Monday, January 31, 2011

Five Good Things

Cold, dark, joyless – I hate January. Since I left the tropics (OVER NINE JANUARYS AGO!), I have really struggled to enjoy anything that happens in between, like, October and April. This year, my January has had an additional layer of existential blah blanketing the customary winter blues, like a lasagna. A lasagna of misery. And the outside world – which, lest we forget, continues to do stuff independent of this little blog – hasn’t fared much better, what with the airport bombings and the shootings of politicians and the Andy Murray losing the Australian Open again.

Buuuut life goes on. Even when it feels like your life belongs on www.ultraslo.com, things are still happening: TV shows are airing new episodes, movies are being released, websites are being updated daily (daily). So, without further ado, here are Five Good Things that happened this January.

1. Black Swan gets released here

I think I covered this pretty extensively the other day; but really, I had been soooooooo OMG EXCITE for so many months, and usually that’s the road to disappoint. For once, my stratospheric expectations were not only met but surpassed.

2. Parks & Recreation returns to TV

Somewhere in between its lackluster first season and its replacement in NBC’s fall lineup by Outsourced, P&R (or, as it’s been rather charmingly nicknamed, P-Rex) became a critical darling, rivaled among sitcoms only by Community. I think that in my own abundant outpouring of love for Community I sort of forgot how good P-Rex’s second season was, but the two episodes of season three that have aired thus far reminded me what a comic powerhouse this show is. Episode two, “The Flu”, was particularly good – I had to keep rewinding it to catch jokes I’d missed through laughing so hard at other jokes.

3. This interview with Udo Kier

What a journalistic tour de force. Udo Kier, deliverer of maybe the greatest line of dialogue in cinema history, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is quite bananas. "I cannot answer you, because it’s totally unknown to me what you just asked me, and also very boring"; “I knocked at [Pamela Anderson’s] trailer—which was enormous, as big as her breasts”; “you can put two grams of coke on top of the Bible, and you first take a line of coke and then you open the Bible. Because then you understand” – this interview is the gift that keeps on giving.

4. My original theme song for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hits YouTube

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I subtly linked this video earlier in the month, but subtlety does not get you noticed in this shallow, celebrity-obsessed, screechy-tabloid-headline culture of ours. I’ll be honest, this obscenely catchy little ditty has not been getting the attention it so richly deserves, and to redress this gross injustice I may have to sully my hands by (yeesh) promoting it. Until I get round to that, however, repeatedly linking it to my readership of four will have to suffice.

5. John Shore launches ThruWay Christians

John Shore is great, and you should be reading his blog already if you have any interest in forward-thinking Christianity, LGBT rights, or interfaith dialogue. This month he surpassed himself by launching ThruWay Christians, a hugely exciting new online community for “Christians who find conservative/right-wing Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive/liberal Christianity too theologically tenuous.” John has long been a voice of reason crying out in the reactionary wilderness of mainstream (US) Christianity, and now he’s taking his exceptional blend of faith and level-headedness to the next level by spearheading a movement toward the full acceptance of marginalized people by the religion whose major selling point is its supposed inclusivity. I truly believe that future historians of Christianity, as they shake their heads in disbelief at twenty-first-century Christian attitudes toward LGBT people, will look on John Shore as a towering figure of 2011’s church.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dancer in the Dark

When that I was and a little tiny girl, some of my favorite books were set in ballet schools. There was the fourteen-book Sadler’s Wells series by Lorna Hill, which tells the story of lovely prima ballerina Veronica Weston and her friends and family, both in Northumberland and in the Wells ballet school. (Incidentally, I still think Veronica and temperamental musician Sebastian are one of the most gorgeous fictional couples of all time. As a child, I was pretty much in love with both of them.) And, of course, there is the mother and father of all ballet school stories, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it, even if you’re not a little girl. At the very least, watch the lovely 2007 BBC adaptation (starring the lovely Emma Watson). Admittedly, my favorite thing about that book was not so much the dancing as the character of Petrova, who loathes the performing arts and loves fixing cars (when she’s not learning important life lessons from two unmarried lady doctors… I’m not inventing the subtext, just reporting on it!).

I think part of the allure of ballet schools for me was that I would never, ever be a part of them. Like all six-year-old girls in small-town Alabama, I took ballet lessons briefly, but it soon became abundantly clear that I was far too heavyset, graceless, and clumsy to have any talent in this field. Kids who went to ballet school were like kids who solved mysteries or fought aliens – they were cool because they were doing something that did not exist in real life.

Noticing my enthusiasm for stories about ballet, my parents bought tickets for a Covent Garden production of Swan Lake. We’d been up late the night before – trips to UK back then were always an exhausting merry-go-round of little-seen relatives – and the parents were a bit concerned that my ten-year-old self might find the reality of dance rather more soporific than the books I so loved. They needn’t have worried. I was completely transfixed. The minute we got home, I copied my dad’s Swan Lake LP* onto a cassette* so I could relive the experience constantly (well, on rotation with my three other cassettes, which were The Who’s Tommy, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, and a kick-ass compilation tape made by my brother).

Which is all to say: stories set in ballet schools are dear to my heart, and Swan Lake is especially dear to my heart, so it was pretty much a given that I was going to enjoy the hell out of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

Black Swan tells the story of a young ballerina’s descent into madness, which is driven by her creepy sex-offender dance instructor, her creepy overbearing mother, the rival onto whom she projects the darker side of her own psyche, and her tireless quest for perfection. It is the story of the artist, of the ruthlessly single-minded pursuit of beauty and the toll this takes on the individual; and it is the story of the Hollywood star, particularly the female Hollywood star. Nina is constantly both infantilized and sexualized by those around her. This is literalized in the scene where she masturbates while surrounded by stuffed animals, but it’s also clear from the way her mother suffocates her like a small child whilst being unsettlingly eager to undress her, and from the way her instructor Thomas treats her. He repeatedly demands that his leading lady embrace her dark side (and by “her dark side” he means “his penis”), but he is drawn to her childlike naivety and even calls her “little princess” – or he calls her that once she has proved herself fit to take the place of the older dancer, who is considered a has-been at 35 (Winona Ryder, in possibly the “ouch”est piece of casting ever). Our society wants women celebrities to be squeaky-clean role models for little girls to look up to, but it also wants them to be sexual objects, and Thomas’s interpretation of Odette-Odile directly mirrors this cultural Madonna-whore complex.

Given the wild, extreme, high-pressure Hollywood milieu it reflects, it’s no surprise that Black Swan is a smorgasbord of bombast, intensity, operatic excess, and headfuckery. Naturally, this brings to mind that other bombastic, intense horror-thriller about an innocent young woman corrupted by the dark side of a ballet school: Suspiria. (Heck, the number of times I’ve almost called Darren Aronofsky Dario Argento is surely evidence of the connection.) I freakin’ love Suspiria. I love all those Italian horror films of the 70s, which the literati call gialli but which I, as a teenager ignorant of film-critic terminology, dubbed ‘spag-horror’: movies made by Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava, with irresistible titles like The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and Twitch of the Death Nerve. These movies, along with the oeuvres of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, were some of the most influential on my development as a film-lover, and I love that Black Swan is forthright in acknowledging its debt to Argento, Lynch, and Cronenberg.

I also love the lesbian sex scene (and not just because it lends credence to my theory that the career trajectory of Lindsay Lohan was an influence on this film). Between the ballet school setting, the giallo sensibility, and the h4wt girl-on-girl action, it’s as if Black Swan were specifically designed for me and me alone. And, considering the amount I complain that Hollywood doesn’t cater to my particular tastes, I think I should take this moment to say:

Thank you, Darren Aronofsky.

*These are just some of the ways we listened to music before mp3s, children. You can probably see examples of them in your local museum.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Existential Jesus

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Existential Jesus by John Carroll. It’s an existentialist interpretation of the Gospel of Mark, and it’s pretty much heresy from start to finish. Some of its assertions are plucked from thin air – when Carroll claims that Jesus’ closing of the Gethsemane prayer with the words “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours” is not a submission to God’s will but a meaningless formula appended out of habit, it is tempting to respond, with post-Wikipedia cynicism, “Citation needed” – and its individualist approach to Christ’s teachings often melts them into airy-fairy New Age spiritual gloop.

However, The Existential Jesus does two things rather well. One is applying the concept of midrash to the New Testament (which is something I find incredibly exciting, and which could well prove a road toward reconciling reception theory and hermeneutic realism). The other is portraying Christ’s humanity.

It is all too easy to forget that Jesus was a human being. Yes, we sing each Christmas of the little lord Jesus asleep on the hay; yes, we parrot glib churchspeak like “fully God and fully man”; but I for one tend to focus on his role as savior and messiah. Pace my favorite gospel, I meditate on the mystery: the Word, the truth, the light. At this point in my life, though, I find it all too easy to relate to the idea of a Jesus my age – a young man, living a perfectly ordinary life, who didn’t yet know all the answers, and perhaps wasn’t yet sure of his own identity and purpose on this earth.

Another book I’ve just finished is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, which has also been branded as heresy. It’s a novelization of the life of Christ, and it packs a bold Christological punch from the very first chapter, which depicts Jesus the carpenter’s son being jeered and vilified for building the cross on which a prophet-rebel is crucified. Kazantzakis’ Jesus has always been tormented by a sense of God’s presence, but it is only slowly and torturously that he works his way toward an understanding of his destiny.

Kazantzakis was (on and off) a practicing Christian, Carroll is not, but in this sense their works make interesting companion pieces. Both portray a Jesus who does not spring forth fully formed, knowing himself and his part from the off; both portray him as fully human, with the cloudy understanding that entails, seeing through a glass darkly and seeking his higher calling without a straightforward knowledge and understanding to guide him. It’s a compelling, revolutionary portrayal for us today, who have always known Jesus’ full story. I don’t know if it’s heresy to envision Jesus struggling to discover his identity and his destiny, but it thoroughly humanizes this figure who was, after all, thoroughly human – and it’s an enormous comfort, two millennia on, for an unemployed twenty-something unsure of her purpose on earth.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The First Annual GCG Pop Culture Awards

In which I make up categories as it suits me and distribute awards entirely at random.

MUSIC AWARDS

“Come on Eileen” Award for Most Inane, Repetitive, Inescapable Song of 2010
I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas.

Critical Masturbation Award for Most Boring Record That Critics Inexplicably Loved
Lisbon by the Walkmen.

Most Essential Downtime in a Song
The eight measures in Kanye West’s “Monster” immediately following Nicky Minaj’s verse, allowing you to pick yourself up off the floor from the awesome, awesome, awesomeness.

Best New Genre Award
Prog-rap, the definitive text for which is of course Kanye West’s big, bold, mind-blowing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye should collaborate with Rush, because if there’s one thing better than a prog-rock steampunk concept album, it’s a prog-rap steampunk concept album.

FILM AWARDS

Pirates of the Caribbean Award for Terrible Film I’m Nonetheless Glad Exists Because of the Awesome Kermodean Rant It Inspired
Sex and the City 2. Witness the glory.

Crank: High Voltage Award for Most Ridiculously Fun Cinematic Experience
Piranha 3D.

3 Most Rage-Inducing Film Posters of 2010
(3) Gulliver’s Travels; (2) Vampires Suck; (1) that one Katherine Heigl movie with the grown man dressed like a baby.

Fish Tank / An Education Joint Award for Best Unintentional Double Bill
Catfish & The Social Network.

Bad Filmgoer Award for Terrible Alternate Version of Great Film I Kind of Want to See
The great film: Of Gods and Men. The terrible alternate version I kind of want to see: Uwe Boll’s Monks Vs. Terrorists.

Alison Bechdel Award for Most Feminist Film / Cagney & Lacey Award for Most Subtexty Film
Whip It.

Top Ten Films
In the order I saw them, because that’s just how I roll:
Ponyo
Shutter Island
Kick-Ass
Four Lions
Inception
Toy Story 3
Scott Pilgrim
The Social Network
Monsters
Of Gods and Men

BAD FEMINIST AWARDS

Bad Feminist Award for D00dliest Top Ten Film List
Me. Look at that Top Ten. There’s, like, two female characters total in all those films.

Bad Feminist Award for Film I’m Most Ashamed That I Didn’t See
Made in Dagenham. Missing it makes me feel like a bad feminist, a bad filmgoer, and a bad member of the Kermode nation.

Bad Feminist Award for Film I Feel Guilty About Not Really Liking
Winter’s Bone. Directed by a woman, starring a woman, highly acclaimed, hella boring.

Bad Feminist All-Round Award
Sex & the City 2. By all accounts, the movie’s portrayal of women is as problematic as its attitude toward class issues and race issues, but the discourse around it has been hideously misogynistic.

TELEVISION AWARDS

Buffy S8 Award for Series I Should Have Ditched Long Before I Actually Did
The League, which I watched for a season and a half in a vain attempt to discover why my equal-parts-loved-and-hated AV Club thinks it’s so great; I saw only a mean-spirited, misogynistic, unfunny show, like an incompetently executed answer to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Even the unearthly attractiveness of Katie Aselton couldn’t keep me at this show.
Honorable Mention: Mike & Molly, which started out surprisingly sweet and charming, but has gotten lazier and more reliant on hoary clich├ęs week by week, to the point that I will definitely not be coming back in January.

Best TV Show of 2010
COMMUNITY, BITCHES

Best Comeback From A Show I Feared Might Be In Irreversible Decline
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which recovered from a patchy fifth season and a lacklustre two-part season opener to deliver a sixth season whose highs stand among the show’s finest moments.

Car Crash Television Award
Running Wilde. Mitchell Hurwitz, Will Arnett, David Cross – with the amount of goodwill guaranteed this show from still-mourning Arrested Development fans, it was going to have to be really terrible in order to squander it. It was.
Honorable Mention: Glee, of course.

Firefly Award for Most Lamented Single-Season Show
Terriers. TV gods, you owe me one. I expect at least a third season of Community for this.

BOOK AWARDS

The Amber Spyglass Award for Most Uncontrollable Weeping Induced by the Final Volume of a YA Trilogy
Since I failed to bottle my tears for an exact comparison, I’m going to have to declare it a tie between Mockingjay, the final volume of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, and Monsters of Men, which concludes Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Maybe I will even do a compare-and-contrast of the two series.

SILLY AWARDS

Robert Browning Award for Unintentionally Hilarious Word Usage
The Last Airbender, which was nowhere near as painful as I’d been led to expect, thanks largely to the giggle factor of lines such as “There are some powerful benders in the northern water tribes” (plus the ever-amusing spectacle of Aasif Mandvi making a fool of himself).

Amanda Seyfried Award for Blonde Lady I Find Stunningly Attractive Despite Not On The Whole Preferring Blondes
Whitney Able in Monsters. Like Ms Seyfried, she looks better in motion than in still photographs, because she has a luminous quality that lights up the screen.

Bad American Accent Award (Film Edition)
Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass. He comes so close to getting it right, until he starts talking about “supaheroes”. Bless.

Bad American Accent Award (TV Edition)
Olivia Williams in that one episode of Terriers. I love you, Ms Williams, but wow can you ever not do an American accent.
Honorable Mention: Gabrielle Anwar on Burn Notice seems to be getting lazier with her fake American accent, but since the character’s supposed to be faking the accent I’ll let it slide. If there’s a similar excuse for Archie Panjabi’s similarly dodgy accent on The Good Wife, we haven’t heard it yet.