Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do Movies Need Movie Stars?

I'm not going to question, examine or otherwise dissect why I and millions of other people care about the Oscars. We just do.

Now that the nominations have been announced, the official horse race is on. If I were a betting man and not a female averse to gambling, I'd wager on Colin Firth as a lock for Best Actor and Natalie Portman for Best Actress, though I've yet to see "The Black Swan" because I'm not a fan of psycho-thrillers or birds. Up until last night, I would have been thrilled to see Christian Bale take home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.

And then I watched "Winter's Bone."

"Winter's Bone" is one of those small indie features, made on a shoestring budget, that grabs all kinds of critical attention and next to no box office. Seriously, who wants to go see a movie about the daughter who has to clean up the mess left by her sorry ass crystal meth addicted father. I'll take another ticket to "Toy Story" please.

Still, I didn't want to miss out on a potential Oscar contender, so I added "Winter's Bone" to our Netflix queue and it eventually percolated to the top of the heap. Turns out, the movie isn't so much depressing as outright compelling. We've grown accustomed to seeing the urban poor onscreen ("Precious," "Gone Baby Gone"), but not so much abject rural poverty, and it is an eye opener. The people who populate this film are menacing and hard, so it would follow that the actors cast in these roles are not your standard Hollywood type.

That's a good thing, and brings us back to Christian Bale. Bale is outstanding in "The Fighter," an emaciated bundle of twitchy energy. You can't take your eyes off him (why he's considered "supporting" and not "lead" is a question for the Academy). But at no point are you not aware of this being Christian Bale delivering an Oscar-worthy turn. At no point are you not cognizant of the way Christian Bale transformed himself for the part--losing weight, learning an accent, dressing like a downscale caricature of Vanilla Ice. I'm not saying I wasn't amazed by all of this, but I also felt like that reaction was the whole point--look at what Christian Bale can do. I've seen Bale in interviews and more glammed-up roles like "Batman." I know how articulate he is, I know how handsome he is, I know that he's a movie star--I know what a "stretch" it is for him to tackle the part of this low-class lowlife.

Contrast that with John Hawkes in "Winter's Bone." Like Bale's character, Hawkes' is a drug addict. Unlike Bale, Hawkes doesn't just make you nervous, he scares the crap out of you. From the moment his Teardrop appears on screen, you understand that violence is his language of choice; you do not, for one second, feel safe in his presence. Yet, by the end of the film, Teardrop, within the context of the culture depicted in the film, has become almost noble. This is so deftly handled by Hawkes, you don't fully appreciate what he's accomplished until his final scene.

Hawkes inhabits Teardrop in a way that Bale couldn't possibly inhabit his character largely because John Hawkes is a blank slate. We see Teardrop, not John Hawkes playing Teardrop or transforming himself into Teardrop. We see a guy with a grizzled beard, a slight frame, and a face that looks like its taken a beating or two, and we don't have to stop to think about whether Hawkes grew the beard for the part or whether those scars are his or an expert application of makeup. It doesn't enter our consciousness. We're never taken out of the story unfolding onscreen because John Hawkes, for now at least, is just an actor doing his job and not a movie star.

Think about any character Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks has ever played. If the name wasn't in the title--like Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button--would you know it? What about Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie? When you go home and talk about one of their movies, don't you always refer to "the Julie Roberts character" or the "Brad Pitt character"?

I don't mean to suggest that "movie stars" and "actors" are mutually exclusive. I just mean to say that we're always aware of movie stars being actors playing a part. In "The King's Speech," Colin Firth offers a stunning turn as a stammering king, but you never once look at the screen and think you're watching anyone other than Colin Firth portraying King George. In "Winter's Bone," you never once look at the screen and think you're watching anyone other than Teardrop.

I sat through the credits last night for Hawkes name alone. Turns out, I'd seen him before. He was in "The Perfect Storm," one of the crew who sets out with George Clooney (oops, I mean the character being played by George Clooney) and winds up fish food. I remembered Hawkes--he's the guy who's not John C. Reilly or Mark Wahlberg. I'd also seen him on "Lost," where he had the misfortune of playing the much-maligned "Lennon" in the much-reviled "temple" episodes during the much-debated final season. I would never have made the connection.

Now that I know who Hawkes is, the next time he turns up in a film, it's quite possible that I'll think, "That's John Hawkes playing so-and-so." His magical effect as an unknown (to me at least) will be slightly diminished.

We'll always have "Winter's Bone."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Realigning the Stars

Another birthday has come and gone. I like to use this time as an annual opportunity to take stock of my life, to look at where I've been and where I'm heading. This self examination rarely turns out well, particularly if I compare myself to others who share the same birthday as me, like Michelle Obama and Betty White. Let's see, first lady of the United States and comedic icon. And what do I have to show for myself? My major accomplishment in 2010 was finding a hat that didn't make me look like a total pinhead. Break out the accolades.

This year's reflection was even more traumatic than usual, considering a recent revelation that I might not be who I always thought I was.

I might not be a Capricorn.

Some astronomer in Minnesota broke the news last week that the Earth's orbit was blah, blah, blah and the constellations no longer line up with astrological signs.

I don't know about you, but I don't take astrology all that seriously, except when it comes to defining who I am as a human being. This is what it means to be a Capricorn: We set high goals, are ambitious and high achievers. We're committed, practical, grounded and disciplined. We plan ahead, you can count on us.

This is my tribe, these are my people. Sure, we may sound a little high strung and a tad dull, but we also make the rest of your lives a lot easier. You go on vacation, we've got the guidebook. You need something on Thursday, we get it to you on Tuesday. You say, "til death do us part," rest assured, we're not messing around with the mailman behind your back.

Now I'm supposed to be someone completely different?

I checked the dates associated with the new signs and crossed my fingers please, please, please, that I wouldn't wind up with the alleged 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which sounds like the wad of phlegm that collects in the back of your throat. Instead, I landed on Sagittarius.

Just like that, I'm no longer an introvert, I'm an extrovert. Apparently I also love to ride horses, which makes sense for half-man, half-horse centaurs. I'm an incurable optimist, always up for adventure.

In short, the anti-Patty.

How does one go from loathing crowds to loving them? From dependable to impetuous? From me to a complete alien?

Fortunately I didn't have to undergo a complete personality transplant. Astrologers immediately debunked the zodiac switcheroo as a load of hogwash. Phew. I can keep on being the same old inflexible perfectionist I've always been. I couldn't change even if I wanted to--my personality is written in the stars.

And yet.... I'd glimpsed the potential for something different as a Sagittarius. Setting aside their Pollyanna tendencies, they're not bad people. They also enjoy hiking and running. Hey, so do I. They seek knowledge and wisdom. Check. They enjoy travel and higher education (aka, travel of the mind). Check and check. I was starting to feel at home with these people too. They sounded kind of cool. They sounded like the kind of person I secretly want to be. Or maybe I already am?

I got to wondering, have I, all these years, been ignoring or tamping down aspects of my personality that didn't fit into my astrological box? What if, from day one, I'd been told that I saw the silver lining in things, that I lived in the moment, that I loved adventure? Would I see those traits in myself? Would I be that person?

In some alternate universe, I would totally go with the flow instead of trying to control each and every situation. I would act without thinking about consequences. I wouldn't care whether I made a success of my life or not. It was liberating to contemplate the possibilities of who I could be, if I didn't know who I already was.

I tried to explain all of this to my parents. "I would never in a million years put that much thought into this," my dad said. Funny, because he's a Taurus and we're totally supposed to be on the same page.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Need a Little Christmas

Last night, we polished off the last of the Christmas cookies. It was a lemon wreath, which my brother Matt said looked more like a bagel. Perhaps it was this very flaw in its design that allowed the wreath to survive so long. Where its sexier brothers and sisters bedazzled eaters with their chocolate coatings (cake balls), ginormous size (giant sugar cookies) or toffee toppings (millionaire shortbread), the misshapen wreaths slipped by under the radar, and lived to see another day. Until last night.

And just like that, the holidays were officially over.

I know, most people got on with their lives Jan. 2. They took down their trees. Put away the decorations. Completely denuded their households of anything remotely red and/or green. To which I can only ask, why the rush?

Because you know what comes after Christmas? Nothing. All the way to Memorial Day, it's one long slog of everyday living. You can try to make a case for Valentine's Day or President's Day, but these one-offs have none of the appeal of the holiday season. It's an entire month (or months, if you started celebrating back on Halloween) where we're encouraged to make our homes look cheerful, wear sparkly clothes, eat as much crappy/delicious food as we want and make merry with all our friends and loved ones. Why would we want to see that end?

Historians will tell you that December has nothing to do with the actual birth of Christ. We position the holiday where it is because right around that time of the year, we could all do with a little pick-me-up. When daylight savings ends, night falls in Chicago about an hour after the sun rises. Most days are relentlessly cold and gray. For awhile, amidst all the twinkling lights and shiny ribbon, you kind of don't notice. But once we've all been mandated to put the sparkle away, it's like stepping from technicolor into black and white.

I say we don't need less Christmas, we need more.

Why, for heaven's sake, do we all need to get in shape in January--suddenly every gym is full and salmon becomes our daily ration--when no one will see our flesh until June? What we really need is an extra layer of blubber to make it through February and, alas, March, or even beyond. You know, some years I've pulled out my winter coat in November, searched through the pocket hoping to find spare change or dollars, and come across a receipt or ticket stub from the previous May. That's right, I was wearing my winter coat in May.

It's still dark out when most people leave work at night, so why castigate the folks who keep their lights up past St. Patty's day? They're doing us all a favor, practically performing a public service, to keep us from getting SAD (seasonal affect disorder). We should be applauding these people, not sending investigative reporters to their homes to embarrass them on air.

These next few months are rough, particularly on northerners. There's snow, which loses all of its appeal the second it turns to slush, to say nothing of the blackened piles that congregate curbside. (You ever look at the charred snow and realize that soot is there, hanging in the air, all the time? We just can't see it without the white background.) The worst of the temperatures are still to come. Cabin fever will run rampant. Most of us will hunker down in our homes, no parties to go to, no reason to change out of our sweats or emerge from under our Snuggies. Wouldn't it be nice to have a little Christmas?

I don't mean all the presents and expense. I mean reveling in the child-like innocence of "Rudolph," and the frosted sugar cookies and the gatherings with family and friends. The tree, standing in the corner of the living room, a beacon of light and hope.

They say Ebenezer Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas all year long. So why can't I? I found a box of chocolate pudding hidden away in the back of a kitchen cupboard. It's no lemon wreath (and definitely not a cake ball), but it's a start.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Real Lesson From Arizona

When I first heard about the shootings in Arizona, like every good liberal American, I gladly pointed a finger at Sarah Palin. "See what your 'reload' and your crosshairs and your anti-'hopey, changey' speech has wrought! Now crawl back to whatever rock John McCain pulled you out from under and keep your hateful rhetoric and your malapropisms to yourself."

And then I stopped reading my Twitter feed and thought about Vincent van Gogh.

I just finished a soon-to-be-published novel about the artist, so it's not as random as it might seem to have Vincent on the brain, nor is his connection to Gabrielle Giffords. While this book has much to say about van Gogh's genius as a painter and the way he revolutionized the medium, it's also a profoundly compassionate story about mental illness. And isn't mental illness really what this weekend in Arizona was all about?

Growing up in suburban Ohio, I didn't have a whole lot of contact with flat-out crazy people. Since moving to Chicago, though, I encounter them on a regular basis. Near my old apartment, there was the shell-shocked man who would wrap himself in a blanket and huddle under whatever doorway would shelter him. Or the guy on the train who kept shouting "I've had it" and started banging his head against the window of the rail car until CTA personnel were notified and he was removed from the train. Once, I was walking home from the bus and an elderly man approached from the opposite direction. Too late I noticed he was ranting and raving--either at voices inside his head or invisible demons accompanying him on the sidewalk. I didn't have time to cross to the other side of the street, and as we passed each other, he swung his arm out to hit me. He missed, just barely, but I can still feel the whoosh of air his fist displaced near the side of my head, and the power and anger behind the blow, which, I've no doubt, had it landed, would have knocked me to the ground.

In van Gogh's time, such people would have been straight-jacked, locked up in asylums, labled lunatics or insane, or, by the more enlightened, deemed "hysterics" or "melancholiacs." No matter the nomenclature, the prognosis was poor. Van Gogh understood there was no stopping the violent episodes that gripped him without warning. We all remember that he cut off his ear in the midst of one of these spells, less known is that he later shot himself in the chest to ward off future anguish.

Today, we have kinder, gentler terms of diagnosis. Bi-polar, depressive, OCD. We don't say "mad," we say "mentally ill." We've developed therapies and drugs. Yet it's fair to say that we have no better understanding in 2011 of what it's like to lose control of one's mind than we did in van Gogh's time, more than 100 years ago. Often we can't predict what causes mental illness and, perhaps most frightening, typically we can't cure it.

Former classmates of the Arizona shooter have come forward in recent days. They confess they all but predicted just the sort of deadly rampage that ultimately occurred. So where was the help for this young man? If you saw a fellow student with an open, gaping wound, surely you would notify someone. We would rush to his aid, we would rally around. But when that wound is of the mind, when the fix is not a matter of a simple bandage, we turn away, not out of callousness, but more out of helplessness and fear.

We don't know what to do. It's not like cancer or heart disease. We don't know how to begin to try to offer assistance, and if we do, we don't know whether our efforts will meet with resistance or worse, violence. And the upshot is that while we no longer confine the mentally ill to asylums, they are just as isolated today as they were in centuries past, having scared away family, friends and neighbors with their erratic, volatile behavior. Only now they walk among us, sometimes with automatic weapons.

I've heard much in the past few days about the need to tamp down the hate speech our pundits have favored of late. I've even heard a few quiet rumblings about gun control. You can modulate the former, you can legislate the latter. But what to do about the mentally ill?

I've been thinking about Vincent van Gogh, and how we still don't have the answer.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Real Price of Pay TV

My dad is fond of talking about the early days of television, when he would sit, dazed, in front of his family's newly purchased black-and-white set, watching test patterns. Not actual programming, mind you, just test patterns, so powerful was the allure of this new medium.

I fear that soon I'll be doing the same.

Dave and I don't subscribe to cable (or satellite) TV. I know what you're thinking. Gasp! When we confess this deficiency to strangers, they react as if we've a) admitted to driving a horse and buggy or b) told them we have cancer. Disbelief mixed with a tinge of pity.

It's not that I don't like or care about TV. I love TV, especially really good TV, which these days is more and more often confined to cable, along with really, really bad TV. Mock "Dancing With the Stars" all you want, but cable made a "star" of Kate Gosselin first.

I just don't feel like paying for something that's supposed to be free. I mean, if television had existed at the time of the Declaration of Independence, I'm pretty sure our Founding Fathers would have agreed that we, the people, had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of "Mad Men."

At least that was the prevailing wisdom when I was a kid. Then cable came along, and by cable, I mean MTV, and suddenly we were all willing to pay for something that had previously cost us absolutely nothing. Kind of hard to believe in today's climate, where the Internet and its model of free content has all but wiped out institutions like the Chicago Tribune. How is that in one medium, we're patently opposed to shelling out so much as a penny to read a newspaper's online edition, something that we gladly subscribed to in print, but when it comes to television, we'll throw open our wallets to keep up with the Kardashians? If you have the answer, alert the execs at the New York Times.

Normally, I don't mind being a non-cable household. It feels kind of retro cool, like I'm standing up to The Man. But just to make sure that I don't fall into a pop culture black hole, I keep conversant with the latest cable offerings via Entertainment Weekly and Netflix. Never seen "Top Chef" but I can speak Padma Lakshmi. I make do. I get by. Besides, so many cable programs are watched by such a tiny fraction of the population, in any large group, I'm likely not the only one who hasn't caught onto "Caprica."

Then, damn if baseball didn't go and sell the early rounds of its playoffs to TBS. College football followed suit, handing off its bowl games to ESPN, the highest bidder. And that's just not right.

We all know we live in a fractured nation. There's hardly a topic that doesn't polarize these days. Used to be that we could lay those differences aside and gather around the boob tube for major cultural events, like "Who shot J.R." or the Rose Bowl. No more.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are the New Year's Days we spent at my Aunt Mary Jo's, where my entire extended family would gather to celebrate my cousin Holly's birthday and settle in to watch bowl game after bowl game after bowl game. Perfection would be a victory for my grandpa's beloved Notre Dame.

This year, I sent Holly birthday greetings on Facebook.

It's sad enough that my family has grown apart geographically. I saw my youngest brother, Matt, at Christmas for the first time since the previous year's holiday. Maybe, if you don't like your brother, you'd consider that a positive turn of events. I happen to love mine and think this a sad state of affairs.

Now television has to go and take away the precious few moments that have the potential to bind us all together, no matter where we are.

Last night, our home team, the Ohio State Buckeyes played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Normally, when the Buckeyes square off, I can picture Matt in St. Louis, dying with every dropped pass or fumble. I know my dad will be watching in Toledo or Florida, depending on the month of the year. I'll be pacing our living room in Chicago, ducking into the hallway if the outcome looks like it's going the other team's way. Physically we might be separated but mentally we're connected.

But this year, the Sugar Bowl was on cable. So off Dave and I went into the bitter cold night--the kind of cold that makes your teeth hurt, the kind of cold meant for snuggling under blankets with a cup of hot cocoa--in search of a bar with a big screen TV tuned into ESPN. We wound up at Bad Dog Tavern, where the bartender happened to be an OSU grad. The game was on half a dozen flat screens, and he cheered with us as the Buckeyes turned a near catastrophic fumble into a miraculous touchdown. We stayed through the first half, long after we had exhausted our order of food and drink. As we left, I smiled at the woman in the OSU jersey, sitting at a table near the door.

This morning I logged on to email to see a flurry of "Go Bucks" messages. It seems the game, which OSU had well in hand last Dave and I knew, had turned into a nail biter. We'd not only missed the best part, but missed out on the conversation. Curse you, NCAA.

My point, and I do have a point, is where does this end? Does the Super Bowl wind up on TLC? The Oscars on E!? Election night coverage on FOX News, and only FOX News? Oprah is now only viewable on her own network. How will the poor, tired, huddled, non-OWN households receive their daily dose of inspiration?.

When every event has a price of entry, you're bound to leave some people out. The more exclusive, the more who are excluded, and the less we have in common as Americans. Shared cultural experiences have the capacity to cut across racial, economic, religious and political divides. As they become more scarce, we are each more alone in our own little silos.

I say this not just because I'm too cheap to pay for cable. I say this because I think we're losing a little piece of ourselves as a society everytime something that once was accessible to all becomes accessible to a few.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Luck of the Draw

I have a system when it comes to picking lottery numbers. I feel like you need to have one number between zero and 10, one in the teens, two in the twenties, one in the thirties and one in the forties. This system has never actually worked, so I don't know why I stick with it, but the fact that I try to impose order on a completely random drawing pretty much tells you everything you need to know about me.

It's been years since I've purchased a ticket, but tonight's gazillion dollar Mega Millions jackpot has me sorely tempted to try my luck. I mean, who doesn't dream, on a nightly basis, about what they'd do with 300 million bucks.

First off, I'll throw in with my husband, Dave, but that's all the sharing I'm willing to do. You always see those groups of 30 or 40 co-workers who split some huge payout, and you know every last one of them is thinking, damn, I should have gone it alone. Twenty million sounds like a lot, until you know it could have been 10 times that amount.

A friend of mine did the math and determined that in order to quit your job, you need to win at least $3 million. So I imagine the first thing we'd do after our numbers come up would be to hand in our resignation letters. Since I work at home, pretty much for myself, this should be a relatively painless transaction.

Next I would vacate our condo faster than you can say "single family dwelling" and buy myself a house. I know, this seems kind of lame. You win $300 million, you should shoot for the moon. But I tell you, knowing that I would never again have to listen to footsteps stomping above me, or a stereo blasting below me, well, as they say in those Visa commercials, "priceless."

Then I would travel to Paris, where I would eat shitloads of pastries (because I could afford a personal trainer and chef to help me take off the pounds when I got home, to my new house, with its own fully-equipped gym), and New Zealand, which my husband insists is not really populated by hobbits.

After I got bored with living a life of leisure, I would go back to school. I love to learn and if I could have stayed in college forever, without having to write term papers or sit for exams but just listen to lectures, I would have. Or maybe I'll apply to pastry school and open up my own bakery. I've always wanted to test the theory that if you do something you completely love, it doesn't feel like work or a job.

Now here's where it gets tricky. After I've taken care of myself (this would include purchasing every conceivable form of outerwear known to North Face, as I am constantly lacking whatever essential garment Chicago's weather calls for on any given day), and Dave, I suppose, what am I expected to do for my family?

Do I have to pay off my parents' mortgages. That's right, mortgages as in plural. We're talking about people who have homes in Ohio and Florida, while I live in a shack. Do they really need my help? What about my siblings? I've talked this over with Dave, and we feel one-time payouts are appropriate, but at what amount? Twenty-five grand? Fifty? At what point does generosity come across as miserly? Same for my niece and nephews. Do I have to spring for their college educations, or can I just fund the equivalent of a semester?

How do I keep from turning into the family ATM?

And that's just my relatives. I couldn't pick Dave's nephew out of a police line-up. Does he deserve to be treated on par with my brother and sister's kids, with whom we have actual relationships? (I swear my 2-year-old nephew Logan suspects we might hit it big. At Christmas dinner he said, apropos of nothing, "I need Dave to give me a kiss." Shrewd move.) I think not, but I suspect my husband would think so. I foresee some tense, if not downright contentious discussions over equitable distribution.

Now suddenly Dave and I are fighting over money, something we never do, because we don't have anything to quarrel about. This business of being spectacularly, obscenely wealthy is more stress than I bargained for and I have to wonder if I wouldn't be better off staying poor.