A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A few pages into Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I was worried I was going to be very annoyed for 400+ pages. My naive thoughts ranged from “What a boasty title!” to “Will he ever shut up?” to “This guy needs an editor with a strong command over punctuation.” And then it hit me: All stream-of-consciousness work since 2000, when AHWOSG was published, including my own without realizing it, can be traced back to this, for lack of a better term, heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It’s just that. It’s brilliant. And we’re all trying to be Dave Eggers, and most of us are failing miserably.

Is it possible to be in love with a book? If so, I might be. The feeling extends a bit to its author, of course, the brain behind it. But I feel something very strong for this book because, even though I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the incredible, daunting challenges that 22-year-old Eggers had to face—watching both his parents die and assuming the responsibility of raising his much-younger brother—I connected with it on a level I’ve not really reached with a book before. The way he writes just makes sense to me, even though he alternates time periods, pens fake interviews where he’s both the questioner and the answerer, and speaks to himself as the voice of reason he hopes to impart onto his younger brother. Maybe my brain is structured similarly to his. (I can dream, anyway.)

Let me start with one of his jokes. Eggers is hilarious in a very observant, intelligent way. Here’s how he describes President Clinton (p. 288): “He speaks like a president, not always authoritative or anything but he can form sentences, complex sentences with beginnings and ends, subordinate clauses—you can hear his semicolons!”

The book is brimming with lines like that, lines that make you reevaluate your own observational skills. With each of Eggers’ subordinate clauses, he adds a more obscure vocabulary word or a clearer description or a more creative metaphor.

It’s also brimming with one-liner truths so profound that you wonder how you got through life not thinking about them before. (Maybe that’s just me.)

  • On the babble his mother spoke in her dying days :”All words will be considered her last, until they are followed by others.” (p. 43)
  • On the view from his rental in Berkeley: “From our windows, from our deck it’s a lobotomizing view, which negates the need for movement or thought—it is all there, it can all be kept track of without a turn of the head.” (p. 51)
  • On the types of people with stories worth telling on television: “…my feeling is that if you’re not self-obsessed you’re probably boring.” (p. 201)
  • On the types of people that end up impacting your life: “The only people who get speaking parts are those whose lives are grabbed by chaos…” (p. 424)

Incredible, right? His elegance is so effortless. And so is his verbosity, for that matter. His mind must be constantly cluttered with words, though he clearly has a successful organization method in place. Of course, Eggers is aware of his own tendency to exhaust, verbally, and he anticipates all possible iterations of negative feedback with a section in the (lengthy/100% worth reading) introduction, entitled “The Knowingness about the Book’s Self-Consciousness Aspect.” Here’s an excerpt:

While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality… Further, he is fully cognizant, way a head of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story…

He’s also aware of how self-indulgent he is, particularly with that aforementioned Q&A narrative style. He employs this while describing his interview for The Real World (p. 197).

This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It is.
It’s a good device, though. Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.
Yes.

Pardon the contrived, shaky metaphor, but Eggers opened a window on a perfectly sunny day. He wrote something that needed to be written—the audiences and the market were craving something like this, someone who could be brutally honest a voice no one had ever heard before. It’s truly inspirational. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to myself, “Today’s the day I start writing my book.” As an aspiring writer, it’s easy to compare yourself to published authors and feel instantly inadequate. But Eggers doesn’t make you feel that way at all, despite his immense, insurmountable literary talents—he seems just like one of us, except he had the fortitude to motivate himself on the most opportune days—to open that window on that sunny day—and let the light in. The result was a radiant beam, AHWOSG. This passage (p. 269) in particular, where he’s at the hospital dealing with a friend’s overdose, captured that attitude perfectly. He knew he could write something great, but he knew he’d have to be aware of it as it was happening in order to make the finished product truly staggering:

I’ll convey that while I’m living things very similar to things I’ve seen happen before, I will be simultaneously recognizing the value in living through these things, as horrible as they are, because they will make great material later, especially if I take notes, either now, on my hand, with a pen borrowed from the ER receptionist, or when I get home.

That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, too. I take those same notes, mostly in my phone, and I constantly question their significance. Are they worth writing about? Will anyone care about my story? Before all of his family tragedy, Eggers was just a guy. He didn’t choose to experience trauma—it overtook him and it changed the course of his life. 22 has come and gone for me, and I’ve experienced light trauma at worst. I’m lucky. I have a choice. But I still haven’t opened that window on the sunny day, because I’ve allowed myself to believe that enough light is shining in without going through the effort of getting up and heaving it open. Eggers is actively inspiring me to write my own story, even if it undoubtedly pales in comparison to his.

Another reason why he inspires me is because he spent his 20s exactly where I spent mine. Roughly the same age range, too. At 22, I was 4 years into my stint in the Bay Area, and ready for a change of scenery from the shitty Berkeley apartments I’d been hopping around. I spent the next 4 in San Francisco, and one after that in Oakland. I didn’t have a little brother in tow, but I did always have some intangible force holding me back from truly enjoying the place. Eggers says something about the landlord for his workspace on p. 169 that I think applies to much of my nine years there: “But it’s not like anyone here, in San Francisco, in this building, is going to tell you you’re wasting your time.”

Pulling that quote out might make me sound ungrateful. I’m not. Without San Francisco, I wouldn’t have any friends, really. Maybe one or two. The Bay Area made the list of people I care about frustratingly long. But it also is, and always will be, the backdrop to a time that I wish I could do over. Dave and Toph [spoiler alert] leave the Bay at the end of the book, and I completely understand why. It’s the same reason why I left, too. As long as you’re surrounded by reminders of your past, you’ll never be able to create a future for yourself. Even though D & T used Berkeley and San Francisco to escape the pain of their parents’ deaths, the Bay was riddled with memories of their adolescence and emerging adulthood. There’s pain there, too.

I’m going back to the Bay for the first time since January in August, and I’m trying to come up with a list of things I want to do. Dave had a similar experience (p. 359) when he returned home to Chicago for a few days, a while after his parents passed:

The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.

So far my list is 0 items long. The list of people, though, is long and possibly unmanageable. And I have no doubt that there will be a multitude of memories dredged up, reminding me why I left, convincing me to stay, implying that I made a mistake moving. But I’m comforted knowing that Eggers voiced his conflicted thoughts about this experience and wrote the best blueprint imaginable for experiencing it, which is to say, there is no blueprint. And, go figure, he ended up back in San Francisco. I’m not saying I will, too, but after reading AHWOSG and after being away from it for 6 months, I sure do miss it. Whatever “it” is.

As I Lay Dying

And so the quest to consider myself well-read continues.

This was my first foray into Faulkner territory, and after crossing the threshold, I actually wish I’d had the opportunity to read this book in high school, with some good old-fashioned AP English over-analysis ready and waiting. (Come to think of it, I believe I did have the opportunity in that class. We had to pick a book from a list and write a paper on it. I chose Hemingway.) Anyway, despite the superficial “simplicity” of each of the characters, their stories and emotions are profoundly complex. I got lost a lot. The timeline felt disjointed, with so many perspectives at play. And speaking of perspectives at play, ’twas nigh impossible to find one steady enough to trust. It wasn’t until Samson, a farmer who takes the family in overnight, appeared about halfway through the book that I started to gain some true perspective on Addie and the people at her beck and call.

I’ll back up a second. For the uninitiated, As I Lay Dying isn’t so much a story as it is a fictional talking-heads documentary. Shows like Parks and Recreation would not exist without this book, which switches chapters and narrators every few pages. It follows the dying days of Addie Bundren, the demands she makes on her family, the toll her death takes on her family, and the extreme measures her family takes to bury her properly. I was under the impression that the book would be kind of like The Grapes of Wrath, a long journey of sorts; in reality, the majority of the action took place in the build-up to the journey, the construction of the coffin, the planning of the trip, the passive-aggression between siblings and family members. The book takes a very long time to arrive at the start of the journey, and by the time it does, most evidence points to everyone slowly going insane. The entire family seems to know from the start that their matriarch is dying, and yet they all seem lost and wholly devastated when it happens. Their coping mechanisms are almost childish. It’s heartbreaking to witness a group of helpless people continue to be helpless, and be able to do nothing about it, even if they’re fictional. As Cora, the Bundren’s neighbor, says on p. 7, “Those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.” The Bundrens are stuck fulfilling Addie’s wishes and upholding societal norms, and the saddest part is, it doesn’t really matter anyway. No one outside of their small town knows them, but they take decorum so seriously that it controls their lives. A unique, slow-burning kind of tragedy.

With a title like As I Lay Dying, it probably comes as no surprise that the book is morbid. The characters often talk about death, wax poetic about it, justify why things happen the way they do. Despite their dire circumstances and limited education, they uncover some deep truths about the great unknown. Whatever Faulkner’s own thoughts about death were, he made them even more powerful by speaking through his characters, and puts death right up on the mantlepiece for everyone to deal with.

  • “I can remember how when I was young I believe death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement.” (Peabody, p. 42)
  • “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead.” (Addie, p. 167)
  • “Life wasn’t made to be easy on folks: they wouldn’t ever have any reason to be good and die.” (Moseley, p. 192)

Darl says something similar, with some added imagery, on p. 217: “Life was created in the valleys. It blew up onto the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.” Oh, Darl. I think it was your fault that I got so confused. See, Darl gets eloquent sometimes, like in that above quote, or like on p. 139: “It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string, the distance being the doubling accretion of the thread and not the interval between.” An incredible thought, and an incredible piece of writing by Faulkner. But even with that eloquence, Darl didn’t earn my trust because he also speaks nonsensically and ungrammatically for long periods of time. I’d quote an example here, but these passages go on for paragraphs without an entry point. If you have a copy, turn to p. 76 and you’ll see what I mean. He’s blurty and inconsistent, and this behaviour runs in the family, because his little brother, Vardaman, does the same thing. Throughout the book, Vardaman is fixated on the idea of his mother being a fish. I completely missed that metaphor, and I know I could read up on it, but the fact that I couldn’t grasp this imagery was incredibly frustrating. Maybe it’s just that the Bundrens operate on a completely different logical plane than the rest of the world, and maybe that’s why they’re doomed. Anse, the patriarch, says on p. 35, “When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so he never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I says, the road or the house?” Hard to argue with that logic, because there’s really nowhere to start the argument.

Even though Addie was the only one who died, she brought down her whole family with her. By the time I finished As I Lay Dying, I was ready for a change, not so much in subject matter but in character ties. Watching a family unravel—and reading about it in the disjointed form Faulkner intended—is very discouraging. I’m so glad I read it, and I intend to keep the book to read it again in many years, if only to serve as a reminder that familial unity can get you through the direst circumstances. Cheesy, but true.

Barrel Fever

I’ve been a David Sedaris fan, like most literate people, since I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. He’s an absolute genius with phrasing, heart, and imagery, and he makes you think you could write a hilarious essay about your boring family, too. Since I had read several of his well-known books, and I’ve loved them dearly, I decided to see how it all started before he got Very Famous.

There were passages in Barrel Fever that I loved, that really don’t need any context, such as,

  • “It is confusing when a stupid man plays dumb.” (p. 30)
  • “From what I’ve seen on television, animals will mate without regard to who has a glossier coat or the longest whiskers. I don’t get the idea that apes turn down dates. They might talk but I doubt anyone’s feelings get hurt in the process.” (p. 102)
  • “I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, ‘You must be exhausted,’ or “I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.'” (p. 174)

But on the whole, I wasn’t the hugest fan of the collection. The so-called “stories” didn’t feel like stories, but rather ramblings that culminated in sexual innuendos or encounters. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s not what I get a kick out of reading. There’s something about the combination of the zaniness of these pieces—many of which were written from the perspective of rather convincing characters that I just didn’t like very much—and the single-guy-living-life vibe throughout, that contrasts so drastically with his later books. Barrel Fever is his first significant published work, so I can appreciate how style and subject matter evolved over time, and I applaud it. But maybe I’m so used to older Sedaris, living happy and content with Hugh, that younger Sedaris is too much fun for me. The “essays” part of Barrel Fever, which more fully embodied the voice of his that we’ve all come to recognize, was far more enjoyable a read for me.

I think Sedaris’ sense of humor has gotten lighter over the years, too. There was one very dark story in particular, “Firestone,” that left me cold because of how genuinely sad a life the narrator seemed to lead. Younger Sedaris had a real knack for turning imaginings, dalliances, and delusions—take “Don’s Story,” for example, essentially an Oscar speech for a Hollywood type who’s being swallowed up by his own ego; or “Seasons Greetings,” in which a family matriarch goes on a long tangent about her husband’s wartime lovechild and ends up incorporating a dead baby into the anecdote—into fully-fleshed-out tales, but I’ve always been more partial to prose that’s rooted in reality. Or maybe I’m jealous of his imagination, I don’t know. I have to give him credit for creating such a rich array of specific, easily hatable, self-centered people, in any case. They are as important to their stories as the plots they’re unfolding. Even the side characters in his stories are people I’d hope never to encounter in public. In “Giantess,” he works with a guy who, “given a choice, [would] rather fall from a higher floor as it would allow more time for his life to flash before his eyes” (p. 159).

I feel more at home reading what Sedaris has written about his family, because I relate to his verbal eye-rolls. Here’s an example. In the story “My Manuscript,” he offers two particularly pointed characterizations of his father. Though my own dad didn’t bar me from listening to other people’s music—oh, what a wretched life that would have been!—he did insist that I take piano lessons for many years. And I was unable to visualize the scope of importance of this skill at the time, instead choosing to side with an opinion somewhat resembling young David’s on p. 24:

My father told me that if I want to listen to music then I should learn to make it myself. Who said anything about music? Dad said that the guy who can play guitar is going to be the life of the party. He’s confusing life with death. The real life of the party is flattened beneath the bed, taping actual sex encounters, not sitting cross-legged on the floor with a guitar, embarrassing himself and others.

On the same page, Sedaris also pinpoints a certain type of complaining that I think we’ve all witnessed in older generations, one that we hope we don’t embody when we get there:

While he was growing up, my father lived under what he likes to describe as “harsh circumstances” in a small, ugly apartment. By harsh circumstances my father means that they had a certain instead of a bathroom door. He never had a bedroom and had to sleep on a back-breaking foldout sofa and go to work before and after school, shining shoes and selling newspapers. He has a point there, that’s harsh. Unfortunately, they never gave him a medal for it and as a result he brings it up time and time again.

My favorite piece of the lot, “After Malison,” actually falls in the “stories” category, but it’s just so deliciously satirical that it broke me. The narrator Sedaris chooses here is a fangirl—more like a fan-dame, really—who brags about how into a certain author she is, and spends most of the piece contemplating the least invasive way of stalking said author. He embodies the “all talk, no walk” mindset so perfectly. It’s a feat. Here are two of my favorite passages:

  • “He never numbers his pages, but I was with him for a good quarter-inch at the beginning of the second part. I just mouthed the words while he read. I wasn’t doing it for attention; it’s just a reflex action because I know his work, all of it, so well.” (p. 115)
  • “I’m sure if Malison did talk to her he only did it in order to get a feel for the stupidity of his audience.” (p. 123)

The real reason why we all relate to David Sedaris isn’t his incredible wit. It’s a rare trait that most people just don’t have, and instead spend their whole lives curating and coveting. No, the elements that pull us into his writing are the stark, sad truths that he pens with the same wit as the hysterical passages I quoted at the start of this post. He is a true observer of humanity, and he knows exactly how to characterize his fellow humans. Though I can’t put Barrel Fever at the top of my list, I can still admire it as an explosive, creative, honest start to his incredible career, and I can treasure the deep wisdom he shared with all of us when he was just in his 30’s. On p. 188, he says, “[…] you would like to believe that everyone is unique and then they disappoint you every time by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they have been handed a script.” Thankfully, he always operates off-the-cuff, and the results are brilliant.

The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts

Having just read Le Freak, and having learned a bit about what harm drugs can do to a creative life, I felt primed for Chris Farley’s book. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I thought, somehow, even though I know this guy died, his effervescence will still provide me with some light as I read. On some level, I was right, because the recounting of his stories is impossible not to laugh at. The man was one of the funniest humans ever to live. As put so succinctly in the intro, “You could be the funniest guy in the room just by describing some of the stuff Chris did.” But mostly I was very, very wrong, because The Chris Farley Show is the most cautionary piece of writing I’ve ever read.

Nile Rodgers’ story seems undeniably triumphant after reading what happened to Chris Farley. And I have to commend Rodgers for being one of the strong ones, one of the people who eventually overcame his addiction, learned to live a sober life, and thrived without his old habits. Farley’s story is the opposite. It’s one of constant, sad, cyclical success and failure. It ends in failure. It shows that addiction can come from anywhere, even white-collar Wisconsin. And with each of Farley’s successive relapses, it shows firsthand how deeply one person’s addiction can affect the very large support circle around them.

The book is written in the same style as Live From New York, with hours upon hours of interviews compiled thematically and chronologically. It’s really a feat, and Chris’ brother Tom Jr. did it all with the help of Tanner Colby, to very powerful effect. This book is so tragic, with such clear evidence to telegraph the downward spiral, that your heart aches for Chris to be able to read it himself before it was too late. It’s the kind of thing I’d be inclined to give another addict, in the hopes that some of the horror would get through to them to convince them to stop. But what do I know about addiction? (Very thankfully, not much.)

I think the hardest thing about reading this book was knowing that Farley would die the whole time, and having to experience each of his aforementioned sobering-ups and relapses anyway. Because, as I said above, he didn’t experience them alone, even if he thinks he did. His brothers, his coworkers, his girlfriends, his parents, his spiritual leaders—they all went through the trenches with them, and some of them (namely his brothers and coworkers) were also on their own paths of addiction and unintentionally enabled his. Despite being the strongest, funniest comedian in the world, Farley was an incredibly weak person when it came to substances. He also had the incredible disadvantage of a stubborn-beyond-all-belief father, one with his own drinking problem who didn’t recognize that his son’s behavior somewhat stemmed from dad’s appalling refusal to set a newer, healthier example. Fr. Matt Foley, Chris’ childhood friend and the namesake of his future best-loved character, put it this way on p. 130:

Growing up, we were always told you can be critical inside the home, but don’t ever bring it out in the street. That’s an Irish Catholic thing, a clan thing. In Chris’s case that aversion to dealing with matters openly would be even more multiplied, because if Chris had an eating and a drinking problem, that would mean somebody else in the room had an eating and a drinking problem.

Not only did Farley’s repressed guilt—maybe guilt is not the right word for it, since he rarely understood the consequences of his actions; maybe “repression” is fine on its own—manifest itself in the form of addiction to drugs and alcohol, but it also reared its ugly head in his relationships. Because he was so funny, and so talented, and so responsible for other people’s success without ever intending to be, people kind of cleaned up the mess behind him without forcing him to adjust his own methods of (in)sanity. Easier said than done, of course. But seeing it all written out makes it that much more painful. Farley’s ex-girlfriend divulged some of her frustration with his arrested development on p. 282:

Some American Indians have a ritual where you’re not allowed to be a part of the tribe until you leave, go out in the wilderness, rename yourself, and come back. Then you’re accepted as a man. But we don’t have that in our culture. That’s why families in the country are falling apart, and why women have to deal with all this Madonna/whore bullshit. It’s because men don’t grow up, and Chris never grew up.

Of course, if you boil away the tragedy from that quote, you’re left with childlike wonder, which translated to the magical comedy that is most of Chris Farley’s legacy. The guy belonged in front of all of us, making us laugh with his heart, his depth, his generosity. He was apart of that SNL group that changed the game in the mid-’90s, with Sandler, Spade, Rock, and everyone else that’s insanely famous now. He made it okay not to be the same-looking comedy nerd. He made it okay to be both good at sports and great at comedy. He made it okay to give a character everything you’ve got. Former SNL writer Nate Herman said it this way on p. 79: “If the stage is the only place you feel real, it makes sense to make the whole world your stage.” That was Farley’s attitude in a single sentence, really.

Chris Farley was a complicated person, to say the very least. He didn’t live long enough to uncomplicate himself, but he did use a lot of his complexities to comedic advantage, as Bob Odenkirk describes on p. 324: “At the core of being funny is frustration, and even some anger, at the world. And Chris had so much constantly happening inside him that he was always being chased into that corner. He was always living inside that space, and that’s why he was just funny all of the time.”

Read this book to gain a better understanding of the depth of Farley’s talent and addiction and, please, pass it along to someone who might benefit from knowing about the dark side before they turn to it themselves.

Age of Adaline

This movie was like a poor man’s Benjamin Button, but you know what? I saw it on my birthday with my friend, and I loved it anyway.

This aforementioned friend also brought up an excellent point about (one of) the film’s weaknesses, which was that it was preemptively pandering to the idiots that would automatically criticize it for being unscientific. See, the premise of this thing is that Blake Lively gets struck by lightning and stops aging. And in the scene where she gets struck, a Jim Dale-esque voiceover bombards the viewer with “facts” about the lightning strike and molecules changing, and elements combining, and all this shit that’s really only there to attempt to shut up those five internet commenters that were the kids that raised their hands all the time in every class in middle school. And the thing is, the science is so blatantly false that those kids are just going to raise their hands (ie, blow up Twitter) anyway. The story would have been much more fun if the writer just trusted most people to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a fairy tale with a modern twist. Because that’s really what this thing is. And it is fun!

It also contains some subtle misogyny, but no fairy tale is incomplete without such a vital element. I was willing to let that go for the sake of enjoying the sheer beautiful spectacle of it all. Nevermind that Blake Lively is insanely gorgeous, and Michiel Huisman is my #1—this movie takes place in San Francisco, of all places, the place I just left. And it does a hell of a job capturing the majesty of that place, which is usually enveloped in thick fog and even thicker irony. Lively’s Adaline Bowman lives in Chinatown, not the Mission/Marina/Alamo Square/Hayes Valley/other “hip” neighborhood: +10 cred points. She works at the historical society, not as an administrative assistant/social media manager at a startup: +10 cred points. Plus, the cinematographer chose noticeably different aerial perspectives of the Bay Area for establishing shots, instead of the overplayed Golden Gate image that we all know. I saw the Bay Bridge. I saw Alcatraz. I saw the real skyline, with the Transamerica Pyramid. I saw a lot of Marin, too, as that’s where Huisman’s Ellis Jones takes Adaline to meet his family: +many more cred points. The coloration was pretty incredible, too—save for those lightning-strike scenes, the entire movie was awash in this rich glow, the glow of the fairy tale it was, the glow that beautiful people emit, I guess. It was stunning.

Lively and Huisman have a gentle chemistry. It’s not exactly the fireworks you’d hope for from two incredibly hot people—and by that, I mean that the sex scenes were pretty minimal (and by that, I mean mostly nonexistent)—but then again, this is a fairy tale. It stays relatively innocent, and thus makes me wonder exactly for whom this movie was geared, but again, I’m willing to let that go because the story itself is pretty interesting. Adaline freezes in time at age 29, after she’d already had a child, and so as the years go on, as she struggles to live a normal life while keeping her secret from everyone but her daughter, we see her daughter age into the lovely old woman that is Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn and Lively do look like they could be related. And I can’t imagine how bizarre it must have been for Lively to play her mother. Burstyn is a legend and a pro, and Lively is still at the start of her career, and yet their relationship really was believable as mother and daughter.

In other excellent casting news, Harrison Ford, ever slightly high, pops up as Ellis’ dad and, coincidentally, Adaline’s lover from years ago. They get a guy named Anthony Ingruber to play young Harry, and while his IMDb page doesn’t really do the visual justice, the resemblance on the big screen was uncanny. Vocally, they were the same. It was incredible. And what a truly weird, unique thing to have to deal with. Our first instinct, socially, is to think it’s icky, taboo, whatever. But in this fairy tale context, it’s really not. It’s just one of the many things Adaline had to deal with during her unique life, in addition to hiding from the government so as not to be treated like a science experiment.

There is a scene towards the end of the movie when Adaline sits down everyone in the Jones family and tells them what’s up, but it’s done in such a way that we don’t hear the dialogue. It’s almost like a montage without the images changing. And I do wish I could have heard that conversation, because it’s what the entire movie hinges on—when she’s going to reveal her secret, and how she’s going to live after she does it. She’s spent an entire lifetime making excuses, changing identities, picking up new skills, and in that moment, it all disappeared. I think it would have given Lively herself a bit more of an opportunity, acting-wise, the way Button really let Brad Pitt “explore his craft,” for lack of a less pretentious term.

I don’t necessarily recommend this movie. Especially if you’re cynical. But if you enjoy beautiful things and you miss the Bay Area, it might be exactly what you need.

Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny

Awhile back, I heard Jesse Thorn interview musician/producer/wizard Nile Rodgers on his podcast, Bullseye. And I think it’s safe to assume that, like many people my age, I was totally fascinated and dumbfounded by the stories that this man told. Rodgers is one of those guys that you wrongfully think you have a grasp on — you’ve heard his songs enough times, you know the choruses, you respect the beats — but you never really think about the rest of his story. I know I didn’t. I finally got around to reading his memoir, which was a truly fascinating, slightly overwhelming whirlwind of drugs, sex, fame, fortune, and talent.

Rodgers did the best he could to describe his utterly confusing childhood, but I still got lost in parts. And that’s not saying that he’s a bad writer; he just moved around a lot, and was taken in by different family members and mother figures, and never truly had stability until, I can only imagine, the last twenty years or so. He went back and forth between downtown New York and downtown Los Angeles in his youth, thus giving him a sense of awareness that most people never acquire at all, but also giving the book a zig-zaggy narrative, filled with stories about druggies hanging around his house and discipline going by the wayside. His curious, astute, poignant observations of the Greenwich Village hippies and dancers, therefore, struck me as particularly poetic: “Many people in the building often smelled of linseed oil and turpentine; the girls wore their hair up in buns and walked with their toes turned out, radiating grace even when they were dumping the garbage” (p. 10).

As the pages turn, we learn more and more about just how fucked up his family is. It exhausts me to think about recounting it here, but suffice it to say that the number of parental figures in his life, aside from his mother, rivals the number of characters in I, Claudius. With each passing chapter, we add another boyfriend or great-aunt to the mix. It’s no wonder that he grew up to be an artist — he had a lot of things to work out, and an unconventional talent with which to express his feelings.

Rodgers doesn’t come across as a particularly outgoing guy, but once he got in with the showbiz in crowd, he seemed to get even more introverted. I couldn’t quite figure it out, and it’s still something that semi-baffles me about performers. There are those who are made for the spotlight, and there are those like Kristen Wiig who sort of power down when they’re not On. It’s fascinating. He seems like someone in the latter category. Perhaps, as he describes on p. 215, this is why:

As exciting as superstardom was, there is something comforting about being an opening act, because you’re very aware that the world doesn’t revolve around you, which at least means that you can take a day off without the planet coming to an end. Perhaps that’s why I embraced Chic’s status as an eternal opening act. As an opening act, you share the same gravity as the rest of the world. Whereas superstars are monitored as closely as the stock market—their value is quantifiable and constantly fluctuating.

He also provides some rather clear windows into drug culture, such as this one on p. 141:

It may seem highly unlikely today, but inside Studio [54] there was a Dionysian sense of belonging and trust. Nothing was taboo. Usually I’d give my visitors a hit of coke if they wanted it. Sometimes we’d have full-on sex, or maybe one or more girls would give me oral sex. If I sound casual about it, it’s beacuse that’s just the way it was. There was never any pressure to do or not do anything other than what one wanted to do.

and explains the appeal of said culture on p. 252 in a way that I hadn’t considered before:

If you take what you now know about the often highly knotty process of making a record and multiply it by the […] list of artists [I’ve worked with], it’s not hard to imagine the mental, spiritual, and physical damage I was doing to myself. My only defense is that my over-the-top lifestyle brought a certain order to my life. Think about the way turbulent weather patterns look from outer space.

The man made some incredible music under the influence of drugs. But it wasn’t really the drugs that made the music. It was him. And now that he’s turned the page on that part of his life, he’s in a new, reflective chapter, one that allows his fans to appreciate his struggles, his triumphs, and his truly mesmerizing grooves. Do yourself a favor and read his book, or listen to that interview, or whatever. Get to know this guy more than you think you already do.

Tumbledown

I’m starting out bold, because there’s no other way to say it: What a gorgeous, gorgeous movie.

I hope this thing gets a massively wide release, because it’s a beautiful story that elegantly tackles something very specific and possibly pretentious. Rebecca Hall, whom I’ve honestly confused with a bunch of people over the years–she looks like the lead singer of Lake Street Dive, and Whitney Cummings, and many others, and this is all compliments to all of them–plays Hannah, widow of an Elliott Smithy, Bon Ivery, Ray Lamontagney (one of the truer inspirations, according to director Sean Mewshaw) singer/songwriter named Hunter. Her husband released one great, touted, revered, magical album, and then mysteriously died somewhere in the depths of hiking on Tumbledown mountain, where she’s from and to where they had retreated after getting married. Hannah is a radiant person, but the way Hall plays her, it’s clear that the radiance left as soon as he did. She busies herself writing small pieces for the local newspaper, and has dogs, but she seems to be biding her time before the mourning really, truly starts. It’s been a few years, too.

And then good ol’ Jason Sudeikis walks in, with his impeccable comedic timing and even more impressive sensitivity. I love how his career has progressed thus far. He’s gone from being this guy to this guy and he can pull all of it off with aplomb. He plays Andrew McDonnell, a professor who wants to write a book about Hunter. He’s got a great city life, a great city girlfriend, and he takes a break from it all to pursue this writing project, admittedly, because he got an advance, but also because he’s a true devotee of Hunter’s music. He treks up to Hannah, and after a lot of back and forth, they agree to work together on the book.

It might be predictable what happens next. And the thing you think happens, happens. But it’s handled so nicely. It doesn’t feel wrong, ever, or rushed, or dishonorable. No one’s hurt by the circumstances. And the music is really the standout feature of this movie. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to select the music for something like this; Hunter really is the central character in the movie, but he’s dead, and so he has to live through something epic. I stayed for the Q&A afterward, hoping for a glimpse at Sudeikis, but instead I got a bit of the backstory on the music. Just as worth it! The artist is Damien Jurado, and I think it’s a good thing that they chose someone who’s name and voice aren’t instantly recognizable. Were it actually Lamontagne, it wouldn’t have been believable for a second because we’d know who it is. Jurado’s voice is haunting and tragic, and lends itself to this kind of martyr-esque storyline. I can’t wait for the soundtrack to be released.

Hall and Sudeikis also have a nice chemistry. It develops a lot more organically than most movie romances that originate in opposition–they spend a lot of hours in close quarters with one another, feeling each other out, trying to get the best work out of each other for the sake of documenting the brief life of a musical genius. Hannah is so deeply ensconced in grief and denial that she takes awhile to even recognize what’s happening. And Andrew is perfectly content with his life, and such a devotee of the music, that he doesn’t quite see it, either. He’s just happy to have found a true passion project. The nice thing is that for Mewshaw and his co-writer, his wife Desiree Van Til, it’s their passion project, too.

And thus ends my very-late-and-only-possibly-worth-the-wait Tribeca Film Festival series of unsolicited reviews. I can’t wait to laugh, cry, and judge mercilessly some more next year.

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