Monthly Archives: December 2012

immediate thoughts on django unchained

  1. Well of course Spike Lee is pissed.  No one would ever give him $83 million to make a movie in which a freed black slave slays dozens of evil white pro-slavery trash and then blows up a plantation.  They’d say Spike was being an angry black man.  Fox News would go into an apocalyptic apoplectic shock for a month.  Only the white guy, the master appropriator of black culture, gets to make that movie.  On this point, I must say, I am sympathetic.
  2. Not as brilliant as Inglorious Basterds.  It would seem to be the next chapter of the same gesture of movie-making:  a combination of exploitation era cinema tricks on a big budget canvas set as an alternative take on history–and a history that ASSERTS JUSTICE over injustices of the past.  But IB took it to the next level, as they say–was made a more hallucinatory experience for this viewer–by staging WWII and the Holocaust as this entirely different parallel reality, a more complex world-making, supported in the film by the more complex plot–Shoshanna, Landa, the Basterds, the British spies.  After IB, I was expecting Django to take my head directly off of my shoulders.  It didn’t.
  3. Part of this has to do with how history was managed.  IB‘s success, for me, was in how it created such a sideways alternate reality–one in which Americans and Brits actually cared about Jews during WWII, for instance.  I’m fresh up on my pre-Civil War American history, having recently reread the excellently culturally contextual John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and the beautifully constructed Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement.  I highly recommend both.  The South was in hysterics over blacks having any kind of power in the two years before the Civil War.  I wish that Tarantino had solved the problems of historical inaccuracy by making the alternate reality more strange.
  4. Django Unchained was too single-minded a revenge fantasy–so much so that the seams of pastiche felt more obvious.  Seeing it at the New Beverly was an outstanding experience, if only to see the parade of influences in the series of QT-curated vintage movie trailers that served as the previews.  But I couldn’t help but think of Reza Abdoh and Tight Right White.  After what Abdoh did to Mandingo (almost 20 years ago at this point!)–Django Unchained felt almost disappointingly straightforward.
  5. (You’ll say I’m comparing apples to oranges, by discussing avant-garde theater next to big budget film; perhaps–but such was my increased respect for Tarantino after IB and Kill Bill, Vol. 1, that the comparison isn’t such a stretch.)
  6. In the previews, you got a taste of how films like Mandingo made the horrors of slavery titillating under the guise of telling the truth.  Now, we are post-PC–so we must show the horror as horror–and the pleasure comes from watching the slaveholders turned into boobs.  This was a pleasure:  the slapstick of Jonah Hill and Don Johnson and the proto-Klansmen with their poorly made bag heads, followed by their bloody obliteration was the finest sequence in the film.
  7. Lots of really well-crafted set pieces, actually.  But it just didn’t all hang together.  Is this the movie where we see and take a moment of silence to mourn the loss of Sally Menke?
  8. Having lived in Claiborne County, Mississippi, I did get taken out of it a bit when I saw them going through landscapes that look nothing like anything you’d see hundreds of miles around where they were.
  9. That being said, I would give a back tooth to watch this movie back in Mississippi.
  10. This is the only time I’ve ever liked Leonardo di Caprio in ANYTHING AT ALL EVER.  He did some Daniel Day Lewis style scenery chewing and just seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.
  11. How do you bring THAT role up to Sam Jackson?  What was THAT conversation like?  “Uh, could you play like the worst Uncle Tom, but of all time?”
  12. Although, perhaps di Caprio and Jackson’s incredibly enthusiastic performances come from getting to play the baddy bad guys.  And that brings us to why I wasn’t as big of a fan of Christoph Waltz in this film.  His character had no complexity–little actory details obviously meant to demonstrate “character work” (his constant patting down of beard and throat, etc)–just seemed precious and smug.  The character was too uncomplicatedly likeable.  No flaws.  Similarly, Django himself was pretty one note.  Which again, totally makes sense against the pastiche of influences–do we complain when Clint Eastwood was one-note?–but both characters felt like missed opportunities.

Maya Gurantz on This American Life!

This week, I have a story on This American Life’s Christmas Episode, “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”  It was all an awesome experience, and I feel so lucky I got to do it.

Why can’t you write like Nora Ephron?

Something I wrote back in the summer.
The great thing about parents is, they won’t ever really understand.  They won’t.  A few years back, my mother, seeing as I was devoting my life and skills, such as they are, to making devised experimental theater said to me, “why don’t you write like Nora Ephron?”Now, I love When Harry Met Sally, the romantic comedy that launched a million flabby imitators.  Ephron was, God rest her and speed her, one of the increasingly endangered species of the Great Wit; she was at her sharpest and funniest when giving toasts or interviews.  But her work was middlebrow and upper-middle-class-white-womanish, uptown New York liberal Jew in a prewar apartment, like Wendy Wasserstein, God rest her and speed her as well, a world of quippy skating around the dark and dangerous and savage and brutal landscapes of love.  They said what smart and funny women were then allowed to say, maybe a step over the line, no more.

Why don’t you write like Nora Ephron?  What my mother was saying was Nora Ephron is funny and Jewish and I suppose to my mom, sharp and edgy, and she writes things that provide some insight but don’t challenge her too much and she is successful and made money and Billy Crystal does her movies and why can’t you just be like that?

I can’t.  I can’t, because I know how dark it can get.  That after people realize they were meant for each other all along and fall in love that love goes somewhere, turning people into monsters.

You see it everywhere.  Like the whole recent rehashing of the John Edwards story.  It could be a Nora Ephron story, I guess, a sequel to Heartburn, her Washington DC adultery dark comedy slash social satire.  Big toothed floppy haired Southern-fried lawyer and Senator.  Upon first glance, everyone thinks–oh, here’s your typical philanderer, Clinton re-dux–but for years, strangely, seems steadily and faithfully married to his wife.  <beat> <beat> And then of course he knocks up a 43-year old New Age party girl who says in national interviews that through her love he has fallen to grace, he’s become a more truthful and integrated person, so many women don’t know they just need to let their men be men, I wrote my autobiography not for the money but because people need to know the wife isn’t a saint, ok?  Her wrath was so great, she just emasculated him, and of course I have compassion for her, I am so sorry that she doesn’t want to face the truth.

It’s excruciatingly hilarious.  The inevitability of it is hilarious–we think he’s one thing, then he isn’t…but then he totally is!–he fulfills every sad sorry stereotype of the big important man who needs his ego stroked.

It is a Nora Ephron satire, until you think about the wife, cancer in her bones, tearing her shirt and bra off in front of staffers and aides and screaming to her husband, “You just don’t see me anymore!” and using every nagging angry tool she’s used to keep him in line for decades and it doesn’t work anymore, he’s turned into a sullen child, cancer eats her from the inside out, she survived the death of a child and the birth of two more at the very age when she had expected to be done with all that–and she ends her life on a plate of folded ironies, she’s given your whole life to her husband’s political career she dies listening to this New Age kook expounding on how really, if you look at it, I saved him from that political career that just wasn’t making him happy–it wasn’t what he was meant to do–he was meant to be more of a philanthropist, like, you know, Ghandi–and because of that political career, the whole thing is just humiliatingly, humiliatingly public.  It’s so public it’s in your obituary.

I don’t know who the monster is.  But I know that I don’t love him any more.  I am living a life of responsibility and obligation, I am obligated to him and I can’t just end it, my responsibilities keep me from just ending it.  Even though it is unbearable–the wild swings of rage and disgust and frustration have settled into a low buzz of contempt that colors every interaction.I hate my cat.  I once loved my cat.  I once heard someone say that pet ownership is like a snooze alarm for your biological clock and perhaps that is true.  I had a child.  And now I hate my cat.

And I’m ashamed of it, not because I am actually ashamed but because I am not ashamed.  I feel like I am going to be judged by people in my life.  Meaning you.  You people who don’t know me.  I am telling you this, and I know that some people here will hate me for it.  I have a hard time emailing this one friend of mine because I know she will hate me.  She owns six cats–or is it seven?–who are constantly needing incredibly expensive and invasive medical treatments and liver transplants and eyelid surgeries and at any given time she is fostering several more, she has devoted her life to the welfare of cats, she was the one who helped us locate our second cat, which we got to keep our first beloved cat company, when he was beloved, before I decided that I hated him.

And my other friend who has consciously chosen the care and feeding of the animal kingdom in place of having children, I can’t tell her, I can’t confess to her, that our cat is ratty and ragged and probably has worms again and I keep forgetting to give him his flea medicine so that he won’t get worms, but I’m also too embarrassed to go back to the vet to get him more worm medicine, he has clumps of hair falling off of him for some unknown reason, but then I get resentful for him dragging mud and falling off fur and worms inside my house that is actually generally so much cleaner now that we let them go outside.

We let them go outside because we no longer have the energy to keep them from bolting out the front door, and after the hellish year long house renovation inflicted on me by my husband, I can’t bear the thin layer of catness I imagine would be on everything if they never went outside plus I don’t want to clean a litter box any more, I just don’t want to do it, mostly because I don’t know where in my hard-won lovely house I could ever bear to put a litter box.  If you want to come over and help us figure that out, we’d love to know.  But also–I comfort myself with the fact that I know our cat is happier that way–he wants to go outside, he wants to come back in, he always did, so fine, I no longer love him, but then I no longer care if he tomcats around.  It’s a fine arrangement.

Even though the cat lady friend’s organization made us sign a contract that we would keep the second cat indoors, he now goes outside as well.  The second cat puked on the stairs to the basement this weekend–we heard it happening on the other side of the door–my husband said he would clean it, but I doubt he has, and doubt he will until he gets hit with the anxiety that perhaps the puke ended up on his camping gear downstairs.  When my husband does occasionally take pity on the cat and brush him, we amass giant amounts of hair, a tumbleweed of fine dusty cat hair, and Lou is gleaming once more and restored to his old powerful self, I feel pity, but mostly I feel irritation and hate.

What can be terrible about love turning into hate is that sometimes the one who is now hated doesn’t deserve to be hated.  Lou–his name is Lou–is a stellar cat.  The kind of cat who just wants to be in whatever room the humans are in.  He’s huge–a big animal–and satisfyingly warm on the lap when you don’t hate him and purrs like a motor and just wants to be a person.  He’s also moody and tormented and complex and brilliant.  He has learned to imitate a child’s cry, but this is nothing–earlier in our life together, he meowed in such a way that I realized he was trying to speak English.  He lets children pet him and when he’s annoyed by it, he doesn’t swat, he just gets up and leaves.  Everyone in the neighborhood loves him.  In fact, our neighbor, a Korean lady with a limp who likes to ask us incredibly personal questions about our finances, told me that he’s her cat now.  He follows her down the street, he comes to her for breakfast at 5:30am every morning when he knows she’ll be up to go to church.  I feed him! I say, stung.  Yes, but I touch him, she says, petting me.

You’ll hate me for this too, but we call Lou the Date Rapist.  I told some of my husband’s co-workers that, and my husband says, “I don’t call him that, YOU call him that,” and I snap that we aren’t in front of a confirmation committee.  Lou strides in, eyes fixed, climbs on you, sits on your lap whether you want it or not, and after you make it clear you don’t want it anymore, you don’t want it, he just sits his whole weight down and it fills you with anxiety and rage.  It fills me with anxiety and rage.

I don’t want to pet him anymore.  I think it started when I was seven months pregnant and living in a construction zone with no heat, no electricity, no kitchen and no laundry, just dust and boxes and giant breasts and an alien growing inside me and these paws and that fur sidling up to me, trying to climb on me.  I didn’t want him on my bed anymore.  He was dirty and aggressive and I just wanted some space.  Now, 2 years later, I still just want some clear space around me, free of the physical needs of my child and my husband.  At the end of every day, after my toddler goes to sleep, I barely have anything left for one man, and even then, I often need some convincing just because I’m so tired.

And I don’t know why he comes to me–the cat, not my husband.  Why doesn’t the cat go to my husband?  Why doesn’t he go to the person who is more likely to feel pity and love?

It wasn’t always like this.  Lou was our pride and joy at first.

We found him in the parking lot of a pinball joint in Alameda, the Mayberry of the Bay Area.  One night, we saw him, a skinny and lithe tuxedo fellow, collarless and friendly.  When we drove off home, Ben said–you want to go back and get that cat, don’t you?  I nodded.  We drove back.  I got out of the car and went, “pss pss pss,” and trotting out of the darkness, Lou came, leapt into my arms, and got into the car.  He sat in the backseat in my lap, and purred all the way home in a car with strange people.

I emailed owner of Lucky Juju and left a description at the local shelter, just in case he did have an owner.  How could he?  I sniffed.  Collarless!  Hungry!  Left in the parking lot! By the way, even though he now goes outside, he has no collar because he finds ways to pull the fucking things off every fucking time.  The pinball owner wrote me back–he said that yes, he belonged to the woman upstairs, he was such a cool cat, he’d sleep on top of the pinball machines while people played them.  He then wrote, “she doesn’t take very good care of him.  Follow your conscience.”

With this information, I was ready when the owner called, having found the shelter listing.  She called him Romeo.  (Cuz he’s such a lover).  I said, well, we just didn’t think Romeo had an owner, what with his being collarless and thin and running around in a parking lot and all.  Then Ben talked to her.  She opened up, confessed that her boyfriend lived in the City and she wasn’t always able to feed Romeo, but that they had a special inter-special bond, and she didn’t believe in ownership of pets or other people anyway, and they knew that at some point, if they moved on, they moved on, no hard feelings.  What a loon!  we thought, and happily kept Lou, and got him Dizzy to keep him company.  He trained the younger cat to clean it’s own ass.  He and Dizzy have an post-neutered erotic brotherhood.  I once watched them start to lick each other’s assholes and had to leave the room.

We were happy, those first few years.  Ben and I shared little stories every day about the cute things the cats did, in the same way we now caress the details of our child’s moments of sweetness.  The only fly in the ointment was my mother.  My mother hated the cats.  She grew up in Israel where cats lived in the alley and were as dirty as the rats they chased, she believes that anyone who willingly lives with an animal has some psychological pathology, animals are DIRTY.  During my attempts to get pregnant and the length of my pregnancy, she kept sending us the worst articles she could find on toxoplasmosis and was sure our child would be born blind and deformed.  I am glad she is not here to learn that I now hate my cat.

My mother once shared with me told me that she and her brother my uncle discuss how to best influence–meaning control–their children.   She believes that they no longer use a sledgehammer approach, instead, she says, “we are like drops of water on a rock,” drip drip drip drip until they get erode into way.  And this is how she maybe convinced me that cats are dirty, that my beautiful house will always just feel a little nasty and inhospitable and smelly and disgusting to every person who enters because we have cats–but that no friend will ever tell me the truth because they are my friend and she’s my mother so she can tell me the truth.  This is how she believes that she can get me to have a second child and stop making art about sex–in fact, perhaps to write like Nora Ephron.