Friday, June 12, 2020

kittens are all
anuses and
worried eyes

Monday, May 13, 2019


Doris Day died today. I read a slightly different version of this piece a month ago, at the Tuesday Funk reading series in Chicago on April 2, 2019, the day before her birthday. The opening is kind of ghoulish now, but I think that's OK. It was written for a general audience, whose basic knowledge of Doris I couldn't presume. Listen to her version of "Stardust" or "April in Paris" today if you can.


I worried I would kill Doris Day by writing this. I worry superstitiously, as I do every year, that the focus on her birthday—she turns 97 tomorrow—will kill her. The fact that she is now officially her real age, two years older than the longtime studio-era version of her age, makes me worry more. 
I have thought about Doris Day every day of my adult life, and most every one of those days worried what the world would look like without her in it. 

Doris worship has extremes. Many times on her birthday I have, like the character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High who stays home from school on Ritchie Blackmore’s birthday to listen to Deep Purple all day, stayed in on April 3 for Doris movie marathons. One time watching Deadwood, in which Calamity Jane is a character, of course, I insisted my friends stop to see the opening sequence of Doris’ 1953 musical Calamity Jane, blonde Doris atop the Deadwood Stage (it didn’t go over well). When I went to see A.E. Hotchner, the coauthor of Doris’s best-selling 1975 autobiography, at the premiere of a film about his childhood, I approached him afterward and yelled nicely with no introduction as I shook his hand, “I LOVE YOUR BOOK WITH DORIS DAY!” To his credit, Mr. Hotchner gave it a beat, said, “She’s a great lady,” and left it at that.

I have tried unsuccessfully to write about her, many times. I know too much about her—always a problem. I once had enthusiastic clearance to write an article defending Doris’s legacy for a well-regarded website, but even with that happy nudge, I couldn’t do it. 30 years of obsession wasn’t enough time. Pervy old John Updike was a huge Doris fan too, who spoke and wrote about her well (despite also publishing a bad poem about her), and he shared the struggle, once saying, "I'm always looking for insights into the real Doris Day because I'm stuck with this infatuation and need to explain it to myself.”

Every piece of information I take on—about her work, her life—keeps the boat moving, even if it keeps changing course slightly. It’s not just that it’s impossible to know too much, it’s that I find her impossible to figure out, to finally reconcile. She is a koan, a mystery, an amazing artist living on in great art and terrible art, a containment of contradictions, not just hers, but ours. I figure at least I can try to convey some of the subtleties of appreciation she deserves.

I don’t know how much you know about Doris Day, but she was and remains incredibly popular. She was a big band singer, movie star, recording artist, and TV star. She is still holds the record as the number one female box-office star of all-time. She’s apparently turned down the Kennedy Center Honors several times because of her distaste for travel; ditto the honorary Oscar. She is also extremely talented. James Cagney said that she was one of the three actresses (including Laurette Taylor) who he knew had “it” the first time he saw them. Sarah Vaughan famously named her as one of her favorite singers (“I dig Doris Day!”), and opera star Anna Moffo said Doris was “her favorite singer of all time.” Doris recorded the Oscar-winning song “Secret Love," which she introduced in Calamity Jane, in one 15-minute take after riding her bike to the studio.

I mainly just like her. You either believe certain movie stars when they speak, or you don’t. You like their smile, or you don’t. Her movie star alchemy works on me. I resent when she doesn’t get more screen time. (I hate Ray Bolger for eating up all the time onscreen in April in Paris; ditto Carol Haney in Pajama Game.) I love her singing voice, even when there is a tiny catch or turn that makes it smarmy, and I love her speaking voice, also occasionally a little smarmy, but astonishingly responsive and musical, with endless categories of expression. (Her word is marvelous. "Marrrrr-ve-lous!” —with the emphasis in her throaty, modulated, but still spontaneous-sounding delivery on the drawn-out first syllable.) She learned, legendarily, from her voice teacher in Cincinnati, to sell a song by imagining singing it to just one person. 

As important as her success and popularity is the fact for most of my lifetime she was considered a joke. By dint of sheer longevity, the scorn traditionally heaped on her has mellowed, but I never heard her spoken of as anything or than a punchline growing up. By the end of her career (her last film was in 1968, her TV show ended in 1973) she was slogging through some terrible films, the first burst of which were terribly popular. Knitted together they offered (this is the dominant Day critique) the unconvincing persona of a woman pushing 40 indignantly defending her virginity even the filters on the camera grew thicker and thicker.

For Doris scorn we must, as in all things, blame the Baby Boomers. They grew up with her, then found her insufferable as the world changed and she, they said, didn’t. Cranky film critic John Simon (it's a cheat to quote him, but the thought is representative) called her films “sickening” and her affect “absolutely sanitary; her personality untouched by human emotions, her brow unclouded by human thought.” The word “antiseptic” comes up a lot in later reviews. In the popular 1995 analysis of the effects of mass-media on women, Where the Girls Are, Susan Douglas mentions Doris a few times only in passing, saying her voice “seemed as innocent of sexual or emotional angst as a Chatty Cathy doll.” As Updike wrote, “The words ‘Doris Day’ get a reaction, often adverse.” The most famous critical quote about Doris, which is funny but crystalizes the contempt heaped on her superannuated virgin persona, is from Oscar Levant, who starred with her in early Warner Brothers musicals, before both her best period of movie-making in the mid-1950s and the 60s “sex comedies.” Levant’s words—“I knew her before she was a virgin”—will be in her obituary. 

Thank god for film critic Molly Haskell. It was Haskell who began to challenge in her writing the wholesale dismissal of Doris Day as an empty, chirpy, blindly sunny and sexless star, eventually calling her “the most underrated, underappreciated actress that has ever come out of Hollywood,” even interviewing her for Ms Magazine in the 1970s. Haskell wrote:
Appreciating the proto-feminist boldness of some of her working-girl characters, I became suspicious of the quickness with which most people dismissed her. Why the refusal to take her seriously? What was so threatening about her? Was it that her all-American wholesomeness in the anti-Amerika sixties had become an embarrassment? Her cheery optimism and determination were not only qualities we had lost but ones we felt ashamed of having entertained in the first place. Or was it that she was too close (for many of us) to something we had been or wanted to be in the fifties and now were running from for our lives?

I think the first film of Doris’s I watched was That Touch of Mink, a 1962 film with Cary Grant that even thoughtful Doris defenders and diehard fans have problems with because it’s the one film where the plot is actually overtly concerned with virginity. I was young enough to not engage with that so much as with the pull of this close, almost claustrophobic, designed film, where women’s coats matched their dresses and lunch was obtained through tiny adorable chrome windows at an automat. I loved that, but I also loved that in the middle of it all, we found Doris, a vital spark, who was both of that world and too big to be contained by it. She did not seem blandly perky, she seemed real. Immediate. Who was this person? I eventually came to see her as absurdly talented, a raw actor who happened into the center of the film universe, capable of being as good as any script required, such as Love Me or Leave Me, and proving she was everything straight up and un-coy her haters said she wasn’t, as in The Pajama Game (maybe her two best films).

I think I’m also obsessed with her because some of her films are bad. And honestly sometimes she makes them worse being good in them, a star in the middle of terrible decision-making. Sometimes it becomes clear that she was rarely challenged to be as good as she could, due to the demands of the Doris Day industrial complex and, paradoxically, to the strength of her personality. These things alone, in a film career now frozen in time fifty years later, are a recipe to keep you obsessed with a star forever. Gloria Steinem wrote of our culture’s rescue fantasies about Marilyn Monroe, which I share, but I also want to rescue Doris from her career conundrums and public misunderstanding. Perky, self-sufficient, bootstraps Doris.

As long as we’re talking about it, it's hard not to want to rescue Doris from her third husband Marty Melcher, also her manager, who was responsible for much of the terrible career decision making, especially after her studio contract expired. He crucially shaped the Doris image, criminally mismanaged her money, forbade her from singing ballads (insisting she stick to upbeat songs and novelty tunes), and referred to her in meetings as “Doris Day,” like a kind of dishwasher soap. In a 1968 interview with Melcher about her planned TV show he said, revealing what I think is the actual problem with her film persona: “Don’t forget she is always the victim. She has an inner morality which prevents her doing anything wrong knowingly." [emph. mine

One of the interesting questions being a Doris apologist raises (you can learn a lot of things being an apologist) is the idea of who pays for the wrongs of old films. Victimhood, outdated or offensive ideals, racism, jingoism, unconvincing plot twists, all kinds of cinematic failings and misunderstood bygone conventions: for audiences and critics, who is the ultimate author? Individual literacy with old films aside, who do we blame for what’s dated badly? Doris, with her absolute lack of guile, was and is often held overly responsible for the sins of her era. People are really sure she’s not in on the joke. The fact that Doris hit her dingers and hung 'em up—she has devoted herself to animal welfare since the 1970s—both exacerbates this and at this point relieves her of a little of the burden. It also means we’re left with less context to understand her as someone who has not instigated reputational rebirths staying in the public eye.

Perhaps this is why I worry about her dying. Which doesn't make sense.  Aside from understandable grief, and aside from her status as one of the oldest living movie stars, what will actually change? I don’t plan on visiting her in Carmel anymore (a goofy plan with a friend at one point). I don’t know her. Perhaps her continued presence reassures me her ambiguousness can stand. When she goes, the deluge of professional and amateur eulogizing will inundate us with phrases like “girl next-door”—“perennial virgin”—“post war optimism.” None of them will be quite right, but neither will be the language of wholesale defense. And at that point she’ll start to disappear for good.

It’s late at night, and there’s no one here to fight me, so I’m just going to say it: I think Doris Day is an auteur. People know exactly what they mean when they say “that’s a Doris Day film,” even though her films varied wildly over the course of her career. Several of her costars, like James Garner and Jack Lemmon, said she was someone you had to “act up to,” try to keep up with. She wholly shaped her films. Her one film with Hitchcock—a definitive auteur, if we're going to use that term—The Man Who Knew Too Much, suffers from the fact that he couldn’t prune her intense presence into a cool Hitchcock blonde. I’m not sure he knew what to do with her.

I love lots of old movie stars, including ones who embodied everything Doris wasn’t, stars who in 2019 we can see winking ironically at us from the screen. But I really love Doris Day, a giant talent hiding in plain sight all the way.


Friday, October 02, 2015

YouTube algorithms try, and odd congruences are the norm and not particularly worth pointing out to my mind, but this one today from a YouTube-created "music you like" playlist sent my eyes rolling. Get your shit together, YT, don't dump Liebestods just anywhere:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Bucket Full of Books I Killed With Love

Barbara Pym, Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler. I read them to (their) death. A bucket full of murder, really.

Dozens more coming.

Monday, July 27, 2015

I miss actual liner notes

What's this Tammy show? Like Tammy and the Doctor or something?

(incorrect lyrics are from one of those horrible lyrics sites, I ain't even gonna link it because you know if it's wrong on one it's wrong on all of them)

Friday, March 06, 2015

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Night Wham! Won

My freshman year there was a guy who lived next to me, a classic super-weird smart guy. He collected snakes in his room -- not in cages.  He was sweet and screwy and spent a lot of time walking around in the woods but the main thing he cared about was the blues. He loved the blues, fronted a little band playing harmonica, and hated MTV pop. My college years were anchored right in the middle of the Reagan presidency we were all fighting, and there was a lot of synthpop to hate if you wanted to hate it and you thought the two were related. 

He articulated the word over and over with an elongated distaste that we tried to imitate with his kooky snarl: “ssyyyyynnnnthpop.” He extolled at length the virtues of Chicago blues and the Farfisa organ and complained about bands like Wham! -- especially Wham!. 80s pop was the devil but the blues were real. This was his hobby horse. That there is a strong through-line from blues to pop didn’t seem relevant in these conversations as I remember them.

I spent some time nodding along, at least out of amusement. Oh did he hold forth. There was a little Laingian worship in all these college kids listening to this sweet but off-kilter guy with such attention, even though he made some of them impatient. I was, often. I remember seeing an escaped snake of his slithering down the hall one day and thinking: why do people put up with this dude.

Anyhow, he got an idea to hold a burning -- I don't remember exactly what he called it -- a massive pop burning. He was going to kill synthpop forever, kill Wham! I think he was serious, but despite that it came across, as most of his projects did, as a happy piece of performance art, or maybe people's half-indulgent attitude made them fun. There was a little island in the middle of one of the lakes our dorms were on, and that’s where it would be. He had found an old 50s or 60s stereo in town and he was going to blast Wham! as it burned and leave us purified to listen to the blues. Or something. He put up posters all over. 

The night of the stereo burning we gathered in a cluster on the island as it turned dark. It was a beautiful night. Crisply cool at the edges. Warm, young, smooth bodies, dark green of the trees. Our weird messiah got up and made a little speech, and fussed with his matches and lighter. People were cheering. The stereo was beige mid-century mod, with a vague plaid pattern on the speakers. And then -- this is mostly what I remember -- the sounds of "Everything She Wants" started up.

I expected the music to sound bad. Even though I felt somewhat removed from the spirit of the event, I was ready, after so much talk, for Wham! to sound like wrongheaded moneyed MTV corruption.

But it sounded great. It sounded great. There was a breeze off the fetid lakes, the light from the fire was flickering on beautiful young faces, and the moving bass and George Michael falsetto suddenly seemed to know much more than we did. The song was so fleshed out and whole and forward-moving. And all these people gathered to kill pop started to respond to the music -- dancing, moving their bodies, shaking their hair. Wham! was winning. I didn't want to burn anything. 

It was fabulous. But short-lived, all of it, the planned and the unplanned. As often with planned pyrotechnic extravaganzas, this one fizzled out. George Michael's voice did not in fact trail off in a pained howl as the stereo blew to the sky; the music stopped abruptly, leaving the night sounding empty. The fire burned a short while longer on the charred but completely recognizable stereo, then went out. We shuffled back to our dorm, a bit disappointed, but maybe not all quite in the way blues guy was.

I was thrilled inside to know that Wham! had triumphed. It was an early lesson in the futility of arty polemics; you can't put anything in a box that hard. It'll jump back out. But also: George Michael had chops. And one of life’s great pleasures is when music doesn’t care if you dislike it, just finds you and wrestles you to the ground to show you how wonderful it is.

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 the opposite of the 20th-century world his poetry described, 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 never quite the hapless chump his public image fashioned. But still. The internet: what would he have thought about any porn in the world available 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.

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 to 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 so in context, of course), especially when skewering the blather of literary criticism, the depressing phraseology of the medical establishment, the ignominious aspects of 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 is 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. At the very least you are a little less surprised than some when you find out a piece of beautiful art was made by an uncomfortable person, which happens all the time, humans beings being what they are [human].)

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. I wanted to see the Bums lined up. Which is a very internet-era thing to do: making a collection of like items and putting them in a case, just because you can. Also just because I can, and to contradict myself: I left out some of both Amis's 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's 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

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

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

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

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

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

KA to PL, 9/5/46
Senex bum

KA to PL, 9/7/46
shiftless bum

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

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

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

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

KA to PL, 10/8/46
Sauterne bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PL to KA, 2/26/47
Kesselring bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

KA to PL, 4/9/72
Stockhausen bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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

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

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

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

KA to PL, 8/11/77
Eurocommunism bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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: 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.