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.

Seinlanguage

This book is short, so I’ll make this post short, too. Seinfeld is my first comedy idol, and he’ll always be the creator of the best show on television as far as I’m concerned, but it’s pretty bizarre to look back on his old material in its non-sitcom form. Between the standup and the written word, his stuff feels so incredibly dated. It’s still good stuff, of course, the kind of stuff that makes millions of dollars because of how good it is, but consuming it for the umpteenth time makes me truly understand why comedians retire material. He did call his most famous special “I’m Telling You for the Last Time,” after all. He wants us to associate new observations with him each time we see him, and that’s important. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a pretty darn spectacular way of doing that, I might add, considering some of the mediocre stuff that came inbetween it and The Sitcom.

I decided to read his little book, Seinlanguage, to see if there was some aspect of him that I had missed. To cover all my Seinfeld bases, as it were. As it turns out, I had covered them so much that most of this book wasn’t funny to me because I’d already heard the jokes. It’s disorienting to see them written out, too. In the book, he does make a deal with the reader, pleading them to supply the tone and do a little of the work, but really, Seinfeld’s jokes are meant to be told by Seinfeld. He is the master of tone. Not even his own writing supplies his tone as well as his voice does. Without his tone, his book reads like a bunch of really outdated comments by a somewhat witty character named something like “Complainer Dad.”

But the cool thing is, that book may have reached a lot of people who hadn’t seen his show yet, and it was just the tip of the iceberg. It gave him a different kind of exposure. Nowadays, comedians are doing this multimedia thing all the time. Mike Birbiglia took one act and morphed it into a book, a movie, and a standup tour. Scott Aukerman has his podcast and his TV show, and at one point had a weekly standup show in LA, too, all revolving around the same basic concept. The true nerds, like me, will consume everything and complain about overlap in content, but we’ll still consume it all anyway, because we know it’s quality. And if quality is reaching more people, that’s good for everyone. Cheap laughs should be banned and replaced with expensive, rich, priceless ones.

Prozac Nation

Prozac Nation is the slowest quick read I’ve ever read. It’s 300+ pages of glib complaints, easy rants, long-winded descriptions, and it is utterly exhausting. But it’s a necessary read for a twentysomething female, and for anyone in the modern world who experiences depressive thoughts, or knows someone who does.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is both the most arrogant and bravest person of her generation for writing this book. She took all her horrific years of pre-diagnosed depression, hashed them out in what was undoubtedly very painful detail, probably even relived them as she put them into words, and then let the masses do the rest. She invited people into her brain, to feel sorry for her, to feel repulsed by her, to want her to shut the fuck up, to want to hold her hand, all in an attempt to describe something that is even worse once it’s described. And that thing is depression. Depression is the most selfish disease of all, but it’s a real one, and her story is the recounting of what happens when it — and its host, for lack of a better term — are not taken seriously.

She summed up her mindset pretty early on: “No matter how many chemicals I have ever used to bleach or sandblast my brain, I know by now, only too well, that you can never get away from yourself because you never go away” (p. 11). Everyone wants to be someone besides who they are at some point, but to have that thought constantly? That’s something else entirely. That’s a chemical imbalance that is often masked by the wrong chemicals — drugs, alcohol — and the wrong experiences — suicide attempts — rather than the right chemicals — drugs — and the right experiences — who’s to say?

Wurtzel is quick to qualify the catch-22 of her depression, too. She recognizes that the source of her depression is no more tragic or complicated than anyone else’s; in fact, she’s probably a lot better off than most people with it. She had just as unstable a childhood as the next person; divorced parents, absent dad, crazy mom. But she never accused them of not loving her, even if she said it at different times in her adolescence. As she put it, “Nothing about my life seemed worthy of art or literature or even of just plain life. It seemed too stupid, too girlish, too middle-class” (p. 51). And then, over the course of the book, she proceeds to describe how everyone around her, including her parents, her school, her employers, her friends, her boyfriends, her own lifestyle, accommodated her disease and made it easier for her to live with it. No one, including herself, found her situation dire enough to fix because it never got that dire in anyone’s eyes — it’s hard to comprehend that behavior like hers was in a gray area, half induced by her own volition, half induced by something askew in her brain, fully coming across as incoherent and helpless. When someone complains about something you can’t relate to, or at the very least see, it becomes trivial. When they do it all the time, and pull the attention away from the good and into the bad, it becomes repulsive.

As I read this book, I found myself relating to passages in it, and then scaring myself into thinking there was something seriously wrong with me. This passage in particular struck a chord because, well, it’s accurate: “Instead of thinking that there was no future, all I did was plan for the future, treating the present tense and all its tension like a lengthy, labored preamble to a real life that awaited me somewhere, anywhere else but here” (p. 97). It’s not that I’ve had those thoughts, it’s that I do have them, currently. But then I’d read on, and see that her reaction would be to go on a bender, and I’d feel relieved that that idea sounded completely unappealing to me. Selfish, yes, and comforting. What a combination.

Wurtzel intended for her readers to experience these emotions with her. She wanted us to go through each little breakdown, each big breakdown, each idiotic decision, all the back and forth between times in her life. She wanted everything to blend together, and for us to feel annoyed, and scared, and unsettled. “As I found myself saying to not a few people who would tell me they found the book angering and annoying to read: Good. Very good. That means I did what I had set out to do” (p. 356). Adding up all the instances of inane whining actually amounts to something — a constant state of something unfixable, but also a tale of how there really is hope.

I finished this book weeks ago, weeks before yesterday in particular, and had been meaning to write about it for some time. Today felt like the right day, in light (or rather, darkness) of yesterday’s awful news about Robin Williams. Like many people across the world, spanning generations, I feel a loss that’s going to feel like a loss for awhile. Robin Williams was an omnipresent, supremely talented man, one who brought everyone joy in a variety of ways, one who was relatively open about his drug and alcohol and mental health problems, and yet one who couldn’t be saved from himself. It goes to show that actually, maybe, you can never be too open about your problems if you articulate them in the right way to the right people. There is help out there for some people. Maybe it’s in the form of laughter, maybe it’s in the form of medicine, maybe it’s in the form of writing, performing, data analysis, sewing, DJing, whatever. Maybe it’s some combination of all of those things that hasn’t been discovered yet. I hope it is soon. I can’t imagine what his family is going through right now.

You won’t enjoy every sentence of this book, because it’ll hit you hard, but if you think you need to know what it’s like, you probably do. It’s better to know, and to empathize, than to shrug it off. I’ve never felt more confident in uttering a cheesy statement like this before, because it’s the truth: We’re all in this together.

Bad Words

It’s unfortunate when a mediocre movie happens to good people. Bad Words is one of those unfortunate situations.

I laughed a lot, but I didn’t feel great about it. Jason Bateman’s character, Guy, is a terrible guy, the kind of guy you’d address as “guy” as you gave him the finger after he cut you off in traffic or something. He enters spelling bees just to beat out little kids, and he also pulls pranks to weed out the weaklings from the playing field. As much as I love watching Bateman cuss and be his usual sly self, it was a little hard with adorable, smart children standing in the way.

The most adorable and smartest of the lot was his comic foil and co-lead, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), who has saucer-sized eyes and a very mature haircut. He and Bateman made a really great odd couple together, and I hope Chand gets a ton more roles, because he’s great. The rest of the kids also pull you back to your grade school days, as you watch them stress out over consonants and vowels, and go through their OCD motions, and try to impress their parents. Adolescence is (and always will be) rough, and it’s even rougher when you have to spell everything correctly. There was a part of me that wanted to yell at the TV and tell them that it gets better, because spell check is built into everything now.

Appearances by Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, and Philip Baker “Bookman” Hall all helped the case of this movie, of course. Hahn was Jenny, Guy’s aloof media sponsor and occasional fuck buddy; Janney was head of the Spelling Bee Association, or whatever the official name is; and Hall was the main judge of the National Spelling Bee (or whatever the official name is) and, as it turns out, Guy’s estranged dad. Cue touching music here.

I’d have said spoiler alert sooner, but I’m not going to recommend this movie to you. It’s fine, it’s Jason Bateman’s first foray into the directing world, and it shows that he knows what he’s doing with the camera, but maybe doesn’t know how to pick a script. Hard to say. Also hard to tell what the point of the movie was, other than a vessel for Bateman to be an amusing prick for ninety minutes. If I didn’t love him so much I would have turned it off, but he’s too good at cussing out kids.

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