Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: The Age of Innocence

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

It's long been my contention that Michelle Pfeiffer is the best actress of my lifetime. She's consistently impressed in a wide variety of performances spanning several decades now. She's a true chameleon, disappearing inside of her characters, film after film. Clearly, she works extremely hard at her craft, but she makes it all seem effortless and above all, honest. We believe she is the character she's playing. There's no performative artifice to her acting; instead she's fluid and natural, fully inhabiting the women she's bringing to life.

Pfeiffer's performance as Countess Ellen Oleska in Martin Scorsese's sublime The Age of Innocence (1993) is, without question, one of a handful of Pfeiffer roles that I point to whenever someone asks for "best performance ever" lists. The exquisite beauty and crushing heartache of her work in the film has haunted me over the years and through repeat viewings. Even though she tries mightily to adhere to the social decorum of the day, Ellen's desire for Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that nearly equals Pfeiffer's) radiates with a white-hot intensity that practically scorches the screen. This love, built on mutual attraction and also respect, will sadly remain unconsummated due to the societal mores of 1870s New York City. Pfeiffer makes us feel every ounce of Ellen's pain, often with just a heartfelt glance or a forced smile in polite company. It's a remarkably affecting performance and, as is usual with Pfeiffer, utterly seamless as well.

An argument can be made that it's Pfeiffer's best work. Whether or not that's true, and I tend to believe it might be, it's clearly among her most definitive roles. I would also argue that it's one of the most achingly beautiful and nuanced performances ever captured on film.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: July 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

That image above is from the occult bookstore scene in Joe Dante's 1981 werewolf masterpiece The Howling. I can hear you snickering at my belief in the existence of a "werewolf masterpiece." In response, I'd like to urge you to see more movies and to change your damn attitude. The Howling resides in my personal top ten horror films list, sometimes even inching into the top five. It's a horror movie for fans who know their horror. Scary, smart, sly, funny, terrifying. It's got it all.

Speaking of movies with bookstores in them, let's talk about some books, shall we?

Currently reading

Opening Wednesday at a Drive-In or Theater Near You, by Charles Taylor. The Howling isn't covered in this book, falling just outside its parameters of films from the 1970s. I'm guessing though that it's the sort of intelligent genre flick that Taylor would appreciate, though. His book posits that the '70s were the last Golden Age of Cinema. Nothing earth shattering there; most of us who take film seriously would agree. But then he focuses not on the critically lauded films of the era (Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, etc.), but on the lesser-known B-movies and genre fare that you could often catch at your local drive-in or at the rundown theater in the ugly part of town. I haven't see many of the films he covers in the book, but as a genre film addict I certainly want to now. Films like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia have already been added to my watch list.

His chapter on Pam Grier is fascinating. He correctly notes that while Grier wasn't afforded the opportunities that other (white) actresses were given, she still managed to be a star. That she rarely worked in great pictures is a shame. Thankfully, and Taylor discusses this too, she did eventually headline a film that was more than worthy of her talents with Jackie Brown, Tarantino's love letter to Grier and everything she stood for in '70s films like Coffey and Foxy Brown. This only reinforced what I've long thought—Jackie Brown is Tarantino's most mature and affecting film. It's also his best. Thanks in large part to Grier's standout performance.

Taylor uses an analogy about two other actresses, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep, to make his point that Grier was not only a star but also a wonderful actress. Here's the passage; it beautifully sums up my feelings exactly on both actresses:
Michelle Pfeiffer was a star from the moment she descended in that glass elevator in Scarface—although the automatic prejudice that assumes beautiful people can't act means it took a while for people to see she was also an actress. Meryl Streep—always too busy being the straight-A student, nailing an accent the way the class grind nails a test - has never managed it. (Asked for her opinion of Streep's acting, Katharine Hepburn said, "Click, click, click.")

Now for the eerie part. Just a couple of days before I read this book, on Facebook I declared Michelle Pfeiffer the best actress of my lifetime. Not only that, but I added, "You can keep Streep. I'll take Pfeiffer every time." This led to a series of amicable arguments with friends in the comments. I was dogged in my defense of my choice of Pfeiffer. So when I read this, in the midst of an appreciation of Pam Grier's awesomeness, my jaw dropped. This is almost exactly what I had just written. Vindication! A film critic agrees me!

Kidding aside, it's this sort of insight that hooked me from the first page. Taylor's not afraid to run counter to critical opinion. He writes thoughtfully about films and explicates ideas that other critics aren't even considering in their writing. For film nerds, this is a must read.

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. This one's been a grind so far. I knew what I was getting into, a towering piece of twentieth-century literature firmly ensconced in the cannon, one that's beautifully, and evocatively written, but one that's also elliptical and abstruse as hell. I'm nearing the halfway point, and this fractured narrative of an alcoholic drinking his way through Mexico in the late 1930s is definitely challenging my head, which is already taxed daily by kids, work, life. I want to see it through to the end, though. Some of Lowry's gloriously halting sentences, overstuffed as they are with commas, are positively sublime. The kind of writing you want to quote at parties. In fact, I'll close this party with one such line:
"And this is how I sometimes think of myself, as a great explorer who has discovered some extraordinary land from which he can never return to give his knowledge to the world: but the name of this land is hell."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: "Ring Me Up"

From the opening shouts of "Hooh! Haah!" over that killer guitar riff, "Ring Me Up" announces itself as an intriguing song. Then around the ten second mark Chrissy enters, declaring "You are my desire" and it's all over; intrigue quickly morphs into addiction.

I suppose I should apologize in advance, but here's an unavoidable truth: I'll most likely spend at least a small portion of every post in this series extolling the virtues of Chrissy Amphlett and that voice. Mostly that's because writing about instrumentation isn't one of my strengths, while describing what makes a singer/songwriter memorably special is much more in my wheelhouse.

Chrissy's distinctive vocals and unique talents are as potent as ever in "Ring Me Up." She sings softly, yodels tremulously, and barks fiercely, often one after the other. She lets out a brief, high yelp after "Oh oh oh I ya oh oh oh I ya" that's full of more charisma than most singers can manage across an entire song. Her plaintive, put-upon, punky delivery in the bridge is one of my favorite moments in the band's entire catalog:

I am sitting here all alone
Waiting by my telephone
Wish I didn't leave it you
Ringing you I'm always having to

Later in the song she raises the intensity of her ""Oh oh oh I ya oh oh oh I ya" to deliriously gorgeous heights. There's so much praise to be heaped on her vocal performance in this and every other song in the band's repertoire that I could spend days doing just that. Instead, I'll probably just spend a series of posts doing it.

Lest we forget the band though, the music is pure aural gold. The interlocking sound of a band on fire propels the whole thing along, all power and grace, perfectly complementing Chrissy's singing. It's such a delightfully unusual song, with a sound and a vibe all its own. There's a primal feel to the song, all aching desire and unrequited longing. It's beautiful.

Whenever I watch 1984's Sixteen Candles and hear this song used in one brief scene, I smile. John Hughes had an ear for great music, certainly. I hope generations of moviegoers will hear it in the film, seek it out for themselves, and be floored by its new wave/punk rock/power pop charms. "Ring Me Up" never fails to charm me all over again, every single time I hear it.

And another thing. Why are you letting her sit there, all alone, waiting by the telephone? Ring her up. you fool.

Monday, July 10, 2017

An Appreciation: Debbie Harry

Photograph by Chris Gabrin

I like to think this was photo was taken at a diner near the Chelsea Hotel, back in the day, maybe right before William Burroughs meandered in, ordered a black coffee and winked in Debbie's direction. Maybe he was meeting Patti Smith, who sat by the window, engrossed in Rimbaud. Maybe David Johansen had just kissed Debbie goodbye and strolled out the door. Maybe I was sitting at a table nearby, watching it all unfold. Maybe I even snapped this picture. Too young, you say? Eh. Don't do the math; it won't add up, but in some alternate reality it might've happened. My film-and-music-nerd buddies Jason Blanco and Dean Garman were there and scarfing down pancakes while Debbie sipped tea and I slurped coffee and we both raved about the Ramones. Anything's possible.

Two bands hooked me on the power of rock as a kid: the Pretenders and Blondie. Then came U2, then came Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden etc. But it really started with the videos for songs like "Brass in Pocket" and "Rapture." Blondie was and is a great band and Debbie is a huge reason for their lasting impact. She was my ideal for what a lead singer should be back then, and remains so today. She can be anything and everything all at once—suave and silly, cool and geeky, playful and detached, punk and disco—you name it, she can do it. In "Rapture" Debbie sang/rapped about having your head eaten by a space alien so you're now inside the alien and consumed by an insatiable hunger for eating cars and bars (where the people meet) and guitars, devouring 'em all. It was the most amazing, coolest, funniest, silliest thing I'd ever heard. It introduced me to B-movie plots before I was even aware of what B-movies were. The sound was unlike anything I'd heard before, it was disco funk rap and hip hop all in one. It still blows my mind today.

Debbie Harry turned 72 years young back on July 1. She's still singing about eating cars and bars and guitars. She's still my ideal lead singer. She's still the best.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Nineties on CNN

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

A heads up for readers of this series: starting this Sunday July 9, CNN will air The Nineties. Here's how they describe the event on their website:
From executive producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and Mark Herzog, in association with HBO, CNN's Original Series "The Nineties" explores the decade that gave us the Internet, DVDs, and other cultural and political milestones.
Yes, it's true. CNN is now copying me. I can see the Mango Mussolini's enraged tweets already: "Fake News network #CNN has NO originality. Copying a blogger! Sad." Sad, indeed.

I kid of course, because I can. You can be sure I'll be watching. If it's anything like CNN's previous miniseries on other decades, The Seventies and The Eighties, it'll likely be a breezy yet insightful look back at the cultural and societal shifts that shaped our lives back in the day.

The CNN series will also likely inspire some future '90s posts here, so stay tuned on that front. I am currently working on a few entries in the series now. Again, stay tuned. Once I find some time, motivation, and inspiration, I'll share them here.

Meanwhile, will you be watching The Nineties? More importantly, will you be watching while wearing flannel, drinking Snapple, and shouting "Cha-ching!" at your TV or tablet screen? You know I will.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Introverted: Sometimes

Scenes from the life of a high-functioning introvert.

Sometimes something as simple as asking a server at a restaurant to list the seasonal beer specials stirs up an introvert's anxiety to such a degree that we fumble for our words when it's time to ask her. As they recite the list of anywhere from ten to twenty beers, our eyes glaze over and our minds get fuzzy and we barely here anything she says. "I'll have the last one you said," we might reply, because it's easier than asking her to repeat it all again.

Sometimes making eye contact with people is difficult. But this particular symptom of introversion disappears when we're comfortable with someone. Thankfully my life is filled with a multitude of wonderful people with whom I'm completely at ease. But, when I was younger? Those people existed, but I wasn't comfortable enough with myself to take advantage of their existence. The struggle was real, trust me.

Sometimes we can't assemble our thoughts in any coherent manner. Instead, overwhelmed by whatever is stressing us out,  our brains go into fight or flight mode, usually choosing flight. Making no decisions suddenly seems safer than making any, so we shut down emotionally. Turn inward even further, drifting off into a sea of confusion and self-doubt.

Sometimes extroverts make us cringe inside. Especially when they're forcing their plans on us, telling us what we should be doing, or simply talking so relentlessly and with such gusto that we're worn out within minutes of their verbal assault. While they're yammering, we're frantically scanning the room for an exit.

Sometimes people question a person's introversion. You don't seem shy, they say. You have friends, they state. These are all common misconceptions about introverts. We can be extroverted around the right people—the people we're most comfortable with, the kind who stimulate and engage us intellectually and emotionally. Introverts often have a lot to say and are extremely passionate about a wide array of subjects that matter to us. When we sense this in others, look out. Stand back. Get out of our way. We're talking friends for life territory. Introverts forge strong, lifelong connections with people who love us for who we are.

Sometimes that's all we need.

Talismanic Object Essay: Phoenix

HiLoBrow recently ran a contest for their Talismanic Objects Series. They put out the following call for essays:
Describe your object’s significance — what you think about when you contemplate it, what emotions it provokes, why you cling to it — and explain exactly how this ordinary object came to possess such extraordinary significance. Write no more than 400 words! Please note that your narrative must be nonfiction; we’ll trust you not to inject any fictional elements into the mix. Snap a non-blurry, well-lit photo of your talismanic object.
I submitted an essay. It didn't win, but along with several others it received a very brief mention in HiLoBrow's announcement of the winning essay. So, here it is, as submitted, unedited, for posterity.


Every day, I carry a small yet symbolic reminder of how much "The Dark Phoenix Saga" has meant to me.

If may seem hyperbolic, but the seminal X-Men story changed my life, and on more than one occasion. Reading it as a boy opened my eyes and expanded my imagination. Chris Claremont's story of young Jean Grey's startling transformation into the Phoenix, and later the Dark Phoenix, was intricately plotted and perfectly executed, with Claremont incorporating elements of renewal and rebirth inherent in the phoenix of Greek mythology. I reread it repeatedly, until it merged with my own consciousness to such a degree that I didn't know where I ended and it began. Jean's struggle and ultimate sacrifice left a lasting impression.

For years I've carried a trusty messenger bag everywhere. Stuffed with books, notepads, sketchbooks, pens, and pencils, it's also adorned with several pin-back buttons on the shoulder strap. Sometimes I switch one out for another, dependent on my mood or current obsessions. One button that is never replaced, though, features Jean as the Phoenix. It's a classic John Byrne illustration: her arms outstretched, legs splayed, about to unleash her world-consuming powers. It is, simply, my talisman.

Surviving cancer changes you. It reveals the possibility of a renewal of self, one that carries the remnants of the past but with a desire to become someone new, someone unafraid to hope again. The Phoenix button symbolizes that hope. When I was a child, this hope was for an unknown future that might, with the help of stories like "The Dark Phoenix Saga," open new and exciting paths for my own imagination and creativity to travel. Today, hope flourishes from simply having lived during the years since that young boy first read Uncanny X-Men—experiencing life's full spectrum of emotions, from overwhelming joy and elation to devastating loss and grief.

When I look at Jean today, I'm reminded of this hope, tagging along through life, by my side, with me at nearly every turn. I gently slide my fingers over the button, tangibly experiencing that hope through my finger tips and into my soul. Like the power of the Phoenix flowing through Jean, it's equal parts intoxicating and unnerving. In other words, like life itself, it contains worlds of possibilities, all within that one small button.