The Color Purple (the book)

I had never read it, but now I’ve read it, and I feel different.

It’s pointless to write about a book that has a history and a long list of accolades and a reputation that precedes it. I can’t tell you anything that you don’t already know about it. But I can tell you how my experience with it was.

I feel like I’m in on a secret that everyone actually already knows, but is really good at keeping. I feel like I know way more about heartbreak and pain, even though I’ve never experienced anything close to what Celie and Nettie experienced. I never thought that a fiction book could feel more firsthand than an autobiography, but this one does, and that’s one of the many reasons why it won the Pulitzer. It’s a work of art, in the way that 12 Years A Slave or Schindler’s List is. Out of tragedy comes beauty, somehow.

I wouldn’t trade places with any of the characters in this book, but there are times when I wish I could truly fathom what they went through, or what any tragic hero goes through. The lives of real and fictional heroes are poetic, haunting, phenomenal. They define extraordinary. The story of someone ordinary like Celie living life with her mental burdens – illegitimate children, fucked up marriage, closeted homosexuality, faraway family – is so powerful because of the way she talks about it. This wretched existence is normal to her, so her prayers to God, as letters in the book, feel so grounded and balanced. She never takes herself too seriously, which is maybe her greatest fault and one reason for her general hesitance. Instead of living the truth, she spends much of her life living a lie and desperately clinging to the truth in private. Maybe that’s the definition of suffering.

These passages hit me particularly hard, because of their eloquence and simplicity. Of course, the whole book is a study in those two adjectives, but these stood out.

p. 175 // “She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.”

p. 178 // “It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”

p. 238 // “Here us is, I thought, two old fools left over from love, keeping each other company under the stars.”

Better get on seeing that movie.

Someday, Someday, Maybe

I’ve been a devotee of Lauren Graham’s ever since she uttered the words, “I ate the fuzzy Certs. They tasted like keys.” And I realize that it wasn’t her who wrote them, but (probably) Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls. And I realize that it wasn’t her who said those words, but her character, Lorelai Gilmore. Those technicalities don’t matter, though, because only Lauren Graham could have played that other LG, and only she could have delivered those words the way she did. There was something inexplicably cool and trustworthy about her. I didn’t necessarily want her to be my mom, though I’m sure plenty of viewers did, but I desperately wanted to live in a world where she was a real person. Though the two LG’s are separate people, the real one definitely shares the best characteristics with her fictional counterpart. The beauty, the brains, the wit. In case you can’t tell, I really admire Lauren Graham.

So it should come as no surprise that I read her debut novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe and I loved it. Granted, it was an easy read, written for young adults — and I almost wish that the language and complexity had been heightened for regular old adults, because I know Graham is capable of it — but for a debut piece of published prose, wow. I don’t know how much of the story is based on her real life, and I don’t even think it matters, but it’s clear that it comes from a very personal, specific place. Graham’s main character, Franny, is a mid-twenties struggling actor in New York. As a young adult, I could see this story being inspirational. As an actual adult in the age range of the main character, it hits on something else altogether. It’s like a chronicle of what I feel, and what I imagine I might feel in the future. I don’t want to be an actress, but I have related goals and self-doubts, and it’s scary and comforting to know that someone successful did, too. Franny has a way of being self-deprecating that’s so relatable without being pathetic or whiny. She’s inconsistent, like a real person. She has a fascinating backstory that’s accounted for, but doesn’t explain absolutely everything about her. She tows the line between true art and monetary success regularly, and struggles with the decisions she makes. She’s interested in certain guys for believable reasons, and the choice in her prescribed love triangle is not obvious. She’s truly multidimensional.

I related especially closely to Franny’s general social graces but specific attention to certain social cues. There is a scene in which she and her actor love interest, James, act out a romantic scene together, but she hadn’t prepared or read the scene all the way through, so she thought James was coming on to her, when really he was just saying lines from the scene. It’s brilliant. And even though it’s something I can’t literally relate to, because I’m not an actor, I felt like I could literally relate to the misreading of the situation. The getting-in-too-deep and needing to save yourself. The extreme self consciousness and thrill of trying to play catchup for the fear that the other person wouldn’t notice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that described in a book before, but when Graham wrote it out, it felt like she had been inside my head before she did it.

Her language is concise and straightforward and hilarious, and she doesn’t spend a lot of time being imprecise or wishy-washy. That’s another thing I’ve always liked about her, when I’ve seen her in interviews, and it comes through in her writing. When daydreaming about the aforementioned James, she says, “Maybe he grew up on a farm in Texas, or Georgia. Maybe he had chores in the barn every day, and helped his father harvest corn” (p. 46). And when she actually pursues him, she is surprised by her own success: “I have been forthright and bold, like a woman with actual confidence would be, and in return for my bravery I have received a direct and pleasing answer” (p. 181). Her inner thoughts are nerdy, but they come out glibly, and so it’s impossible not to like her.

She also makes acting, something so foreign to most people, very easy to understand, at least from an aspirational standpoint. Regarding The Phantom of the Opera, she describes the frustration of the people in the show in a way that most viewers never would have thought about: “I imagine being in the cast of that show and having to listen to people talk about the chandelier as their favorite part” (p. 77). She also describes being a perceived minority in a sea of majority egoists: “I wonder what that’s like, to never worry about filling the silence” (p. 78). Another favorite, along the same lines: “I’m too concerned with feeling good to be willing to feel as bad as I should to be successful” (p. 150).

The book ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, perhaps to indicate that there’s more to come, but it’s also a pretty satisfying way to leave Franny, too. In the end, she’s comfortable with ambiguity because she knows she can handle it. And ambiguity, as Graham proves with this excellent book, turns out to be pretty lucrative if you know how to work it.

This Is Where I Leave You

The cast of this movie is kind of unreal. Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Timothy Olyphant, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton, Ben Schwartz… I dearly love the work that these actors have done, and I generally follow them into whatever movie or television worlds they choose to inhabit. Seeing This Is Where I Leave You was a no-brainer for me.

My reaction to it, however, is more complicated. I liked the parts, but not the sum of them. The whole of this layered family story felt incomplete, rushed, unsatisfying. It’s a bummer to write that down, too.

I wanted to love this movie. I wanted to believe that some of my favorite actors were Jew-ish (emphasis on the ish) siblings sitting shiva for their father’s death. But I just couldn’t do it. Corey Stoll, cast as eldest brother Paul Altman, was maybe the most believable in his role. He had tense authority, major jealousy issues, and pent-up regrets abound. He also really looked like the older sibling. Bateman, though, as middle brother Judd, didn’t sell me on his my-wife-left-me story. The parts of the movie where Bateman was serious and unhappy, I bought. But the second he turned on the Bateman smile and the Bateman timing, Judd disappeared and I had to reconcile this two-sided man with an unfortunate personal life and Jason Bateman’s superb comedic talent. Judd didn’t seem like a whole person. And neither did Tina Fey’s Wendy. Fey’s humor is so well-established at this point that even though her serious scenes were powerful, I couldn’t put together her meddling-sister remarks with her witty feistiness. Wendy was two people in one body. So was Adam Driver’s Phillip, the youngest, fuck-up-iest sibling. He rolled up to his father’s funeral in a Porsche, oozing confidence. But the second he was meant to crack jokes, he turned into Adam Driver, guy who plays Adam on Girls, bumbling and pausing and losing his cockiness. Of course, maybe the two-sidedness of these characters was meant to show how people have many facets, or that being around your siblings takes you to a different mental place, but the contrasts were too stark. It seemed as if the director just said, during lighthearted scenes, “Do your thing.” Everyone’s got gold in their comedy coffers, but this wasn’t the right movie to cash in.

The same argument can also be made for Ben Schwartz’s Rabbi Grodner, whom the Altman family took to poking fun at throughout the movie. He was basically only comic relief, and was superb at it, but he was Ben Schwartz in a yarmulke. It didn’t seem like a role so much as a cameo. No rabbi could be that cool, except Ben Schwartz himself. Connie Britton as Tracy, Phillip’s older, loaded, gorgeous girlfriend was supposed to be a stretch, story-wise, but it was too much of one. Timothy Olyphant as Wendy’s ex-boyfriend still living across the street from their childhood home: dreamy and too convenient.

Considering the amount of heightened family drama that happens over the seven days, and the amount of messiness that that would entail, this movie came out very tidy. Every plot point had a specific, almost predictable purpose, every loose end was tied up, every romantic action had an equal and opposite reaction. Judd’s “Have you ever been to Maine?” non-sequitur in the middle of the movie basically telegraphed his arc for the rest of it. Wendy’s longing looks at Olyphant’s Horry showed us exactly where her marriage was headed. The fact that Judd had dated Paul’s wife (the forever-sidekicked Kathryn Hahn) when they were younger led to a scene I’m sure you could write in your head right now. Though I like that none of the characters tried desperately to get anyone to like them, I wish I had had something to latch onto besides my loyalty to the actors.

The only character, and actor for that matter, who truly surprised me in this movie was Jane Fonda. Her story felt familiar — she was like Margaret Chenowith on Six Feet Under, trading the privacy of her childrens’ childhood for a lucrative book deal — but she was so much less threatening than Margaret, so much more oversexed and lax about everything, that she ended up earning my sympathy more than anyone else. And her scenes with each of her children contained the right amount of sincerity and humor, something that cannot necessarily be said for the rest of the film.

I didn’t leave this movie completely unsatisfied; I saw a bevy of my favorite actors trying something new and making one family’s sad week into a communal, amusing, relatable experience. But I expected so much more.

20 Feet From Stardom

I think it’s reasonable to say that thousands of years from now, when scripted television and fiction books and full-length movies aren’t being made anymore because everything has been spun-off and sequeled to the point of exhaustion, Netflix will reign even more supreme than it already does because it’ll have stockpiled all the quality documentaries, and it’ll feed our hunger for the consumption of “reality” media until the end of time. And for the idiots, I think the Kardashian show is also available for streaming.

20 Feet From Stardom is one of those wonderful aforementioned documentaries that makes you question why you watch written things at all. (Okay, yes, drastic, especially coming from a writer. But writing is dramatic!) No wonder it won an Oscar. It takes a subject you’ve never thought twice about and magnifies it to fascinating proportions. Director Morgan Neville flips back and forth between the lives and careers of many backup singers, from Darlene Love to Merry Clayton to Lisa Fischer to Judith Hill, giving each of them little timelines, taking us through their lives, and checking in on them in the present day. This structure, and the incredibly high quality old footage of Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, George Harrison, and other stars, and the fact that Clayton and Love and the rest of the older ladies have barely aged a day, give the film a beautiful, timeless feel. Just like the voices it’s presenting to us, center stage.

The women that shared the stage with the aforementioned superstars have mostly gone underappreciated during their careers. Aside from the accolades from the superstars themselves, and the industry cred they maintain, they get shafted at awards ceremonies, and their solo efforts jut don’t chart. They’re sort of stuck in this limbo, supremely talented but unrecognizable. Darlene Love’s story is quite triumphant; after being under the oppressive thumb of Phil Spector for some time, she eventually formed a bond with David Letterman and now performs every year during Christmastime on his show, just enough to keep her name out there and make sure people remember it. Lisa Fischer, on the other hand, has won a Grammy and toured with the Rolling Stones, but still walks into the post office and stands in line like everyone else. It seems almost criminal that no one knows who she is, that the only thing recognizable about her is her voice. And it’s an incredible one, too.

Judith Hill, the youngest of the bunch profiled in this movie, is the one who brought me to tears, probably because of her connection to Michael Jackson, footage of whom will never cease to make me tear up. Part of this scene is in the movie:

Her big break was going to be the This Is It tour, but then he passed away, but then she sang at his funeral, but then she got on The Voice and was eliminated. Ups, downs, a continuous cycle of excitement and disappointment. And I’m sure her experience mirrors those of the women who came before her, with sparkle and personality all their own, but even more so, the ability to blend into the background and make the star shine brighter.

After watching this movie, I’m going to pay way, way more attention to the background singers. Often times, they’re doing most of the heavy lifting.

They Came Together

Watching this movie, it occurred to me how far The State has come. And more importantly, it occurred to me how far I’ve come in fully appreciating them. Looking back on this review I wrote seven years ago, I don’t think I got it. Granted, The Ten was not the group’s best movie; WHAS still holds that title. But I wasn’t fully willing to let the perfect absurdity wash over me when I took that film in. Now I’m willing, now I’ve seen enough of the group’s stuff, now I’m fully invested in their humor. It’s taken me awhile, and maybe some people are turned off by the fact that it takes a little effort to get into something. (Breaking Bad, anyone?) I get that. It’s not for everyone. But it’s definitely for me.

David Wain and Michael Showalter and/or some combination thereof of The State have only gotten better with age. Their beloved TV show, the aforementioned WHAS, these were grainy pieces of genius, but they were still grainy. They got no love, no budget, no support, no fans in the moment it was all happening. That’s not really the case anymore. They Came Together shows just how much production values have changed for these guys, and just how shiny the cast list can get. Yet this may not be the movie the general public were expecting. Those factors may have attracted a new audience — one that, say, knows and loves Amy Poehler as an SNL star and Leslie Knope, or knows and loves Paul Rudd as the hot guy from Clueless and every other movie until the end of time, but isn’t necessarily prepared for the bizarre brand of comedy that the State boys and girl bring. They have a tendency to leave you wanting more zany, more crazy, more absurd, and yet completely satisfying you with the level of subtlety and unexpected crudeness. It’s a complicated, unresolved set of emotions to carry around with you after watching a movie. Maybe it could be smoother. (It wouldn’t be a State joint, though.)

They’re really good at parody, as you might know from WHAS or the very recent Burning Love, but they’re even better at creating something new and disturbing within a parody. They Came Together in particular takes a very pointy stab at romantic comedies, and When Harry Met Sally in particular, the references to which were mostly lost on me because it’s been quite awhile since I’ve seen Meg Ryan fake an orgasm. Anyway, Paul Rudd is Joel and Amy Poehler is Molly, and the movie describes the way they meet as plainly and boringly as possible, with pokes at the stereotype of the corporate guy and the clutzy girl. The cosmic joke of watching two very hot people do very stupid, normal things is not lost in this movie, either; it’s hilarious to watch two talented actors play dumbed-down versions of romantic comedy leads, because they probably had to work harder to seem cheesier. They’re that good. (“I like fiction books!”) This movie also does the courting montage very well, and the lingering-look-as-the-person-leaves-through-a-door even better. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Joel and Molly fall asleep after a night of presumed passionate sex, only to wake up fully clothed. I saw it coming, and I still loved it. It sort of hits a sensitive spot, too; why did I spent so many hours of my adolescent life taking in these 90-minute packages of lies? I could have been watching reruns of, say, The State.

The disturbing part of parody I mentioned before? Well, how about Christopher Meloni’s character, Roland, wearing a onesie costume at a Halloween party and shitting himself, and then causing a scene about shitting himself? Or Joel maybe sort of seducing his own Bubby (Lynn Cohen)? Things like this make me laugh the hardest, because they go so deep into the absurd that it’s almost offensive, except that’s the joke. They want that discomfort, and they want you to think about why the movies are so ridiculous, and they want you to question your laughter. They want to work for your laugh, but by making you question your own morals. Again, complicated and unresolved. It is comforting, though, seeing familiar faces like Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Ed Helms, Jack McBrayer, Michaela Watkins, and a slew of other folks from the alt-comedy world, and knowing that they’re all also in on the joke. It — er, they, all come together really well.

House of God

I’d like to give a shout-out to Louis CK, if I’m even ever allowed to do that, and if my memory serves me correctly. I believe I heard him in an interview describing this book, and without doing much research on it I bought it, because I basically trust Louie under all circumstances. Reading this book only further underscored how good a policy that is. It’s a keeper.

The way this book is described in the praise section preceding the prose, that it’s basically Catch-22 but for medical school, is totally accurate, and maybe a little reductive, except none of that comparison is an insult so it’s completely fine. This book makes you feel awful, even sick at times, for the way that medical students are treated and because of the way that they act, in the same way that Joseph Heller makes you vehemently repulsed by the life of a soldier in combat. House of God is about a different kind of soldier in a different kind of combat — the war against the GOMERs.

Samuel Shem, a pen name for Stephen Bergman, wrote something scathing and brutal and honest and beautiful when he wrote this. So much so that he had to use that pen name for fear of retaliation, which definitely happened. House of God is honest in the way that’s hard to read, but even harder not to. No matter how despicably the protagonist, Roy Basch, acted, I never disliked him because even though I was immersed in his mind and his decisions, I didn’t actually have to make them myself. He deals with decay, rot, excrement, death, and very little victory, and he is one of many who do this. He also scientifically foretells the lives of many people and prioritizes their health and care accordingly. It sounds humane, and even at its most frightening in the book, it’s still humane. And all of these interns put themselves through this horrible process because they have to, because it’s all they’ve ever known, because their parents expect them to. “In fifth grade, when I’d asked an Italian kid why he liked having sex, he’d said, ”Cause it feels food.’ I couldn’t understand someone doing something because it felt good. What sense was there in that?” (p. 42). Because they’ve already invested so much time and money that they can’t really turn back, because they know that the world needs doctors. They’re saints and sinners simultaneously.

Roy experiences a lot of emotional tumult while interning at the House of God – a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the post-Harvard experience, I might add. (Bergman went there.) Right along with him, I experienced the joys of helping people, the interminable agony of dealing with old people who don’t die (the GOMERs), the wretched guilt of feeling inclined to cheat on one’s partner with a nurse, the hatred for a supervising physician, the plaguing self-doubt, the frowned-upon attachment to on particular patient, Saul: “He was all of our grandfathers. With the laconic resignation of a Diasporic Jew he was watching the latest Nazi–leukemia–force him from his only real home, his life. Leukemia was the epitome of my helplessness, for the treatment was to bomb the bone marrow with cell poisons called cytotoxins until it looked, under the microscope, like Hiroshima, all black, empty, and scorched” (p. 110).

And then there’s the vehemence with which conflicting supervisors treat each other and force interns to choose. “The House medical hierarchy was a pyramid–a lot at the bottom and one at the top. Given the mentality required to climb it, it was more like an ice cream cone — you had to lick your way up. From constant application of tongue to next uppermost ass, those few toward the top were all tongue” (p. 13). It’s enough that these young people are trying to fit all the information about the human body into their brains, but to deal with bureaucracy and egos as well? It’s so much pressure. Shem builds and releases the pressure in really creative ways as he writes; most of the pressure release is, in fact, in the form of raunchy daydreaming sex scenes, but occasionally, Basch goes off on non-sexual tangents and we get to go with him while his mind takes a break. Or when he takes a break from his own emotions, a common tactic used by many interns: “We imagines that our feelings could ruin us, like the great silent film stars had been ruined by sound” (p. 247). The rest of Basch’s compatriots and enemies are easy to get to know: there’s the Fat Man, one of his supervisors, and the creator of all the rules that Basch is compelled to follow. There’s Chuck, the guy who got into med school by the skin of his teeth. There’s the Runt, bent on telling everyone about his sexual escapades. There’s Jo, another supervisor, who’s never had fun in her life. These people are all sort of caricatures, and even Roy himself is one, but they’re all real people, wearing scrubs in a fictional hospital in your mind. You’re there with them, instantly. You’re in Roy’s head, looking at them, fuming when he fumes and laughing when he laughs and intubating when he intubates.

Even with Roy’s dalliances into fantasy land, when he imagines bending a nurse over a sleeping patient and railing her right there, he is never far from work. Work is with him when he’s not at work. It’s with him when he’s with Berry, the love of his life, and it creates a palpable tension between them: “Our fight was not the violent, howling, barking fight that keeps alive vestiges of love, but that tired, distant, silent fight where the fighters are afraid to punch for fear the punch will kill” (p. 134). It’s with him when he’s home, unable to enjoy the peace and simplicity of his parents’ house: “The tundra. Whaling town, whoretown, bartown, churchtown, it had reached its peak in population just before the American Revolution, and was now supported by two cement plants that nightly covered it in cement dust, the cement workers supporting the whores, bars, churches, Lions, Elks, Mooses, and all the other remnants of man’s bestiality to man” (p. 173). He’s never truly free, and that’s the doom that this book presents, but it doesn’t leave you unhappy. It just makes you thankful that you’re not a doctor, I suppose, and even more thankful that at least some of the people in the medical profession have this kind of sense of dark humor. It’d be hard not to.

Lars and the Real Girl

Slowly but surely, I’m checking off those “need to see it, haven’t seen it yet, stop bothering me about it” movies. This was definitely one of them, and boy, am I glad I finally acquiesced. What a truly lovely film.

Oddly, my least favorite part of this movie is Ryan Gosling, and I still like him very much in it. He has a way of smirking even in serious scenes that makes me want to smack him a little, but save for that characteristic, his portrayal of Lars is so sensitive and understated. He doesn’t have to try too hard to be the weird guy because he kind of is the weird guy. He’s never been one to be a conventional romantic lead, and I’m not even sure I’d be able to buy him as a confident, brash man. Please let me know if he’s ever been That Guy in a movie; I’ve only seen The Notebook and Blue Valentine and Drive.

Lars and the Real Girl easily could have been cynical about mental illness, or snarky about small towns, or overly saccharine about family. It was absolutely none of those things. It was elegant, maybe a little convenient at times, plot-wise, but still very believable. Lars, a true loner with a diversion to physically touching people and a secret desire to be touched emotionally by the right person, so it makes sense for him to fabricate this person and project everything he wants and needs onto her.

It was so genuinely fun to watch him experience this relationship, and to watch the people in his life experience it with him. His brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) provide sweet, complex reactions to the whole situation; they begin with the normal skepticism and fear, and then gradually accept the doll, Bianca, into their lives, with guidance from Dr. Bergman (Patricia Clarkson). They make it safe for Lars to go through what he needs to go through, and keep it at just the right level of “big deal.” It’s not any more magnified or dramatic than it needs to be, particularly because the small Minnesota town in which they live probably doesn’t make anything dramatic. Margo (Kelli Garner) is my favorite character, because she sees right past Lars’ inability to love real people and knows, deep down, that he’s capable of it. She doesn’t crowd him, she doesn’t get too down about the unrequitedness of their relationship, and she doesn’t completely come off as desperate.

Nancy Oliver’s screenplay is so thoughtful and economic, and Craig Gillespie’s directing is beautiful and careful, without veering too much into Wes Anderson territory. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but… it’s been done. By Wes.) Gillespie really had the chance to, particularly with the hint-of-twee aesthetic in this film, but since the characters all wear patterned wool sweaters and tights because they’re in cold weather, and not because they are making a quirky fashion choice, practicality wins out, and so the aesthetic blends well into the setting. It’s easier to appreciate the characters when their clothes and their houses are exactly what you’d expect them to wear and where you’d expect them to live. I haven’t said this in a long time: This is one of my favorite movies.

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