Archive for February, 2005

Spider’s Sense

by Linus, February 8th, 2005

"Spider," a David Cronenberg filmI have a deep, open, and abiding love of crap pop culture. This is neither as bad as it could be nor as much fun as you might imagine. On the one hand, I never have to be evasive about adoring Jennifer Love Hewitt (not counting her records, here, I’m not that demented). On the other, I spend way too much time defending Avril Lavigne. On the gripping hand, a modern life without oooh-ahhh cheesy special effects and all that goes with them is like summer without ice cream: your tongue may not know just what’s missing, but something sweet and sticky isn’t happening quite right. In a well-tempered life there’s even room for Starship Troopers.

I spent 15 years or so mostly without a TV until December of Noughty-3, when my friend Seth had enough of my amiable cluelessness (“Ellen Degene-who?”) and gave me his old set, complete with DVD player and VCR. I still don’t receive TV — maybe I do, actually, I’ve never tried it out — but the DVD thing has won me over utterly. Extras and features fascinate me. I once spent an entire rainy weekend watching every single bit of the Joy Ride DVD, which is not as easy as it sounds. Some day I hope to see everything in those damn Lord of the Rings extended editions, like if nuclear winter hits any time soon. So: kid in a candy store.

Leave your brain in neutral long enough, though, and it starts to rub out as smooth and featureless as the butt cheek it might as well be. The mass market likes its messages in easy bite-sized chunks, the better for the mass-marketed to slurp them down in the millions. There may be subtext and subtlety, of course. You can tell by noting the large flaring HERE THERE BE SUBTEXT and SUBTLE MOMENT AHEAD beacons that illuminate their hastily-erected hides. Most of the indie market doesn’t do much better, since it aims in the end to penetrate the mass market, if perhaps via an unusual orifice. I’m not saying this is bad or good; it is what it is.

Then once in a while you smack into a movie that won’t give up its gifts unless you stay with it all the way down. Once the components were piled up and powered, I picked up Spider, a David Cronenberg production that had an eyeblink release here in the States.

Spider is a hard movie to like. It’s exceptionally acted (an unhealthily-thin Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as the averbal “Spider” Cleg; Miranda Richardson does wonders in two roles double-cast for thematic reasons as well as the usual showcase ones; Lynn Redgrave, Gabriel Byrne and John Neville are all terrific in supporting roles) and glacial in pace. It frustrates and falters and frets. Sometimes it gets stuck and won’t move. It’s headstrong and unreasonable and stubborn. It’s adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel of the same name, and it’s tiny and tattered and something of a chore to watch. “This is the kind of well-made movie you wish well but you don’t particularly wish to see again,” said USA Today, getting it very right.

But hey, I saw Cronenberg’s Crash, I can take it (in the middle of Crash my girlfriend announced, “Those people have a lot of butt sex, don’t they?” and it came out much louder than she intended; there was a small and heartfelt smattering of applause in our section). The story is bewildering and mysterious, but I can go there. Some of the characters slip pretty far to inconsistent extremes, but given the bland overall anomie the drift beats an odd rhythm against the strange chittering pace of the film. I watched it, took it in, watched the featurettes, and put it back in the Still-Working-On-It section of the shelf, where it stayed until last night.

Dead tired I was, and for whatever reason I decided to polish off the director’s commentary track. So I settle down with a nice beer, slip in the DVD, and click on through to the other side. Half an hour in — Cronenberg hardly pauses, and he stays pretty focused on the action on the screen — I see that I didn’t understand this movie at all. I mean, the boat sailed and I was looking at land wondering when the train was coming in. The plot doesn’t change that much, but for the rest … it’s as if you asked me how Madame Bovary was and my confident answer was “Good, it was written by a French guy.”

Part of what makes Spider so alien is Cronenberg’s assumption that the viewer will be willing to watch the film and then come back to it a second and third time to undo the layers. He gives you early actions that mean nothing until you’ve seen the climax, not merely as foreshadowing but as firm steps along the story path. It’s not the fashionable trickstering of films like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, but a narrative designed to draw you in as a navigator, ready to chart your own way through unknown waters. It’s uncompromising, it’s unrealistic, it’s anachronistic and it’s thrilling. It’s downright literary.

A Date with Undestiny

by Linus, February 7th, 2005

I spent most of Saturday not getting into the Yale School of Drama MFA acting program. In one sense, this isn’t unusual: I’ve spent every Saturday these past few decades not getting into the Yale School of Drama MFA acting program. This past Saturday, however, I actually went and tried to get in, which puts a whole different light on things.

There was nothing overwrought in the day; no stand-in for The Donald shouted “You’re Fired!” and no Simon Cowell slapped his balky forehead. I did my Henry V and Lakeboat pieces in an undramatic chalky downstairs room with a comforting lack of acoustic character, peered out afterward, had a handshake, and went upstairs. Out of the dozen of us that hour (two others didn’t show) they asked to see only one fellow again, and the rest of us crept out into a splendid sunny New Haven day to wrestle with our new and slightly bleaker visions of the future, and to lay hands on the inevitable bruises in the heart.

It was a beautiful day. I got on campus an hour early and sat in the sun outside the Fence Club, chatting with a massage therapy trainee named Laura who was working the check-in desk. Layer by layer I relinquished the expectation of winter, watching the tiny slice of Ivy drift past in unseasonable spring. My brother went to Yale, but from my stations in Cambridge and Somerville, London, Dallas, and points else I only made it down to visit him once while he was in school.

Unlike Harvard, which is such an inextricable part of Cambridge that you just about need a student ID to get off the Red Line anywhere past Kendall Square, Yale is a sternly fortress of a place, and to the unfamiliar eye it forces a recalibration of scale. York Street is packed with small stony buildings, like the crook of a model-community historical installation, all arches and eaves and munchkin towers. If a Las Vegas casino were to build a Ye Olde Ivy League theme park, it would look like this, right down to the toyland scale-model shrink-America feel that Vegas has down to such a science.

One of the teachers in my high school was famous for rumbling “Place your furs and rucksacks in the closet” at the start of class, and my bag is feeling ruckish today: I’ve got my no-brain train book (which I’ve just discovered is Volume I of a two-book series, and Volume II hasn’t been written yet — grrr), my just-in-case Yogi Tea teabags (Throat Comfort and Breathe Deep), my superfluous second-layer sweater, my directions to the place (as if I couldn’t recite the entire email from memory, in my sleep, with both hands on the wheel of a speedboat dream), my need-’em-later hat and scarf.

Soon enough we’re in two groups, one randomly for upstairs and one, by chance, for down. Our warm-up room is dominated by a huge round conference table which takes up three quarters of the space, so I lie down on top of it to stretch, much to the consternation of my compadres. “Go on, try it,” I urge. They do. It’s fun. Mostly you don’t get to lie down on top of tables without someone yelling at you. The girls are pretty, the guys are trim, and they’re all a good 15 years younger than I, which might be what this round was all about in the end.

One girl dimples in with Mom in her wake. “I’m totally sorry,” she announces. “But I’m pretty nervous, and when I’m nervous my nipples get hard.” And so they do.

I never have much memory of stage time, or auditions either; I think on stage, fast and hard, but it’s a practical, animal kind of thought, all concerned with trajectory and lights, lines and pace, call and response. Walton Wilson is friendly and shakes my hand and then waits politely for the show to start, which it does. (Program head Ron Van Lieu has the Upstairs.) The Shakespeare slips past uneventfully; I drop a line from the Mamet, right where I had to cut a bit for length last weekend, but it’s a tiny step and I move past it and on to the rest without confusion. I get a laugh where I hoped for a laugh, which is great, and my mouth is dry by the end, which is not. But the words get said, there’s soft and loud and high and low, I use my hands where I mean to and don’t flap them where I don’t, I generally hold my ground with ease, and there we are.

Oh well. Maybe next year.


by Linus, February 3rd, 2005

I'll take some boogie with that ham.

The Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. is no stranger to these e-pages; we first mentioned them last May, and their usually-weekly Thursday musical stint in the back room at Otto’s Shrunken Head is a regular Pepper stop before the fine antic frolics of Starshine Burlesque a few blocks away. Ballads, Boogie and Blues as a prelude to Boobs and Beer — the 5 B’s. Ask me, that’s a nutritious breakfast. Or something.

The boys in Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. — Sit & Die to their friends — let loose weekly with a PhotoShop burst to advertise their shows. They’re all different, they’re all retro-chic, and they’re all fun, and this week the flyer was too good to keep on the mailspool. So here’s a hunk of Thursday ham for the state of your very own Union.

Sit & Die goes on at 8 p.m. most Thursdays for two sets. Admission is free, the tip basket is appreciated, and my favorite Otto’s beverage is the Mango Piña Colada, a shocking yolk-c0lored concoction which comes with an umbrella, a sparkly straw, and plastic mermaids (they’ve run out of the plastic monkeys, oh well). If you stray, be wary of that bowl drink that they set on fire. It does damage. Yes it does.

On Tonight’s Menu

by Linus, February 2nd, 2005

Punxsutawney Phil shoulda stood in bed, according to the Detroit Free Press (actually what they say is that P. Philly — his hip-hop name, you know — “has spoken,” which is something I’d like to hear). Six more weeks of winter, if you take your Groundhog Day prognostications from Gobbler’s Knob down Punxsutawney way, which judging by load times has the world’s busiest web server this afternoon.

Our local-hero marmot, Staten Island Chuck, is a more pragmatic beast. “Early spring,” he opines, no doubt checking the food dish to see if his keepers agree.

Who Knew Dep’t: “During the winter months (generally October to February), groundhogs hibernate, losing up to half of their body weight while sleeping through the cold weather on a bed of grass. Their respiration slows to one breath every 6 minutes, their pulse drops from 110 to 4 beats per minute and their body temperature can get as low as 40 degrees from a normal of 97” (Encyclopedia Groundhog). One breath every six minutes and 4 bpm … I think I did that last Saturday morning. It was kind of nice. Plus you lose half your body weight. Where’s the downside here? I’ll take the Groundhog Diet, please.

For dinner this evening? Why, Pulled Punx to start, I think, followed by Ground Hog patties, Tête de Marmot, and a side of Posticker Phils. (Inigo Montoya voice) “And one day I will meet the shadow-seeing groundhog. And I will say to heem, Get in ma belly.”

Six more weeks of winter indeed. Bah and humbug.