Thursday, April 25, 2013

Every Silver Lining Has a Dark Cloud


Amazon informs me that Silver Linings Playbook will arrive April 30. I caught this flick, which won Jennifer Lawrence her Oscar, in the theater, but decided to add it to the DVD shelf anyway as something of recent vintage to watch with company. (Many of my repeat visitors who stay for a movie are doubtful about the 40-90 y.o. pics that occupy a majority of my shelf-space.)

Romantic comedies of the current century rarely succeed both commercially and critically. Not everyone liked Silver Linings Playbook, to be sure. Richard Brody in The New Yorker wrote an interesting but idiosyncratic review that was blistering toward the screenplay, though he expressed sympathy for the actors: “In other words, the plot is utterly ridiculous, the characters are created merely to fulfill its requirements, and whatever charm and integrity the movie possesses issues from the actors, who do their damnedest to lend their scriptbots flesh and soul.” Beyond this, he detected a “conservative” world-view in the film that was not to his liking. (I know nothing about the politics or philosophy of writer/director David Russell, but, just by the odds in Hollywood, I suspect this interpretation surprised him – it surprised me.) Overall, though, reviews were glowing, from Roger Ebert at the Sun-Times to Manohla Dargis at The New York Times.

Brody is right about the plot being contrived, but so are the plots of nearly all RomComs. In this one, we see two people with serious but manageable mental illnesses – plus supportive but flawed and stressed-out families – who might just be right for each other.

I side with The New York Times on this one rather than The New Yorker, but the fact that Silver Linings Playbook is a rarity raises a question. RomComs once were a well-regarded genre, yet in the past decade few have won as many as three stars on Rotten Tomatoes. What happened? Christopher Orr in The Atlantic addresses this question in an article titled Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad? He laments “the long decline from Katherine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl.” To be fair to Miss Heigl, Hepburn had vastly superior scripts, e.g. Bringing up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. I don’t think the elder Katherine could have done any more than the younger one with Knocked Up or The Ugly Truth. Yet, the question remains: why are today’s scripts inferior? Orr’s thesis is that RomComs rely on couples overcoming obstacles to be together, “but society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.” The rare genre film that succeeds, he suggests, comes up with an obstacle we as viewers are willing to credit, such as the mental issues in Silver Linings Playbook or the age issues (the romantic duo are 12) in Moonrise Kingdom.

There is something to this, but I think something more basic is at work, too. By and large, we 21st century folk have become much more cynical about the whole idea of romantic love – at least as something other than a temporary aberration that enters and leaves our lives now and again. It is this cynicism which keeps us from buying into the premises of most modern RomComs; we give a pass to the classic films, which so often ended with a marriage, because “people thought about things differently then.” The declining rate of marriage in real life reflects an increasingly widespread opinion (at least in hetero circles) that no good can come of it. (Not everyone agrees, of course.) Singles are a majority of adults, and most are just fine with that status. This already was an issue for screenwriters in the 90s. In Blast from the Past (1999), a successful RomCom, Alicia Silverstone informs Brendan Fraser, “Marriage bites! ... Everybody knows that. Ask my divorced sisters. Or ask my divorced mom and dad." Brendan doesn’t know that (thereby providing a work-around for the happy ending) because he has been raised with 1962 values.

It’s not just marriage. All forms of long-term coupling face the same image problem. When I saw the adventure film The Avengers in the theater, Scarlett Johansson, as Black Widow, got audience applause for her line, “Love is for children.”

How did we get this way? I don’t pretend to know (though I have some ideas), but it’s a trend that’s hard to miss. It presents screenwriters with a challenge that only a few overcome. Moonrise Kingdom worked because…well…the protagonists are children. We’ll buy Silver Linings Playbook because they’re crazy. Either of those conditions could account for it. For anyone else we demand more convincing explanations.

For full screen, start and double-click


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mutual Punishment


Last night The Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade (hereafter JDB) women’s roller derby league on its home rink in Morristown NJ in an interleague bout faced off against the Petticoat Punishers of the Bay State Brawlers (hereafter BSB), visiting from Lancaster, MA.

A rule change since last season has made for a faster start. Formerly, jams began with two whistles, one releasing the blockers and the second releasing the jammers. All are now released with a single whistle, which makes for a sudden melee and, often, a rapid breakthrough by one or both jammers.

BSB jammers #80 Translucid, #007 B-Line Blondie, and #34DD Ashlee Juggz proved very adept at bursting through the blockers in the first few second of jams, and snared an early point lead for BSB. Juggz showed exceptional perseverance, at one point coming back on the track after a full minute in the penalty box and still managing to score points in a two minute jam. The JDB operated without two of last season’s major assets (Maggy Kyllanfall and Baked Beanz), and relied more heavily on #AK-47 Assault Shaker, #394 Voldeloxx, and #3684 CaliforniKate as jammers. Along with #57 Heinz Catchup, they helped tie the score, and then edge the JDB into the lead. At halftime the score stood 117-107.

At halftime, the Jersey Junior Roller Derby (JJRD), featuring skaters aged 8-17, skated an exhibition bout between the teams Purple People Eaters and Beach Barracudas. Despite an early lead by Purple People Eaters, the final victory went to Beach Barracudas 96-81, with much of the margin due to an impressive power jam by Baby Betty. Special mention also to Deviled Leggz and Wheel Wolf (Purple), and Kid Vicious (Beach). MVPs were Baby Betty and Damage Patch Kid.

The adult second half resumed with a determined push by BSB to regain the lead. Neither side gave up points easily. Blocking was well coordinated, and when acting individually, #63 Raven Rage (JDB) and #6ftd Kenya Diggit (BSB) were especially effective. BSB nonetheless closed the gap and nudged ahead. When penalties left only two JDB blockers on the track Juggz in a power jam expanded the BSB lead 133-156. A multiple pass through the pack by AK-47 restored a lead  to JDB, and Heinz piled on, more than once overtaking the opposing jammer. Heinz added to the lead in the final jam. The clock ran out with the score 250-199 in favor of JDB.

MVPs were B-Line Blondie for BSB and Raven Rage for JDB.

All in all, the teams were exceptionally well matched, and delivered an exciting bout. Also, it good to see the JJRD show that the ranks of derby teams will stay full for some time to come.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

The First Step is a Doozy


David Wong is something of a hero of mine. I should point out that David Wong doesn’t exist. Well, that’s not quite right. Wong is one of the most common surnames on the planet, so it is very likely that David Wongs exist – but the one about whom I’m writing doesn’t. Jason Pargin, editor at Cracked.com, does exist, however, and “David Wong” is the pseudonym under which he authored John Dies at the End a little over a decade ago. He explains posting the novel on the internet thus:

“I posted it under a fake name – my family, friends, and coworkers didn’t know I had written it, since asking a loved one to read your unfinished manuscript is considered a form of assault in Illinois…Then I would give the finished product away online, for free, while I worked for $8 an hour doing data entry in a cubicle.”

There things stood until 2006 when he employed one of those print-on-demand houses for a paperback version whereby “a few thousand copies of John Dies at the End were unleashed on the world.” One of those paperbacks fell into the hands of Don Coscarelli, writer/director of off-beat horror films including Phantasm and Bubba-Hotep. He contacted Dave/Jason (not without difficulty), and the movie John Dies at the End hit theaters in 2012. The novel and its sequel This Book is Full of Spiders – Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It now have a traditional publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, and are selling well.

I like the book and the movie, which are funny in a way reminiscent of Douglas Adams. The concept: a street drug called soy sauce alters the mind in a way that opens a psychic door to another dimension where dreadful things reside and want to come through. Think HP Lovecraft on laughing gas. What I like even more, though, is that Wong/Pargin succeeded against all odds with his nontraditional publishing methods. (It’s tempting me to post a novel presently available in a dead tree version – a few dozen short stories are online at richardbellush2.blogspot.com.)

Those odds are huge. The six major traditional publishing houses in New York each receive an average of 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts per month while publishing only a few hundred new titles (most by established authors) per year. 81% of Americans say they want to write a book. (I suspect most want to have written a book, which is not the same thing.) Only a tiny fraction ever do, but in a nation of 314,000,000 people, that still means millions of manuscripts are gathering dust in drawers – or, nowadays, occupying bytes on a flash drive. Nor is the potential readership as large as one might think – it is, in fact, smaller than the pool of wannabe authors. The New York Times reports that Americans on average read 4 books per year, but this is misleading – and not just because one person who reads 24 and five people who read 0 average 4. It includes books read as required assignments for school or work. If you look just at recreational reading the figures are even more dismal. From the Jenkins Group publishers:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42% of college graduates never read another book after college.
A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies.
A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies.

The recreational reading market nonetheless remains big enough. Now, at last, there are ways to reach it without a traditional publisher: online and for free, or print on demand, the way David Wong did. There’s generally no money in that, true enough, but the truth is that for most writers there is no money in it anyway. As in music or the other arts, a handful of performers make fortunes, but nearly all the rest are out-of-pocket. David, though, shows it is possible. Step One: write a first-rate book. Yes, I know: that’s a very very tall step.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

They're Ba-ack


This year’s women’s Roller Derby season in nearby Morristown, NJ, got off to a rousing start with a bout between the local NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) All Stars and the visiting Strong Island Derby Revolution. The teams were adjusting to recent rule changes, including the elimination of minor penalties (minor penalties were for rule violations that didn’t substantively affect play). The changes seem likely to add more rough to the rough-and-tumble.

The announcer more than once referred to sloppiness in the teams’ adjustment to the new rules, but, if that criticism is warranted, it is a sloppiness the NJRD would do well to retain. The NJRD snared an early lead in the first jam as Maulin Rouge scored points at the beginning of what would be an outstanding game for her. Shannanigunz (listed in the roster below simply as Gunz) and Miss USAhole also scored big as jammers for NJRD, but not without encountering firm opposition from Strong Island. Miss USAhole at one point was knocked to the floor three times in a single jam (jams last two minutes unless the lead jammer calls it off early) but still managed to score. Pixie Bust, back on the track after a knee injury last year, acted as pivot (lead blocker) for much of the game for NJRD, and Yoshi was particularly effective as a blocker. Both teams frequently blocked by forming walls four skaters wide across the track, often effectively. Strong Island remained competitive through the fist half, with Bitesize Brawler (411) and Ann T. Virus (24) especially effective as jammers; Blade E. MacBeth (17), Eve’l EnForcHer (27) and Jenney from the Block (13) offered strong support. At halftime the score stood at 122-38 favoring NJRD, a hefty but not insurmountable lead.

Halftime events at the local roller derby matches range from nonexistent to rock bands to Irish dancers. One never knows. Last night the halftime included a 20 minute Junior Bout between the Jersey Junior Roller Derby and the Red Bank Riot Girls. It was a surprisingly energetic match, with special mention to Clare Beware, Banana Split and Baby Betty. The biggest crowd pleaser, though, was Breezy, who, standing at half the height of some of the older girls, scored points in a power jam. The score was 60-27 in favor of JJRD.

In the second half of the adult match, Strong Island pushed to catch up. Aided by power jams by Molocchia (20/20) and Bitesize Brawler, they narrowed the point gap and threatened the NJRD lead. (Power jams occur when the opposing team is unable to score because their jammer is in the penalty box.) It was a good push, but not enough. NJRD pushed back and rebuilt its lead, with Shannanigunz and Maulin Rouge adding points in the final two jams.

The final score was 223-136 in favor of NJRD, a good start for the 2013 season.










Thursday, April 11, 2013

Forever Young


The first known appearance of the word “teenager” is in a Popular Science article published in 1941. It caught on immediately, and by 1945 the word was everywhere. People recognized the existence of the teen years prior to 1941, of course, just as we recognized the 30s as a distinct age span before “thirtysomething” entered the language in the 1980s with the TV show Thirtysomething. (For those who don’t remember it, Boomers in the show were, as usual, obsessing about themselves; one hopes we’ll be spared a show called Sixtysomething.) Labels like “teenager” and “thirtysomething,” each evoking a particular image, crop up when they fill a need.

In 1920 the need hadn’t yet arisen. There was a brash and defiant youth culture, to be sure, but it was called precisely that: youth culture. The participants were “youths” (plus such older folks who tried to be youths). “Youth” was a broader term than “teenager” would be. Teens were indeed counted among the youths, but so were college-age people. The termination age for youth was fuzzy and flexible but generally was in the mid-to-late-20s somewhere. The 1920s still grab our attention, for the age-of-the-flapper was the first time a full-blown modern youth-oriented pop culture took center stage. All the basic elements (pop music, pop fashion, dance fads, movie idols, etc.) were there. From all appearances, it was a grand party. It ended with a Crash.

By 1941 youth culture was back, but with a difference. I don’t mean the idealized (and unrealistic) wholesomeness served up by Hollywood in the likes of Andy Hardy and Nancy Drew, so much less worrying to their parents than the flappers and sheiks of the 20s. (Even the Dead End Kids, Hollywood told us, were fundamentally decent and just needed a little guidance.) I mean the more restricted notion of youth: the teenager. The reason for the revised standard was high school. In 1900 only 5% of American teens attended high school. In 1920, 26% attended. Only in the 1930s when attendance became compulsory (less as a measure to further learning than as a Depression-era attempt to influence wages by reducing the labor supply) did a majority of teens attend high school. High school created a near-universal experience; even those who left school early were shaped and identified by it, becoming high school dropouts. High school created a vast distinct cadre who needed a word: teenagers. Ever since they were labeled, adults have worried that something is wrong with them. They are right, there is. There always is. There always is something wrong with adult perception and response, too. Putting that point aside for now, youth culture was very largely teenage culture in the decades following WW2.

A shift in the 21st century, however, may call for a revival of the more expansive 1920s way of looking at youth, and perhaps of the term “youths.” As big a percentage of Americans attend college today as attended high school in the 1930s, and there isn’t as much difference between college and high school as there once was. When I was in school (in ancient days) all the trends were to lowering the age of adulthood: the voting age dropped to 18, legal drinking ages dropped to 18, and curfew ordinances disappeared. Even in high school the trend was to open campuses and reduced control. No more. The drinking age is back up to 21, driver’s licenses have become staged, curfews are back, and campuses are on lockdown. Nor does graduating college confer adulthood, as graduates face a sour job market and more time (possibly years) living with parent(s).

So, youth once again stretches toward 30 … or past 30, at least in the minds of over-30s. (Not so much in the minds of under 30s.) Way past. What’s more, we’re OK with it. We’re proud to be Peter Pan and Wendy. What brought all this to mind, in fact, was a article in The Atlantic by Elizabeth Wurtzel titled I Refuse to Be a Grown-up (http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/04/i-refuse-to-be-a-grown-up/274918/). Ms. Wurtzel acknowledges her refusal to be a grown-up and celebrates it. I acknowledge my own refusal, too, by the way, though I don’t celebrate it so much as worry about it.

Have we finally become a land where there are no adults? Well, that would explain a lot.

Teenagers run wild in Teenage Doll (1957).



Friday, April 5, 2013

The Neanderthal Way


Average male wages in the US peaked in real terms in 1973, and have been in uneven but long-term decline ever since. Average household income during this period was rescued, and even edged upward (according to the Census Bureau, from $47,500 in 1973 to $50,000 today – inflation-adjusted and rounded to the nearest $500), thanks to rising female wages. Women now dominate higher education, making up 60% of undergrad college students, and they earn a majority of the degrees up through and including PhDs. So, it’s a safe bet women will continue their relative economic rise. Pretty much the same pattern exists in all Western countries.

Despite this – and against the expectations of economic determinists – there has been little change in the way the sexes relate to each other. It seems almost every day we read of some study by baffled researchers remarking on this. Yesterday’s Telegraph reported, “Research gathered in a scientific speed-dating study reveals that when it comes to the rules of attraction people behave like stereotypical Neanderthals.” Participants in the study (http://www.pnas.org/content/104/38/15011.full) said all the fuzzy PC things when asked what they sought in a mate, but, when put to the test, men picked pretty women while women picked wealthy men, just as one might have expected a century ago. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s quip apparently still has legs: “I want a man who's kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”

Yet, it is easy to overstate the case for the stereotypes, and the very structure of speed-dating may be responsible for these particular results. Participants in speed-dating, by design, don’t have time to assess their interlocutors with anything much more than primal (evolution-honed?) responses. Given more time, they might consider other factors.

Susan A. Patton (alum of Princeton, President of the Class of ’77, successful owner of an NY human resources consultancy) raised a firestorm last week when she delivered what some regarded as antediluvian advice to the current female students of Princeton. She urged them to find husbands while at Princeton. She explained that men don’t care so much about brains (earning potential?) in their partners, but women should – and, after Princeton, they’re just going to meet a bunch of dumbasses: “It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” She caught heat for (among other things) saying to the young women that marriage is a “cornerstone of your future and happiness” – and her noun choices indicate heterosexual marriage at that.

I’m not entering the fray about marriage and cornerstones, but I do call attention to the implications of the “if” in Ms. Patton’s “if she is exceptionally pretty.” I’m not the only one who noticed it. Catherine Rampell in The New York Times noted it and referred to a study relating BMI (Body Mass Index), education, and wages to marriage preferences. (See   http://econpapers.repec.org/article/ucpjpolec/doi_3a10.1086_2f667941.htm.) The authors of the study actually put numbers to the trade-offs in these factors that people make in their partners. In our overweight times, low BMI can be used as a rough (though imperfect) substitute for physical attractiveness. The authors’ longitudinal analysis of American marriage data shows that men willingly trade 2 units of BMI for each year of a partner’s education, while women trade 1.3 units of BMI for each 1% change in a partner’s wages. In other words, women can be less educated but still retain the same level of appeal if they are thinner (by 2 units of BMI for each year of missing education), while men can be poorer but retain their appeal if they are thinner (by 1.3 units for each 1% drop in wages) – or, if you prefer, women can be fatter if brainy, while men can be fatter if rich. So, yes, Ms. Patton’s “if” appears to be correct, but we as easily could phrase her remark the other way around, i.e. “It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of pulchritude, if she is exceptionally erudite.” Remarks on male looks and money can be phrased two ways, too. So, maybe we’re not so Neanderthal after all – somewhat, but not entirely. Men do count more than looks and women do count more than resources.

A marvelous Woody Allen movie from 1995 that relates is Mighty Aphrodite. (BMI is not an issue for any major character in the movie, but beauty nonetheless is.) The plot: Lenny (Woody Allen) and his arty intellectual wife Amanda (Helena Carter) adopt a son who is exceptionally bright. Curious about the child’s biological parents, Lenny (illegally) seeks out the mother, who turns out to be an intellectually challenged but utterly stunning prostitute named Linda Ash, played by Mira Sorvino. Complicating matters is Amanda’s dalliance with a rich investor from the Hamptons. *Spoiler*: Despite the obvious appeal of Linda, Lenny ends up sticking with Amanda, with whom he really does have more in common. Mira Sorvino, by the way, though she clearly is having fun in this part (for which she won an Oscar), in her own life graduated cum laude from Harvard.