Reading while in grad school

After a good summer, I’m back in school. I’m about halfway through my MFA studies, and am enjoying the process, so far. A good thing about summer is the chance to get through the stacks of books I’ve compiled throughout the school year (though honestly, my pile is perennially high).

A few weeks ago, I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time (I’ve read it so many times, that I anticipate some of the sparkling dialogue). Since I’m on a Jane Austen kick of a bit, I’m currently working my way through Sense and Sensibility. It’s my third favorite of Austen’s works (Emma is my favorite – and I can’t wait to start on that).

During the summer I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was brilliant. Because it was reportedly based on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I picked up Baldwin’s work, as well just to draw the parallels. I was lucky enough to attend one of Coates’ talks about reparations and the Great Migration. Fantastic.

Anyways, back to reading when in grad school. I’m in two classes this term, a fiction writing workshop and an internship of a literary magazine. In the former, we’ve got a decent list of books on the syllabus, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is what was assigned first. I’m about halfway through the book – a collection of short stories. The reviews have been great, but so far, I’ve yet to become really involved and/or attached to Johnson’s work. The literary magazine has us reading 20 short stories, plus some publishing articles in the first week. Whew.

Given the work load, one would assume that I would put off reading other books for now, but I’m looking to start reading Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria as well as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life is also beckoning me.

I don’t know, sometimes I wish my mind was like that grid from the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. I’d love for each segregated section of my mind to be wholly independent from another, that way I could read 9 different books and not get confused.

On top of everything, I also make it a semi-official policy to read books by professors whose classes I’m taking. I just got a copy of my professor’s book last night, and am looking to read it as well.

For the past few weeks, I lost my Kindle, and just found it last night under my bed, underneath a pile of books. I had to clear the books out of my way, like rubble, to unearth the Kindle (the battery was depleted at that point). I was excited because a shit ton of books were stored, and I wanted to get to them.

I love to read – though it’s weird to say I’m well-read (it feels pretentious to stay so, especially since most of what I read is, well, crap). For many who aren’t English majors (or writing majors), they think that English majors are 24/7 happy because we do what we love all the time – after all, our homework is what we do for a hobby. I admit, I felt that way about theater students (until I took theater classes in a brief, misguided moment when I wanted to be a comedian). But I do a different kind of reading when I’m in “grad student mode,” versus just “me” mode. I admit that years of college has destroyed my ability of reading or watching anything without trying to deconstruct it in some way, but still, when I’m reading for myself, I stick with books and subjects that I know will appeal to me.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of stories, and so far they all feature strong violence and disaffected characters. Johnson’s writing is excellent and he’s a great story teller, but I’m drawn to writers who look at the world in a funny light. I’m going to have to read Jesus’ Son a few times so that I can participate in the discussions in class (a big part of my grade).

I’ll leave reviews of Sense and Sensibility as well as Jesus’ Son soon.

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Cult classics revisited: ‘Mahogany’

Mahogany [VHS]Mahogany is the movie that killed Diana Ross’ film career. The Wiz buried it, but Mahogany was the film that made movie audiences rethink their adoration for the diva, after her spectacular debut in Lady Sings the Blues. Diana Ross is in practically every scene in the film, and though not a musical, she’s seemingly treated the film like an extension of her concert career. For those who have never seen Miss Ross on stage, a hallmark of her performing style is epic schmaltz. She urges her audiences to bask in the glow of her dewy love, but it all has an edge of artifice and calculation. Mahogany‘s storied background is far more intriguing than the resulting film – Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson was fired, replaced by Motown head, Berry Gordy, who had a deeply personal relationship with his star, that often resulted in public spats. Gordy wasn’t a film director, and his novice status shows in how badly he mangled the film. Aside from Ross, he also wasted the estimable talents of Billy Dee Williams (Ross’ costar in Lady Sings the Blues) and a nervy Anthony Perkins, who, surprisingly brings the most energy in the film, despite the awful writing. After watching the film for the first time, and having my laughs, the second time I watched it, I no longer had the self-satisfied snark that accompanied my first viewing. Instead, I was sad because so few movies with a black director and two black leads get the full studio treatment like Mahogany. And its critical failure undoubtedly made it all the more difficult for these kinds of movies to be made.

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Mahogany starts off as a promising film: Ross plays Tracy Chambers, a fledgling fashion designer who makes a living as a secretary for Miss Evans (Nina Foch), a buyer at a luxury department store. On her way home, she meets local civil rights activist Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), who is leading a crusade to stop developers from tearing down houses in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. Tracy is initially wary of Brian, seeing his politicking as a waste of time and energy, but when a prank she pulls goes horribly wrong and Brian ends up in jail, Tracy bails him out of guilt. Soon, a relationship develops, but Tracy quickly becomes an appendage to Brian’s burgeoning political career. But before his ascent can begin, Tracy is whisked away to Rome by Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), who hires her as a model. This is when the film swan dives into sheer absurdity. She suddenly becomes a supermodel and deftly adapts to the hedonistic lifestyle of the fashion world, but chafes at being simply a living mannequin. In another lurch in the plot, Tracy is yet again, rescued by another man, this time a rich count, Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont). At a fashion show, Tracy’s hideous Kabuki-inspired getup is mocked by the audience, until Rosetti offers 20 million lire for the monstrosity. Sean is insanely jealous (in fact, he does everything insanely), and tries to kill the two of them, in what has got to be the most ridiculous scene in film history (more on that in a bit), in which he careens down the Roman highway, leaden foot pressed on the gas, while keeping his hands off the wheel, snapping away at a panicking Tracy. The car crashes, leaving Sean dead, but Tracy is found covalesing in the Christian’s grand manor (that looked like a scrubbed up Grey Gardens to me). Inexplicably, Christian bankrolls Tracy’s fashion career, and she’s a hit. But she’s lonely at the top, and returns to Chicago, to support Brian’s congressional ambitions.

The movie is ridiculous. The message is garbled and confused, and it’s unclear whether Gordy and his screenwriter, John Byrum, knew what kind of story they wanted to tell. When set in Chicago, Gordy attempts at a serious drama that highlights the widening gap of income and racial inequality. With Brian Walker, Byrum creates a mouthpiece for racial and social justice – just not a very effective one. Byrum’s ideas of social justice don’t transcend mere political talking points and the socially-conscious aspects of the script feel forced and superficial and reductive, which is a shame because there is potential in telling the story of a young black woman from the inner city who wants to leave for a more financially stable and lucrative life. Quickly, we’re given the parallels of Brian, the hardworking, dedicated dynamo, and Tracy, the feckless diva, and Tracy’s concerns are dismissed as one-note and frivolous, when compared to Brian’s more high-minded work.

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For Chicagoans, Mahogany is fun to watch because the film takes advantage of some great locales for the film – and for the younger folks, it’s nice for them to see what the Red Line looked like back in 1975. Gordy comes perilously close to capturing the city in all of its complex glory, but seems bored with the grittier aspects of Byrum’s speech, because the majority of the film takes place in a decidedly more glamorous Rome. It’s during the Chicago scenes that Ross also gives the best of her performance in the film. She’s loose and funny and not done in by the neurotic mannerisms that plague her performance later on. When Tracy is interacting with her Aunt Flo (a lovely Beah Richards), the chemistry is sweet, and Ross gets to show off her underrated comic skills. The early courtship of Brian and Tracy also shows that Ross and Williams should’ve become a legendary onscreen couple a la Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy.

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But as magnetic as Williams and Ross are, they also cause one of the films many problems, in that it’s hard to forget that we’re looking at movie stars. Though costumed to look suitably working class, Ross and Williams exude star power and Hollywood glamour, and at times, look sorely out of place in their realistic surroundings. The sense of realism that Gordy is going for in the Chicago scenes is broken up by the magazine cover gorgeousness of his leads. Byrum also doesn’t do Ross and Williams any favors by writing them lines that sound stagy and precious (the film’s tag line is “success is nothing without someone you love to share it with” which Williams delivers with hair-quaking seriousness), and the two often speak to each other in slogans.

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But the issue of Ross and Williams being too glammy quickly falls away when we’re whisked to Italy. It’s telling that the film’s most potent moment is an extended fashion sequence set to the film’s theme song “Do You Know (Where You’re Going To).” The film achieves some kind of transcendence here because it highlights Ross at her best – not only is her dreamy voice singing the haunting theme, but she’s paraded around in a variety of kooky outfits, posing on the streets and ruins of Rome. Some of the film’s most iconic images come from the movie – including a fantastic sequence, in which Ross is done up like Cleopatra. It’s worth noting that a movie is pretty bad if its best sequence is a fashion montage.

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The Italy scenes though, indulge in some fine camp, courtesy of Anthony Perkins, who seems to see his character as a blend of Richard Avedon and Norman Bates. Perkins, a fine actor, is also a nervy and edgy one, and even when Sean isn’t being crazy, there is always something unsettling about the fidgety, tense manner in which he delivers his lines. Sean is the second man in Tracy’s life who tries to act as a Svengali of sorts – mirroring Gordy’s relationship with Ross, no doubt. He essentially establishes Tracy as a model, even calling her Mahogany. He sees models as inanimate objects (another model is christened Crystal), and exploits them. There’s also some strange psycho-sexual issues lurking beneath Sean’s quivering exterior, and in a hapless sex scene, he proves to be impotent as well.

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As said earlier, Perkins is probably the best of the bunch in this sorry spectacle, but that’s some damning with faint praise. Gordy obviously watched Psycho a few times, and instructed his star to recreate the role and shoehorn it into Byrum’s script. There are two notable scenes which should be discussed when looking at Perkins’ performance. The first one occurs when Tracy is reunited with Brian in Italy. After surprising her by showing up at her doorstep in Rome, Brian and Tracy must examine their relationship as Tracy’s modeling career has positioned her as a queen in a decadent world in which Brian feels uncomfortable (there is some knee-jerk homophobia and transphobia throughout the infamous party sequence that’s troubling given Ross’ stature as a queer icon). Sean feels threatened by Brian’s presence and invites him to an office, where he pulls a gun on him. What happens next has got to be the most awkward and badly choreographed fight sequences in film history, in which Brian and Sean lethargically roll around the floor, struggling over a gun. The fight culminates in a nasty bit of subtext, in which Brian overpowers Sean, and forces the gun into Sean’s mouth, mocking fellatio, and pulls the trigger, only to discover the gun is a fake. Sean is left in a happy heap, laughing maniacally, while an unnerved Brian leaves.

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The other scene has Sean and Tracy fighting in a sports car during a commercial shoot. Occuring shortly after Tracy dumps Brian, she looks rough and tired (well, as rough and tired as Diana Ross will allow herself to look). Instead of fighting in front of the camera crew, Sean jumps into the drivers seat and starts to drive the car, while taking snapshots of an irritated Tracy. Quickly the scene turns from boring to ridiculous as he presses on the gas pedal and allows the car to swerve crazily while he continues to snap away with his camera. Tracy lunges for the wheel to control the car, but Brian roughly pushes her aside, wanting to capture real fear and panic with his camera. The two fight over the steering wheel, while the car hurdles down a suspiciously-empty highway, before Tracy gets in on the act and starts to grimace hideously for the camera, before the car flips over.

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When I watched Mahogany the other night at the park, the scenes I just described provoked laughter from the audience. In the next scene, when Ross was swathed in bandages, the audience erupted in cheers. It’s clear that Gordy’s intention was to inject drama, tension, and poignancy in the film, but failed. Instead, his all-thumbs grasp at directing a film showed just how little he knows about film making. He allowed his actors to mug hideously – Ross, in particular, who when pitched feverishly, gets shrill and grating (it’s amazing that her gorgeous coo of a voice can get so metallic and nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating).

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And though Perkins is all kinds of crazy in Mahogany, Ross gets to act ridiculous, too. The aforementioned party scene, Ross gets to revel in the decadence of the fashion world. After Brian storms out of the party because the party was too much, Tracy shrugs off her fashionable robe, and starts to drip candle wax on her naked body. It took a moment for me to realize that I’m watching Diana Ross, ex-Supreme, writhing on the floor, holding a candle aloft and letting the wax pour on her gorgeous body. Like Brian, we’re meant to shake our heads in disapproval – after all, in the beginning of the film, Tracy prim and proper, morals firmly intact. But with the influence of sexually-ambiguous fashion folk, Tracy lets loose, while Brian jets back to Chicago to do good work, rallying folks in the inner-city and plotting his political ambitions.

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After watching Mahogany I left feeling very unsatisfied. I hated the ending, in which Tracy chucks it all to return to Chicago to be with her man. In the final scene, Brian is addressing a crowd, during his congressional campaign (he’s running as an Independent). Some of the crowd is receptive to his speech, but others are a bit skeptical, and while he’s spinning in his wheels, Tracy pipes up from the crowd, recreating an in-joke they shared, in which she pretends to be a poor widow with small children, contending with a slum lord.

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I wasn’t happy with Tracy dismissing her fashion career to support Brian’s political career. And then I remembered Tracy’s designs, and I thought, “Huh, she may have a point.” Let’s be real, Tracy’s designs are fuuuugly. A disaster of Kabuki-drag (which Ross took the blame for…er, took credit for), her designs are so garish, drag queens would’ve wished for something subtler. Christian’s heroic bid of 20 million lire for her garbage designs is an act of charity that rivals the greatest works of Mother Teresa.

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Mahogony1Watching Mahogany 40 years later, it’s clear to see how well intentioned the film was. It’s a strained attempt to make Diana Ross a multi-platform diva – a star of film, stage, screen, and music. Like her biggest artistic rival Barbra Streisand, Ross sought to become an all-purpose diva, a quadruple threat. Instead, it’s become a pale relic and a camp artifact, imprisoned in various cabarets, drag clubs, and gay bars.

Click here to buy Mahogany on DVD from amazon.com.

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Carrie Fisher shares her demons in ‘Wishful Drinking’ – a review

Wishful DrinkingHollywood is littered with the carcasses of Hollywood wannabes – starlets and has-beens who couldn’t weather the tough grind of celebrity. For Carrie Fisher, the road was particularly tawdry and controversial because not only was her family life pretty spectacular (dad was Eddie Fisher, mom is Debbie Reynolds), but her stepfamily was also pretty noteworthy (one of her stepmoms was Elizabeth Taylor and another was Connie Stevens). It’s also important to note that her own life – Star Wars, being married to Paul Simon, her drug addiction – is tempestuous enough to fill up the tabloids.

But Carrie Fisher is nothing if not a survivor, and she’s a sage, as well. And a comedienne. Known in the entertainment industry for her withering wit and sardonic humor, Fisher is great at looking at the mess that is her family history and making astute and funny observations. Aside from her healthy career as an actress, she also had a side career as Hollywood’s answer to Dorothy Parker. Her novels, including Postcards from the Edge were tart send ups of American celebrity and its pitfalls and absurdities. She writes what she knows.

In Wishful Drinking, her one-woman show filmed for HBO, Fisher talks about the various demons that marked her life, as well as, some of the ridiculous matrimonial details of her family life. It makes for an entertaining show because the star is candid and without an ounce of vanity.

Opening with a bellowing rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Fisher opens the show with a tragic story – her best friend dying in her bed. The story is typical Fisher: dark and very upsetting, but told in a frank manner that finds the ridiculousness in the situation. She then quickly segues to the subject of her parents: dad, Eddie Fisher was a famous crooner of the 1950s, who later became famous for bedding Elizabeth Taylor. Mother Debbie Reynolds with the sweet as pie movie star. Of course everyone knows that Taylor and Reynolds were BFFs until Taylor became a widow and Fisher rushed to her side to console her (and then to bed her). It’s a story that has been repeated over and over again, and in Wishful Drinking, Fisher spends some time covering it, before going over a twisted family tree, whose branches include various b-list celebrities including Connie Stevens, Joely Fisher, and Trish Fisher. Our hostess presents all of this information like a college professor, standing in front of a chalk board with a pointer, and even awards a medal to an audience member who manages to keep up with all of the convoluted details.

She shares stories of her parents – mainly their awful marriage, breakup, and subsequent marriages and financial troubles. She’s much more protective of Reynolds than she is of Eddie Fisher, making sure that her mom’s legacy as a movie star (and gay icon) is mentioned, while she takes pot shots at her pop (including at his extensive plastic surgery which she quips made him look Asian). Reading Postcards from the Edge, one can gleam that Carrie Fisher’s relationship with her mother wasn’t smooth (the DVD has an hour-long interview in which Reynolds discusses her daughter’s drug use), but she’s still charmed by the film legend’s eccentric diva behavior.

But Wishful Drinking doesn’t just focus on Fisher’s family – she also had a substantial career of her own, highlighted by her performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films (she even wears a wig with the iconic buns). It’s clear she looks at the films with affection, but the iconic role is also a little bit of an albatross (“George Lucas ruined my life…I mean that in the nicest possible way” she grouses). The film’s reputation and cult status forever sealed Fisher’s fate as Leia, and everything she did afterwards languished in its shadow. She also pokes fun at her sex symbol status, particularly when she had to don the infamous metal bikini, forever cementing her as masturbation fodder for a certain segment of the Star Wars fan base.

All of these stories are told in Fisher’s expressive, matter-of-fact style. She doesn’t try for poignancy and at times, her flippant attitude can seem as if she’s trivializing some pretty serious events in her life, but that’s all part of Fisher’s considerable charms. Hollywood isn’t known for being a brain trust, so it’s nice to see one of its most notable scions be so smart. Wishful Drinking doesn’t always hit emotional highs, but like its author, its never boring and always insightful.

Click here to buy Wishful Thinking on DVD from amazon.com.

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‘Perfect Strangers’ holds up surprisingly well

Perfect Strangers: The Complete First and Second SeasonsOnce upon a time, ABC hosted a Friday night block of family-friendly sitcoms called TGIF – Thank goodness it’s Friday. For kids growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, TGIF was a weekly introduction into the weekend. The sitcoms were aimed at families, so the humor was squarely middle-of-the-road and very hokey. Most of the shows also featured a sickly adorable or obnoxiously precocious child. Perfect Strangers was a bit of an anomaly in the TGIF roster because while aggressively safe and wholesome, it wasn’t a treacley show based on cutesy family situations. Instead, it was the classic Odd Couple story of two mismatched best friends who have weekly adventures.

The premise is simple: Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot), a recent emigrant from the fictional island of Mypos (based on Cyprus/Greece), shows up at the door of his Chicagoan cousin, Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker), an aspiring photojournalist who punches a clock at a discount store. The humor from the show is based mainly on Balki’s fish out of water experiences: he’s nonplussed by all kinds of American pop paraphernalia like pink lemonade, baseball, Whoppers, and vibrating beds. None of the comedy is deep or profound, and Balki’s “What a country!” reaction feels very familiar for 80s babies who were around for the comedy of Yakov Smirnoff. While some of the jokes are amusing, it is a little insulting that the writers decided to write Balki’s native Mypos as a backwater land that time forgot (there is only one phone on the island, electricity is scarce, every man seems to be a sheepherder). Because there is no political base to the jokes (at least Smirnoff’s comedy – while milquetoast and dated – highlighted the stark differences between the U.S. and the Soviet Union), the level of the humor doesn’t rise above the old “aren’t foreigners funny?” trope.

But despite all this, I found myself laughing a lot, because Linn-Baker and (especially) Pinchot are wonderful physical comedians. Quickly the show’s writers made the show an old-fashioned I Love Lucy-like show, where the plots merely served as vehicles to get the two actors to perform some death-defying comedic stunts. The two actors make up an inspired, underrated comedy duo, which has unfortunately been all but forgotten – because the show’s writing was so bland, it’s easy to look past just how talented Linn-Baker and Pinchot are. The latter, who deftly stole his scenes in the Eddie Murphy classic Beverly Hills Cop is a find. Adopting a broad accent that lies somewhere between Greek and Russian, Pinchot completely disappears in his role (many fans of Balki get disoriented and disconcerted when Pinchot speaks in his regular voice in interviews). Pinchot often outclasses the mediocrity of the scripts, and manages to give depth to the child-like Balki. Linn-Baker, a theater vet, is the straight man, and therefore is often pushed into Pinchot’s shadow, but acquits himself admirably, supporting his more flamboyant costar.

The DVD set of the first and second seasons is great for binge watching. The episodes are structured like most TGIF shows – the setup, the climax, and then the denouement, during which a lesson is learned, and sappy music starts to play. Interestingly enough, the friendship between Balki and Larry is rarely played for homophobic jokes, even though the two guys are pretty demonstrative of their love for each other. There is something accidentally subversive about these two guys creating a tiny family unit, and the show is surprisingly open to examining the intimacy shared between Balki and Larry. In the Christmas episode, especially, we see how deep their friendship grows, when Larry is overcome by emotion after Balki gives him a quilt he’s been sewing as a gift. Balki has been sewing the quilt for over a year, starting on it the night Larry took him in – Larry remembers his mother’s emotional reaction to a homemade gift he gave her as a child, and is moved because he feels the same way about the quilt. While television sitcoms have examined the trope of family as friends, it’s been almost-exclusively female friendships, like in The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Male friendships on TV have been characterized by a masculine distance, so that even best friends feel uncomfortable expressing themselves. In Perfect Strangers that self-consciousness doesn’t exist – in fact, I was struck at how tactile and physical Balki is with Larry.

Reading over my review, I realize that it sounds like I’m giving the show more credit than it’s due. I’m not. It’s not a ground breaking show, nor does all of it age particularly well. Still, it’s comfortable and cozy and very undemanding on its viewers. It also feels a touch less corporate and cynical than the other TGIF sitcoms like Family Matters, Full House, or Step by Step, which all feel as if they’re written by a focus group. Perfect Strangers is definitely formulaic, but there are kernals of originality and inspiration sprinkled throughout the show.

Click here to buy the first and second seasons of Perfect Strangers on DVD from amazon.com.

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Memories of buying college text books…

I read an article on MSNBC’s Website, “College textbook prices have risen 1,041% since 1977” and wished I was shocked, but I remember buying text books when I was in college. Aside from tuition and school fees, the price of text books was the biggest hit to my bank account – and unavoidable most of the time as students don’t have too many options to comparison shop. When I was an undergraduate from 1999 to 2002, email was still a big deal, so online book purchases weren’t as prevalent, and renting text books wasn’t as much of a thing as it is now. As an English major, I was luckier than most of my peers because we English majors read novels – so for my major classes, the costs weren’t insane (except for the intro survey lit courses that required Norton anthologies that cost a bundle – these crazy thick brick-like books, with tissue-thin onion paper that ripped if you looked at them hard).

But I went to a state university that required I be well-rounded, so it wasn’t enough that I was well-versed in Shakespeare or Jane Austen, I had to take science, math, sociology, etc. And that’s where they got me. For a biology class I took over the summer, I had to fork over something like $140 – this book came with a nifty CD-Rom (I’m dating myself), which we didn’t used. We were warned that only the latest edition would be acceptable, and were discouraged to buy older editions. Of course our knowledge of biology changes, so it makes sense that we have to keep abreast. That’s what I told myself as I paid the $140. And again, I was lucky in that I was taking the class in the summer, so I didn’t have to buy any other books.

So, the class came and went – I got a C, by the way – we dissected a fetal pig and learned about cells – and when it was time to sell the book back, I was offered the generous rate of $1. $1. It was explained to me that the offer was so low because there was a new edition in the hopper for the upcoming semester so my book wouldn’t be good anymore. I didn’t take the $1 out of principle and kept the book (which is collecting dust somewhere in the caverns of my bookshelves).

The lesson learned from this experience – which was repeated, though not to as dramatic effect as the $1 offer with my other text books – was that the text book industry is kind of a racket. Don’t get me wrong, college is not a racket – I love college and think if higher education is for you, then you should go to school, any school. But text books sales are some of the easiest ways that students get price gouged. The problem – as pointed out in the MSNBC article – is that the students aren’t exactly in a position of power or negotiation. A student has to buy the book, or she can’t do the assignments and keep up with the work.

When I was in college, a professor friend of mine urged me to buy a different edition of a book – he confided that often the text books’ changes were minor. Stupidly, I agreed, and for a science class, I bought the prior edition of the text we were using. While the information was the same, the organization of the book was different enough – and some of the assignments, including word problems, were different enough, that it took some major scrambling for me to keep up. Added to that issue was that during class, we would read from the book and discuss – something I could never volunteer for, as I had a different book, and therefore a huge chunk of my class time was spent trying to locate the subject discussed in my book, and raise my hand enough to make an impression (class participation is a huge chunk of undergrad grades). I bothered a lot of my classmates during that class, furtively whispering for help in keeping up with the discussion because I couldn’t afford the book.

Apparently things are better for the younguns because now we can rent books from online vendors. But the renting from online vendors thing could be difficult for many lower income students, as well, as you need a credit card and/or debit card to pay for the books – and the rental fees can still be very high. When in college, I paid with my debit card because I often lived paycheck to paycheck depending on how many hours I banked at my soda jerk job. It wasn’t unheard of for me to have a zero (or a negative) balance after shopping in the campus bookstore. And I found it very helpful owning my book because I could write notes in the margins, highlight important points, and make meaningful annotations – none of this is possible if you’re renting a book.

Others have suggested that students should just descend on the library en masse and take out the text books on reserve. Except that’s a problem when there’s usually only one book on reserve and the book’s not allowed to leave the library. So the student is either left furiously scrambling to get her homework done at the library, or she’s racking up a not inconsiderable amount of charges on her copy card. And while she’s doing all this, there are three or four other students, waiting furiously for the book to be returned, so that they can then either furiously scramble to get their homework done at the library, or rack up a non inconsiderable amount of money on their copy cards.

Another option thrown around is share – why don’t you share the book. This option seems the best one, except, let’s be honest, we’re talking about college students, here. I was in an acting class with a friend and we had to do Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s classic play The Diary of Anne Frank. We decided to buy one copy and share it, as we were broke as a joke. Initially, I didn’t want to do that as I worried that our schedules would inevitably cause one of us to need the book when the other had it – and la-di-da, that just so happened to happen: my friend had an emergency trip to Council Bluffs, IA she needed to take and she peeled out of Chicago in her hoopty with our single copy of The Diary of Anne Frank bouncing around on the floor of the backseat alongside empty McDonald’s soda cups and crumbled Doritos bags.

And for the most part teachers are sympathetic. I say for the most part, because, unfortunately, more than once in my long college career (this is counting my undergrad years, my MA years, and now my MFA years), a professor has blithely sniped during class, “I know these books may be expensive, but that’s college. If you can’t afford them, maybe you shouldn’t be in college.” Again, the vast majority of my teachers were sympathetic and equally appalled at the price of text books, but given that I’ve had even more than one professor say something like chaps my ass. College is expensive enough – the extra burden of text books makes students feel like they’re being nickel and dimed.

So what’s the solution? Well, there isn’t an easy one because there is a lot of money to be made with making students buy new text books each semester. And teachers are often forced to assign textbooks from a list given to them by their college administrator. Since most college professors are adjuncts making pennies, they are the last ones to want to stick it to their students’ wallets – so the universities should institute a cap on how much text book costs. Simply refuse to work with a publisher that would charge an 18 year-old $150 for a book. If that means going with a different publisher than so be it. I’ve had professors who balked at the crazy high prices and did more creative things like putting together copied packets of articles. Professors would work off the text book, using the assignments, but then for reading and writing, we would go outside the text book and interact with op-ed pieces, journal articles, magazines, that sort of thing. The discussions in class were much more urgent and timely, and we weren’t lugging around heavy books (with heavier price tags). This option is great, but one of privilege – since most professors are adjuncts who stitch and cobble a full-time schedule (if they’re lucky) be zipping across cities and suburbs to teach at three, four different schools, they don’t have time to patiently sow home-made text books themselves. And this is where students and adjuncts should unite – because this is yet another example of how students would benefit of universities hired more full-time professors to teach at their schools: then these teachers would have offices and resources and time (which they are being paid for), during which they can be creative and figure out  how to make teaching more accessible to all of their students.

The high price of education is already making people wary of college. The prices of text book only affirm the cynical view that college is merely a way to game people out of their hard-earned money. Nothing could be further from the truth. College – at its best – can be one of the most rewarding and edifying experiences in a person’s life. But it has to be available to as wide a set of people as possible, otherwise, those naysayers who say things like “college = the biggest racket around” feel justified.

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‘I Am Cait’ is an uneasy blend of social justice and reality TV

If you’re a reality TV show personality means that whenever you do anything, cynics will question your integrity or intent. It makes things worse if you attach yourself to a crass enterprise like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Caitlyn Jenner was caught up in that showbiz mess, but once she came out as trans, it appeared as if things would be different for her: given the excellent interview she had with Diane Sawyer, as well as, her honest interviews since her transitions, expectations for I Am Cait were understandably high. Because of her high profile, advocates would love to see Jenner use her platform to highlight the issues the trans community deals with; and her detractors would assume that I Am Cait would merely be an extension of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Judging from the first episode, I Am Cait is a bit of both: Jenner’s clearly sincere about her work as a trans activist, but the show cannot transcend its reality TV trappings. In the episode Jenner films her unveiling to her family members, including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West as well as her mother and two sisters. Jenner also visits the family of Kyler Prescott, a young trans teen who took his life. These scenes show the show at its best, but also exposes the reality TV genre as ghoulish.

When visiting, Jenner’s family – particularly her mother – struggle with her transition. Her mother struggles with her faith and how her conservative ideas may clash with Jenner’s trans identity; it’s also clear how much Mrs. Jenner loves her daughter, even if she continually misgenders Caitlyn throughout the episode. When Jenner’s gender expert shows up to counsel the family on trans issues, she deftly highlights the biblical restrictions on cross-dressing as archaic (though, she fails to point out that Jenner isn’t cross dressing, she’s trans).

Some of Jenner’s famous children also show up: Kim Kardashian and her husband, Kanye West appear for a cameo, in which West professes Jenner’s transitions as an act of bravery, before he shows off a pair of shoes that he’s sporting. There is a poignant moment, however, when Jenner shares her disappointment at some of her other children’s estrangement during this time (despite their words of support via social media).

These family scenes are good, though, because they show Jenner as someone who is trying to navigate these still-choppy waters, and make the journey as easy as possible for her loved ones. When a groggy Kylie calls on Face Time Jenner after dental surgery, she lovingly slurs, “you’re pretty,” when a concerned Jenner expresses worry that she would scare her daughter. It’s a touching moment – but a telling one – of how much angst Jenner feels opening up to her family. Though the show’s tone is fairly serious, there are solitary moments of levity, including a hilarious bit in a closet when Jenner and Kardashian giggle over the discovery that Jenner owns a dress exactly like her ex, Kris (they devilishly devise a prank at Kris Jenner’s expense, that would have both Caitlyn and Kris arrive at a place wearing the same dress for a ‘Who wore it best?’)

Still, Jenner’s newly-minted position as the most public trans advocate is problematic because of the wealth and privilege she enjoys. And to her credit, she doesn’t shy away from admitting that few trans women have access to her kind of privilege. She wants to use her fame to further the cause of trans rights – a noble cause, specifically addressing the high rates of suicide among trans teens. It’s unfortunate then, that Jenner drags her cameras and oppressive media presence to the Prescott family, because it feels intrusive. It becomes more uncomfortable when Jenner is invited to join the Prescotts and Kyle’s friends for a balloon release in the teen’s honor. In a moment of grief, it’s difficult to see that Jenner’s presence and the cameras’ presence tend to pull the focus away from Kyle’s story.

And that’s the problem with reality TV. Even at its most edifying, there are still elements of voyeurism and manufactured tension and drama. The editors are careful to be restraint in I Am Cait, but the soft-focus shots of Jenner as well as the musical cues tend to feel manipulative. None of this can be helped, because exploitation is integral to the nature of reality TV. That is why it’s a poor vehicle for social justice – because even when it’s  highlighting important issues like trans rights, it must hew to its rigid formula of gawkerism. Jenner is certainly interested in exploring how to harness the power of television for social betterment, but she’s at the mercy of a genre and industry that is interested in ratings and headlines. I Am Cait is a powerful example of reality TV’s limited capacity for social progress.

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The time when Madonna tried to be Peggy Lee

51nccO-Ib2L._SY400_Madonna is many things – an impressive and generous performer, a solid songwriter, a brilliant trendsetter – but she was never a particularly strong singer. Her vocal limits doesn’t mean that she doesn’t often sound terrific on her records, but it means that she carries her music with her overpowering charisma and personality.

By 1990, Madonna was known for a series of expertly-produced dance singles, provocative music videos, and flamboyant performances. Like most pop stars, Madonna also had an eye on film stardom. And despite a promising debut with Desperately Seeking Susan, her acting career consisted of one disappointment after another. During this time, Madonna hooked up with Hollywood legend Warren Beatty, who was tapped to star as Dick Tracy in a bright-colored action flick. Madonna worked on getting the role as the film’s femme fatale, Breathless Mahoney. Along with starring in the film, Madonna also released a surprisingly strong album, I’m Breathless, a collection of torch songs, novelty numbers, pop ballads, and a perfect cap, the house-influenced classic “Vogue.”

As with all of Madonna’s best efforts, the strength of the material depends on her collaborators. With I’m Breathless the pop diva teams up with longtime partner Patrick Leonard for the bulk of the material, but Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim lends his genius, penning a handful of sons, too. The album is a departure for Madonna, relying not just on her personality and star factor, but the singer is also stretching her vocals. Because the production leaves behind the synths, drum machines, and electronic instruments in favor for piano, string bass, and horns, more attention is paid to the singer’s voice – which is admirably stretched, pulled, and worked out, like an athlete who may not be the most gifted or in the best shape, but works harder than anyone else on the team.

As an opener, “He’s a Man,” works because it not only sets up the tone of the record, but gives listeners who haven’t seen the film (or who have no plans to) a quick primer on who Dick Tracy is. Over a driving piano and a bass, the ballad tells the story of Dick Tracy – a crusading hero, willing to sacrifice his own life and happiness for the greater good. It’s a weird, specific focus for the song, which means outside of the record, it doesn’t work. But it’s still a good showcase for Madonna’s growing vocal prowess (she comes close to belting throughout the song).

The album’s second song, the Sondheim-penned “Sooner or Later” works better because it’s a nifty little ditty that can transcend the soundtrack’s limited environment. The song won Sondheim an Oscar and it’s clear why: he was able to replicate the charming, sultry kind of torch songs warbled by Julie London, Peggy Lee, or Helen Morgan. The lyrics, though not written by Madonna, still align themselves to her theme of empowerment that’s marked her career. It’s a love song, but the narrator is defiant in that getting her man is an inevitability. During this period of Madonna’s career, her Marilyn Monroe drag was at its strongest (her shimmying Oscar performance owed a lot to the late Monroe), and “Sooner or Later” worked as a clever 90s update of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It also gave Madonna a chance to prove that beneath the club beats, lay hidden an underrated voice.

“Hanky Panky” was a top ten hit for Madonna, though it’s easily a minor entry in Madonna’s career. A pastiche of big band and dance-pop, Madonna sings about the virtues of corporal punishment. It’s cheeky and strives for a winking wit. Madonna wrote this song with Leonard, which proves just how elastic and versatile the two are – though, this nonessential tune doesn’t show off either in the best light. Instead, it feels like an indulgence.

The silliness of I’m Breathless extends to the album’s lowest point, “I’m Going Bananas,” a plastic Latin number that sounds like basement-level Desi Arnaz. Written with Andy Paley (who produced the other Dick Tracy soundtrack), is a loud mess that seems to seek every cliche and cram it in the tropical number.

The goofy trilogy ends with “Cry Baby,” which is just a notch above “I’m Going Bananas.” Madonna adopts a weird gun moll affected voice as she simpers about her frustration about dating a mama’s boy. Like “I’m Going Bananas” it’s not a song that’s meant to be played outside of the record.

Thankfully, the album’s tone shifts considerably with the contemplative “Something to Remember” (which was the title of a compilation of ballads Madonna released years later). The song is a classic Madonna ballad – the singer sings with a ruminative, resigned tone. The song, while acknowledging the 1930s feel of the film and the record, doesn’t sport dated sonic references. Though there’s brushed percussion, a shuffling beat, and a symphony of strings, “Something to Remember” would sit easily in any of Madonna’s 90’s-era albums. The song’s mature take and defeated air seems a bit out of place on I’m Breathless, and hints at the greatness that Madonna would achieve later in the 90’s.

After the sad “Something to Remember” comes “Back in the Business,” a jazzy number that harks back to big band and swing. Though Madonna will never be convincing as a jazz chanteuse, she acquits herself admirably, relying on her attitude – the bridge has Madonna’s stabs at scatting and impersonating a sad trombone – all of it is inconsequential and silly, but at least she and Leonard constructed a reasonably credible jazz song.

“More” is another Sondheim composition. Owing a lot to “I Got Rhythm,” it’s a companion piece to Madonna’s hit “Material Girl.” With his trademark wit and lyrical dexterity, he pens a clever song about avarice and greed. Though the narrator in the song is happy with what she’s got, it’s not enough – she wants “more.” Sondheim is able to hew to the sonic theme of the album, and to his credit, he doesn’t sound like he’s slumming for some overreaching pop star – and he gifts his singer with a song that takes full advantage of her ability to sell a song, rather than hit gravity-defying tones.

The final Sondheim tune, “What Can You Lose” is a duet with frequent Sondheim Mandy Patinkin (who’s in the film). How much one likes the song depends on his/her tolerance of Patinkin, an acquired taste, to be sure. His nervous, breathy tenor is a touch grating, but he’s restraint, in deference to his duet partner, though their voices blend like oil and water, and she sounds slightly off-key. It’s a simple, spare piano ballad.

After “What Can You Lose” the album should pretty much end, but there are still a few more songs to round out the collection. “Now I’m Following You” is cut into two parts – the first, a simple jazzy duet with Dick Tracy‘s lead Warren Beatty (who has a pleasant nothing of a voice). The swing number suddenly cuts after a record scratching, and becomes a date 90s New Jill Swing dance number – Beatty’s and Madonna’s voices are submerged in production as a thick soupy beats muscle out the horns and tinkling piano, as samples from the rest of the album are played throughout the album, as a sort of reprise or medley.

The final number “Vogue” is interesting because it has little-to-nothing to do with the film, and it’s arguably Madonna’s greatest single – it shows the diva at her best. “Vogue” is a house number that has Madonna hark back to her days in the New York gay clubs. Voguing is a style of dance created and developed in the queer black community – a way to harness and emulate glamor. The queens who created and perfected this song were among society’s most vulnerable, and yet on the dance floor, they ruled. On the dance floor, issues like racism, poverty, AIDS, or homophobia were set aside, at least temporarily, and these obstacles didn’t stand in the way of these superstars who ruled the dance floors.

For Madonna to pay homage to the dance is incredible – the lyrics perfectly nail the appeal of voguing and why it was so important for the queens, without whom there’d be no Madonna. That being said, there is one moment in the song in which Madonna almost undoes all of the progress achieved by the song: in the rap bridge, Madonna lists all of her glamor idols:

Bette Davis and Monroe/Dietrich and DiMaggio/Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean/on the cover of a magazine/Grace Kelly, Harlow Jean, picture of a beauty queen/Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers danced on air/They had style, they had grace/Rita Hayworth gave good face/Lauren, Katharine, Lana, too/Bette Davis, we loved you

Unfortunately, in taking on black cultural tropes like voguing and house music, Madonna reinvented the genre as white-centered (this is also true in the video, in which she presents herself as a white sex goddess, ruling over her coterie of beautiful dancers). So even if the lyrics touch on the sadness and poignancy of the fierce divas who were part of the voguing scene, her manipulation of the mythology, inserting in white glamor undoes a lot of what she achieves.

“Vogue” enjoyed monster success, overshadowing its parent album as well as the movie (which did good, if unremarkable box office). I’m Breathless peaked at number 2 on the US and UK Billboard charts, eventually selling over seven million copies. It’s a pretty obscure entry in Madonna’s career, sandwiched by her classic Like a Prayer and the diamond-selling greatest hits collection Immaculate Collection. Listening to it now, some 25 years later, it doesn’t feel like an album, so much as merchandising for the film – like a doll that comes with a Happy Meal. That doesn’t mean the record isn’t good – Stephen Sondheim, Patrick Leonard, and Madonna aren’t capable of making crap, and in 1990, Madonna was slowly emerging from the young bubbly pop tart, to a far more introspective singer-songwriter. I’m Breathless, while also working as a cynical piece of marketing, also works as a way for Madonna to prove that she can sing (this was during the era of Milli Vanilli). A few years later, she would take another stab at austere respectability with Evita (though, for Evita she worked with Andrew Lloyd Weber, a songwriter far less talented and sophisticated than Stephen Sondheim). Still, I’m Breathless is a good document of Madonna’s early attempts at stretching as an artist.

Click here to buy Madonna’s I’m Breathless on amazon.com.

 

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