ended up re-watching old favorites (more on that below), but I did watch two movies for the first time and quite enjoyed both: Pulp Fiction and Thank You for Smoking.

Sometimes I view movies as opportunities to understand more cultural references. It seems like I hear about Pulp Fiction a lot, so I thought I’d watch it to expand my pop-culture horizons. I think I need to watch it again and again to pick up on everything, but I love movies where you just get swept into it, where you’re not realizing it but an hour has gone by and you’ve just been enjoying the story. That’s kind of how I felt about Fargo, too. You’re not expecting it, but you’re sucked in.

And Thank You For Smoking. Jason Reitman’s Juno and Up in the Air are two of my favorite movies, but this was the first time I’d watched his debut feature. I don’t know if it’ll become one of my favorites like those other films, but I still thought it was great. Dripping with cynicism, urging its viewers to question everything, filled with the same quick, intelligent dialogue that made me love the other Reitman films.

And since awards season is right around the corner, I saw a few movies in theaters over the break, too: The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, and Whiplash (which was by far my favorite of the three).

3) Old Movies

I’ve taken the last couple days to catch up on random stuff in my life – unpacking, cleaning the kitchen, organizing storage drawers, etc. – and it’s hard to watch new movies while doing those tasks because I can’t devote my full attention to the film. So I re-watched some old favorites, most notably Good Night and Good Luck, LA Confidential (clearly there’s a David Strathairn thing going on) and Manhattan.

The first time I watched LA Confidential was on a bus back to NYC after visiting Boston for a weekend. And I liked it even then. But this time, I appreciated so much more. Like Kevin Spacey. How did I not recognize its true greatness in my first viewing? Spacey’s is my favorite in a movie filled with incredible performances.

Before I went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I turned on Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I first saw it almost two years ago but since then I think I have developed a better appreciation for films and a better understanding of what it is to live in New York. The beauty and intelligence of the opening sequence was apparently lost on me the first time, because I hardly remembered it. Now, I just want to sit and watch it on loop. It’s breathtaking.

Other lines I loved: Tracy joking about not knowing who Rita Hayworth was, then Isaac reprimanding her. “Of course I’m joking!” She says. “You think I’m unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.”

And Isaac describing Mary as “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.”

4) 2015

It is now 2015, and I can’t say anything feels much different. Maybe that’s good, though. Maybe the years where it doesn’t feel like much will change or improve are the years when big things happen. Or maybe by saying it out loud, I’ve ruined any chance of that. There are 361 more days to find out.

Feeling Sad About Robin Williams

I didn’t expect to feel like this, but the news of Robin Williams’ death has gutted me. I still can’t exactly put my finger on why. It’s partly because everyone knows him. (At some point in your life, you’ve laughed at something Robin Williams did. And now he’s gone. No new laughs.) It’s partly because someone who made us all laugh was, at the same time, facing such a scary set of demons.

The root of my sadness, though, might be my realization that Robin Williams’ genius and talent was wasted on me. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Williams in the last 24 hours, and nothing has articulated my feelings better than this Deadspin piece by film critic Tim Grierson – well, maybe it didn’t so much articulate what I felt as it did expose the true reason I was heartbroken.

Grierson’s larger point was that he regretted ever being disappointed in Williams for doing movies like Flubber and Patch Adams, and that he didn’t appreciate until after the actor died how “different audiences loved him for different things.” “Now,” he says, “I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.” Perhaps my personal disappointment stems more from the fact that I never paid Robin Williams much attention at all – though he was one of those actors who always lurk in the back of your mind, who are present enough that you never see them and wonder, “huh, wonder where he’s been for 10 years” – and that now I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be anything else. I never appreciated the genius at the height of his craft.

But even though I hadn’t seen enough of his movies or watched much of his stand-up, I (and everyone else) knew Robin Williams was a thing. He was famous. He was important. He was not a niche celebrity. The piece I’ve read since his death that best articulates his cultural importance is comedian Chris Gethard’s story about doing improv with Williams one night at UCB. He makes the most perfect illustrations and comparisons to describe what Robin Williams meant to this world.

He talked about how he and his friends would pretend to sleep while their parents watched Williams do stand-up. “…and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.”

I know it wasn’t Robin Williams stand-up, but I have a very specific memory of doing the exact same thing once when my parents were watching Letterman – we were in a hotel room on vacation, I was probably ten years old, and had my eyes closed while trying to stifle laughs about jokes I didn’t really get but still knew were hilarious. That illustration made sense to me. Robin Williams was that funny.

This analogy – Robin Williams is to comedy as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll – struck a chord with me, too (pardon the French):

To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best — but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.

 

Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.

“Heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best.” I know Robin Williams fifty times better today than I did when I first heard of his death. It all makes me sad. But I’m grateful for the words of others who articulated why losing him hurts so badly.

Becoming a Movie Person

Before 2013, I never would have considered myself a “movie person.” I used to say I’d rather watch the same ten movies on repeat than try something new. Movies seemed like such a big time commitment. Two hours?! At least with a TV show, you could quickly move on to something else if you didn’t like it. You had a beginning, middle and end in less than 30 minutes. Movies seemed to drag.

But over the past year and a half, I’ve come to love them. I think a lot of that has to do with Roger Ebert’s reviews, which have become my favorite pieces of writing because they approach movies as agents for unpacking truths about people and how the world works. Sometimes I wonder if Ebert uncovered subtleties in a performance, or nuances to a film’s meaning, that not even its own actors and directors noticed or intended.

The review that sparked my Ebert obsession was his piece on Lost in TranslationAfter seeing it for the first time, I knew I liked it, but didn’t completely understand it. I couldn’t articulate why I liked it. It turns out all the reasons were sitting in that review. I remember reading a sentence about the special bond strangers share and thinking, Yes. This is exactly how real life works: “We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.” That is a beautiful way to phrase a spot-on observation of the way humans operate. 

His second piece on the film, from 2010 when he named it a “Great Movie,” is even better. It makes the movie make sense. And, it opened my eyes to the brilliance of Bill Murray: “Without [Murray’s acting], the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away.” I knew Bill Murray was good, but this piece made me realize how good, and how his performance was essential to the success of Lost in Translation (which I’ve now probably watched about 50 times, and have grown more in awe of with each viewing). 

While I have tons of movies to see before I can reasonably be considered knowledgeable about film, I am consciously trying to become a smarter movie-watcher. Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled “Advice to Young Critics” that I’m now using as a guide for watching films critically and understanding how to write about them.

The article could really be titled “Advice to Writers in General,” but it talks about writing in the context of film criticism. His most convicting piece of advice? “Write for at least two hours a day, even if you don’t publish what you write.” He explains, “If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don’t really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.” 

The more warm-and-fuzzy advice was to voraciously consume movies and TV (or media of any kind), and to write down any thought you have while watching a movie. You never know what trail of thought it will lead to, or what inspiration it will spark.

My attitude toward movies has changed from “ugh why do I have to watch this can’t I just watch four 30 Rock episodes instead” to “this could be good, maybe great, and at the very least, I’m broadening my pop culture horizons.” At this point, there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I’m watching. My typical movie-watching strategy is to work my way through an actor’s catalogue after I randomly become obsessed with him (right now, the actor is Jack Nicholson), and watch only his works until I develop a new obsession. I should probably conquer some type of “best-ever” list, with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, et al, but right now I’m just trying to take away as much as I can from any films that cross my path.

A Weekend in DC

Despite living in New York City, a lot of my obsessions – namely the West Wing and the Watergate scandal – are Washington, DC-based. Before this weekend, I hadn’t seriously been to DC in five years, but I’d been mentally planning a trip ever since I finished the West Wing pilot. Kind of on a whim, my friend Brooke and I decided to go on Friday, and the trip was so fun. One of my favorite things about New York is how quickly you can get away from it to spend the weekend in other amazing cities.

I watched All the President’s Men on the bus ride down, partly because it’s the perfect preparation for a DC trip, but mostly because I never remember to update the media on my iPad and the movie has been sitting there for years. I hadn’t watched it all the way through in awhile and had forgotten that it’s perfect. What I had really forgotten is how fabulous Hal Holbrook is as Deep Throat. He is perfection in this scene.

Speaking of Watergate, I got to see the actual Watergate complex this weekend, which was cool but a little anticlimactic. Besides a “National Register of Historic Places” plaque, there is nothing commemorating that building’s place in American history. I know only a small moment of the scandal that took its name happened at the actual Watergate, but there could at least be a little sign honoring it as the birthplace of the suffix we now use for naming scandals in this country.

I promise this trip wasn’t a weird Watergate pilgrimage for me, but I did find one other fascinating item related to it in the American Presidents wing of the National Portrait Gallery. The hall is filled with portraits of all the presidents, but the most intriguing was this Norman Rockwell painting of Richard Nixon. Norman Rockwell! The man whose paintings generally depicted jolly, happy scenes of innocent American life painted the president who would seem to least embody that innocence.

bignixon

The painting was done in 1968, before Nixon’s presidency, but even then, Rockwell had to “intentionally flatter” his appearance because regular Nixon wouldn’t look so good in a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell did other paintings of Nixon during his political career, but I was fascinated to see one included among majestic paintings of American heroes. I’m fascinated that these paintings even exist, because with the benefit of hindsight I can’t imagine a starker contrast between the way the public perceives an artist and the way it perceives his subject. 

Watergate obsession aside, the Portrait Gallery was amazing. I loved examining all the presidential portraits, but those of FDR and Bill Clinton were my favorite. I could easily go back and spend an entire day looking at other wings of the gallery and exploring other Smithsonian museums. I’ll just have to make another trip – I could stand to watch All the President’s Men again, anyway.