Archive | Essays

The Church of Italian Men: The Creature

En route to the coffee shop this Sunday morning, I was about as cross as I ever get. My 12-year-old car had been making a noise so ominous that I’d been forced to hoof it through the rain, and my cute umbrella was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse I was uncharacteristically nursing a hangover, which not only made coffee essential but the walk to fetch it pure misery.

Suffice it to say I’d not had the greatest Saturday night. It’d been the stuff of which Cathy Comics, rather than French movies, were made, and my hangover stemmed as much from the company I’d kept as from anything I’d actually imbibed.

So it was a morning when no one would’ve dared claim I was looking my best. Puffy-eyed and sallow, I was wearing the same matronly blue dress I’ve worn nearly every morning this summer—in my defense, dresses with pockets are very hard to come by—and my unbrushed hair stank of other people’s cigarettes and bad perfume. Nonetheless, as I passed the local pasticcera, one of the Italian fellows loitering under its awning looked me up and down, let out a low wolf whistle, and winked. Instantly I felt a million times better.

I’ve never been offended by that kind of male attention, never thought it compromised any of my deeply felt feminist principles. True, I don’t dig hustles or the you-like-what-I-like-so-I-like-you narcissism that passes for modern courtship. But a guy who just puts it out there without telegraphing his desire as a threat? Fuggedaboutit. That’s old-school Brooklyn in the very best way. More to the point, that’s Italian men.

To be clear, I don’t mean “Italian-American” men. I am referring to the men who were born in Italy rather than the ones who have an Italian grandmother. I am referring to the men who bolt espressos rather than Dunkin’ Doughnut coffees to keep their hearts beating. I am referring to the men who mostly speak in grunts, hisses, and explicit hand gestures.

I had one of those boyfriends. He was tall and broad-shouldered with long, ropy arms, old-soul eyes, and tanned, rosy skin. I met him not far from the Long Island beach house my friends and I rented one summer. He was working construction as a literal WOP—that old derogatory acronym for an Italian guy without papers—and when I walked by his site he whistled through his teeth. I looked up to find him nodding his head. “Principessa,” he said. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. I was distracted by his slow, sexy grin. Continue Reading →

Death by Casting: Prince Avalanche’s Tale

Prince Avalanche begins as silently as any of David Gordon Green’s films do: with footage of the forest fire-ravaged 1988 Texas landscape, followed by the figures of two men wordlessly performing roadwork in the same area. The images are lovely and terrible, lackadaisical and strained—the oddly comforting dissonance that characterizes all of Green’s dramas.

But as the film revs up, the THC-inspired goofiness of his comedies The Pineapple Express and Your Highness quickly creeps in. The two men are Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), and we grasp their Abbot and Costello dynamics long before we sort out any other details of their relationship. While tasked with repairing the roads in the region, they are roughing it in the wilderness. Alvin, older, heftier, and more self-possessed, gently bosses Lance, who seems impervious to everything above the waist. (You know you’re dealing with unusually short men when Rudd looms as the big man in the duo.) While Alvin writes letters and studies German, Lance flips through comic books. While Alvin sleeps in their shared tent, Lance jerks off. The elder’s Achille’s heel reveals itself soon enough, however: It’s Madison, Lance’s sister, whom Alvin loves but also has fled. In his own way, Alvin is at least as much of a fuckup as Lance, whom he has speculated may be “mildly retarded.”

When the weekend arrives, Lance hightails it back to town in the hopes of getting laid, and Alvin basks in his solitude. He fishes; he reads; he wanders through the woods, a reverie of saturated greens and rust colors. And it’s at that point that Paul Rudd, rather than Alvin, begins to shimmer into focus. For Alvin gets silly as only Rudd can: He flops in the water. He does a weird jig. He juts his hip out at a crazy angle. He is, in other words, too cartoonlishly outsized to read legibly as a guy foolish only in his degree of anal-retentiveness—a guy who has sought a Thoreau-like isolation to cool his dangerous temper. Alvin may be slotted as the straight man in this mundo bizarro but Rudd can’t help but put a wag in his tail. Continue Reading →

You Say Blue Jasmine, I Say Rotten Tomawto

I would have been so happy to keep mum on the topic of Blue Jasmine. In the week of its release I was on vacation, confident that colleagues would cover all necessary ground without my two cents. (I’d already extensively documented my feelings about Allen’s work in the 2006 essay Hollow Wood.) But upon my return I discovered everyone falling over themselves like high school football players in high heels. Which begged the question: Were these glowing reviews of the same film I’d so blithely dismissed as Blue Jizz?

The premise itself, like too many of Allen’s post-Mia endeavors, is a meet-too-cute mashup: Call it A Streetcar Named Madoff. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine née Jeanette, a New York socialite who’s fallen upon hard times since her charlatan of an investor husband (Alec Baldwin) left his family toe-up. After being forced to move to Brooklyn (Woody’s old-man slippers are showing), she lands upon the San Francisco stoop of her working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whose marriage to Andrew Dice Clay ended when Jasmine’s husband swindled them out of their savings. Cue vodka-swilling, pill-popping, and smack-talking—especially when it comes to Ginger’s hotheaded beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who’d only be more aptly named if he actually were called Stanley.

That Blanchett actually played Blanche DuBois in a BAM production of A Streetcar Named Desire adds a curious wrinkle here. For though her characterization of Jasmine is slightly comic and slightly harrowing, mostly it is just slight—like the film itself. There’s a faintness at hand here, as if we were watching a facsimile of a facsimile. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy