30 December 2005

Rediscovering the New Yorker

I guess I have been a New Yorker subscriber for more than 22 years—since studying fiction writing with Larry Woiwode, who gave all his students William Maxwell’s writing advice and made us feel that the goal of publishing in the New Yorker was both impossibly lofty and ultimately attainable.

In college in the early 80s, some of us used to rail against the old-fashioned typeface, the impossibly long articles, the dull poems, the lack of a “letters to the editor” section, and the in-crowd tone as offensively undemocratic. But we read it anyway, even if some weeks we managed only the cartoons, or one of the two or three short stories, or Pauline Kael’s movie reviews. It was no secret that we wanted to be in that in-crowd.

Through persistent exposure, I eventually became a reader of the articles. To my surprise, those immense clumps of prose turned out to be interesting. In talking with others about my changed view of the articles, I’d always mention a long piece in which I was completely absorbed until I realized I was reading about the New York sewer system. It floored me that I could have been captivated by such a thing.

Last month, we got ourselves The Complete New Yorkeran electronic copy of every issue since 1925. This afternoon I finally had a chance to track down that article. Turned out to be a 1986 piece by Bill McKibben called “Apartment,” in which he explains in detail how electricity, heat, and water enter a New York City residence, and how sewage leaves. It runs from page 43 to page 91 and is quite fascinating, even 20 years later. Perhaps more so now, because you can see the origins of some of Bill McKibben’s future preoccupations. The 20-year-old advertising is also fascinating: Volkswagen encouraging you to take a trip to Germany to pick up your vehicle, Talbot’s including a coupon for you to subscribe to its catalog (6 issues a year!), notoriously bitchy Leona Helmsley guaranteeing that your suite at the Palace will be perfect.

Since then, the New Yorker has of course changed. You rarely see articles of that length anymore; bylines now precede the articles; there’s only one piece of fiction per issue; and they print letters now.

Hey, I’ve changed, too. After all, it’s been 20 years. Part of the treasure of The Complete New Yorker is perusing its evidence of how we’ve all changed.

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29 December 2005


This movie, directed by Michael Mann, is all surfaces. I looked forward to learning something about Mohammed Ali, about whom I knew nothing, so it was disappointing to find this film to be more like a music video (or string of them) than a biopic.

There’s nothing wrong with the performances. Will Smith is fine; sometimes his resemblance to Ali is almost creepy. But, beyond depth, the movie lacks connective tissue. It’s one damn thing after another. You don’t feel a why behind anything. Ali becomes a fighter. Why? He converts to Islam. Why? Etc.

So I don’t especially recommend it. But if you have the remotest interest in Ali, do see When We Were Kings ; this is a terrific documentary about the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire.

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Theater Thursday at Improv Kitchen

Theater Thursday is a project of the League of Chicago Theatres. Every week (on Thursday!) the League promotes a particular theater by sponsoring free appetizers and (usually) an opportunity to meet the performers after the show.

So far we’ve been to two of these events. A few months ago we saw Copenhagen at the Timeline Theater, near us on Wellington off N. Broadway; we thought the play was good, but the performance didn’t impress us so much. Tonight we checked out Improv Kitchen, which is also in our neighborhood, but north, on Clark.

Improv Kitchen is an interesting concept. It’s sort of like dinner theater, but it’s improv and it’s TV. That is, you sit at a table with a big video screen on which you watch the performance. And, periodically, the performers watch (and listen) to you, as when they do the standard improv “Give me a location” type of thing.

It was a nice evening, and I certainly laughed at some bits, but though we’ve enjoyed episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I don’t think we’re the target audience anymore for improv. We tend to look for more polish, which is probably beside the point for this kind of entertainment. We're expecting theater but getting something closer to standup, and requiring more goodwill (or lubrication).

The food was OK, not great. Decent green salad, crab cakes a bit bland (but nice remoulade), tasty veggie rolls (vegetables in phyllo over mushroom sauce—this was our favorite), the fish in the fish tacos a little dry, the “homemade” sorbet a little off in both texture and taste.

OK, so the food wasn’t that good. I wanted to like this place more than I did. Still, worth checking out at only $10 for the show.

"Pure Fiction" in the Chicago Reader

Used some unplanned time off this afternoon to read the Chicago Reader’s “Pure Fiction” feature: seven short stories, filling Section 1 from cover to cover. All of the stories were decent: readable and compelling, and the editors seemed to take pains to make sure each of them represented a distinct slice of modern life. When I was all done, though, I realized that each story was about the main characters’ lack of control over what happened to them, from an aspiring country club tennis pro who recounts the disaster that ruined his third-rate athletic career, to a kid who can’t get himself to tolerate peanut butter. None of the characters in these stories succeeds in getting control over much; none of them manage to overcome the key thing they’re concerned about.

So I find myself wondering if this is a new trend. It’s not a very pleasant one: stories with characters who don’t change. You want characters to change; it gives you hope that you can change.

Certainly, reading seven stories in which characters don’t change is a bummer. Still, I’d particularly recommend Hilary Frank’s “Arachibutyrophobia,” which is, I think, the best story of the bunch, packing the most genuine complexity. And also the well-done “How He Leaves,” by Sigers Steele, where the surprise of the story is more about how you come to feel about the protagonist than about what he does or doesn’t do.

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27 December 2005

The Man with the Golden Arm

I heard the title The Man with the Golden Arm long before I ever read the book or saw the movie. It’s a beautiful, evocative title, but it also makes you think of something grotesque: a man with a shiny prosthetic. When I got older, and knew the story centered on a junkie, the connotation became even more disturbing: an arm jaundiced by the hypo. I was never much into addiction stories and Nelson Algren’s book (purchased as a shiny new softcover back in the early 80s, when I was spending the greater part of my college loan money on the creation of a private library) sat on my shelf for more than 20 years.

But I’ve since moved to Chicago, where Algren is a Very Important Writer, so prejudices against drug stories have taken a backseat to getting up to speed on the literary aspects of the city I’ve come to love. (Whether this determination will extend to James T. Farrell, whom I’ve heard called one of the worst writers in the history of the English language, only time will tell.) Also, we saw the movie recently, which stars Frank Sinatra as the junkie Frankie Machine and Darren McGavin (remember The Night Stalker?) as the pusher who gets himself killed, causing trouble for everybody.

The movie is something else. It opens with Frankie, a dealer in neighborhood poker games, returning to the old neighborhood after a stint in rehab, determined to change his life. You feel you’re seeing every possible drug cliché enacted on the screen: the sleazy pusher, the addict who wants to kick but can’t, the wife who enables the addiction, girlfriend who loves him enough to help him quit, the way the whole world seems to conspire to push the addict toward relapse... What’s amazing is realizing this movie invented those clichés. It’s definitely worth seeing.

It turns out that the book is quite a good read, though the story is grittier than the one told in the movie. Algren locates the source of Frankie’s addiction in his WW2 service—he was wounded and got hooked on the morphine that eased the pain of his injury. The novel also makes clear, though, that in spite of his friends’ admiration and awe of his Purple Heart, Frankie was no hero. A grunt’s grunt, he remained three years a private.

While the novel tells the story of Frankie’s several attempts to kick the stuff, what we get out of it is the tale of a loser in a community of losers, people the American dream has left behind: small-time swindlers, dwellers in fleabag tenements, drunks, and sweet girls who can’t get a break. Amid the sad detritus of this universe, located around Chicago’s West Division Street, Frankie Machine shines like a star, with his big talk and his talent (the “golden arm” refers to his sure skill dealing cards, which he hopes to transfer to playing the drums in a big band).

Still, his life spirals downward. And although the drugs are central, you can’t help feeling that if it weren’t morphine that did Frankie in, it would have been something else. At bottom, he doesn’t believe he’s worth saving; one of the achievements of the novel is that you end up feeling they’re all worth saving, not just Frankie, but also his grimier fellows. Algren draws his characters with such vividness that he takes you beyond pity and amusement to pure empathy.

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18 December 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain just might be the most romantic movie of the year. It’s got star-crossed lovers and fabulous scenery. The main characters’ lives are entirely ruled by their feelings, although they never speak of them directly—certainly they never use the word love. Ennis (Heath Ledger) hardly utters any words at all, but even voluble Jack (Jake Gyllenhall), whose face nakedly betrays every emotion that passes through him, never says “I love you.”

Of course, they’re guys, so that may explain it.

Ennis and Jack meet as young men, cowboys guarding sheep on Wyoming’s remote Brokeback Mountain. It’s an idyllic, passionate summer, but the job ends early and they separate: Ennis to his fiancé in Riverton, and Jack back to his father’s spread.

In different states Jack and Ennis separately marry and have children, but Jack periodically visits Ennis for “fishing trips” during which they relive that first summer on Brokeback Mountain. Realistic Ennis is unable to abandon his wife and children—and later, after he’s divorced, his dreary and stolid daily life—for an unpredictable and likely dangerous full-time existence with Jack. Ennis can’t forget how he saw a murdered gay rancher when he was a child; he’s sure they’d be found out and killed if they took such a step. Ennis doesn’t know they’ve been found out already—by the boss at Brokeback Mountain (that’s why their job ended early) and by his own wife—regardless, you sense Ennis is right. In the landscape of this movie, there is no place to hide.

Like a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton, Brokeback Mountain makes you feel the consequences of being unable to live your desires; of believing you have no choice but to suppress your true feelings in order to survive. And it makes you ponder the value of surviving on those terms. Or not. Not everybody can.

Go see this movie.

And bring a lot of tissues.

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11 December 2005


Truman Capote has written such beautiful prose that it’s hard to believe he was a son of a bitch, but Capote persuades you. Much has been said about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tour de force performance; more probably ought to be said about Catherine Keener’s marvelous portrayal of Harper Lee.

What struck me most, though, was the juxtaposition of a pathologically narcissistic Truman Capote with the murderer Perry Smith, who seems to be a sensitive, thoughtful person and yet was responsible for the dreadful carnage at the Kansas farmhouse that is the subject of Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood.

So we’re presented with a considerate fellow who’s a vicious killer and a selfish son of a bitch who’s a Great Writer. When the killer is executed, we’re (guiltily) relieved because he was scary—we didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand himself—but when we find out from the closing titles that Truman Capote died in 1984 from the complications of alcoholism and never completed another book, we’re glad.

While the narcissistic artist is a commonplace, we don't like him.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I don’t remember when I first fell for Robert Downey, Jr. Maybe it was his star turn in Chaplin (1992); maybe even his appearance in the otherwise forgettable Soapdish (1991) (forgettable, that is, except for the introduction of the knockout Elisabeth Shue). The attraction isn’t about good looks (though his looks are just fine), but presence. He projects irrepressibility: you sense a complicated inner life, and in spite of an often self-deprecating and consciously clumsy manner, there are moments of remarkable physical grace. I realize I am describing his achievement in Chaplin, but I see similar traits in most of his performances.

On the whole, Downey, Jr.'s filmography isn't so impressive, but he typically makes the duds worth seeing. The other night we went to the well-reviewed but poorly hyped Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and had a blast. The movie is a knowing riff on noirish private eye stories, buddy movies (on which writer/director Shane Black is an expert, having created Lethal Weapon), and tangled plotting. Along with Robert Downey, Jr., it stars Val Kilmer, who is also a pleasure to watch.

(I seem to have a soft spot for good actors who make hard-to-understand career choices—sometimes it just takes just one splendid performance (like Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone) to make me a fan forever.)

As Anthony Lane points out, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a movie that could be annoying, with its loopy storytelling and nudge-nudge-wink-wink narration, but we weren't annoyed at all. In fact, we may have winked back.

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08 December 2005


It’s been a long time since we stopped in at Bandera, but not because we didn’t enjoy the food. In fact, every time we pass by its second-floor location on N. Michigan Ave. we generally reminisce wistfully about how good the food is there. We’ve only been once, and had the rotisserie lamb (specialty of the house) and a wonderful salad. Both terrific, but generally we just don’t feel like we can afford fine dining; we tend to gravitate toward cheaper restaurants. It’s silly, because Bandera’s not that expensive, but we go out to eat so much that we don’t want to make such places a habit.

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Light Lesson

One thing I’ve learned this year is not to buy my lighting at lighting stores. Lighting stores are for browsing. They are way too expensive to buy from, and the selection is often limited. It may seem scary to buy such significant household items sight unseen (except for a thumbnail photo), but the price difference is such that even with hefty restocking charges for returns, it’s worth buying online.

I’ve mentioned Lamps Plus before; most recently we made a purchase from Affordable Lamps.com: this chandelier, which we are even happier with than we expected.

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