Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lipstick Jungle recap: episode 3

Are you still watching this show? I won't make you tell me, but regardless of your answer you should check out my latest Television Without Pity recap.
Maddie spots Abby Garcia and seems excited to be seated at the same table, but before she and Wendy can reach the table, they're stopped by a woman who introduces herself as "Eva! Garcia! Abby's mom?" Eva is played by the fabulous Florencia Lozano (whom soap fans might recognize from Llanview), and I'm going to tell you right now that she's my favorite part of this episode. You can tell right away that Eva is one of those people who pronounce any vaguely "ethnic" word (in this case, that includes "Eva," "Garcia" and even "Abby") with an exaggerated accent. ...They get to their table, where Eva barks at Abby to stop eating bread. Then she introduces Abby to Wendy: "You remember Wendy Healy, Parador Pictures?" -- only she says "Parador" like it's the name of a Chilean town and she's Alex Trebek. (It's awesome.)

Did I enjoy anything else in episode 3? Read the recap to find out!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

All it has to be is good

I saw Sunday in the Park With George a few weeks ago, and I'd like to say I was politely waiting until its official opening to post my review -- but the truth is I've been too busy to put my thoughts into words, and I didn't even know when it was opening until I saw the headline on the NYT website this morning. I try not to read anyone else's reviews until I've composed my own, so since I want to hear what other people said, it's time I told you about my own trip to La Grande Jatte.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Have you confused your cat recently?

I didn't actually want to tell you about my trip to the DMV. I mean, news flash! The DMV is badly run! Wasting several hours of your day there is not enjoyable! You've heard it before. You've probably lived it, especially if you're in New York. It is my firm belief that the DMV experience is designed for maximum frustration -- but I don't need to list the reasons I have come to this conclusion. I didn't expect today's trip to disprove this theory, but I also didn't expect it to provide any surprising new evidence. I went there resigned to a long wait time, inadequate information and needless confusion, and from the fact that only one photo station was open to serve customers (at 12:10!) to the failure of the elevator buttons outside to light up when you pressed them, everything was pretty much exactly as I expected.

But then, two and a half hours after I arrived, my number was called, and I approached the appropriate window, and I discovered that the person who was processing my paperwork was -- seriously -- deaf. Just when you think the DMV can't do anything more to make things hard for you, they find a new way.

I don't, of course, have anything against the hard-of-hearing. I am happy to find them employed in any and all areas of service for which they may qualify. This woman was possibly the least odd of the three clerks I dealt with, and in any setting not saturated with the DMV ethic of making things difficult, her deafness wouldn't have been an issue. But because this was the DMV, here's how our transaction went: I sat down at the counter and said "Hello," and the lady said nothing, which didn't really surprise me. (When I first applied for my NY license, I remember, the person who processed the forms never once looked up at me. If I wanted to, I could have had my license say that I was 6-foot-3 with green eyes and blond hair.) She took my form and wrote on it for a while, and then she slid a scrap of paper across the desk toward me. On it was this prewritten note: "If you want to renew now or later ([scribble] 10/2008)?"

Imagine my bafflement. Was this string of words, followed by a scribble and some numbers, supposed to mean something to me? Was I being held up, bank-robber style? It finally dawned on me that perhaps she was handicapped in some way that required communication via note. I think, in her situation, I might want to have a little sign on display that says, "Please be patient - I am deaf," but no such clues were available, of course, and since she hadn't said anything to me yet, I had no reason to suspect. Then, once I figured out what was going on, I still had to decipher what the note meant. Apparently the woman was also somewhat impaired when it came to English. Or -- and this is very possible, given the setting -- she started writing one thing, changed her mind midstream, and didn't really care enough to revise her work to make it comprehensible. I might have asked her to clarify, but given that I now believed her to be both deaf and not-great with English, I decided to guess. After a long moment spent staring at the note, I said, "...Now?" And hoped that was the right answer.

I knew from my web research that changing the information on my license came with a $15 fee, so when the woman said, "Fifteen dollars," I had exact change. She looked at the bills I handed her and then scribbled another note: "$50." Ah. "Fifteen" and "fifty" sound very much alike when spoken by a person who can't hear. Why is it so much more than I expected? I wondered. But I didn't ask. For obvious reasons. I paid the $50, got my temporary license and left, hoping there was no important information I was missing out on because the clerk was out of Scrap paper or wasn't sure how to write it down.

When I got home I took a look at my old license -- incidentally, is it not weird that they let you keep your old license? I would think they'd confiscate it, like schools and office buildings do with photo IDs -- and I finally figured out what all that note-passing was about. (At least I think I did.) My license is set to expire this year, in October, and apparently I had the option of changing the information without renewing it. I'm guessing the renewal carries a $35 fee, which would account for the $50/$15 confusion -- and for the question itself, because only a person who truly could not afford to part with $50 at once would elect to come back to the DMV within the year to accomplish business she could take care of during the current trip.

The really sad part is that I consider today's trip, all in all, to have been a reasonably positive experience. I got what I needed, eventually, and I didn't have to miss meals to do it. I don't think I can ask for more than that -- well, I could ask for it, but I know better than to think I'd get it. Incidentally, this was not my first trip to the DMV since my marriage. I went down there a few weeks ago, after I applied for my new Social Security card, and had been standing in various lines for at least half an hour when I noticed a sign that said they had recently upgraded their requirements, and now everyone must present a Social Security card. "NO SUBSTITUTIONS," it said. The information online didn't say I needed my Social Security card --and it had been fed to a shredder in the SSA office just hours earlier. I wondered if I really needed it -- after all, I already had a license, I just wanted to update the name -- but the wording on the sign was pretty straightforward. There were no employees available for me to ask, and I wouldn't get to the window for at least another 40 minutes. So I decided to go home and not waste any more of my day. I went down there today armed with my new Social Security card, and they never asked for it. Of course. But you know, if I'd stuck around that day and tried my luck, I bet they would have wanted to see it. I know now that there is just no outsmarting the DMV.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lipstick Jungle recap: episode 2

Looks like we won't be seeing Private Practice again till fall -- I know, I know, I'm really broken up about it -- but Television Without Pity fans, take heart: this week I covered Lipstick Jungle for TWoP. It's like Sex and the City, but dumber!
So I'm guessing that the title of Nico's Vanity Fair-esque magazine, Bonfire, derives from the phrase "bonfire of the vanities." Which is funny, because if you were going to conduct an actual bonfire of the vanities, this show would be the first vanity object you'd toss on the fire (followed, possibly, by Candace Bushnell herself). Right now Savonarola's ashes are stirring angrily in their watery grave.
Read the recap to see how else I occupied my brain while watching this show.

Are you being served by PBS?

The Times ran an article this weekend by Charles McGrath that asks: "Is PBS Still Necessary?" Or has it outlived its mission? I've heard this question before, and I must say I find it persuasive. Like any other "educated," arts-loving person, I have a kneejerk impulse to defend public broadcasting, on TV or on the radio. It is the enlightened thing to do. And personally, I know I owe a lot to PBS. I started out on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers; it was a Great Performances broadcast of Into the Woods that first exposed me to Sondheim; I once stayed up very late to catch an airing of the Beatles' Shea Stadium concert film; and I owe my Britcom geekery, and much of my Anglophilia in general, to after-school airings of shows like Butterflies and Good Neighbors and Fawlty Towers. But we have a lot more channels now, and many of them do a better job at presenting the sort of stuff PBS is known for. So I am inclined to agree that, on today's television (and beyond), if there's a real demand for it, there will be a home for it outside of PBS.

I'll admit, when it comes to faith in public television, I've been drifting into heresy for years now. My first major disillusioning moment came when I was, oh, maybe 15. British comedy was a big draw for a certain, pledge-making demographic, and the local affiliate aired an evening of Monty Python that included a light documentary on the group (was it perhaps an earlier version of It's...the Monty Python Story?). I was up late, watching and typing simultaneously, as was my wont -- I had a large collection of VHS tapes that I treasured the way a Beatles fan treasures his bootlegs. (Not that I'm referring to anyone in particular, Mike.) And WVIA very seldom showed anything as "edgy" as Python. I couldn't believe my luck. The show got off to a rousing start, with a montage of Gilliam animation (including the cartoon where the two men bounce on the naked woman's belly as if it were a trampoline), and went on to include clips from classic sketches and interviews with the aged Pythons themselves. And then the station broke in for their first fundraising pitch. (I didn't record that part.) By the end of the first minute, the anchors were looking panicked -- it seemed the calls they were receiving weren't pledges, but rather complaints. The pepperpots in the audience didn't want this sort of filth on their TV, and they were letting the station know it. With drained, pale faces, the anchors promised that the station would listen to the callers' demands. More Keeping Up Appearances! Less Python! We apologize for assuming you might want something different! I sat there watching in dismay, feeling helpless. Too young to pledge anything. Too insignificant to fight the tide of old people who were offended by Monty Python but, apparently, soothed by the double entendres of Are You Being Served? So much for risk-taking, PBS.

I lost more faith in PBS when Sesame Street started to stink in the years following the death of Jim Henson. I can't even watch it anymore; none of the original puppeteers are still around, and it shows. Recently I caught a minute or two of Big Bird and Ernie talking to each other, and the pairing of familiar puppets and not-quite-right voices had an unsettling, body-snatchers effect. No thank you. But while all this has been happening, children's programming on Noggin and elsewhere has been improving. Nickelodeon used to be the network that ran cheap reruns of shows imported from other countries. Now (through Noggin) they're the ones developing engaging, worthwhile shows for young kids. The PBS lineup hinges on Arthur, and I've always had a deep dislike of Arthur (even in book form), so that's all I really need to know.

When I moved to New York I was so excited to be living within reach of a PBS affiliate that prioritized arts programming, particularly theatre. Several years ago the Tony Awards added an extra hour to the show, broadcast on PBS, in which they distributed the "creative" awards. Each category was introduced with a little behind-the-scenes film exploring the process of costume design or orchestration or whatever, and I thought it was the best part of the whole evening. But after the first year, the NEPA PBS station declined to show it -- they aired something like Pennsylvania Polka in its stead. I still haven't gotten over my disappointment. That sort of thing is much less likely to happen in New York. But I have found that every time I tune in to something on WNET, either because I read about it on or because it catches my eye when I'm flipping channels, they are always in the middle of a pledge drive. And I mean literally, with no exaggeration at all, every time. So when the hosts come on and make their appeal, reminding me that they need my support if they are to continue bringing me the programming I love to watch, I am not at all moved, because it has become very clear that they only air programming I want to watch when they're asking me for money.

So that's how I've come to the point where I'm willing to give up on public television. (Public radio is another issue -- the article above gets a little distracted in comparing and contrasting the two, but it does make a compelling argument for why they're different.) But, you might argue, what about programming for which there is a need, but not a commercial demand? Is there anywhere besides viewer-supported TV for that kind of thing? And so I ask you: What am I overlooking? What is Charles McGrath overlooking? Maybe you can tell me -- I gave up on wading through the largely subliterate "reader comments" on the Times's website, but that doesn't mean there are no thoughtful counterarguments to be made.

In other reading-the-Times news: did you see this cutesy story about the subway public-service announcement placard that, wowie zowie, has a semicolon in it? I was disappointed that there's so little meat in this story, but even more disappointed when I recognized which subway notice they're celebrating. When you're a copyeditor, and when you spend a good deal of time riding the 1 train, including occasional trips to and from the Bronx, you end up studying these signs rather closely. The one this article refers to has always bothered me because of its ungrammatical first sentence -- the part that comes before the sentence with the ballyhooed semicolon. The sign is meant to discourage people from leaving their newspapers behind them on the train (amen to that), and it says something like: "It doesn't matter what paper you read, its language or its views. Please put it in a trash can; that's good news for everyone." I've spent a lot of time staring at that first sentence, trying to fix it. There's no elegant solution. To keep the sentence structured as it is, you'd need to add a lot of words: "It doesn't matter what paper you read, what language it's written in, or what its views are." Or you could revise it entirely: "The title, language and views of your paper don't matter. What matters is that you dispose of it properly when you're finished reading." That's not exactly punchy, so maybe the sign is good enough as it is -- the meaning is clear enough. But it isn't right, and I'm not sure we should be reading an article in the Times about the brilliance of the grammarian who authorized it just because he knows how a semicolon works. I think what I'm feeling after reading that could best be called despair.

Friday, February 15, 2008

If you agree, don't say anything

In addition to being Black History Month, February, I hear, is American Heart Month. (Note that the American Heart Association has nobly if awkwardly attempted to recognize both at once.) All this week I've been working in a large office building with little TV screens in the elevators, and those screens have been advertising the company's various efforts to observe Heart Month. My favorite was the screen that said, "Wear red on February 14 to show your support for the fight against heart disease in women!" (Paraphrasing -- I know it didn't say "to show your support for heart disease in women," because as a copyeditor I am trained to seek and destroy all such errors). Every time I saw this, I wondered:
  • Is red clothing on Valentine's Day really unique enough to stand out, or make a difference? On any given day, a certain number of people will be wearing red just because it looks good. On Valentine's Day, an additional number will wear red to be festive (the same people who wear green on St. Patrick's Day and orange on Halloween, I imagine). So how can I tell which red-clothed people are intentionally participating in this company-wide show of concern/awareness/solidarity, and which are just wearing red for its own sake?

  • More importantly: even if I can assume that all red-wearing persons are participating in this campaign, how exactly is that supposed to make a difference? Who benefits from my wearing red? Are there women (and men) with heart problems, suffering silently, whose spirits would be buoyed by my red sweater? I guess maybe there are -- but it's not like cardiac problems are so stigmatized that we can't find a more overt and meaningful way to support the afflicted. Take up a collection for the American Heart Association. I'll give a dollar or two when I pay for my cafeteria lunch. But wearing something red and calling it a good deed feels false to me.

  • What if I don't wear red -- because I forget, or I'm unaware of the campaign, or I am aware but think it's silly? Does this mean I do not support women with heart disease? Will people think I'm (heh) heartless?
I did forget, as it happened. I wore a blue sweater. And when I got in the elevator and saw the "Wear red" reminder I thought, Uh-oh, I hope I don't look like a conscientious objector! But I didn't see much red when I looked around the office, nor was there a notable amount of red on the folks in the cafeteria. So either I'm not the only one who blew the whole thing off, or this company is seriously opposed to the treatment and detection of cardiac problems in women.

I was reminded of a sign I once saw on a college campus bulletin board. It noted that "Coming Out Day" was approaching, and said something like, "On [date], wear jeans and a white T-shirt to show your support for gay and lesbian students in our community." I'm all for showing support, but: jeans and a white T-shirt? On a college campus? Granted, this was about ten years ago, and the campus in question was a small Catholic college. So the desire for some level of discretion was understandable. But the proposed gesture seemed a little too generic to me, especially since the cause in question was a controversial one. Whether we like it or not, there are probably people in that community who aren't particularly interested in showing their support for Coming Out Day, and they're just as likely to wear jeans and a white T-shirt on that day as anyone else. Maybe that was the point -- to force them to go out of their way to wear something else? I know I'd be annoyed if there were a campaign at my school or in my office building or whatever that said, "Carry a purse on [date] to show your support for [cause to which I am opposed]!" Then I'd have to go out of my way not to carry a purse that day, all for a quasi-meaningless campaign that most people would probably ignore anyway. And I'm guessing most people on said campus just wore whatever they normally would on the appointed day, because they forgot or didn't know or didn't care, and the whole thing didn't have much of an impact. And it still makes more sense than this whole "wear red" thing, because if just one person struggling with issues of sexual identity saw a classmate in jeans and a white T-shirt and took strength from it, that's great, and it's probably no less great if the classmate in question wasn't actually out to support that person's struggle. But supporting heart disease treatment and prevention is hardly controversial, unless we're talking about a specific funding proposal or government initiative that would have repercussions beyond simply improving people's health. If it were controversial, it would be inappropriate to ask an entire company to do it. As it is, I think it goes without saying that I'm all for taking good care of women (and men) with heart problems, and I would be shocked to learn that anyone else who works in this building feels otherwise.

I'm wary, generally, of these Feel Good About Very Small Gesture promotions, the ones that invite us to pat ourselves on the back for doing something at no cost to ourselves that will have at best a miniscule impact on whatever cause we are supposedly supporting. "Buy this trendy product, and some tiny portion of the proceeds will go to charity!" Corporations donating to charity is a good thing, I guess, insofar as it's better than nothing. But on the individual level I think participating is only a very tiny bit better than "nothing," and it worries me to think I might start assuming otherwise. I don't want to find myself thinking I'm a charitable person because I bought this (Product) Red shirt from the Gap, and I buy lipstick that has a pink ribbon on it, and I have some Paul Newman salad dressing in my fridge, and all those companies say they give money to charity. Not that doing those things is bad, but I don't think that should be the extent of my charitable efforts. And it can be just as easy to think the other way -- I'm doing my part, because I don't support companies that give money to Planned Parenthood, or I do support companies that give money to Planned Parenthood, or whatever your favorite cause/soapbox might be. Basically, I don't want my efforts to help those in need to consist entirely of shopping-related decisions. Or of wearing something that makes me feel good but doesn't really help anyone else.

Wow, this post got a little out of hand. Mostly I just wanted to say: Ladies (and men) with heart problems, I support you, and I hope my failure to wear red yesterday didn't make you think otherwise. But I kind of doubt that you care what I wore. Maybe now I'll go make a donation -- a real, nothing-in-return donation -- just for good measure. Wait, does that mean the "wear red" thing worked after all? They tricked me!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Seems we never know - do we? - who we're going to find

On this great feast of love, I would like to introduce you to one of the great loves of my life. This faithful companion, this source of continual delight, came into my life a little more than two years ago, and I have been falling deeper and deeper in love ever since. I refer, of course, to Pandora, your source for free internet radio that plays only what you tell it to. Pandora has kept me company during many tedious hours of data entry. She has introduced me to new artists, reacquainted me with old ones, and allowed me to hear familiar favorites in new and unexpected contexts. The World Wide Web does many wonderful things for me every day, but I think Pandora is my favorite reason for having internet access.

If this is your first encounter with Pandora: you’re welcome. Here’s how it works: you sign up for an account (free!). You create a personalized “station” by entering the name of a song or artist you like. If, for example, you enter “the Beatles,” Pandora will do a quick search and then launch your Beatles station, beginning with a Beatles song and then branching out from there to play other artists and songs you might like. (If you name a song, instead of an artist, you won’t hear it right away -- they can’t just call up specific songs on request, for legal reasons -- but you will probably hear it eventually.) The really cool part is how the musical connections are made: each song is catalogued not by genre or record-store labels, but according to its basic musical elements, e.g., “acoustic instrumentation,” “prominent percussion” or “female vocalist.” And if you click on “Why did you play this song?” Pandora will explain which elements she thought you would enjoy. You can give a song a thumbs-up (“Play more like this!”) or a thumbs-down (“Never play this song again!”), and the station will adjust accordingly.

That’s a basic sketch of what Pandora was like when I first found it; since then many bells and whistles have been added. You can now pay for an account, which will eliminate the advertising from your experience. You can access all sorts of information about songs, artists and albums; you can maintain many stations at once and keep a list of favorite songs for reference’s sake. You can head over to iTunes or to purchase a song or an album you like. And you can share your stations with friends, or hear a station they’ve created. The only downside I have found is that Pandora is a bandwidth hog -- or at least she was a year and a half ago, when the IT guy in the office where I was working traced the network’s sluggishness back to me and my all-day Pandora habit. So that was a bummer. But in my own home, I’m happy to give her all the bandwidth she wants. I get so much in return!

There’s an art to maintaining a Pandora station -- with some trial and error you learn to exercise restraint in your power of thumbs-up and thumbs-down, because too-liberal use can send a station off in an unexpected direction. For example, if you thumbs-down multiple songs that feature “acoustic instrumentation,” Pandora might assume you hate acoustic guitars and ban them from your playlist, when you really just hate those three particular songs. Stations can always be scrapped and restarted, however. And in the process you’ll learn a lot about your musical tastes. I never realized how much I liked America or the Kinks until multiple songs of theirs started popping up with frequency on my Pandora stations (not on the same station, I should note). Meanwhile, Pandora has decided I have an affinity for “breathy male vocalists” and “acoustic rhythmic piano” -- and by Jove, she’s right!

Back when I used to listen to my Pandora stations all day -- before I got busted by the IT guy at work -- I found that she had certain songs she loved to play for me, despite my failure to give positive feedback. It would always start out amusing and grow gradually more unsettling -- Why this song? I would wonder. For a while I heard a Peter, Paul and Mary song called "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" at least once a day on a folk-influenced station I'd put together. I didn’t ask Pandora to play PP&M, mind you, but they overlapped with some of the artists I liked. In this song, they sing about various contemporary pop artists in the style of said artists. So there's a "Beatles" verse and a "Mamas and the Papas" verse and a "Donovan" verse. Vintage dorky folk-group humor. The first time I heard it, I was like, Heh, that's kind of clever. And the next few times I heard it, I was like, Yes, yes, very cute, Peter, Paul and Mary, your little Beatles accents are so gear, ha ha. But after a while I started resenting it, like, Who the hell are you to make fun of the Mamas and the Papas? And finally one day I reached my breaking point, and when I heard Peter-or-Paul insist, "I dig! Rock-and-roll music, uh-huh..." I said, THUMBS DOWN. NEVER play this song again. I hope you're happy, Pandora.

Sometimes, however, Pandora made wonderful connections between artists that I never would have made on my own. (Your iPod can do this, too, but Pandora has a more truly random library to choose from.) For example, one day I heard Extreme’s “More Than Words” followed immediately by the Beatles’ “I Will.” Quite similar songs, when you think about it, and if it hadn’t been for Pandora I am certain I never would have thought about it. The husband and I describe these moments of discovery as “Pandoradipity.” Pandoradipity is how I learned that there is a Rick Springfield song called “What Kind of Fool Am I,” which is (sad to say) not the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse hit (from the musical Stop the World, I Want To Get Off), but rather a mid-80s throwaway with the same weird, obsessive, "she can't be going out with him, she should be with me" lyrical focus as “Jessie’s Girl,” and a middle-eight stripped directly from "The Greatest Love of All." Meanwhile, the Rick Springfield song “Love Is the Key” features, in addition to “political lyrics,” a chorus ripped off from Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and embellished with a few bars of George Harrison’s “Awaiting on You All.” How about that. (Before Pandora, I didn’t even realize Rick Springfield had any songs other than “Jessie’s Girl.”)

Though I tend to use Pandora to listen to artists other than the Beatles, Pandoradipity has given many gifts to the Beatles fan in me: I’ve heard an extremely likeable cover of the Wings song “Listen to What the Man Said,” called simply “L.T.W.T.M.S.” and recorded by a band called The Trouble With Sweeney. I learned Ella Fitzgerald did a great version of “Got to Get You Into My Life.” (Pandora is great for finding awesome, little-known covers of all sorts of stuff. I think I like Evan Olson’s version of “Tin Man” better than the America original, and I can’t even find it on iTunes!) And believe it or not, Pandora has been known to play selections from George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music. How awesome is that? What makes this really cool is that Pandora doesn't play Beatles covers for me because she knows I like the Beatles. She plays these songs because I like "mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation" or "subtle use of vocal harmonies," or whatever. And Beatle stuff comes up eventually anyway. It gives me a whole new way to think about how I listen to music.

Sometimes Pandora displays an eerie prescience that goes beyond just knowing what I like. Last week, I was listening to one or another of my many “breathy male vocalist”-heavy stations to keep me company while I edited our many honeymoon photos. I wasn’t paying much attention to the song that was playing -- "Fade Me In,” by one Danny Scherr -- until I opened this photo…

…and at that very moment, Mr. Scherr sang, "The sun is in my eyes, and I'm looking out to sea." Whoa. (It was a nice song, too. Pandora thought I'd like its subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and major key tonality.) I am always amazed at what Pandora knows. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps she knows too much…

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Give us a kiss.

Hi folks! Consider this a public service announcement. Showing tomorrow, throughout the day, on the Independent Film Channel, for reasons unknown to me: A Hard Day's Night, probably the best movie ever made in a rush with the express intention of cashing in on a fad. This is cross-posted over at Hey Dullblog, the new outlet for my Beatles-related thoughts, but I really wrote it for those of you who might never venture there on your own. Because you needn't be a Beatlemaniac to enjoy this movie -- a love of film will do it, or an interest in the 1960s, or just a fondness for British humor (and accents). Love social satire? A Hard Day's Night is your movie. Prefer loud music and people making funny faces? This movie has you covered. There's just no excuse not to see it.

A Hard Day's Night was filmed in six short weeks on a tight budget -- an attempt to profit from Beatlemania while it was still raging, without keeping the boys from touring and recording for too long. It could easily have been sloppy, brainless, pandering -- the cinematic equivalent of the phony "autographed" pictures Paul's fictional grandfather hawks outside the TV studio at the end of the film. A lousy Beatles movie would still have made money; the teenagers would have come to scream regardless of the quality. It didn't need to be creative or artistic. But behind their popularity, the Beatles set high artistic standards: they wanted every song on their albums to be good, not just a couple. A Hard Day's Night is the product of the same approach, this time from director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen: Why not make it great? And the film they put together turned out so well that those screaming teenagers were ultimately regarded as a nuisance by moviegoers who actually wanted to hear the dialogue.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing it: A Hard Day's Night is styled as a pseudo-documentary (not to be confused with a "mockumentary" -- although This Is Spinal Tap owes much to the Beatles in general and to this movie in particular), with the four Beatles playing themselves, or rather stylized versions of themselves. You can't help but be impressed by Gilbert Taylor's moody black-and white cinematography, and the musical sequences are so artfully shot that you can overlook the clash between the poorly integrated sound (and obvious lip-synching) and the documentary feel of the dialogue scenes. And even if you are intimidated at first by the impenetrable Scouse accents, that (Oscar-nominated!) dialogue is well worth hearing, I assure you. It's a thrilling mix of satire and absurdity; certain scenes, like the opening sequence in the train car, play like Marx Brothers routines without the disorienting breaks for laughter. Your favorite Beatle (whoever he might be) has plenty of highlights throughout; I'm a George girl, so I'm convinced that he has all the best lines -- and the best delivery, given his command of what one character describes as "all that adenoidal glottal-stop and carry-on." I can't get enough of the scene where he wanders into the television producer's office. It's so shatteringly smart you wonder how programming and marketing for teens can remain so terrible, and so unrepentant, in its wake.

Don't get IFC? I still think you should drop everything and see this movie. In fact, you might enjoy it more on DVD, in its digitally remastered state, now available from for... $6.99?! (I think it's time for me to replace my VHS copy.)

In spite of having most of AHDN committed to memory, I seldom pass up a chance to rewatch it, and I find that, between viewings, I tend to forget just how good it is. A favorite college professor of mine screened it, attendance optional, for a course in postwar British literature. A few years back I went to a screening at Lincoln Center, which was followed by a discussion with many interesting panelists (although nobody said anything I found very memorable, and I confess to being most excited about seeing Louise Harrison, George's sister, in the flesh). When I spent a semester in England, I joined a walking tour with a group of other Beatles dorks, led by a guide who took us to Marylebone Station and showed us where Paul sat with his mustache and his "grandfather," and where George face-planted on the sidewalk outside. It was thrilling. Fellow Beatlemaniacs: What are your favorite AHDN moments? Does it loom large in your legend, too?

Monday, February 11, 2008

What the eye arranges

Pursuing domestic duties kept me from blogging much last week. But I did manage to finish moving out of my old apartment, and to cook a couple of delicious dinners in my new home! Heretofore my most ambitious meal-prep was spaghetti with sauce, so I'm feeling very proud of myself. Risotto? No sweat.

Now that things are settling down I plan to return to a more regular blogging schedule. On this very cold day, I'm taking advantage of a new meme, Odd Shots -- brought to my attention by my bloggy friend Susan -- to post a honeymoon photo. I call it "Two-Headed Donkey."

Pushmi-PullyuThe island of St. John is home to lots of interesting wildlife, including many wild donkeys. This small herd liked to hang out on the resort where we spent our week. They're an interesting sight because they're so uniform -- all the same size, all the same color -- and because they mostly just stood very still in formations like this one, facing in different directions. It looked to me like they were spelling something out, marching-band style, to be read from above. This particular illusion took us by surprise as we were walking back to our room one day. Maybe the husband could have gotten an even better shot if he'd tried a different angle, but I was always nervous about spending too much time gawking at the donkeys. They didn't seem to like it, and the way they slowly raised their heads and regarded us with cold eyes gave me the jibblies. I didn't want to piss them off. Still, I guess this pose proves they had a sense of humor.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

One more thing...

The dust has cleared here at wedding central. From the time the gifts started rolling in, up to the wedding and for a couple weeks afterward -- basically since November -- the apartment has been a mess. Lots of boxes to break down, bubble wrap to burst and tissue paper to recycle, and more little packets of silica gel than we know what to do with (I'm joking, of course, because we don't know what one would do with any quantity of silica gel, besides not eat it). But the mountain of gifts has finally been dealt with: we returned what needed returning and found a place to put all the fabulous new stuff we received (and kept). All that's left to do now is write the thank-yous, and bring our trusty old dishes and things to the Salvation Army! And, of course, add some final notes to my registry reviews.

I can now testify firsthand that Bed, Bath & Beyond's returns policy is as generous and low-hassle as advertised. They gave us cash back for anything that was purchased from our registry, no questions asked, and store credit if we returned something off-registry. However, I do feel compelled to add that if their computer system weren't so screwy and their shipping process were better, we would not have had to return as many items. I already told you about the coffeemaker that was added to our registry when someone bought it for us (alongside the similar-but-different coffeemaker we'd registered for originally). We ended up getting identical pots from two different people, both of whom purchased them from our BB&B registry -- way to update your records, BB&B. And the very day we planned to bring these items to our local store, we received a package full of dishes, all of them chipped or broken because they'd been squeezed into a too-small gift box and badly packaged for shipping. So now I have to use some of our store credit to buy them back -- and hope they're in stock, I guess, because having them shipped again would probably be a mistake. The final insult? I checked our registry list when we got home and discovered that everything we'd just returned was now showing up on the list as available for purchase. I thought the list would remain the way it was, showing that we'd registered for this item and that it had been purchased. But since our event was over, I wouldn't have minded if they'd removed the item from the list completely. Instead, they just removed the indication that it was purchased -- so if someone had wanted to buy us a late gift, and they did so before I realized this and manually removed the items in question, they would have been able to buy any of the things we'd just returned. Of course! Exactly what we would want! That makes perfect sense!

While we're complaining, I would also like to say that the packages we received from Macy's were environmental nightmares. Macy's is responsible for the vast quantities of packing peanuts we've had to discard over the past several months, and more than once we received an item from our china pattern packed in a flimsy, much-too-big gift box, and then in a carton that could have held everything on our registry. It wasn't broken, but it was pretty ridiculous.

A lot of this waste, from Macy's and from everyone else, was due to the need to accomodate giftwrap. So if I may offer one tip to those of you who might be buying and sending registry gifts in the future: Don't spring for the giftwrap. I know they offer you the option at checkout, and it seems like a nice gesture, and maybe it's not even that terribly expensive in some cases. I might have been inclined to go for the giftwrap myself, thinking it would add an extra touch of class to the gift-giving process. But trust me: no newlyweds (or newlyweds-to-be) are going to open a box from Bed Bath & Beyond or Macy's or wherever and say, "Oh, how nice, it's giftwrapped!" Because that would be like saying, "Oh, how fun -- another box to open, and then break down and bring to the basement to be recycled!" This gets old fast. Opening the outer carton is more than enough, especially since there's usually a packing slip placed on top of the gift box, so you can see what's in it and who sent it without even bothering to untie the bow. And when you do send something giftwrapped, it means the store has to package it twice -- and, based on what I've seen, they tend to do a lousy job of that. So the main result is a big increase in bubblewrap, styrofoam peanuts and cardboard, and in effort on the part of the recipient. (The only exeption is Crate & Barrel -- their giftwrapping is very well done.) I don't mean to sound ungrateful, because I do appreciate the gesture. And When it's an isolated gift, having it wrapped may indeed be a nice touch, but for wedding gifts, save yourself the expense. I promise you, the couple won't mind.

Finally: I like to think I'm pretty mature, but I admit I laughed a lot when I saw this product packaging:Honey, I think this one's for youOh, I already have that.

(To read all my wedding-registry reviews, click here.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Dust to dust

One good thing about Ash Wednesday coming so early: We'll be well into Lent before the drugstores bring out the Easter candy! For the moment, they're still looking forward to Valentine's Day.

Not much time to blog today, what with the repenting and all, but I can offer a quick assessment of a contemplation-themed movie I watched last week. It's a Danish documentary from last August called The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, directed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær (and although the title makes it seem like further chapters are forthcoming, my understanding is that this is not so). I happened to catch it on the Sundance Channel -- it seemed like my kind of thing. And it was, to an extent. But by the end I found myself in a strange position, simultaneously admiring the director's storytelling and wishing she'd told more of the story. I liked the way she let the characters establish themselves slowly, with personal details emerging in their own time. But ultimately I wished she'd included more of those details. It seems there's much more to the story here, and certainly much more to Mr. Vig, than we get to see. At one point he mentions, casually, that he worked as "a parish priest," and the director never follows up on it! That little detail nagged at me for the rest of the movie. Watching him work so hard to turn his decrepit old mansion into a Russian Orthodox monastery and never hearing anything about his own religious background or convictions was frustrating, just as frustrating as when I'm watching parents struggle to control their kids on Supernanny and I have to guess at whether the man called "dad" is the children's biological father, or how long this single mother has been divorced, or whatever. I'd gladly hear less about Vig's issues with his parents if it meant I got to hear more about his faith, which does after all seem germane under the circumstances.

I'm not saying I wanted it to be longer -- it's just long enough at 84 minutes. I wouldn't want to disturb its simple beauty, or interfere with the personal drama (the relationship between Vig and Sister Amvrosija is quietly gripping). I just wanted to know more than I was told about these people and what brought them together. And I wanted their religious convictions to be investigated in greater depth. As a tale of unexpected conflict, it's quite lovely, but I suspect there's a tale of deep and inspiring faith here that hasn't fully been told.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Oh, I've been away so long I don't know where to start. I have a similar problem in my everyday life, actually: so much to do, and no obvious way to prioritize it all so that it gets done. I could spend all day just trying to make a to-do list. Here, then, in no particular order, are some of the things on my mind this week...

Moving to a new location Now that I'm married, I find myself moving, yet again, from one Manhattan apartment to another. Of course, this time the most painful part of moving -- finding a new apartment to move to -- was taken care of years earlier by my wonderful, forward-thinking husband. So it's just about the easiest Manhattan move I could ask for. Plus, my new digs are already furnished, and our recent deluge of wedding gifts means I can finally leave all my secondhand housewares behind. That yellow plastic strainer I found in a box in the basement of my parents' house when I was moving to my first apartment? The one that might be older than I am? It's been a good friend, but the time has come for me to say goodbye. There's a brand-new shiny metal colander waiting for me in Hell's Kitchen. Now I get to be the one handing things down!

Change of address Did you know you can arrange to have your mail forwarded online? Woo! Cross "go to post office" off my list of likely-to-be-miserable postwedding errands! It's fairly simple to do, but you are required to click through a lot of slightly sketchy advertising before they'll process your request. First comes a page where they remind you that they won't forward your catalogues, unless you specifically tell them to. But they don't just ask you which catalogues you'd like to have forwarded. They also supply an odd (and not at all comprehensive) list of retailers and invite you to "click NEW for catalogues you did not receive at your old address that you would like to receive at your new address." Does anyone ever take advantage of this opportunity? "All my life I've been dying to receive the J.Crew mail-order catalogue, and now, at last, I've found a way to make that dream come true!" I think not. Then you have to go through the usual "exclusive savings for movers" crap, and finally they give you the opportunity to choose a few magazines from their (again) odd and not-very-comprehensive list to which you'd like to subscribe, while you're at it. What? One of the best things about moving to a new address is that you leave all your junk mail behind you. It's a chance to start fresh! Escape the mess you've made! Evade those stupid charity trinkets for just a few months! And it only costs a dollar! Why would anyone, at this point in the process, opt to increase their intake of junk mail? And do people really subscribe to magazines this casually? For me it is a serious process, a decision to enter into a committed relationship. It is not something I'd trust myself to handle spontaneously, while in the middle of moving.

Speaking of magazines I let all of my subscriptions lapse in the weeks leading up to the wedding, since I was too busy to keep up with the reading, and I knew I'd have to change the addresses eventually anyway. (None of my journals of choice were listed on the USPS site, by the way.) Right about now is when I thought I'd be resubscribing -- but Lent starts this week, and it occurs to me that putting off my magazine reading another 40 days might be a good sacrifice. Once I subscribe to something, I feel obliged, almost morally, to read it as soon as it arrives. Not having that obligation in my life has been liberating -- I've actually read books! -- and I think it will be spiritually edifying to keep the noise level down a bit longer, especially while the rest of my life is still so far from quiet. So I guess what I'm saying is, if any journalists want to publish any dull and lifeless profiles of any former Beatles, the next six weeks would be an ideal time to do that, because I probably won't be reading.

And speaking of Beatles While I was away on holiday, a group blog came into being, dedicated to the geeky discussion of all things Fab. Though likely to be the least erudite contributor, I am nevertheless honored to participate in the awesomely named Hey Dullblog. And as I settle into the mundanity of married life, I hope to be writing lots -- here, there and everywhere.