Cruel Intentions

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By Tim Barlow

My wife and I recently watched all six seasons of Gossip Girl on Netflix, routinely piling in at least two episodes a night.  I started off half-watching from the other couch, but by the end of season 1, I was right there: guessing plot lines, reacting aloud at how “S” was being a B, making up dances to the theme song, you get the idea.

If you’re not yet familiar, Gossip Girl is about a handful of trust fund high school kids on the upper east side.  Eventually they go to college, and then quickly they’re just young adults (I don’t think any of the main characters attended college past freshman year).  But the point being, because the characters are so wealthy and have such a safety net, they don’t have or need much else going on besides dating each other, scheming, lying, oh and trying to outsmart a mysterious internet gossip blogger.  Hmm, when I put it like that, it doesn’t sound very awesome, maybe I’m not doing this justice.  Did I mention Chuck and Blair?  Well regardless, it’s some highly addictive crap.

But despite my willingness to divulge a wanton  fling with (x-o-x-o) Gossip Girl, I have been dreading this week since Craig and I first made our All-time top-30 movie lists, seven months ago.  It would’ve been a lie to not include Cruel Intentions on my list, but I’ve been dreading the task of explaining it all to the internet.  The plot is ridiculous, like full-on bat shit crazy.  The acting is equally awful.  But I have to accept that despite everything this movie has going against it, for whatever reason I really liked it towards the end of high school and into early college.  And despite the way that Ryan Phillippe reads his lines (a mix of over pronunciation and almost like he has a jolly rancher tucked in his cheek) I still wanted to be his character.  Good looking, great with the ladies, smart, and rich.  Taking a step back, it’s not hard to see that Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Geller in Cruel Intentions are clear precursors to Chuck and Blair.  Cruel Intentions is Gossip Girl: The Movie.  So what is it with me and this stuff?  I know it’s terrible, shallow, mostly amoral, crap.  So why would I gravitate towards this guilty pleasure?  Following around rich, good looking kids, with no real world problems.  And that’s when it hit me.

This weekend in the Barlow house a valve under our dishwasher decided to begin leaking, pooling water onto our sub-floor and leading to several high stress hours complete with a shop-vac (which I later realized was not of the wet/dry variety) and me nearly electrocuting myself.  Earlier that same day I found myself fruitlessly talking dollars with a car salesman, who was trying in vain to convince me that the more expensive car was actually the better deal – an experience I liken to being stabbed in the nut.  And it was in these everyday, real-world life experiences that I totally understood my love of Cruel Intentions and Gossip Girl.  Imagine a life where the only stress is brought on by petty alliances, or deciding what to wear to a diplomat ball, or whether you should go to Yale or Columbia.  No DIY kitchen remodels.  No haggling with car people.  No making budget spreadsheets with your spouse.  No bad hair days or ironing a shirt last minute, or worrying what you’re going to be when you grow up.  Cruel Intentions was just blatant escapism.  I know that in the broader sense, I’m already very well off, and that more money would just bring new stresses, and that it really can’t buy happiness and blah blah blah.  But I also know – for a fact – that money means a professional fixes that leaky valve under a dishwasher and it mean no conversations, ever again, with a Honda salesmen.  So maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the time I spent escaping through Cruel Intentions into their opulent, carefree world – but my poor ass still is; can’t believe I liked that shit.

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Guest Post – Spellbound

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By Gennae Falconer

Where to begin?  I’m paralyzed by the myriad thoughts rolling in my head, and horrified that in a dozen words, I’ve already misspelled too, two.  I finished watching the documentary Spellbound and immediately tried to quell my anxious stomach with corn chips and chocolate chip cookies.  Be ye warned, not even binge snacking can ease the tension created from seeing pubescent teens try to conquer the world of spelling bees.  But my tummy rumbles in no way could compare to those experienced by the spelling bee participants and their parents.  Whoa.

Of the eight children who were followed, I was captivated by a handful.  The girl who won was not one of them, although she’s a really impressive violinist for her age.  I was immediately taken with Angela and her immigrant parents, in particular her father who moved to the U.S. to give his children a better life.  He works for an imbecilic ranch owner who refers to Latinos as “them” and is full of cringe-inducing stereotypes.  Angela’s dad cannot speak English…here’s hoping he can’t understand it either.  Angela is a sweet girl with a huge mouth she hasn’t quite grown into, and is exuberant.  She made it easy to root for. In contrast there was a kid named Harry who was a complex mess of nerdy and socially awkward.  He too had a mouth yearning to fit a larger head, but was less captivating than Angela as his mouth never stopped moving.  He was talkative, confusing, and constantly making facial expressions that simultaneously annoyed and interested me.  In all honesty, I did not want him to win, but I wanted to see and hear more of him.

Neil, whose parents Rajesh and Darshana are from India, was perhaps the most well trained contestant.  His parents paid for a tutor to spend between 12-20 hours a week quizzing and coaching, and supplemented that training with French and Spanish tutors to help him understand the origin of words that could possibly be a part of the BEE.  Neil’s mother used phrasing such as “when in crisis” and “fighting in a war” to convey the state the family was in as they prepared Neil to be the #1 American speller.  The pressure on this kid was already high when the grandfather heaped the fate of 5,000 hungry Indians on his ability to win as well.  Yikes!  I was afraid his parents would be devastated by his loss, but in the end they were proud.  Frankly, that was a relief to me.

After watching this documentary, I totally understand why Craig chose this movie.  It’s a beautiful reflection of the complexities of families.  While some families seemed to walk a fine line between supportive and neurotic, the love parents and siblings felt for the contestants was undeniable.  There are many reasons to watch this documentary.  But if hard-work, the illusive American Dream, budding acne, and spelling-angst aren’t enough for you, may the variety of spectacles showcased be reason enough. In the words of 4th place April’s mother, (with the largest spectacles of anyone), “Bee Happy.”

Reaction to Spellbound

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By Tim Barlow

The summer after I graduated from college, I decided on a whim to move out to Southern California.  I didn’t have a plan or a job, but during my drive out I daydreamed about uncovering a secret talent for surfing.  Hoping to tap into some latent skill just waiting to be discovered, propelling me into fame and fortune.  After a couple sessions spent face planting into the ocean floor and retaining enough salt water in my sinuses to never again need a Neti Pot, I hung up the borrowed surfboard; it seemed I was not a natural.

Today, it’s not uncommon for me to be watching a movie and surfing the internet at the same time.  At work, I’ll routinely start an email, begin taking notes on a piece of paper, add something to my to-do list, look up some song lyrics on the internet, remember to take my vitamins, decide to make some tea and stare out the window, wonder if those are cumulonimbus clouds, wonder what the weather is going to be after work, check the weather, discuss the weather with co-workers, and then eventually remember the abandoned half done email a few hours later after closing the eleven other open windows on my desktop.  It would seem that I lack focus, and maybe commitment, oh, and also, follow through.

I went into watching Spellbound with a weird hope that they were just naturally good at spelling.  There is this allure, maybe as a holdover from my fascination with superheroes, or growing up in an age when every tv show character had a secret power or skill, everyone is born a beautiful snowflake kinda crap, that a special gift, uniquely given at birth is a) a realistic possibility and b) something to covet.  Maybe something like surfing that I could just discover without having to work.  Conversely, when something is learned and worked hard for, a little of the shine goes away, maybe I think if I worked as hard at it as you, I could do that too, you’re not so special.  This is where you should say, BUT YOU DIDN’T WORK HARD YOU LAZY PILE, and then I’ll ask, but do I still get a participation ribbon?  And then you should hit me.  So that’s what I expected to think while watching the movie; eh, so what, they spend a lot of time spelling.  But that’s not what I got.  I was so impressed, yes of course by their being able to spell these incredibly complex words, but far exceeding that, was my wonder and awe and jealousy at the commitment of these contestants and families.  How do they do that?  How did they study and work so hard?  How do they care that much?

At one point, one of the contestants makes light of their superfluous skills: ‘When am I ever going to have to even know the word for a Moroccan wind, let alone need to spell it.’  And she’s right, this is not a very practical skill, like for example my being able to kick a soccer ball or throw a football, but the training and mindset and focus it took for her to be able to spell a word that she’ll never ever need to know will absolutely be helpful.  The more cynical side of me wants to scoff at the sacrifice they’re making.  Their time.  Their youth.  And my god, their social skills (“Does this sound like a musical robot?”)  But I’m actually pretty jealous.  What could I accomplish if I was willing to forego some things that keep me distracted?  What am I capable of with a little more focus and commitment?  And that’s what I’m left with after watching Spellbound, that and of course this quote.

“Besides spelling, hmm, I really like roller coasters…I’m a vegetarian, and I like coffee.”  April, 4th place finisher, Scripps National Spelling Bee

Spellbound

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By Craig Joseph

There are so many things in this movie that make me laugh:

  • the interactions between the owner of the ranch where Angela’s father works and his knitting wife,
  • the simultaneous disdain and awe in the words and on the faces of the three boys whom Nupur defeats at her regional bee,
  • Harry’s impersonation of a “musical robot,” and so much more.

Let’s face it.  A film chronicling the efforts of eight children to win the Howard Scripps National Spelling Bee will be crammed with enough eccentricities and idiosyncracies to fill the Merriam Webster dictionary.  And what the filmmakers do so skillfully is to turn the camera on and let these kids do their thing without judgment – and even with a measure of adulation.  An opportunity to mock and laugh quickly morphs into an invitation to identify with and cheer on carefully selected segments of our nation’s population as they pursue a very specific slice of the American dream.  In its ability to rally viewers alone, this movie is magical.

But this time around, my attention wasn’t on the kids; it was on the parents.  And not the way you might expect.

I’m certainly guilty of clamoring to films about messed-up familes; with Tolstoy, I’ve tended to believe that “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Quite simply, dysfunction is fun and therapeutic to watch, while the Waltons seems trite, fabricated and cookie-cutter.

However, this Spellbound viewing struck me as an exploration of the many different, unique and – yes – interesting forms that love can take.  Segment after segment, I found myself intrigued and touched by the various ways that each parent had found to support and encourage their child in his or her pursuit of the championship.  It’s as if – in their own weirdness – each parent has been able to intuit exactly what their child needs and provide it.

Ashley’s mother’s grammar is a mess and she mispronounces words left and right, but her fierce love is almost certainly what has helped catapult her daughter through obstacles in inner-city DC.  At first blush, the regimen that Neil’s father has his son on seems crazy and almost abusive, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has set up an environment in which his driven son thrives – and even enjoys.  And could there be more of a personality mismatch between pessimistic April and her pun-loving Edith Bunker mother?  But Gayle lets April mope, never making too big of a deal about how proud she is of her daughter and quietly telling the camera she hopes April will someday stop thinking like that.

The examples are numerous, undercutting Tolstoy and I.  And making me wonder if my (and maybe the culture’s) jaded assumptions – that love, harmony and peace are narratively lifeless and boring – are self-defeating where real life is concerned.  If I believed that loving is creative, intentional, unique and filled with possibilities, maybe I would pursue it with more wholehearted abandon.  Perhaps cleverness, irony, cynicism and ennui have become too sexy, luring me away from trying to live a life of loving others well – without fear or concern for my own wellbeing.  After all, Spellbound IS real life – and is anything but tame and boring.  Laughing at them is too easy; living like them, a worthwhile challenge.  And I don’t have to be a parent to find out.

Reaction to Capote

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By Craig Joseph

There’s a running joke in my family that I could make a million dollars writing a collection of short stories about our relatives.  But I’d have to shelve it in fiction because no one would believe that it’s true.  And I’d have to wait until everyone was dead – or I’d piss them off.

We jest, but the truth is, some of my best inspiration for writing comes from those closest to me, and I’ve had to grapple – more than a few times – with the ethics of whether or not I commit their stories to print.

The broader questions of “Should I create?” and “What’s my motive for doing so?” made Tim’s pick, Capote, a fascinating watch this week, largely because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s enigmatic portrayal of the title character and the layers of uncertainty that surround his reasons for writing In Cold Blood.

Truman’s answers to questions about what he’s doing change, depending on the day and the audience.  At his most altruistic, he is seeking to humanize Perry, to tell his life story and to convince readers that no one sets out to become a monster.  At the same time, Tru is driven by a need to do something different than he has before – to write “the book he was meant to write” – and to garner a level of fame, attention and, yes, money.  A third string of comments suggest that there is some personal exorcising of demons going on in writing the book – that somehow, Truman is grappling with his own abandonment issues.  And Hoffman’s nuanced performance also begs question: was Capote obsessed or in love with Perry?

We get no answer, but a chorus of ethical voices – Harper Lee, Jack Dunphy, Wallace Shawn and even the killers themselves – underscore how unaware Truman is of his own motives.  And an epilogue about his troubled life post-publication serves as a cautionary tale for any of us who create without exploring our conflicting reasons for doing so.

This film challenges me. Though I’m unlikely to be tempted by fame and fortune (I mean, only 2 of you read this – hi, Mom), my purity is compromised other ways.  I have written – and published – for revenge.  I’ve had conversations that I ought to have had in person via poems.  Several forays onto the stage have found me mimicking someone I know for the purposes of creating a character.  My therapist once called me a “promiscuous intimate,” and I’m ashamed to say that I know I can pretty much make friends with anyone – and have – sometimes solely for the purpose of gleaning their story for my artistic designs.  But I’m thinking about and wondering  now if it is ever possible to separate my complicated motives and personality from my creative output.  And if that’s even desirable.  Certainly, I want to steward other people well, and I haven’t always done that, but this viewing leaves me thinking that an artistic vision can never be anything other than totally subjective and self interested.

All that being said, I am posting this week from the Outer Banks, where I’m on vacation with my family, so watch for it in hardcover sometime this fall at your local bookseller.

Capote

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By Tim Barlow

Admittedly choosing Capote was a risk.  I first saw it probably six years ago, and I remembered it as having a thought provoking script, being beautifully shot and fantastically acted, but I still only saw it the one time.  Emotionally heavy and stark movies that feel perpetually set in winter aren’t my choice for a lazy Saturday afternoon in the chill zone (Yes, I just renamed my family room, the chill zone. Don’t care)  And ranking a movie in my Top 30 of all time after one viewing and with zero attempts at re-watching in the past six years, is either a risk or a blatant self deception.

I’ve also never read In Cold Blood, the Truman Capote novel which serves as the plot device for Capote. I have it, and have had it for a long time, but I’ve never even come close to picking it up whenever the time comes to choose a new book.  Home invasions, family murders, no thanks.  I’ve also never read Breakfast at Tiffany’s or any other Truman Capote effort.  So, the only connection I have to this movie is the movie.  Again, especially given some of the motivation behind other choices on my list, it’s a, well you get the idea.

But after re-watching Capote for this project, I feel totally validated; so long insecurity, you’ve been a bad friend.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman is amazing, and the supporting cast of Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, Chris Cooper as the town sheriff and Clifton Collins as one of the killers, are all wonderful as well.

The cinematography, specifically the stark color palette that lingers through most of the movie provides the perfect bleak backdrop…

And the script, though it at times comes dangerously close to beating us over the head with the fact that there is an interconnectedness between Truman and one of the killers, it doesn’t egregiously cross that line.  Instead the dialogue and plot push on patiently, primarily displaying that deeper connection through Truman and his interactions.

One of the most interesting directions the script takes is the way it portrays Perry and Truman on inverted paths of righteousness.  While Perry murdered people in cold blood, the grusome act (though initially unseen by the viewer) which starts the movie, he gradually presents a kinder, gentler and more thoughtful demeanor as the movie moves along.  Truman, on the other hand, starts out as gentle and kind, soft spoken and cautious, feeling out his unfamiliar surroundings.  But over time, his charm takes over, melting icy interactions, and breaking down barriers, and once those barriers are out of the way, he shows no hesitancy with using any of the other characters to get what he wants, despite warnings and attempted interventions from friends e.g., “Be careful what you do (Truman) to get what you want” and “In Cold Blood, and that refers to the crime or the fact that you’re still talking to the defendants?”  Truman bares his true nature more and more often, eventually lying even to himself as he desperately tries to scrape together some semblance of peace.

In the end, my lasting impression of Capote is one of monsters.  The kind that spontaneously murder whole families behind closed doors, out in the middle of nowhere, and the kind that deceive, manipulate and coerce in the city. For one it ends in execution, for the other, fame, but really they’re both dead.  So be careful what you do, Tim, to get what you want.

Guest post – The Royal Tenenbaums

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By Andrew Rudd

Before I saw The Royal Tenenbaums, I’ll admit, I was unfairly pre-disposed to love it.  The first truly cathartic experience I had in a movie theatre was in the late-run cheap theatre in a strip mall in Toledo, Ohio where I saw my first Wes Anderson film Rushmore (his second after Bottle Rocket).  I was astonished as I saw that a filmmaker had so crystallized my adolescent self, and crafted an epic tale about an over-reaching, excessively-articulate, insecurely-arrogant, self-styled creative genius.  As a 15 year old?  That was precisely who I had been.  (And, while adulthood had lent me many devices to mask it?  I am still that guy.)  So I came to The Royal Tenenbaums hoping for more of that drug, I was both hopeful and fearful that the film wouldn’t live up to my expectations. 

The Royal Tenenbaums sets out to be a film about a family of geniuses, but before the first act is over, we’ve been disabused of that notion.  The Tenenbaums haven’t just “fallen on hard times” as Charlie Rose suggests — they are a spectacularly wrecked lot.  With the possible exception of the matriarch, Etheline, all of them seem to have either failed to live up to their childhood promise, or worse, turned their gifts into indulgence imprisoning themselves or others.  The downward slide of their linked fates provides laugh after laugh after laugh for the second act of the movie, but we are not invited to laugh at them or with them, we are only invited to laugh-in-spite-of-ourselves.  We laugh because their bad behavior is too terrible to believe.  We laugh because they continue to rely on rituals, talismans, habits and obsessions that are, well, laughable in their inadequacy.  Some of us find it too painful to laugh at characters we care about, and it doesn’t feel funny to watch someone engage in self-destructive behavior.  And really this is, I think the genius of Wes Anderson in this film and in most of his other films too.

A frequent criticism of Wes suggests his films are unreasonably excessive and self-indulgent.  I think that’s partly true, but not enough true.  Are his characters exaggerated in their costumes, quirkiness, and idiosyncracies? Uniformly, yes.  Are the sets so carefully and dramatically constructed that they look like a mockery of Movie Sets?  Without question, yes.  Do the direction, camera set-ups and line readings all seem markedly self-aware? Of course they do.  That’s what makes a Wes Anderson film a Wes Anderson film.  But I’d argue that this rigor is more of a restraint than an excess. 

The narrator’s voice, the stagey-blocking,  the rare use of a close up? Anderson holds us at a distance throughout this film: BOTH giving us deep knowledge of the characters AND refusing, until deep into the film, to let us care.  This is a story about Storytellers who have a hard time living up to their own Stories and it is told to us by a storyteller who, by refusing realism and mainstream movie-making conventions wants us to Think About and Care About these characters (and storytelling) in equal measure.

So I loved it.  Wes Anderson couldn’t have known that I grew up in a “family of geniuses”, and he couldn’t have known that my family mythology had been gradually crumbling and disintegrating ever since.  But he somehow spoke to me personally, anyway.  I loved this film the first time I watched it because I recognized the wreck I had come from.  Ten(ish) viewings later, I love it because it describes so aptly the wreck that I am.  

And I also love it because he invites us to consider how profoundly we all fail to live up to our promise, how broken families are the only kind of families, how grace only emerges in moments of ruin, and how helpful it can be to laugh at the absurdity of our own stories. 

Our greatest genius?  Is always incipient calamity. 

Our only salvation? Is found in the words of Henry Sherman.  When he arrives in the Recovery Room, confronted by betrayal, exhaustion, failure, pain and despair he says:

“How can I help?” 

And self-absorbed archtypal-bad-father Royal isn’t even in the room to hear these words.  Somehow though, he realizes that what little help he can offer is his only salvation, the only thing that can make him worthy of the kind of epitaph he’s always wanted.   The only thing that any of us can do really? Is acknowledge the inadequacy of our genius, and offer our modest little help anyway.