Saturday, August 3, 2019

Van Halen, Pam Houston, and the Slippery Slope of Summer

If you told me a month ago I'd spend any amount of time reading a book about Sammy Hagar, I'd have said you were CRAZY.  Then I went on a Van Halen bender, courtesy of a book called Runnin' with the Devil, by their former manager, and suddenly needed to know everything I could about all things Van Halen. 

For reasons I can't quite explain - and don't wish to, exactly - I will probably always lean David Lee Roth in the Van Hagar wars.  And while I did make it through a whole book by Sammy Hagar, in which he somewhat convincingly points to reasons why he was the superior front man, Roth's silly videos for California Girls and Just a Gigolo played on repeat in my childhood. 

I don't know why I'm leading with 80's arena rock here.  I read lots of quality - literary! - books this summer.  In fact, I reconnected with my inner sloth and I'm better for it.  Some mornings, I caught up on petty rock star feuds with a mug of coffee while the bambinos watched Dora and built forts off the sofa.  (And yes, there's a broken shelf over there now, which we "fixed" by propping it up with lit journals.)


Sometime into my third Van Halen book, I realized that I could look up not only the current retrospective accounts I was reading, but also books published in the 80's, after the band got huge.  I could keep this party going for decades!  Then I picked up a collection of Best American Essays in Tim's office.  After reading only one essay, my spirit sort of sighed with relief and settled back into sanity. 

Before I fell down a Van Halen rabbit hole, I stayed up reading Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band one night.  I opened it merely to see if I would like it.  After finishing it several hours later, I looked at the clock, which read 4 am.  Woops!  There was something in the writing that worked for me, I guess.  

I don't really know why I picked up Girl in a Band.  I probably felt like I should know more about Gordon and Sonic Youth than I do.  But my favorite parts were the times she threw shade on Courtney Love, for whom she produced an album, and her tender remembrances of Kurt Cobain, for whom Sammy Hagar has strong feelings, too.  In his memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, Hagar says: "Drugs kill people.  People think drugs are what made Jimi Hendrix great.  No, drugs are what killed Jimi Hendrix.  Kurt Cobain could have been saved.  The people around him let him go, for some reason.  They had to have seen that coming." 

That sort of fanatical groundedness - calling BS on the excesses of the music industry - was, I suppose, one reason I survived a whole book about Sammy Hagar. 

In addition to revisiting dubious role models of my youth, I spent part of the summer reading two books by Pam Houston, an author whose book Cowboys Are My Weakness I was given right after college. I was staying at a friend's house and her mother, having just finished it, handed the book to me  and said, "I think you might like this."  It was happenstance, it seemed, but was probably the first book of short stories I'd been given, as a gift.  Something about it felt like a benediction, and I spent a night or two in my friend's cozy guestroom reading the book.

I haven't always identified with Pam Houston, who has held jobs as a river guide and back-country guide, like many of the narrators in Cowboys.  Tim and I used to joke about her book called A Little More About Me, because it was just too fun to say, "Well, who asked?" whenever we saw the title
.  (We are obnoxious.)  Similarly, I remember seeing the cover of Houston's Contents May Have Shifted and somehow conflating the book with A Little More About Me.  I didn't think there was much for me in Contents, but one morning I reached for a stack of books we'd recently gotten at a library sale and cracked it open.  From the start, the prose was haunting, nearly electric.  I kept coming back to it and spent weeks reading it like scripture, hypnotized and barely retaining it, but washed by its seriousness and elegiac reaches. 

Contents May Have Shifted
is broken into geographical sections that loop and weave and it's really quite beautiful.  I went right into Houston's most recent book, Deep Creek, the same day I finished Contents, and was treated to a similar tone and pliancy with white space. 

There is something so soft and forgiving in Houston's life and work now, far from those tough, cowboy-crazed narrators that made her famous.  I'm in awe of the discipline it takes to record her life as lovingly as she does.  I'm also grateful someone is recording the sounds and light of Colorado's high country, a space I find beautiful but rather lonely, a space I'd much rather read about from a cozy bed, frankly.  Plus, the cover of Deep Creek, with its dog in a creek bed looking across a green meadow, should really be a poster.

I am not someone who struggles with the passage of time, normally, but living life in the shadow of academic schedules sometimes gives me low-grade panic.  It's always been my worst nightmare to live in a rush but thankfully, it's been a summer full of beach trips and sleeping in and late nights for me and it's been healing. 

Ellis knows how to say "ant problem" although, thankfully, there isn't much of one in our kitchen anymore.  Samantha helps him dress and get into pjs, and the two of them entertain each other (and squeal like alley cats fighting over toys) all day long.  A man stopped me in the store to tell me that when he closes his eyes, he sees his 50-year-old son at Ellis's age, and it feels like two days ago that his son looked just like Ellis.  His son was down the aisle and didn't seem as charmed as I was by his outgoing dad.  I guess 50 years of it has grown thin.  All of it made me happy - the older man's enthusiasm, his grown child's indifference to his father's joy.  What will my children ignore about me, if I have the good luck to grocery shop with them when I'm 80?  And what will I brag about then, recalling these days?         

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

American Animals

Sometime in March, I scrawled a note to myself to see Boogie Nights.  Later that day, picking up holds at the public library, I discovered it in Tim's pile.  We watched it later that night and I felt like I needed three months to recover.  I also discovered, with Mark Wahlberg's full head of hair that, in the right light, with the right angle, he almost does it for me.  I think that means we should all be wearing wigs, all the time.  

After reading my last post, a good friend called it "borderline sacrilege."  Apparently, Reality Bites is one of those movies she quotes with her partner all the time, and though I absolutely stand by my own experience of watching that film as an adult, her reaction threw me into a bit of a panic.

One of my biggest fears about talking openly is of being a jerk and/or crapping on someone else's joy.  The internet is full of cranky opinions.  I never want one of mine to make someone feel bad about something they like or, worse, something they made. At the same time, if I don't like something, I want to be able to say so in a fair and, hopefully, intelligent way.  Do I sound defensive? Ha!  I'm just trying to figure out how to be a good citizen - on the internet, and in the world. 

All this hemming and hawing is an appropriate segue to a film that got mixed reviews when it came out, a movie called American Animals about four college students who stole books from a special collections room at a private college in Kentucky.  An exploration of a true story, American Animals is one part-documentary, one part-fiction.  Using moody imagery and a deliberately overlapped mix of interviews and narrative, it operates as a heist movie with added, real-life gravity.  I loved it.  Tim said it caught flack for being a film about white boys pushing against the limits of their privilege, and while the emotional substance of the film is a little thin, I could not stop thinking about one of its most successful images - the famous pink flamingo from James Audubon's Birds of America, lit up inside a giant glass case inside the special collections room.  I also just appreciated the film's stylish cinematography.  It plays with genre and perspective, as well as veracity in story-telling, and feels like the director is winking right at you, which really worked for me. 

I've watched a few other things, like Maudie, which I liked.  It looked saccharine but was, in fact, pretty moving.  I also can't stop thinking about Call Me By Your Name, for some reason, which I watched last year and loved.  Maybe it's all those summer scenes: the sun in Italy, the bikes and the stone pool, but I'm craving a re-watch.

I'm reading Tonight I'm Someone Else, by Chelsea Hodson, a collection of essays so intense I vibrate when reading it.  When I started it, I couldn't stop sending passages to my friend Amelia, basically reading the book aloud, via text. 

I finally saw The Favourite, which I dragged my feet about because I found The Lobster so disturbing.  Once upon a time, I was on the fence about Rachel Weisz, but after seeing her in Youth, the Paolo Sorrentino film that followed his 2013 masterpiece, The Great Beauty, I'm for her. Youth is less compelling than The Great Beauty, and maybe not as good as The Young Pope, Sorrentino's 2016 HBO series starring Jude Law as - what else? - a young pope, but I'm not sorry I saw it. If anything, Sorrentino has a casting problem.  He gets big American stars but doesn't use them in the best way.  Meanwhile, some of his Italian actors are deployed with perfection.  If you can find a more likeable playboy than Jep in The Great Beauty, I'd like to see it.

To sum: if you can work flamingos on screen, as Sorrentino does in The Great Beauty, or a kangaroo inside the Vatican, as he does in The Young Pope, you've won me.

And now it seems we've come full circle, what with a second flamingo anecdote.  Wishing you magic and mystery in your daily lives, and all the wild animals your dreams can hold.


Friday, March 8, 2019

Road House

I drafted this post in December, but it felt insane to add one more thing to anyone’s life at that time - even something as lovely and relaxing as a Sut Nam post (wink!).

So now it’s March, post-Valentine’s Day, post-birthdays, and here we are: right on time, with the speediness, glitz, and glamour you’ve come to associate with this blog (wink, wink!).

Like the rest of the country, I've fallen into a pit of podcasts.  One night in December, at a rare yoga class, I silently asked myself, Why aren’t we walking around the neighborhood listening to a podcast right now? Instead, a blond instructor blasted techno music and blabbered on about finding my true self. I was pretty sure my true self much preferred ogling people’s Christmas lights and breathing in the frosty air.

I did a crazy thing, which was to go out and watch Road House starring, yes, Patrick Swayze.  I mean, while I'm revisiting Footloose, why not do a deep dive on Patrick Swayze? The tagline for Road House is "A tough bouncer is hired to tame a dirty bar."  Don’t you kind of want that tagline for your entire life?  Even if you aren't ever going to watch it, here are six things to appreciate about Road House.

1. Tai Chi at Dawn

There's a bizarre scene early in the movie where a glistening Patrick Swayze does Tai Chi al fresco in the warm morning light.  He’s in a pair of white pants, natch, and all the men around him, including his landlord - a mild-mannered farmer - and the villain who lives across the river from him (obviously), can't take their eyes off him.  I think they are supposed to be wondering what sort of tough guy does something so wondrous as Tai Chi first thing in the morning, but after revisiting the homoeroticism of Footloose, I appreciate Road House's male gaze on what the rest of the world frankly can't take its eyes off, either. That is, Patrick Swayze in his prime.

2. Mock turlenecks (in black and taupe)

This movie makes me wonder if I’ve missed out on a whole life by not embracing mock turtlenecks or, more specifically, mock turtleneck tees.  It also takes high-waisted chinos, wraps them around Swayze, and elevates them to high art.

3. What. Is. That. Even.

More than any other throwback I’ve watched lately, Road House makes me realize that Patrick Swayze’s hair was its own galaxy of wonder and delight.  If any of us had one-eighteenth the confidence that man’s hair had, we’d be more than fine.

4. Scene-Stealing

However much Patrick Swayze masters late 80’s style in this movie, Sam Elliot swoops in and beats him at his own game.

By the way, did you know Sam Elliot was married to Katharine Ross, of The Graduate and Butch Cassidy fame?  I did not, until I saw them together in an Oscars photo this year.  Do the mirrors in their house just burst into flames when those two walk by?  That's a good-looking pair. 

I'm pretty sure that's Kelly Lynch's mega-teased mane by Elliot's right shoulder in the photo above, but it looks like he's carrying backup
hair, just in case, doesn't it?

5. Jim Harrison!

There’s one scene where Swayze sort of spies on a party at the villain's house across the river.  Reading in his barn/loft - which has open windows with no screens or doors but no mosquitos or vagrancy? -  what is the shirtless Swayze reading but none other than Harrison’s 1979 collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall.

Any state of undress is absolutely the way Harrison would prefer all his work to be read, by the way.

In other news, the barn/loft is the future setting for one of the grossest love scenes I’ve seen in a while, with none other than Kelly Lynch who makes another appearance later in this post.

6. Future Lebowski co-stars

Finally, the late actor Ben Gazzara, who played Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski, plays the villain in Road House, though it took me awhile to figure this out.  One day, you’re lazily watching an 80’s cult classic and the next, you’re driving home from daycare when you realize the bad guy in Road House is that affable pornographer with the sunken living room in The Big Lebowski

As for other things I’ve done with my life since December, I finished My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie, the memoir written by Debbie Reynold’s son and Carrie Fisher’s brother, Todd Fisher.  According to Tim, My Girls was an even worse cover to wake to every morning than Jeff Tweedy’s memoir.  I accidentally left it on his nightstand when I fell asleep after reading so he is, I suppose, the expert.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful.  The cover of My Girls isn’t bad, but Fisher is sort of creeping out from the side of his mother’s hat on it, and during the period I was reading the book we kept re-enacting the stance around the house, yelling out Yoohoo! from around the corner because we’re very mature people.

In all seriousness, Fisher’s dedication to his mother—and his mother’s devotion to her children—was moving, and I was also impressed by some of the details of Debbie Reynold’s work life.  Her love life was an unmitigated disaster with crooked, philandering husband after crooked, philandering husband bankrupting her multiple times, but her vision for a Hollywood museum, while never successfully realized, was her passion.  Despite incredible sexism against her as an entrepreneur, she preserved a lot of movie history in private collections until, sadly, she had to auction them.  In short, I basically read the book to learn why I should care about Debbie Reynolds, and now I know and now I do.

I read a book of interviews and illustrations called The Wes Anderson Collection and really enjoyed it.  It seems I wasn’t the only one.

I also re-watched The Royal Tenenbaums and cried SEVERAL times.  When I was younger, I could barely stand how stylish, funny, and satisfying it was.  When I watched it this time, I was covered in goosebumps, especially the first time we see Richie Tenenbaum’s falcon, Mordecai, fly after all the characters have been introduced in what has to be one of the longest opening sequences in film. 

I also watched Drugstore Cowboy for the first time and was worried because I don’t like narratives of drug addiction.  They make me nervous for obvious reasons, and the seediness that accompanies most addiction really gets to me.  I don’t like being in fast-moving environments in life and in film.  But Drugstore Cowboy had appropriate gravity and grittiness, and while it was not at all sermonizing, had a sobering effect I appreciated.  It took me awhile to realize the brunette heroine was played by Kelly Lynch, whom I had just watched as a Jeep-driving blonde in Road House.  It was also trippy to see such a young Matt Dillon, and made me appreciate the glamour I associated with his name as a kid.

Speaking of names and shimmering youth, I’ve fallen down a bit of an Ethan Hawke rabbit hole lately and I feel the only thing you can really feel about a run like that: shame, wonder, and intermittent faith that there’s a good reason for all this nonsense. 

I saw Reality Bites for the first time in February, weirdly on the day the film turned twenty-five.  I did this out of nowhere – just picked it up for the heck of it and watched it while Ellis napped one day, spending most of it wondering why anyone still knows the movie’s name. Then I became possessed and didn’t stop thinking about it for weeks.  I was mad I was supposed to sweat Ethan Hawke over Ben Stiller, who made me laugh out loud several times with his awkwardness and who, hello!, plays a man with a job, a shower, and knowledge of how to communicate his feelings.  I also started sweating Ethan Hawke three seconds after the film ended, as if something radioactive had been planted in my skin by the last scene which is, frankly, not good by any stretch. 

Bad dialogue aside, let’s revisit the look of Ethan Hawke’s character’s in the last scene, shall we?

If you can find something redeeming there, please call my psyche, which has some explaining to do.

Last week I watched Woman in the Fifth, written and directed by the Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, and while I understand why someone could be annoyed by it, I liked it.  After all this, I may have worked up the courage for First Reformed, which looked so intense in the first preview I saw for it I was basically like, Yeah, I will never see that, ever.

I honestly can’t tell if Ethan Hawke is a good actor or not, which feels like a rude thing to say.  He also married his former nanny, so there’s that.  I liked him in Juliet, Naked, which I picked up a couple months ago because I like Chris O’Dowd and Rose Byrne, whom I especially like in This Is Where I Leave You. Re: Hawke’s character in Juliet, Naked, which is based on a Nick Hornby novel, I sort of love a rascal with a heart of gold and have a special fondness for bad dads who make good in the end.  Is that weird?

I saw BlacKkKlansman and thought Topher Grace was great in it. I also enjoyed John David Washington and was amused to find out he’s Denzel’s son.  I don’t think I would have put that together on my own.  Sometimes – okay, most of the time - I feel clubbed over the head by Spike Lee, but I genuinely loved his acceptance speech at the Oscars. His outfit was great and I can’t stop thinking about how he told everyone his grandma called him Spikey Poo. 

That’s it.  Or, in the words of my dad, when a cashier at McDonald’s asked if he wanted anything else, after he had ordered an enormous amount of food for his family of five: Isn't that enough?  Seriously, I keep thinking I’m going to write shorter posts more frequently, but it doesn’t happen, and I’m mostly okay with that.  If you’re feeling spritely, let me know what you really want from Sut Nam sometime – via paper, email, or if you must, a nasty, incendiary tweet about why there aren’t more pictures of baby pigs.  I’m being serious here.  What do you people want?