Monday, October 29, 2012

My brother in Next to Normal

My brother earns high praise for his performance as Henry in a new New York production of Next to Normal:
Sam Heldt is remarkable here, perhaps the best actor onstage.  In a commanding, funny and poignant turn, Heldt makes Henry someone you root for, someone you want to be a part of this family, someone who hasn’t gone through the Goodmans’ turmoil but who gets it and sticks around anyways.
Booyah! Good job, Sam!

You can read the full review here.

And for those of you who have never heard Sam sing, there are many videos of him on youtube.

This is my favorite:

Friday, October 26, 2012

A simple burger recipe

A purist's recipe. On my stove this produces a medium-rare burger. Other stoves may require an adjustment of the "2 minutes per side" I cite here.

-Form a quarter pound of 80/20 ground beef into a patty about one inch thick. Don't handle the meat too much. Be kind to your burger, and it will be kind to you.
-Heat a burner as hot as it will go. To treat your burger well you must torture the stove. Drizzle a little canola oil (not olive oil, which will burn and smoke) in a pan.
-Salt (and pepper, if you want) both sides of the patty. LIBERALLY. This is important.
-Lay the patty down in the pan over the flame. Do not move it for two minutes. Don't touch it at all. Use these two minutes to think about what you want from your life. (Tip: if you decide you want a burger, you will not be disappointed.)
-Scrape the patty off the pan in one deft, swooping motion so that none of the yummy crust is lost, and flip it over. Note: a more loosely packed patty will require a defter scrape and flip for the patty to remain intact. Be careful.

-Add cheese if you like cheese. You will need to cover the pan to melt the cheese.
-Do not move the patty for two minutes. Use these two minutes to congratulate yourself. You've almost done it!
-Remove the patty from the pan and set on a plate to rest for ~5 minutes. This step is important, because if you do not wait long enough, all the delicious juice will flood from the burger as soon as you bite into it. This waiting time can be adjusted, however, depending on how hungry you are.
-You have previously used your down time to make yourself happier. Now use it to make your burger happier. Toast your bun in the same pan, watching to make sure it doesn't burn. You might also conceivably butter the bun before putting it in the pan, which should give a nice crispy golden color.
-Once the bun is toasted remove it and arrange the components and condiments of the burger as desired. There is no wrong way to do this. But don't fuck it up. (I like a little mustard on my home-cooked burgers, and nothing else.)
-Eat your burger. Love yourself, because you have created a delicious meal.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A loss of burger innocence

At some point I stopped enjoying hamburgers as much. I think it was about the same time I turned on my critical faculties each time I ate one and started using silly foodie words like "mouthfeel." The more hamburgers I ate, the less I found an average hamburger appealing. Where before I could forgive imperfections, because I never cared to notice them, when I eat a burger now all I can taste are the imperfections. Maybe there's a good patty, but the bun isn't soft enough, or toasted well enough. The lettuce and tomato are good, but there's not enough of them to taste. The cheese isn't melted. The patty is cooked unevenly. The patty is cooked to medium, not medium-rare. On and on and on. None of the flaws I've just described are fatal to a burger's flavor, but they might as well be for how much they turn me off.

I am very good at cooking hamburgers
Once upon a time I ordered hamburgers all the time. For lunch, for dinner, for special occasions, for no reason at all. Those were happy times, when burgers were a source of great joy. Now I stay away from the burger unless I have a compelling reason to think it will be good. I'm describing a loss of burger innocence. I've gained discerning taste when it comes to burgers, and I've learned a lot about how to prepare them well. But never again will I be able to pull off a top bun to reveal a sad disk of grey meat without writing a tiny burger eulogy in my heart even before taking a bite. Before I wouldn't have noticed, and now I can't help noticing.
These pictures aren't good, but I include them because they remind me of good hamburgers.
When I'm out to dinner with my parents, they always make a point to mention if a hamburger is on the menu. They still think I love hamburgers. And I do. But I'd rather not eat one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Taken 2

I've been turning over Taken 2 in my mind. Maybe it doesn't deserve it. It's a pretty dumb movie, but I'm not one to stop thinking about dumb things. I would argue that it's actually the self-evidently dumb things that deserve the most scrutiny, especially when they're so baldly composed for mass consumption and profit.


Does the Taken franchise say something about the state of feminism in the modern movie industry, or in the modern action movie?

The first film imagines a world in which women are objects to be squabbled over by men. Most of the woman on-screen are drugged sex slaves. Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) seems angrier that his ex-wife is happy with a new man than that she doesn't love him anymore. The only other woman I can remember, the wife of one of Mills' colleagues (a colleague who turns out to be a bad guy), has perhaps the most anti-feminist fate: she is shot by Mills for no reason besides torturing her husband with her potential death. I'll say that again. She is not shot as a means to torture her. She is shot to torture her husband. This is her only scene in the movie.

That's all pretty gross. But is Taken 2 worse?

On its surface, the answer is no. There's much more for the female cast members of Taken 2 to do. But soon enough things get bad for them.

Taken 2 revisits the woman's-pain-is-really-man's-pain conceit again, this time to torture Brian Mills. His ex-wife is hung upside down from a bundle of chains in a dirty basement and cut on the neck. We're told she'll bleed out in about 30 minutes. This is done to torture Mills by forcing him to watch her die. The ex-wife in this movie has much the same role the daughter did in the first film: kidnapped and held by nefarious men, her character is the justification for Mills to mete out righteous justice on her captors.

Throughout much of the movie Mills' daughter (Maggie Grace) actually gets to participate in the action. At various points she eludes potential Albanian kidnappers, throws grenades, and pilots a car during a chase through the crowded streets of Istanbul. But she cannot escape her father's voice. Even as she's running from kidnappers across the rooftops of the city, Brian yells directions at her through a cell phone. The car chase scene is almost comical: her father will just not stop shouting at her from the passenger seat. She is not allowed to do anything for herself--only allowed to do what her father, the most important man in her life, dictates. She is something like a marionette, pulled by invisible strings.

I can imagine a version of Taken 2 that isn't anti-feminist. In it, Brian Mills is kidnapped and his ex-wife and daughter are forced to summon resourcefulness and grit to get him back. But that is not how the movie turned out. Brian Mills is, in fact, taken. But Taken 2 thinks its more likely that he would free himself than that a woman might be capable of rescuing him on her own.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Master

There's a scene, somewhere near the beginning of the end of The Master, in which the movie tells its viewers--shouts at us, really--that Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character, Lancaster Dodd, is a charlatan. That his methods are bullshit, and he's not even competent enough to keep his own bullshit straight.

It's the book release scene. Dodd is going to give a speech, but beforehand he sits alone in a dark room, worried. Then he gives the speech. It's pretty bad. Afterwards we hear from a few of Dodd's true believers, who think that the new book sucks. Laura Dern even calls him out face to face. Through it all Dodd seems detached, almost disinterested.

As I watched this, I wondered: why? Why is Dodd suddenly incompetent? The whole thing left me unsatisfied, and colored my response to the rest of the movie.

When the movie was over I thought back to the scene, the source of my discontent. I felt that the beginning and end of the movie managed that strange alchemy that movies manage sometimes, in which scenes and images blend into some coherent artistic whole. But the middle, and that book release scene, well, that felt different. It felt petty, and strange.

I read a bunch of reviews, and agreed with them all, good or bad. The good reviews said that The Master was a great work of art. I agree with that. It is a special film. The bad reviews said that The Master has an incoherent plot. I agreed with that, too.

My major problem with the film related to Dodd's character, though. In the first half of the first he possesses charm, charisma, conviction, and intelligence. All of sudden, around that book party scene, he loses all of it. It's just gone. This rubbed me the wrong way.

Most of the rest of the movie works for me, but I left feeling that the opportunity to really explore the nature of cult and the power of a cult leader had been squandered.

P.S.: Would The Master have been better if it had been 2.5 hours of Joaquin Phoenix's face? I think so. His face is unbelievable.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


This video has been frequently commented upon in the fallout of the Matt Cassel cheering scandal. (For those who don't know: Matt Cassel of the Kansas City Chiefs suffered a concussion in a game last week, and it seemed as though the fans--the Kansas City fans--cheered, celebrating Cassel's injury.) But tied into Eric Winston's "disgust" at the fans' reaction is his consent to be subject and actor of intense physical violence that will likely reduce his and his fellow players lifespans.

Adults are free to make choices that put their lives in jeopardy. And, in a game like football, where consent is implied in the contracts signed by the players, it seems permissible, if a little strange, for adults to make choices that put other adults' lives in jeopardy.

Cassel's speech invokes some pretty difficult stuff--he insists, twice, that football players are not gladiators. But at the same time he acknowledges that he is risking his life, or his quality of life, to play football. Without spectators his choice to play football as he knows it is not possible. I would argue that the difference between football players (or maybe all professional athletes) and gladiators is one of expectation. Football players and gladiators both enter an arena where the rules of society are nullified and new, less restrictive rules are imposed. Both use their bodies and tools to inflict violence on their opponents as a necessary condition of "winning". The difference is that we expect all the players to survive the football game. We only expect to see horrible season-ending or career-ending injuries in every football game.

Violence is part of the appeal of football. What Eric Winston is disgusted by is not physical violence, but a sort of existential violence. Even though football is violence, and he can expect his body to be harmed by it, he doesn't want to accept that this is what fans like about it. But isn't this what it means to "sacrifice the body for the team"?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lincoln, again

Another Lincoln trailer. Hmm....

-I appreciate attempts to connect the Civil Rights Movement with the Civil War.  But tracing the line between them requires traveling through some pretty dark stuff--reconstruction, the post-reconstruction "nadir" of African American experience, Jim Crow, etc. The image of MLK Jr. at the beginning of this trailer was instead a ham-handed way of saying that Lincoln, like MLK, was a "uniter". Someone who "unites" the people. Then we get stock photos of other "uniters." Some soldiers? Nelson Mandela? First wave feminists? Gandhi? What? If Spielberg wants me to think that Lincoln is going to be complete nonsense, this is perfect way to do it. It's some meaningless post-modern melange of symbols, which need not be American (though, obviously, the soldiers are--no foreign soldiers can "unite" like we can).
-The trailer makes clear that the movie is about the 13th amendment. Excellent. If nothing else, the film's focus (i.e. its focus on something other than the Emancipation Proclamation) should help make clear that the end of slavery was a lot more complicated than often assumed.
-Interesting interplay between Lincoln the Emancipator and Lincoln the Power Hungry. I wonder to what extent the film will indulge the neo-confederate fantasy that Lincoln was a dictator at the head of the War of Northern Aggression (I can tell you the answer. It's not at all). "I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power!" What a great line.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rejection and Encouragement

I received a different sort of rejection letter last week. A typical response is a canned, impersonal email that doesn't provide the reasons my story didn't make the cut. This rejection was a personal response from a market that rarely provides personal responses. It informed me that my story had made the final round of consideration for publication and provided me with comments from the editors, both positive and negative (mostly negative).

So the result of this rejection was the same as all others: I didn't get published. But the quality of the rejection suggests that, not only did they like my story enough to talk seriously about it, but they liked my prospects for future stories enough that they threw me a bone. They thought that by sending a personal response with some encouragement in it they might compel me to submit again. It worked! I've already submitted another story to that market.

This is a little bit of a brag post, but also a marker. Until now the only people reading my stories seriously have been friends and family. This rejection suggests that other people I've never met (editors for a professional publication, no less) took my writing seriously enough to read it carefully. That feels pretty good.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What I read this month

The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum. I picked up this book after reading "The House Beyond Your Sky" by Rosenbaum in Strange Horizons. I love that story. It features a lot of big ideas and an epic scope, but takes care with its characters. It builds a world and populates it with a few people a reader can give a crap about--it's a really good science fiction story.

I hoped to get more of the same in this collection of short stories, but the mix of the large-scale and small-scale interest that I found in "The House Beyond Your Sky" was generally missing. Several stories made a habit of being wacky, sometimes wallowing in randomness, like the title story, "The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale." There were a few exceptions: "A Siege of Cranes" is a big story, with a compelling plot and a few compelling characters, that reads like a nightmare. "Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes," by Benjamin Rosenbaum" manages to take the randomness that cripples other stories and make it the point of the story, building a thesis about chance, fate, and authorial intent. I liked most of the stories, but didn't love them. I didn't feel like I needed to read more after I'd finished the book.

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld. The second book set in the "Uglies" universe, of four. I had some problems with Uglies, the first book in this series. I had problems with the logic of the world: why is the shady central government absent from Tally's life in certain convenient ways that make her propensity for mischief possible? Why are penalties for breaking the rules of this society so light? Why does Special Circumstances leave so much to chance when they send Tally to find The Smoke? Why does Special Circumstances care so much about The Smoke? Why not let them go their own way? This sort of stuff. The main problem, though, was Tally. Tally is not very interesting. She's not particularly smart or intuitive and, frankly, she bored me. Maybe that's a little harsh, but she's not going to read this, so whatever.

These problems largely remain in Pretties, though at the end of the book Special Circumstances threatens Tally with consequences that seem proportional to her crimes. Had that threat come earlier in the novel, however, (instead of merely being implied) it would have helped deepen the conflict and brought Tally's motives into sharper relief. More world-building problems arise in Pretties, too.

My negative comments here have to be taken in context: I devoured this book. It moves quickly. There's a ton of action. I cared more about Tally in Pretties than I did in Uglies, because with an entire first book under her belt she seemed somehow more substantial. However, I haven't gone to buy Specials, the third book, yet. I'm not in a hurry to find out what happens, though I'm sure when I finally start Specials I won't be able to put it down.

1491 by Charles C. Mann. A review of research into the historical record of the pre-Columbian Americas. A compelling book that peeled away many of my (previously unexamined) beliefs and prejudices regarding Native Americans and their societies. Though "about" what happened before Columbus, the book spends a fair amount of its length discussing what happened after Europeans came. It has to, to build a credible case that most of the native population had died of disease by the time Europeans began to take detailed records of local populations. And it takes the reader through the early days of the Pilgrims, Pizarro's conquest of Peru, and Cortez's conquest of Mexico, to show that the old canard--Europeans won because they were technologically superior than the Indians--is, if not entirely false in every case, not the whole story.

A coda at the end of the book suggests that Native Americans had a larger cultural impact on European settlers of North America than historians and anthropologists often assume. I'm not in a position to seriously debate the claims of professional researchers, but even if the claim is reckless and stupid it wouldn't change its importance. The first few hundred years of the United States were of time of extreme bigotry, racial violence, and social darwinian explanations of the supremacy of the white race. No matter the outcome of the inquiry, its worth scrutinizing American history to unpack our modern racial baggage, and to give Native American people and cultures the respect they deserve.