Thursday, November 11, 2010


Any reader of this blog (and incidentally: are there any readers?) might have noticed that I tend to fall in love easily, pop culture-wise. The characters in films and books that I enjoy can become immediate shorthand for figures in my "real" life. People always told my father that he looked like Tom Selleck, more when he was younger.

A few years ago, however, a coworker of my father's told him he looked like Christian Bale in American Psycho. My father had never seen the film or read the Bret Easton Ellis book on which it is based (when I was fourteen, I did both of these things). I think he took the comment as a kind of compliment; Christian Bale is young and handsome, after all. And my dad does have an intense temper, which I can only imagine is magnified in the workplace.

So now, whenever I see Tom Selleck or Christian Bale, I think of my dad. But I didn't make the original association. The actor who reminds me most of my father, whose signal value is embedded with my dad, is Al Pacino. Not all eras of Al Pacino: just young Al Pacino, just Pacino playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

There is a physical resemblance, but it's slight, especially since my father has always had facial hair - I agree that Selleck is a nearer likeness. The association exists because my dad loves The Godfather, because he watches the films with tears in his eyes, because he once turned to me during the third film and said "Michael loves Mary so much," and I understood that he meant also that he loved me, so much.

So this business of who looks like who - of what emotions an actor's face excites in me - has a lot to do with image association, with memory. The German actor Daniel Brühl was on my mind the night that I met my fiancé. I had recently seen Inglourious Basterds, in which Brühl plays a young Nazi officer.

I didn’t much care for the film, which I thought was reductive and somewhat schizophrenic in its treatment of WWII, even for a candy-colored reimagining. But there was Daniel Brühl. I was reminded of the German actor’s pleasing onscreen presence, his well-ordered features and milky physicality. My negative reaction to the film as a whole probably had something to do with Tarantino’s perverse decision to cast Brühl as an entitled jerk in the same movie where real-life entitled jerk Eli Roth plays a semi-heroic figure.

Regardless, I don’t know if I would have noticed T’s resemblance to Brühl if I hadn’t just seen the Tarantino film. It wasn’t the first thing I noticed about him. We were at a BBQ in Echo Park. Aside from me, there were three men. I knew two; one was a stranger. These are the last moments I remember clearly, seemingly without affect, because from then on the memory becomes inflected with the blurry tint of repeated telling, the bronzed sense of canonization. The stranger was from Denmark. He had a tattoo on his left arm that looked at first glance like an American Indian headdress, but which I would later learn was the mechanical eagle from the cover of Judas Priest’s 1982 album Screaming for Vengeance.

Did I notice the resemblance almost immediately? Was it prompted by the fact that T and Daniel Brühl do look somewhat alike, or by T’s quiet, confident demeanor, his very slightly accented English? I can’t say for sure. But when the evening ended – oddly early, it seemed to me – I had T’s number, and I went home and changed my computer background to a photograph of Daniel Brühl in his breakout role in 2004’s Goodbye Lenin!

But now I’m not sure; did I change the background after meeting T, because of the perceived resemblance? Or had I done it before, after seeing the Tarantino movie, just because I remembered Brühl, because I liked the look of his face? The resemblance, and Daniel Brühl's association with T, had already rooted itself in my brain. For as long as I can remember, I have responded to media that I like, that I love, that touches me, that changes me, with devoted fandom. This behavior probably has something to do with my parents, who made me in their image: comic book and science fiction reader, space opera watcher, horror fetishist. Maybe fandom is chemical – maybe it is prompted by some hormone or amino acid produced by our brains when we look lovingly into the pages of a book or onto a broad, tall screen. This is the way it has always felt to me, anyway: like I am falling in love again, just a little bit. My bones still buzz when I hear one of Angelo Badalamenti’s scores at the beginning of a Lynch movie. My heart still sings when I see a favorite author give a reading. And hey, have you ever heard this never-released Rebekah Del Rio song, written by David Lynch?

(The rabbit hole goes deeper: do you recognize Del Rio from Mulholland Dr., wherein she sings Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Spanish?

But I didn’t feel this way about Brühl before I met T. I saw Goodbye Lenin! at the small movie theatre across the street from Lincoln Center in 2004, when I was nineteen and a freshman in college. I remember that the film oddly shared parts of the score of Amelie, a film I did not like, and that it was generally enjoyable.

But Brühl didn’t strike me then. I did not, as I had so often done before and have since, go home and scour the internet for information about him, try to figure him out. At some point, before or after I saw Goodbye Lenin!, I ran into a girl from the previous fall’s writing seminar on the fifth floor of 721 Broadway, where our classes were held. Her name was Daphne, and she commuted from Queens. She was the type of girl who always carried lots of bags: grocery bags full of what looked like laundry, bookstore totes stuffed full of paper, and always a massive, overstuffed brown backpack coughing apples, water bottles, text books. Daphne and I weren’t close, and after that first year she transferred to a different school. But she and I spoke briefly in the hallway about the movie. “Yeah, it was great!” She chirped. “And Daniel Brühl is really hot!”

I remembered those words after I met T, and if I'm honest with myself, my recognition of the resemblance, my memory of the fact that Brühl, of his attractiveness, was probably simultaneous with my realization that T was attractive. Not that they were the same person, or that I was attracted to T because Daniel Brühl is handsome, but because the thoughts were adjacent in my mind. I have lived so fully through stories, through media, that I think I have begun to experience my own emotions through the directives of pop culture.

T was in the United States for only six months on a scholar’s visa. When he left and we began the complicated process of bringing him back permanently and legally, I felt like the half-year we had had together was the briefest of good dreams.T’s departure seemed to toss me back to my old status, the lives I’d lived as a single twenty-something, a young adult in a long distance relationship, a lonely teenager. I feared becoming again the celebrity obsessed hermit I had once been, the person who was quick the separate the wheat of my preoccupations from the chaff of everyone else’s, the college student writing long-form poetry about Tilda Swinton.

A favorite picture of the "Tilds," as I called her at the height of my love.

I resisted the urge to grow a new obsession to keep myself busy in T's absence. But at the very end of our nine months of separation, within the last month, when we finally knew when he would be coming back, I had the occasion to watch Inglorious Basterds again, with a visiting friend, who loved it. The strange recognition came back. Brühl really does look like T. At that point, our separation had normalized; our Skype conversations and one-line emails were predictable, comforting and frustrating. As we entered the instability of our last weeks apart, I found myself drawn to perform the rites of my adoration behavior. I took to the internet in search of Brühl. I watched several of his movies, learning in the process that he was a specific kind of young European actor, the sort regularly cast in films that Americans perceive as “very European,” stirring stories of young love and angst with sustained sex scenes, fairly ridiculous scores, and plain heroines. These are the films my mother has always loved, and taught me to love. Their titles sounded like Saturday Night Live jokes about foreign films. It was no surprise that I liked him.

In Ladies in Lavender (yes), he plays a Polish violinist who washes up on the shores of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith’s Cornwall beach house in the 1930s. Unable to speak and with a broken ankle, he must receive the ministrations of the older ladies until he heals enough to reach for a violin.

Watching the movie is like looking at the poster for two hours.

In Love in Thoughts (again, yes), he is a Weimar dandy in a stylishly homoerotic relationship with his best friend, who he accompanies home for an incomprehensible weekend of sexual tension with the friend’s sister, a jaunt that ends in two deaths. In this typical scene, young people feel sad.

And in The Edukators, he is a figure maybe closest to some past iteration of my fiance (although he will hate to read that), a hot-hearted anarchist with an eye on a class war who breaks into grand houses to rearrange the furniture. Maybe I just think this character is like T because it is in this role that Brühl bears the strongest physical resemblance to him; T even chose this picture for Facebook's "doppelganger week."

I’m not sure I like being this way, finding outlets for my affection and focus in the ephemeral world of fictional narrative. But I know no other way to be. I watched the films alone on my couch. I didn’t want to see them with anyone else, just as I didn’t want anyone to come with me when I went to the airport to gather T. Although I had seen him every day on Skype, I wasn’t sure I would know him, that my intimacy with his face would persist, until the moment he rounded the bend of the escalator and came towards me, looking like himself, and no one else.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

World's End

What, exactly, is the point - or the merit - of Helen Simpson's short story "Diary of An Interesting Year," featured in The New Yorker this week? Certainly its publication has something to do with the flailing Copenhagen talks, rechristened "Nopenhagen" from "Hopenhagen" by various parties, and with the general idea that the world is ending. I've been haunted by apocalyptic narratives for my entire night - and as I've written before on this blog, deeply impacted by several. And now I've been upset by this story, too.

The setup is simple - a few pages of brief, miserable diary entries by a 30-year-old British woman in 2040, after society has completely broken down following something called the Big Melt (guess). The tone is cribbed from every other apocalyptic story, ever, but it most nearly recalls to me the dystopian fictions of Margaret Atwood (which, with The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood now number three) - that is to say, occasionally shot through with black humor, often obsessed with social rules, and completely hopeless on the topic of human nature. The narrator's relationship with her husband, "G.," formerly her university professor, is the type of sniping, pithy interchange that plenty of married couples experience - but then again, it's her fault, because she married him.
Another quarrel with G. O.K., yes, he was right, but why crow about it? That’s what you get when you marry your tutor from Uni—wall-to-wall pontificating from an older man.

It's her fault. Just like, not incidentally, the end of the world. Without the internet, nobody can do anything, least of all deliver a baby: "Nobody else on the road will have a clue what to do now that we can’t Google it." And then, things fall further apart: malevolent men arrive, the pregnant woman dies with her dead baby inside her, a cartoonish evil Spanish grandma materializes from nowhere and steals the narrator's tins of food. This blogger says that it's supposed to be funny, but I don't think it's funny. I think the black humor is a bad excuse for humor, and I think the lazy gallows-gawker quality of the story says plenty of negative things about The New Yorker fiction department's motivation in choosing Simpson's story. What, exactly, am I supposed to take from yet another story about the future that informs me that women will shortly be raped in the streets - or in forty-foot-tall tree platforms, as Simpson has it - and be forced to self-abort their captors' children?

This kind of sensationalistic fiction rarely raises anyone's consciousness. At its most effective, it only succeeds in doing what it did to me this afternoon: disrupted my sleepy holiday with a dark mountain of nameless dread. Perhaps the most frustrating element of the current doomsaying is that, as ever, it seems there's nothing we can do, other than buy guns, as one Peak Oil prophet once suggested all women do. I don't see much skill in Simpson's story; unlike Atwood's apocalyptic tales, this one doesn't reveal much about the human condition, or even about our current psychological state. It just says that our lives will end nastily, that hope reveals itself as a miserable lie, and that life offers us no consolation. Last time I checked, the point of writing was to draw out the essence of being alive, to perhaps provide a justification for the strange mystery of life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Against Irony: The Many Virtues of Jane Campion's Bright Star

In Jane Campion's Bright Star, the viewer experiences breath and air as markers of the passage of time in the lives of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, star-crossed lovers destined to leave more to history than to their own happiness. The film, shot entirely in natural and candle-light, is punctuated by two long stretches of period choral music sung a capella. Long close-ups on women's hands doing domestic work - sewing, cooking, and packing - return again and again. Several shots feature one of the lovers lying on their back dreamily or looking with apprehension towards an open window. Like a painting by Hammershøi or Hopper, these images suspend the viewer, drawing out the moment into a filmic statement about the fleeting nature of human existence.

That's Hammershøi's Interior With Young Woman from Behind and Hopper's Morning Sun, in order, above.

Like my other favorite films of recent memory - Silent Light and Jeanne Dielman (which I reviewed together here) - Bright Star dignifies the period women's work that a more glamorous film would sweep aside. Fanny Brawne, played in the film by the excellent Abbie Cornish, is constantly seen with needle and thread, creating the colorful outfits that bloom on her like another variety of the Hampstead flowers she and Keats spend afternoons collecting. Fanny is one of the better heroines of recent memory, a stubborn, exuberant, youthful and ultimately authentic lover. She is both more outspoken than we expect of a woman of her period and more believable. The kisses Fanny and Keats share are chaster than any I've seen onscreen, and more passionate for it. The film's subversion of the audience's expectations of a period film make it, like Sally Potter's Orlando, a more authentic experience.

It's a testament to Campion's script that Fanny's story comes to eclipse Keats himself; the film dignifies her longer life and less glamorous fate. Keats's Wikipedia entry refers to her as "rather promiscuous," which says a lot about the enduring legacy of misogyny embodied in the film by the poet Charles Armitage Brown, who believes that Fanny and Keats's relationship will ultimately destroy him. We all know how this story ends - Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821, at age 25 - and so the story leaves it to us to answer the question of whether passion killed the poet or inspired the work he left behind.

This film boasts many pleasures: the remarkable performance of Edie Martin as Toots Brawne, Fanny's younger sister; the transporting images of the Hampstead countryside; the intelligent and moving discussions of poetry; and the phenomenal lighting. I'll level with you. I was in tears the whole time. This is the best film of 2009, hands down. I love Bright Star especially because of its refusal to bow to the vast hunger for cynicism, a stylistic tendency in all modern art that has become lazy and predictable. With none of the tired shiny tricks like those on display in Tarantino's unfocused and bloated Inglourious Basterds,, this film captures the exhausting length of life with elegance and wit.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Menstrual blood, dandruff, garlic, Stella McCartney perfume, and shampoo, I'd wager

I was listening to some lovely songs on Orenda Fink's MySpace when, I shit you not, this advertisement popped up:

It'd be easy to join the bandwagon of Twilight hatred, but I'm not going to. I'll level with you guys. I think Twilight is pretty awesome. I'm no fan of the retrograde gender/sex politics of the series - although, having read none of the books and seen only the first movie, I don't really know that I'm qualified to comment; I'm just following the lead of other writers I admire and respect - but I can't help a deep intrinsic affinity for Twilight and its fans, the titular Twihards. I've always adored vampires, to the point where I enjoy pretty much any pop culture product that involves them, even if, as with True Blood, I often wish it were better than it actually is. Frankly, Twilight as a delivery service of sexual tension and questions to preteen girls - even if it does go on to answer those questions with the bludgeon of abstinence - doesn't seem like an overwhelmingly negative thing to me. Especially if it leads them to the work of other vampire writers, like the ones I enjoyed as a preteen, Poppy Z. Brite foremost among them. Although Brite has since moved onto excellent culinary fiction (and seems to be taking a sabbatical from writing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina), her splatterpunk vamp novels Lost Souls and Drawing Blood were my bread and butter in the late 90s and early 00s.

I will revisit Brite's work at length in this space, but I'll close here by saying that Stephenie Meyer is damn lucky that so much deeply sexual vampire literature has laid the groundwork for her truly chaste vamp fable. We want Edward because we know he'd be killer in bed if we could just get him there.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Racial Politics of District 9

Warning: Definite spoilers ahead.

As I watched Winkus Van De Merwe, the titular anti-hero of Neil Blomkamp's feature District 9, grow a conscience along with his new "Prawn" body parts, I couldn't help wondering how the film would have been received if the Other in the film had been brown people instead of large insectile aliens. Winkus's character arc is familiar from well-intentioned old-fashioned narratives where the interloping white man infiltrates an othered culture, either of purpose or by accident, comes to understand the gentle natives and eventually turns tail on his own kind to help them escape their oppressors. It's an old story, the White Man's Burden, one where only the outsider can appropriately organize the pure-hearted but disorganized othered mass and lead them to freedom.

I don't think a full indictment of Blomkamp's movie is in order - it's a fresh take on the science fiction epic, and compellingly explores several themes that are ripe for inclusion in pop culture discourse, foremost among them the issue of displaced and refugee communities. Still, setting the film in Johannesburg and involving another refugee population - that of the Nigerians who also live in the slums and scam the alien population - gave Blomkamp the opportunity to make a more considered inquiry into the issues of race and culture present in his fictional situation. I can't say I was too impressed with the garden-variety witchdoctor-employing African warlord Obesandjo, who had the capacity to be expanded into a pivotal player but remained a stereotype of a ca-razy African primitive. Also of interest / frustrating: the fact that military contractors have joined the ranks of Nazis and, well, giant insectile aliens in that rarified class of villains who can be killed with impunity. And I have to agree with Rich at Fourfour's complaint about the film's inexplicable switch from straightforward fake-documentary to first-person narrative film.

Still, I enjoyed District 9 and found myself moved by most of its emotional tricks: the kind and humane alien, Christopher Johnson, and his paternal relationship with his son, as well as Winkus's enduring love for his wife Tanya. It's also one of the most uncannily unsettling movies I've seen in a long time, making the most of its odd marriage of faux-documentary style to the constant threat of Cronenberg-level body violence. The film's greatest strength is Winkus himself, a weird Michael Scott of alien management who we manage to root both for and against. I will be interested to see the sequel, currently known as District 10, and see how much further Blomkamp can take his allegory.


* I have a website now! Check it out:

* My story "Park Rats" was featured on Joyland Chicago

* My food writing appeared on One For The Table. Check out the short essays: "Fried Fish" and Cafe Orlin.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Look, life is hard.

And nobody wants to be alone forever. All I'm saying is that if your personal ad is called Hi ladies im looking for the ONE ! and contains the sentence "Im not fat, about avg weight and 5'7 i am a pharmacy tech and enjoy my work, here are sum pics and a ROSE just for your BEAUTIFUL", well, all I'm saying is that this is not, perhaps, the best ROSE:

Just personally. When I want a man I don't know to give me a flower via a image pasted in a Craigslist personal ad amongst three strangely similar pictures of said man, it might be nice if that flower wasn't black. And you won't meet anybody more attached to her teenage gothdom. Also, I might not be so down with that (obviously fake) flower being adorned with the type of fake blood that I used to play with as a child, a sort of red gel, like cake icing, which came in a white plastic tube. I mean, I guess that's what you get when you lift clipart from Geocities vampire fanfic pages created in 1996.

Just personally saying, not the best ROSE for my BEAUTIFUL.