Freelancers: Unite Your Freewheeling Asses!

I’m Little Blogger on the Prairie this week, looking at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Festival and suffering from wonky old-school Internet connex. Having a fine old time otherwise — which I’ll launch into shortly — but wanted to point all and sundry to Yancey Strickler’s call to freelancers. It’s time we freelancing writers and editors really organized ourselves. Working Today and other freelancers’ unions provide us health insurance but not much else, and recent experiences have brought home the fact that we all need to step up our support for each other. Check out Yancer’s proposal, and email either of us with idears please.

Also, while I’m in the bidness of touting Mr. Strickler’s bloggy, please note his homage to R&B; divadom. Best line: “R&B; was once the milky cleavage of a heaving bosom wailing love notes to the wind; now it’s a navel flatter than the Platygæan Hypothesis getting bossed around by some scrub in a tank-top who’s at a loss on how to love anything other than a girl.” Yes, yes, y’all.

Sloppy Seconds DVDs (The Incredibles, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spanglish, I Heart Huckabees, Sideways)

Yancey’s had flu for a week and I’m Barely Employed Bertha (rolls right off the tongue, don’t it?) so time together has become a bed-in of the asexual variety. Since we’re a. products of our (respective) generations and b. not John and Yoko, no revolutions have been planned nor questions of a deep philosophical nature deliberated. Instead, we’ve been on the sacrificial lamb, drowning our snot and sorrows in new DVD releases to spare others the horror of deservedly deleted scenes. Oh, such lofty superheroes we in pajamas be.

The theme: Love and Life in the Disappointing Face of Mortality. Or: When We Realize Even Superheroes Aren’t Superheroes. All movies I saw last year, and with the exception of Sideways, all movies I loved when first I saw them. The test, then: Did they make us feel sicker and sadder in our time of woe? Or (marginally less pathetic): Were they better the second time round?

The Results

Turns out Sideways is an ideal renter, though I balked at joining its fan club when it came out last fall. Former TV star Thomas Haden Church’s gummy schtick fares better when returned to its rightful size screen. You can linger in the sun-dappled Tuscany-by-Cali wine country with the time you’ll save after skipping the split-screen montages, and you can piece together Paul Giamatti’s best performance by editing out the too-long sadsack sequences. (Everything after they return from wine country is overkill.)

As for the extras, they confirm what before I’d only suspected: Alexander Payne is a smug prick. Most DVDs include deleted scenes without much fanfare from directors, possibly because they’re embarrassed by what typically amounts to dirty underwear, but Payne precludes the whole of them with an enormous typed essay that fills three different screens. Not to mention that he introduces each individual deleted scene (each duller than its predecessor) with a loving homage in the same shitty font. It’s a testament to his fairly exceptional wit that his films are as good as they are, given that he’s clearly never learned that art flourishes when you kill your babies. Hey, Payne, KILL ALL YOUR BABIES. Consider him told.

Ready for umpteenth bad lead regarding this flick? I heart I Heart Huckabees even more the second time around.

Everything lives inside that movie that I could ever want.: french farce; ‘60s psychedelia; big, hard spiritual questions about meaning and responsibility tossed into the air like a pizza pie that never flops. J’heart heart heart Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as the good-parent existentialist detectives (a sort of reprise of Tomlin’s eye-twinkling acid mommy in director Russell’s Flirting with Disaster); Jude Law as the smarmy fuck we all know he prolly really is (LA gossip was he fired his agent and manager after Chris Rocked him at la Oscars); Marky Mark earnest as you want him to be, rasping out critiques of capitalism and petroleum use and existentialism with all the indignation of a nine-year-old boy straddling a dirt bike, which, incidentally, he does; Jason Schwartzman, so hangdog highlarious as the floundering environmentalist that his Rushmore performance will never be dismissed as a fluke ever again; and, may it please the court, Naomi Watts putting her normal stridency to good use as the former model slouching toward enlightenment in overalls and a lil bonnet and a mud-smeared face. If only all movies could hit you on as many levels as this one. It manages to hit all the stages any spiritually thirsty Westerner undergoes on a quest for enough peace of mind to tolerate the mundanity of the mall — from the initial revelation that everything is connected, to the dawning that pain’s inherent to being alive, to a reconciliation of that whole process. Only, the journey is rendered shorter and smarter, which is what movies are supposed to do for us.

As for the extras, note in particular the extra Huckabees commercials. I never liked her before, but I kind of have a hard-on for Watts now. Girlfriend is (a) good sport.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was better first time round. The ‘50s-style science fiction still melds well with the philosophy MA jokes; Winslet’s performance is still only bested by Imelda Staunton’s Vera Drake in the annals of 2004; and it’s still the best Charlie Kaufman movie yet, which is saying rather a lot. Sunshine is a fantastically original movie that has a heart rather than a navel. But on another viewing, clever occasionally slides into cloying, complacent, and other c words. Second time in, it’s harder to ignore Jim Carrey’s selfish performance, in which he sucks up all the air in his scenes. And once you know the story’s outcome, the plotline devolves into Jack and Chrissy land occasionally. Truth told, so stir-crazy was I by the time the film itself finally ended, I didn’t even watch the extras.

Spanglish was the most underrated movie of 2004 and the extras go a long way toward suggesting why. The movie as an event proved an interesting case study of how critics can sink a movie. (Sideways reviews showed how critics could make a movie, as Times critic AO Scott pointed out.) Its reviews tanked, mostly focusing on what was perceived as Téa Leoni’s gross caricature of an insecure wife, and director James L. Brooks’ cultural imperialism despite his obvious good intentions. The fact that a very sharp, very decent movie had been made was overlooked.

There’s not a bad performance in the lot, including those from Leoni, a real 40s-screwball movie dame, and Cloris Leachman, boozily teaching torch songs to her young grandson. Even man-of-the-house Sandler lays aside his idiot savant mugging for this film, though the good cop-bad cop dynamics between him and Leoni grated, as did the zero sexual chemistry between man-of-the-house Sandler and Paz Vega as his Latina maid. Watching it at home meant I could hide in the kitchen during their love scenes; it’s embarrassing how Sandler’s not enough of a grownup to summon a response in or for a woman as formidable as Vega.

Brooks’ roots lie in some of the best sitcoms ever made, and the weaknesses and strengths of Spanglish betray those beginnings: an immediate emotionality, snapdragon dialogue, strong but strangely two-dimensional characters, and a tendency to be pat — as if conflicts needed to be wrapped up before the commercial break. When we watched the deleted scenes, Yancey drawled out: “I can see why he’d want to delete scenes that showed other sides to the characters.” Fair enough. Rare are the deleted scenes that suggest a far better movie ended up on the cutting floor. But then again, I’ve not watched the Gangs in New York DVD.

Also of note: a special featurette on how to make chef Sandler’s egg sandwich. Practical!

I saw The Incredibles at Thanksgiving with my sister and her boyfriend, and we girls who’ve only studied Spanish kept whispering “incroyable!” in a French accent over and over. It was too good to compliment in only one language.

It was nice to take in the movie itself again, not surprisingly as director Brad Bird made Iron Giant, the only other animated movie worth watching over and over. But we were much more obsessed with the extras, which took more than an hour to watch in full. Included is a ‘50s style cartoon of the Mr. Incredible and Frozone, which you can watch with Mr. Incredible and Frozone’s commentary (Craig T. Nelson and Samuel Jackson, respectively; sweet Georgia Brown). Also included are “cast” bloopers such as when Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets too elastic — she’s just so wacky — and a vignette narrated by author Sarah Vowell who, bizarrely, provides the voice for Violet, about the similarities between her character and Abraham Lincoln. This DVD’s comedy is as layered as, well, Arrested Development. Incroyable.

All Hail the Queens (Beauty Shop, Miss Congeniality 2, Destiny’s Child, The Ashlee Simpson Show)

I’ve got female camaraderie on the brain and so, it seems, does everyone else. In researching the the Mitford sisters (amazing in their own right), I’ve also stumbled upon The Furious Lesbian, the badly titled (and rendered) biography of Mercedes de Acosta, a humorectomized if bold-as-love playwright and dyke at a time when most people didn’t even know the word lesbian, let alone utter it. A pining sadsack overall, de Acosta did know to hold real salons for the ladies, a tradition that should be immediately resuscitated — and not just on L Word nights.

On a more prosaic level, girls are doing something besides preening for the shall-we-say proverbial male gaze over at MTV. In the constant loop running of The Ashlee Simpson Show, Jessica Simpson freaks out not on behalf of her shoes nor her circus dog Daisy but her little miss sis botching up the Orange Bowl. “Oh, gawwwd. Take care of my sister! Please take care of her.” The most selfless and certainly the most authentic moment captured on video of this decade’s worst Daddy’s Little Girl, it renders Barbie nearly human. (Nearly, mind you; there’s a lot of plastic on that carcass).

Then there’s the Destiny’s Child song, “Girl.” The video is sure-fire. Open-eyed and earnest, Beyonce’s a human embodiment of lipgloss: jailbait-style sexy despite that too-slick veneer. She’s one of the few singers working the Hot97 circuit right now who actually sings from her belly rather than through her nose: Her “Work It Out” holds up against the finest her R&B; mothers ever let loose. Plus she still sings with Destiny’s Child even though she’s clearly making enough bucks on her own. The video itself, a Sex and the City homage to their enduring friendship, breaks me up even when I’m rushing in the morning. Decked out to the nines, the three prowl the city and counsel each other on their lousy relationships in that always-affecting minor key they sing in so gustily. Some lyrics:

Take a minute girl, come sit down
And tell us what’s been happening
In your face I can see the pain
Don’t you try to convince us that you’re happy

Girl, you don’t have to be hiding
Don’t you be ashamed to say he hurt you
I’m Your Girl, You’re My Girl, We’re Your Girls
Want You To Know That We Love You.

This time round, it’s the boys who are but mere eye candy, secondary to the primary relationship that’s being serenaded: the girls’ friendship. Um, is this MTV?

Actually, these moments speak to a little women’s-women trend found on mainstream movie screens right now, too. Take the largely unanticipated success of the Queen Latifah vehicle Beauty Shop, all about a you-know-what and starring and produced by Dana Owens herself. Or the anticipated but largely undeserving success of that piece of you-know-what Miss Congeniality 2, starring and produced by the Sandra Bullock, the reigning queen of the normally endearingly bad movie.

Congeniality is by all rights too lousy to waste much time discussing. Suffice it to say FBI Agent Bullock finds herself with a bad-ass partner (Regina King, who almost emerges unscathed from this clunker), and hijinks and shenanigans ensue. Also William Shatner is involved and the climactic scene takes place in a pirate theme park. Ye gods. Note please that pirates and William Shatner rank lower (or is that higher?) than stand-up in the comedy hierarchy of crap.

Beauty Shop is a much more entertaining way to fritter away two hours. Alicia Silverstone sports a wicked bad hillbilly accent and drops it like it’s hot; Alfre Neward drops Maya Angelou lyrics and African fabrics while she fries hair; Kevin Bacon drops an Austrian accent as a stylist adding a whole new family tree to his six degrees of separation (soooo much easier to connect him to Snoop Dog now). Latifah herself is easy-peezy as an Atlanta-based stylist who opens her own shop with a loan teased out of a follicly challenged bank officer’s split ends. She brings along her high-end white clients to her black neighborhood and supports a musically talented daughter’s high-priced education while she rescues her shiftless sister-in-law from a slide into street-walking. Oh, and she conducts as an afterthought a highly unconvincing love affair with jazz pianist Djimon Hounsou. (It’s always highly unconvincing when Latifah kisses boys.)

Weirdly, both movies buckle under a burden rarely found in Hollywood vehicles: overearnestness. True, the writing stinks to the high heavens of the unmistakable fragrance of Scripts By Committee 101. (Motto: Let no plot device remain unturned.) But the real problem stems from how every scene doggedly imparts some kind of lesson a la Davey and Goliath,though they’re hardly lessons little Davey might deliver. More like Gals! Women friendships deserve loyalty! and Hey, sister, men aren’t the be-all-end-all! or, best of all, Mentoring younger girls is fun!

I complain not about the lessons, only that they are so unsubtly delivered. Nor do I complain that the men in these features are mostly auxiliary; it’s absolutely refreshing for women’s friendships, autonomy and (dare I say it) solidarity to live at the center of not one but two films gracing the malls across the US right now. Five minutes of the rarified drek of Sin City, in which testosterone overload (and Tarantino and Rodriguez’ self-indulgence) distorts every character, even the females, reminds us how a few too many good intentions aren’t that bad a thing these days. (Why exactly are cats like Tarantino and Rodriguez counted as edgy when they so gleefully reinforce the status quo?)

In sooth, very few movies or TV shows like Beauty Shop exist. As pat as its storyline is, that this film roates around a widowed black mom supporting her family by launching her own business successfully and treating her employees, neighbors, and (most shockingly) her mother-in-law with love and respect is fairly revolutionary. Yes, it’s the black movie equivalent of vanilla — the film’s biggest dramatic conflict comes in the handy package of a beautician shop inspector — but the point driven home over and over is more piquant: that the true gauge of female success is the degree of integrity she preserves daily. Maybe, if we get adjusted to that idea, it will eventually transcend being such a gimmick that it subsitutes for actual plot. (The few other mainstream movies that convey similar messages — Legally Blonde, the Where’s-Waldo lesbian drama Fried Green Tomatoes — smack of the same saccarine.)

But as long as social (and familial) conditioning still dicates that when the going gets tough, the tough collapse into the nearest sperm donator’s arms like a 19th century maiden with the vapors, and so long as the merging of a financial object and a sexual one still masquerades as valid grounds for marriage, such doggedly earnest movies prove useful anyway. No matter how kind and patient your sweetheart is, boy or girl, there’s no beating the strings-free support of your long-time girlfriends, the ones who’ve witnessed you pick yourself up from a fall enough times to be able to remind you that you can do it again — and to dispense that all-elusive uncomplicated hug. Short of that, if all your girls’ time is now claimed by the likes of little people and husband people, apparently right now there are them screens, silver and small alike.

I clamor to them.

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