Friday, August 31, 2007

Shopgirl and Broken English: What is Wrong with these Movies?

What is up with you, Ms. Zoe Cassevetes? What is going on, Mr. Steve Martin? There are actually six movies here, each of these stories being broken down into three different mismatching parts, so variant that they're almost in disagreement with each other.

"Broken English" is not a movie in three acts, it's a movie in three movies. In the first movie, Parker Posey stars as a drunk, irritated single girl in her thirties who's striking out in love. She dates a gay guy. She dates a guy who is hung up on his ex. She dates a famous guy who has another girlfriend. She dates a marmoset. It's wacky, it's dry, and everyone is walking around with a cocktail having good lines. I am all over it. Whee!

Then Parker Posey meets Julian, this French guy in a straw hat who is wearing a linen or, wait, was it seersucker blazer over a grey v-neck t-shirt. I don't even want to talk about his shoes or his scrawny bullet head. We are comfortably assuming that he's going to be another awful lesson in what not to date, when we realize, wait, we are supposed to be loving him. This is when movie #2 begins, which is about their very serious and interesting and important romance, except that I never buy they are in love, because of his bobbly head and her constant drunkenness. Movie #2 goes on way too long. They take a bath together. He keeps kissing her on the forehead. I get fidgety. All the shots are very close and making me regret our HDTV. Parker Posey has a panic attack over a plate of cannolis and I know what she's going through.

Fortunately, movie #3 is about to begin. Suddenly, Julian McFrencherton is leaving for Paris immediately and after he shakes off the unflattering Parker Posey hanging on his abdomen, he goes. He leaves her a number to reach her in Paris. Now the camera backs up to a comfortable distance and the movie becomes a Lifetime TV Drama about how Parker Posey must now go off to Paris and find him. Except drat! She loses his number. Most of movie #3 is about Parker Posey and her totally best superfriend, who looks like what Portia de Rossi would have looked like if she had turned to drastic cosmetic surgery to make her look the way she looks, trip around Paris. It is neither picturesque nor droll. It is kind of desperate. Skintight Portia de Rossi leaves, Parker Posey stays, and there are scenes on public transportation where the Eiffel tower is seen going by.

She finds him. They have a conversation in a deli. The end. What do all three of these movies have in common? In all of them, I love Parker Posey, but I hate what she's doing to me.

Now, on to Shopgirl I, II, and III.

In Shopgirl I, Claire Danes is a moist, long-eared gazelle who works at Saks and has trouble finding a boyfriend. She briefly dates Steve Carrell, played by Jason Schwartzman, but he's so flaky. It is from this movie that most of the trailer is harvested, making us think the movie is a comedy. There is a funny bit with the cat.

In Shopgirl II, Claire Danes is a pensive gazelle who works at Saks and has a weird, tense relationship with a rich and taciturn Steve Martin, who gets to kiss her, fondle her, and pretend to have sex with her. At one point, she stops taking her anti-depressants and has some kind of awful breakdown. Awkward for them, awkward for us. But at least, during that scene, she had a facial expression.

In Shopgirl III, Claire Danes is an emotionally matured gazelle who realizes that Steve Martin is never going to love her properly, so goes back to Steve Carrell, played by Jason Schwartzman. He has fortunately spent the second movie on tour with a band listening to self help tapes, and now knows how to comb his hair and wear white suits. She becomes a famous artist and is happy with her dopey boyfriend, although she still secretly deeply tragically hopelesly pines for the immortal pleasures of Steve Martin and his old richness.

What do these three movies have in common? Claire Danes' hair is never mussed. Steve Martin's voice is never raised. And Steve Carrell looks even hairier than he normally does.

I understand a three act structure, I really do. But if I go to the bathroom watching "Singles" I don't want to come back to "Remains of the Day."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow

I am not interested in mafia stories. Or crime stories. I have not read anything written by Mario Puzo and just between you and me, even the movies don't thrill me. Why did I read Billy Bathgate? I picked up this book at a bookstore when I there for an event and wanted to patronize the shop. Didn't matter, the shop went under a few months ago, leaving me with the book but no guilt. I tried reading it aloud to my husband on a long road trip. He is a fan of books about organized crime. However, the sentences were too long and convoluted to read on the interstate while trying to shout down Buzz Lightyear on the DVD player in the back. Dean Koontz can be hollered in a minivan and the quality of the experience does not suffer. This book, not so.

The book rode around with me in the car for a while.

I took it on vacation this summer in a bag of books, and when Ahno ran out of her stash I offered her a choice: Iris Murdoch, a children's book by Luc Besson, a children's book about squirrels, Doctor Zhivago, or Billy Bathgate. She picked Billy Bathgate. She read it, and her assessment was that it was a portrait of a world without a god, a world without redemption, where there is nothing higher than the top of your own head, and you therefore roll around in the filth that humans create, and know no better.

I don't know about that. I just do not care very much about crime and this glamorous romantic lifestyle and the moral relativism does not impress me or even horrify me. Not even window washers plummeting 20 stories and still having the strength to crawl one inch -- not even that really horrifies or engages me. What lit me up in this book was the writing. Sentence by sentence, word by word, the gorgeous intense memorable language. Not the subject matter, at all, which is even more proof of just how brilliant the writing had to be.

I have loaned the book to Susannah to read but when I get it back I will put an excerpt in about driving through the country in the dark. The main character was born, raised in Brooklyn, has never been out of New York City, and his first experience with nighttime in the countryside, he characterizes the dark as a loss of knowledge, the strip of white down the center of the road, illuminated by headlights, as a strand of life down a gaping abyss.

Over and over, there was a description, a paragraph, even a phrase that made me want to scribble something gushy in the margin. Whee! It was fun. Like finding gems buried in the sand -- the drab, dry sand of prohibition, depression, the rackets, the men in suits, etc. I liked it because it wasn't gritty, because it wasn't real, it was glamorous not only in the rich broads and the racetracks and nightclubs, but in the thickness and intensity of all the language.

The plot arc? Phooey. The ending? Bordering on dreadful. But it didn't matter.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Months ago, I abandoned this book halfway through. I was mystified at the incredible laudits it had received, the awards, the blurbs, the iconic status. I had read other Ursula Le Guin books, finding them completely awesome and wonderful, but this one, maybe her best known and most praised, I just couldn't penetrate.

I didn't like it. It was so political. So dry. With a few exceptions, where chapters would suddenly jump into the mythology of the alien planet, it was all so trudgingly expository.

On this planet, Gethen, humans are without gender. That is, they only have a gender during a few days out of the month, when they become sexually active. During these things, they could go either way -- one month male, another month female, it just depends on who's around. The main character is an envoy to this planet from an interplanetary alliance, and he is their first contact with the outside universe. Male. All the time male. So, during the first half of the book, or so, there's a lot of palaver over what they're going to do with him, and he drifts around making little progress as a diplomat, finding out more about the planet. Nothing terribly urgent happens.

This summer, I'm trying to finish some books that I'd given up on. You may recognize some of these sentiments from the last review. So, I picked up the book and read a few more pages of politlcal this and that. THEN the second half of the book happened, and it all became magically clear, why everyone raves about the book, and loves it, and considers it so revelatory, so sublime. The envoy suddenly experiences everything you want characters in novels to experience -- danger, love, and a challenge to his intellect -- bang, bang, bang, right on through to the end. Now all the imagery makes sense. Now all the exposition pays off. It's all struck into bright definition, like a chalk drawing that's been fadoodled over with light grey strokes for hours and then instantly becomes a dragon with three bold lines of a darker shade.

Did she have to go through all that, to get to this place? Maybe she did. Obviously it worked. And for those weak souls like me who have to flog themselves through the first half, where everything seems cold and dry, and nothing seems to be moving, take heart, keep flogging, and get some sleep too, because once you get on the truck headed north, you're going to have trouble putting the book down.