Friday, August 31, 2012

At the Movies with Amy Wilson: Impassioned Defenses of Universally Panned Films

I recently submitted to the McSweeney's Internet Tendency Column Contest, which I did not win (evidently) but which required me to write one full example column for the submission.

Writing it was one of the more excruciating experiences of my recent life. It required nearly a whole pint of soy ice cream, more repeats of "Private Dancer" than I care to count up, reading through fifty pages of GoodReads quotes on writing, and a nascent groove in the carpeting of my new place.

(Even as I was pacing, I was thinking, "well geez, this is kind of a writerly cliche isn't it, never thought I'd actually be PACING," but there I was. Pacing.)

The concept of the column was somewhat similar to what I've already been doing here, except with movies and TV instead of music. The "Universally Panned" part would probably be occasionally tossed out the window, because you know I roll with that kind of stuff. "Self-imposed rules" and whatever. And in the in-between time of submitting the column and waiting for the results to be announced, I had the following thoughts:

- oh SHIT I hope I do not get this column, I have no good ideas of anything to write about ever.

- oh SHIT I hope I do not get this column, then they'll publish that example column I wrote which ended up being sort of confessional, whoops, uh oh. 

- well actually I really do hope I get this column! (it's healthy to squash that kind of thought down when you're a writer submitting to things, though)

So in total, I never have any good ideas of anything to write about ever -- until I do (but that seems normal, at least according to fifty pages of GoodReads quotes about writing). And yes, the example column turned out confessional to the point that it made me nervous to contemplate it being published, so in a way I was relieved to learn I was not selected.

But NO. That is NO WAY TO LIVE. You gotta fight for it! Maya Angelou and Stephen King and Douglas Adams and Joan Didion have my back on that one, I know.

So here's the first installment of At The Movies With Amy Wilson: Impassioned Defenses of Universally Panned Films, published by me. Plz enjoy.

* * * * * *

"No Strings Attached"

If there's one thing I love it's a theory.

There's this theory that people come in three varieties of love: anxious, avoidant, and secure.

The anxious lack a certain sense of object permanence, they are convinced the world outside really does disappear when they close their eyes.

The avoidant are described by Simon & Garfunkel, as rocks, as islands.

And the secure? Who knows. They are supposedly all around us. Doing their thing. Being happy. Perhaps they are the people depicted in the ads for Beaches, the ultimate all-inclusive family vacation resort.


So I guess there are people out there who were born knowing, as Lil Wayne says, How to Love. I'm not one of them.  

How to love, I should clarify, in a way that does not feel like scooping something from a jar, throwing it as hard as possible against a brick wall, then replacing the quivering mass in the jar and waiting until it has stopped quivering enough to be scooped again.

Not to be melodramatic, ha ha ha!

But how to love in a way that is lasting, a way that is clear and true, a way that appears to the outside observer like two mustangs yoked together -- that's the way I'd like to know how to love, the way I was not born knowing.

In an ongoing effort to learn, I've turned to Film although I never was a Film Person and so there is so much I barely feel I have the language to talk about. Joan Didion once said, and I really hesitate to quote Joan Didion here but I sort of have to, Joan Didion once said, "Grammar is a piano I play by ear. The only thing I know of grammar is its power."

I know power when I see it, and I define power the same way I would define art: It's what's beautiful and meaningful and universal and yet also very specific.


It's found in unexpected places, like the 2011 film No Strings Attached starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.

Here's what I'd like to put forth in defense of this film:

1. You've got to be willing to accept, and I feel the average thinking person is willing to accept this but it can't hurt to reiterate, that Hollywood moves in strange ways and if it can possibly figure out a way to make something crappier, it will do so. This includes doing things like making the trailer and the marketing of a film depict almost an entirely different film than what you actually get, in the not completely unreasonable line of thinking that people are quite stupid and Can't Handle The Truth.

So if you collared somebody and asked him what the 2011 film No Strings Attached starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher is about, he might only be able to say that it's about friends with benefits --

-- because some person somewhere with power watches the Today Show obsessively and so thinks that friends with benefits are all anyone under the age of 27 ever thinks about, and isn't that kicky --

and he might also get it confused with the 2011 film Friends With Benefits starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, which would be a shame because that movie is not nearly as good as No Strings Attached.

2. It's not really about friends with benefits, because the two characters are never really friends. They have friends, both of them have multiple friends of various genders which in and of itself sets this movie apart from your average romantic comedy, but the two of them begin their acquaintance with each other with a romantic/sexual tinge. Which is all well and good, but that's not being friends. It's a love story.

3. It's a love story wherein one of the characters seems quite normal with love although he struggles with it a normal-person way (that's Ashton Kutcher) and the other one of the characters is fucked in the head about love to an alarming extent (that's Natalie Portman).

You don't get to see why she is fucked in the head about love to an alarming extent. The movie does not go spelunking in her past. It gives her more dignity than that, by simply saying "look, here is a reasonably functional person [she is a doctor] but she has a serious problem with not allowing herself to ever need anybody and it's started interfering with her life because she met this cute guy who looks mighty fine in an expensive sweater." (That's Ashton Kutcher.)

What this character proposes as a way of getting around her serious problem is a No Strings Attached sex-only relationship between her and this new guy. Which is probably what led to the idea that this movie is about friends with benefits, but that idea obscures the fact that she proposes this out of her dysfunction, that it's not kicky at all, and that the movie is about her figuring that out.

It's not about whether men and women can be friends. It's not about whether two people can have sex and not be in a relationship. It's about how to love. It's about how this one specific person could love.

4. It's about this one specific person, which is what makes it brain candy to those of us sitting on our couches watching movies in an effort to understand life. Even if our specific issue is not the same as Natalie Portman's character in No Strings Attached (and mine, I could mention, is not), it's still instructive to see a reasonably functional person figure it out.

It's rare, that combination of "reasonably functional people" and "serious problems" and "things that get figured out". It's special. (No Strings Attached has the added benefit of a strong supporting cast including Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Lake Bell, That One Guy From New Girl (Not Schmidt), and Ludacris -- excuse me, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges.)

It's good writing.

"Good writing" is what I say when I love something. When I feel it describes something that could stand describing. When I feel it. It's how I feel about the Stone Poneys' song "Different Drum", and I know no higher praise than that.


It's a maligned genre, the romantic comedy, although the recent death of Nora Ephron has changed that for a bit.

But who does not want to look through the lighted windows of relationships that actually work? Who does not want to know how to love?


Upcoming installments on At The Movies With Amy Wilson:

Burlesque: the 2011 film starring Cher, Christina Aguilera, and Stanley Tucci. A testament to the power of GLITTER. (Which reminds me, I've got to see that one...)

Country Strong: also 2011, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw. A powerful (truly) film about fame and what it does to human relationships. Combined with tequila and ginger ale, has been known to make grown women weep. 

"Frasier"/"Twin Peaks": already throwing that "universally panned" thing to the side, this installment will probably end up being me writing about logs for 2,500 words.

Guys, I'm psyched. ONWARD.


Monday, August 27, 2012

I Refuse To Give Into My Blues, That's Not How It's Going To Be: "King of Wishful Thinking"


I have been occasionally known to say I am in a relationship with my blog, which is only about 25% a joke.

It's sort of better than conceptualizing it (being single) as being in a relationship with "myself", as some self-help-y folk will tell you to do. Because the thing about being in a relationship with yourself is, you can never get any space! Myself is always there, just breathing down my NECK, waking up in the morning and being like "What are we doing today?" and not being satisfied with the answer "Watching You've Got Mail on AMC and eating microwave popcorn for breakfast at 2pm, duh" like any reasonable person would be.

Being in a relationship with myself is kind of high-maintenance, is all I am saying.

But anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that I am pleased with my blog for being able to sustain a little break.


The song: Go West, "King of Wishful Thinking"; 1990

I've become fascinated in recent months with the aesthetic of an aesthetic no-man's-land: the 1980s and early 1990s. It's near enough to our current day to be firmly in living memory, yet not far enough away to look "vintage" and "classic".

Some day it will though, challenging as that is to believe. That thought, and the fact that I have a crush on 1980s Prince Charles*, is what sustains this fascination.

I've also become very interested in the concept of aesthetics itself, in what we find appealing and why, and have come no closer to understanding it than anyone else who has tried and probably a lot less close than many. I do know, however, that the eye becomes trained to look favorably on certain things. Like skinny jeans. Those were weird when they first came into being, right? We remember that, right?

I think the question becomes, can you see an object outside of its cultural context and appreciate it for whatever special glow it has, as itself?

Shucks, I'm rambling. I just wanted to share this video, which sums up "dated" and "tacky" -- those jeans -- but which I enjoy greatly.

Thanks blog. See you soon.



Sunday, August 19, 2012

Well The Men Come In These Places and the Men Are All the Same: "Private Dancer"

Hi friends,

Please excuse the recent radio silence. I have been moving, an endeavor which takes relatively little time in the physical world but which has CONSUMED MY BRAIN with a potent mix of dread and excitement and a catlike desire to pee everywhere in my new place (but the pee is colors and music).

In any case, I've been keeping it pretty loose around these parts in ways both good and bad.

(Good: Yes I want to go to Meijer at 12:30 at night to look at DVDs and buy a lip gloss and a bottom shelf perfume!

Bad: Anything having to do with my keys. You know, I am sure, how it goes.)

But now that I have regained my access to such things as "the Internet" and a "place to sit" I thought I'd share with you a song I have recently fallen in love with.

Recently I found myself driving nearly all the way across the state of Michigan late at night while listening to Tina Turner: Simply the Best.

It's a memory I will treasure forever.


The song: Tina Turner, "Private Dancer"; 1984

Written by Mark Knopfler, sung by a 45-year-old Tina Turner, this song is inexpressibly amazing.

It's as close as music can take you to crawling inside someone else's head.

Please enjoy, and I will see you soon in a stabler state.


Monday, August 6, 2012

And One Day We Will Die And Our Ashes Will Fly: "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"

Several (many) months ago I made this statement, which has periodically resurfaced to haunt me ever since: Neutral Milk Hotel's "In The Aeroplane Over the Sea" is the greatest folk song of our time.

I knew it was risky, ooh did I. "Greatest folk song of our time" has got to make a statement, something really insightful about "our time", because that's what great folk songs are all about right?

 And I just don't know.

Sometimes it hits me when I am bending over to tie my shoes, or reaching into the grocery store case: IS Neutral Milk Hotel's "In The Aeroplane Over the Sea" the greatest folk song of our time

I'd say I need to get a hobby, but I think I've got one.


Here's my supporting evidence for why I said this in the first place:

1. It's tied with "Postcards From Italy" for Song We Conducted The Most Off-Key But Enthusiastic Dorm Room Singalongs Of. 

But even though "Postcards From Italy" had the advantage of the ukulele, nothing ever quite matched the fervor we could throw at "with MEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeee".

2. That fervor: what was behind it?

Listen to those lyrics, kaleidoscoping between transparent hope and wonder and sneering nostalgia and just plain nihilism and ending up simply with

"can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all".

3. The singing saw sounds like a dolphin.


The song: Neutral Milk Hotel, "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"; 1998

The greatest folk song of our time would require an "our time", which is why I am hesitating here. But I think what we've got on our hands IS a generation, and like all generations while we are figuring out what our generation is we're relying slavishly on the ones that came before.

The problem is that we're immediately preceded by some Generations, man, some Generations who define the concept of "generational identity" -- define it even to a fault. (And yes I am looking at you, Baby Boomers, you are SO not as great as you think you are.)

They've called it "Gen Y" to which I say, ugh, love ya Gen Xers (no really I do) but nope this does not appear to be a simple linear progression,

but I do kinda like "millennials". Because if there's one thing that appears to have defined our lives so far by my understanding, it's some millennial thinking in the sense that THE SKY IS ALWAYS ALWAYS FALLING.

To give one example that occurred to me recently, as I was watching the Opening Ceremonies for the current Olympic games I was listening to the announcers plather on about how this will inspire a new generation etc etc.

Undeniably the Olympic games do that and I am as much a sucker for the Olympic spirit as anybody. I remember my first Olympics clear as day.

It was the one that was IN America, where like every other little girl I became obsessed with watching the women's gymnastic team, and oh yeah it was the ONE THAT GOT BOMBED.

"Oh hello children, I am the Olympics, I bring peace and excitement and new frontiers for your young minds and lots of promotional crossover with Coca-cola and fifteen-year-old tiny ladies wearing AWESOME SCRUNCHIES and. . .some weird guy setting off a huge bomb because of. . .socialism and. . .abortion? But let the Games go on!"

And this sort of thing was always happening when we were young and impressionable, and what's more we lived alongside the fear of it -- I'm 24 years old and I can't hardly remember a time when the "threat level" was below orange; I remember the times when you had to look up movie listings in the newspaper MUCH more clearly.

What is a "threat level" anyhow?

Maybe it's why we all loved singing the line "what a beautiful dream/that could flash on the screen/in the blink of an eye and be gone from me".


I don't want to lean too heavily on this theory, because at its heart it is just something I blurted out to impress somebody, ha ha. But there's something about it that I come back to when I look around and I wonder, who the hell are we? (Besides people who are kind of sort of holding our collective breath because this 2012 apocalypse thing we might actually believe it? I know I am not the only one.)

We're young people living not only at the turn of the century, always a crrrrrrazy time, but also at the turn of the millennium (don't think it wasn't crazy the first time around too) and also at the turn of an age -- to the age where any information you want is at your fingertips if only you know the right search keyword.

And it's fucking terrifying, at least to me, and I think to others too, which might explain the obsessions with Mason jars and Mad Men and Marilyn Monroe and twenty-three-year-olds getting married and having babies and lumberjacks and classic whiskeys and DIY and all of this retrograde morass we call "Pinterest".

In a time like this, how strange it is to be anything at all.


4. It's a little too old for us, as I am somewhat defining us here as a generation, but that just fits right in.

5. It's good and strummy. Can't have a good folk song without some vigorous strumming.

6. It's weird. But can you blame us?


Thursday, August 2, 2012

And I, I Am Feeling A Little Peculiar: "What's Up?"

Gonna talk about something I don't really talk about: I was on Jeopardy! and I won.

I was 22 years old and it was not College Jeopardy!, it was regular.

When I start to think about the impact that becoming a Jeopardy! champion at the age of 22 might have had or will have on my life, I start to feel like the bottom may be dropping out of the universe -- so I generally tread pretty carefully around that line of thought.

One of the most evident impacts has been to make a very clear division between those who knew me before and those who know me after.

Before, I used to talk about Jeopardy! all the time! My cell phone ringtone was the Jeopardy! theme. I dressed up as Alex Trebek for Halloween. I owned several of Ken Jennings' books and a Jeopardy!-Question-of-the-Day calendar and here's where you KNOW it was real, I knew all the cheesy low-budget commercials that played during the show. ("As a nutritionist, I recommend Eggland's Best eggs!")

I was voted "Most Likely to Win Jeopardy!' in the high school newspaper. Because everyone knew my life goal was to win on Jeopardy!. Because I talked about it. All the time.

Because I thought it was going to take more of my life. 



Last January-ish, about eight months after my show aired, I said to a new friend: "well, winning on Jeopardy! used to be my life goal and, well, I never really expected it to happen but it did, and so I'm sort of at a loss without a life goal," and my friend said "that's like saying 'well, I am on this submarine, and it's sort of filling up with water.'"


The other thing to know about me is that I am an incredibly anxious person. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about myself in this way so I'll just say this:

the engine of these two things, the anxiety and the ability to remember that if the category is world capitals, one of the answers will always be "Rabat",

the engine of these two things is the same.


The song: 4 Non Blondes, "What's Up?"; 1993

I used to live inside my anxiety and not really know it was possible to live differently. Recently though, happily,  I don't live that way any more.

(But the thing about knowing what it feels like to not be anxious is it makes being anxious a lot tougher. Two steps forward, one back. Still adds up to one step forward though.)

This song is not about interpersonal drama but a lot more on the general Weltschmerz-y side of things. And people also make fun of this song a LOT. A lot a lot. Maybe because of her voice? Although I admire her expressive quality.

I know the feeling that she describes as: "And I wake up in the morning and I step outside and I take a deep breath and I get real high and I scream at the top of my lungs, what's going on?" and I know it as just kind of a general frankness, a "well, DAMN" kind of a feeling.

It's that "well, DAMN" feeling where my anxiety and my ability are perfectly balanced, just for a moment. It's like the taste of Coca-cola, or the light in those hours when the sun is going down -- rich.