Thursday, April 28, 2011

Humour me here: I love him!

Water for Horses

It was one of those days when I had to get away from my desk. I was growing into it, or out of it, and my butt hurt. It being an afternoon during the week, there was no one to go with, but a matinee by myself seemed like a welcome distraction.

Didn't know what to see, as the options seemed limited. I had already seen Rio, a vastly entertaining animated movie about parrots (and remember, I'm a bird person) with Caitlin and Ryan, whose saucer-eyed, "awesome"-exclaiming reactions were worth the price of admission.

So I saw this thing, this ad for something called Water for Elephants. It was based on a novel, the kind of novel Oprah would've picked if she were still picking anything (besides KFC). So it looked like it had a certain art house cachet, even though the stars (Robert Pattinson, that sooty-eyed matinee idol from dem-dar vampire things) and Reese Witherspoon (Oscar-winner, isn't she?) were definitely A-list.

Turned out it was a circus picture. Circus pictures generally turn me off. I've seen The Greatest Show on Earth umpteen times, though mostly for the train wreck. At least this cinematic juggernaut was spot-on accurate in depicting circus life, mainly because they drafted an entire circus to perform in it. And the performances were uniformly impressive.

Then came this thing.

Robert Pattinson plays the son of German immigrants, struggling to attain a degree to become a veterinarian during the 1930s. Suddenly his parents blow up or something, and he runs away to join the circus, pretending to be a vet (which he sort of half-is). Soon he is dazed by the beauty of the Horse Girl, Reese Witherspoon, all cute and thin in a spangly outfit.

But her "trick-riding" really offended me. She was on the horse, yes, for a bit, and her face was hidden while someone else did some mild exercises, but when they showed Reese on the horse, bareback of course, she went bouncebouncebouncebouncebouncebouncebounce. It was obvious she had never sat a horse before and hadn't mastered the art of staying more or less

level while the horse goes up and down.

But it got worse. This was s'posed to be a tawdry little small-town circus, and Reese was married to the Head Guy, the Really Evil Ringmaster, who was about as evil as Liberace. Thus was formed a love triangle that was so pallid and weak, I wondered at the sexual orientation of these guys.

It wasn't just that everyone was phoning it in. The chemistry was nil. Nothing. Pattinson is cute in a purple-eyelidded way (more like a girl than a guy), but seems to be standing there waiting for everyone to fall down in admiration. Witherspoon was just lost, trying her best with a corny script that had somehow lost all its magic in translation.

But this is what knocked me over.

The star horse, who didn't seem to do anything very special, had something wrong with his hoof. There was a lot of debate about what it was. Oh, it's only this, it's only that, a mere abscess (!), a few days' rest and he'll be fine. Finally, the would-be vet decides to take a look.

But he faces the wrong way! He stands at the horse's shoulder, facing front, and awkwardly lifts the hoof. He was lucky he didn't get his head kicked in.

Listen, I am no equestrian expert, but I did look after a horse (my horse) for three or four years, and sometimes he picked up a stone. I'd have to get in there with a hoof pick and dislodge it. Then there was the routine clearing-out of mud or poop or other debris, part of everyday grooming. It's not that hard to do.

I'm not sure when and how I learned this, maybe at the same time I learned you mount and dismount on the left (and I've seen many a movie where stars get on the wrong side). But it always seemed to me that to get a good view and to avoid mishap, you should face the rear. That is, you and the horse are facing in opposite directions. You stand beside him at his shoulder and sort of lean against him, putting him a little off-balance so he almost welcomes it when you lift his foot. If he's well-trained, he'll do it automatically.

So here was this absurd "vet" (OK, he didn't have his degree yet, but still) looking at this upside-down hoof and deciding in about 2 seconds that the horse needed to be shot. (It wasn't even limping.) And of course, there was that dramatic scene where Reese whimpered, "No. . . no. . ." and the horse made groaning noises and Robert Pattinson raised the convenient gun he happened to have with him, and. . .

Pow! Poor Dobbin's dead.

I just don't get how someone can direct a circus movie and know so little about horses. When I went to Cavalia, the calibre of horsemanship was overwhelming: I wept in a few places, nearly had a nosebleed, and more than once joined the audience in crying, "No, no. . . "before they attempted (and nailed) a seemingly-impossible stunt.

At least there was an elephant in the movie who knew how to act, but it was one of those old-time circus elephants that stood on one foot and stuff, kind of disturbing. It's no longer fun.

This picture badly needed a technical adviser or at least someone on-board who had had anything at all to do with circuses, or at least with horses. After all, if you can afford Robert and Reese, you can afford someone who knows one end of a horse from the other.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Addicted to Oprah

Oh Lor': what'll they thank of next? A whole TV channel with Oprah's name on it? Well, her initials at least, which in essence spell out, "I Own You".

Out of curiosity I sometimes dip into this channel, which suddenly came along and usurped a rather shallow "women's channel" called Viva. Viva disappeared; Oprah was "in". I think it's only a preview however, and soon you'll have to pay extra.

The first thing I tried was a behind-the-scenes "reality" show about Oprah's final season. And, oh Lor', was it hard to watch. It consists of Oprah throwing her formidable weight around while her myriad producers scurry this way and that trying to placate and please the Queen like termites in a rotten foundation. 

She has her little hissy fits, along with bouts of raucous laughter, almost like something out of Gone with the Wind. (She does frequently affect a Southern drawl, a y'all thaang that's supposed to make her look like Jest Folks, which she isn't, unless Jest Folks is worth a few billion bucks). If this sounds racist, I apologize, but it has always struck me as weird that she has fought so hard to beat black stereotypes, then feigns one of the worst ones possible at regular intervals.

OK then, due to a sort of vertigo combined with queasiness I had to go on to the next program. I noticed that there were shows hosted by Suze Orman, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Feelgood and many, many other Oprah-anointed experts. I skipped those, having become perfect already from watching her show for umpteen years.

Lisa Ling hosts Our America, which really showed some promise until I saw how soft and squishy it was. She puts her arm around dope fiends and sex offenders and people trying to "pray the gay away", and speaks softly into the camera, her eyes glistening with empathy. This show might work if it were tougher, or at least more objective. Tackling issues like this requires real journalism, not hand-holding. It was a real disappointment.

But soft! What's this? I confess I am addicted to recovery shows, especially what my son calls "fat shows". I saw one called Heavy which was either on TLC or A&E (and is there a difference?), in which 500-lb. people were mercilessly whipped into shape, risking a heart attack or stroke doing strenuous exercise that even a very fit person couldn't stand. And nearly starving to death on 800 calories, when they were used to 8000. They all lost weight, of course, but nearly lost their minds in the process.

But this new show, Addicted to Food, takes place in one of those hidey-hole luxury resorts designed to make y'all better and set y'all free from whatever demons ail you ("Out, Satan!"). It's run by a hardass Southern woman who claims she used to eat herself practically to dya-a-a-th, sugar, but now knows the secret and can impart it to you for only $5,000.00 (and in just 42 days!).

I don't know why 42 days. Isn't that six weeks? Why not say six weeks? Anyway, these people, eight of them I think (but only one man) have a ragbag of eating disorders ranging from bulimia to anorexia to just plain eating too much. All these conditions are considered the same because they are all connected to food, and all of them are treated as addictions.

The contrast with Heavy is startling. Instead of doing any exercise, they sit around a lot yakking. The heaviest thing they lift are books about eating disorders. In "group", they dig out all their deepest traumas from childhood and give them a good airing. The previews show them bending over the toilet and crouching on the floor and screaming (hey, we can't wait!), but so far it has been pretty slow.

There's a painfully-thin, pinched-looking woman who cheats, not on the first day but at the first meal. She upchucks the whole thing, then lies about it. Someone always follows you into the bathroom on this show, but somehow she slipped past the Nazi guards.

The therapists all look underweight, and are obviously under the thumb of this Southern lady, don't ask me her name because I don't feel like lookin' it u-up, y'all. She ducks behind a doorway and sheds a decorous tear at one point, from identi-fahh-in' with the pain of one of the large ladies in her care. (Sorry about the accent parody. I don't want to be mean. Let's say I'm doing it in the spirit of O, the goddess behind all this arcane transformation mythology.)

There are squabbles and blowups, like on Heavy where the fattest guy of all jumps up and down and yells, "LEAVE! ME! ALONE!" But nobody is left alone here, ever. They even sleep in dorms with four beds to a room (and all sharps are confiscated). I was aghast to see the "assignments" they were required to accept without question: one woman had to wear a blindfold for several days, so she would have no idea where she was going(thus surrendering her "control issues"); the token male had to wear thick, heavy gloves all the time, giving him a preview of the self-inflicted neuropathy that would be his fate if he didn't shape up; one woman, deemed too talkative by the staff, had to wear a big sign that said she was not allowed to speak at all.

These are adults, and we are adults, and not dummies, so why then must these people wear big 12"-wide cardboard signs with string on them? Is telling them what they must do not enough? Another bizarre ritual involved stripping naked in front of a full-length mirror with a paper bag over your head. This is supposed to bring out the full extent of your self-loathing. No, I'm not making this up.

It's like healing a sore by scraping on it and jabbing at it and rubbing sand in it. The 12-step orientation is never spelled out, but at one point, beaten down at the end of another humiliating day, they all join hands and say the Serenity Prayer.

They have to surrender, see? Surrender to a power greater than themselves (that Southern lady, or, hey, perhaps it's O herself!). Oprah has always refused to see a therapist (while at the same time practically demanding that everyone else see one), and her "own" weight has fluctuated madly for the past 30 years. Her current size could easily lead to significant health problems at her age, yet she continues her obsession with "transforming" everybody around her.

Addicted to Food isn't really about diet and exercise, like Heavy, but about "feelings". Getting in touch with those feelings. Crying: that's good! But it means being essentially out of control. In reality, how is this going to help you?

You can't go to the office and blubber at your desk every time you think about your Dad. It looks bad and won't get you out of your dead-end job. You can't talk on and on to everyone you know about your trauma: it's boring and embarrassing and it doesn't change anything. The chances of your overcoming a serious eating disorder with hokey "treatment" by some self-styled "medical" expert with no degree and no real training at all apart from her own experience is, shall we say, slim.

Not long ago Oprah brought back Ivanyla Vanzant from the dead, or at least from the recycle bin. In the '90s this lady was hot: her self-help books and smart-ass patter really dragged them in, and even Oprah was entertained, laughing uproariously at all the messes she'd made. But it turned out the mess was worse than anyone thought.

This expert, a diva in her own right, turned down an offer from Oprah to host her own show, going instead with "an offer from someone big. I mean BIG." Turned out it was Barbara Walters. But Vanzant's show was such a mess, it lasted barely a year. Meanwhile she burned through an advance for a book that never materialized, and found herself in a spot of trouble.

On her recent Oprah appearance, she showed footage of herself living in a shack and dressed like a bag lady. The disbelieving audience tittered, but she was serious. She was obviously looking for sympathy, if not pity, and a substantial handout. She'd written a new book about it, of course. Her reason for failing: deep down she didn't think she deserved success, due to generations of "DNA" that programmed her to fail.

Whoa. DNA?

DNA is responsible for bad cheques and bad decisions and bad books (I ordered a copy of the book and immediately sent it back to Amazon, it was so appallingly awful)? Isn't that, just a little bit, abdicating responsibility for your own choices?

OK, so what am I getting at here? This OWN franchise seems to be celebrating personal transformation, but not through your own strength or courage or integrity. No, you have to "surrender" to one of these sagn-hanging' experts who, without question, know better than you do.

Breaking someone down to build them up again is something cults do. If you resist, it's ego (Edging God Out, or something like that). It all has a Stepford quality to it, pre-programmed along with all the sobbing for the cameras (and surely these people are exhibitionists if they want to do all their agonizing "work" on national TV).

I think people can get better, in fact I know they can get better, but not on TV with "kick me" signs around their necks. Even group therapy (especially group therapy) needs to be private, led by a professional, with each individual carefully protected. Over and over again we hear that people with addictions have very poorly-defined boundaries. The solution to this isn't trampling them, but encouraging individuals to rebuild themselves. It's slow and there are many backsteps. But it can happen.

Just not in a three-ring public coliseum with a kick-me sign around your neck.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mad About You

(Note the placement of Don's hands. Just a concidence? I don't think so!)


'Mad Men' Season 5 set for 2012, negotiations with Matthew Weiner ongoing - From Inside the Box - Zap2it

I haven't even really written about Mad Men yet, and here I've already got the t shirt (from eBay, no kidding, it's great). I don't think I've ever been as involved with a show, any show, in my life. Maybe I hesitated to write about it because I'd have to give a lowdown on all the characters and all the situations, a messy tangle which approximates real life more accurately than anything else I've seen.

But I do have concerns. It seems Matthew Weiner, the genius behind the show, is stamping his foot at proposed budget cuts and time constraints. The network (AMC) and the production company (Lionsgate) want to cut 2 minutes out of each episode to allow for a few extra commercials (I'd say, maybe 5 or 6). Doesn't sound like much, does it? Until you realize that in 2 minutes, a character can die, another character can be born, the business can crash or be reformed (which it already has a few times) . . or even, with a sudden quirk of the eyebrow, Don Draper can make the whole Mad Men universe disappear.

Meantime, horror of horrors, AMC has delayed the debut of Season 5 (slated for summer) until March 2012. Gulp. Almost a year. Does Weiner approve of his masterwork being clawed back like that? Whose nose is being twisted here?

In case you haven't heard of this show (and for God's sake, where've you been for the past 4 years?), it's a slightly surreal take on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. MM takes a huge chance in covering a year per season, unlike MASH which dragged out the 2-year-long Korean War into 11 years (with 11 Christmases in a 2-year period! Those folks must've been mighty festive.) So we're already into, what, 1966? If the show is really successful, it'll spill over into the polyester-and-disco atmosphere of the '70s, which I frankly don't think will work. So they'd better squeeze this juicy material while they still have time.

Another option is making Mad Men movies, but like the Sex and the City franchise I think they'd just writhe and die, the quirky maverick spirit of the series totally bent out of shape by Fox or Warner Brothers or whoever inevitably takes over the whole thing. Sounds like Matthew Weiner will only surrender his show over his dead body: like Charlton Heston's rifle, they'll have to pry it out of his cold, dead hands.

But as I was saying before I digressed (it's Easter Monday, for God's sake, a weird sort of non-day, so don't expect me to make much sense), I'm beginning to see why Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce's art director Sal Romano (played by Broadway actor Bryan Batt) was canned so abruptly in Season 3. It's not that his character wasn't working out. Sal's dismissal was a budget cut, nothing more or less. They couldn't afford him any more.

He was gay, yes; his story line was a bit bizarre, but he had the acting chops and was up for it. In fact, he was one of Mad Men's more subtle characters, hiding his forbidden gay urges under a cloak of suave Old World charm that inspired female crushes. I noticed he was also very high up in the opening credits, which has everything to do with agents and contracts and negotiations and status and (ultimately) paycheques. The budget for MM seems to be mysteriously dwindling (not enough product placement? Can we make the Mrs. Butterworth's bottle a little more prominent on the kitchen table?), so network execs are likely pondering whose head will roll in Season 5.

None of this makes any sense to me. Why is this happening? How could such a ravenously-popular, culture-transforming series be running out of money? Why hold it hostage? Is it to build up viewer hunger (which, with the average 3 1/2 -minute attention span, will probably backfire)? It just feels like they've kicked it into the next solar system. Even waiting for it to start at the normal time has been agony, for I think Don Draper/Jon Hamm is the best-smelling man on TV. (That's another post entirely).

MM has garnered a big basket of kisses already, but I'm beginning to think Emmys are kind of like Oscars: the kiss of death, not just for a career but for a whole series. (I'll never forget one of my favorite comic actors, Tony Randall, receiving his statuette after The Odd Couple's cancellation and saying with a rueful smile, "This is wonderful. Now if I only had a job.")

I want more Don Draper, I want his anguish and ennui and occasional joy. I want to see if his engagement to That French Girl (Megan, is it? She of the Leslie Caron teeth?), a bolt from the blue, will ever come off. There are some potential discards however: I want to see if that blithering old man who was in How to Succeed in Business in One Million BC (heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh, in-joke) will drop at his desk like poor old Miss Blankenship.

Betty, well, she's about as bland as that perforated Pillsbury crescent roll dough (half-baked). Could she fall off a horse or something? How about that creepy neighbor boy Glen (who turns out to be Matthew Weiner's creepy son: so, forget that one, he'll stay until he's voting age).

But there are others I can't do without, so if the network execs get their greasy little paws on them, I swear I'll walk. In particular I want to see Don's 10-year-old daughter Sally launched into the shark-infested waters of adolescence (for she's one of the most gifted actresses in the whole series and is evolving brilliantly: hey, guys, if you send her away to school in Switzerland, I swear I will quit watching forever!).

I can't remember ever doing this before, but I always watch each episode of MM multiple times: when they're new, then the next day, and then, after a few weeks or months, again. In each and every case, I've caught things I didn't "get" the first/second times around. Though everyone claims the '60s were a simpler time when things moved much more slowly, this show is for the quick of eye and swift of mind. Things can blur past you with the speed of a silver bullet. Not to be content with three viewings, I now have the DVD set(s) so I can watch them all again whenever I want. It doesn't matter that I can anticipate what will happen next: like Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, familiarity only enhances the experience.

I've seen a curious number of conflicting articles on the subject of Mad Men's mysterious, infuriating delay. AMC is "officially" saying they can't show MM at the same time as Breaking Bad or Weird Undead Zombies from Hell or whatever the bleep it is. Just a scheduling conflict! Why, I don't know.

Probably because that's not why. This is all about Weiner, who knows damn well he has this show in his hot little pocket, and is consequently stamping his hot little foot. It's power-tripping and yo-yo-jerking and manipulation, while the cast probably holds its breath, each hoping they won't pull the short straw and be relegated to the phone booth in the gay dog park where we saw the last of Sal.

Caitlin and Ryan win gold!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter values in the garden of Gethsemane

Easter is a strange one, and it's hard for me to sort out my feelings about it.

I can go with the fluffy-chicks-and-lambs-and-decorated-eggs part of it, especially where my grandkids are involved. Even the miracle-of-nature-renewing-itself makes sense. But for years, this day was dark and gloomy and even morbid, as I tried to follow the dictates of my church and focus on a bloody, senseless, irredeemibly horrible act.

Since I left my church behind due to a massive tangle of dysfunction that nobody else seemed to see, I don't know what crucifixion means any more. Resurrection makes a kind of sense, but to get to it, why must we nail grace and peace to the tree and watch it writhe and bleed and die?

Yes, we always kill the ones we love. We kill Gandhi and Martin Luther King and even Bobby Kennedy, who at least attempted enlightenment before he was savagely cut down. I say "we" because events like that don't happen in isolation.

It's popular to say, "oh, it was just one nut case, it has nothing to do with the rest of us". Is that why Pilate washed his hands?

Crucify him, crucify him.

So Good Friday is supposed to be a spectacularly grim day, filled with darkness and grief. We'd have sombre church services with gloomy readings, and often re-enactments of the hideous deed. I felt terrible, deeply depressed, but there was always a feeling I was somehow doing it wrong.

Yes, we have Good Friday services, but for God's sake, why do you get so depressed at them? It's just a social gathering, after all, with nice hot cross buns and coffee afterwards, and chit-chatting about our plans for the Easter weekend.

It had about as much content and depth as that magpie-chattering-made-manifest, Facebook.

So I did it wrong. I did what they said, I meditated on evil and blood and destruction, on the ultimate disaster. And somehow, it was always wrong.

Crucify him, crucify him!

The next day was always weird (Easter Saturday?) and I felt spiritually disoriented, but come Sunday, it was all hosannas, allelujahs, and white lilies emanating the heavy, sickly-sweet smell of a funeral parlor. We always sang the same hymns, processed the same processional. The choir did something sprightly.

And I was still depressed.

Eventually, this sense of profound dislocation caused me to walk. There was not a single person I could talk to about my confusion and despair. It was somehow anti-church, taken as a criticism, and if there was one thing my church couldn't tolerate, it was criticism.

You were either in, or you were out.

Crucify him.

We still call it Good Friday, and I know my little grandchildren don't understand why. Probably my children don't either. Apart from a minority who attend some sort of religious institution, we are a secular world. Good Friday has about as much meaning to most people as Easter Monday, a nonsensical day tacked on to the blinding. transforming miracle of resurrection.

For the huge majority of people, it's just another day at the mall, "Easter Values" of another kind, half off of everything. I'm not saying churches don't attempt to raise awareness of Christian values, to instill them in children as they grow. But it's whistling in the dark when kids are living in a blur of violent video games, Facebook, puberty at age nine, constant phoning and texting, readily available porn, and other forms of unconscious despair. In the core of the abyss, there's not much room for feeling.

They have to get along, don't they? God forbid they should be like me, the perennial square peg. Yeah, it's Good Friday and all, but for God's sake, stop being so melodramatic!

Crucify him. Crucify him.

I don't know who Jesus was, or what praying is. I absolutely do not. And this after some 15 years of single-minded dedication to my church. Did I walk, or was I expelled? But we're supposed to meditate on expulsion, aren't we - on rejection - on Jesus being disowned and literally nailed up and sacrificed like some sort of animal?

Gethsemane is a lonely place, and maybe we've all been there - but if other people have, they're sure keeping to themselves.

But hey, it's only a church service! For Christ's sake, don't be so overdramatic. Here. Have another hot cross bun.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Do you call that thing a book?

I can't name a favorite Harold Lloyd movie. Like children or grandchildren, they're all special to me in their own way. But there is one in which Harold plays a character who is very close to my heart.

I watched Girl Shy again last night. I don't know what it is about this man: he was magical. Tender and fierce, brilliant and adorably clueless. He plays a tailor's assistant in a small town, a meek loner who can't even speak because of a debilitating stutter. By chance, he meets and wins the love of a beautiful rich girl with his sincerity and pure heart. But he has only one chance to make himself worthy of her: to become rich and famous as the author of a ludicrous guide to romance called The Secret of Making Love.

After being laughed and jeered out of the publisher's office, he does the only thing possible: sacrifices his own heart so that she will be spared the indignity of loving a pennyless loser. So he drives her away. He drives her away not just by taunting her, but by laughing at the very idea that they were ever in love. It is Lloyd's Pagliacci moment, the time when he must don the motley, play the clown, and break her heart for her own good. It is excruciating to watch, and one of those moments when Lloyd's extraordinary ability as an actor takes your breath away.

But the scene that really tears my heart out (can you guess why?) is that awful moment in the publisher's office, when he is briefly hopeful, then completely shattered. Social humiliation plays a large part in Harold Lloyd's universe, and he has an uncomfortable way of pulling his audience close and asking, "Has this ever happened to you?".

There is something in his eyes - his stunned, vulnerable, devastated eyes - the bottom suddenly dropping out of his world with a sickening gut-lurch, not because he won't be famous, but because he knows he will have to cut his girl loose, it's the only way to be fair to her - it's, what is it anyway? It's hard to watch, and the tension builds almost unbearably until the time when we can mercifully laugh again.

This is not mere comedy, folks, this is something else. This isn't the soppy melodrama of Chaplin or the can't-win fatalism of Keaton. Lloyd is a hopeful loser. And we so want him to win, we need him to win, for if we leave him in that terrible sinking vortex of failed dreams, we'll be reminded of things we don't want to recall.

But as always (and as in Lloyd's real life), Fate intervenes. In his darkest hour, tragedy is flipped over and transformed into a kind of acerbic comedy: the publisher suddenly decides to release his failed manuscript as a comic farce called The Boob's Diary. At first he rages and rails: they can't do this to me! It's undignified! Then, on reflection - and no doubt thinking of the girl - he reconsiders. . .

Ah, yes. The comprimise! (Has this ever happened to you?)

The most famous sequence in Girl Shy is the spectacular race to the church to prevent the rich girl from marrying a bigamist. I won't get into that now, as you should be watching it right this minute instead of reading about it, do you hear me? Get some Lloyd DVDs now, so you'll know what I'm talking about! If you don't, you're missing small masterpieces that tell stories that are not just humorous, but human.

The laughter in Lloyd comedies arises from an unlikely source, and it isn't just the ordinary fellow in extraordinary situations. It's from identification with a profound social dislocation. Harold so wants to belong, and doesn't, and can't, until he finally discovers, at the end of practically every movie, that there is only one person he needs to belong to. Because once he belongs to himself, you see, the girl is in the bag.