Archive for February, 2012

I’m Sorry to Be the One to Tell You This, But

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Humpday is a good movie.

It’s not just a well crafted cringe comedy, though it is that. It’s also a sincere and emotionally astute movie about a Male Friendship with Issues. AND it has a lot to say about identity and personality and how relationships have the power to send both of those things reeling.

I was surprised by how moved I was. Also, John and I had this fun conversation post-viewing:

M: Wow. That was very real. That was actually kind of hyper-real.

J: Yeah, but not as much as that other guy’s movies.

M: Oh, Andrew Bujalski, founder of mumblecore?

J: Yeah, him.

[Hysterical laughter.]

We love Andrew Bujalski, and here’s why. Back when I was reviewing films, I was given Bujalski’s first film for a cap. And at first I was befuddled and couldn’t make sense of it. But about midway through, comprehension clicked into place, and I started laughing with glee. It was one of those forehead-clapping moments of getting it and therefore richly rewarding. So when Bujalski’s second film came out, I told John we had to see it.

So, happily the Shattuck was showing it (thank you, Landmark Berkeley), but there were only about 10 people in the theater. And we were watching and watching, and everything was really silent and slow. The energy felt pretty dead in the theater (and indeed, the energy was pretty purposefully dead on-screen). But then, like 45 minutes in, John started to crack up. He turned to me with a look, and I knew he was having the exact same experience I had with the first film, and then BOTH of us were cracking up, and NOBODY ELSE WAS. And we couldn’t stop. And it was supremely awesome.

That’s good times, people.

The Problem of Sympathy

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Did anyone else read Jonathan Franzen’s latest piece in The New Yorker, about the purported problem of sympathy in Edith Wharton?

I confess to not having made it through the entire thing, largely out of pique rage. Franzen lost me the moment he asserted that, and I quote, “[Wharton] wasn’t pretty.” Really? I mean . . . all he had to do was say that she wasn’t considered pretty, acknowledging in a single word the caprice of the concept of beauty and its inextricability from time/place/culture/viewer, and I’d have been fine. Instead, we get his Voice of Masculine Authority condemning her appearance as though it were universally accepted fact.

It makes me want to punch him. Which, if you know anything about my lengthy one-sided relationship with Franzen, you know is how I feel about him approximately half the time.

Anyway, that was my first snag. He goes on to discuss the aforementioned “problem of sympathy” in Wharton, which I’ve never felt. As in, how is Lily Bart not sympathetic, whether she’s considered beautiful or not (and she is)? Bart has depressingly few options in life and only one tool to use—the beauty—which as she ages is losing its caché. She’s trying as hard as she can to get what she needs and, ultimately, failing. It never even occurred to me not to feel for her.

(I can’t speak for The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome, having read them at too tender an age to remember much.)

At any rate, here’s what’s fascinating to me about Franzen’s having chosen this topic: His writing is often accused of the same problem. When Freedom came out, you heard people everywhere complaining about its characters, and how they supposedly weren’t important (as if “importance”—what is that code for, even?—had ever been connected to sympathy), and how nobody wanted to hear middle-class white people whine about their “issues.”

Which boiled my blood. Because a) Every single human being has a story and is therefore interesting, full stop, and b) In the second chapter of the book [SPOILER ALERT] Patty is raped, and much of the book is about her inability to deal with that rape. And from her parents’ chillingly blasé and self-protective response to that rape, we know that she hasn’t been given much fortification in life; put another way, as a child she didn’t receive real love or support, so as an adult she doesn’t know how to accept them. It’s surprising, actually, that she copes as well as she does.

The thing is, I find Franzen’s characters, in Freedom and in The Corrections, immensely sympathetic. I find his narrative voice unbelievably generous; his love for his characters seems to spill over the page. I would say, in fact, that I find those two novels more loving and compassionate than almost anything else I have read. And folks, I have read a lot.

That’s why it’s so bizarre (and a source of amusement to my friend Ted—hello, Ted!) that I tend to find Franzen himself insufferable. In this I am far from alone, I know. He seems unable to give an interview without coming off as a self-satisfied prig, and lately he’s been saying nutty things about how the Internet is destroying the world. (Even his claim that nobody with an Internet connection writes good fiction is just so patently false.)

I can never quite put them together, these two extremes. It’s as though Franzen reserves every last morsel of his heart for his fiction and, once spent there, has nothing left to give anything else—or doesn’t want to, anyway.

WHO ARE YOU, Jonathan Franzen? And WHY MUST YOU TORTURE ME?

My Week in Movies

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

First, we saw Pina, which we had been waiting for for months. WORTH. IT. And it’s not just Bausch’s hauntingly gorgeous choreography, though it is that. It’s also Wim Wenders’ deep understanding of her work, and the way he manages to capture it on film. It’s a fantastic, weird, wondrously emotional couple of hours, studded with micro-interviews in which longtime members of Pina’s company say poignant things about her artistic process. Highly recommended.

Like some other folks I’ve checked in with, I felt that the 3D probably wasn’t necessary—and that in fact it sometimes hindered the emotional impact of the work by distorting the perspective, such that foregrounded dancers looked like CGI. But there was one moment, in which a diaphanous curtain effervesces onto the screen, that took my breath away.

Then we saw The Descendants which, in my opinion, hasn’t received enough attention. True, j’adore Alexander Payne, but there’s a reason for that: He is so, so good at making grounded, honest, emotionally real movies that are also hilarious. The humor in this film is quieter than it was in Sideways, which is as it should be, considering the topic. But it was still very funny—and very sad. (Such a magic marriage, no? Funny and sad?) I also loved the tribute the film pays to Hawaii. By the end I felt as though I’d been there.

In my off hours, I Netflixed Kramer vs. Kramer. I expected to find it dated, but . . . not really. I think more than anything I was struck by the excellence of the acting, not just Hoffman’s (though mostly his) but the kid’s—Justin Henry’s. He’s really, really good. And yet, ever since I heard Sarah Polley tell Terry Gross about her experience as a child film actor, and how she was inevitably emotionally manipulated so that the director could get the feeling he wanted, I cringe when I see children doing drama. Maybe it was okay for Henry. I guess unless there’s a memoir, we’ll never know.

All in all, a good week at the movies.

Rat in a Box

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Last week rat Michelle dropped a precipitous amount of weight, and I wondered whether I should take her to the vet. But she was still active, and since her starting point had been . . . adorably obese, I hoped that she’d just bounce back.  Nope. On Monday, her breathing was labored, and I made an appointment.

Turns out Michelle has a respiratory infection, quite common in rats. In fact, 10 years ago, my rat Allison died from one, but Michelle is living pretty successfully with hers. Now she needs twice-daily doses of two antibiotics, plus a supplementary diet of baby food, which is easy to swallow and therefore more likely to get down the gullet of a congested rat.

It’s not easy to dose a squirming rat with medication, particularly if you get emotionally involved with your perception of the rat’s suffering.* But John is mastering an immobilization technique, so daily we’re improving. (Thank you, man-who-can-be-replied-upon-to-help-in-any-situation.)

*There are real signs, naturally: squirming, increased heart rate, tightened muscles, widened eyes, peeing, and shitting.

Meanwhile, I have some reflections about my experiences with veterinary medicine.

First, I generally like taking my rodents in for vet care. Why? All of the benefits of the waiting room—i.e., cute animals and friendly owners—and none of the stress of having a sick dog or a cat. Rodents live for only a few years, and I’ve taken that in stride, slowly accumulating a rodent graveyard à la Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State.

Even better, vets take every animal seriously. So even if you show up with a dwarf albino hamster that is essentially an anti-social cotton ball with teeth, they’re going to talk to you about the care options as though it’s a Very Big Deal. I always loved the High Import with which my vet would discuss my hamster’s over-long teeth, which had to be clipped every few weeks to prevent her from starving. No matter how much I giggled, he never even cracked a smile.

Occasionally, I could get him to veer off-topic by asking questions about other people’s rodents. And once he told me a story about  having flung a hamster who bit him across the room (It was a reflex!) right in front of the hamster’s entire human family, including children. (“Fluffy?”)

But that vet couldn’t see me Monday afternoon, so I was stuck with another office, where I’d had a not-great experience with gerbil Moomush a couple of years ago. This time, same deal. I could tell almost immediately that the doctor was a Science Vet, as opposed to an Animal Lover Vet. Witness the opening of the appointment:

Vet: Rat in a box?

Me: Yes, sick rat in a box.

Vet: How old is she?

Me: 15 months.

Vet: How old was she when you got her?

Me: 5 weeks.

Vet: How big was she then?

Me: [Hand gesture.]

Vet: Huh. So how big would you say she was at 3 months?

Me: [Another hand gesture.]

Vet: We’ve been thinking about when to tell people to get their female rats spayed. We know that when we spay dogs in time, they don’t get breast cancer, because breast cancer is related to estrogen. So we’re trying to figure out when to spay rats. Because rats get a lot of breast cancer. And maybe at 3 months they’d be big enough for it not to be microsurgery anymore.

Me: Huh.

Vet: So next time you get a female rat, don’t bond with her before 3 months. Then if something happens while she’s under the anesthetic, it won’t be as bad.

Me: Wait. You’re saying not to love her for 7 weeks?

Vet: Oh. Well. Right. Okay, scratch that.

Yep, that’s how it went. And it wasn’t just that she opened the appointment by bringing up something entirely unrelated to what was happening in the room—though it was that, too—it’s that she was, to put it bluntly, Talking Crazy Shit.

In other words, if putting a rat under anesthetic is life-endangering enough to discourage people from becoming attached (itself an insane idea: What person in possession of an open heart can control feelings of love for an animal in her care?), then what the effing eff is the point of spaying rats to prevent breast cancer?

Let’s maybe-kill this rat so we can make sure it doesn’t die later!

JESUS. H. SCHWARTZ.

And another thing [wood-scraping noises as I adjust my soapbox for better comfort]: Never once, as we discussed Michelle’s care, did the vet mention that we are dealing with a rat, and that rats basically live for two years, and that given the givens, we might want to consider whether to treat at all.

For instance: The vet mentioned that if Michelle doesn’t do well on antibiotics, she should come in for x-rays, even though good x-rays of rodents are notoriously hard to get, since rodents do not stop moving. And if we do get a good x-ray, then maybe it shows that we need to do surgery, which is itself pretty complicated (again with the anesthetic), etc.

Sigh. It’s exhausting, really.

I appreciate that they take rodents seriously, as I said. What I also want them to do is take quality-of-life, expenses, and death seriously as well. This vet never seemed to consider that I might not want to, or be able to, pay for certain interventions; that the risk-benefit ratio of said interventions might not pencil out in their favor; or that the most humane thing to do to a rat who is suffering may just be to put her down.

Can I get a little reality here, Vet-Bot?

Some warm human interaction would have gone a long way as well.

And . . . Today’s Tirade finito completo.