20th Anniversary: SELENA (1997)

Just wanted to stop by and wish everyone a feliz aniversario, because Selena turns 20 years old today! It is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’m hard-pressed to think of a pop star biopic that’s ever come close to its warmth. The performances are just so honest and great – in addition to the unmatchable J. Lo and Edward James Olmos, I also find myself powerless to resist Jon Seda’s charmingly reticent Chris. It’s a perfect tribute to one of the most incandescently talented performers in pop music, a woman with a short but indelible legacy and a great love for pizza (“lots of pepperoni, that’s important”). And the movie is a great lesson in how to appropriately adapt a true life for the screen. Gregory Nava’s storytelling and style are authentically Selena: from the bubbly pace, to the quick, spirited montages, to the dramatic editing of the “live” performances. Best of all, we get the gift of her actual voice (above: my fave song staged for the film, “Como La Flor”). Selena has its cheesy moments, but so did Selena. Compare it to, say, Britney Ever After – it’s easy to expose a girlish pop star, but it’s really, really hard to paint a loving portrait. I dedicate my love for this film to every Gen-Yer who went to a sleepover.

The Transcendentl Queerness of “Yentl”

Tell me where –
Where is it written, what it is I’m meant to be?
That I can’t dare to have the chance to pick the fruit of every tree?
Or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?

Shalom, ignorant sluts! It’s my personal pleasure to bring you today’s forgotten Hebraic slice of pop culture history, a seminal moment for gentiles and chosens alike.

DID JEW KNOW: 31 years ago today, Barbra Joan Streisand became the first woman to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director. On top of that, Yentl (1983) made her the first woman in the history of motion pictures to produce, direct, write and perform a film’s title role. That’s how Babs rolls.

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Why should you care? That’s a great question, you uncultured swine. On this great day, I want to put a humble spotlight on Yentl, which is one of my favorite movies ever and a huge step forward in feminist filmmaking. Sure, I’m a Barbra obsessive, as is my inalienable right as a walking Jewish cliché. But if you’re interested in queer sexual politics and revisionist history – and especially if you like to sing about them – you must not miss this film.

First of all, it took more than a decade to get Yentl off the ground. Coming off the success of Funny Girl in 1968, Barbra gained the rights to the source material, a short story. “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” is about a young village girl circa 1900 who yearns to become a Talmudic scholar. Yentl loves to learn and disdains women’s work and societal inferiority; as a result, she leaves home, lives as a man, and even takes a wife – all in order to study freely.

For fifteen years – fifteen! – various studios, directors, and even Barbra’s boyfriend discouraged the project, saying that B was too old and the concept “too ethnic.” She managed to secure the directorial seat and creative control from Orion Pictures in the late ’70s, who promptly cancelled the movie due to financial downturn. But she fought. Finally, she took the reins in 1982, shooting the picture in Czechoslovakia for six months and then recording the soundtrack, and finally paying $1.5 million from her salary in order to preserve the budget.

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Yentl was an incredibly long labor of love for Barbra. This was probably because Barbra was Yentl. The hero/heroine of this story is a weird-looking, uncategorizable person with a miraculous gift – Barbra had her voice, and Yentl had her mind. Barbra had built a career on redefining beauty, sticking her proud schnozz through closed doors, and here was a story about doing just that – and a Jewish story to boot. In a way, Yentl is a bit of an autobiography, a reflexive critique on the cultural significance of that voice, that face.

But things get more interesting when one considers the gender/sex politics of the film – and the fact that a lot of B’s detractors argued that she was too feminine to play a trans man. And Yentl was a trans man. The character’s transformation into the male student “Anshel” was only superficially about a change of clothing and a haircut.

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Both in the story and in the film, Yentl declares that she was born into the wrong gender. Such a realization carries a different import in this historical context; in Yentl’s world, qualities like ambition, high intellect, and argumentativeness were strictly masculine. Thus it’s the newly invented Anshel who becomes the true embodiment of Yentl’s authentic self. Barbra was quite faithful to most aspects of the source material, and her film does not shy away from these themes – onscreen, Yentl falls in love with a (male) fellow student, but ends up having to marry her crush’s intended wife in order to keep him close.

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This starts out as a shitty and confusing time for Yentl (who thinks she’s a genderless being in love with a straight man), but it ends up as kind of a revelation. Yentl’s trans-ness is unique in that she adopts male signifiers as a means to an end, but in her performance of maleness, she makes surprising discoveries about her own fluidity. As Anshel, Yentl falls into romantic and sort-of sexual love with the beautiful Hadass, and in turn attempts to “un-gender” her wife. The lines of sexuality and gender that divide these characters become blurry, as they struggle to perform their identities and reconcile their desires.

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I think this is all especially fascinating when you consider the effect that Barbra had on this story, both as a writer and performer. At its bare bones, Yentl is a musical romance, which is one of the most heterosexual and hegemonical and frankly diabolical approaches to pop love. And Barbra is too feminine to pass as male. Her inner monologues are sung in her familiar soprano, and they sound like a woman’s heart as it breaks and soars. On paper, this could easily be a comedy that plays on traditional male-female politics. The thing that really makes Yentl so extraordinary is the gravitas with which all of this comes together. This film is mostly a tragedy. Most spectacularly, it’s a tragedy with a happy ending, and the happy ending is this: Yentl ends up alone.

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This is a great time to mention Mulan (1998), as is any time in the history of times. In many ways, it’s the lighter kids-table version of Yentl – Fa Mulan looks like a man, but remains a steadfast heterosexual woman. Her love interest, Shang, only develops romantic feelings for her after her boobies are revealed in that tent on the mountain. You remember. But in Yentl, Mandy Patinkin’s character is horrified by the homoerotic tension between him and his bro. His sexual crisis is palpable, and it’s part of the reason that he and Yentl don’t work out as a couple in the end. He doesn’t want an Anshel; he doesn’t even want a Mulan.

As a man, as a woman, as a human, the character of Yentl can barely be contained in the boxes available. This is one of those rare movies in which the protagonist searches for love and self-actualization for two hours, and by the time the credits roll, they’re not even halfway there. In fact, even The Kiss is unattainable: the moment hovers, a breath away, then falters.

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All of this to say – Yentl could only ever be made by a woman filmmaker.

There’s a specific taste to this film, a persistent tone of yearning and introspectiveness and bubbling frustration that I find distinctly relatable. Women tend to “get” gender, sex, and selfhood more intuitively, because they’re forced to think about it all the time. It’s tough to put your finger on what makes women tick, particularly creatively, but Yentl sheds a lot of insight into the modern female psyche. Said Babs:

Yentl represents what I believe about life. The Jewish tradition – that love of learning and growing. Yentl starts off in a little village. She takes a path, she crosses the ocean to America. These symbols, mostly unconscious when I shot them, of a growing world, outside and also within one’s self, the opening up of possibilities, of growth…I feel so inarticulate about it because I realize looking at the film now, how many things were subconscious, you know?

What I find so cool about this movie it’s that it’s very tropey (see: musical romance) as it completely mutates familiar tropes. It’s also my belief that only Barbra could have made this film as effectively as she did, because she herself is a mutated trope. All her wrongnesses are somehow right together.

These are protestors who believe "BARBRA WAS ROBBED" of a 1983 Oscar nom. Their cause is just.

These are protestors who believe “BARBRA WAS ROBBED” of a 1983 Oscar nom. They stand for truth and justice and they are great at alliteration.

Now, Yentl is by no means perfect, but it’s close. As a product of the 1980s, its progressiveness is pretty groundbreaking. Without getting sentimentl (that title pun keeps on giving!) I also think it really stands the test of time. So if you haven’t seen, go ahead and light a candle in the dead of night and fire up that laptop. The forever-classic “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” might help you motivate, so I’ll go ahead and throw it in here.

P.S. Barbra Joan Streisand has also had a #1 album in every single decade for the past six decades.

P.P.S. That is insane.

P.P.P.S. I am insane.

Mike Nichols: The Invisible Director

RIP Mike Nichols, the Invisible Director.

His touch was so subtle that it’s hard to pin down what really makes a Mike Nichols movie (save the fact that they’re critically acclaimed – The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer). His favorite genre seemed to be “people trying really hard to be the ideal versions of themselves.” He was content to let great writing and great performances shine without any bells and whistles. No need to promote the storyteller’s brand when the story was what mattered.

For me, The Birdcage is the best example of Nichols’ tender and practical eye. He centered his actors, let the camera rest at eye level, and let Robin Williams and Nathan Lane talk around love.

Mike Nichols – thanks for bringing real humanity to the big screen for nearly 50 years.

The 15 Best-Ever Movie Opening Scenes

The first moments of a film are meant to amuse your bouche. Maybe you’re thrust into a time or a place, or you meet your hero, or maybe you’re completely mystified at what you’re looking at. But you get a feeling. You’re a helpless baby animal when the lights go dark and a movie begins. You will imprint on the first thing you see. The opening sequence is your mom.

Because we’re knee-deep in the doldrums of summer, it seemed like a great time for a Top Something List. So I’d like to throw my #1 Opening Sequences Of All Time out there. Many of these I wouldn’t even call my favorite movies. But in my opinion, they have the best Act 1, Scene 1s ever. Comment if I missed your faves. Except if it’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, because that’s très played out, friend.

1. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Tim Burton’s directing debut is so oft overlooked. This Rube-Goldberg-esque opener sets the tone for a seriously odd and delightful movie full of indelible imagery. The carrot-sniffing slippers…the taped-up face…the giant bowl of Mr. T cereal. It is the morning routine of champions, before Pee Wee has even left the comfort of his tricked-out pop-culture subsconscious-trauma carnival of a home.

2. Do the Right Thing (1989)

I love this sequence, because its simplicity belies the deep tensions that Spike Lee’s masterpiece is about to explore. Rosie Perez’ furious dance moves + Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” bring exuberant life to a cityscape lit in blood red. There’s such anger and joy in these shots. It’s fun and hypnotic and powerful and real, like the rest of this devastating movie.

3. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Gorgeous animation with a touch of Bond film and film noir. It’s so perfectly paired with the score, and sets a stage of light and shadow for a whimsical movie with surprising emotional heft at its center. I also think this sequence is an important precedent for the badass opener in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Hard to choose between the two, because KKBB is one of my top films ever, but CMIYC came first.

4. Being John Malkovich (1999)

This movie is really fucked up and sad, especially during its high points of existential hilarity. When it’s not any of those things, it’s just insanely confusing. A Charlie Kaufman trademark. This first scene is appropriately emotionally detached. A puppet (molded in the image of its master, John Cusack) has an existential crisis and spins out of control. You will not feel okay when you watch it.

5. Amelie (2001)

Not my taste as a movie in its entirety, but these first carefully-shot, tender scenes give me the well-ups every time. There is a prosaic and muted beauty in every small life; everything is connected by the endless human capacity for love. You can feel it in the simple narration, saturated color, and whimsical cuts between city streets and wiggling sperm cells. Don’t get me started on that adorable sad old man and his address book.

6. The Prince of Egypt (1998)

YEAH I DID. From the first plaintive ancient wailings of a horn, to the rising choral plea of ten thousand slaves, PoE‘s first minutes astound with audacious artistry. “Deliver Us” pulls no punches and leaves you breathless with the power of animated storytelling, enhanced especially by Ofra Haza’s soaring vocal. Extra points for covering, like, hundreds of Torah pages in 7 minutes.

7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Hesitated between the genius opening credits and the actual first scene. So take both. This is probably the best use of subtitles in the history of the visual medium and I have never gotten through them without chortling. Then of course, there’s the iconic discussion of tropical birds and their migratory patterns. “A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut.”

8. Blue Velvet (1986)

Whenever I talk about David Lynch I get those fangirl claw hands, because he’s a master at blending two of my favorite aesthetics, Americana and the abject. Suburbia, affluence, cultural conditioning, women bearing apple pies and men mowing lawns – he shows you how intoxicating our own artifice can be. And then suddenly…horrible death. The camera dives underneath the fresh-cut grass and assaults your eyes and ears with a mass of snakes. It’s all about the nasty, beautiful, sensual things that lie beneath.

9. Gattaca(1997)

It’s almost a ballet. You watch strange jagged forms falling through space as Michael Nyman’s score swells nobly…and eventually you realize you’re seeing hairs and skin. The building blocks of our bodies are so specific, so precious but so easily discarded. Plus, a cool easter egg – the letters of the genome sequence, A C T G, are specially highlighted in the credits.

10. The Shining (1980)

Goddamn it, Stanley. This is probably the least frightening part of the movie and it’s still terribly disquieting. Kubie’s camera swoops in and out of a beautiful but deserted mountainscape, following the slow path of a tiny car filled with tiny doomed people. It’s like National Geographic gone wrong. The off-putting bright blue titles move counter to our visual expectation (they drift to the top of the screen, too fast), and the shrieky violins frazzle your nerves from the get-go. Highway to hell.

11. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

And then there’s the most joyful opening ever, beginning with one iconic chord. My Beatles fandom notwithstanding, this is a perfectly paced two-and-a-half minutes of youth serum. The cacophany of a thousand young girls, four sweet faces and four black suits, slapstick visual gags (Paul in that phone booth gets me every time) and a madcap chase. Just yay.

12. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Christoph Waltz’s playful Nazi, Hans Landa, is the soul of Inglourious Basterds. This first scene gives you all the colors of this character, from his official “law and order” persona, to his childlike mischief, to his cold dead heart. The iconic final line, “Au revoir, Shoshanna!” is bone-chilling. Waltz hooks you into the entire film with this performance.

13. Monsters Inc (2001)

In my opinion, this is Pixar’s best film to date. It’s not only built on a fucking inspired idea, but it’s built soundly – the storytelling is solid from start to finish. I love this first scene, the “scare simulation” – the surprise of the robot child is just genius, and the entire monster world is set up for the benefit of the audience in a smooth, funny flow. I also had to include the opening titles themselves, because they are gorgeous and so stunningly animated. This was made in 2001! It’s boggling!

14. Dazed and Confused (1993)

I can never listen to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” without seeing that burnt orange 1970 Pontiac GTO rounding the parking lot. The short cuts of high school life in the ’70s are quite beautifully shot as we meet our cast, weird-looking and young and cool. Just hanging out. Just being. But it’s the car that sticks with me, turning in slow motion like some hazy mirage. It looks like a memory your dad probably had. So righteous.

15. Contact (1997)

This is how to kick off a film about humans, aliens, and the basic EVERYTHING of existence. There’s a great moment when you see this opening, when it clicks that the audio is moving backwards in time, and the sound starts to grow softer as our majestic planet withdraws into blackness. This is the detritus of all our lives – an invisible coccoon of words and music and lives. An epic beginning to one of the true great sci-fi epic films.

Femme Originale: “The Wolf of Wall Street” vs. “American Hustle”

The MPAA story with Wolf of Wall Street keeps extending into this bigger conversation. One of the things that occurred to me recently around this as well as American Hustle is that we have so few movies about charismatic but monstrous women. We are so far behind in storytelling that we’re still begging for heroic stories about women. Before long we may even get the right to tell epic stories about colossal anti-heroines.
– Jill Soloway

This is what one of my favorite writers had to say about the current state of affairs in U.S. cinema. Go read her interview about the MPAA double standard in cases of extreme vulgarity – in this case, between Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Soloway made a much quieter film about gross, foul-mouthed, powerful, human women called Afternoon Delight and she had to jump through giant flaming hoops of sexist fire to avoid an NC-17 rating. Obviously Soloway’s no Scorsese, doesn’t have his clout or his supernatural status, but that’s part of it too. What female does? When will she?

New year, new hopes, my friends. I want to open a conversation about gender and movie magic, and two 2013 films that might look the same at first glance.

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After I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, I discussed it with a friend who’s a huge Scorsese fan. We came to the conclusion that this isn’t really a Scorsese movie. Not only because it’s not very good, but because it’s unoriginal and bloodless. Scorsese is a MAN who knows MEN; in the 1970s and 1980s, his work had a big-dick-swagger, style, and a loud pain that makes it timeless to me even as it offends my feminist sensibilities. Back then, Scorsese’s biggest sin was ignoring women. I can live with that. He had things to say about masculinity, flesh, war, desire, living and dying, and made art.

Not the case in TWoWS. Protagonist Jordan Belfort is no Henry Hill or Travis Bickle. He has no history. He has nothing to say. He’s a boy and the most complicated thing about him is his addictive personality, an issue treated with peculiar kid gloves. This film is inconsequential, juvenile, and muddled. There are so many women that they’re impossible to ignore, and none of them are remotely important or watchable.

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I’m not saying that this film has nothing going for it. It’s really funny. It’s funny for guys, about guys, by guys, and women will laugh at it too because we’ve all learned to ridicule ourselves and identify with the patriarchial complex. I’m really not trying to get all liberal arts college on this either. There’s something so delicious and addictive about identifying with the male gaze. The roots of that yumminess are quite sinister, but I’ll take it anyway. If I stop trying to LOVE MYSELF SO MUCH, if I stop SEARCHING FOR FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, I can let go and admire Leo’s surprising physical comedy:

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And I can cheer for newly-minted serious actor Jonah Hill, who finally broke through the Superbad ceiling this year, proved his chops, and kind of stole the show:

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And I can feel Matthew McConaughey’s Texan warmth spread out from somewhere underneath my sternum and give thanks for his mere minutes of screen time. He’s like, the best part of this movie! Cue Dazed and Confused voice: “I love my female fans, man. I get older and they stay the same age.”

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But the laughs feel icky in my chest, because they usually come at the expense of stupid sluts with impossible boobs (NO ONE’S AREOLAS ARE EVENLY MATCHED AND TAN). And when they don’t, they come from vicarious pleasures, easy pleasures: a spectacularly photographed yacht, a beautiful suit, a manic pep talk fueled by Quaaludes and a hungry pack of stockbrokers with white teeth and shoulder pads. There’s no ending or resolution, either. There’s no comeuppance. And I don’t mind if a film has no moral center, as long as it has a POINT. And TWoWS doesn’t. This film is nonstop entertaining, it is stunning and fast-paced, and it’s a total nothing. A lazy concept and a surefire crowd-pleaser.

So when I get into the “movie headspace,” that transcendent mental leaning-in, I feel so guilty because I’m loving what they want me to love. I’m loving to hate myself. I’m learning to accept myself as a side character, comic relief, sexual relief, decoration, the weak emotional blind spot of the hero upon which I should be concentrating my attention.

And what I should really be thinking is:

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American Hustle came out around the same time as TWoWS, and for all intents and purposes they appear to come from the same tried-and-true POV (and are meant for the same demographic). I suggest that AH is a better film that actually belongs in, and to, 2014. It’s not without its problems: AH is populated with a small cast of male and female quirk factories, and the women tend to be a smidge crazier than the men, with more predictable repressed trauma. But the characterization of these protagonists – indeed, even the fact that this film has four equal protagonists, evenly divided amongst the genders, and they’re all anti-heroes – makes me feel much better about laugh-choking on Sour Patch Kids in front of this screen.

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Director David O. Russell, unlike Scorsese, is of the moment. He needs new, he is new. Although he can fall into the familiar trap of “broken man who just needs the love of a complicated woman” (side-eye, Silver Linings Playbook), I think he cares more about the human soul than the male ego. He just loves weirdos. And for this reason, I love American Hustle. Everyone’s weird and no one is an idiot. Like TWoWS, this isa story of loose morals, sex, and American crime, but the audience is not talked down to. I don’t need glittering, vapid vaginas or bumbling cops to remind me that I need to keep my eye on the slick main man. I need nuanced characters everywhere, I need interlacing stories and confused sympathies. AH is never dumbed-down to keep us invested, especially at the expense of its women. It is a complete story, not simply an attraction starring another Man We Wish We Could Be.

What I like most about this film are the infinite neuroses. Everyone has deep-seated social nausea, but they desperately yearn to be cool and to be loved. Like Jennifer Lawrence’s character Rosalyn, whose beauty and youth do nothing to abate her misanthropy:

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But she’s not the butt of the joke. She’s funny and ridiculous, but we don’t think she’s a lame pair of tits as opposed to Bradley Cooper’s effortless cool or Christian Bale’s molten sexy. These are real emotions. These are fearful, sweaty, private emotions, and a girl’s allowed to have them. Where AH‘s women are flawed and awkward, their male counterparts rise (or fall?) to meet them:

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What a dweeb! There’s nothing automatically desirable about the men in this film, any more than there is about the women. Sure, J-Law and Amy Adams look sexy, but not frighteningly sexy. Not smooth like reanimated Barbie corpses. And I swear to you, I’m not taking some tired tack like THERE’S WOMEN IN THIS FILM AND SOMETIMES THEY DON’T WEAR MAKEUP, THEY ARE REEEAL WOMEN. I know that skin-sans-foundation does not a feminist movie make. But the fact that these two female protagonists are fucked up personally, not stylized, sometimes messy, oddly charming, is a non-negotiable GOOD THING. And the best GOOD THING about this movie is that it succeeds without taking the easy way out and demonizing, victimizing, side-lining, or otherwise bullshitting its women.

Again, don’t let it off the hook entirely. This is still a mainstream pop film made to sell. When there’s sex, we still have the old trope of Unsure guy With Voluptuous Prize. It may be consensual but our gaze still wanders to the Amazing Adams Ass:

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But this ass is not magic. It doesn’t save Hero/Anti-Hero from himself; it doesn’t distract him to the point of failure, it doesn’t make us like him better. It’s not his ass to own; it’s hers to give. Feminine wiles don’t magically rescue the day, and then fall back into irrelevancy. The visual appeal of American Hustle doesn’t even lie with its women; when my senses were delighted, they were drinking in sumptuous ’70s colors and costumes and deep disco grooves. I was laughing at Bradley Cooper’s elaborate perm and reveling in the period-piece silliness without feeling bad about the souls the filmmaker crushed to get there.

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I love to lose myself in a movie. We all do, that’s why we spend the equivalent of three meals on a ticket and deal with the politics of battling strangers for the spare space on an armchair rest. A film consumes. It’s a virtual reality. Almost an out-of-body experience, because in the dark, when the 25-foot moving image of the human being is all you have, you become that character and you live that story. It’s pretty much exactly like the best psychotropic drug (or so I’m told, she chirped innocently). And even though there are many things I love about being female and negotiating that subjectivity, I also love to be a man. And when I pay for that privilege for 2 hours, it better make me think and feel something I don’t already know. Why make a movie if it isn’t new in some small way? Why invent histories and lives for the express purpose of feeding reality back to us?

tumblr_myn19qc2QS1rfaqfjo2_500To come full circle: that’s what I love about Jill Soloway’s quote, way back up there before you involved yourself in my written thought-barf. She wants what I want and what you want – a female anti-hero, larger than life, full and bursting with complexity, none of which has to do with her tan areolas. She can love sex, she can want babies, and she can fall in love, but we should treat those facets of her personality with the same wanton dismissal that we’re taught to treat female characters with now. And this is a serious, urgent problem to be solved by today’s filmmaker. If this anti-heroine is successfully written and performed into fruition, then we’ll all finally get The Woman We Wish We Could Be.

I want a bad woman. Not badass, but bad. Rotten in some way, but wonderful. Maybe beautiful. Or some version of it. Mouthy, mean, miserable, too much, all of the above. And I want her many feet high, filling a screen, thousands of frames, hours of her. I just want a new story. And we are at the cusp, I feel it. The only thing we need now is the courage to tell it back to ourselves.

The Ghostest with the Mostest

MWAHAHAHAHAHA AHAHAHAHAH AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Finally, my everyday laugh makes sense in context. It’s Halloween! And no matter how many times I tell myself I’m “over it,” every year it’s magic. I’m wearing an ironic shirt on the outside and making haunty noises on the inside.

When you grow up, your heart dies.

Today I would like to pay homage to my FAVE Halloween movie. It’s not technically a movie, actually. It’s somewhere between a film, a music video, a terrifying nightmare, and a delightful romp. A rompmare, if you will. It is the 39-minute slice of majesty that is Michael Jackson’s Ghosts.

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Released in 1996, Ghosts was far more ambitious than any of Michael’s previous ventures, which is saying a lot considering he pretty much invented production values. Much of the video is devoted to plotting and exposition, leaving only long snippets of the 3 songs featured: “2 Bad,” “Is It Scary” and “Ghosts.” Directed by special-effects king Stan Winston and co-written by my boo Stephen King, Ghosts is kind of a stunning narrative unto itself, a horrifying and humorous little story enriched by pop music. It manages to be childlike, frightening, artful, sexy, and exciting all at the same time, just like Michael himself.

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Ghosts was even released at Cannes, and holds the Guinness World Record for “Longest Music Video.” If you’ve never seen it before, it’s a must-watch. If you have, you already know that nothing says Halloween more than a moonwalking, chest-pounding skeleton marching up the walls and calling up the undead dance army.

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Please also watch for a young Mos Def cowering in the corners. Also, I live for Michael in excessive prosthetics as the uptight ringleader of the angry mob. When that fat man starts grabbing his crotch, that’s when the spirit of the season really sets in for me. Really, all of these special affects will slay you. And need I get started on the ruffled shirt? So. Many. Ruffles.

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ANYWAY, without further ado, Ghosts. Happy Halloween, everyone!

The Beatles, Breaking Bad, and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pop

Back at liberal arts college, people were always telling me about “self-care.” Taking vanilla-scented baths and getting exercise and letting the sun shine on your face and whatnot. I dunno, are you supposed to do that stuff even if it’s not part of your normal happy routine? When does self-care become more annoying than depression itself? I’d rather feel shitty in bed than drag my ass to the yoga mat.

I’m currently engaged in a Herculean effort to bring myself back from the brink after watching my best friend die right in front of me (aka the Breaking Bad finale, for you laypeople).

I ran out of vanilla bath beads last NEVER, so I can’t do any of that normal inward-healing shit. I’ve just been consuming the hair of the dog: more media! Whenever I feel sad or bereft, I go back to the music and movies that have given me life since I was wee.

BB was a pretty serious blow, so I had to bring out the big guns. Four big guns. The cutest and most trusty guns I’ve ever known.

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I dunno, guys. Nobody GETS ME. I wish I had someone else to wax Beatles with, but I live alone on this beautiful and quaint little island. I mean, I know you like The Beatles and everything, but does a new day dawn on your heart when you hear them? Do their adorable antics cradle you in a bassinet of joy? Do you obsessively compare Paul and John’s different but equally arousing approaches to masculinity? Actually, I did hear a really good joke the other day that you might like. How’s sex with Paul McCartney? Your mother should know! BEATLES HUMOR. GET INTO IT.

When I am really far gone, I delve into The Innocent Era, 1965 and earlier. Usually it’s just repeated viewings of A Hard Day’s Night, which I shall now attempt to convince you is the most wonderful medicine for the sads.

For me, the music heals most of all. A Hard Day’s Night is a REALLY charming film (more on that later), and the soundtrack is just extraordinary. Although 1964 was the high point of their teen pop era, these songs can’t be discounted in the larger pantheon of Beatles genius. This soundtrack in particular has such an awesome capacity to lift me; the songs are perfect pop compositions, so clearly composed by youngsters. Their harmonies are simple and jaw-droppingly pretty. And performed by such delightful kids. One of my favorites:

You might be aware that I’ve been like, insanely obsessed with The Beatles since I’ve had ears, so of course these songs, and this film, have a very specific nostalgia factor for me. I watch A Hard Day’s Night when I want to remind myself of what it felt like to fall in love with art. I watch it when I’m devastated to lose one of my fictional touchstones (DAMN YOU, “Felina”) that help me so much on my road to self-discovery.

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You’ve got to keep your favorite things alive inside you. You’ve got to know what you like. To re-consume my favorite pop culture is to fall in love with humans, with the CRAZY fact that we’re on this planet and we get to make things. I remember being really bowled over by the fact that this music was real, and made me feel, and other people made of flesh and blood had made it, and I had the privilege to be alive and be able to hear it and be happy. What? No. I’m not on drugs. Are you on drugs? Quit that cynicism and dig my open soul here.

I used to watch A Hard Day’s Night with my middle school best friend, a girl who wasn’t afraid to try a fandom on the edge. We were twelve, so we liked a lot of weird things, and we had a bottomless capacity for fawning and flailing and general hysteria. We identified with those screaming chicks in the film. It just didn’t seem that strange to be so far gone with celebrity worship that you would heave your body over railings towards four boys in suits, and then go home to your special room padded with Beatles posters to drool and to dream.

At that time in my life, there was little shame in anything. I mean, I thought I was self-critical then, but MAN, pre-teen Leah doesn’t even compare to mid-20s Leah. Back then, I didn’t get into things because anyone said I was supposed to (and here’s an essay about that). I just loved what I loved. I was unafraid to tell others what I loved. It was just my best friend and I after school, gorging ourselves on culture and unwittingly molding our perspectives on the media all around us. There was no social media profile where I picked and chose which movies and television and music to publicly display allegiance for, so people would get “the right idea” about me. Back then, I didn’t even know it was an option for me to look cool, so I let it all hang out.

And I miss that, so much. That’s what The Beatles still do for me. They gently unzip my heart again, and let it all hang out. I don’t let anyone really see it anymore, but to see that it’s still there, still beating and still so weird, is enough for me.

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This is a clipping from a teen magazine in 1965 that I saved for ten years or more. It’s just one of those moments, frozen in time, that makes me smile. Because this is what it’s like to be a fan – to let something so small, so superficial, like pop music, give you pleasure as intense as you allow it to be.

As I stood in front of my favorite Beatle, the only thing I could think of was that his contact lenses looked like they hurt him. He smiled and stuck out his hand and without thinking, I rested my right arm on top of his left while we shook hands!

“John,” I said, “are your contacts bothering you?”

“No,” he answered. I got the distinct feeling that not too many people had asked that question.

Undaunted, I plunged on. “I have them too!” I confided.

He leaned closer and stared searchingly into my eyes. “Are yours bothering you?” he said with a straight face.

“No,” I stammered, and then we both laughed.

“They’re good, aren’t they?” John said seriously, and I could only nod, not trusting my voice. “But your eyes are prettier then mine,” John said, and to my dismay, unwanted tears rolled down my cheeks. “Hey,” John said with a slight laugh, “don’t cry or they’ll wash away!”

I smiled through my tears as I blurted, “John, you’re my favorite.”

He smiled warmly, gave my hand a final shake and said, “You’re my favorite.”

Perhaps the boys and their corresponding Beatlemania, the expansive cultural influence, have something to do with their status in my life as a soul-salve. It feels to nice to be part of something, doesn’t it? To love The Beatles means that I love something integral to the fabric of modern civilization. I might be a little on the extreme end of the spectrum, but you and I can agree that George Harrison plucked a wicked 12-string.

Did you see the tsunami of Breaking Bad wash across your newsfeeds and dashboards and real-life interactions? Even if you didn’t watch the show, or didn’t like it (whatever THAT means), it was certainly an exciting time. When pop culture ripples like that, it makes me feel so alive and so connected. And that feeling becomes doubly wonderful, dare I say spiritual, when I’ve got a real emotional stake in it. Thank goodness for storytelling in all its forms – thank goodness for creativity! We’re all creating dreams for one another. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re watching or making a show, a movie, or a song. You’re writing and painting my dreams. And I’ll accept that gift with open arms and I’ll never quit typing or tweeting or talking about it, because you deserve to know that it meant a lot to me.

Hmm. It kind of gives these shrieking girls a touch of nobility, no?

Forgive my effusiveness (that’s a fancy word for “crazy”). I’m feeling a lot. This post is how I cope. Not afraid to say it felt awesome to share.

Don’t be afraid to love what you love. There’s no shame in fandom, in any of its forms. “Guilty pleasure” is a term created by the cool kids, and honestly, you don’t wanna be them. They’re soulless and alone even when they’re with people. Let’s come together, right now. I bet you’ve got a few pop-culture coping mechanisms of your own. Feel free to leave me a comment and unzip ’em. I’ll be waiting for you in the vanilla steam of a Los Angeles bathtub.

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Labor Day Watchlist! Forgotten Comedies for Lazy Days

I just found out that not only can you not wear white after Labor Day…you also cannot wear seersucker. SEERSUCKER. I mean, what kind of country is this?? Who are you to tell me I can’t let the September leaves fall upon a perfectly tailored, pastel suit that’s delightfully textured to the touch?

Labor Day can be a tough weekend because it supposedly symbolizes the end of sweet summer. Some people have “plans,” but most of us just want to lounge around for an extra day and watch movies. I’m here to help you make the most of the last lazy weekend. Time to take on the fun project of expanding your comedy horizons.

Here’s a list of my favorite funny films you may not have seen or heard of. Take a gamble!

On the record, I do not advocate illegal downloading. Off the record…I dunno. It’s yo thang, do what ya wanna do.

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Scotland, P.A.
2002

Nutshell: Macbeth, set in a 1970s diner, with a darkly comedic tone and a scorching-cool Bad Company soundtrack.
Why it’s a treat: The three fates are played by stoners who hang out on a Ferris wheel (including Andy Dick!). James LeGros (who would later play a chunky creepy dad on Girls) is a sensitive and tasty Macbeth. King Duncan is murdered by hot french fry oil (SPOILER!) Also, Christopher Walken.

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Empire Records
1995

Nutshell: A bunch of high school seniors sort out their emotions, love lives, and indie-rock persuasions over one summer day in their place of work, a hip but failing record store.
Why it’s a treat: It’s an alternative spin on teenage movie fun at its finest. Liv Taylor is simply SMOKIN’ as a Harvard-bound girl next door, and Renee Zellweger is a punky slut who sings a riot-grrl musical number titled “Sugar High.” It’s so endearingly 90s. There are also pot brownies and a hilarious subplot involving a British pop star.

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Girls Will Be Girls
2003

Nutshell: A searingly inappropriate spoof of All About Eve, with every female part (including the extras) played by drag queens. Need I say more.
Why it’s a treat: First, re-read the above. If you can handle abortion humor and general line-crossing, take the plunge. The script is a work of dry, bitchy genius. “My mother always said, ‘Feelings are like treasures, so bury them.'”

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It Happened One Night
1934

Nutshell: Prissy heiress runs away from home and is abetted by a dashing reporter. He starts out just looking for a scoop, but they end up falling in love. D’AWWWWW.
Why it’s a treat: You’d never know this film was made in the ’30s. It’s a clever and fast-paced script, and the chemistry between Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable is both adorable and comedically electric. An absolute classic. If you love a good rom-com, watch this movie; it defined the genre.

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Stripes
1981

Nutshell: After he loses his job, girlfriend, and apartment, a depressed city schlub convinces his best friend to join the army with him. Their penchant for sarcasm and hijinks get them both way in over their heads in matters of national security.
Why it’s a treat: I firmly defend this movie as the funniest thing Bill Murray has ever made. He is NOTE-PERFECT here, all skeptical eyes and deadpan mumbles. Also, Harold Ramis is a national treasure, one of the most gifted comedic writers and directors you’ve never heard of, and this film proves that he is a flawless foil. The basic training dance routine is timeless gold. Watch for John Candy and Judge Reinhold, too!

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Bullets Over Broadway
1994

Nutshell: An arrogant young playwright, forced to cast a mobster’s girlfriend in his new play, discovers to his chagrin that the mobster has better ideas than his own. He struggles with theater politics while trying to pass off the plagiarized work.
Why it’s a treat: One of Woody Allen’s forgotten gems. It’s such a unique and rich concept, mined to perfection by a stellar cast: John Cusack! Dianne Wiest! Chazz Palmintieri! Jennifer Tilly! The list goes on. It’s lightning-fast, a heady mix of highbrow and lowbrow jokes, with some of the most committed physical comedy I’ve ever seen. A period film that never, ever gets old, with so many innuendos it’s almost impossible to watch once.

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Let me know if you explore any of these obscure delights! And if you have some of your own, let me know. Always willing to take some chances. Especially when it’s mimosa-o-clock for 3 days straight. Happy long weekend, everyone!

Be Kind, Rewind Time

I recently purchased a new TV. It was a long process. For weeks, I sought my elusive joybox on Craigslist, on Facebook, over the hills and the moors. It didn’t need many bells and whistles, just one essential feature: a VCR. If there was not a VCR actually built into the television, it was useless to me and unwelcome anywhere near my bed.

Finally, I found The One. I drove to Venice and ascended a narrow staircase, following a grizzly Jeffrey Dahmer type into a silent apartment. “Can you test the VCR for me?” I asked him, standing in the doorway of the peculiarly bare hovel he called a living room.

He popped in a Phillies game from 2003. The picture was semi-perfect, the sound simultaneously fuzzy and jangly like loose change. VHS-quality, like mom used to make. I was sold.

“You know, the DVD player works too,” he huffed as we threw the TV into my passenger seat. Its caboose was comically giant, pregnant with mechanical god-knows-what.

I stroked the screen lovingly. “Whatever.” I locked the seat belt snugly around the TV like it was a child. It was time to go home and explore each other.

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My videotape collection is lovingly maintained, and my room is my sanctuary for worshipping at the altar of the dying VHS tape. All of my favorites, the classics I grew up with, are represented on the shelf, and there’s nothing I love more than bathing in their light late at night, reveling in their subpar visuals and audio. I love to rewind, I love to fast-forward. The quiet WHRRRRRRR that lets me know that even though I’m jumping three scenes into the future, the continuity within its universe remains intact. And when I press PLAY, it won’t be perfect. It’ll be a rough estimation of the right moment. And isn’t life just like that?

I sit far back on my bed, reveling in the fact that my face isn’t pressed up against a pixelated computer screen. This is luxury. I am the master of all. My palms get sweaty around the remote, my index finger poised on the “TRACKING” button like it’s 1994 again.

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There’s just something about video cassettes. It’s the structure of them, the fact that they’re so vulnerable and OPEN. Just pull on the upper ridge hard enough and the plastic snaps will break, forever rendering the tape useless. You can even pull the actual TAPE out. It makes me feel closer to 1923 than 2013. It’s not like you can see every frame of the movie on the tape itself – it’s magnetic, all black, mysterious – but someone spent time lovingly winding it around the little plastic wheels so it unspools correctly. Mess with the structural integrity of the VHS and your tape is fucked forever. There’s no fixing it once you’ve diddled with the natural order of the tape. It’s simple but so deceptively complex.

And there’s the actual moment of pushing the tape into the VCR. I once read a Buzzfeed article about everyday things that are better than sex, and was dismayed not to find VCR-ing on the list. You slot the cassette in, wheel side down. Push it through the perfectly formed rectangle opening…is this right? Will it work? And then the internal mechanism kicks in, biting down and hugging your tape with its warm mechanical mouth. The VCR draws the tape in smoothly and automatically. It doesn’t need your help anymore. It’ll take it from here.

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If you’ve recently purchased your VHS from a thrift store, or have rented it from the library, there’s also a brief moment of excitement. Will the tape start from the very beginning? A random point in the middle, maybe from the second right after a topless scene? Or will it resume from mid-credits, because the last person to touch this tape was an asshole and knows not to lay that tape down, flip it and reverse it.

And don’t even get me started on the Coming Attractions. We all know that’s the best part of watching any VHS. It’s one of the only modes of media consumption that contextualizes the work FOR you. If you feel like watching The Lion King, you get to experience delightful snippets of all other family-friendly entertainment that came out in 1994-1995. For a few brief moments, you get to remember what film trailers used to sound like and how much ridiculous plot exposition was involved (“It’s a story of a mermaid…who just wanted to be Part of Your World. A flounder and a crab are her best friends, and she falls in love with a prince…even without a VOICE!”). With the Coming Attractions, you get a total and complete picture of the bygone era you’re about to experience.

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And then, when the movie is over, there’s even BUILT IN TIME for you to sit back and process what you’ve just watched (for the seventeenth time). You press STOP and then REWIND and let the sweet siren song of the rapidly cycling tape lull you into relaxation for the next minute and a half. Lest you fall asleep, there’s a jarring CLICK that lets you know the tape is now ready for a re-watch. And then the EJECT button, oh the beautiful EJECT button. One smooth motion and your VHS is served out to you, ready for the cozy embrace of its snug little box. What an experience. And I’m so practiced. It’s a multi-step, cleanly executed ritual.

TL;DR: I’m obsessed with VHS tapes and VCRs and have a hard time making human connections in a modern world.

Hip-Hoppelgangers: Trailer Debuts for “CrazySexyCool”

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Release: October 2013

PRAISE! Behold the wildly uncanny likenesses of T-Boz, Chilli, and Left-Eye, for the CrazySexyCool trailer has come!

God bless you, VH1 executives, in your pure vision. For you did not just film a biopic starring actors who don’t quite fit into their wigs (I see you, Jacksons). You inserted these three into your magic TLC bone-restructuring machine, and created a trio of frighteningly accurate skinwalkers. Save for the subtle tell of Lil’ Mama’s overwrought biceps, this is the most successful resurrection since Jeebus himself.

(Also, speaking of Lil’ Mama, how perfect is she as Left Eye? This girl is on FIRE! Pause for effect. Too soon?)

I mean…God, this looks good. Like it actually doesn’t look that bad. Those “Waterfalls” shoulder pops are so on point I’m jealous. I don’t think I’ve heaped praise on a VH1 original movie like this EVER. I’m actually not used to their films looking good, so paradoxically my expectations are lower. I don’t know how to feel. Since when was quality a watchword on this network??

So obviously I’m going to be lacing up my hi-tops and breaking out the lone-eye war paint this fall, and enjoying this movie in the comfort of my 90s nostalgia. Won’t you join me? It’s MTB! MTB! MEANT 2 BE!