Monthly Archives: August 2012

Movie Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I actually watched this movie on the plane ride home from London, which was perhaps not the greatest idea. Any movie taking place in India, should probably be seen on a screen larger than 5-7 inches. After all, much of what is attractive and overwhelming about India are the colors, the sights (good and bad) and the noise. I think I should probably have seen it in the theatre, but hey, I’m not a millionaire.

Despite the fact that I think my enjoyment of it was somewhat lessened by the small screen and bad audio, I did like the movie.  For one thing, the cast is ridiculous. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy (love him), Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, the list goes on.  Oh yeah, and Maggie Smith! It’s just a ridiculous list of actors and actresses.  I do enjoy the fact that the British don’t mind having movies that feature people older than 50 (gasp!).  The last US movie I can remember with older people as the main actors was probably Cocoon. But all of these actors and actresses are older (besides Dev Patel, obviously) and they are all very busy in movies and shows like Downton Abbey, the Harry Potter series, Love Actually, the Bond movies, Calendar Girls (another great British movie featuring people older than 50.

The British seem to like this sort of big ensemble cast with little vignettes and snippets of people who are interconnected but not always connected enough to hold the movie together. I felt the same way after Love Actually, that sometimes things seemed a bit thrown together, and not everyone got enough time on screen to really get their identity across with the audience. It feels a bit like when I write a paper, or a story, and realize 75% through that I’ve taken on too much. You can’t do everything justice when you bite off more than you can chew, especially when it comes to storytelling. It was one of those movies where you realize after you’ve seen it that you had no idea what the character’s names were.  Everything just moved a bit too fast from one to the next in order to get a good grip on it.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it. The basic plot is that for different reasons (Maggie Smith’s character needs a hip replacement and there is a waiting list at English hospitals, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Penelope Wilton all have money concerns, and Tom Wilkinson is on a personal quest), all of these elderly English people end up in a retirement ‘hotel’ in India, run by Dev Patel’s character. In order to get guests for the hotel, he pays for their tickets from London to India. Once they arrive, they realize that the brochure they saw does not match the reality of this hotel, which is much shabbier and lacking doors on some of the rooms. But most of them don’t have the money to pay for airfare back to the UK, so they are literally stuck.

The movie seems to be mainly about assimilation. And what a challenge! I don’t think I’d last more than a few days in India without wanting to leave, and I’m sure each character wanted to leave at some point.  The person who just can’t assimilate, can’t even see anything worth loving about the place, is Penelope Wilton’s character. She spends her days reading in the garden, never leaves the confines of the hotel, and takes a plane back at her earliest convenience.  While she’s stuck there, she disparages the place incessantly and stomps on anyone else’s enthusiasm for India, its people, or its culture. She’s not xenophobic or cruel, but she’s out of her depth and cannot find her feet in this foreign land.  I think everyone can relate to that, and it makes her sympathetic even when she’s horrible. I wonder if it would be harder or easier to assimilate into a new culture at that age.  I think, both.  I just saw my Dad in the UK, and he is definitely homesick. There shouldn’t be any associated culture shock with moving to the UK, but he’s set in his ways and places comfort as a major priority in life.  With age, that does happen (I already feel it happening to me).  On the other hand, with age comes the knowledge that life is so fleeting and so ridiculous and horrible and wonderful and overwhelming, that the only thing the sensible person can do is let go and enjoy it.  At least, the wisest of us can talk ourselves into letting go of the semblance of control and allowing the world to sweep us out where it’s going to take us regardless.  The rest of the characters are much better at embracing that sense of change, of challenge, of enjoyment in whatever comes.

Judi Dench’s character narrates much of the movie, and she does mention the challenges and the rewards of moving to this completely separate culture. We see the most of her inner thoughts and feelings. Bill Nighy is fantastic, tall and besuited, and has that snort of a laugh that I adore. He is the most charming of all the actors onscreen.

Maggie Smith’s character sort of stunned me, because she’s blatantly racist! From her very first line, she is unpardonably racist.  Not that there really is a pardonable level of racism, but you see my point. It’s not an accidental bias, it’s not uninformed prejudice, it’s pure bile.  But she undergoes a transformation through the movie, and …well I’m not going to say she starts to be color blind, because I’m certain that’s not true, but she changes and opens up and becomes a much more sympathetic character. And, being Maggie Smith, it’s all done really very well.  She’s fabulous.

Tom Wilkinson’s character has the most desperately sad story, and I think his is the most compelling character.  I don’t want to give away more, so I won’t say more.

But there are two characters, played by Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, that seem very similar. They both want to date younger/richer people, or marry them, or whatever. They seem to mostly want sex, love, to be …not lonely anymore. Understandable, but there’s very little to their characters. I wonder if they had more scenes originally and they were cut at some point, because it just doesn’t feel full or complete. They don’t seem to add much to the movie, except some comic relief. The movie was based on a book, These Foolish Things, which I suspect might contain more on these two that makes them integral to the group or to the action in some way. But in the movie it seems they just didn’t have time.

All in all, the movie was pretty good, but it could have been a bit better. I wonder how much I would enjoy the book, as I suspect I would get to know the characters more in that format. But the main thing that made the movie better than average was the incredible actors. With so many of them in one place, it’s almost to the point where you don’t notice how great they are, because they are all great.

American stereotypes, according to the British

In this post, I shared some of the most popular and (for the most part) totally nonsensical, blatantly untrue stereotypes that seem to never go away about England and its citizens.  Since I never turn down the opportunity to offend all people equally, I’ve decided to turn the tables.  What do the Brits (and the rest of the world) think of us? Are they right?  This time I can be honest without fear of any retribution. After all, I’m an American, and that gives me the right to say every disparaging thing about our country that I can think of, if I’m so inclined.  So, here we go!

1. We’re fat

I just did a google image search for ‘stereotypical American’. In addition to the lovely image above with the exposed belly fat and the hamburger, I saw this, one:

Far more depressing than the cartoon, because it’s real.  And no one can pretend that this stereotype isn’t true.  According to a Telegraph article, the global average human adult ways about 137 lbs.  I am considered a normal weight for my height, but I am about 15 lbs over that.  The US is the third most obese country on the planet (our average weight is around 180 lbs), beaten only by Micronesia and Tonga.  So the stereotype is true; more true for our country than the vast majority of them.  Of course that doesn’t mean every American is fat. But, we just can’t deny that this is true of our country as a whole, which means it must be true for many of the tourists from America visiting countries like Britain.  But, let’s put it in a bit of context. The UK is actually number 10 on the list, with their average at 167 lbs. So at a whopping 13 pounds lighter than we are, I would say there’s not much difference between our two countries, when it comes to the ravages of obesity. And I’ve seen how busy the McDonald’s is on Oxford Street (for just one example), and I’m fairly certain that not everyone in that restaurant is American. Conclusion: It’s true, but it’s also true for the UK, so they can shut up.

1a-All we eat is hamburgers and hot dogs.  This is patently untrue, obviously. We also eat tacos, barbecue, and delivery pizza. I’m joking, of course.  There are tons of different types of restaurants in the US, and in large cities you can find any kind of cuisine you want. On the other hand, there are areas in the country, largely in the rural areas, some suburbs, and and particularly in poorer inner city areas, where there is an absolute culinary wasteland. You can’t find anything that’s not a chain restaurant without some real effort. I grew up in the Midwest, and though I don’t know if my situation was typical, I didn’t have anything that would be described as ethnic food until I was about twenty. No Chinese food, no Italian that wasn’t spaghetti, not even authentic Mexican food. That’s not something you would encounter in the UK, that’s for sure.  They eat a lot of Indian food, and Chinese and other East Asian cuisines are very popular as well, mostly due to the Imperial history of the country. On the other hand, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, Pizza Express, etc., are very popular there as well.  They also seem to enjoy American-style fried chicken, but I never found any Mexican food that a Mexican would actually recognize.  Lots of foods that we take for granted as staples, like barbecue, chili, pancakes and a lot of breakfast foods, I didn’t see once while I was there.  The cuisines are just different, and I never saw any reason to think one was better or worse than the other. In both cultures, you can find interesting and wonderful restaurants where you can try something new; in both countries you can find absolute trash to eat. And in both countries there are people that prefer the great restaurants, and people that prefer the trash.

2. We’re rude. 

There are a few components to this stereotype.

2a. We are loud–I don’t think that I’m the best person to comment on this. Anyone who has ever met me knows that I am one of the more quiet people in the world. I know people have a hard time hearing me, and when I have to speak louder than I’m naturally inclined, I feel like I’m making a spectacle of myself. My dad’s failing hearing causes me to be mortified whenever I am out with him, because not only do I have to yell, but so does anyone else he needs to converse with.  So, obviously, it’s not true of all Americans, but only a moron thinks any of these stereotypes (or any stereotypes) are universally true.  But, I do think I am in the minority in my mumbling soft-spoken ways. People here are loud, and it generally doesn’t occur to them that they should be ashamed of it. It’s not rudeness in the traditional sense, just a sort of lack of self-awareness. An article in the New York Times had a British perspective on the difference in decibels between the two cultures:

Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially.

2b. We don’t speak the language–Obviously this is more about us in countries other than the UK, but since we seem to have a lot of problems with their slang, it’s nearly true there too.

This is, I have to say, true. Totally true.  I speak Italian pretty well (though my skills are starting to atrophy), but most people I know don’t speak another language at all.  You have to really want to speak it well and remember it in order to move beyond menu ordering levels in foreign languages. Most people take Spanish or French in high school, and you learn so laughably little that there is no way to function in another language in another country. I took Spanish for four years, but I wouldn’t presume to say I speak it. (Though I will happily tell anyone that listens about the time I successfully asked where to find some Chuck Taylor’s in Barcelona, and comprehended the answer…well, I found the shoes anyway). For the most part, we don’t need to be fluent. When we travel internationally, the fact that we don’t speak the language is not in itself rude, nor do I think it’s particularly unusual.  There is more of a focus on foreign languages in Europe, because international travel is more common, but that doesn’t mean every British citizen speaks 5 languages. The rudeness lies not in our not speaking the language, but in our expecting others to speak English.  This is a rampant behavior.  There is no reason to assume that other countries are filled with English speakers.  I mean, if someone comes from France or China and assumes you speak French or Chinese, wouldn’t you find that to be…moronic?  My advice: If you’re going to a foreign country, learn some basics–hello, goodbye, thank you, please, some food info, 1-10, etc.  Make an effort to use them.  Before I went to France, I learned to say those basics, plus “I’m a vegetarian”. It took about two days to learn those and remember them. I can’t say I stunned anyone with my French, but they really do give you points for trying.

2c. We don’t know the customs–I’ll discuss this separately under the heading of our general ignorance.

Just a note that these accusations of rudeness tend to come out when we travel, more than when people travel here.  Most visitors to America from the UK have, I think, a generally positive and possibly surprisingly positive impression of Americans in our natural habitat. Which just means that these stereotypes must be pretty rampant, and are naturally not as true as they seem to be to people who haven’t been here.

3. We’re uber-religious and love guns

Obviously neither of these are true for me (a running theme of this post), or large chunks of the American populace.  But think about the sort of people you know who are very religious, and fit into your own stereotypes of rednecks.  Wouldn’t they be the sort of loud, obnoxious morons that would draw a lot of attention if you put them in the middle of Piccadilly Circus? People for which these are true do stand out when they encounter other (different) cultures.  I think most people know that our gun control (or lack there of) laws are incredibly lax compared to Britain and most of Europe. We also have a lot more gun violence than those countries.  The police don’t even carry guns in the UK (with a few exceptions). That’s all you really have to know to see why we seem like gun nuts to them. As to religion, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, 73% of UK citizens describe religion as not important to their lives; only 27% described it as important. In the US, that ratio was nearly flipped, with 65% describing it as important and only 35% say it isn’t important. I remember when I was going to the UK, I said something to my Dad about the UK not being very religious. He informed me that I was totally wrong, because of all the hullabaloo with Henry VIII and the Catholic church.  I had to point out to him that things had changed in the last 450 years.  Compared the UK, the US is more religious on average. Some states, like say Alabama and Mississippi, according to a Gallup poll, rate religion as far more important than even the rest of the country (those states rank it as similar importance to countries like Iran, where the religion and the government go hand in hand).  This should surprise no one who has lived in the US for any length of period, but to the UK citizen, they seem to think of us all that way.

4. We’re ignorant of world events, politics, etc.

This map isn’t very accurate, of course. It’s hyperbole.  Also, no idea why Antarctica is filled with Aliens. I would go with Penguins. And Polar Bears, according to some people (I’m looking at you, boyfriend). But, it is absolutely true that a lot of Americans are entirely ignorant about most of the world. I like to think of myself as pretty informed; much more so than your average American, but probably less so than I should be.  However, I have no problem admitting that I am pretty ignorant compared to a lot of only moderately-informed Brits.  Why?  The news!  The news there takes a much more world-conscious approach than ours.  The BBC news is amazing compared to ours. And not just compared to stuff you know is absolute nonsense, like the Onion or Fox News, but compared to actual news like CNN.  I’m not saying that Britain doesn’t have its share of muckraking rubbish (News of the World!), but you can easily be exposed to much more comprehensive news stories about (gasp!) other countries! And not just other countries that they’re currently at war with, but actual other countries that are just existing independent of us.

So how dumb are we?  Well, most people in this country couldn’t pass our own citizenship test–according to a Newsweek quiz.

Newsweek also reports that: In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.

I’m not certain why the US is so insular in its education, news, concerns.  Part of it must be a certain degree of geographical isolation. Even in the 21st century, we’re just far as fuck away from a lot of other countries.  (But is Canada this way?  They have the same geography, but a totally different level of status in the world. Any Canadians reading this, let me know.) Then there’s also, undoubtedly, a mean kid attitude that comes from being the biggest guy on the playground. We don’t have to care, so we make less effort to do so.  But I wish we would. I have no arguments with this stereotype; it’s true.

5. We dress badly

There are a few factors that make a big difference with this one.  First of all, it absolutely has to be acknowledged that Americans dress in a far more casual manner in every possible situation than most of Europe. We just do. We are much more likely to wear shorts, jeans, old clothes, baggy clothes, and things that cost under 20 dollars at Walmart, than I think anywhere else in the world.  I am guilty of dressing fairly casual–I like jeans, what can I say? I enjoy a dress or skirt too, but I live in jeans. We are also one of the fatter countries, which, unless you put in a lot of effort to still look good, can make it a lot harder to look stylish. As a country, we have absolutely no concept on how to buy clothes that fit us properly. I wonder if this is because it’s so hard to find a tailor here?  Anyway, combine it all and no matter if we’re in our Sunday best, we’re going to look less stylish and less professional than a lot of Brits, even in their casual wear.

Europeans in general tend to wear darker colors and more professional clothes in all situations. They tend to be thinner. The climate means they are more likely to layer their clothes (the climate cannot explain why when Americans are cold they often don a sweatshirt with screen printed horses and the Brits put on a cashmere v-neck pullover). They put more effort into how they look, and I’m not really sure why that’s a cultural norm in Europe and not here.

On the other hand, I have noticed the same sort of general poshness when wandering around NYC and especially Washington, D.C. that I found in London.  When you have groups of intelligent, reasonably affluent, educated people living together, you’re going to have some well-dressed people.  It just seems that those well-dressed people are more prevalent in the UK than here.

I think the stereotype is reinforced by the fact that the majority of Americans visit the UK in the summer on vacation–re: they are wearing shorts or capris, sandals or trainers (tennis shoes).  Undoubtedly, our vacation clothes are our worst. Some of this is necessary–I am not going to be walking miles and miles in London in my work flats, even if they are flats. I am bringing trainers. Some of it is unnecessary. I do not need a bum bag (fanny pack); I do not need to wear a shirt with an American flag on it.  No one needs to wear an American flag shirt, come to think of it.  That brings me to the last item on the list:

6. We’re overly patriotic

This is a matter of opinion, because a lot of people will tell you that we have a right to think our country is the greatest in the world, etc. etc. etc. We have a really great history, and they ingrain that shit into your head for the first 10 years of school. I can’t remember learning anything in history class until I was in …possibly high school that involved anything other than the American Revolution, and maybe something about the Civil War.  We are taught more about the revolutionary war than I think anything else as children. People know about the founding fathers, etc., even when they don’t know who the current VP is.  And it is a great story. It’s a really noble story.  But! We have a habit, starting with the revolutionary war, of white-washing over all the facts.  We have deified those men so much that even nearly 250 years later, we’re still doing it.  A book called ‘The Jefferson Lies‘ was published by Glenn Beck’s favorite historian that was pulled by the publisher (I know, right, what a loss to the world)  because it was full of untrue rubbish.  The point of the book was to show that Jefferson was a devout orthodox Christian.  This about the president who made his own bible which contained no references to Jesus being a supernatural being with any sort of powers–he was just a man in Jefferson’s rendition, and the tales of the New Testament change from God myths to morality tales.  I would like to know how David Barton, the author, addressed the whole slavery issue in this book, but my guess is he ignored it.  Anyway, I digress.  We glaze over the unpalatable parts of our own history and embrace the myth and the idea of America.  And we embrace it on our clothing.  I have no arguments for this; I don’t understand it.  Obviously, I am not this way, or this would be a blog about how great American culture is.  The only thing I can say is that we aren’t all like this.  I swear, we aren’t.

So, after this incredibly long look at stereotypes of Americans, the sad thing I must conclude is that a lot of them are true.  But, like any stereotype, they are only true of some part of the population, and adherence to them can vary wildly from place to place. America is a huge country, especially compared to the UK, and you won’t find the same people in Portland that you find in Atlanta, for example, same as you won’t find the same people in London that you find in Belfast. The moral of the story is that there are idiots everywhere, and there are smart, thoughtful people everywhere.

I embrace and welcome any arguments people want to make, or if anyone has stereotypes to add to my list, let me know.

Book Review(s) – Enola Holmes Series Books 4-6

I really enjoyed reading the first three books in this series.  Yes, they’re for kids, and not exactly the most challenging reading. But what they are is well-written, engaging, quick, and fun to read. I had high hopes for the remaining three books of the series.

Unfortunately, these last books didn’t quite meet my expectations. They followed the same pattern as the first three books, which started to wear on me for a while.  The first book deals with a young woman being forced to marry against her will, the second deals with a kidnapping, the third with another missing person.  I’m sure there were a great deal of mysteries in 1880s England, but these books all seem to focus on a missing person. I suppose having your 14-year-old protagonist in a book for kids investigate murders is a little untenable. Still, it’s always a missing person, in some form or another.  And the answer almost always seems to involve breaking or sending messages in code.

I like the Victorian era setting, and love all the period details and historical facts thrown in. I even enjoy the fact that the books are set in the world of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, who Enola spends the first four books outsmarting and avoiding, and the fifth and sixth books attempting to forge bonds with.  It all gets wrapped up a little too neatly and easily in the final book.  This is a problem with reading material for children, and I’m not sure it should be.  It’s a thin line for adult fiction to walk — a concise and neat ending is unbelievable to anyone with real experience in life, whereas a non-concise ending that leaves all the ends loose is about the most annoying thing in the world.  Children find it easier to believe in the happy ending, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean we should always give it to them.  Not that the end of this series was all sunshine and daisies, but it was neat and clean and hopeful in a way that I wasn’t sure the characters had earned. Not for the books to be considered realistic, anyway.  But, they’re for kids.  I am looking at them with my adult eye, but that’s not what they were made for.

I’m glad I read them, but I was unsatisfied by the end.  Also, can we marvel at how great the covers for these books are? I love the design.  I found some other covers, which I think might have been the UK covers. They are much less cool, and feature a rather ugly pug-nosed girl reminiscent of Pansy Parkinson. She also looks more like 12 than 14, especially considering the fact that Enola passes for an adult for the majority of the books.

These books aren’t life-changing, or instant classics. But they do feature a strong, smart female heroine who is continuously underestimated by her male-dominated acquaintances. If that’s not a good example for girls, I don’t know what is. They are also quick, clever, and entertaining. If you have a little girl, buy them for her.

The Yard by Alex Grecian

I bought this book based entirely on the fact that it was clearly set in the 19th century, in London. What more do I need in a book?

I have since discovered that the author is from the Midwest, and has never been to London.  Sigh.  Listen, I’m writing a historical fiction set in a similar time period in a similar place, so I’m not going to disparage the guy for his choice of setting. But he could have gone on a research trip, yes? I mean it’s not like you can step back in time and see the London you’re writing about, but you can see a lot of the same buildings. And there’s a feeling of the UK that you sort of have to see and sense, rather than read about or imagine.  Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway! I will start this review by humiliating myself and admitting that I didn’t get for the first 10 pages or so that this was about Scotland Yard. I knew it was a detective story, but for some reason I didn’t put the two together until it was explicitly stated in the text.  I was thinking the eponymous Yard was a prison or a particular place.  I don’t know why I thought that.  Oh well.  The plot of the book is your sort of classic detective story. It centers around 4 or 5 characters, all of whom work for the Yard, on the newly formed Murder Squad.  In response to the Jack the Ripper killings, the Metropolitan Police formed what was probably the first homicide department in the world.  This book takes place only a few years after the Ripper disappeared, in a London still very much preoccupied with his presence and what his existence might mean about the future of the (then) largest city in the world.  Much is made of the diminished public opinion of the police force, of their constantly being overworked and lacking necessary resources. We focus on Inspector Walter Day, new to the Yard from the country, as well as Dr. Kingsley, a self-appointed city medical examiner and forensics expert.  Since Kingsley was based on a true character, I won’t bring up any Sherlock Holmes similarities.  There’s also descent, hardworking Constable Hammersmith, raised in Collier, Wales to a mining family and escaping to the city to spend his life above ground. Look, the characters aren’t subtle.  Nothing in particular about the book is subtle.

The action opens when one of the Investigators of the Murder Squad is found murdered, his eyes and mouth sewn shut with thread, and stuffed inside a steamer trunk.  By the end of the action, there is one more officer dead, a small boy killed, a series of men shaved and then slit at the throat (or possibly the other way round), and a very disturbing kidnapping. Narrative shifts between the characters of the detectives, and even to the killer. It’s never confusing, however, as I suspect making it very readable was a priority more than making it particularly deep or thought-provoking.  And it is incredibly readable. I finished it in about 4 days time, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute, despite the flaws.

This is a book that purports to take place in the 19th century, but it doesn’t really.  Well, it’s as if modern characters are transplanted there and made to speak in British colloquialisms.  None of them belong to their time, and it’s not very believable in that sense. They seem to have sprung up there, but they are not of the 19th century, if that makes sense. And even the British colloquialisms they speak are mostly anachronistic and some utterly ridiculous–someone, a police officer, actually says ‘What’s all this then?’, like a bad Simpsons parody.  It’s not a well-done historical fiction. It could never pass for something that would have come of the period.  But that doesn’t make it a bad book.

It’s a quick, engrossing read. It’s a lot of fun to read, even though the killer’s identity and reasons are given to us fairly early on.  There is a lot of action, and it’s sort of the equivalent of the last few episodes of the season on 24. The action is pretty nonstop, so much so that it all sort of congregates and overlaps into a truly ridiculously fortuitous climax that is frankly unbelievable.  The resolution wraps every character into a nice tidy little bow. This is, I think, the sort of book other people read most often. Not challenging, not difficult, but fun and easy. It’s not the sort of thing I usually read, and if it weren’t set in 19th century London, I’m certain I never would have read it.  That being said, I enjoyed it. It felt a bit like junk food. You know you’re not getting nutrients, but you are enjoying the taste. And that’s okay! Junk food is okay every once in a while.

Also, as a side note, I do not for one second believe that Alex Grecian is his real name.

Movie Review: Submarine

I watched this movie for the simple fact that Richard Ayoade, who I have loved since episode 2 of The IT Crowd, wrote and directed it.

It’s a far cry from the occasionally broad comedy of The IT Crowd, and I suspect more accurately reflects Ayoade’s quiet, artistic, erudite roots. He went to Cambridge, after all, and a podcast featuring him that I recently listened to proved he is very reserved, self-deprecating, but also incredibly intelligent and well-spoken (though he mumbles like crazy).  This film sort of reflects that personality. It is smart, it is odd, and I think in ways it would rather be noticed for being odd than being smart. It is sort of a British equivalent of a Wes Anderson film. Odd, endearing, but also in some ways too quirky to take seriously.

The story centers around Oliver Tate, a very strange teenage boy. The two quests he undertakes during the course of the movie are to get Jordana Bevan to love him, and to fix his parent’s marriage. The first quest is threatened by the fact that Jordana is far more popular than him, and she also has a mother sick with cancer. What ends up being the more difficult of the quests is the second. His father is obviously suffering from depression, and his mother ends up giving a hand job to her ex-boyfriend (an incredibly ridiculous mullet-clad martial artist-mystic) in a creepy van.  It’s a weird movie.  But I think that sort of reflects the weirdness and absolute nonsensical nature of adolescence. In the same way that Dali paintings and Alice in Wonderland irk me as an adult, I think they reflect something surrealist and strange about the world before we truly grasp how it works. Some things will always mystify me (mass violence, Yanni fans, people who like roast beef), but when I was younger, I couldn’t do a damn thing right. I remember that feeling, and I think watching Oliver Tate sort of reminds me how truly fucking weird we are as teenagers.  Our actions are truly bizarre because we haven’t really figured out how things work in the world yet. Which is incredibly difficult for the teenager, but also kind of wonderful because for those fleeting years of adolescence you have the capacity to comprehend the world, but also the true ability to be original. You haven’t internalized the rules, yet.

This movie was not a slam dunk, I have to say. It was original, it was interesting, it was visually quirky. But quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake, makes me crazy. It takes place in the ’80s, so I may give it a pass on my usual pet peeve of arty people using 8mm film to record their arty world–when in reality no one uses that stuff anymore.  But each character has a sort of representative color–Jordana wears red always; she has red stationary, a red backpack. Everything is red. It makes her more of a token woman more than a real one. I suppose this reflects Oliver’s ideas about what women should be, more than his capacity to see what they really are. He wants to be the best boyfriend in the world, because of some pre- concieved notion of what that is.  When she really needs him, he’s not there for her. Typical high school boyfriend, yes?

As much as the overly goofy, quirky, parts of the movie irked me slightly, I would take this movie any day of the week over a lot of other slick films about adolescence, like American Pie or Juno (another movie with more quirk than substance, imho). It is at least original, it does have some really nice scenes and some scenes that will make you say WTF?

Another bonus is seeing people like Dave Coaches and Gwen from Gavin and Stacey thrown into the mix. The movie takes place in Wales, so that explains their involvement. Sadly, no one asked ‘what’s occurrin’ for the entire film. Apparently, a lot of the Gavin and Stacey dialect is indigenous only to Barry Island, and looked down upon by other Welsh people. Sad! I think it’s cute. But I digress.

It’s definitely worth watching if you like Wes Anderson stuff, like The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore. If you’re more annoyed than me by quirkiness, I’d steer clear. Then again, if you don’t like quirkiness, you might not be drawn to Richard Ayoade’s work in any form.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace

I picked up this book on a whim at the Barnes & Noble, based solely on the fact that Victorian was in the title. Or, subtitle.

Since I didn’t know what to expect, it took some time before I was able to comprehend what the book really was.  It’s not fiction, it’s not non-fiction, strictly speaking. I think it’s something akin to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, or others of that oeuvre.  It’s a nonfiction novel. Summerscale takes historical accounts from all over, in many forms, and distills and curates them into something resembling a story. She takes diary entries, letters, court records from anyone even remotely connected with the persons concerned –even Charles Darwin makes a few appearances. The form is like many an English paper, with quotes from original sources interspersed throughout.  It takes some getting used to.

The story is interesting, and not as melodramatic as the title leads you to believe. The eponymous Mrs. Robinson keeps a diary for the majority of her adult life, as was incredibly common in the mid- to late Victorian era. When her husband finds and reads it, he sees what seems to be an accounting of at least one extramarital affair. He first gets a legal separation, much easier than a formal divorce at the time.  Then, the law gets changed to make getting a divorce more affordable for the every man. Prior to 1857, you had to get an individual act of Parliament passed to declare you divorced.  Imagine getting the entire Congress to agree to allow you to divorce your husband/wife.  The events of this book intersect the 1857 law that changed all that. So Henry Robinson sues his wife and her supposed lover for divorce–you had to prove adultery to divorce your wife, so you had to name the man she’d slept with. For women, FYI, you had to prove adultery AND cruelty. An adulterous wife was, of course, far more dangerous to the society built on the absolute law of primogeniture inheritance of wealth and property. I digress. Henry sues his wife and her lover, a Dr. Edward Lane. The diary is entered into evidence and parts of it are copied and published in the newspapers. The judges in the divorce court read the entire diary, even parts that aren’t admissible in the general suit.  This most private diary, in a society that prized privacy and despised sentimentality, was now in the public domain. The rest of the story revolves around the court case and the outcome of it. A good portion of the court case follows this argument: “No sane woman would write down and leave accessible a confession to her crimes; she must be insane.”  Alternately, the defense argues that she makes the whole thing up in an elaborate written fantasy akin to a self-published Twilight fanfiction novel. People argue that none of it really happened.

The book is a really interesting idea, but it’s not my favorite format, I have to be honest.  Because it was a retelling using historical details and quotes, it doesn’t really contain any emotion. It’s an analysis of how this woman’s life, her diary, and her emotions affected and were affected by the world around her and the changing Victorian era. It reads like an analysis, not like a story. It’s peppered with a lot of detail that is interesting, but not germane to the story at hand. The fact that Charles Darwin knew Mrs. Robinson and Dr. Edward Lane does not mean that his diary entries are particularly relevant.  The book reads like a dissertation written for a popular audience, but with an academic mindset. I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what I look for in a book. It lacked emotion, it didn’t even focus much on Mrs. Robinson.

Of course, it’s difficult when you’re working with the past and with historical accounts.  On the other hand, I recently read a book, Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee, that recreated the period when TJ was a diplomat in France and he invested himself in learning about and bringing back French cooking to the US. That book used historical events and quotes, but it was far more engaging, and treated the characters as real people, not as historical and un-relatable beings. And it was a much better book for it.  So it can be done. But this book doesn’t do it.

At the end of the book, I felt I had learned some facts, but I didn’t feel I had learned anything about life. And when I read something, that’s what I’m really looking for.  So it was a disappointment for me, but I can see how someone else who likes the period, who enjoys non-fiction more than I do, would find it interesting.