Monday, August 04, 2014

"He and I were once ..." Viola hesitated, teasing out the fringe of her black and silver stole.
"I see," Dulcie said, but of course she did not see. What was it they were once, or had been once to each other? Lovers? Colleagues? Editor and assistant editor? Or had he merely seized her in his arms in some dusty library in a convenient corner by the card index catalogues one afternoon in spring? Impossible to tell, from Viola's guarded hint. How irritating it sometimes was, the delicacy of women!
No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym

Friday, May 09, 2014

a review of Good in Bed

This review of Jennifer Weiner's first novel, Good in Bed (2001), was published a year after it first came out, on the now-defunct website Scarlet Letters. I wrote it as both a response to the recommendations I had gotten for it as a size-/fat-positive book and a review. I edited it down a bit here for reasons of ranting interminability, but it still (!) requires a bit of scrolling. 

Why Jennifer Weiner's Bestseller Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Sometimes a near miss can be more annoying than a wildly off-target shot. By which I mean: I was supposed to like this book. Good in Bed, by first-time novelist Jennifer Weiner, a bestseller in hardback and in its recent paperback release, has been recommended by fellow fat folk, and pushed by reviews that called it "a tool in the journey toward our own self-acceptance" (BBW) and "a must-read for any woman who struggles with body image" (Publisher's Weekly). But the book irritated me in the particular way that a book for which you are theoretically the demo can. I'm less pissed off about Good in Bed now than when I first read it, but as a not-great book it still annoys, especially because its primary attention-getting hook (which has nothing to do with the wasted title) lies unchallenged, even encouraged, by our imperfect understanding of issues of size.

According to reviewers, Good in Bed is about a woman "who learns how to love her plus-size self" (People)--her journey on the "road to self-confidence" (Lifetime). Candace "Cannie" Shapiro is a wisecracking Gen-X entertainment reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper with divorced parents--a disappearing emotional monster of a father and a late-in-life lesbian mother, a Princeton education, burning ambition, a driving sense of outsiderness and a former boyfriend who dumps her after she suggests they take a break. She finds this out at the beginning of the book when he starts writing about their relationship in "Moxie" magazine. By the middle of the book she has an unwanted pregnancy by her ex and a fruitful friendship with a Hollywood movie star. By the end, after a confrontation with her father and her daughter's (seriously soap opera) premature birth, she has true love with the doctor who runs the diet program at the University of Pennsylvania (more on that absurdity later) and a new sense of body acceptance, which she broadcasts in her own column in Moxie.

Sounds like a pretty size-positive story on the surface. After all, a summer book with a fat girl protagonist and a no-diet ending is still fairly revolutionary in some ways, maybe more significant in its context than in a more obscure place. It has been a hard thing to get a handle on the compromised, irritating attitude towards size I find in Good in Bed, regardless, but in the end the road Cannie travels doesn't look much like the world fat people actually live in.

Cannie, more or less lumped in her 2001 arrival into the chorus line of first-person single girls who occupied publishing lists in their genre in search of catchphrase--'Dump Lit,' 'Bridget Clones,' 'Brit Chick Lit,' Neurotic Female Fiction' (that would be super-feminist USA Today)--differs from Bridget Jones not so much in her body issues, which are as raging as those characters' for most of the book, but in her actual described size. She is at 5'10" a size 16.

Let me just say now, and loudly, and sincerely, that I understand all pain, including the pain of body issues, to be relative. I do not assume from looking at anybody, fat or thin, that I know what kinds of struggles they carry; hence the meaninglessness to me of the term "weight problem." But I am going to note, since Weiner does not, that size 16 is a somewhat average size for an American woman (the average American woman is around 145 pounds and a size 12, according to current statistics). Size 16 isn't tiny, but at 5'10" it's barely Lane Bryant territory. Cannie can buckle airplane seatbelts (tightly), even when pregnant. Once she mentions "inadequate armchairs," but she slides into booths without having to first gauge whether she'd fit. She is able to squeeze into the shirt of her tiny movie star friend (an oversized shirt, but still). She's big, but she ain't that big.

Which is fine, but it's part of the nearsightedness of this book that she never sees this for herself, nor Weiner for her readers. Which means that the media, ready as ever to call anything starting with size 12 as fat, don't get their thinking on that front challenged either: "A single woman with a vulnerable heart, a biting sense of humor and a pair of ever-widening thighs" ha-ha-ed Barnes & Noble; "Seriously overweight" (KUOW-FM); "She is big. Very big." (USA Today).

Quite often Cannie herself seems to have all the stunning self-awareness and attitude of a Cathy cartoon. I think this is what's supposed to make us like her ("one of the funniest full-figured heroines to come along in years" [Mode]), what we're supposed to identify with, what maybe gives the book some tacit approval from reviewers. Here are some of Cannie's responses to conversational gambits about her body:
"Do you know who you remind me of?"..."That guy on Jerry Springer who was so fat that the paramedics had to cut a hole in his house to get him out of it?"
"Think of this as a journey..." "Except that our journey led us to
the wonderful world of plus-size shopping and lonely nights."
"He should be in the circus..." "Yeah, well, a few more pounds and
I'll go, too. They still hire fat ladies, right?"
"You're stuck with a body that you think men don't want..." "It's a little more than a theory at this point." 

Cannie chants this stuff most of the way to the novel's rousing I Love My Body ending. It's interspersed with moments of status quo-challenging dialogue--you can see where Weiner is going--but Cannie's actions and thinking flip-flop strangely, and not merely in a way that would seem to demonstrate the ambivalence most women feel about their bodies.

Good in Bed is badly enough written at times that it's just not clear what Cannie feels--it's full of false endings, contradictory, tidily-won revelations that are doubled-back upon, and easy talk of change when it's not at all clear that change has happened. Even the opening gambit confuses: Cannie reads the column in which her ex-boyfriend discusses why he dumped her, how he loved her body--"She took no pleasure from the very things I loved, from her size, her amplitude, her luscious, zaftig heft"--and she goes and immediately enrolls in a diet program.

The moments of self-accepting epiphany in Good in Bd do not hang together in a convincing portrait of one person's development. At the end of the book, full of fury at the circumstances of her daughter's birth and bitterness about her father, Cannie unintentionally loses weight. Then she discovers that she doesn't care, and reverts to her old size, and publishes a broadside about accepting her body: "I will love myself because I am sturdy," "I may never be thin, but I will be happy," "There are more terrifying things than trying on bathing suits in front of three-way department-store mirrors." Accepting her body, for Cannie, also seems to involve packing her sexuality away--although it's partly attributed to the pregnancy and heartbreak her character inhabits for the last half of this book. (One more reason the title doesn't fit.)

As Cannie dithers, the burden of enlightened body attitudes is unconvincingly placed on the shoulders of everyone around her. Body acceptance comes from her mother, her friends, the columns her ex-boyfriend writes, her movie star friend, and, most often, her diet doctor, for Christ's sake. Weiner is trying to illustrate Cannie's journey towards acceptance in a Wizard of Oz fashion ("I was all right, all along"..."'You have everything you need,' my mother had told me'"), and in doing so she upholsters her life with good health, an active, gorgeous body (Cannie's descriptions of her body, next to the wisecracking, feel coyly luscious rather than conflicted), professional and financial success (including selling a screenplay in Hollywood that features a fat heroine), a full romantic/sexual history, and despite her father, an astonishingly generous support system of friends and family. Cannie mopes myopically through the richness, cracking self-deprecating jokes and reacting negatively, even dismissively, to the positive talk and support around her. It makes her a hard character to sympathize with, even as bad things happen to her. When the book is convincingly enough written that you are buying this world populated with hunky size-accepting diet doctors (not often), you are just exasperated with Cannie not seeing it. The journey she's on is unconvincing: all she does is flip around and note the luxury around her.

And okay: hunky, single, big girl-liking diet doctors. This bit of Irvingesque wish-fulfillment annoyed most of all. Dr. K., whom we are to believe Cannie is not noticing as a romantic prospect, is a really nice, but flat, reflective character. We find out little about him, except for an odd Freudian explanation for his specialization in weight-loss, and he does little plot-wise but woo and rescue Cannie over and over, including the one final time leading to the body-accepting denouement. This diet doctor tells Cannie she looks fine as she is, tells her diets don't work, tells her that given her heredity she might not have been meant to be thin. It's a lovely fantasy, a doctor who in addition--I'm not kidding--brings her food, sends her food, takes her out to eat, makes her dinner (honestly it seems kind of fucked-up; on one occasion he uses her list of "trigger" foods to figure out what to make) but it's symptomatic of how this book doesn't deal with the realities of living as a fat person. I agree that we are all all right, all along, regardless of our size. But the happiest size 34 is still going to have a harder time finding housing, jobs, partners, decent health care, educational opportunities and clothing than the unhappiest size 8, and diet doctors--quite specifically--keep that system working. (Reviewers seemed to protest much more loudly at the idea of a nice movie star than a size-accepting diet doctor: "This is such a sunny book that it regards film stars as sweet," marveled The New York Times.)

In fact, despite the ringing ending, Good in Bed takes a fairly traditional view of issues of size, period. It's not particularly sympathetic to other fat characters. There is a brief appearance by an inspiringly self-confident fat yoga teacher (she has more than a bit of an impersonal Glenda the Good Witch aura about her--Wizard of Oz indeed), but Cannie's nemesis, her "super-size" co-worker Gabby, about whom she even says "you'd think we would enjoy some solidarity because of our shared oppression, our common struggle to survive in a world that deems any woman above a size twelve grotesque and laughable," is written about in mean ways: she "waddles," has "thick fingers." Gabby is mean just because she's mean, but the reason they don't find any solidarity about size is Cannie's attitude. The other women in Cannie's diet class are written about as smart enough to rebel against yet more portion-control talk, but they aren't given much of a voice other than to ask for drugs and get nostalgic for donuts in a scene that reminded me of the movie Fatso. Dr. K tells us not everyone is meant to be thin, but Weiner makes it clear in her story-telling that thin people don't eat much and fat people do and that's how it happens.

Ultimately, few of the specifics of fat prejudice really seem to be the province of Good in Bed. Cannie's struggle with fatphobia, as written, is internal, and in the past. She talks about men looking at her "with disinterest and/or scorn because [she is] a Larger Woman," but this never actually happens (one guy asks her out as a friend, not a date, but the book even acknowledges it might have nothing to do with her size, that these feelings are coming from the "shrill, hysterical" part of herself). In one scene she confronts a proto-Courtney-Love character who calls her a "fat girl." And there is an anecdotal confrontation with a Hollywood agent's belief that there is one bankable fat actress. But that's it. Most of what actually happens in this book ignores the realities of fat life. This book is clearly fueled by the pain of being fat in a thin world--it's saturated with it--but that's it. It's more about "feeling fat" than actually being fat. (The word "fat" is not used in a neutral descriptive way in this book at all.) It shadow-boxes it. Whatever Cannie's size, if Good in Bed were a flat-out bubbly fantasy of fat girl entitlement, I'd be all over it. But it's not. Cannie finds validation in a world which is neither revolutionary nor realistic.

Books like Good in Bed, while illustrating, as well-funded pieces of mainstream media, currently accepted American attitudes towards fat folk, do also provide toeholds, Joan Riverses quips and all: maybe I should be rooting for it. I've thought about how I'd react to this book as a teenager if the idea of size acceptance was new to me -- which I was, and it was, at one point. Probably it would have been more helpful than quality time reading Scruples and being jealous of Billy Ikehorn, forced to glamorously lose weight in her Parisian home-stay.

And yet I don't know. The body-hating, body-starving world is everywhere in a thousand tricky permutations (and yo, hello--size 16 is only the beginning of the fat girl rainbow) and it is the strongest, most unapologetic, real words and characters that pulls me through it. Social barometer or not, I find Good in Bed lacking. (This book has also made me think of how Susie Bright has said [to paraphrase] she doesn't want to read one more coming out story. I'm getting tired of stories of Fat Girls Finding Themselves. Can't we already be there? Somewhere?)

There are lots of other reasons to dislike Good in Bed. The topicality of a "Saturday Night Live" episode, a brand name usage to rival Terry McMillan ("the diamonds were each about the size of a SunMaid raisin"), its overwritten First Novel qualities (did I mention Weiner is a Princeton-graduated, Philadelphia Inquirer entertainment reporter?), its breezy and confessional yet brittle prose, the tiresomely unkind stereotype of Cannie's mother's 12-stepping partner with her two-ton loom and rainbow stickers, or the off-putting sight of a favorite poet of mine quoted in it (Philip Larkin; nothing quite as disturbing as seeing an author you love quoted by an author you don't).

All that--well, other than wincing at the Larkin-quoting--that's my own uptight problem--is certainly the responsibility of poor writing, and better editing would have affected all the other stuff too. But even with its stirring message of size acceptance designed to twang our strings, I still would pass over Good in Bed for dieting, smoking, better-written Bridget Jones any day. This worries me, but it's true. Sometimes a miss, to quote Philip Larkin, is "as bad as a mile."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

the best bums

I don't know about you, but the internet often makes me think about Philip Larkin. Or maybe it's the other way around. It is in so many ways a mirror opposite of the 20th-century world he fenced with, the world he both used and felt victimized by, with its heavily observed restrictions and
middle-class conventions. Except of course, that by the time he died in 1985, the world had changed many times over already, and he was quite never the hapless chump his public image fashioned. But still: the internet. What would he have thought about any porn in the world at your fingertips whenever you wanted it? Not just No God any more, or sweating in the dark / About hell and that, or having to hide / What you think of the priest, but no trips to London for the girly rags in the desk drawer at Hull either. (Philip Larkin and Ma Ingalls: I wonder pretty much constantly what these two people would think of life in 2014.)

The other day there was a hashtag on Twitter about adding "up your bum" to a movie title that made me think about how Larkin and Kingsley Amis closed their letters to each other. Their valedictions almost always ended with the word "bum, " added after an inspired collection of nonsensical, pointed, political, literary, and deprecating phrases. A kind of hashtag in a way.

Regarding the origin of the Bums, Amis told Anthony Thwaite, editor of Larkin's poems and letters:
The bum thing started with a letter or card from P. in the 1940s I should guess. At the end he wrote Stumble bum Philip in place of All the best etc. A stumble bum, I found later, is US slang for a drunken tramp. I didn't know that then, took it just for a v. mild impropriety and signed off my next Crumble bum Kingsley [6/8/46]. One or two variations followed, then I did a bit of pioneering with something based on the pre-Raphaelite biography stuff I was then doing research into at Oxford, and wrote something like D.G. Rossetti was about five foot eight inches in height, with a pair of black moustaches that contrasted sharply with his rather pale bum. P. took up the idea, though in letters that followed he tended to go on going for simple ones like Electricity bill bum and one I remember, C.H. Sisson bum. I rather went in for the rambling ones. His last letter to me, which he dictated as you know, apologised for the absence of the usual valediction.
The main thing about Amis-Larkin Bums is that they, like the letters themselves, are funny; powered by what Martin Amis called his father's "great engine of comedy" (I didn't much like Experience, but that phrase has stuck with me). They're really funny (more in context, of course), especially when skewering/pointing out the blather of literary criticism, the depressing phraseology of the medical establishment, the ignominious aspects of their aging, or making fun of themselves. When they're taking the piss. They are also sometimes miserably reflective of all the things that make you squirm about these guys: xenophobic, racist, depressed, reactionary, sexist. (Liking Philip Larkin's poetry has been one of the more constantly educating experiences in life, because you are never left alone to enjoy his work in ignorance; who-he-really-was is right up front at this point [although I haven't been able to read the Monica Jones letters yet; just can't do it]. You don't get to separate the art from the person -- or maybe you always have to; you always have to reconcile, to whatever end you choose, the man who wrote "An Arundle Tomb" with "An Arundle Tomb." I'm not sure this is a bad thing to have to think about.)

Collecting the Bums might be just the kind of joyless cataloguing a unimaginative biographer, a Jake Balokowsky, would take on; a hack exercise that makes something funny unfunny via overanalysis and decontextualization. But I felt like doing it. What can I say, I wanted to see the Bums lined up. Which is a very internet-era thing to do: making a collection of like items, just because you can. Also just because I can, and to contradict myself: I left out some of both Amis' and Larkin's Thatcher- and otherwise politically-themed Bums from the end of Larkin's life. I just didn't have the heart for them. They feel more crankily reactionary than funny.

You will see there is a giant gap from 1947 to 1967, which is where no letters from Larkin to Amis survive, although there are bizillions from Amis (there are a lot more from Amis, period). I decided to leave those out for the moment, although that means we miss the Lucky Jim years as well as such elegant closings as "Many wept for joy to see the Queen standing at last on her bum" (5/19/54). You will also see that very early Bums show Amis' and Larkin's love of fucking around with the long S.

KA to PL, 6/19/46
Hungry bum.
kingsley gleet, an vndertaking tape∫try-weauer
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/24/46
Stendhal bum.
GLUBITIO . . . a collap∫'d affirmer
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/1/46
Kingdom bum.
a di∫pa∫sion'd politician
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/15/46
Splendid bum,
a di∫plea∫'d ma∫ter of hor∫e,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 7/17/46
Handel bum
Philip
a mea∫ur'd manufacturer

KA to PL, 7/30/46
Belgrade bum,
a di∫franchy∫'d mu∫ick pupill
kingsley

KA to PL, 9/5/46
Senex bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/7/46
shiftless bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/16/46
Smelly bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/24/46
Bramble bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 9/25/46
Shadrach bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/30/46
handsome bum
Philip
a be∫mirch'd bearer

KA to PL, 10/8/46
Sauterne bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/15/46
Spendthrift bum,
Kingsley
v

KA to PL, 10/24/46
Random bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 11/7/46
Fandango bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/2/46
Tambourine bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/6/46
vibraharp bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/13/46
shellback bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/9/47
Snodgrass bum,
KINGSLEY

KA to PL, 1/30/47
Byrhtnoth bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/6/47
Pharnabazus bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/24/47
Haemoglobin bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 2/26/47
Kesselring bum
Philip

KA to PL, 3/20/47
Pardon bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/24/47
Osmosis bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/26/47
Tip-toe bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/30/47
Innigkeit bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/5/47
Epipsychidion bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/16/47
School organization, discipline etc. bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/31/47
Isn't it rather lonely for you up there? What do you do all day bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 6/3/67
Oh Larkin the Development Committee has been discussing your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 5/21/67
Darling have you rung the accountants about your bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/20/68
To cure your gut-trouble you'll have to cut down on bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/19/69
When she takes her seat in the House, Miss Devlin will bring a breath of fresh bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/11/69
Confrontation bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/30/70
Anthology of socialist bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/6/70
Max Roach bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/14/70
Crow bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/9/72
Stockhausen bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/29/74
Cash on the table bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/7/72
Events of the last 48 hours in Vietnam highlight the weakness of the President's bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/29/73
Adrian Henri bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/9/73
Stockhausen bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/29/74
Cash on the table bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/28/74
Amis's world lacks among other things the inner dimension of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/31/74
Present conditions bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 4/13/76
Oh Larkin I'm afraid we're going to suspend your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 6/11/76
Your blood-pressure's rather high, Mr. Amis; I'm afraid you'll have to cut down on bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 6/18/76
Fight for the Right to Bum
Philip

KA to PL, 7/5/76
Hurry up please it's bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/11/76
Mr. Amis seems undecided whether he has written a thriller or a work of serious bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/7/76
one man one bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/15/77
I am/am not registered for bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/11/77
Eurocommunism bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/28/77
Our text of the poem differs from the one in your bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 10/24/77
Geoffrey Grigson bum, (Jill bum)
Philip

PL to KA, 8/1/78
Margaret Thatcher is noted for her head-girl's bum
Philip

PL to KA, 9/19/78
Professor of Poetry in the University of bum
Philip

KA to PL, 10/28/77
Between Mr. Scott and myself there has never been the slightest question of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/24/78
Princess Margaret should reconsider her bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/22/78
Cuban penetration into the bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/6/79
The prime minister promised to stick to his bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/19/79
A net increase of earnings of 20% across the bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 3/3/79
A series of six programmes by Seamus bum,
Philip

PL to KA, 3/31/79
Oh Larkin, I've been looking into your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 9/18/79
The Conservatives are traditionally the party of bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/18/79
Afraid the left ear's going the way of the right bum,
Philip

PL to KA, 9/23/79
The Pope's visit would provide an excellent opportunity for the British Government to renew overtures for bum,
Philip

PL to KA, 10/28/79
Penelope Fitzgerald's prize-winning bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 12/4/79
Nuclear reactors are a potential source of frightening bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/9/80
I'll just whip this molar out and then start work on your bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 4/26/80
Dear Mr. Larkin, I have been studying your bum,
P

KA to PL, 9/8/80
Will someone please explain why Polish strikers are heroes but British strikers are bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/5/80
Anthony Burgess's gusto and exuberance springs from his brilliant bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/14/81
Mortgage interest rate bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 1/16/81
The Arvon Poetry Competition shows the natural aptitude of the ordinary reader for bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 6/9/81
Attractive Georgian residence standing on its own bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/24/81
My client is of course entitled to half the total proceeds of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/81
At your age you really must go easy on the bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 1/3/82
The Librarian has got to streamline his bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 2/15/82
I bequeath unto my Literary Executors all my bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/12/82
It is not the BBC's role just to echo the Government's bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 6/26/82
Man that is born of woman hath but a short ti
                                                                                   time to bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 8/3/82
Any undue strain on that leg and you'll be back to square bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 11/11/82
Of course you realize being even as little as half a stone overweight renders you measurably more liable to bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 11/21/82
I (signature) agree to purchase the above-mentioned bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 3/9/83
I want my children to grow up in a world of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/5/83
You cannot simply walk into bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/18/84
Mrs. Thatcher is showing a disquieting penchant for bum
Kingsley

PL to KA, 8/9/84
Smoking can damage your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 12/18/84
Implicit recital of agonised bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/2/85
We shall have to arrange to bridge your bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/18/85
The VENDOR hereby indemnifies the PURCHASER against all bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/24/85
John Fowles's uncanny feeling for bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/1/85
It is sad to see a novelist of Mr. Amis's repute stooping to bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 10/4/85
Mrs. Thatcher must reconsider her bum.
Philip

KA to PL, 11/23/85
Of all the 30s writers Spender showed the keenest sense of bum
Kingsley

2"In his contribution to Larkin at Fifty Amis had voiced a slight demur about what he took to be Larkin's occasional 'wilful verbal eccentricity' in the use of a particular word." (From Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite)

Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Hilly Amis in London, 1958

Friday, March 07, 2014

scandybars!

I have Wonderfulness burnout. Most every new, amazing website I see (I'm not being bitchy--they are amazing) that collects similar wonderful things, or approaches things from a intriguingly wonderful and fascinating POV, or exhibits years and years of someone's wonderful obsessive work, gets a 10-second OHAHHGAHEHhhhh from me and then I have no idea what to do with my reaction except be overwhelmed and stirred-up in a futile way and then wait for the next wonderfulness. I must figure out how to handle this better. Locking myself out of social media helps.

But I loved this Tumblr site so much when I saw it that it overwhelmed my wonderfulness burnout and was just wonderful, period, so I had to write about it: scandybars.tumblr.com. It is cross sections of candy bars.

I love that it approaches the images in a standardized, scientific way. I love that the images burst with detail but are in their larger design on the page very clean and simple. I love that the photos give you what is ultimately a close look at the intent and form of these industrialized food offerings. I love that it's about candy, and that so much of it is chocolate candy. I love that it is about food architecture and textures and ingredients, but also shapes and patterns. I love that the images from certain views become so abstract as well as so anatomical (see that Ferrero Rocher, above! cripes!), and that the whole site is a sort of nod to a catalog of biological specimens. I love that it uses Tumblr well, has a distinct visual style that unifies and that it is not endlessly cluttered with confusing verbal attribution. I love that by existing it kind of slows down the eating process and lets you really see, close-up, what is calling to you at a bigger remove; zooms in on what you are actually experiencing on your tongue and in your mouth when you submit to the candy experience.

There's something mildly genius about it. Check out the site! The photos are much better experienced in situ.

(Above, Snickers Nutcracker [Christmas candy]; below, Aero Bubbles.)


The Long Winter

I know I'm not the only person who tends to think in increments of Laura Ingalls Wilder--generally, in life, but during this crazy winter especially. I often have found myself comparing weather events in recent months here in Chicago to events in the 1880-1881 Dakotas "hard winter," to figure out where we match up with the chronology of Ingalls' The Long Winter. Here is a graphic to keep track of things if you do the same thing!

Illustrations from The Long Winter by Garth Williams.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Threesome (1994)


There is the slight feel of an accident in how Threesome ended up a good movie. Movies that tackle primarily sex and relationships can date strangely fast for topics that have constant relevance. Assuming they go over well in the first place, they are so imprinted by directorial intent and sexual mores that their appeal can go misshapen weirdly quickly, even, or especially, if they are intending to shock or push boundaries. Threesome has good bones, though, convincing emotional balance and great acting, which ended up aging better and being more important than any way in which it positioned itself culturally.

Figuring out that last thing -- how shocking this movie really was -- is confusing, and I even saw it when it first came out (if it helps you place it, this movie came out the day Kurt Cobain's body was discovered). Clearly it was supposed to be outr√© (the word "threesome" itself was not nearly as folded into regular rhetoric as it is now), but beyond that contemporary reviews are headachingly contradictory and mostly negative: the movie is either "prudish and sexophobic," or a "minor exploitation flick"; full of "abundant sex, nudity and profanity" or "90s variation on those all-talk, no-action movies." Janet Maslin was especially sneering, calling it "utterly sexless, charmless" and only "alleged[ly] daring."

It's hard not to see confusion in sexual understanding reflected in the range of responses to the film, including to the fact that one of the main characters is gay: whatever it is writer/director Andrew Fleming was variably charged with trying to do, he apparently didn't do it. At least a couple reviews use "sitcom" as a point of negative comparison. I get that: the outlines of the film are shaded in pretty light pencil, but there's still a much better movie in there than it got credit for. Roger Ebert came closest at the time to seeing it for what it was, writing in his review: "What is strong in the movie is the language. Like many kids their age, these three are more bold in talk than action, and the movie sounds right; it sounds like undergraduate human dialogue, intended to shock, to liberate, to amuse . . . The three actors are all smart, and able to reflect the way kids sometimes use words, even very bold words, as a mask for uncertainty and shyness." He was right: the sex scenes in this movie were never really the main challenge; it was how the characters talked about sex, which has become much more common in the years since. Some of the conceits have even been become more or less written in stone, since, such as "sex is like pizza" (was Threesome the first?).

The movie is about three college students: a woman, Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle), who's a drama major, and two men, a business major bro, Stuart (Stephen Baldwin), and Eddy (Josh Charles), much smarter, and coming to terms with the fact that he might be gay. Stuart and Eddy are completely opposite but decent ying/yang roommates who end up with Alex as their third roommate by an administrative accident due to her man's name. The three of them develop an intense friendship criss-crossed by the tensions of not having what they want from each other (Alex wants Eddy, Eddy wants Stuart, Stuart wants Alex), although Eddy is a virgin, adding to the sense that this is a person who doesn't know who he is yet. Fueled by all these desires and tension, they become a group wholly unto themselves, constantly goofing off and roughhousing.

This, to my thinking, is what Threesome depicts so convincingly: one of those untenable, young, goofy, all-absorbing, almost familial friendships that is exclusionary, even rude, to the outside world, until it blows up or fizzles out and makes you wonder what happened. The movie is blessedly free of long isolated reaction shots: the actors really interact with each other the whole way through the story of this friendship. The fact that the narrator, Eddy, is gay, does not shock now, but coming out is realistically rough on him and the woman who wants him.

Which brings us to Lara Flynn Boyle, and her great, intelligent performance, as is Charles' (Baldwin is actually quite good too -- really! -- and well-cast, but he's missing range). Alex is sexually aggressive, real, expressive, not totally fair, impulsive and emotional, pretentious, needy, present, sad. She stands out among female characters to me twenty years later. In her first scene -- Eddy walks in on her in the shower -- the first thing we see her doing is checking out Eddy's penis. Her voice trembles with volcanic anger, as if lives are at stake, while confronting Stuart about eating her yogurt. She apologizes to Eddy later after coming on to him in the library -- writhing around on his desk until she orgasms -- with "I apologize for my exuberance," but immediately corrects herself: "I don't apologize for my exuberance, I revel in it!" before smashing Eddy up against the wall and demanding to know why he's not interested. She doesn't pretend to be cool, even as she tries to save face. She's hurt. ("I revel in it!" is another line that could be read as just pretentious or -- as it does to me -- as a young woman talking herself into an idea she's heard even as she speaks.) There is a tour de force meltdown in the latter half of the movie, after another rebuffed pass at Eddy, in which she's throwing books. Her delivery and follow-through in the line, "I'm sick of falling in love with guys whodon'tgiveafuckaboutme!" while she hurls a textbook across the room satisfies like a good base hit or completed TD. It's really good.

The biggest mistake in how critics viewed this film was to assume it thought it was cooler than it was; to assume that we were being told by this film, which is ultimately about people who can't be more than 20, that it's the final word on naughty triangulated relationships. Maybe that's how it was marketed, but the movie was not taking itself seriously in the way critics thought. If it does at times -- honestly I can't always tell if Fleming intended this or if it was an accident -- that actually ends up serving the convincing self-absorption of characters who are just juniors in college. In the first scene in which Eddy and Alex bond, she is smoking, wearing a beret, and they are talking about Catcher in the Rye. Maslin just can't stand this, but I wonder how could anybody think we're supposed to find these characters convincingly au courant? I've never felt the movie thought it was presenting sexual sophisticates. The characters are playing at it in the way you do at age twenty, as with all of Boyle's smoking and red-red lipstick and retro-chic wardrobe (this is a character who also still sleeps with a teddy bear). Trying it on. Later in the movie they have a little dinner in their dorm room with shitty paper plates and candles and she wears a 50s housewife apron and pearls. Boyle and Charles, especially, are quite extraordinarily beautiful young actors to look at, but that doesn't make them magically figured out as characters.

One of the best scenes early in the movie shows Eddy and Stuart with Alex backstage after a terrible college production of Oedipus Rex. Start tries to be nice, offering meaningless compliments, but Alex coos in happiness after Eddy trashes the production, eventually bursting out in anger at Stuart with: "This is art! The work is what's important here! It's better to be honest than nice, okay!?" (At which point Stuart delivers the epic line, "Well, fuck me for being nice," before leaving the theater and setting into motion scenes of more sexual frustration for Alex with Eddy.) There's just no way you can take "This is art!" seriously, although it's to the movie's credit that it lets the characters do so.

Eventually the intensity of various attractions between the three overflows into more complicated sexual situations: first in an interrupted scene with all of them at a lake away from campus, then in an affair with Alex and Stuart, then briefly with Alex and Eddy, and then in an actual consummated capital-T threesome, which, along with the open sexual language and more general wariness toward/need to point out The Gay at the time, was I guess the final reason Threesome was considered so racy.



I personally think that the sex scenes benefit from Thomas Newman's emotional score (I am a sucker for his atmospheric, jangly music), although for some that might contribute to a lack of intensity or immediacy. The best thing about the scenes is that ultimately they're not just about sex. The threesome marks the end of the characters' relationship, which makes some emotional sense. What doesn't make as much sense are the spaces left by the cutting the MPAA apparently demanded of scenes between Eddy and Stuart. The movie barely lets the two men interact sexually, when they finally do in the threesome at the end. It's a meaningful moment, but small, and quite different than what was apparently intended. I'd bet the shape of the movie, the story of the relationships, would have been better if more of the sex between the two men had stayed in. It also would have shaped the story more definitively as Eddy's. As a gay man's.

Some warnings: you will endure two to three montages in Threesome, depending on how you count, which could make you roll your eyes (or like the movie more, although people don't like to admit that). Baldwin is often greased down with distractingly bad hair product in a haircut that already tests us at times without it. There is a bag of groceries he carries in a crucial scene that is beyond Sitcom in the unrealistic and fussy placement of its contents. You may find it cheesy, what happens to the gnome. Boyle's character has a queen-size bed (has anyone in a dorm ever had a queen-sized bed?).

Sometimes there is tired writing in the voiceovers that is hard to swallow (again, young and pretentious -- they sound like a young man's writing them) but in general Charles' delivery of the narration is moving and thoughtful, as is his whole performance, which conveys confusion, betrayal, hope. He's not cool either: he's a vulnerable, real person. In lots of ways it really is the acting -- what these actors do with their dialogue as well as all their physical interaction -- that makes this movie.

The biggest problem with Threesome is that the movie is not very smart or fleshed out in its setting or about the specifics of college life, and it's this that validates the critical cries of Sitcom (or made it hard for them to remember this movie was about 20-year-olds). Boyle's character does very little -- no -- class-going or studying; the script provides only superficial cultural references/signifiers for these characters. This problem compromises one of the constructs of Alex's relationship with Eddy vs. Stuart: she wants Eddy for (among other things) his mind, for the intellectual connection, even as Stuart and she have mutual heat.

There is a sort of famous scene in which her character gets off while Stuart is going down on her at the same time that she is on the phone with Eddy, who is at her request reciting big words, including his last one before he hangs up, "concupiscence." As she comes, she throws the phone away, yelling, "Oh god, what does concupiscence mean?," which is either a fabulous filmic gesture, or way too much, depending on how you feel about this movie. The mind/body split these guys represent is an obvious construct that the movie's lack of smart college detail doesn't help sell. Nonetheless, it's also a split that is real fucking enough in this world where people often get what they want from others in all kinds of compartmentalized ways.

Eddy doesn't get what he wants, not really. He can never merge Alex and Stuart into the person he wants, nor can he have what he wants with Stuart, period. That's one reason I like the somewhat melancholy ending of Threesome. It has a ring of emotional truth, reflecting Eddy's more limited choices, but also the limitations of these interpersonal experiments, period: addictive, situational friendships where you try people on too hard and hearts are broken and there's nothing you can do to change how they'll go. Eddy's sad voiceover at the end, "Isn't it supposed to last?" is beautiful. (Again: Thomas Newman.) The movie does what a lot of mainstream American movies don't do, which is freight emotion with sex, and sex with emotion, and see where it goes.


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

on eating at Charlie Trotter's

I wrote this unpublished review for the Chicago Reader the day after eating at Charlie Trotter's in May 2005  (a one-paragraph version of it might have been blurbed at some point). It was the second of two times I ate at his restaurant in my life, and they were beautiful experiences. I interviewed Trotter for an article that same year, and he was extraordinarily generous with me -- his time, his food, his cookbooks. 

 . . . At its best, as on a recent spring night, a meal at Charlie Trotter's comes with that expansive sense of well-being and world-enough-and-time that being led on a beautiful gastronomic trip in a thoughtfully-designed, sybaritic environment with the most sensitive of service brings.

The converted town homes that comprise Trotter’s four dining rooms are entered via a discreetly covered set of stairs that contributes, once inside, to a sense of cozy but spacious comfort. The lighting is flattering and bright enough to feel comfortable, inviting curiosity about what’s around the corner without making you feel cut off from other rooms or confused about the space. The fabrics have subtle complementary sheens, the wood gleams. The banquette where I parked for over five hours that night was the most comfortable piece of furniture I’ve ever sat in and didn’t require any discreet can-can kicking afterward to get stretched out when I finally got up. The space feels human-scaled, intime, well thought-out.

There are three usual offerings at Trotter’s: the grand and vegetarian prix-fixe menus, each about eight courses, or the hard-to-book kitchen table menu, where diners occupy the thrilling space twixt kitchen and laypeople and nibble on about 18,000 courses. Trotter’s waitstaff makes it clear from the very beginning, setting the tone for the evening, that they can customize these menus however one wants; I found myself confessing an aversion to shellfish much earlier in than in any previous relationship. And I saw a flicker in the waiter’s eye as he noticed me unpacking my Lactaid and was attempted to ride that for a request for a dairy-free meal--just to see what I got. But I wanted the grand menu, although I found myself more seduced by Trotter’s mastery of vegetable cooking than I expected to be.

The meal was springy and seasonal in happily subtle but effective ways. I started with salty-sweet Tasmanian ocean trout with spiky, even saltier hajiki. The vegetarian amuse guele was a combination of spongy morels and perfect crisp/tender fiddlehead ferns, a vegetable that a friend of mine describes as “Mesozoic” in flavor. There’s something completely seductive about that earthy, tightly coiled vegetable that makes you understand the rhapsodic language of truffle-hunters--I tasted dark, chocolate-cake dirt and morning dew. There was baby asparagus, equally tender and glowing green on the plate with the halibut and noodles (which I had substituted for the scallop with the curled pork rind atop like a jaunty hat), although the savory turnip puree it rested on almost stole the show, turning the halibut from clean-tasting to almost bland. Indeed, the vegetarian menu in general seemed to often grab our collective attention; the caramelized maui onion soup with a “flan” at the bottom made our eyes roll back in pleasure. That stuff was unbelievable.

Is the food fussy? Yes, it’s fussy. Serious. Food there is assembled--the verb to describe the last thing that happens to the food before you see it is assemble, not grill, fillet, debone, broil (before flinging on a plate). Any of those things and more might be done first, to any one of innumerable components, but in the end they are fluffed and nudged and sliced and fanned and dribbled onto their last home. Some courses look almost nouvelle cuisine-like in terms of food:plate ratio, but the food doesn’t taste small, nor did I leave the restaurant remotely hungry. The guinea fowl and celeriac terrine (oh so good, not in the least gamey) was arranged on an oblong plate with droplets of onion relish and vinaigrette and tiny snips of parsley, looking a bit like a Starry Night landscape before my big bad fork pillaged it. But even the tiny bits of herb were full of flavor, asking you to notice them. The chocolate mousse terrine was inter-layered with single crepes that within grew soft and almost melted, so that the teeth barely noticed them.

The desserts in general were astonishing--all that piling up of ingredients really works in the land and proportion of desserts. The kaffir lime sorbet with the chocolate mousse; the suave olive oil ice cream with the kumquat baba (just slightly too unmoist, somehow, I think, by contrast) that I had primed myself to dislike out of an attachment to catholic ice cream flavors (and which I loved, of course); the rhubarb sorbet on a jewel-like bed of vegetables and fruit such as gooseberries. Even the bread (what a bad thing to say about the staff of life -- "even") rocked my world. It was chewy in the most deliberate and hospitable of ways -- fresh, warm, based on various grains and in one case Carolina low country rice, with just the thinnest layer of salt in the outside crust. It made me happy for the attentive bread service and sweet butter that at just the right time kept one from being Without.

And the wine. The wine degustation is what puts the average per-diner cost at Trotters’ in the over-$200 category. The wine and beverage service is as attentive as the food’s, unostentatious enough that I didn’t notice all the refills of Fiji water from their snug square coasters. On this night the evening began with the most perfect, pale Bellini, per a springtime urge, which set just the right note. Among the wine menu there was a crisp Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs Brut; a delicate Kruger-Rumpf Riesling Kabinett that brought seconds from our wine steward, perfect as it was for a May evening; a Movia Pinot Nero that, as my friend said, was full of leather and smoke; Bodegas Catena Zapata "Alta" Cabernet Sauvignon. The meal ended with Olivares “Dulce” Monastrell and a petal-yellow, honeysuckle-flavored Tokaji-Aszu "5 Puttonyos" Chateau Pajzos, which made me think winily about late afternoon sun and shadows sliding through Art Nouveau buildings onto the river in 1920s Budapest… The swerves in taste and temperature and texture of the various wines pulled us through the meal with layers of complimentary and challenging flavors that made it more than worth it.

Dining at Trotter’s -- which is leisurely, and should be -- gives you enough time for life to flip through the looking glass into the rarified, expensive, fine-dining world where more things are as you would wish them (delicious, waited-upon, comfortable) than not. This context of special treatment makes the mistakes stand out more sharply (I get the feeling Trotter is well aware of this). Even the puny things. Especially the puny things. Very princess and the pea. The butter knives, for instance, which I found strangely ill-balanced in the hand due to the weight and the “tilted” design (which work well at full-size) bothered me. I kept gripping and regripping them. Or the mignardises, which in our case were small chewy Parisian macaroons, one of my favorite things in the world. The filling holding the hibiscus-flavored variety together hadn’t set all the way and the cookie sandwich slid around as I held it, me confused like a spoiled child princess by the fact that it wasn’t quite perfect, delicious as it was.

More to the point, bigger mistakes in this high-paid context become all about how the restaurant handles them. For instance, unlike the juicy grilled Dakota bison tenderloin, I found the unctuous crimson meat of the roasted squab (served, among other accompaniments, with simple but highly-seasoned velvety grits I wanted to take a bath in) so underdone as to be totally without tooth. Raw as heck. The waitstaff took it back with absolutely no fuss and happily fixed the mistake, checking in unobtrusively but clearly about how the fix was working, letting me know they knew I knew. They knew I knew they knew I knew they knew I knew. The tiniest of gestures and eye movements made it clear. They are on your side. The service at Trotter’s is as good as rumored: thoughtful, attentive, energetic, full of forethought, interactive at just the right level.

Trotter and his staff often end an evening -- smooth the transition to valet parking, or work to seduce an unimpressed diner -- with a tour of the restaurant or the kitchen itself. I couldn’t decide I how I felt about seeing behind the curtain; it was a little like seeing a blooper reel for a film that until then had engineered complete suspension of disbelief. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to feel my feet slide around on the tile floor after hours of banqueted comfort, nor was I sure I wanted to encounter Trotter’s Michelin star-chasing / Jack Welch-style cheerleading MO in action -- I wanted to just taste. The kitchen was astonishing, though. I had the usual first impression of galleys in a submarine, but shining through was also a sense of the energy and order that put the food I had eaten that night on my plate. There were arrays of the most beautifully polished copper saucepans I had ever seen, some of them adorably tiny, rows of similarly hunched-over (√† la mode de Trotter) absorbed staff, and everywhere intense and layered aromas. When I left I could still smell tiny zephyrs of lavender and peas and fennel, a little dazed in the spring evening that seemed to have a pale green haze hanging above the damp streets. There are probably worse ways to ease back to life. •

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lalah Hathaway

I like Lalah Hathaway. I love Lalah Hathaway. I like following what she's doing even when I'm not in love with all her music, because she is clearly in it for the long haul, constantly exploring her musical choices and becoming more masterful. I love her voice, and I love hearing what she does with it - those two things together are very exciting. She has a huge range, but she uses it as she wants to, musically, not to point out how big it is. Her bottom range is really unusual - unusually big, controlled, deep, fluid, solid. I don't offhand know any other women vocalists who live so much in lower registers like that except maybe other jazz musicians (which I'm not that familiar with.) Not even opera mezzos or contraltos. Nor, for the record, am I sure if she more properly belongs in R&B or jazz. Not sure that matters.

She opens up songs in amazing ways. I'd argue one of her biggest strengths is as a cover artist, as she takes songs and plays with them and makes them totally hers, something she does without having to fill in every last empty space. She's a musician. I have been more than a little obsessed for the last 10 years with how she has turned Luther Vandross' "Forever, For Always, For Love" into her song; I'm always listening to the latest version. In concert it's now 10-12 minutes long (usually with a very long guitar solo in the middle), and she is willing to be slow, to be quiet, to be precise, to live in it. It's full of flourish and ownership, but it can also sound simple - sometimes - made of the kind of simplicity that "could only have sprung from the highest art," as E.F. Benson would say. It's exhilarating. A clinic.

Anyhow, she has been doing this thing more and more recently that is really fun to listen to: she harmonizes with herself. She sings two - or three - notes at a time. Like throat singing. (Or David Lee Roth!) Maybe it more properly belongs in the category of a stunt or trick, but there is something so cool about it, not to mention watching audience members and fellow musicians alike lose their minds when they hear it. She doesn't do it like a big ta-dah or kicker at the end of a performance or something - she does it with a lot of musical care, like all her singing - but either way there is something incredible about hearing these noises - hearing a chord - come of out of a human being. People go INSANE.

Some spots to hear it:

- in the middle of call and response, singing Randy Crawford's "Street Life" - c: 6:45 (if you don't listen to the whole thing, at least start at 6:00 to hear her play with Arabic-style vibrato)

- singing "Something" with Snarky Puppy - c. 6:10 - 6:25 (watch the musicians go bonkers)

- singing "Summertime" with: Jason Morales - c: 5:30 - 7:00

- a clip of her doing it (not sure what song it is) - c: 0:15

- another clip - her bit is 0:00 - 2:15 and the self-harmonizing happens around 1:30 - 2:00, after she throws in bits of The Wiz

If you're not familiar with Hathaway, here is a bit of her singing Anita Baker's "Angel," showing off some of how she does, in general:


Here is my current fav version of her singing "Forever, For Always, For Love" (Paris, 2012). (Also great: versions with Errol Cooney on guitar -  this is another really gorgeous version.) All the clips from this concert in Paris are fun, because you can really see her leading her band, being in charge. Make sure you hear 4:30 - 5:30:


And here, of course, is her father, who is, you know - god. She does sound like him, I think. The size of her voice is sort of shaped the same way, with that insane bottom to it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

How silly Rhoda is, thought Deirdre, almost as if she were interested in Father Tulliver in a flirtatious way. She was as yet too young to have learned that women of her aunt's age could still be interested in men; she would have many years to go before the rather dreadful suspicion came to her that one probably never does cease to be interested.
Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym

Thursday, June 06, 2013

great iPhones news photos in history

Phil Rosenthal started this hashtag - #iphonenewspics - yesterday. Silly. Extremely satisfying. These are some of the ones I've made so far. Hard to stop.

Iwo Jima!

situation room...Bin Laden

a Great Day in Harlem
cops pepper spray at #OWS
1968 Olympics...I think they're checking
their shoelaces or something?
Einstein selfie
tear gas in Turkey
migrant mother, Dorothea Lange
...sorry about the thumb
Wright Brothers
Mission Accomplished!

Monday, June 03, 2013

on some aesthetics of Behind the Candelabra

Some of what has made Behind the Candelabra, the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Scott Thorson's book about his life with Liberace, stick with me is the poignant universality of the story: Matt Damon's vulnerable, sometimes heartbroken face as Thorson as he goes from naif to betrayed, jittery ex. Damon is wonderful. Some of it is a longtime fascination with stories of the old and closeted – or just those aging and trying to live their lives with glamour – in Hollywood. Many times this movie reminded me of scenes in Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City (1982), in which the protagonist Michael visits the Beverly Hills house of a character (named "_____") based very obviously on Rock Hudson. In one scene Michael is talking to the knowing houseman, Guido, as "twinkies" show up for a welcome-home pool party for _____:
One by one, the young men began arriving, long-limbed and Lacosted to near perfection.
"What is this?" asked Michael, hovering near the kitchen. "The summer spread of GQ?"
"They wish," said Guideo, frantically fluffing the parsley on a tray of deviled eggs. "They're anybody's spread at this point . . . and honey, when you've been in this business as long as I have, you see them come and you see them go. Mostly come . . . ya know?"
"They're so gorgeous," said Michael. "Are they actors or what?"
"What, mostly. Starlets. Harry Cohn knew all about it, only he did it with girls. Same difference. Same dumb dames standing around the pool."
But a big part of how Behind the Candelabra has stuck with me, it turns out, is how it was made. To this story, which in some ways is not a new one, the film brings precise and artistic movie craft, including a few qualities that really stuck out.


One great effect was the marriage of all the Liberacean "palatial kitsch" to pervasive yellows and glowing, often blown-out light that saturates the film – something I think of as a Soderbergh hallmark. There is yellow and gold all through this film – hair, walls, cars, houses, jewelry – but most of all: light. Light radiates back from Behind the Candelabra, from the shining yellow incandescence inside Liberace's homes and dressing rooms, to the the whited-out glare of the Palm Springs sun, to the colder but still bright-burning stage light. The light hits ominous objects like the never-ending pile of prescriptions Dr. Startz (Rob Lowe) hands Thorson, turning them into pretty luminous squares. From the very first shot – at a gay bar with Damon's back to camera – to Liberace's deathbed scene near the end, as the gaunt Michael Douglas lies on gold satin sheets that shine at the camera, the film glows with Soderbergh yellow.





All this light – which doesn't blur or obscure detail – it tends to make things sharper, even as it creates excess – does one important thing for the movie and its depiction of life inside the jewel box: brings it closer. It animates the insane interiors and spaces Liberace lived in. When you look at old photos – long shots – of Liberace's mirrored rooms and crazy gilded furniture, they can have a kind of bluish, dated feel. I mean, they would, by just virtue of age, but images of the kitschy and ornate decor of his homes – of his self – can feel kind of overwhelming and cold. The light creates focus, lets you marvel at the baroque spaces without getting lost in them. The scenes when the film's palette departs from the warm glow – at the glory holes, lit in purple neon, or the greenish light of the operating rooms during the plastic surgery scenes, or the flat white light in Damon's drug buddy Mr. Y's (Nicky Katt) house after the breakup – tend to feel disorienting, hint at discord. The yellow tends to animate the closest parts of Damon's and Douglas' life together; the other tones often fall outside of it.

The sound in Behind the Candelabra is wonderful, with subtle but sure, judiciously-chosen changes in ambient noise that put happenings in precise place, such as the distant barks of Liberace's dogs in other rooms, or a shot of an an announcement from the Palm Springs coroner (note: more blistered sunshine), which arrives with the sudden buzz of the cicadas that immediately reminds you these opulent Palm Springs interiors actually hide inside desert bunkers:

And the score was great. I have thought a lot about what it means that all the years of Liberace's life he spent playing the piano – decades – and creating his defanged, glammed-up versions of classical music, might make the most sense these days as snipped-off bits in a movie score. (I don't know what it means – I've just been thinking about it.) Soderbergh had amazing riches to choose from – music to undercut, to underline, some of it actually really beautiful. Off-hand the only time I remember hearing any other kind of music in this film is the opening scene, which is scored with Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." The song choice – and the way the song goes from straight soundtrack to sounding like it's being played in a club – makes it clear right from the beginning where this young man is coming from, in every sense.

There are no opening credits in this movie. The scene at the gay bar opens it, after just a card with the year on it:
...which for me (I don't know about you) immediately puts me in mind of 70s to mid-80s album covers. (The type is Sante Fe, designed by David Quay in 1983.) It harkens to diner script and neon signs, and to earlier 20th century script typefaces, but in my mind it feels firmly connected to 70s/early 80s deco. That open join in the "9" immediately dates it, as do the rounded ends of the monolineal characters.

Which brings us to a small detail – in terms of screen time – that really cinched my affection for this film. There are no title credits in Behind the Candelabra, but the end credits, which represent the film's first major graphic design decision, open with this extremely tasty image. I think I sighed when I saw it:



Edwardian Script, a typeface designed by the legendary Ed Benguiat in 1994, is tricky as hell, I think. I'm almost never happy to see it, usually. Even in 2013, with ever-changing design rules, it is tricky. It looks, at a squint, like a lyrical and strenuously uniform/classically regular copperplate typeface, but the minute you're closer you can see it is also emotional and all over the place, especially for one designed to suggest elegance and formality.

You can see some of it the craziness with an up-close look at the join from O to D and the lower-case R, here:

These are bold and variant shapes within the thicket of more regular ups and downs (they almost look like Benguiat shaded in the loops by mistake, as if the ink in his pen had gushed a little there). The thicks and thins often take their own pace; they are not as uniform as they seem at first look (Benguiat created some amazing brush and script typefaces, which fits with this). And Edwardian has some kooky bulb terminals, as in the S and the X, below – look at those things!

I think it's very hard to use the right amount of Edwardian Script. It's not just formal – but it's not just nutty. All those joins and curves, which almost look like blown-up or close-up versions of joins in other typeface, can both lose their effect or have too much effect – overwhelm – unless administered at correct dosages: amounts that let you see the wacky curves and terminals but not get lost in them. And I'm not even taking on the genuinely florid Edwardian capitals, which are excessive and increase illegibility quite a bit when used more than one a word.

In the time that Behind the Candelabra takes place - at the time Liberace Cooks! (for instance) was published in 1970 – there was, in my memory, a lot of lettering like that. A lot of thick, packed-together, flourish-heavy type of a kind you see echoed a bit in Edwardian Script.
You can see when you look a bit closer that the K has an even bigger bulb terminal than the one in the Edwardian Script "X":


A much more common type of copperplate typeface for the moment – Bickham, for instance – renders letters quite differently:

The thicks are less thick and extend for much longer (and along the longer ascenders and descenders), with less variation, shortening and standardizing the transitions from thick to thin that can be so dramatic in Edwardian Script. It leans at a much steeper angle, feels more full of directed movement, rather than movement held inside the letters in Edwardian Script, which can feel kind of static, as if the letters are cages. The curves in Bickham are shallower, the effect much more regular. To me it's a much more pleasing script to the eye, closer to a hand-written script. Edward Script feels drawn.

The way Behind the Candelabra uses Edwardian Script was genius, though. Weirdly, intensely so. It is perfect for a film steeped in kitsch yet apart from it, and absolutely perfect for Liberace in his particular kind of aesthetic of excess. The amount of Edwardian Script they used was great: small and careful, yet clear (another prob with Edwardian I think – lack of clarity), pushed to the front by the soft focus behind it. The limited use of capitals is good – oh the title card! [top image] It makes me drool a little, with that bitchen backward flourish at the top of the C contrasting with the line of type marching next to it... The flat pastel candy color choices contrasted beautifully with the metallics and shiny golds of the tiny pianos, the scale of which set off the whole effect perfectly. The color was genius, period; it embraced, rather than fought with, this type's inability to quite fit in the box. There was – this was the real key, maybe – enough air around the text to give the Edwardian room to be read, and for all the kineticism within the letters to dissipate, and for the regularity in the letters, which is there, to shine through too, and wrap up the movie – tell us it was over.

(detail)


It is all very...Liberace. Elegant but cheesy – all those swirls and shapes are cheesy. Constrained but florid and romantic. Kind of crazy. A little geriatric, a little dated, a little fabulous. A little bit Precious Moments, a little bit louche. Little jewels of text, next to the tiny, jewel-like pianos.

Does this sound crazy? I care desperately about letters, but I am in many ways more of a self-taught calligrapher than a designer and don't always know if history and the graphic arts back up my visceral reactions. Or if I'm missing things. All's I know is that this was about the first time I ever had a happy reaction to Edwardian Script. The end titles are just gorgeous, and gorgeous in context.

The movie is worth seeing, if you haven't, and I am guessing, given how strong I found the visuals, would have been much better shown first in a theater. I would have loved to drink them in on the big screen.

p.s. A truly great insult from this movie: "You cock-sucking tenor fuck!"

p.p.s. The poster is great too, with its bejeweled lettering: Poppl-Exquisit, I think, a much better choice for the poster than Edwardian Script, but I wish they'd un-capitalize the T in "The"!