1986 • 104 minutes • Orion Pictures
Friends, I have a confession—I don’t like Chevy Chase.
Due to the peculiar nature of my upbringing, I was never exposed to Chevy Chase beyond a short clip of National Lampoon’s Family Vacation on VH1’s I Love the 70s, while both I and VH1 were trying to chase the glory days of I Love the 80s. While Père McBride’s heyday was around the time Chase was white hot (an objective fact I hold in deep, deep suspicion), he vastly prefers John Candy to Chevy Chase. Even my Gen X brother never particularly seemed to respond to him. I only really starting knowing who he was when I started watching and loving Community. I think Chase does quite well as Pierce Hawthorne, as the role works around and finds a use for a lot of his comedic stylings that I don’t usually care for. (It’s a bit like how I have trouble with eighties movies telling me that Bill Murray’s asshole characters are endearing, but age up that snark and entitlement thirty years and it becomes achingly poignant.)
But watching and loving Community also brought me into contact with Chase’s towering sense of entitlement, which eventually left to a rift between showrunner Dan Harmon and Chase. I don’t particularly want to get into Chase’s personal life… although when he came back to host Saturday Night Live for the first time, he mocked Bill Murray for his supposedly small talent and his acne scars (so, too real for yours truly) to the degree that they got into a physical altercation that had to be broken up by John Belushi, that paragon of responsibility. Oh, and one time he slapped Rob Huebel across the face when Huebel was trying to tell him how much Chase had influenced him. It’s a credit to Huebel’s devotion to Chase that he considers it a funny story and not horrifyingly disillusioning. And he’s so sexist (he appears to honestly believe that women aren’t as funny as men, which WHAT) that mere exposure to him makes Jane Curtin’s eyes flicker so hard I’m afraid she might hurt herself. (Which would be a tragedy, because she is a national treasure. TREASURE!) The author is dead, yadda yadda, but when the author is such a colossal jerk, it’s hard not to notice.
based onThe Once and Future King by T. H. White
1967 • 179 minutes • Warner Bros.
Camelot is how Captain Cinema and I met. Back in at our small town high school in Georgia, our theater director screened it for our class, presumably trying to select the longest possible musical to keep the normal children out of his hair while the theater kids were complicating his life. (I’m guessing here, although I did later end up among the theater children.) “C’est Moi” began playing and we, seated next to each other, began mercilessly riffing it. (“I ‘ave come from France!” “Oh, yes, we very definitely heard you coming, Lancelot, that’s quite a pair of lungs on you, my good fellow.”) We’ve been friends ever since.
Despite that seminal adolescent screening of Camelot, I had no idea that the musical was based on T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Which is no credit to it in my eyes. The Once and Future King is one of those sf classics that most people seem quite fond of, but I could never quite get my hooks into. I’d say it was a French-American kid’s natural aversion to L’Angleterre, except that Arthurian mythology is really, really French. (Which is why J. R. R. Tolkien, ever the Anglo-Saxon, decided to give England a proper English mythology. And thus modern mainstream fantasy was born!) To very poorly caricature Jebediah Atkinson, I didn’t like it when it was a book, I didn’t like it when it was a musical, and I didn’t like it when it was a movie. NEXT!
The Genius of the System
by Thomas Schatz
1996, originally published 1989 • 493 pages • Henry Holt and Company
Despite living a stone’s throw away from Atlanta (assuming that you can throw a stone with enough force to make it fly through the air for an hour) as a kiddo, my family never really cranked up the old Turner Classic Movies—or any classic Hollywood movies, really. My mother’s cinematic tastes run towards British film, my father’s cinematic tastes run towards near-future sci-fi, and all their nostalgic childhood movies are French. Which sometimes makes me wonder why I’m so fascinated with Anne Helen Petersen’s pieces on Old Hollywood when I have no context or nostalgia for them. (I’m not a Only Lovers Left Alive-esque immortal pop culture junkie, although I pretend to be sometimes.)
But I think that total unfamiliarity might actually be why it fascinates me. To me, Classic Hollywood feels like a monolith that has always been there. A lot of the world feels like that, sometimes, because I rarely interact with it, don’t have context for it, or whatever. But, as Captain Cinema often reminds me, everything was weird once. The studio system that once dominated all of American cinema no longer exists, shattered into a thousand pieces by the Red Scare, the coming of television, and creative types chafing under the seemingly oppressive regime of the major studios—a designation Thomas Schatz bestows upon Universal, MGM, Warner Brothers, and David O. Selznick’s various independent companies in his portrait of the Hollywood studio system of the early twentieth century, The Genius of the System. This obviously excludes 21st Century Fox, among others, but Schatz points out in his introduction that he had to draw the line somewhere or get bogged down in minutiae when the bigger picture is his entire point.
The Locusts Have No King
by Dawn Powell
1998 (originally published 1948) • 303 pages • Steerforth Press
I was introduced to Dawn Powell through her journal entries included in Teresa Carpenter’s sublime The New York Diaries. In those entries, she gives off the impression of being a hard-working woman leaning into the wind, a little in the vein of Dorothy Parker. She makes strong decisions about her next novel (always, given her prodigious output, on the horizon); she paints quick caricatures of character she meets; and she swoons over New York, bolstered by her dreams of the city during her early life in Ohio.
It’s that last one that gives Powell her power as sharp observer of life in New York City. Her 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King does technically have a plot, in the reversal of fortune between Mrs. Lyle Gaynor, the famous and successful playwright, and her lover Frederick, an intellectual but ignored writer whose latest book finds success. But Powell is far more interested in the nooks and crannies of New York than the internal lives of her much-mocked characters. She roams far and wide, dispensing the little details that make her New York come alive—roommates squabbling over the phone, foul weather friendships, and, as always, those damn hipsters taking away the real New York.
Heart of Iron
by Ekaterina Sedia
2011 • 320 pages • Prime Books
I talk a lot about narrative structure in speculative fiction. Not that it’s not a problem in other genres, but who knew that Britain’s postwar paper shortage would give us so many speculative fiction series that didn’t need to be series? But a separate, although related, problem is narrative heft. In my readings, I have come across many, many stories that either try to stretch out a thin story farther than it can go or, less frequently but more frustrating, attempt to cram too much story into too little words.
I find the latter more frustrating because the fix is simple. In fact, the fix is simple in both cases, but there’s only one where you actually get to indulge yourself. If you have so much story, tell it—don’t compress it.
2001 • 94 minutes • Miramax Pictures
Even if you haven’t seen Blow Dry, you have seen Blow Dry.
There’s a certain kind of crowd-pleasing British comedy that gets a fresh coat of paint every year or so, although its chummy innards remain largely the same. There’s family drama. There’s a culture clash between the salt of the earth working class folk and the slightly effete, intellectual urbanites. There’s often a performance or contest or other competitive scheme that serves as a built-in climax for the story. And thanks to the limited acting pool of Great Britain (which is a comment on the size of the nations therein, not their talents), a lot of the same actors crop up in them. The scope changes, according to the budget of the film and the ambitions of the director. The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, About Time… all of these have more money and ambition than the itty bitty Blow Dry.
I Am J
by Cris Beam
2011 • 352 pages • Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I’m not sure I have that much to say about I Am J, let alone the seven hundred words I decided a long, long time ago was my required length for a review in this house. (Every space I occupy, be it a physical space or not, inevitably becomes referred to as a house. Even the Church of Bowie, although, I suppose, it is technically also the Thin White Duke’s House.) The novel is a fairly straight forward transition narrative: a teenage trans man comes to terms with being trans, decides to begin hormone treatment, and finally comes to a place in his life where he can live as himself. It isn’t poorly written. It boasts a diverse cast. It actually talks about homelessness and queer youth. But there wasn’t anything for me in it.
based on the novel by Gillian Flynn
2014 • 149 minutes • 20th Century Fox
For some reason, thinking about Gone Girl, the novel, exhausts me. It’s no insult to mystery (if I must throw in my lot with only one side of the frustrating but apparently evergreen literary fiction versus genre fiction debate, I will, of course, be on genre fiction’s side) or to Gillian Flynn herself, of whom I know precious (but positive) little. Rather, as you may recall, I worked at the Tattered Cover for a year. The book was so popular that, a year after its publication, I spent my closing shifts chasing miscreants out of the second floor under the watchful eye of a Gone Girl poster. When the paperback finally dropped in April (you’d be surprised by how many little old ladies prefer paperback to hardcover), there was no way for me to escape it save actually not reading the thing. Missing a Flynn novel was an easy, small thing for me.
Missing a Fincher film, however, was not. Watching The Social Network for the first time was such a formative, visceral experience for me as a budding film fan that I’m always willing to investigate. (Okay, I know I didn’t see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but that’s because I couldn’t work up the nerve to, not because I didn’t want to.)
by Margaret Atwood
2005 • 224 pages • Canongate
Margaret Atwood, especially in her later years, has a very specific and peculiar gift as a writer. Reading her prose, you hear not only the voice of a fully developed character, but Atwood’s as well. I’m tempted to say that her female protagonists have some similarities, but I haven’t read enough of her bibliography to feel comfortable saying that. All I can say is that Penelope and Offred are two different women related by a common mother. Atwood’s voice never intrudes, but you would never confuse her books for anyone else’s.
Film: A Very Short Introduction
by Michael Wood
2012 • 144 pages • Oxford University Press
On Netflix Instant (currently the capricious master of my media intake during my move), there’s a wonderful series about film called, appropriately enough, The Story of Film. It’s a fifteen hour long series covering both the basics and the history of film, based on the eponymous book by Irish film critic Mark Cousins. Cousins also narrates The Story of Film, and it’s an acquired delight—you might be nodding off during the first episode, but by episode five, you feel like you’re snuggling with a very sleepy but very excited cinephile who just has to tell you one more thing about Japanese cinema.
I’ve never finished The Story of Film; that’s was what I was watching when Demora Pasha, my college laptop, was brutally cut down in her prime by a glass of water. (She’s since regenerated into my sister-in-law’s laptop after her miraculous, year-long recovery.) But it was the first thing I watched after my Introduction to Film Studies class that satisfied my completionist desire to start my personal exploration into cinema at the beginning. I didn’t want to start with a book, because I was so used to literary criticism. With literary criticism, you critique a text in the same medium; that’s what I’m used to and that’s what I’ve been trained for. But, as Matt Singer points out at The Dissolve, even with the proliferation of commercially available video editing software programs, film is rarely effectively critiqued in its own medium. Tony Zhou’s brilliant series Every Frame a Painting is the closest thing I’ve seen, but it sadly remains an outlier. While I now have enough of a background that I can read purely prose film criticism without scurrying off for research, the fact remains is that it can be difficult to tell the basic story of film without, well, film.