One of the perks of being in show business is that, at the end of each year, all the movie companies send out “screener” DVDs of their best movies to writers, actors, and directors to be considered for various industry awards. For a few weeks, the mailbox overflows with very good movies I either did not get a chance to see or, in some cases, have not even been released. It’s like being in the old Columbia Record of the Month club, an institution I had forgotten about until it was brought up as a plot point in one of the movies I just watched, A Serious Man.
The Coen Brothers are the best filmmakers in the world. Any Coen Brothers movie is better than ninety-eight point three percent of all other movies. This has been scientifically authenticated in a study I just made up. Seriously: Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country For Old Men, and now A Serious Man. Nobody tackles a broader range of the American experience as consistently well or with as much literary and cinematic panache as these guys. (Yes, I just said “panache.”) Their films are always beautifully written, look magnificent, and bring out the best in whatever actors they cast, whether the biggest stars in the world or the most obscure. They are so good, they make me feel bad about myself, which admittedly, isn’t hard to accomplish.
Although I am now delighted that I did, I didn’t want to see A Serious Man. The subject matter, 1960’s American Judaism, didn’t particularly interest me. Perhaps because I am Jewish myself, Jewish life holds no special mystery or exoticism. In fact, holding Jews up to special scrutiny is a little uncomfortable for me, like seeing your family argue in public. And boy is this film Jewy. Probably the Jewiest film I’ve ever seen. This thing is just wall to wall Jews. Everywhere you look, Jew after Jew after Jew. It’s even Jewier than Schindler’s List, whose hero is a big, strapping Aryan goy. A Serious Man has no hero, only a Job-like character for whom God shows no special love. His comfortable life is undone by pettiness, familial infighting, bad advice, existential questioning, immorality, and bad luck. If the characters in A Serious Man are the chosen people, God chose the wrong people.
The film is funny and profound and at its core, both angry at the world and resigned to the futility of that anger. In other words, it contains all the ingredients of a great Jewish joke.
Jokes are also at the heart of the other screener I watched this week, Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The film is a comedy about the lives of comedians, a subject not tackled so thoroughly in cinema since Punchline, the maudlin 1987 Tom Hanks/ Sally Fields movie with the unfortunate tagline “It only hurts when you LAUGH!”
Funny People succeeds where so many films/shows about comedy have failed in the past: although it takes comedy seriously, it stays funny. Adam Sandler plays a former stand-up comedian who has gone on to great commercial success starring in shitty high-concept Hollywood movies. In other words, he plays himself. Unlike the real Sandler, however, George is unmarried and childless, lonely and isolated in his giant Hollywood mansion.
At the beginning of the film George finds out he’s dying, and decides to get back to his roots as a stand-up, enlisting the help of a young, hungry comedian very much like his former self, played by Seth Rogan to write jokes for him and become his manservant and de facto best friend. The film deals with serious issues but never loses its self of humor or honesty, and it’s Adam Sandler’s best work to date.
I go back and forth about Judd Apatow. Not because his films aren’t good – they are - but because I think they are marketed badly. Each is sold like The Forty Year Old Virgin, a big, bawdy comedy. And while Knocked Up and Funny People certainly have big, bawdy moments, they are not what I would describe as comedies the way other Apatow-produced movies (Superbad, Pineapple Express) are comedies. They are, instead, about grown-ups struggling to navigate through the thickets of modern adulthood. As a result, sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect when you sit down for one of his movies. As a result, they are sometimes not as funny as I expect from “the guy who brought you The Forty Year Old Virgin.”
Perhaps because I had read enough about it to know what to expect, I really enjoyed Funny People. It’s the kind of movie about comedy I’ve always wanted to see, a movie that shows comedians doing what they do: being funny and inappropriate, hyper-competitive, supportive, and socially awkward. But it also shows them as real people, not caricatures or societal misfits. The film never gets mawkish or sentimental, and while it may set a record for number of dick jokes per minute, that also feels true, since nobody likes dick jokes more than comedians.
Both films are largely about community. Not incidentally, both communities depicted are outsiders: Jews and comedians (and of course, Jewish comedians, of which there are many). Both are about the loss of self in an uncertain universe. The Coen Brothers and Judd Apatow mine similar thematic territory in vastly different ways. One asks for redemption, one asks whether there is any to be found. Neither seems to have the answer, although both seem to believe that moral choices have deep moral consequences. And both films are very, very funny. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t see either in the theater since neither of them did very well commercially and both deserved my money. But then again, what can I say? I’m just a seriously cheap Jew.
Thanksgiving is coming. Regular readers know I am a big fan of Thanksgiving because I enjoy camaraderie and boxed stuffing mix. This year we are hosting dinner at our house, which is always a little stressful because my wife’s preferred method of cooking is screaming at me. I’m not sure why yelling at me produces such excellent food but it seems to work every year. The other thing that seems to help is screaming at the kids. For dessert she sometimes screams at the dog, but my brother is making a pumpkin pie so that might not be necessary this year.
My wife really is an excellent cook. She claims not to be, but that is just her Minnesota humility/Catholic guilt/lying and thieving nature doing the talking. She takes a genuine interest in the food we consume, which is a real gift but can also cause me tremendous stress because it sets the bar pretty high at our house. The other night she invented some sort of delicious lamb chop recipe, which she served with brussells sprouts gratin and some other fabulous thing. All well and good for her, but then when it’s my turn to make dinner I feel horrible pressure to meet or exceed her efforts. But I cannot.
It’s not that I can’t follow a recipe. I can, but my problem is that I lack the requisite foresight to make a yummy dinner. I don’t possess that special talent that good cooks have to project themselves into the future, where they are somehow able to envision themselves and their loved ones sitting around a table eating their future dinner. I cannot think that far ahead. To me, if it’s not dinner time I cannot think about dinner. I think about breakfast in the morning, lunch at lunchtime, and dinner sometime after that. Dinner never even crosses my mind until my children are wondering why I have once again put them to bed hungry.
The other problem with cooking is how time-consuming it is for something so ephemeral. With writing, I spend a lot of time on it, post it to the internet, and then it’s there forever or until one of my corporate masters asks me to remove whatever offensive thing I have just said about them. But when I cook, my efforts are consumed within minutes. If the goal is to live forever, which it obviously is, then I just don’t think cooking is the best way to get there. Even the most famous, best-loved cooks in history are known more for their books or television shows than for their actual food. We all know Julia Childs but how many of us actually tried food she prepared? Very few. I would guess more people read my Twitter post in which I define “hula-pooping” than ate an actual meal prepared by Julia Childs.
To ameliorate this problem, I sometimes eat food more slowly than I want, which is good for digestion and certainly makes my efforts feel more worthwhile but it creates unintended consequences, which is that it forces my wife and I to talk to each other. We’ve been married eleven years; there is nothing left to say.
Then there’s the clean-up, which feels interminable. I probably spend more time cleaning up our kitchen than I do on any other single activity in my life, including sleeping. When I add up the time I spend on those two activities, it leaves me precious little time for what I really want to be doing, which is loathing myself. Yes, I can hate myself while doing the dishes but I am not a good multi-tasker, which is also an essential quality to become a good cook.
When Thanksgiving comes this year, I will assume my assigned place in the kitchen, right beside my wife. I will know that I have done my job when she tells me to “get out of her fucking way.” Her saying that is the equivalent of the plastic turkey popper going off, and it is then that I know everything is going to be delicious.
This week’s New York Times Magazine features a cover story by Lynn Hirschberg about the actress Megan Fox. Of course, anybody who has seen her work knows that calling her an actress is a bit of a misnomer: “I’m not one of those people who grew up studying acting or went to theater school,” and even now she says, “I don’t know if I’m talented, I don’t know what I can do or can’t do… I had it in my head that I was supposed to be doing this and I did it.”
Even though I make jokes about starlets all the time, in reality I do not follow Megan Fox or any of her peers. They do not interest me very much because they feel so artificial, like American manga characters. But what held my attention enough to read this article is Fox’s candor about her own artifice. She seems content to discuss herself as a character, the character of Megan Fox: the “wild girl,” heir apparent to Angelina Jolie, now trying to reinvent herself as a more down to earth, accessible person, the kind of person who, as the article says, goes to Red Lobster on Saturday nights with her longtime boyfriend.
I have always been fascinated with this idea of public reinvention, the idea that somebody can just decide to create a new personality out of whole cloth. How is this accomplished? In Fox’s case, the answer seems to be by doing interviews with the New York Times magazine and hosting “SNL.” But who is to say that the new Megan Fox (or the new Michael Vick or the new whoever) is any more authentic than the old? What is public authenticity, anyway?
Fox at least seems to understand what I perhaps don’t: that authenticity is beside the point. What she is selling is an idea, or maybe more accurately, an ideal. Her last film, the commercially unsuccessful girl power horror film, “Jennifer’s Body” was supposed to bring a female audience into her male-dominated fan base. It didn’t work. Where men found the old Megan Fox the ultimate aspiratonal fuck, women couldn’t relate. She was too pretty, too wild. As such, the girls didn’t seem to want to come along for the ride the way they did for some of her blonde-tressed starlet sisters. So Fox’s problem is how to bring the ladies into the fold. The answer: Red Lobster. Long-term relationships. Self-deprecation. All of it a means to end. The end being, presumably, expanding the global Megan Fox Brand.
Because films are so expensive to make and market, the only way for big Hollywood movies to make any money is to attract a global audience. As such, the film industry is increasingly a global business. So the goal of any actor hoping to break through must be to attract the largest possible swath of audience possible. Authenticity, inevitably, must go by the wayside for such people, particularly young women. Perhaps that’s not a problem for an actress best known for acting opposite giant CGI robots and Shia LaBeouf, although Fox does seems a little conflicted about all of this. On the one hand, she’s obviously complicit in the machinery of her own nascent stardom, the shop steward of a factory which manufactures, at base, sex. Towards the end of the article she acknowledges this, saying, “…I am on display for men to pay to look at me.” In the next breath, she adds, “And that bothers me. I don’t want to live in that character.”
But, of course, she does live in that character, and is doing everything in her power to propagate, develop, and market that character. The character of the vixen, the chanteuse, the siren. Would a person who didn’t want to be that character sign a deal to become the next underwear model for Armani, as Fox just did?
In fact, it is in her photographs that Fox actually seems the most genuine. The pin-up girl is the one part she seems to understand how to play. See the assured pose on the red carpet, the tossed-back hair, the coy over-the-shoulder backwards glance. See the just-so hand-on-hip, the left foot a half step ahead the right. This is the Brand of Megan Fox. This, and just this. And she knows it.
The Brand is, inevitably, unsustainable. And she knows this too. The It Girl has a short shelf life, necessitating constant (and probably exhausting) reinvention. There is an endless supply of pretty young twenty year old girls with just enough looks and talent to skate into stardom for a little while. They make a splash, and then marry (and divorce) well or sink into obscurity or take jobs on the CW, or very occasionally, make a graceful transition into more mature roles.
Fox is already feeling the pressure. “I get sent romantic comedies,” she says. “But I’m fearful of doing those. I’m twenty-three. I don’t belong in a romantic comedy yet.” By this logic, I suppose first it’s the romantic comedy. Then you’re playing the mom. Then you’re Judy Dench. Then you’re dead.
With some certainty, I feel like I can say I will never be a Megan Fox fan. But I wish her well. Soon the world will turn its attention to the next girl with pillow lips and eyes forever at half-mast. When it does, I hope she retains enough of her own self to figure out who she is separate from her Brand.
I don’t envy these girls, these pretty young things whose identity is so tightly wound up with their hair color and accessories and choice of boyfriend. It must be horrible. And ultimately, I always find myself asking “What’s the point?” To my eyes, it doesn’t seem to be about anything other than the ceaseless pursuit of fame, a pursuit which must give somebody the occasional drunken high but which ultimately must end with the worst kind of hangover. Is it any wonder Lindsay Lohan self-immolated? It’s amazing to me that more of them don’t. It is a particularly ugly business for beautiful girls.
Well they found water on the moon. Surprisingly, it was Glaceau Vitamin Water (dragonfruit flavor). I’m delighted that water increasingly appears to be an abundant natural resource throughout the galaxy because scientists believe water is essential for life, and alien life is essential for a spaceship one day landing on the White House lawn, demanding that we “puny earthlings submit to the mighty Gor,” and THAT scenario is essential in order for me to win a bet I made in sixth grade.
It really does seem like only a matter of time before we discover life out there. When that happens, I am going to be first in line to eat some of that life. How cool would that be? First man to eat alien? Followed by first alien poop? Awesome.
Realistically, when we do discover alien life it probably won’t be as advanced as ourselves. If that’s the case, I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice not to eat at least a little bit of it. Just so that somebody can make the joke, “Tastes like space chicken.”
Of the many careers which I could have chosen to become marginally successful at, “guy who works at NASA” always struck me as a good choice. What could be better than striking up a conversation with a girl at the local Applebee’s, having her ask what I do, and then respond by saying, “I make fucking robots that run around Mars, fucker.” Hopefully her enthusiasm for extraplanetary exploration would outweigh whatever disgust she felt at my inappropriate language and the fact that my face would most likely be covered in nacho cheese.
So it’s a good day to be in NASA. They do do a bang-up job over there. Those two little robots they’ve got on Mars? Great stuff. The Hubble telescope that takes pictures of the past? Super. The space shuttle? Aside from a couple “mishaps,” not bad.
It’s amazing to me that we’re a smart enough species that we can figure out stuff like that. I mean, we’re so much smarter than every other species and yet, we still get excited when we find out that chimpanzees use sticks to fish for termites. Big deal, chimpanzees! We land rockets on asteroids! How about a little credit for THAT? How about a little pat on the back, animal kingdom or as I call them, STUPID animal kingdom.
One thing that must be incredibly annoying to everybody who works there is the preponderance of “it’s not rocket science” jokes that must come hurtling at them like so much space debris. That’s got to get annoying real fast. Imagine going to a big Thanksgiving at your in-laws, and having somebody go, “You wanna cut the turkey? It’s not rocket science. Har har har.” I’d punch them in their fucking faces.
Our species is destined to colonize space. That’s just a historical inevitability. We have to do it because we’re restless and because eventually we’re going to screw up our own planet so bad we’ll have to go out there and screw up another one. And then another one after that. The good news is that recent science coupled with today’s announcement tells us there’s an almost limitless number of planets that we can rape. Personally I can’t wait to start.
In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Buzz Aldrin – moonwalker and former astronaut with the best name – made the case that America needs better rockets. In fact the headline of his article is “Why We Need Better Rockets.” He’s right, of course. We do need better rockets for the simple reason that rockets are totes awesome. But there’s lots of things that we need to be better. So many things that I felt compelled to put together a partial list.
• Toasted sandwich bread. This is at the top of the list because it’s the most critical. There’s got to be a way to toast sandwich bread so that it’s both toasty and doesn’t cut up the roof of my mouth. Quiznos, get on this STAT.
• Sneakers that give good support to my feet and ankles but don’t look douchey: I find that cool, understated sneakers look good but don’t do much for my flat feet or bunions. Sneakers that are good for my feet look terrible. How do we resolve this, America?
• Poison ivy that gives you an orgasm when you scratch it. This one’s really important because I get poison ivy all the time and whenever I scratch it, it feels really, really good for a second or two but then it just starts to bleed and hurt. I think we need a new breed for people like me who are highly susceptible to poison ivy and also like to cum.
• Flying bicycles. With all the talk about jetpacks and flying cars, nobody ever mentions flying bicycles, which would be so much better because they would encourage exercise and would revitalize the X Games, which for my money, have gotten a little stale.
• Stilts that make farting noises. I don’t know why these aren’t already on the market. We obviously have great stilt and fart sound technology. It seems like all it would take is a go-getter to put the two together. Years ago, on “The State,” we did a sketch about sneakers that make piggy sounds. This is taking that same idea and elevating it to a whole new, better concept.
• New endings for sports movies. We need to put all of our national resources towards this one. We need to somehow figure out a way to create satisfying, emotionally uplifting endings to sports movies that don’t involve our team falling behind and then pulling out a miraculous win at the end. Maybe something involving volcanoes. I don’t know, but this one has reached Defcon 1.
• Email that knows how I am feeling about myself that day and responds to my bad moods by sending me messages telling me that I look really good and anybody would be lucky to have me for a friend and by the way, here’s a check for a hundred dollars which I can either use right then or save for when I want a new pair of jeans. I don’t know how we would fund such a program, but it seems like people would really dig it. Only drawback: people might try to purposely get into bad moods just to get the checks. This would be an abuse of the program. Let’s start thinking about safeguards.
• “Extra fiber” Doritos. Fiber is the new organic. Put extra fiber in everything, but let’s start with Doritos because they’re so good. Slogan could be “explosive taste.”
These are just a few ideas. I have many, many more. Yes, we need better rockets but they are just the icing on the cake. If we applied the same ingenuity to improving everyday products like the ones I just mentioned, America would be the greatest country on earth. Right now we’re second, after Japan, because they have better cellphones and manga porn.
Today I am going to finally get around to putting up that birdhouse. The birdhouse has been sitting in its birdhouse box for over three years. Waiting. Waiting patiently to be hung from the branches like a horse thief. What has taken me so long? Any task that involves me going outside takes longer for me to accomplish than inside tasks. That’s because nature wants me dead, so I am reluctant to go outside where I could be killed. Yes, nature wants me dead. I know this because of lightning, hurricanes and meteors; if nature didn’t want me dead, objects entering our atmosphere from outer space would include teddy bears and rainbow sprinkles. But fear of nature can’t be the only explanation since I often turn up my fist to nature and scream “GO AHEAD GIVE ME YOUR WORST!” during thunderstorms and nothing ever happens.
Laziness probably also plays a factor. I am supremely lazy. This results from the fact that I do not like doing things. Even something as wonderful as putting up a birdhouse. No, I do not care for activities. I prefer inactivities, which are things that you do that require little to no effort. Like napping. That’s a great inactivity. So is eating Wheat Thins. You might say, “But eating Wheat Thins requires a little bit of effort since you have to chew them up.” Not the way I eat Wheat Thins. I put them in my mouth one at a time and let my saliva dissolve them to the point where I can swallow their wholegrain mush in one gulp. Yes, there is a tiny expenditure of energy, but so little that I consider it negligible.
Then there’s the fact that I don’t care if the birds live or die. I’m not saying that I have any particular antagonism towards the birds. I’m just saying that whether or not they eat anything is none of my business and not my concern. If all the birds died tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t even notice. At some point somebody would mention that there was no more birdsong. I would say, “I didn’t notice because I’ve been inside.” Then I would go back to not doing whatever I was not doing.
Some people seem to really love birds. Not me. I think they’re okay but certainly no more deserving of food or shelter than any other animal. Why do we make special houses for birds but not for any other animal? Granted, there are doghouses and rabbit hutches. But those are domesticated animals who provide us with companionship and, in the case of rabbits, lucky charms. Birds are wild and undeserving of my love and affection. What have they ever done for me except shit on my patio? Once in a while, we find a dead bird on our property. When that happens, my wife gets upset and asks me to remove it. I hate picking up dead animals because I interpret their death as nature saying to me, “You’re next.”
So the birdhouse has sat in its stupid birdhouse box for three years and even though I started off by saying I was going to put it up today, now I’m so mad at nature and birds that I’m not doing anything of the sort. Those birds can all starve to death as far as I’m concerned. And I hope the birdhouse catches pneumonia. Birdhouses can’t catch pneumonia, but you know what I mean.
My dreams have become increasingly literal over the last several years. Last night, for example, after watching football all day, I had a dream in which the Giants quarterback Eli Manning appeared. He seemed like a nice guy. My interpretation of the dream: Eli Manning seems like a nice guy. I also had a dream in which I was upset because I was going bald. My interpretation: I don’t want to go bald.
As a kid, I remember having incredibly vivid dreams of flying through panoramic vistas, being chased by monsters, finding a UFO in my backyard. Dreams were events; now they are even more banal than my actual life. Soon I imagine I will simply dream about everything I did the previous day, only I will be bearing beige.
I read somewhere that this is a common experience. Dreams seem to decrease in intensity as we age. Which is kind of sad. Kids don’t need the added excitement that dreams provide. They already spend most of their time freaking out. A lot of somnambulant adults, on the other hand, could use a brain jolt now and again. Like that guy Jared from the Subway commercials. He seems like he could use one.
Or maybe the adult mind just craves rest and doesn’t want to deal with the inexplicable. Maybe actual life is inexplicable enough. Or maybe our brains are so filled with computer passwords and cellphone numbers that we don’t have any more room for awesome flying laser monkeys. Did our ancestors have better dreams when they had less stuff to carry around in their heads?
Maybe rationality killed dreams. Once we started learning about the world, maybe the brain stopped trying to make sense of it for us. Maybe once you stop believing in magic the brain stops trying to make you believe. It’s like the brain is saying, “Yeah, you can’t fly. Here’s a dream about soup.”
It seems like the opposite should be true. It seems like the brain should do everything in its power to expand our belief in our own potential. After all, when we talk about all the things we want to achieve in our lives, we talk about “our dreams.” Shouldn’t the brain be supporting this instead of cutting us down to size? Perhaps the brain is actually a sadistic bastard who gives you a taste of a horizonless world as a kid and then slowly pushes in the walls, so that we end up feeling as though our entire lives are like the trash compactor scene in Star Wars.
Another, more optimistic theory is that, as our dreams become less wondrous, the real world may start to appear more so. Of course this theory requires one of two things: a lack of cynicism or an abundance of mescaline.
Like a lot of people, I often find myself happily dumbstruck by the natural world. In American Beauty Ricky says “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” That’s how I feel a lot of the time. I also feel that way when I eat at McDonalds, but I suspect that’s because my heart literally is caving in and not because of anything particularly beautiful.
Maybe dreams are nothing more than our brains collecting our experiences like playing cards and shuffling them back into order. Maybe as we get older, it just gets better at organization. I guess that’s okay with me. The more I know about the world, the more I want to know. I spend a lot of time reading about science and outer space and string theory and all the stuff out there that is both fantastic and real. When you look at pictures of galaxies and atoms and have the maturity to understand that the actual world is crazier than anything our brains can imagine, I’m happy to forgo the flying laser monkeys.