Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Expand the Menu

We currently have the trifecta of three-quels playing at our local movie theater: “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” This isn’t a particularly astounding feat—I’m sure it’s occurring, as I type, at multiplexes all across the country. Except that my local movie theater is not exactly a multiplex and is best characterized as shabby on a good day and rundown and populated by homeless people on a bad one. It’s the cinema that stadium seating forgot.

Which, of course, is why I love it. That and the fact that at least one of its four screens is usually devoted to “art house” fare. And by “art house” I mean that it shows movies that weren’t solely conceived, written, directed, cast and marketed to appeal to 17-year-old boys. By “art house” I mean that I expected “Waitress” to be playing there. Instead, I got an ogre, a pirate and a spider. Oh my!

“Waitress,” if you haven’t heard, is sort of this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” a black-ish comedy with a dollop of heartfelt emotion on the side. If you thought a dead grandpa being carted around in the back of a VW bus was entertaining, well you’ll just love this story about a pregnant waitress/pie-making genius who’s having an affair with her gynecologist. (I’m simplifying, but not much.)

I did manage to catch a showing at a theater downtown (so tack $3.50 in CTA train fares onto the already exorbitant $9 ticket price). And I can testify that “Waitress” is as charming as advertised and reviewed—well-written, well-acted, a little on the quirky side but in a good way. Naturally, it being a movie, the plot had its completely implausible moments. Which, of course, is why I loved it.

It reminded me of the movie “Big Night,” another film in which food featured prominently. This time, instead of hankering for anything resembling Italian cooking, I had a taste for pie. I didn’t get any, because pie diners, in my experience, only exist in the movies. But I did bake some chocolate chip cookies.

And it also reminded me of the movie “In America,” in that the theater was nearly sold out. (We wound up sitting in the third row, which, for future reference, kind of induces vertigo.) I usually take this to mean we have a huge hit on our hands. Except that, as “In America” taught me, we actually don’t.

According to Entertainment Weekly, for the weekend of May 18-20, “Waitress” had a higher per-site box office average—at $9,319—than any other movie except “Shrek the Third.” The catch: The movie’s total haul was $1.1 million, about 100 times less than that of the green giant. “Shrek” played at more than 4,000 sites, “Waitress” at a paltry 116. For comparison, something called “Delta Farce” was taking up nearly 2,000 screens.

So while I’d love to tell you to go see “Waitress,” I’m guessing that unless you live in one of a handful of major metropolitan areas, you’re going to have to wait for the DVD.

In that same issue of Entertainment Weekly, columnist Mark Harris takes a pointed stab at the people who decide what movies get made and who gets to see them:

“The sentence ‘We’re just giving the people what they want,’ when uttered by a studio executive, is always, always untrue,” Harris writes. “There’s no such thing as ‘the people.’ Not anymore.”

His point, and mine, is that not everyone has the same taste. While plenty of people want to see “Shrek,” plenty of others—witness the $9,000 per site average—also want to see “Waitress.” Shouldn’t the latter group have a fighting chance?

That’s why I’m so disappointed in my skanky local theater, which usually does a much better job of pleasing its various audiences. (I know, they’re in business to make money, but on May 20, they would have made more cash off “Waitress” than “Spidey.”) Fine, give some of the people “Shrek,” but give the rest of us a few expanded menu options.

Like a serving of “Waitress,” preferably with a slice of pie on the side.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Forgetting to Remember

In Chicago, Memorial Day smells like lighter fluid and charcoal. It sounds like squealing children splashing in the Crown Fountain. It feels like the weather gods’ grand apology for February.

It is not a time we like to think about dead people. But that’s how I spent part of my day.

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, staged an anti-war exhibit in Grant Park yesterday. Pairs of combat boots were laid out, row after row, like so many leather headstones, one for each serviceman and woman killed in Iraq. More than 3,400 pairs of boots. In the center stood a memorial to Iraqi civilian casualties—piles of sandals and loafers, ballerina flats and high heels, and tiny shoes for toddlers. The concept was so simple, the effect was so powerful.

I went because I thought I should. I went because in the past week I have spent more time mourning the loss of Charlie on “Lost” than members of the American armed forces.

I didn’t know the people who wore these boots, but I cried for them anyway. I didn’t know any of the Iraqi civilians killed, either, but I cried for them too.

I walked among the boots, organized by state, and it reminded me of Gettysburg. All those tributes in stone to the fighting men of New York and Ohio and Illinois and Pennsylvania, and I couldn’t help but notice that in the current conflict, Kentucky appears to be shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden.

I walked among the boots and I read the tags attached to each pair—name, rank, age. I saw a lot of privates, but also a lot of sergeants and even a lieutenant colonel. And I debated which was sadder—the fallen 19-year-old, a life snuffed out before it really even started, or the fallen 55-year-old who likely left behind children and a spouse. And I decided both were equally rotten outcomes.

I walked among the boots and I was stopped by Rachel and Emily and Regina and Analaura. And I remembered that there was a time when politicians refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. True equality, they threatened, would mean women in combat, and once Americans started seeing women coming home in body bags, we would lose our resolve to wage war. Clearly our stomachs are made of sturdier stuff than they thought.

I walked among the boots and I wondered what 200,000 would look like—and I can scarcely imagine the tragedy of WWII or Darfur. I thought about war and wondered who came up with the concept, and why it continues to be an acceptable solution to conflict. And as much as I like to think that people are inherently good, the boots tell me otherwise.

It was a depressing experience. I guess that explains why I didn’t have much company—I counted maybe 50-100 fellow visitors to this temporary cemetery, fewer than you’d find lined up outside Garrett’s Popcorn on the city’s Magnificent Mile.

Because as much as Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering, there are some things we would really rather forget.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

So Long, Stars Hollow

I love television.

I know that I’m not supposed to. I know that people of my education level, political leanings and literary pretensions are supposed to listen to NPR, read the Sunday New York Times and, if they watch the idiot box at all, tune in solely to Charlie Rose. It’s all high-brow, all the time.

Me, I’m proud to say that I fell for “Dancing with the Stars” in its very first Kelly Monaco vs. John O’Hurley incarnation. I purposely don’t subscribe to cable because if my options were expanded beyond the over-the-air broadcast universe, I’m afraid I would literally never turn off the Food Network.

Which is why today I woke with a heavy heart. Last night I bid farewell to “Gilmore Girls,” a highlight in my dwindling line-up of must-see TV.

Clearly, given the ratings, 99% of Americans will not be familiar with “Gilmore Girls,” mostly because it had the misfortune of airing on the CW (nee, WB), which despite its claims is not really a network. Their loss.

It’s impossible to define the show’s charm—different people loved it for different reasons. Some fell for the small town setting and the quirky cast of Stars Hollow townsfolk. Or the will-they, won’t-they romance of Luke and Lorelai. Or the fast-paced dialogue riddled with semi-obscure pop culture references. I liked that the entire show revolved around a couple of women—not in a “Sex and the City” let’s-strap-on-our-Manolo-Blahniks-and-throw-back-a-couple-of-Cosmos kind of way (which was awesome in its own right)—but a close-knit mother and daughter. I liked that it gave actresses well beyond their teen queen years the meatiest roles of their careers. I liked that it had a whiff of magical realism, creating an alternate universe that twinkled like Christmas lights, at a time when every other one-hour drama seems intent on giving us nightmares.

And now “GG” has been canceled. I hate it when that happens. When we were little, my sister, brother and I petitioned the network to spare “Planet of the Apes.” We wrote an actual letter—in pencil, on lined notebook paper—and expected our heartfelt plea would change the course of simian events. It did not. Today’s “save our show” campaigns, what with the Internet and email, are far more sophisticated, but the results are typically the same. Once the ax has been set in motion, with rare exception it continues to fall.

To network executives, canceling a show equates to cutting a loss—it’s all about ratings and ad dollars and profit margins. But to viewers, it’s like losing a member of the family. Actually, I would say it’s more like quitting a job. You go to work every day and spend more time with co-workers than with a spouse or children or your very best friend. You form relationships, you share trials and triumphs. And then one day you leave, and by and large, you never see these people again. And it’s not exactly devastating—life goes on, you meet new co-workers—but it’s kind of sad. And sometimes you miss your old pals.

That’s how I feel about “Gilmore Girls.” And “thirtysomething.” And “China Beach.” And “Once and Again.” And “Homefront.” And “Northern Exposure.” And “Everwood.” And all the other shows I’ve become attached to over the years. Sad to lose these friends.

I know that some of these actors will pop up in other series, maybe even the occasional feature film. And I’ll be happy to see them, but it won’t be the same. I don’t want “Sookie” show up with the shocking disease of the week on “Grey’s Anatomy.” I don’t want “Emily Gilmore” to turn up as a society matron on any of the 31 varieties of “Law & Order.” I want to know if Lane and Zach get their band back together. I want to know what happens the first time Paris tries to run an IV line. I want to know if Luke and Lorelai live happily ever after. I want “Gilmore Girls.”

Scratch what I said earlier. I don’t love television. I love good television (and I would argue that “Dancing with the Stars” is good television). I love a good story; I love memorable characters. When done right, the very best that television has to offer ranks right up there with the very best a novel has to offer. Don’t kid yourself, quality literary fiction is as hard to come by as a quality sitcom.

My all-time favorite books—and yes I do read books and subscribe to The New Yorker and watch “Masterpiece Theater”—are the ones I want to go on and on. The ones that, as the final page approaches, I begin to read more and more slowly. I don’t want to say goodbye to people I’ve come to love.

It’s the same with my all-time favorite television shows, only I’ve spent years with these characters, not weeks or months. And then they just disappear, in the case of “Gilmore Girls,” not even given the dignity of a super-sized two-hour series finale. I wasn’t ready for the story to end.

Friday, May 11, 2007

How Much Do I Love You?

As gas continues to inch toward 4 bucks a gallon for no apparent reason, another far more insidious price hike has all but flown under the radar. I refer, of course, to the skyrocketing cost of greeting cards.

It used to be that these pre-fab sentiments maxed out at $1.99—and that was for a super-sized frilly one with lots of glitter. Gag cards were even cheaper. (As the Academy Awards have taught us, comedy is never valued as highly as drama). Then I blinked and suddenly those little numbers next to the bar code had shot up to $2.99, $3.99 and, holy sticker shock, $5.99.

I don’t get it. What with email and e-cards, you’d think Hallmark and its partners in schmaltz would be lowering prices to win back customers who’ve abandoned them for the Web. But, similar to the Post Office, which just continues to raise and raise the price of stamps, card manufacturers seem intent on speeding their own demise.

Much like their oil producing brethren, members of the greeting card cartel think they have us over the proverbial barrel. It’s a given that your car won’t operate without gas. The card companies are equally certain that you wouldn’t dare send a Valentine’s greeting via the Internet. Or, perish the thought, not send one to your sweetie at all.

I don’t know that it ranks up there with getting people to buy bottled water, but the whole notion of the greeting card is a genius bit of marketing. Entire holidays have been created in its service and we never stop to question why. Because we’d rather put up with Secretary’s Day than pen a rhyming couplet of our own to perfectly encapsulate the relationship we have with our brother-in-law on his birthday.

Mother’s Day, to mix a metaphor, is the granddaddy of the greeting card industry. If you’ve perused a rack of this particular product in the past day or two, you know what I’m talking about. The cards are big enough to justify their own ZIP code, because the bigger the card, clearly the greater the love—or the greater the guilt. Or they’re festooned with such a multiplicity of gew gaws that I’m fairly certain Hallmark’s assembly line has been overrun by a cabal of scrapbookers.

The more crap they affix to the card, the more they can charge. And clearly, no one’s balking. Come Sunday afternoon, the racks will have been picked clean--$5.99 a seemingly small price to pay for honoring either: the woman who nurtured you and made you into the outstanding human being that you are, or, the woman who, for $5.99 you can avoid talking to on the telephone or visiting in person for another year.

I am this/close to calling the card companies’ bluff. As I picked out my own Mother’s Day card, flipping each sample over, not particularly subtly, to assess the damage, I came across the $5.99-er , which recommended a padded envelope for mailing. Factor in tax, special envelope and, in all likelihood, additional postage, and I’d be out close to $10. For a card. And this thought actually flitted across my mind: “Sorry Mom, I don’t love you that much.”

Well, I mean, I do. But someone has to draw a line in the sand. Note to Hallmark: Mine, it appears, is $4.99.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Long Live the Queen

The Bush White House is hosting the first white tie dinner of its administration tonight in honor of Queen Elizabeth. One hundred thirty-four guests will dine with Her Majesty and Prince Phillip. Among them, Elisabeth Hasselback of “The View.”

This, oh ye Keeper of the White House Guest List, is the best America can do? I mean, I know Republican celebrities are in short supply. But. Elisabeth Hasselback?

The woman shot to fame on the reality show “Survivor,” and not even as winner but as the “contestant who lost so much weight her hair started falling out.” She went on to score a coveted co-hosting gig on “The View,” where during Star Jones’ diva era, the Hasselback uttered not a word. She’s supposed to represent for the twenty- and thirty-something demographics, but what with her conservative leanings on just about every issue, she sounds more like my grandmother than Barbara Walters.

And now she gets to meet and eat with the Queen. I know it’s a little last-minute, but let me suggest an alternate guest: Me. Why? Because I was toting around a copy of Robert Lacey’s “Majesty” before the Hasselback could even read.

I am quite certain that I was meant to be British or at least a plucky heroine in a Jane Austen novel. My sophomore year in high school, I handed in a report on the history of the Tudor monarchs. To which my teacher replied, “Are you actually interested in this stuff?”

Yes I was. Yes I am.

I find royalty fascinating. Not the least because even with all that money, they still can’t seem to afford trendy eyeglasses or a really good haircut and blow dry. And by royalty, I mostly mean the British Royal Family, though I do pay passing attention to lesser European houses, especially if a wedding is involved. Like when the Crown Prince of Denmark married a commoner from Australia, a woman named Mary who he met in a bar. Riveting stuff.

A lot of people think royals are utterly superfluous. That the whole business of monarchs ought to be done away with completely, though granted not in an off-with-their-heads kind of way.

Personally I rather enjoy the pomp and pageantry. The horse-drawn carriages and the crown jewels. The palaces and the castles. The world has become so profoundly prosaic, so utterly devoid of magic. We’re fed a steady diet of war and Anna Nicole Smith, what’s wrong with wanting a little fairytale?

Yes, there’s something inherently distasteful about undeserving people being born into obscene wealth and power. Don’t kid yourselves, it happens in America every day. That’s why Disney invented “Cinderella.” At least we lower-class gals can entertain the prospect of marrying into obscene wealth and power (apparently as long as we frequent the right pubs). My own Prince Charming of choice would have been Edward, Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son. I pictured him visiting Chicago, incognito of course, where he would single me out on the sidewalk, as people are wont to do, and ask for directions to the Tube. And because I’ve read nothing but British novels and watched nothing but British films for the past 15 years (personal motto: If it’s not British, it’s crap.), I would laugh and point him to the subway. Actually, I would say, “I’m headed that way. Follow me.” On the train, I would dazzle him with my knowledge of the Tudors and…next stop, Buckingham Palace where we’d live Happily Ever After.

Eventually I got tired of hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Edward, who wound up marrying a woman who didn’t even want the title of Princess, which, next to the tiaras, is pretty much the only reason to marry a prince in the first place. In the meantime, Charles and Diana ruined happily ever after for an entire generation of daydreamers. Suddenly royals were “just like us.” They went through messy divorces. Their children misbehaved in public. Their houses caught fire.

To which I can only say, royals are not just like us. If you’ve never had to pay the cashier at Walgreens, you are not like us. If you’ve never had popcorn for dinner because a peanut butter sandwich seemed like too much work, you are not like us. If you’ve never had to pump your own gas, well that would make you Oprah, who, again, is not just like us.

In the end, I guess that’s what I like about the royals, and especially old guard members like the Queen. She’s almost a completely different species, a sort of museum oddity, who, thanks to a random act of DNA and birth order, does not have to walk among the rest of us mortals.

Americans are raised on the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth. We’re not supposed to like the Queen because she, in effect, cut to the head of the line. Which is precisely what I love about her. I look around and I see successful people who have worked their way to the top and they make me feel lazy. I see high achievers and they make me feel undisciplined and unmotivated. I read The New Yorker and I’m jealous of each and every contributor, including the cartoonists. I see immigrants working two to three jobs struggling to make a better life for themselves and their children and I feel guilty for sitting on the couch and watching “Dancing with the Stars.” I see Elisabeth Hasselback and I feel…Rosie, please don’t leave me.

But the Queen. Well, nothing to aspire to there. Nothing to make me feel like I’ve led a life less worthy. Nothing to make me feel like I’m not talented enough or smart enough or ambitious enough. You’re either born to the job or you’re not. So despite the utter superiority of her fortune and position, Elizabeth II is actually that rare person who doesn’t make me feel inferior.

I’d love to thank her for this in person, or just pass through a receiving line, lock eyes and convey my appreciation telepathically. But my white tie invite seems to have been lost in the mail, along with the last two issues of Entertainment Weekly.

If the Queen wants to chat, she’ll know where to find me. Hanging out on the sidewalk, waiting to give her directions to the Tube.