Tag Archives: alison bechdel

“I’m an oilman…”: P.T. Anderson, comics, and winter

This is going to be a short post, but I like this streak of consistency I have going, so despite my immense drowsiness – and the fact that I’m knee-deep in quiz bowl questions to write – I’m going to take a stab at writing something. First, I recommend checking out the AV Club’s “best films of the ’00s” feature, which includes 4 that I wrote about a few weeks back, and several that I was strongly considering writing about. I guess since it’s December, it’s getting to be a better time to actually talk about the decade as a whole. And while I may still be totally unqualified to do so, I did see one more very, very acclaimed (and deserving) movie not long ago.

There Will Be Blood is just one of those movies that makes you jump around inspired by the memory of watching it, repeating to yourself, “I’m an oilman…” in your best Daniel Plainview brogue. It’s a movie where every piece of style and theme slide together to tell a story that’s written on the face of one hungry man and across the face of the California landscape – and across the history of modern civilization. A story about Oil!, as Upton Sinclair’s novel put it.

We’ve got Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant, anxiety-inducing score; the masterful direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, who holds the film’s mood tight and makes the human drama a counterpoint to the drama bubbling underground; and a cast as tense and earthy as the oil-rich soil beneath their feet. And Day-Lewis even meets his match with a co-star in his early twenties, the prodigious Paul Dano (Dwayne from Little Miss Sunshine) who explodes on-screen as a devout young preacher.

Daniel Plainview’s greed and Eli Sunday’s evangelism aren’t just simple, character-defining attributes, either – they’re conflicted (both men fear their own weaknesses and those of their families), and developed through scene after scene full of rich characterization, played out with the same emotional grandeur that Anderson’s proven himself the master of again and again, all leading to a brazen, intense finale.

You sit there, hear a Brahms violin concerto playing as if nothing’s happened, and realize the movie has hit you like a bowling pin in the face. I’m not sure exactly what There Will Be Blood‘s legacy will be, but I do know that the legacies of everyone involved (especially Anderson and Day-Lewis) will be very much tied up with this film, and I strongly suspect that if you pencilled in a spot for it on your list of the greatest films of all time, you wouldn’t come to regret it.

So that’s my abbreviated take on one of the greatest films of the decade, which I watched a few weeks ago but just came to comment on now. Before I go, let me comment briefly on one of the books I’m currently making my way through: The Best American Comments 2008, edited by Lynda Barry. Maybe I’m a year late, but with great comics, you’re never too late. A number of the usual suspects are present, like Alison Bechdel with some DTWOF strips about politics and child-rearing, and Chris Ware with a typically amazing series of New Yorker covers about Thanksgiving that bloom from 1 panel to 256, telling a layered story of family, history, and gratitude.

Also present are some interesting artists I’ve never heard of: Lilli Carré with the Möbius strip story “The Thing About Madeline” and Jason Lutes with excerpts from Berlin, which just blew me away. Granted, I’m always a sucker for anything about Weimar Germany, but the level of observation in the storytelling and the precision with which it’s laid out are captivating, and I started getting attached to characters I knew nothing about – a ruined businessman, an angry, poverty-stricken widower, and others. I was also impressed by how Lutes uses the formal properties of comics to bring all these disparate stories together, showing people divided by class and age but each affected by the unique conditions of Germany just before the Nazis.

And facial expressions: Lutes does them so well, and I think it’s fascinating how important they can be in comics. So much of our understanding of a character can be gleaned from changes in facial expressions from one panel to the next, and if we train our eyes on one panel, that expression stays frozen in its own perpetual meaning. I love comics!

I also love Rick Geary, who has an excerpt from The Saga of the Bloody Benders featured in the anthology. (The Benders are so interesting – why hasn’t their story been made into a great movie?) I’ve read Geary’s takes on Charles J. Guiteau and H.H. Holmes, and I crave more [hint hint for Christmas…]; in fact, I crave more historical graphic nonfiction in general.

All that said, I’d better get back to some combination of writing other stuff, watching movies, and sleeping. It snowed this morning, marking the first snowfall since October, which means that now the Minnesota winter is really beginning. It also means that I should use the snow as inspiration to write the next draft of my screenplay, Gestation Period, so we can film it this coming January and February. More about that as it progresses. In the meantime, enjoy the snow if you have it, and if not, enjoy this picture.

best films of the ’00s

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Thought smorgasbord

It’s Friday night. Earlier things felt a little grim. Maybe because I spent my time at work playing stupid online quizzes instead of taking in works of art. Because hey, all I had to do was sit back, finish a movie, listen to music, and voila: the feeling went away. And now it’s midnight and everything’s peachy and beautiful. And I’m going to sneeze. Achoo. There. I sneezed. Sneezes are funny. Some people I have known go “A-too” in a squeakily adorable way. I go, “Aschplsm!” or some comparable noise and eject mucus at some ridiculous speed from my nose. And as we all know, there’s that old tradition: a sneeze is your soul trying to escape. Which is a scary thought. Hence the “Gesundheit!” and “God bless you!” I have fun saying “Bless you!” to people with whom I would not otherwise normally converse, and hearing them go, “Thank you,” in response. It’s a pleasant, socially acceptable interaction. Ain’t just that grand. I’m going to toss out a guess that the tradition (accompanying belief) maybe comes from medieval Europe, because they tended to come up with crazy traditions like that. After some brief research (typing “sneeze soul escape” into Google; ain’t the Internet also grand?), I have found that, as suspected, Cecil Adams (the self-declared “World’s Smartest Human”) has the answer – or at least, an answer. He doesn’t get too specific on the escaping-soul thing. But as I suspected, there is a link between the Black Death and “bless you.” But still, with the idea of the soul escaping – which, as the article hints at, may be in my mind largely because of the Simpsons – that just strikes me as weird. Why would your soul attempt to escape? What magical forces are holding it back, which can be thwarted with something as casual and frequent as a single sneeze? Also, if you read to the end of the article, you’ll see more examples of what I was discussing the other day, stupid traditions.

Those stupid traditions reminded me of back when I was in elementary school. We were trying to come up with rhymes to act as superstitions. And I think… some of them involved finding a penny on the ground. And it was like, “If it’s on heads…”, oh, probably “you’ll soon be dead.” And I recall saying, “If it’s on tails, you’ll be eaten by a whale.” Meaning two things: 1) at age 8 or so, I had poor poetic abilities and 2) those two rhymes, put together, make kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Which I think I realized, even at that young age. The conclusion? The superstitions little kids come up with can be dumb. And who ever forgets “step on a crack, make your brother’s break your mother’s back”? Jesus Christ, that must’ve led hundreds, thousands of kids into years of therapy and struggling with OCD! I guess the main issue is whether the kid’s the kind who takes everything to heart, takes it all dead serious (i.e., little me) or the kind who shrugs everything off and just goes on with his/her cute little 3rd grade life. I don’t remember too much of my early life, but sometimes I do look back and smile at disbelief.

And OK, I was pondering this the other day: next year, my old high school will welcome the class of 2014. This means they were born around 1996-97. I.e., they experienced birth around the same time I was coming up with dumb new superstitions for myself. (Pssst – for a great account of childhood OCD, read Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home. I just turned in a paper about it [“Sexual Shame and Identity in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home“] this morning as part of my writing portfolio. Great, engrossing graphic novel.) Um, where was I? Oh, right, the fact that the gap is steadily increasing between my age and the age of those who are very young. Time passes in strange ways. And it passes quickly. Though sometimes too slowly (for example, this fucking month). I once heard a quote, maybe apocryphal, but amusing enough: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” Attributed, of course, to Albert Einstein. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with the physics kind of relativity, but it nicely sums up the more personal, day-to-day type: time flies when you’re having fun (also, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” That was my quote in the yearbook my senior year of high school; I kid you not). And time slows to a crawl when you’re suffering. Or bored. Or glancing at the clock every few minutes during your two-hour class hoping to get out so you can go eat and then relax. To give a completely hypothetical example. So, what’s my point here? Am I just repeating a commonly known, intuitively obvious fact? For the most part, yes. But… I don’t know. Perception of time is a strange and interesting thing. I wouldn’t mind getting sealed into a John Lilly-style isolation tank someday to see how fast or slow time seems to pass, just so long as I didn’t regress into a feral monkey-thing like in Altered States. That was a pretty disappointing movie. I’m willing to give Ken Russell another chance or two – and Tommy, at least, did have fittingly astounding visuals – but still. Where was I? Oh, yeah, time. According to David Bowie, it “flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor,” which are certainly fun lyrics, but don’t really offer me any clues. (Bowie also observes that it “may change [him], but [he] can’t trace [it]”.) Call me ridiculous – go on, do it! – but I have enjoyed substituting quoted words with other words in brackets since, oh, 11th grade or so. When I realized that I could do it, when I put 2 and 2 together and realized that just like all the quotes with bracketed words I’d read in books, I too could bracket words in quotes – I felt like a whole new world of writing was opening up to me. And I still get a childish thrill out of doing it, the same thrill that maybe someone would get from being able to supervise a controlled demolition, or sit in the president’s chair, or some other nonsensical comparison. Maybe it’s because it feels like a professional writer sort of thing. I’m not sure. But even now, even probably in my Fun Home essay, it’s as fun as, oh, 1/2 barrels of monkeys. Maybe 2/3 barrels if it’s a particularly masterful brackets-in-quotes example?

So the moral of the story is, I learned in quiz bowl a week or two ago that a certain group of Native American supposedly comprehended time differently than we do, and this was taken as evidence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a complicated (and largely discredited) linguistics theory I both don’t want to and can’t explain, because I don’t really understand it. I think I first learned of Sapir-Whorf on the Wikipedia page about Newspeak from 1984. And I think I’ve related it to a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein that hung above the English section of my old high school: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I guess I have always found this interesting – how language can affect, well, what we talk about, and how we talk about it. Like with reclaiming words, something I recently suggested doing with “lover.” I refer to Ashley as “lover” all the fucking time. But generally it’s seen as “someone who fucks someone else.” Hence, even though “love” is right there in the word, the two of us are doubted when we use “lover” with regard to our relationship. I remember once I had an experience where I was walking randomly along a sidewalk in Excelsior, Minnesota, when a car drove by and I heard three simultaneous insults. For your benefit, I later drew a little comic about it.

An incident

I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly hurt by insults yelled from a moving vehicle. And when those insults have been homophobic, I practically perk up with pride. A tear comes to my eye. “Some ignorant redneck just called me a homo!” I cry in glee. “God, I must be doing something right!” And when the insults are racist, and even directed at races of which I am not visibly a member? Same reaction. What I guess just confuses me is the idea of these moronic teenagers driving around Minnesotan suburbs (after all, I had an almost identical experience while walking to our apartment in Mound) screaming homophobic and racist slurs out of car windows. It’s just a “What the fuck?” moment. Kind of like just now, when I heard some guy yelling insults at a girl, who was also yelling, before I heard slamming of doors, loud crashes, and angry, running footsteps. All this in a dormitory where hundreds of students live, at 1 in the morning. Come to think of it, I have a lot of “what the fuck?” moments. It just puzzles me to no end, trying to figure out how it is that people think some things are acceptable. (Of course, when you get into the serial killer or war crimes area… Hannah Arendt can figure that out if she wants, because I just fucking give up.)

Since I’ve mentioned my old high school a couple times, you know what pissed me off to no end a couple years ago? That moronic ritual where teenagers get the dumbfuck idea in their heads to throw toilet paper all over someone’s lawn. Yeah, you motherfuckers, that’s a real good plan. And then fight violently with other people who are also throwing toilet paper. Um, is there something wrong with me? That I can’t see how that’s so fun? Why, pardon me, I guess I was never educated in the divine pleasures of wrecking shit and making obnoxious messes. Yes, I’m overreacting, and yes, this was a couple years ago, but moronic little fuckers are still driving around, eager to throw toilet paper and call people “fucking fags.” As time goes by, I’m getting more and more curious about somehow getting involved in education or mentoring or something to prevent very small children from becoming very stupid, slightly larger children. It’s just depressing to imagine. I also want to get them to watch movies that don’t suck. Because it’s also depressing to imagine kids growing up without ever hearing the words “Asa nisi masa,” and thinking that “Rosebud” is a sled instead of a clitoris. (Long story.)

And so I’m getting as well-educated in film as I can, to maybe better educate others. Is that a pretentious or egotistical way of thinking? Oh, I’m so sophisticated and intelligent, only I can tell you what to like. But that’s not how it is. At least, I hope it’s not. I’m often terrified of being too ego-driven. I shudder at the thought of it. It’s nice to not hate yourself, but don’t go overboard. Speaking of the ego, did you know there was a Marvel supervillain named Ego, the Living Planet? Guess what it was. Just guess. That reminds me of Krakoa, who I think was a sentient island – and of course one of my favorite superheroes (going by a loose definition of the word), Danny the Street from Doom Patrol. Who was a street. Who could move anywhere on earth where there were streets. Did I mention he was a transvestite, and communicated by rearranging letters in buildings, uh, along himself? Moral of the story? I want to be selfless and learn that I may do good for others. Also, Danny the Stree is awesome. You know who selflessly does good for others? Danny the Street. And speaking of transvestites, transvestitism is awesome. But that’s another blog write there. (To be written shortly after I receive some personal experience in the topic; start the countdown!) I’m sick of gender-specific clothing anyway. It’s frequently just an enabler of gender-biased behavior in the first place. I refuse to be insulted anymore by people mistaking my gender. I keep finding myself comparing mankind to the Eloi and the Morlocks from The Time Machine, but seriously: someday we’ll just be like the Eloi, with male and female all wearing loose, comfy robes. And Yvette Mimieux will probably be involved somehow.

[I ended up titling this blog using a long Swedish word that’s hard to spell. In Norwegian, we use unique funny letters instead of just adding umlauts to everything. But the Swedes are cool. Or the Bergmans (Ingrid and Ingmar) are at least. Whatever.]

Speaking of shedding gender-specific clothes, the other day at body positivity group I was briefly involved in a discussion about nudist colonies. And someone mentioned the idea of a nudist colony where nudity is optional – where, if you feel like it, you can wear just a shirt, or a dress, or just shoes, or whatever! I like that a lot more than dogmatically requiring everyone to be naked as a jaybird (a beautifully quaint phrase) 24/7. It reminds me of that quote I find myself coming back to time and time again, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936): “Back to nature! Clothes are a blight on civilization! Back to nature!” Even if this was said by a drunken, pants-less man feeding donuts to a horse. That’s not the point. It’s the thought that counts, or some similarly meaningless cliche. My point? Clothes suck. I’m okay with wearing them most of the time, provided I don’t have to put any thought into them or wear anything uncomfortable, but by the time clothes become strictly ritualized, codified, and their codification develops into an industry itself – that’s just scary. Scarier than the dream I had recently where I don’t remember what happened in it, but when I woke up I had to check to make sure my teeth were all there. I really had better not get started on fashion. It’s late and there are movies to watch and a lover to be with.

So I hope I gave you a little food for thought. And after all, “If movies be the food of thought, watch on…”

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