So Spring Already (More Notes from the Underground)

Movies is quiet and so is I. I’m knee-deep in a batch of mostly onerous editing to help me pay off the Dreaded Taxes (really, why don’t we all stop paying; it’d be a fuck of a lot faster way to derail all and sundry than those faltering protests preaching solely to the choir); reviews to write; books I’ve committed to read. Mostly, though, I’ve surrendered once again to the whims of the weather, and am here to report that the best cultural barometer of the moment is not film nor television but subway.

What public transportation relies upon, slavishly, is a complete and utter adherence to the social contract — to the unspoken agreement that the only way to get through the day with so many strangers’ elbows lodged squarely and unintentionally up your ass is to practice the golden rule. In the words of Miss Tina Turner back when she was Mrs. Ike: “Nice and easy.”

Alas, what with the MTA’s wildly outdated signal system, the miserable slush and hail and rain and ice and yellow yellow snow and flip-your-wig winds, an entire city who needs a vacation from the Winter That Wouldn’t End, well, the social contract is breaking down a wee bit. Men sitting with legs sprawled out, taking up two seats while old people on canes and pregnant women loom above them. At 8 am a woman smacking loudly on greasy fried chicken drops wrappers at her feet, while every Hungover Harriet gags around her. The angry whir of so many headphones not turned down low enough. The unfathomable body odor of a parka-wrapped people stalled in overheated sardine cans. The homeless person clad in urine-soaked paperbags. The drug addicts drooling their methadone fix on their neighbors’ shoulders. The save-it-for-the-couch self-analyses between Williamsburg silverspoons who haven’t quite caught on to how the rest of us working joes ain’t just background plants. Nasal fusillades that masquerade as girltalk between assistants zipping between the gym and their lipstick gigs. Everyone pushing their way to get on and off first, stepping on toes, bags, egos; pushing past politesse to land that empty seat. No please, no thank you, just an occasional exasperated sigh.

A “Metropolitan Diary” Entry You’ll Never Read: The other day on a superpacked 6 pm 4 train speeding down from Grand Central, a 16-year-old slackjaw fiddled with a cell phone game that beeped wildly every five seconds or so. In the grin-and-bear-it category, for sure, until the train screeched to a halt that extended into 10 minutes. The rest of us stood silent, unwilling to honor our despair by commiserating about it. But the beeping, in contrast to that looming quiet, was intolerable.

I have an impolite habit of naming other people’s impoliteness. LadyRosman, etiquette avenger at your service, whether you requested it or not. I’ll yell at you for littering, for talking during a movie, for wearing your jeans slung too far below your panties. So I said something.

“Do you mind turning down the volume on your phone?”

The girl looked up, cowlike, mouth ajar. But the big woman on her left looked immediately alert, jaw jutting forward to compensate for her charge’s slack.

“Why should she?”

“Because the beeping is so loud that it’s irritating.”

“Maybe you’re the one who’s irritating.”

“I asked her politely and you’ve answered for her. Rudely.”

“She aint’ doin’ nuthin. You the one who’s irritating. You rude.”

“Listen to yourself. You’re setting a fine example.”

Everyone else remained still. Even stiller.

By now the girl was staring into space blankly, the phone abandoned, either embarrassed or markedly attention-deficient. The big woman nudged her, hard, in the ribs, over and over until she started playing again. I started to laugh, more (admittedly) to irk them both than anything else.

“You’re all irritating,” someone else mumbled.

They had a point.

This just in: No social contract in New York City, not until spring makes her fine self known.
Possibly, no social contract in the United States until our finer selves have a place to shine.

I worry.

Geography Is (Manifest) Destiny: This New Yorker’s Final Thoughts on Why LA Works

It’s so easy to find personal drive in New York City. The lousy weather, the difficulties of everything from the acquisition of groceries to laundering your clothes to finding and financing shelter, mandates its presence. To get here, you must have some fire in your gut. To stay here, you must have some kind of play — a tight ass and the right way to shake it, a clever turn of phrase, a crazy ability to transform one dollar into 100, a Buddha-like equanimity that’s the exact antipode of the zombie glaze you’ll find shuffling through America’s malls. Unlike the bulk of this county’s denizens, we New Yorkers consistently choose stimulation over comfort. Unsequestered by cars and yards and social conformity, we opt to expose ourselves like a raw nerve to the wild elements of everyone else every morning just to fetch our coffee and morning paper.

A New Yorker’s bullshit, no doubt, and I’ll tell you why. Those of us here are hiding, albeit in a different way. We’re hiding from what we’d find should we be stripped of the crazy distractions of our daily lives. Living in a world so utterly fabricated, so utterly devoid of nature untamed, we can convince ourselves we are nature’s wildest, most powerful scions. We can be the peacocks unchallenged by the regular, humbling realities of big, unmitigated sky. It’s why New Yorkers are the most intricately festooned of all Americans. In the US, the more beautiful the natural environs, the drabber the garb of the local denizens: No one in New Mexico or Northern California or Colorado is particularly inclined to compete with the purple mountains and sunsets and jeweled layers of thick-limbed forest. Here in NYC we do not have the purple mountains — so we dress like them.

This is all my way of getting to how Los Angeles utterly confuses me. When I was graduating from college and was deciding where to move, somebody said to me, “If you’re smart but not ambitious, go to San Francisco. If you’re ambitious but not very smart, go to LA. And if you’re smart and ambitious, go to New York City.” Although I actually ended up coming here because I loved stoops and West Indian patties, it was a quote that resonated during my entire visit to LA this time. Not because it was necessarily true, but because I was trying to gauge its accuracy.

For if I and my friends spend most of our time and make the bulk of our money chewing on the culture of this country, then understanding the lair of the MGM lion is pretty much required. But what I find every time I’ve come here is that this city both hides from itself and exposes itself in an utterly different way than any of us Easterners, we who after all live a full continent away, can immediately or even slowly assimilate thoroughly. After all, as my friend Hopie always says confidently when we discuss the inescapable energy of New York, “It’s the rock.” And it’s true: NYC is perched on an unbelievably solid core of rock, so strong it can sustain all the skyscrapers and egos the city’s denizens continue to heap upon it. It’s enough to make you believe New Agers may have something when they tout the power of crystals, for you can feel it as soon as you enter the city limits. The crazy buzz roaring right below your overpriced trainers.

In LA, I’m convinced, it’s all about the desert, an element you don’t even find until you scurry west of the Mississippi. The desert humbles you, but it also casts you in a golden light that’s not a far cry from a halo. It is, after all, where Jesus threw himself with nary a crumb to eat when he had to access his more direct pipeline to God. I first saw the true desert only a few years ago, and what struck me was how absolutely alive it was, shimmering with a kind of extraterrestrial botany and beauty that would otherwise never survive on a continent like ours.

And hence what is called the City of Angels, perched on that extraterrestrial terrain. A long urban sprawl in which people frolic all day long in their playclothes (Juicy Sweats and Uggs), seemingly prepared at any moment to jump onto their geographic playgrounds, the canyons and forests and beaches woven into the city’s fabric like they were just another Fred Segal. Of course these people think they can build mountains; they scale them every day in between their manicuring appointments and their boardroom meetings in which they make and break a dozen careers before breakfast.

While in LA, I stayed in Venice, a flip-flop bungalow community tucked right next to the beach. Running on the boardwalk every day, I galloped next to the beach volleyballers; the homeless people with yoga mats tied neatly onto their carts; the expensively clad executives barking into a cell phone beneath their white baseball caps; and the red, heat-struck features of all the dwellers, be it from gall or merely too much sun. I grinned wildly at every face I passed, with that very Eastern elation at the good luck of a nice batch of weather. Mostly they stared blankly back at me, the sweaty girl wearing glasses and a gap-toothed smile. These bright, salt-kissed mornings were just another morning on the IRT to them. The only thing out of the ordinary was my overeager zeal.

Finally, one morning a homeless guy said to me very gently, “If you’re going to run outside all the time, honey, you should start wearing sunblock.”

He was right. I’m too tan now.

And then I kind of got it. If you want to measure up to all that wild living right outside your door, you’ve got to pace yourself. What we back East perceive as a blandness is more likely the Western take on steeliness, the equivalent of a deep breath before leaping into that big, unmitigated sky. Westerners face every day what we back East shrink from like little squinting moles: we hide from nature, but they believe they’ve conquered it, rainstorms and earthquakes and all. And with that kind of confidence, what’s to stop them from swaggering into all kinds of huge projects, ill-advised or not. What’s to stop them from Wizard of Oz, from Singin’ in the Rain, from Star Wars and (let’s face it) from the more-than-occasional Ishtar when they’ve already conquered the desert?

Perversely, the whole time I was in LA, I read books about the Hollywood Ten, the screenwriters blacklisted because of their Communist politics, and about the queasy marriage between politics and Hollywood during the ‘50s and ‘60s — namely Norma Barzman’s The Red and the Blacklist (chatty and glamorous, one of my new favorite Hollywood memoirs) and J. Hoberman’s tweedy, incredibly comprehensive The Dream Life. I’d thought when I slipped those books into my suitcase that I’d have a hard time locating where such subversion had thrived on those palm tree-lined boulevards, but I was wrong. And I was wrong to perceive it as subversion (though communists always have to keep it on the DL; the constitution goes but so far, apparently). People in LA talk about politics and ideas a surprising amount, albeit with a disregard for facts curiously reminiscent of our country’s leader. Every time I opened up my books at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Peet’s Coffee and Tea, young and old wanted to talk about the city’s history and our country’s future. In New York, particularly post 9/11 and the recent election, most of us don’t even want to broach that subject, so the conversations refreshed me nearly as much as the sun did, even when I thought I was talking with people’s asses rather than their heads. It’s not that people were bland or dumb so much as they were unfettered, perhaps too much so.

Flying back to the billionth blizzard of the season, I thought about the two worlds. Laid bare to nature’s elements, I felt bigger emotions, felt more susceptible to the winds sweeping past me on every level. I knew I’d been a more open channel, momentarily undivided by the New York City grid. And I knew that, for better or worse, I was ready to step back amongst the peacocks. Let them create it all out there with their manifest destiny. We’ll wait back here, sharpening our teeth on cement so we’re ready and able to chew on their big-as-dreams scenery.

Of Lemon Pies, Navy Mermaids and Bearded Eighth Grade Boys: Oscars 2005

Ah, the Oscars. As boring as ever, and I love them anyway.

I’ve never been in LA for las festivities before, and around these here parts a somberness more aptly befitting an inauguration takes hold starting the Friday before. By early Sunday morning, the city vibrates with a queasy anticipation; by midday, the traffic, shite already, crawls to a stop and everyone dutifully straps on their skinny jeans and late-90s clunky shoes to settle into wherever they are going to howl for the rest of the gloriously sunny day. I watched it all with a bunch of LA-NYC girls who, like me, occupy the frayed edges of the fellavision bidness — most spectacularly my girl CC, who’s out here shooting a pilot with Our Celluloid Lady of the Cellophane Tetas Grandes (who shalt remain unnamed).

Here’s my breakdown, shallow as it ever was.

Red Carpet

Navy, a neutral color that’s both less weighty and more conservative than black, rules the roost as chief metaphor.

Girls and boys alike have slathered themselves in the stuff — the ladies mostly in long mermaid-shaped dresses that shape them not one but two sets of hips (one of which sits squarely around their calves). And why why why why all the dyed black hair? If the attendees ain’t sporting that bracing buttery blond, it’s an equally bracing dyed black. I wish some NYC (hell, BK) stylists had been flown into shake out the TV hostess-stiff from these tarred and feathered, some of whom looked so much nicer when I caught them in other contexts over the looooong-ass holiday er Oscar weekend. Overall fashion trends include bad bell-shaped earrings, chandelier necklaces draping too-fussy necklines, siblings.

Small-minded specifics:
-Mike Meyer either a. has received a bad chemical peel b. has fallen asleep while the sun lamp technician gave him the rub and tug c. discovered bulimia, Heathers style d. is going for Scientologist-style puffiness to resuscitate his Korea.
-Cate Blanchett miraculously pulls off dressing up like Million Dollar Baby’s lemon pie with real filling.
-Scarlett Johannsson transcends the lousy fizz of her bangs and Halle Berry the debacle of Catwoman and Benet to channel otherwise apparently blacklisted glamour. Scarlett especially looks like a little cloud of red-lipped confectionary sugar.
– Say it ain’t so, Joe, but la hermosa mexicana Salma Hayek looks dumpy dora in Elvira bangs and a Tracey Turnblad dress.
-In her draped jersey dress, Hilary Swank has literally manifested herself as an Oscar. All rise for the power of suggestion.
-The new Hollywood vampires, all tiny, pointy teeth and waxy white: Renée Zellweger, tight and wincy; Johnny Depp and his French mew of a bride; Kirsten Dunst, that jagged little pill.
-Estimable Laura Linney brandishing a L Word mullet that makes her curiously reminiscent of Frank Purdue.
-Drew Barrymore as a soap actress in her 40s trying to dress like the kids.
-Al Pacino as a soap actress in her 50s trying to dress like the kids.
-Penelope Cruz channeling Audrey .-It’s official: Melanie Griffith now wears a labia on her face.

Aw, shit; you get the picture.

Rock Rolls It Up

Maybe it’s all the advance buzz, but I swear I’ve been privy to the whole of Christ Rocket’s Oscar schiticky already on the new borscht belt. Ears sticking out, slim jim in his fine, nonpleather suit, he keeps laughing at his own jokes, Billy Crystal style. Our eyes are fluttering even before he gleefully shouts “All period pieces should star Russell Crowe.” That said, I cannot believe people are up in arms that he questions the star quality of those present. Principesas, all of them, because save for Rock’s man on the streets later on, this is one of the most unabashedly undemocratic ceremonies in recent memory. All the working stiffs who actually toil for their money — makeup artists, art department, etc. — are relegated to the carpet to fetch their awards. And bewigged, bejeweled Beyonce rocks lesser known artists’ nominated songs as she sways inanely side to side in three different oufits, each more improbable than the next.

Scrapes and bows to Rock for busting out the “Next they’ll be getting their awards in the parking lot” halfway through. Even more for contriving to land Martin Lawrence in this ceremony by any means possible and for the series of man-on-the-streets at the mostly black multiplex; nice to be reminded most of us don’t even ever see the shite and shinola that gets nominated.

It’s nice too that Georgieboy gets lowered a peg, (and for meek Hollycould to applaud the Angry Black Man’s sentiments) but I’d be even more into it if Rock would bellow, “My bush would make a better president.” Where’s The L Word when you need it? And why the vanilla invocation of the f word at the end? It seems even the mighty Chris Rock gets stymied when hosting the Oscars. The cheesy earnestness of it all subsumes even the most sardonic of comedians.

Dubious Awards

With no exception, everyone wins who everyone anticipates will win. The upside is that a. no one is tossed a compensation Oscar (as Annette Bening would’ve had she won) b. all the awards are deserved. I have to shake off the Oscar mania to remember that, except for Million Dollar Baby, none of the pictures nominated even land in my personal top ten.

Highlights of awards and presenters:

-Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman is back to his Electric Company roots as the original ’70s proud black man in his thick white brush cut, carved Indian cheekbones, gold hoops, African scarf. Nods judiciously after his clip and then bounds, unsurprised and o so pleased, when his best supporting actor award is announced. Short and sweet, his is a gracious speech, a harbinger of the night’s speeches to come. At one point in the evening, when the camera flashes on him, he strokes his new boy suggestively and winks at the camera.

-I’m inclined to cut Robin Williams some slack because I’ve seen him the day before in a green pinstriped fedora and silver Adidas, graciously accomodating avid autograph hounds, but on stage he’s as much of a cokehead-without-the-coke as ever, zinging out the impressions that carefully tread the line. To wit: he does Scorsese in Shark Tale while Marty waggles his caterpillar brows helplessly beneath the big black glasses (that have apparently been passed the Philip Johnson torch). And always with the fake gay, Robin W. — Spongebob being his excuse this time. It occurs to me, when he dashes like a little Oscars leprechaun across the stage halfway through the ceremony, that he and Rock are experiencing a standup standoff of some kind. Eighth grade boys with their magic tricks, for sure.

-I forget that The Incredibles lives in my top five films of 2004 until it takes best animation. A feat, especially as Shrek 2 whupped its ass at the box office. The director looks like his animated characters, and his wife looks like the mom superhero. They say the imagination takes us but so far.

-With Scarlett hoisted into a balcony to announce the science/technology awards, it’s clear her girdle has been pulled so tight that she’s losing her circulation, causing one of her pudgy little arms to flop involunatarily like a dazzling beached jelly fish. With Natalie Portman parading as Padmé the whole night, the starlets formerly known as precocious seem to think “grownup” means “monotonic.” They’re so sophisticated!

-A quick rundown of what makes me happy about the “lesser” awards: that Born into Brothels beats the hubristic, character-driven Super Size Me; that Scorcese’s long-time editrex takes best editing (he weeps with the reality show hand flutter, so dear!); that pie-eyed Charlie Kaufman finally lands an award and backs away from the scene of the crime faster than you can say “my agent”;the cinematographer who devotes his award to his ailing mom and the hospital staff who’ve been attending to her.

-Best phrase of the night: “tabernacle of talent.”

-I have no idea that Counting Crows Adam wants to be Billy Joel until tonight. A bedreadlocked rube dressed like a Miami retiree is a thing to behold.

-I like, not love, Sidney Lumet, but I lovelovelove when he thanks the movies. I dare not question whether that is his mother, his daughter, or his nanny with the Hawaiian tittyfuckboobs. These are breasts that automatically reduce anyone foolish enough to attempt to describe them into an eighth grade boy.

-Other eighth grade boys: Alexander Payne (in a bad way), Charlie Kaufman, Jay Z (when he smiles). Add to this list, please.

-There is so much chemistry between copresenters Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayeck that I swear they are about to start making out. Speaking of which, I am now itching to switch over to episode 2 of The L Word.

-So pleasant for hamhock Pierce Brosnan to be helplessly overshadowed by a brassy-balled woman — and an animated one at that.

-Having seen Jamie Foxx deliver the exact same speech at the Golden Globes, his waterworks seem like they should land another Oscar of their own. Especially when, maybe not really realizing how close he’s being shot, he stops mid-Grandma weep and glances up through his lashes to gauge how his show is landing. BURNT!

-Yo-Yo Ma’s accompaniment to the dearly departed is affecting without being affected. It’s ridiculous how many people chose this last year to go: Ossie Davis, Marlon Brando, Tony Randall, Christopher Reeve, to name just a few. I wonder if the changes this country is wreaking proved too much for them.

-Prince is a midget with long, lean legs and wondrous-wide Egyptian eyes. He is as hot as ever, smirking prettily and rolling his eyes in his patented Clara Bow homage when he messes up. He announces the nominations in a low-pitched, well-modulated tone that really says, “Lisa Rosman, I’ve been waiting to lick your pussy since you were 12 years old.” I knew it!!

-Check out puffy Sean Penn in his We’re No Angels haircut, clarifying who he-wuz-robbed (by Rock) Jude Law is. Ye Gods, who is writing this apologist drek?

-For the record, I’m so pleased that Hilary Swank takes best actress again. She accepts her award deliberately and clearly, with the same jaw-popping intensity with which she physically wrestles with the roles she (surprisingly selectively) chooses. I love Chad Lowe for so fully loving his wife as she shines more brightly in the sun. I truly hope their relationship is not a beard, because it ain’t a bad model for the strong straight girls.

The Morning After

A few liters of water and an Advil later, I’m still smarting over the undemocratic nature of the ceremony. It would’ve been lovely if Imelda Staunton, nominated for her performance as Vera Drake, could’ve taken best actress, because she certainly logged the finest moments in 2004 film. It would’ve been lovely if Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater, and Ethan Hawke’s valentine to growing up had scored a best adapted screenplay. But Hilary Swank was eminently deserving, and I suppose Sideways did shimmer with well-rendered dialogue, even if it lived but a step away from a buddy movie drinking Pinot rather than Bud.

And it was certainly the blackest Oscars I’ve ever seen, what with two black actors scoring Oscars, crazybird Chris Rock strutting about, and Jay-Z grinning maniacally at that lovely bird of his own, Miss I Dream of Jeannie and the billion-dollar deal, Beyonce. For sure it’s been amazing to hear everyone, and I mean everyone, discuss last night’s awards with the same rabidness that we discussed the 2000 elections back East.

Om shanthi indeed.

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