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How to Make Sex Boring

March 29, 2010

book coverWHO’S BEEN SLEEPING IN YOUR HEAD: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies

By Brett Kahr

Basic Books, 2008

Writing about sex makes a person look salacious. I’ll bet you think I’m salacious right now. I must be a deviant drooling pervert to even touch on the topic.

Reading about sex is the same way. You’re clearly a deviant drooling pervert yourself, or you wouldn’t be reading this post.

There’s a way around this, however. Touch your subject with cold philosphy, range the proofs and figures in columns, alter it with science’s peering eye, describe it with long Latinate words, and you may be able to persuade your readers, and modern Comstocks, and, if you’re good, yourself, that what you’re doing is Science. It’s not smut, it’s sociology! It’s not prurience, it’s psychology! How can you not see that, are you some kind of sex maniac?

That was the approach Brett Kahr took in his television series and later book on Americans’ and Britons’ sexual fantasies. It’s a long book, though it includes the questionnaire used to gather data as an appendix, and a dull one, even though it’s about sex. My first thought, when I sought to explain this, was “well, of course other people’s sexual fantasies are boring.” But pornographic writing is popular on the Web, and popular in bookstores even with the advent of the Web (and even with the advent of the Web on devices you can bring into the bathroom with you), and that’s basicallly other people’s sexual fantasies.

I think, in fact, that the dullness is the result of a tacit collaborration between Kahr and his interviewees: they agreed that both the samples and the analyses would be bloodless and unarousing, lest this compendium of erotic fantasy be confused with something sexual.

Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t pick this up hoping for wank fodder. But Kahr’s intent seems to be to destigmatize, or at least grope towards destigmatizing, odd or unusual types of fantasies (an uphill battle given his obvious discomfort with non-vanilla sexuality, but an admirable effort). This goal is ill-served by cruel, disgusting, and clinical descriptions, which inspire at best curiosity that anyone can find this arousing, and more probably hostility towards those people. The presentation makes it difficult to empathize, difficult to see one’s own fantasies as the interviewees appear to see theirs–which serves to otherize them and their sexual tastes.

In other words, the style, and the boringness, serves only to make the subjects seem more like perverts. If they’d been depicted, even briefly and indirectly, as blissing out over their fantasies, rather than being described as case studies, in as detached a way as possible, it would make those fantasies seem far more normal than studying them as specimens does.

Jennifer Lopez Returns to Big Screen in ‘Generic Romantic Comedy’

March 24, 2010

Because no one in Hollywood ever really goes away, even after death, it’s inevitable that Jennifer Lopez, whose career peaked for a gloriously brief moment around 2002 or so, is staging a comeback. I guess you can call it a “comeback,” though I’m not really sure what she’s coming back to, other than being known for what she wears, who she’s sleeping with and for starring in overhyped movies that rarely make more than a plug nickel. Still, given this era’s ever-decreasing standards for what makes someone a “star,” that’s practically on a par with Meryl Streep. Lopez is attempting to reclaim her celebrity status with the safest, most blandest of films, a romantic comedy whose title actually escaped my mind as I was writing, even though I just saw it on a poster in the subway less than an hour before starting this article. After a few moments of poking around in the dusty corners of my brain, it came back to me: it’s called The Back Up Plan, and given the poster, it doesn’t seem as though the studio releasing it finds it any more memorable than I did.

Looking like it was slapped together by some assistant art director in a hurry to leave for the weekend, it’s such a typically…typical, I suppose, rom-com ad that one hopes for a moment that it could be a sly parody.  The 90s era black and hot pink font, the not terribly clever catchphrase, the curiously placed image of a baby hanging upside down like a chandelier, the stellar Photoshopping that has Lopez looking at neither her co-star or the baby hanging over her head but somewhere off to the upper right–if someone was paid more than $100 to design this ad they got away with highway robbery.  You could replace Lopez’s head with that of Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, or pretty much any actress between the ages of 25 to 40 and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference.  If it was a chick lit novel, it’d be a pair of legs stepping out of a New York City cab.

Without ever hearing of this movie before seeing the ad today, I’m going to take a wild guess at what The Back Up Plan is about.  Jennifer Lopez plays a workaholic (or “career woman,” do they still call them that?), who, now in her thirties, discovers that she’s let her job get in the way of the important things in life, such as starting a family.  Unlucky in love, however, she decides to skip the whole being in a relationship first thing, choosing instead to just find someone willing to father her child.  She finds a suitable sperm donor in the blandly handsome, undoubtably charming Alex O’Loughlin, who appears to have been created in a laboratory with strands of Patrick Dempsey’s DNA.

They spend the first hour or so of the film pretending that this is only a business transaction of sorts, that O’Loughlin’s sole purpose is exchanging fluids with Lopez and then hitting the road so that she can raise the child they conceived by herself.  However, it becomes evident, probably during an ultrasound, that there are Real Feelings there, and by the end of the movie, which will almost certainly involve Lopez going into labor at the most inopportune time, say, during a wedding or a business meeting in which everyone around her begins flailing around like Daffy Duck, they’ll be a happy couple with a brand new baby to fuss over.

Here’s the actual plot description, courtesy of the Internet Movie Database:

After years of dating, Zoe (Jennifer Lopez) has decided waiting for the right one is taking too long. Determined to become a mother, she commits to a plan, makes an appointment and decides to go it alone. On the day of her artificial insemination, Zoe meets Stan (Alex O’Loughlin) a man with real possibilities.

Trying to nurture a budding relationship and hide the early signs of pregnancy becomes a comedy of errors for Zoe and creates confusing signals for Stan. When Zoe nervously reveals the reason for her unpredictable behavior, Stan commits fully and says he’s in.

Never before has love seen a courtship where a wild night of sex involves three in a bed–Stan, Zoe and the ever-present massive pregnancy pillow. Or, where date night consists of being the focal point at a near-strangers water birth which does for kiddie pools what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean. The real pregnancy test comes when both of them realize they really dont know each other outside of hormonal chaos and birth preparations. With the nine month clocking ticking, both begin to experience cold feet. Anyone can fall in love, get married and have a baby but doing it backwards in hyper-drive could be proof positive that they were made for each other.

Indeed, never before has pregnancy gotten in the way of sex, except in every other comedy ever made about pregnancy.  I hope they’re edgy enough to also include a scene where Lopez cries for no reason while eating ice cream right out of the carton, and one where O’Loughlin looks incredulously at how big her underwear has gotten.  Because no one’s had the guts to go there yet, man! Okay, so I was wrong in a few spots.  Her leading man is not the father of her child, and it seems that they don’t spend a large portion of the movie acting hostile towards each other in some weak attempt to convince the audience that the script wasn’t written like a game of Mad Libs.  However, they merely exchanged one romantic comedy cliche, pretending to dislike each other for no discernible reason, for another, that being someone going to ludicrous means to hide something from a partner when it would be much easier to just tell them the truth up front.

Then, when that cliche is exhausted, they pick up the slack with another one, that of “Pregnancy is so wacky!” The much beloved, and almost equally maligned Juno (full disclosure: I’m one of perhaps four people left in the continental United States who hasn’t seen it yet) seems to have ushered in a revival of pregnancy comedies (or should I say “birthed,” hi-yoooo!).  I think of comedies centered around someone’s pregnancy as similar to comedies centered around a wedding–they’re almost always labored (bazinga!), mostly unsuccessful attempts at finding humor in a situation that is not terribly interesting to anyone other than the people to which it’s actually happening.

That’s not to say that pregnancy doesn’t have its funny moments, because it does (though mine seemed to involve such things as vomiting in a Taco Bell parking lot).  Nevertheless, the majority of pregnancies are so uneventful that it’s a chore to find enough laughs to keep an hour and a half long movie chugging along.  Left with little actual content most filmmakers resort to a checklist of tiresome cliches that few real-life couples about to have a child ever face: hippie childbirth coaches and inept medical staff you wouldn’t let near a litter of puppies, let alone a small human, men who become woozy at the sight of a needle, manufactured conflict that compels the male half of the expectant couple to admit that maybe he’s not ready to be a father after all (occasionally helped along by a swinging bachelor friend who encourages him to shirk his responsibilities), a trip to the hospital that looks like a Ringling Brothers routine.  And let’s not forget, the expectant mother invariably gets grotesquely fat, or, by Hollywood standards, gets up as high as a  size 10 or so.

But, to be fair, I’m making assumptions based solely on one crappy poster and a poorly written plot description on the IMDB (I’ve been trying to parse what exactly the last sentence means and failing miserably).  Let’s watch the extended trailer.

It appears that Jennifer Lopez and her leading man “meet cute” at least three separate times, which may be a new record for a romantic comedy.  Set in New York City? Check.  Male best friend of indistinct sexuality? Check.  Cynical girlfriends? Check.  Wacky doctor? Check.  Cute dog? Check.  Generic pop song on the soundtrack? Check.  And that’s before we even get to the “oh, and she’s pregnant” part.  Curiously, that’s but a very small part of the trailer.  But I’ll be darned if I didn’t see Lopez eating from a carton of ice cream.  Come back tomorrow for Friday’s winning lottery numbers.

Hell hath no fury?

March 8, 2010
The 82nd annual Academy Awards presentation was last night, and if you didn’t know it then I’m sure your friends on Twitter were happy to let you know.  I very nearly missed them, as I live in the area affected by the spat between Cablevision and ABC7, in which ABC7 temporarily took its feed off the air and both sides expected consumers to sympathize over an issue that came down to a company being paid 240 million dollars as opposed to the mere pittance of 200 million.  However, they made up in enough time that I was able to catch part of Christoph Waltz’s acceptance speech, but not soon enough that I was able to see the opening joke routine and some sort of musical number by the verging near overexposed Neil Patrick Harris.  If you ask me, that’s actually pretty great timing.

Anyhow, it was its usual overlong, masturbatory, gloriously tacky spectacle, with the standard reminders of how worthless human life would be without the miracle of film, a message that is somewhat muted when the broadcast breaks for commercials for Hot Tub Time Machine, The Bounty Hunter and She’s Out of My League.  All of the acting awards were given to the exact people predicted for weeks, with the predicted grumbling over whether or not Sandra Bullock “deserved” to win (see my post on Taylor Swift sweeping the Grammys as to why it’s pointless to continue complaining about such a thing).  The only real surprise came at the end of the night, when The Hurt Locker, a little seen, grittily realistic film about a military bomb squad in Iraq triumphed over the giant blue juggernaut known as Avatar for both Best Director and Best Picture.  In winning Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to earn such a recognition in Oscar history.  Yeah, I know, I was genuinely surprised that it took this long too.

I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker.  I understand it’s a good movie though, so I will at some point.  I also haven’t seen Avatar.  I understand it’s not a particularly good movie, but spectacular looking, so I’ll see that at some point too, once people stop thinking that the future of movies being that of computer animation replacing actual actors is a good thing.  To be perfectly honest, I was rooting for Inglourious Basterds to win, even though I knew it wouldn’t.  However, I’ve been amused by this manufactured “rivalry” between Bigelow and Avatar director James Cameron, who, as you probably know by now, were married at one point, for barely two years nearly two decades ago.  Bigelow has since kept her personal life on the down low, while Cameron has married two more times, but to read around the internet her Oscar wins last night weren’t just historical, but sweet revenge she’s been patiently waiting on for years.

I grimaced a bit when, after picking up the award for Best Director, Bigelow was played off the stage by an orchestral rendition of ‘I Am Woman,’ a song that has become a parody of feminist values, if it was ever taken seriously in the first place.  I suppose it could have been worse, though: it could have been ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ or ‘We Are Family.’  What made me grimace more, however, were all the Tweets and blogs claiming that Bigelow’s success was a “win for ex-wives everywhere,” and how delightful it was that she was finally “getting back at” the ex who did her wrong.  It became a real-life chick lit novel or romantic comedy.

Bigelow’s win wasn’t for “ex-wives everywhere,” it was a win for her.  How minimizing of her success for us “feminists” to assume that Bigelow wouldn’t view it as the culmination of over twenty years in the business as a respected if not overlooked filmmaker, but as the opportunity to approach James Cameron in the audience, shove her two Oscars towards him and yell out “In your face, you louse!”, just before forming a high-five line with other famous ex-wives like Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman.  As satisfying as we assume it would be (though Bigelow to my knowledge has never indicated that she holds a grudge against Cameron), it’d be a bit petty and tacky, not to mention a reinforcement of the stereotype of women being vengeful harpies who never let anything go, particularly anything involving men.

Perhaps I speak from a place of privilege, as I am an ex-wife who is on very good terms with my own ex.  If we were up against each other for some kind of award and he won, I’d be cheering the loudest in the audience.  Nevertheless, I get tired of the cliche, too often upheld by women ourselves, that men can just walk away from a relationship without a moment’s glance back, while women stew in our own bitter juices, spending months, even years plotting heinous revenge.  If and when we finally get that revenge, which often involves publicly humiliating the offending ex, it’s considered “empowering,” whereas if the tables were turned it’d be merely “malicious.”

I’ve never much seen the entertainment value in movies like She-Devil and The First Wives’ Club, in which the ostensible heroines resort to underhanded, dishonest, occasionally bordering on psychotic tactics to get back at their hapless exes, often for little more than just being insensitive jerks, which we all are on occasion.  In the end they end up as obnoxious and unlikable as their foes, but we’re supposed to be rooting for them anyway.  Magazines like Cosmopolitan occasionally make cutesy suggestions on how to strike back at former flames, such as showing up at places they’re going to be and flirting with other men.  Instead of moving on and being done with people who really weren’t worth our time anyway, we’re encouraged in the most strident “you go, girl!” manner possible to make them pay for what they’ve done, over and over again, even if the punishment eventually outweighs the crime.

I’m sure James Cameron is an insufferable person to live with.  He’s an egotistical blowhard, which is par for the course for most filmmakers, particularly those who refer to themselves as “visionaries.”  If memory serves, he left Bigelow for Linda Hamilton, whom he later left for his current wife, actress Suzy Amis.  That wasn’t a very nice thing to do.  Regardless, it’s rather ludicrous and more than a bit insulting to Kathryn Bigelow to imply that she and Cameron being nominated for the same award in the same year is anything more than an amusing coincidence.  I’m not glad that he lost because he’s apparently a lousy husband, I’m glad because he’s an egotistical blowhard, and because, contrary to popular opinion, “it made a lot of money” still does not always equate “it was an Oscar-caliber movie.”  Let’s give Kathryn Bigelow some credit for being the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, rather than just one more woman sticking it to another heel.

Marriage for dummies

March 5, 2010

So, you know, NBC has had it pretty rough in recent times.  They’ve been consistently last in the ratings for the Big Three networks, and of course there was that embarrassing business with The Tonight Show last month, resulting in the excruciatingly cutesy mass declaration of being “Team CoCo.”  Now they’re trying to win back America’s favor with The Marriage Ref, a combination reality/game/comedy show created by Jerry Seinfeld, king of NBC’s heyday back in the 90s.  The fact that it’s described as a combination reality/game/comedy show should raise a big scarlet flag to anyone with some shred of common sense, but, alas, it seems to be what the network is banking on to put them back on top, even interrupting the closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics to run a half-hour preview last Sunday.  I missed the half hour, choosing instead to immerse myself in the full hour experience, premiering last night.

Full disclosure: I was never a fan of Seinfeld.  Now, before you begin indignantly pounding on your keyboards, yes, I “got” the humor.  I got that the characters were perpetually failing to see the forest for the trees, and that their utter lack of self-awareness was what drove the show’s plot, or lack thereof.  I just didn’t think it was terribly funny.  If I wanted to watch a TV show about neurotic people becoming apoplectic over such meaningless things as TV Guide collections and the size of someone’s hands, I’d leave a camera running in my own home.   Everything about the show is like nails on a chalkboard for me, from the sound of Jason Alexander’s voice to the tuneless bass riffs during the opening credits and between scenes.  I didn’t join in the chorus of gnashing and wailing when it finally went off the air, I was relieved because I wouldn’t have to hear about it anymore, but of course I still do, because it invariably shows up on countless ‘Best TV Shows of All Time’ lists.  So clearly, the fault lies with me.

That being said, I’m glad to see that The Marriage Ref is getting a sound thrashing from critics, save for The New York Times, which recently wrote such a glowing article about Jerry Seinfeld that one assumes if he starred in a series that just consisted of him drinking coffee and picking up his dry cleaning, they’d be watching in rapt delight.  The A.V. Club described it as “odious.”  The Newark Star-Ledger called it “excruciating.”  Time.com refers to it as a “God-awful mishmash.”  Faint praise though it might be, The New York Times gave it its highest accolades, declaring “it isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.” Well, as much as I detest reality television, particularly that which is a combination game and comedy show, I also love a challenge, so I wanted to see if The Marriage Ref was, indeed, as bad as it sounds.

Spoiler alert: yes.  But have patience and read on.

The idea of The Marriage Ref, if you’ve missed the countless promos and write-ups about it, is that couples with ongoing, generally silly and meaningless (one could say Seinfeld-esque) arguments are placed before a panel of celebrity “marriage experts” (people like Alec Baldwin and Madonna, both of whom I’d certainly run to for relationship advice), who discuss which half of the couple is in the right.  The “laughs,” which are supplied in ample amounts by both the studio audience and the panelists, who guffaw at each other’s lines in true Hollywood masturbatory “You’re great,” “No, you’re great” fashion, come by way of the clips of the couples engaging in said silly arguments.  The final decision in each argument is provided by the host, a comedian named Tom Papa, whose smug, “ain’t I a stinker?” delivery would be right at home in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

In the episode I watched, Papa and his panelists, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and Eva Longoria Parker, “mediated,” if you want to call it that, though it’s really something closer to just making a few cracks at the couples’ expenses and then weakly declaring someone a “winner,” four arguments.  The first couple, the Raimundos, argue over the husband’s obsession with personal grooming, which leads to him spending much of his free time tanning, getting mani-pedis and refusing to do housework because it takes time away from making himself pretty.  Metrosexuals, that’s up to the minute, cutting edge humor! An impressive three gay jokes, not to mention use of the word “tranny,” are made in less than ten minutes, and the “winner” of the argument is, curiously, the husband, despite that refusing to do housework business.

The next couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rios, are arguing over something even more ludicrous.  Mrs. Rios wants her dining room used exactly once per year, while Mr. Rios would like to host the occasional poker party in it.  I immediately sided with Mr. Rios, as I firmly believe that anyone who allows an entire room in his or her house to go unused should be forced to live in an efficiency apartment with only a hot plate and a ‘Hang in There, Baby,’ poster.  They also argue over Mr. Rios’s lack of handyman skills, with Mrs. Rios berating him because he can’t accomplish the incredibly simple task of building a porch onto their house by himself.  Before they can completely turn into a Hispanic version of The Lockhorns, the argument is declared a draw.

The third couple, the Wieses, their most pressing issue is that the wife insists on flossing her teeth in bed.  I’m not entirely sure what one’s defense for flossing his or her teeth outside the bathroom would be, and if she had one I missed it because I had moved past “morbid curiosity” to “active boredom” by then.  The winner of the argument is, not surprisingly, the husband.

The last couple, whose name I didn’t catch because I completely stopped giving a fuck by that point had the issue that was probably most worth getting into a legitimate argument over, that being the husband’s insistence on taking off his wedding ring before going to play basketball with his friends.  I had some doubts about the story, mainly because the husband, who insisted that he had been playing basketball for some twenty-odd years, looked in the footage recorded for the show as if he had never set foot on a basketball court before that morning.  But that’s silly, a reality show would never make stuff up, that would be false representation.  Anyway, the winner of the argument is the wife.

The action is broken up by pointless facts provided by Natalie Morales of NBC News, such as “women are better at putting stuff together than men,” and putative “comedy” highlight reels featuring Marv Albert, who, right around the same time Seinfeld was at its peak, went on trial for biting and sodomizing his girlfriend.  I think there’s supposed to be something humorous about that, just as there’s supposed to be something humorous about Alec Baldwin, who famously cursed out his adolescent daughter in a voice mail message, appearing in the first episode, but I’ll be ding dong damned if I can figure out what it is.

The A.V. Club, which reviewed the first, half hour episode, called The Marriage Ref “mean-spirited,” with celebrities taking sport in making fun of the little people.  I didn’t see that in this episode.  With the exception of Basketball Jones in the last segment, who really did have it coming (if he was for real, which I doubt), the panelists went pretty easy on the couples.  However, it was also deeply, profoundly unfunny.  In fact, the ratio of studio audience laughter to anything funny actually said remained at a solid 98 to 2 throughout the entire show, which is impressive.  Listening to the audience dissolve into fits of spirited howling over Tom Papa making a Village People joke (more relevant, timely humor, how do they stay on top of these things??), you start to feel like you’re watching a televised version of the  “no soap, radio” joke.  Maybe it’s just you that doesn’t get it.

About the most positive thing that can be said about The Marriage Ref is that it’s, at this point at least, a limited run series.  It’s rare that a network recognizes its limitations, so I’ll give praise where praise is due.  However, even in a relatively short run I don’t expect it to get any better, particularly when one of the upcoming panelists is Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, whose show Curb Your Enthusiasm is to Seinfeld what a hard poke in the eye is to a soothing neck rub.  Why not just add Newman and Costanza and make it a triumvirate of tediousness?

Video Vault Friday: 80s commercials

February 26, 2010

You know who my favorite YouTube user is? The guy behind 80s Commercial Vault.  He compiled basically every commercial ever aired in the 1980s (and quite a few from the 90s) into a collection of over 120 videos.  Watching the videos, though I haven’t even gotten through half of them yet, has been a pastel colored, lite rock, incredibly Caucasian drug trip through time.  Seriously, at what point did they finally start putting African-Americans in mainstream commercials? I’m guessing sometimes around the late 80s, around the time that Yo! MTV Raps debuted.

This collection was recorded during a showing of 70s action flick The Deep, aired on February 10, 1980, when Yr. Correspondent was seven years old and some of you reading this were barely a gleam in your daddies’ eyes.  Perhaps the most amusing thing is noting how many of the products, such as Trident, Contac, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Noxzema and Top Ramen are still around, though I’m pretty sure Contac cold capsules don’t contain those cool little colored beads anymore, if they ever did in the first place.  Gone but mostly forgotten: the AMC Eagle (not to mention AMC itself) and Olympia Beer.  On a timely note, it also features a promo for the Lake Placid Olympics, with the awesomely named Tai Babilonia.

I could be lazy and just keep posting these every week for the next two and a half years.

Endurance Test Theater presents: ‘Downloading Nancy’

February 25, 2010

Downloading Nancy, 2008

Director: Johan Renck

Screenplay by: Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross

Starring: Maria Bello, Jason Patric, Rufus Sewell, Amy Brenneman, David Brown and Michael Nyqvist

Two universal truths about movies: one, if a film’s title consists of ‘[Verb]ing [Character's Name],’ there’s a 75% chance it won’t be good. You could attempt to prove me wrong by mentioning Raising Arizona and Being John Malkovich, but I could counterstrike with the hat trick of Raising Helen, Saving Silverman and Guarding Tess. I could also mention Deconstructing Harry, Boxing Helena, Raising Cain and Drowning Mona, plus a bunch of other movies you’re not likely to remember, probably because they weren’t very good. No one knows why, but the gerund-name combination just seems to be a signpost leading towards lazy, derivative, generally poor filmmaking.

The second truth is that suburban life, even in lighthearted comedies, will always be portrayed as unbearable. Mind-numbingly dull, suffocating and populated by small-minded people who always have some sort of terrible secret to hide, suburbia as Hell on Earth has been the vivid setting of such recent releases as Little Children and Revolutionary Road, and even a few movies that don’t star Kate Winslet.  It’s also a favorite cliche for independent films, mainly because a lot of independent filmmakers grew up in cities and really do view the suburbs as a sort of purgatory for people who can’t handle dirty water dogs and dodging vomit to get down the stairs fast enough to catch a crowded, overheated subway, which will undoubtedly smell like unwashed homeless person. I don’t know where Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross, the writers of Downloading Nancy grew up, but I’m guessing neither of them have spent a lot of time at potluck suppers and general stores, since their film makes deep-throating a double barrel shotgun a desirable alternative to the white picket fence lifestyle.

Downloading Nancy stars Maria Bello, and let me be fair by pointing out in advance that she’s really good in it. She looks believably despondent and as realistically shitty as a glamorous blond movie star can possibly look. She gives a performance worthy of a serious study in the oft-ignored psychological issues of women in their thirties, especially those who’ve suffered from abuse in the past. It’s a shame the movie she expended this performance on is a relentlessly ugly chore that one slogs through rather than watches. Bello plays Nancy Stockwell, a middle class housewife trapped in a miserable, loveless marriage with Albert (Rufus Sewell, who must have prepared for shooting every day by sucking on the sourest lemon he could find). In case you’re not certain what a dreadful human being Albert is, he’s obsessed with golf, constantly practicing his game in his basement putting green. He’s also a joyless stiff who won’t indulge Nancy’s attempts at playfulness and for no discernible reason refuses to have sex with her. We know nothing of these characters, other than the fact that Nancy is deeply disturbed and Albert is an uptight prick. No evidence that they were ever happy together, save for a necklace and a tiny, fake looking photograph of the two of them is shown, and thus we don’t learn to care about either of them or their failing marriage.

A victim of child molestation, Nancy deals with the pain of both that and her current unhappy existence by engaging in self-injury, as well as violent sexual encounters with shady individuals she meets online. One of these individuals is Louis (Jason Patric), who she leaves town to meet for the usual degradation, but with an added twist: she wants him to kill her.  Louis, whose online handle is “Deep Pain” (which reminds me of nothing else but the “DEEEEEEP HURRRRRTING” routine from Mystery Science Theater 3000), is more than happy to indulge Nancy sexually, but he’s more talk than show when it comes to this killing thing, as evidenced by the numerous times he asks her if she’s sure she wants him to do it.  Nancy means business though, when, sounding improbably like a character in a cop movie, she snaps “What, are you losing your hard-on already? Let’s do this.”

Louis seems to spend less time actually having sex with Nancy than in coming up with new and innovative ways to cause her pain, such as burning her with cigarettes, tying her to a bed and slicing her skin with broken glass and forcing her to walk across a floor littered with mousetraps while drunk and blindfolded (just when you think you’ve heard about every fetish, here comes a new one).  Despite the initial intention of their meeting as a weekend-long hard BDSM fest, culminating in Nancy’s death, it’s pretty obvious that they have real feelings for each other, or at least, as much feelings as two utterly broken people can muster.  It’s not terribly surprising to discover that Louis sees more of himself in Nancy than just his penis.  We learn just as much about him as we do the other characters in the movie (that is, virtually nothing but the vaguest hints about his past), but what he has in common with Nancy is enough to make him even more reluctant to kill her, while she becomes all the more determined to die.

The film goes back and forth in time, between Nancy and Louis’s blossoming, yet ultimately short-lived relationship, then later when Louis pays a visit to Albert, ostensibly to torture him with his knowledge of what happened to Nancy, only to find the tables turned when Albert unexpectedly shows evidence that he possesses some shred of a heart. Dispersed throughout are scenes from past and present of Nancy’s fruitless sessions with her nice but ineffectual therapist (Amy Brenneman), her godawful relationship with Albert, in which every interaction is grim and stifling and, of course, Nancy hurting herself again and again, with anything she can get her hands on.  Sorry for the lack of a spoiler alert, but Louis does eventually give in to Nancy’s pleadings and kills her, and at the end Albert is left an empty, hollow shell of a man, which isn’t much of a change from how he is at the beginning, though presumably he doesn’t enjoy golf as much.

The trailer for Downloading Nancy seems to bizarrely suggest that it’s a quirky love story with a twist.  It’s not.  I don’t know what kind of movie it is, other than unpleasant.  It’s powered on nothing but hopelessness and despair, so much so that it was difficult to find anything funny to say about it. However, my dislike for it doesn’t stem from the fact that it’s profoundly depressing.  I can take sad movies; in fact, I tend to prefer them over the “Hey, it’s all gonna work out, let’s go try on some hats!” type of movie.  What bothers me is that it’s utterly pointless.  Nancy suffers in life, and she suffers in death, to what end? We can only assume that Albert learned a valuable lesson, that being “Jesus Christ, don’t ignore it when your wife keeps slashing the shit out of her arms,” but since we never get to know Albert his “comeuppance” isn’t satisfying.  We don’t feel relief for Nancy when she finally gets her wish, it’s simply an empty, violent end to a sad life.

It’s irritating when filmmakers don’t give their audience enough credit for understanding the message a movie is putting across, and go too heavy on the symbolism.  In Downloading Nancy, symbolism comes by way of the lighting and set design.  Everything is bathed in a gray-blue light, so that everyone resembles freshly deceased corpses–to show you that they’re dead on the inside too, do you understand? The sets look shabby and “suburban life” is represented by plastic covered furniture and Albert’s chintzy paneled basement–because it’s fake and plastic, like life in the suburbs, don’t you get it? It’s as if director Johan Renck is swatting you repeatedly in the face with a placard reading THIS IS AN IMPORTANT FILM.

The few positive reviews of Downloading Nancy praised its realistic portrayal of mental illness. That much is true, but the realism can be attributed not to the script, which has such ridiculous lines as “Let me be your pain,” but to Maria Bello’s performance. She gets every nuance of severe, crippling depression right: the body language, the occasional moments of lucidity in which even she doesn’t seem to realize what she’s doing, the irritating demands for attention, the maddening refusal to allow herself to be helped. She’s not a lovable, misunderstood “free spirit,” as so many emotionally disturbed people are portrayed as in Hollywood, she’s realistically hard to sympathize with, let alone like, and yet there are times when you just wish someone would give her a damn hug. If this was a better movie, she might have taken away a handful of awards from it.

Instead, her character seems to be a tool used to make a movie about a dysfunctional from the get-go couple’s kinky sex games seem artsy and “edgy,” and it becomes exploitative. Bello looks so believably miserable, so convincingly tormented and unhinged that it takes on the feel of a snuff film after a very short time. Whenever she lets out a humorless burst of laughter as she’s slapped or thrown about by Louis or Albert like a rag doll, it makes your skin crawl. You wish you’d learn Nancy’s fate from the beginning, because then you wouldn’t have to contend with the cheap, horror film suspense, culminating in such grotesque scenes as Nancy wandering dazed around a hardware store, helping Louis choose the objects that will end her life and hide her body. “Aren’t you going to need this?” she asks him brightly as she holds up a shovel.  It makes you shudder, but for likely different reasons than was intended.

A title card at the end reads ‘Based on True Events,’ which is a neat little way for the filmmakers to avoid criticism.  Some defenders of Downloading Nancy say that its detractors simply can’t take the fact that there are real people like the characters in the film.  Oh, I can take that fact.  I believe that people like Nancy Stockwell exist.  I know people like Nancy Stockwell.  They deserve a better movie than Downloading Nancy.  It’s torture porn with psychobabble.

‘We Are the World 25′ released, world replies “The hell you are.”

February 15, 2010

Coinciding with the opening of the Olympics this past weekend, a remake of ‘We Are the World’ was released, with proceeds going towards Haitian relief.  It was inevitable, really; in fact a remake had been in the works long before the Haiti earthquake even took place.  It was inevitable not just because 2010 marks twenty-five years since the original was released, but because pop culture is constantly chasing its own tail, at an ever-increasing clip.  Pretty much every song, movie and television show has been or will be remade, remastered, or, in a new darling term, “rebooted” at some point, even if it wasn’t all that great the first time around.  Honestly, I’m surprised it took them this long to do a new version, having fully expected to see one for 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami.  Disaster has struck somewhere in the world? Let’s sing a song about it!

What I’m not surprised about is that ‘We Are the World 25′ sucks.  I mean sucks.  It sucks enough that I don’t want to post the video here, because if you haven’t seen it yet I’d like to spare you the horror.  It’s practically a parody of self-important, pseudo-celebrities taking a day away from buying $5,000 Vietnamese potbelly pigs and vacationing on private Mediterranean islands to encourage their fans to give to the poor and needy until it hurts. It would be funny if it wasn’t so mind-bendingly awful.

Now, before I go on, let me say that I’m not masturbating over the past or idealizing the original.  I was 12 when the first ‘We Are the World’ was released, and, good intentions aside, I thought it was corny claptrap even then (though I wasn’t likely using the word “claptrap” yet).  The lyrics were mawkish and seemed to promote charity as a mostly self-serving endeavor, and there was something incongruous about celebrities, many of whom could literally take out their checkbooks and write one for a million dollars, telling working class shlubs that it was up to us to make a brighter day for millions of starving African children.  Now, that’s not to say that I’m not a fan of charitable endeavors.  I donate quite often to charitable organizations, both my time and my money.  Good deeds, helping those in need, yeah, I’m a fan.  I just don’t like being told by rich people that I need to be doing more.  Also, it was all but impossible to escape, played at least once an hour on MTV for several weeks running and nearly as often on the radio.  If you’re older than 30, it’s likely you can do a fair impersonation of either Cyndi Lauper or Bruce Springsteen’s parts, but you will get no joy out of doing it.

What bothered me later was the discovery that, like Band Aid, Live Aid and the particularly ludicrous Hands Across America, despite sales of ‘We Are the World’ raising millions of dollars very little of the proceeds went to the people who actually needed it.  Music business red tape and corrupt African governments ate most of it, and it seemed that everyone involved in USA for Africa was t00 busy patting each other on the back and flashing the thumbs up sign to notice.  It was a major cultural event during the 80s, that much is true, but it was a major cultural event that accomplished virtually nothing.

Again, it’s not surprising that ‘We Are the World 25′ sucks.  There’s no way it couldn’t have sucked.  Pretty much any attempt at remaking something that was at best mediocre from the beginning by giving it a “modern,” updated flair is all but guaranteed to screw the pooch–this is how we end up with Alvin and the Chipmunks dressed like street thugs.  Originally recorded by 45 music stars, all of whom had long, well-established careers with widespread audience appeal, ‘We Are the World 25′ ups the ante to over 8o performers, many of whom stretch the word “star” to its very limits.  A fun party game, as long as you provide earplugs to everyone beforehand, is to watch the video and try to identify the various “stars,” or at least, those who manage to get more than seven seconds or so in front of the camera.  Unless the median age of your party guests is 16, you’ll be lucky to be able to name half.  Even after looking at a list of the participants, I still don’t know who many of them are: Jennifer Nettles, Orianthi, Mary Mary, Isaac Slade, Iyaz.  And those are the soloists, the people I’m supposed to recognize, the chorus is an even bigger who’s who of “who’s that?”, including Ethan Bortnick, Zac Brown, Kristian Bush, Melanie Fiona, Sean Garrett, Taryll Jackson, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Verdine White, someone named Nipsey Hussle, and Julianne Hough.  “Who’s Julianne Hough?” you may ask, which is fine, because I asked that too.  Turns out she’s on Dancing With the Stars, another Hollywood endeavor that has an interesting notion of the word “star.”

It also features appearances by Justin Bieber, a 14 year-old who sings about lost love and the pain of not being with that special lady even though he’s only 14  and doesn’t know shit about that kind of thing, Miley Cyrus and several people named Jonas.  It’s fairly obvious that there was a target audience in mind when the “singers” were collected for ‘We Are the World 25,’ even though that audience doesn’t tend to have their own credit cards to use for purchasing songs from iTunes and donating to charitable organizations online.  Us oldsters in the listening audience, those who were around the first time, who do we get to represent our generation? Barbra Streisand, human sleeping pill Josh Groban and the always unwelcome presence of Celine Dion.  There is no middle ground, it veers wildly between Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls, an entirely manufactured pop group based on a Vegas burlesque show, and Tony Bennett, who looks as baffled and dismayed as those of us watching it.

Those who’ve praised the remake claim it’s an accurate representation of today’s music scene.  If that’s the case, then holy shit it’s in worse shape then I thought, because it’s represented here almost entirely by bubblegum pop shipped in from Disney Studios and rap.  It’s also been complimented for having a more polished sound than its predecessor.  Sure, if by “polished” you mean computers were used to tweak the thin, nasal vocals of people like Miley Cyrus so that they sound somewhere near listenable.  If that’s what you mean, then I agree, this shit was more polished than my grandmother’s dining room table.  Nevertheless, that, not to mention the unforgivable use of autotune, makes the absence of actual singers with actual talent like Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera all the more glaring.  None of them are my cup of tea music-wise, but one wonders if ‘We Are the World 25′ would have been slightly more bearable if roughly half the participants had been dropped (including Vince Vaughn, what the fuck?) and even just one of them had taken part instead.

The high moment, or low depending on how you look at it, though it’s hard to top the autotuning, Jamie Foxx’s smirking impersonation of Ray Charles, Wyclef Jean’s bizarre caterwauling or Celine Dion’s banshee wails, is the inclusion of Michael Jackson’s performance from the original, complete with a clip from the video.  It’s a high moment because he’s one of the few voices on the recording that doesn’t make you want to shove chopsticks deep into your ears, and yet there’s just something undeniably gimmicky about it.  It seems to be suggesting “If Michael was alive, he’d have participated in this.”  I’m sure he would have, but his appearance in the new video, appropriately faded and lens flared so that he looks like a benevolent, sparkling ghost, is morbidly tacky, like Natalie Cole singing with her long deceased father in her cover of ‘Unforgettable,’ or David Spade appearing in a DirectTV commercial with the late Chris Farley.  The fact that that may not necessarily be the worst part of ‘We Are the World 25′ says a whole lot about it.

Still, white people praising something for its “hip hop flavor” will never not be funny.  At least they’re not spelling it as “flava.”

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