Monthly Archives: April 2014

Doll & Em

HBO aired the full 6-episode season of this show in 3 weeks, which means it’s all over before you have a chance to decide if you truly like it.  It premiered in the UK on Sky Living in February

doll-and-em-first-season.21771This show has both women playing themselves, or versions of themselves.  I recognized Em (Emily Mortimer) right away, because she is on the Newsroom, and she’s excellent in it. She’s been in a lot of other things as wellas is Dolly Wells, but I didn’t recognize her at all.

I wonder about the people who make these pseudo-real life shows/movies, where they are playing a spoof of themselves. On the one hand, the audience gets to see the truth behind cameras and how things tend to work in Hollywood (a satire can reflect the truth pretty accurately).  And there has to be some cathartic value in playing a mean version of yourself, or getting to yell at your best friend in a fight for the cameras.  On the other hand, wouldn’t it screw with your head to portray yourself interacting with your best friend portraying herself.   Seems like lines would become really fuzzy, and a la Inception, you might start to lose track of whether you’re being yourself or portraying a version of yourself.  My head hurts if I think about it too much.

This particular show has Doll breaking up with her boyfriend and heading out to visit Em on location for a movie in L.A. To keep her busy and have her around, Em offers to pay Doll to be her personal assistant for the duration of the shoot. Always a good idea–working for your best friend in one of the most demeaning possible roles.  Look, I just don’t get personal assistants. I understand work assistants–you’re helping to accomplish something. Personal assistants are just…helping someone control their own life? I get that certain people, actors, world leaders, etc., don’t have a lot of time. But I don’t think I’d ever be so busy that I’d make someone go out and get coffee for me or pick up my dry cleaning.  She makes Doll drive her too and from work every day.  Why?! What is she doing that she can’t drive? I just don’t get it. Being a personal assistant is predicated on the idea that your boss’s life is more important than yours. Unless you’re personal assistant to a world leader, I don’t buy it. So maybe that’s why this show sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth. Em was a bit spoiled and unsympathetic. Doll wasn’t perfect either.

The final blowout between them, predictable from the 1st episode, is depressing. I will say, though, that the final episode reeled me in again. Most of the show saw the two women competing against each other–for male attention, for professional success, for sympathy about their dead fathers. Women do this, no denying that, but it’s not particularly fun to watch. Most of the show is about this competition and the petty jealousy that springs up between them.  Until the last few minutes of the last episode. Seeing them communicate genuinely and support each other at the end made me much happier than all of the other episodes combined.

The show also boasts some impressive celebrity guests playing themselves – Susan Sarandon, Ben Chaplin (hopefully not as big of an asshole in real life as he was during he scene in this show), John Cusack. There was also a bonus cameo at the very end from Noel Fielding, which (despite lack of goth makeup) I recognized immediately as Richmond, from The IT Crowd.

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A Room with a View

I have loved Italy since I was about 13.  A friend of my grandmother had just come back from Florence. I remember she had bought this immensely large map, and the back of the map was an image of the incredible rooftops and the gorgeous Duomo. Something like this:

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I thought to myself (despite the fact that no one from my family had ever gone abroad, excepting military service), that I needed to go to Florence one day.  My life’s new mission! As is usually my luck, my high school did not teach Italian.  I had to take Spanish instead.  But I took Italian at university, and finally visited Italy in April 2009. A place that had (like England) become synonymous, to me, with personal success, cultural awareness, and being some semblance of a complete person.  I am including these details because they closely resemble the way society viewed similar trips in the 19th and early 20th century.  The ‘Grand Tour‘, as it was known, was generally a trip through France and Italy, taken by wealthy young men, or by wealthy couples on their honeymoon. Occasionally there were forays into other ‘refined’ European societies such as Switzerland, Belgium, maybe a wander through Austria on the way back.  But Florence was the destination for the Grand Tour.  Because it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, which dictated art, literature, scholarship, for centuries to come.  One’s Oxbridge education wasn’t complete until one had taken the Grand Tour. Only then could you understand true art and music–a gentle reminder that (lacking even a basic ipod shuffle or smartphone) these wealthy young men & women would only ever get this one chance to see certain art, or hear certain music that wasn’t on exhibit in Britain.

So that brings us to the book.

Room with a View

A Room with a View is E.M. Forster’s account of the Grand Tour of Lucy Honeychurch, a teenage girl.  It is 1908, and less uncommon at that time for a woman to go on the tour before marriage. She is accompanied by her matronly cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett.  She is meant to follow her Baedecker guidebook, see proper museums and listen to lectures about the masters.  She is there to hear the opinions that she will parrot back for the rest of her life. That’s how the tour goes. You see the art, you listen to someone tell you what to think about it, and then you’re in the know. People back in the UK will be able to tell that you’re of proper stock if you know the right answers. Like a password.

It doesn’t work out that way for Lucy Honeychurch.  She meets several people at the ‘pensione’ (inn) where she and Charlotte stay, and they challenge her in different ways.  Though promised a view of the Duomo and the Arno, Charlotte and Lucy are given rooms with no view.  Two gentleman, father and son, offer to switch rooms.  Charlotte declines, thoroughly scandalized by the suggestion from two strangers.  If you’re reading this 100 years later, that seems ludicrous. If they want to switch, and it will make everyone happier, why on earth wouldn’t they switch? That’s precisely what the father, Mr. Emerson, says. Rather than look at things from the perspective of stifling, repressive social conventions, he looks at the thing logically. But Charlotte, who represents those social conventions completely, thinks it inappropriate because then the two ladies would have some obligation to the two men.  That’s the sort of ludicrous rule that governed society for most of the 19th and the start of the 20th century–in high society at any rate.

The Emersons and the two ladies continue to be thrown together, and Lucy is thrust into several situations where she is forced to examine the de facto logic of life that she has learned from society, and is forced to look at the reality of life. She sees a man stabbed in the street. She is kissed in a field of violets. Charlotte, sensing something inappropriate developing, hastens her out of Florence and off to finish her tour. A girl was meant to learn painting and art from the Italians, but not their violence or their passion.

Later on, back in England, Lucy is engaged to the biggest fop that ever fopped. His name is Cecil, I mean really.  He believes and engages in the social conventions of the age. He follows propriety perfectly, and is scandalized by those who don’t.  He is pretty much intolerable.  Lucy, meanwhile, finds the people she met in Florence are continuing to interfere in her life. The Emersons end up in the same town, and Lucy is confronted with George Emerson repeatedly, though she wishes she might be free of him.

A Room with a View is really about all of society breaking free from the crushing constraints of Victorian society, but it is so perfectly wrapped up in the story of this one girl choosing a-to examine the world, b-to make up her own mind, and c-to choose what she likes regardless of social conventions.  Forster manages to make all of his characters simultaneously slightly ludicrous and very likeable. Their foibles are on display, but they are also treated with affection in the text.  I was reminded of Austen, and the way she treats characters like Mr. Bennett. I really enjoyed the book as entertainment, but it was also thought-provoking. Don’t we engage in the same struggles now? We (especially women) have to decide if we’re going to pretend really hard to be someone we’re not.  Am I going to spend an hour drying and curling my hair today? Am I going to get laser treatments to remove all the hair on my body? Am I going to whiten my teeth or get my tummy tucked? And am I going to pretend it’s all natural, and say I just drink a lot of water and love eating Kale? We can devote a lot of energy to that facade. It’s a harder choice to go the other way. To spend time on being worthwhile, whether that means being a caregiver, a scholar, a writer, a musician…whatever. The world rewards you more and more quickly for the superficial. It takes strength and a bit of ego to proceed to work on our depth. In that way, life hasn’t much changed. There are still people out there that say ‘don’t marry X, he doesn’t have a college degree’. There are still people who think the best women can do is marry before everything starts to sag, and the best men can do is make enough money so that you can get a young wife. It’s harder to walk away from all of those social conventions and live a life that’s genuine, and do what you actually think is important. Different century, different rules, same struggle.

Another great thing about this book is the movie! It came out in 1985 (nearly 30 years ago!) and has an amazing cast.  Helena Bonham Carter, looking ludicrously young, plays Lucy:

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Also rather young in these pictures, though not exactly in their teens…Maggie Smith and Judy Dench as Charlotte Bartlett and Miss Lavish. I forgot to mention Miss Lavish above. She’s not in much of the book, but her character is really important. She’s a radical, a woman intellectual, a writer.  But!  Despite these things, she is still as insipid and disingenuous as those who follow blindly in the wake of propriety. She does have courage, but she doesn’t demonstrate any kind of value or wisdom as a person. It’s a big distinction Forster is making between those who complain about the world to seem intelligent, and those who act according to their morality, regardless of how they may be perceived.

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And Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse, foppiest fop that ever fopped. Since he’s a method actor, I assume he acted like an intolerable ass for the entirety of filming.

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The Edwardian era was not kind to men or women in terms of fashion. How much starch did they put into those weird paper collars? Yikes. No wonder they were so ready to go for the roaring ’20s.

I think I’ve had enough of the Edwardian era for a bit.  Back to the indecent, thoroughly scandalous middle ages with me! But I do recommend the book and the movie!

 

Moone Boy, series 2

After what seems like ages, the second season (series) of Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy finally aired in Feb/March.

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I was so excited for this premiere, because I think Moone Boy might be one of the most brilliantly funny shows in years. And the subject matter–an 11-year-old boy growing up in the North of Ireland–is not something we get a lot of on this side of the pond, so it’s all new and exciting to us.  Well, Boyle isn’t an exciting town, but the accents are lovely…

Technically, this isn’t available yet in the US. But it’s coming back to Hulu on April 24th. If you haven’t seen the 1st season yet, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s only ~6 episodes, so you have plenty of time to catch up before series 2! My bf and I watched the entire 1st season in one day, while we were at home with our sick dog.  And then we watched the entire season again, about 3 days later.  It’s that good.

The show, as I discussed in my series 1 review, is about the Moone family. In particular, it follows young Martin Moone, and his imaginary friend, Sean Caution Murphy (O’Dowd).

Moone-Boy-2But it also spends time on the rest of the Moone clan. Martin’s parents, Liam and Debra are sarcastic and adorable. Martin’s 3 sisters, Trish, Fidelma, and Sinead, each have their own strong characters, even though they aren’t given as much screen time. Trish is a Cure-obsessed misanthrope. Sinead is a tomboy and enjoys putting makeup on Martin while he’s asleep, in the hopes that he will wear it to school the next day accidentally (it works at least once). Fidelma, or Delma, is newly-pregnant with the child of an idiotic young choir-leader at their Catholic church. So that’s fun.

The real stars of the show, though, are Martin, Sean, Martin’s best friend Padraic (pronounced Poor-rick), and Padraic’s imaginary friend, Crunchie Danger Haystacks. A particular highlight for me in series 2 was Padraic and Crunchie dressed up as Marty & Doc Brown from Back to the Future:

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I love Back to the Future. Fun moments like that make me wish I’d had an imaginary friend as a child. I feel like I may have missed out on something.  Series 2 brought the show into the ’90s, with a slightly taller Martin who attends a new school.  With the ’90s come some major cultural events in Irish popular history. The first episode of the series covers the (ultimately unsuccessful) Irish football team at the World Cup. One episode has Martin and Padraic build a raft to float into town.  Instead, it floats the other direction and they stumble upon an abandoned island, with just ‘Island Joe’, possible apparition, as its sole inhabitant. Travelers invade a field near the Moone house, and Martin gets his first girlfriend as a result. Liam re-ignites a rivalry with his old handball opponent, this time on the golf course:

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Ostensibly, they’re both playing for pride and maybe for Debra’s heart, but come on. Of course Liam wins her heart, because he is really wonderful and adorable and the bank manager is just kind of icky.

While I won’t say series 2 is as brilliant as series 1, it’s still funny, clever, and has the rare quality of making you feel a true affection for almost all the characters.  I mean, Desi is not a person I would enjoy being with in real life, but I warmed to him a bit. My crush on Liam continues to grow, and I just want to snuggle Martin and Padraic because they are adorable.  I am not a snuggler by nature, so that should say something. Again, I cannot recommend this show enough; if you haven’t seen it, see it! It’s a wonderful combination of different themes and tones, and has a rare quality of realistic nostalgia–capturing the boredom or idiocy of a family vacation or a flawed scheme among friends.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.