Friday, November 30, 2007

flaw flaunt

It seems common sense to me that a protagonist (main character, etc, call it what you will) should have inner complications, a sort of personal struggle with what he/she considers right versus wrong in the face of what the world considers right versus wrong. I've been learning about this since the first writing workshop I set foot into, and it seems I still loll back into the same old non-complicating ways. Put into practice in my own fiction, I find making my main characters multi-faceted in this regard to be more difficult than I would imagine it to be.... I wouldn't say that they're not flawed, but they tend to be "normal" or single-minded in a world of more colorful characters. I think I'm afraid of making my main characters ugly, or at least giving them the ability to do ugly things. This is something I need to get over. Complicated and flawed central protagonists are more interesting than one-note benevolent do-gooders.

Leading to another bullet of storytelling maxim: main characters should incite action, not let action happen to them. Too often I have things happen to the main character instead of the main character making things happen. Like I said before, it's a cop out, and it's easy, and I think that's why I keep stumbling over it. Oh, but I'm not the only one.

Instead of listing all the wonderful examples of flawed/warped/ugly central protagonists (you won't have to look hard, they're often times the very element that makes a story/novel/movie as good as it is), I thought I'd bring to light two examples that present the opposite.

1. Dave Eggers' novel What is the What, finalist for this year's National Book Award in fiction, is the story of a Sudanese refugee recounting his horrific nomad childhood as he lives and schools in the United States as an adult. I'm almost finished with the book, and as is the case with all of Eggers' writing, it's quite enjoyable. I don't think it's his most accessible read, but I find myself wrapped in the story and gaining a history lesson and awareness of political oppression in eastern Africa. The problem? The main character, Valentino Achak Deng (told from the first person, based on true accounts of the actual person mixed with tales of other Sudanese refugees), seems to be utterly flawless. As we read, we're viewing the world through the lens of his awareness of the absolute chaos reigning over southern Sudan and the devastating plight of refugees across eastern Africa. At every point, Valentino is the subject of events that are always happening upon his people.... and this is not a bad thing if it is the inciting incident of the novel, but instead the entire novel is fraught with his passive participation. Not many people can seem worse than the faceless horde of mass murderers that the Sudanese government is made out to be, but Valentino is positively angelic. We trace his adolescence and his naiveté with little regard to any *personality* on his part. He's always a witness, doe-eyed and a passive participant of it all. We're given the impression that he becomes an active speaker and demonstrator once he arrives in the United States, but not given much proof that he has a personality to be such a person. Even in the present plane of the novel in "today's" United States, Valentino is *still* the victim of events; he is robbed and beaten in his own house and is neglected by the staff at a hospital.

2. Maybe you've noticed ABC's recent attempt at resurrecting the nighttime soap with freshman show "Dirty Sexy Money". The basic premise is that a filthy rich New York socialite family can't put on their underwear without the help of a family lawyer, and they hire a family friend to do so in the wake of said lawyer's death. The main character here, played by "Six Feet Under" alum (not to mention from "Cybill" too, a favorite of mine from eleven or twelve years ago) Peter Krause, struggles against the over-the-top decadence of this family and mops up their messes at every turn. I don't need to go into detail about each of the family members' dysfunctions (though Donald Sutherland is perfectly cast as the pristine patriarch), except for the fact that the writers of the show have decided to make Krause's character absolutely perfect. This guy can do no wrong. He even donates the money he earns to build parks for disadvantaged city children! He is every step the moral center, has his head screwed on straighter than anyone else in this world, has an infinite amount of patience, and in his spare time is trying on his Nancy Drew shoes to find out if his father was murdered (the show's attempt at a serial storyline). It doesn't matter what mess what family member has gotten themselves into, Krause's character is always there to hold their hand and guide them to the light, grudgingly or not. What gets me the most? He knows *from the very pilot episode* that this family will be his undoing (and likely the completely unsurprising catalyst for his divorce.... stay tuned for Season 2, I guess) and that they're troublesome ways are more trouble than they're worth; i.e. he never incites action, but instead the family incites action on him. But he plugs along, with more ethics than a sunny early 1960s sitcom.

Bottom line: What is the What and "Dirty Sexy Money" aren't bad, but they'd be miles and miles more interesting if their main characters carried more weight instead of the story doing it for them in the background. For my money, What is the What is more worthwhile and "Dirty Sexy Money" needs some massive retooling in order to be more inherently interesting. I do find it curious, though, that these two are so popular in the face of such a fundamental storytelling flaw.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

food network bobble-heads induce nightmares

Every year the Food Network sends up the holiday season with "Season's Eatings" (ah, the punnery) and usually one-hour specials abound. This year, their marketing campaign features these frightening spectres:

I'm wondering who exactly on the Food Network totem pole finds these things appealing to the eye? Deciding that their home-grown celebrities (they prefer the term "All-Stars" for above-mentioned one-hour specials) were undeniably the recognizable pull to viewers' sensibilities, they decided that low-budget CGI bobble-heads of their All-Stars were the best way to ring in the holiday ratings. Missing from this line up as pictured above is Food Network darling Rachael Ray, but believe me, she has a wide-smiled bobble-head of her own too.

These things terrify me. More terrifying: the word "holidazzle", tacked to their billboards of these demon-creatures. "Holidazzle" is perhaps newly my least favorite advertising-spawned word.

Even scarier are the animated commercials on the Food Network, each character voiced by its actual human counterpart, using coined phrases by the human counterparts as they hawk non-denominational holiday dishes. Even more visible is the terrible production quality of these bobble-heads, with choppy animation and unnatural joint movements. Exactly who was behind designing these unholy beasts? Giada "knocked-up" DeLaurentiis should be offended by the harmonica-shaped smile they bestowed her CGI doppelganger. Paula Deen comes somewhat closer to reality where Alton Brown (I suppose that's him) is unrecognizable. Both Bobby Flay (yuck) and Guy Fieri (from a growing and disturbingly long line of "Next Food Network Star"s) look demonic, and Fieri more so like a stegosaur. I bet you Guy is stoked that he's been promoted up the "All-Star" ladder enough to earn himself his own hideous bobble-head.

Dear Food Network, what the f*ck were you thinking?

creepy factor: HIGH

Thursday, November 22, 2007

the greatest thanksgiving scene ever committed to film

Here's to hoping that the powers that be at youtube don't strike this from the web. This movie is comedic brilliance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

padma cameth

So, last night myself and a gaggle of friends (well, three of us in total) went to see Padma Lakshmi come to read from her new cookbook, Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet at the Strand (as previously ogled about). Having only hastily flipped through the cookbook, I thought it was a bunch of international-flair recipes and not enough photos of Padma. But not the case! There are beautiful full color pictures of Padma cooking and eating! And she writes personal essays about her love of food! So I bought the book, and had her sign it for good measure.

Just a quick few starf*cker notes:

Ladies and gentlemen, if you thought Padma was beautiful on television, it doesn't even compare to how striking she is in person.

She was very warm and personable, and I guess I never quite noticed what a commanding voice she has.... perfect for radio. Padma may have a future career on "60 Minutes"....? Who knows. She was kind and patient with the audience and their questions (luckily no whackjobs took center stage to ask something uncomfortable); it should be noted, however, that the cross-section of the attendees at the reading bore a wide margin (including the frumpy 60-something guy next to me who was hunched over and picking his nose). The personal essays she read from her cookbook were very colorfully drawn.... she definitely got me wanting to have some of her food (Mexican macaroni and cheese?! Yes, thank you.). I, too, share Padma's love of American bacon. I think she used sentimentality just the right way when evoking food-related stories from her childhood (including a nice little tale of a peanut vendor on the beach in Madras when she was a girl), and was able to speckle her stories with humor simply by using a different tone of voice when reading them. I'm curious: did a certain ex-husband of hers help her a bit with tidying up the narrative?

She did mention during the little Q&A that men have come up to her on the street and want her to tell them "Please pack your knives and go." Admittedly kinky, I feel that I may have been one of the men in this "Top Chef"-viewing set until she mentioned how creepy it is. So, the question remains: did I score bonus points for mentioning to her at the book-signing table that I specifically resisted wanting her to tell me to please pack my knives and go?

To support her in the audience were Top Chef superstar judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. Gail looks a bit different in person (perhaps much more subdued because she wasn't talking.... but wasn't she once a model?) and Tom Colicchio was hiding underneath a baseball cap and high-collared jacket. Sorry to break it you, Tom, but I don't think you're exactly going to get hounded on the street.

And, in a do-or-die moment after she signed my book, I asked for a picture, artfully rendered here (the damn flash wasn't on, so it's a bit blurry). How could I not get my picture with Padma? That would be insanity.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

recalibrating the oscar buzz radar

I don't really have a strong position, per se, on "oscar buzz", except that I find it ridiculous when it seems unwarranted. I'm even guilty of getting wrapped up in it from time to time (well, maybe a little more than that), especially when I feel passionately about a specific performance or director or writer.... but "buzz" is something that is generated before a movie is even released, a term anointed on films that are conceived with the awards it intends to win before it is even made. Last year, Christopher Guest's movie For Your Consideration was a great little romp that skewered the concept of oscar buzz by letting it hit a fever pitch on the set of a movie currently in production (just watch it for Jane Lynch, a comedic genius, who in this movie steals every frame of film she's in).... this is a great example of what gets to me the most about "oscar buzz".

But then there are movies that seem to have buzz and then lose it very quickly, especially once the movie hits the big screen. I remember a couple of years ago, film blog websites had Diane Keaton as an undeniable lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the holiday dramedy The Family Stone (which I haven't seen, but have been told it's quite enjoyable).... but then the movie came out and her name dropped from lists with such a lack of fanfare that perhaps those people generating oscar buzz were afraid to admit they were wrong.

This year I am troubled by the lugubrious amount of oscar buzz attributed to the yet-to-be-released oscar-bait Atonement.... the novel, written by Ian McEwan, arguably Great Britain's most prolific living writer, was just okay (in my opinion) and it seems only inevitable that it would make the leap to film. The trailers and ads make it seem like Keira Knightley is the star (which is not the case, unless the screenplay has taken a good amount of liberty with her character from the novel), and already film blogs are signing her up for an oscar nomination. But wait.... not just her, but three other actresses who play the novel's/film's main character (three actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, for the three stages of the character's life), each of whom are also being sprinkled with oscar fairy dust. I see these rumors everywhere.... film bloggers and other generators of oscar buzz seem pretty sure that this film will clean up in the acting nomination department.

Isn't that pushing it, though? Throwing so much weight behind acting nominations for just one movie.... that hasn't even been released yet? Atonement, judging by its trailer, is one of those movies made to win awards, and it disheartens me with all the hype it's generating. It probably doesn't help that the novel itself didn't blow me away, so I don't have particularly high hopes for the movie. It's not unheard of for a single movie to jeopardize all the acting oscar nominations (Network, a great film, won three acting oscars of five (!) across the four categories in 1977), but in every instance I do think it's awfully narrow-minded and not exactly inclusive of other great performances in countless other films released in a year. But, I'm not dumb enough to really think that the oscars are the be-all end-all of truly great filmmaking each year.... it all comes down to marketing every year and what studio has enough clout to get the Academy buzzing about, unfortunately enough.

So, why does this pique my interest today? I just saw Margot at the Wedding, written and directed by Noam Baumbach (whose previous film was The Squid and the Whale), and I thought it was a fantastic film. Lately I've noticed I'm starting to quite favor realist dramas about rotten people, and this movie doesn't disappoint. It's a dark movie that hits a chord about family interplay that a lot of movies try but many don't quite succeed, especially when making loved ones seem as terrible as they sometimes can actually be. Where did this film's oscar buzz go? The Squid and the Whale was an underdog favorite two years ago (and was even oscar nominated for Best Original Screenplay), but this new effort seemed to make a blip awhile back and now has been virtually swallowed whole. In an age where it seems original screenplays are a dying art (take a look at the movies and you'll find everything is based on something else), Margot at the Wedding is a beautiful work of storytelling.

Part of me thinks that oscar buzz was squashed for Margot by the fact that Nicole Kidman is in the film. I don't know when people decided that she wasn't great anymore.... she was riding high just a few years ago. But after her oscar win for Best Actress in The Hours (an indelible performance that was actually a supporting role), it seems that she's not worthy of oscar attention. Why the hell not? She's great in this movie, playing a character so loathsome of herself but inarticulate of it and ultimately terrible to those she loves most.... and she wholeheartedly deserves a nomination for this work. Kidman's been dabbling in glitzier Hollywood movies as of late, so to turn in such a mannered performance in a quiet independent film is a breath of fresh air. There something about the information she transmits in her facial expressions that says it all, and makes her (likely) one of the greatest actresses of her generation.... She and Jennifer Jason Leigh (a great surprise and a warm performance here) both deserve some oscar attention for this movie, but I'm afraid they won't get it because of whatever kind of unjustly-appointed celebrity overkill Kidman brings with her. It's too bad. But I'm crossing my fingers for her, and silently hoping Atonement turns out to be an overwrought piece of crap.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

heaven and hell and where the angels have gone in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

....brought to you by
strange culture's
Film + Faith blog-a-thon

Meet Laura Palmer. Beloved high school sweetheart in a sleepy Pacific Northwest hamlet. Homecoming queen. Meals-on-Wheels volunteer. Tutor in English. Loyal diary-keeper. Coke addict, part-time hooker at a Canadian brothel, dating two guys, having sex with quite a few others, and being stalked and raped by an evil spirit named Bob. And she's gonna get killed. But this is information we already know, thanks to the television show "Twin Peaks"; a show whose premise surrounded the mystery of Laura's death and airs the dirty laundry of everyone else in her tiny hometown. The image of her dead body, wrapped in plastic, was just the beginning of the show. After the show ran its (prematurely canceled) two season run in 1990, its prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), illuminates all the dark corners of Laura's pre-mortem life and serves in a few sneaky scenes as a time-warped sequel to the television program.

After the resolution of the central mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" came to light in the TV series, the show meandered and then regained its footing with a larger goal: tackling the meaning of heaven and hell. This is only intuited in the television series whereas the movie deals with it a bit more substantially.... Laura, who's life looked candy-coated on the outside but seethed with poison on the inside, is caught in a kind of purgatory after her death (revealed to us as "the waiting room" in the series' finale episode), and ultimately there is struggle (and some dimension-bending) to make sure she gets to heaven. Sound too kitschy? This movie is perhaps one of Lynch's darkest films; shot with an intensity of color from burning red (where Laura's seedy life is exposed) to cool and vanquished blues (the extinguisher of the fire, a symbol of hope and an acknowledgment of loss), much is paid attention to the photography of these scenes so that it directly complements the moods of the darkness from which the film is written. What makes this film particularly dark is that its subject matter is rooted in the real (whereas fare like Eraserhead and Lost Highway are not) and with that he's able to connect it to the surreal. Laura's life of drugs and illicit sex (and yes, incest) are all things that are happening somewhere out there in the world right now, and when it seems all hope is lost for Laura (to the point where she must accept her death head-on, the alternative being subsumed by the dark heart of Bob) does this mean she will be left in hell?

The movie picks up at a time when things for Laura aren't looking so great, and she knows it. Sheryl Lee has quite an uphill battle in playing Laura Palmer in life, and all the anguish and hopelessness shows, and this performance anchors the darkness of the movie; we see how she is lost, we feel how she is lost, and we know walking into the film that she's not going to make it out. Laura can feel the end coming but can't articulate it; her life is caught in a feedback loop of misery. When girl-talk with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, played with a noticeably different tambour than how Lara Flynn Boyle did in the series) prompts Laura to reveal how she would imagine falling in space, and answers with complete certainty: "Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything, and then you'd burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn't help you because they've all gone away." This girl is like the un-saved; not even the angels can help her now, and she knows this. When the end is near, the signals are all there.... even the painting above her desk of a friendly angel tending to three young children shifts and changes: the angel disappears before her eyes.

Now, reminding myself that this isn't a movie review, I won't go into lugubrious plot specifics. Suffice it to say, the television series left us with an understanding that Laura was trapped in purgatory (the Red Room, the "waiting room" between the White Lodge and the Black Lodge.... I'll let you connect the dots which symbolizes heaven and which symbolizes hell). Fire Walk With Me shows us how she got there in the first place. The night Laura is murdered, she is with her bad-girl friend Ronette Pulaski; both are kidnapped and tied up and (presumably) raped and when it seems that they're both on death's door, Ronette starts to pray. A scene like this is particularly hard to watch because of the humility and futility behind it.... Ronette appeals to God ("Father") to let her die peacefully (she even goes so far to admit in rock-bottom embarrassment "I'm so dirty"), and Laura watches as Ronette (in essence) is saved: an angel appears to her.
Privy to the TV series, we know full well that Ronette survives the evening. On the contrary, Laura does not pray for help.... she has accepted her fate and is willing to die to end the pain of her life. Bob wants, literally, to be Laura, and Laura chooses death over a life as a vessel for the devil.

I know you're probably thinking that angels-as-saviors isn't the most original theme for a movie, but this is only part of the whole package and ultimately what I was inspired to write about when I first learned of RC-of-stange-culture's "Film + Faith" blog-a-thon. I wish I could articulate the care with which this religious symbology is inserted into the film.... this isn't a "message" movie, and it certainly isn't trying to make some kind of Christian religious statement; it treats angels (don't worry, they don't speak or anything) much as only a conduit to safety. I've always been intrigued in the line drawn in the sand between heaven and hell, and how Lynch chooses to represent this in the Red Room, a place where the denizens of heaven commune with those from hell. Lynch even displays these angels as stereotypes: pale-skinned, beautiful, and peaceful, these women wear white robes and white wings.... he's playing off this stereotype to accent the pitch-black core of the movie's themes. In the television series he hints at this too; supernatural beings who provide a kind of protection are pale and light-colored (like the giant, seen in the Red Room at last in the series' finale, and the white horse that appears to Laura's mother when Bob goes after her daughter).

This is a movie close to me because the whole "Twin Peaks" world is close to me, and it's a movie that will knock the breath out of you with how heavy a story it tells. Where the television show merely revealed this darkness, the film plays it out brushstroke by brushstroke. It offers closure on Laura's life, gives us a glimpse of what life might have been like after "Twin Peaks" with characters we're more familiar with (Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is absolutely necessary to this film, but only inasmuch about what becomes of him at the TV series' end), and reminds us about the town of Twin Peaks in all the ways the movie takes pains to contrast against it.

Because Laura is so aware and conscious of her own demise (and its ultimate necessity), it's only fitting that Lynch rewards her (and rewards the entire "Twin Peaks" saga, in a satisfying and devastating way) as ending the film with her bittersweet ascent to the White Lodge, to heaven. Laura admits to falling into a world where the angels have all gone away, and he shows us this as the angel disappears from the painting in her bedroom.... and at last, through her tumultuous travel, Laura receives her own angel. Why? Because a death unenlightened is not worth suffering.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

padma cometh

Despite my borderline-illness of always leaving the Strand Bookstore with two books in hand to buy, I do like to loiter about when I get a chance.... once a week, usually. And yesterday, at the table of cookbooks, proudly displaying Padma's new tome of recipes, a placard happily announced the Padma Lakshmi Event on Monday, November 19th. Padma Lakshmi Event?! She's coming to New York to hawk her cookbook. I'm still curious how involved she was in the actual generation of these recipes. Maybe she'll actually demonstrate to us what exactly is so Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet. In which case I'll be in the front row.