March 2008

I cried several times during Stop-Loss. I usually hate war movies, but something about this one really moved me. I’ve talked to a couple of friends who hated it—one even walked out—but it really got to me.

We’re introduced to a group of friends/soldiers, including:

  • Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) – the leader and All-American guy
  • Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) – goofy, sniper-caliber second-in-command who’s a little too impulsive
  • Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – the guys’ underdog-y friend
  • Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) – a cocky, handsome big talker

Things go wrong during a really tense and horrific mission and several members of King’s squad are killed or injured, but luckily, they’re all being sent home soon. For Brandon and Steve, this is the end of their tours of duty, and they talk about what they’ll do back in “the real world.”

We see them readjusting to being home, including Steve’s strained relationship with fiancé Michele (Abbie Cornish, an outstanding performance) and the way they all seem to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tommy gets drunker and drunker, picks a fight and gets thrown out by his wife (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter. She doesn’t get to do much acting other than an okay crying scene and has a strange face.); Steve strips down to his underwear, hits Michele and digs a foxhole in her front yard.

Brandon’s able to hold them together, though, and they all go back to base where our two main heroes expect to get out. It all goes to hell when Brandon discovers he’s been stop-lossed, i.e. involuntarily forced to extend his tour of duty, which could be up to 11 more years.

He resists and escapes custody and has to decide if he’ll submit to what he considers an unfair policy or if he’ll live the rest of his life as a fugitive. His father wants him to return; his mother (the awesome Linda Emond) offers to drive him over the border herself. The rest of the film details his attempts, aided by Michele, to get someone to help him fight this.

Along the way, they stop at the house of one of the soldiers killed in the combat we witnessed at the beginning of the film and they learn, from the angry brother of the dead soldier, about a lawsuit some soldiers are bringing against the Army. Laurie Metcalf plays the grieving mother but I didn’t recognize her for a full five minutes after she first came onscreen—that’s how much she disappears into this role: no goofiness, no Jackie-ism.

As Brandon and Michele move towards Washington D.C. then New York, they encounter thieves, fellow fugitives and even sympathetic friends while Brandon deals with his own PTSD.

They stop at a veterans’ hospital where Rico, horribly injured in the opening combat, has been brought from overseas, courtesy of Brandon’s request. He’s missing his legs and an arm; his eyes have been damaged so that they’re silvery and unseeing. Still, he retains his spirit as he flirts with Michele and has a man-to-man talk with Brandon about the unfairness of the stop-loss policy. Rasuk handles his scenes amazingly, never lapsing into self-pity, but still managing to show that his cocky, jokey character is concealing enormous depths of pain.

Still, he says, if he were able, he would go back over to rejoin his brothers in arms—and if he were to be killed, at least his family would get green cards. That tension—the fact that these young men know they’re in harm’s way and could die at any time, but still love the feeling of brotherhood and purpose the Army gives them—gives the film its most powerful angle.

It’s definitely not an anti-war or anti-military movie—it’s very pro-soldier, as clichéd as that might sound. Kimberly Peirce knows that these soldiers all have different reasons for signing up and staying (Steve gives up his chance to marry Michele to have a career in the Army because he has more of a future there, for example), and it doesn’t judge them.

Everything ends on a powerful, ambivalent note, where Brandon faces the ultimate decision: give up his life and all his family and friends in exchange for freedom in Canada or Mexico, or return to his duty and possibly die under fire, or end up more emotionally, psychologically (and physically) damaged than he already is.

I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a moment at the end where Brandon’s mother, faced with his decision, puts on a brave face, only to have it crumble at the last second as she turns away, devastated. A little moment like that, showing the emotional fallout suffered by the families of the soldiers, sticks with you long after the film’s over—these are real men and women with real lives facing the unthinkable.

The movie’s considerable power for me stemmed from its focus on the characters themselves. Most impressive of all was Abbie Cornish as Michele, the small-town girl who reaches the end of her patience for being a military “wife.” She regrets lacking the necessary strength to share her husband and life with the Army, but she faces her altered destiny with a clear-eyed bravery and courage that I found the most inspiring of all. Slow to speak, deep-voiced and unshakeable, Michele was the character I most admired of them all—a quintessential American who, although she never enlists herself, finds her life, friends, town and prospects shaped by the presence and the need for—good and bad—the armed services.

I read a comment online that claimed this movie glamorizes desertion. It doesn’t. It puts a human face on a handful of soldiers caught in a horrible situation.

Boys Don’t Cry was one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen. This one doesn’t have quite the same strength, but it’s in the same vein and I highly recommend this movie.

Visit the movie’s website and its website that shares soldiers’ (and their families’) real stories.

duchessKeira Knightley determined my next reading choice, which is as it should be. In fact, I wish that she would call me every so often and tell me what to read in her fantastic British accent. Did I mention that she’s one of my favorite actresses?

Anyway, I heard that her next movie will be The Duchess, the film adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s Whitbread Prize-winning biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the 18th century aristocrat who lived an extraordinary life and had more of an influence British politics than almost anyone else of her time, male or female. (Amazing, seeing how women had practically no political rights at the time.)

As the leader of the ton, the elite of society, she directed fashion (including bizarre ornaments to be worn in towering hairstyles and enormous ostrich feathers) and sold newspapers to a public hungry for tales—real or imagined—of anything she did. She wrote a novel and several pieces of music, was an accomplished harpist and left behind a record of letters and writings that is the greatest source historians have for the political climate of the time.

A passionate Whig, she pioneered a series of public relations campaigns to whip up support for her party that prefigured modern politics. She (along with her sister, Harriet) hit the streets, wearing herself to exhaustion going door-to-door to gain votes—an unprecedented role for women at the time. With her as the crafty hostess, Devonshire House became the Whig’s political power center of England, a salon where more meetings and deals came together at her tables than in actual Parliament. She wrote letters and used her influence with great men, including the Prince himself, to fight for the Whig cause.

She was a dear friend of Marie-Antoinette and visited the captive queen after the French Revolution had begun. She was a passionate student of botany, mineralogy and chemistry. She also lived an unconventional home life, allowing another woman, Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster, to become the third party in her marriage as it subtly shifted into a ménage-a-trois. She also racked up crippling gambling debts which she never completely escaped, had multiple love affairs and an illegitimate daughter.

For almost her entire life, Georgiana lived at the forefront of the social and political scenes of her time as one of its most famous, respected and (sometimes) reviled figures. I enjoyed reading this biography and its glimpse into the amazing lives the wealthy could lead in 18th century Europe: the travel, leisure and political opportunities they enjoyed boggle the mind today.

We all feel that our lives are so busy and full today, but to imagine how different things were back then—Georgiana, carrying her illegitimate child and having confessed a portion of her debts to the Duke, is sent away to roam through Europe and have her child secretly—it’s insane to think about.

Foreman writes gracefully and with a sense of humor, bringing Georgiana to life with her flaws and shining characteristics all intact. Readable and funny and tender and informative, this book was fantastic.

Although I didn’t know anything about “the Duchess” beforehand, I couldn’t stop reading and even teared up a little at the end with her death. This amazing woman who lived a life bigger and broader than almost any of her contemporaries, writes a letter to her deaf son, Hart, the night before her health starts to really fail, that touched me. Something about her words just struck me—one of her generation’s greatest members speaking to her child about a sort of immortality on the cusp of her own impending death:

I feel and fear that I give too much latitude to my pleasure in writing to you, but indeed no mother ever lov’d a son as I do you. I live in you again…I see in you still more perhaps than even in [your sisters] what my youth was.

I never watched Freaks and Geeks when it was on TV. My mom tried to get me to, trying (unsuccessfully) to relay a funny scene involving Bill Haverchuck, but I resisted. So I never watched it and as it was martyred on the pyre of “TV Too Good To Live,” I continued to refuse to jump on the bandwagon.

Years later, I was reading an interview on The Onion’s AV Club with Linda Cardellini, and she talked about a specific scene from the finale, where she gets on a bus, and what she wanted that moment to be. I was intrigued by what she said, and decided to give in and get the DVD box set.

I’m so happy that I did.

What’s strange about the cult popularity of Freaks and Geeks to me is that it’s not really as cult-y as you’d think–you don’t need to catch up on complicated relationships or plot events. Each episode, while sometimes specifically connected to the others (but more often not) is pretty self-contained.

Some thoughts: 

I was surprised by how unlikable Lindsay, the main character is–and this is not a bad thing. Standard TV and movie writing seems to be hinged on having a likable main character, but, like most of us during our teenage years, Lindsay is by turns cruel, confused and deceptive. She has moments of great compassion and heart but also makes decisions that will sabotage her future without listening to advice to the contrary. Incredibly smart, she hides her potential and turns towards her friends instead of her family and her future. Basically, she’s an extremely realistic depiction of what most of us were (and are) like, and I still think about her today and wonder where she’d be.

Busy Phillips as Kim Kelly. Wow. I’d say she’s the best thing about the whole series: her hair, her facial expressions, her voice and especially her blue puffy coat (how many dissertations could be written about that coat, how it singlehandedly evokes the 1980s; I hope she still has it). More than any other character, she seems the most like a real person. We see glimpses of her humanity through her tough facade, but never enough to feel fake.

It was cool, too, how a significant plot thread throughout the first (and only) season is the developing relationship between Lindsay and Kim, from their initial hatred (Kim pegs Lindsay as a poser, saying that while she likes to play dress-up with the freaks, Kim “shoplifts from [Lindsay’s] dad’s store”) to the final episode, where Lindsay makes a sacrifice to help Kim escape her dead-end life.

The last image in the series is Lindsay getting off a bus that’s she’s supposed to take to an academic summit for gifted students (that she’s told her family and “straight” friends she’s going to), and getting off where some of her Grateful Dead-loving classmates are waiting. They’re going to follow the Dead around the country for the summer, and as Lindsay walks up to them, we see Kim joyfully welcome her–they climb into the van together.

At the beginning of the series, it looked as if it were going to be about Lindsay’s unrequited crush on James Franco (Kim’s boyfriend), but that element was quickly dropped and at the end, how refreshing and cool is it that the biggest love story is about the friendship of a middle class, ultrasmart girl and her poorer, tougher female friend?

More to come…

howiwriteI am an aspiring writer. This is no secret.

Over the last few years, when I’ve really started dedicating myself to writing every day (and coincidentally started actually finishing major projects), I’ve discovered little rituals I have that help me “get in the spirit.”

I have to be listening to music, preferably from my iPod while wearing headphones. Ideally, it’s dreamy and slow pop or country. A handful of my favorites are:

  • “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus And Mary Chain
  • “Float On” and “The World At Large” by Modest Mouse
  • “Rainy Day” by 10,000 Maniacs
  • “Betty” by Tiffany (yes, that Tiffany)
  • “Space Age Love Song” by A Flock Of Seagulls

When I moved into my new apartment, I decided that I needed to have real desk space to be able to write, and I am still in the process of getting things where I want them to be. I’d like to have a beautiful poster or image to hang on the wall behind my desk to look at.

Very “Passionate Kisses”-aly (you know, “pens that won’t run out of ink and cool quiet and time to think…shouldn’t I have this? Shouldn’t I have this?), I have a plan to create a writing space for myself.

I was curious about How I Write: The Secret Lives Of Authors because I wanted to hear some of the little secrets other men and women use to help inspire them to write, which, we all know, can be a frustrating/rewarding/etc. proposition. Not the bigger things about “how” they actually perform the act, but the interesting “backstage” details”: what’s hanging on their wall? What do they need to look at when they can’t figure out how to end a sentence?

The good luck charms and photos and quotes may not really count for much outside of the writer’s mind, but I love the idea of balancing your real life with your fiction, and I enjoyed this glimpse into “the workshop” instead of just wondering from the finished project.

The testimonials collected in this book (lots, I’m too lazy to count) range from the delightful to the just “ehh.” Here are my favorites:

  • Louisa Young, “Calaca” – A little skeleton typing on a typewriter, bought in a tourist shop in Tijuana
  • Jane Smiley, Hot water – A shower, a bath, etc.
  • Adam Thirlwell, Laurence Sterne – The portrait of the author on a postcard. I like this idea because I’ve often thought of getting a picture of Charlotte Bronte for the same purpose.
  • Elif Shafak, A purple pen and Peter Hobbs, a red and blue notebook – My second-favorite sections of the book and the one to which I can most relate.
  • Jill Dawson, seahorses – This is the best section right here. She talks about how she met another mother while waiting for her son’s schoolbus, who happens to be world-famous seahorse researcher Dr. Hetaher Masonjones. She later meets another scientist named Heather, the senior curator at the London Zoo, who  shows her their seahorse exhibit and gives her two dried ones, many years later, still stuck to her wall with Blu-Tack.

It was a nice read, but adding to my “I’ve got to read this book now” list is really the best part (besides the cool ribbon you can use as a bookmark).

My day:

Wake up ridiculously early with body burning as hot as a star, but without the covers, am suddenly way too cold. Try to fall back asleep while achieving some sort of compromise and without lapsing into surprisingly frightening werewolf dream.

 Wake up again less ridiculously early but close enough not to be restful, decide to finish pizza from last night and watch the final three episodes of Freaks and Geeks.

Be moved waaaaaay too much by the final scene between main character Lindsay and her dumb-but-sweet ex-boyfriend Nick who’s spent most of the series trying to win her back. He’s got a new gf and she realizes how much happier he seems with new girl (Lizzy Caplan from Cloverfield), which he admits in a great knife-twisty way, but then she turns and his face crumbles–he was lying! He wants Lindsay back and is still broken-hearted over her! Lindsay, walking away, not seeing this, does a similar face-crumpling; Nick (my crush, Jason Segel) watches her walk away in slow motion. Knowing that it’s the final episode of the one-season-then-canceled series and where I am right now in life, I almost cannot take it: my heart feels as if it is being shredded as they show Nick’s face aching under the bowling alley colored disco lights.

Go to work to add some finishing touches to enormous and unwieldy comic book project, am surprisingly inspired to whip up a great closer to the guide. Feel great sense of accomplishment, validation of talent and general editorial rock star-itude.

Attempt to wrangle some PDFs down to a more manageable size for an e-mail project and fail miserably.

Call snarky friend C., whom I have seen in forever and make a lunch/dinner plan with him. On way to his house, am driving south on Highland and stuck at the Hollywood/Highland traffic light. Someone dressed as Jason Voorhees, holding a machete (plastic, I hope), runs across the street towards the Chinese Theater. No one bats an eye. Sometimes I feel very happy to live in LA.

Show up at C.’s apartment while he’s in the shower and have to wait outside the gate in the chilly air with only a short-sleeved shirt on. Banana trees out front have bunches of green fruit and really cool, hanging-bell/lamp-like “flowers.”

After letting me in, C. primps (I am so jealous of his full head of hair) and I watch the show he has on: Visions Of Ireland, a travel program that’s just beautiful shots of countryside: porn for the wanderlusty. Dream of running off to Ireland ruined by perky PBS (yet a different name for it though) hosts coming on and begging for money.

Lunch/dinner at Jerry’s Deli (C.’s pick, not mine) is typically horrible. Except for The Era Of The Yummy, I have never really ordered anything there I love. Love the Beverly Center-adjacent location the best though (hate Studio City, for example) and C. is his usual grumpy, hate-the-world self. I can appreciate him for the prickly pear he is though, and am suddenly struck by the thought of how long I’ve known him: more than two years. We talk about things we did back when we first knew each other and it seems like a lifetime ago. Feel very old and slow compared to the mad rush of time.

On way home, get text from M. at work, asking me if I’m going to the IN Los Angeles party for a mutual friend. Wasn’t going to but am game, so rush home to try and de-limp hair (failure) and pull myself together handsomely (failure). While driving all the way back to the part of time I just left, my friend B. from Kentucky calls to discuss the random Myrtle Beach vacation I pitched in a frenzy over the weekend. As usual, he talks my ear off and I have to step on his conversation to keep him on target. Verdict: he’ll see if he can round up some of our Kentucky friends to go.

Make it to La Cienega and park, thinking event is Beverly Center-adjacent. Instead, is five million miles away, and get a long walk in. Show up and see M. and his boyfriend, who are so sweet and excited to see me that I feel guilty somewhat. Do the rounds and see tons of people from work and work-related events, talk to the guest of honor and hear some really nice things from him. He looks great–he had liposuction even though he didn’t need it, and he’s looking really svelte and chiseled-face-handsome. I, on the other hand, feel fat and overly warm and flat-haired and duck out as soon as I can, walking the continent back to my car.

An episode of Deal Or No Deal my sister and I attended as audience members is on tonight, and I call my family to see if they spotted us on there. They taped it for me and apparently we are featured three or four times but none of our over-the-top “NO DEAL!!!!!” reaction shots. Sister and mother begin squabbling and suddenly I miss home so much it hurts. I wish I were laying on the carpet in their den watching the show with the dogs and my parents and sister and her fiance so bad that I almost start to cry. Instead, I drive up Sunset and maneuver through Laurel Canyon, part of me realizing how strange it is that I am familiar with Los Angeles geography, that I have no fear at all driving anywhere.

On way home stop at Ralph’s and get some cinnamon dulce de leche ice cream. Recently my craving for sweet things has been out of control and I find myself wanting to eat junk food at all hours, even when I’m not really hungry. Wonder what that’s all about and realize it’s simple: I’m depressed. The body reveals what the heart has hidden.

Come home and can’t believe it’s only 7:30. It feels like weeks have passed since I woke up. Do not want to think about elephant in room or include it in blog entry, so leave that part out.

Sit down in little car, buckle myself in, and wait for the roller coaster to start up the hill of another week all over again.

I went to the park yesterday during lunch to write and to enjoy the feeling of escape, however evanescent. It was beautiful outside: warm enough to be comfortable, but with a slight breeze. The elementary school next door was having recess when I walked up to the picnic tables underneath some trees.

I sat down at one table with my satchel and started to take out my notebook and iPod, when I noticed three little girls seated at another picnic table across the path from me. One had a pink Trapper Keeper and they were discussing something intently.

“God is like the most magical and beautiful fairy,” the girl with the Trapper Keeper said intently, loudly enough for me to hear. I smiled–it was a lovely idea and it charmed me.

When they were called back in, I went and sat where she had been sitting, hoping for a similar inspiration.