Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Worth Watching: The Station Agent (2003)

Title: The Station Agent
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Language: English
Rating: R (not sure why - probably because of some of the language)

At the heart of it, this movie is about people's hunger for companionship and their adjustment to loss and the passage of time.

Three people form an unlikely friendship in The Station Agent. Finn McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man with dwarfism who immerses himself in the world of trains: their make, their speed and movement, their history and the routes they've taken. Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale) is an outgoing, talkative food vendor, filling in at his family's food truck because his father is ill. And Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) is an artist who could be genuinely calm and joyful if she weren't struggling with a horrible tragedy in her life.

The Station Agent characters

One weakness in this movie is the way the characters keep getting thrown together in coincidental meetings that can feel forced; the filmmakers really want them to be friends. But I didn't mind so much, because I want them to be friends too. The kind of friendship that grows between them, three people who live in different worlds and ordinarily wouldn't connect in life, is beautiful.

The Station Agent characters walking along the train tracks

And then, even with the movie repeatedly throwing them together, their friendship remains in some ways fragile. It doesn't take much to shut people out of our lives. Sometimes when we need people the most, we push them away. If we're lucky they won't go away forever.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster Community).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Interview with Barbie Angell

I'm happy to have discovered Barbie Angell's poetry through her regular posts on Robert Frost's Banjo, and now she's here to share this wonderful interview with us. Before we start, here's a bit of background on Barbie:

Barbie Angell is a writer, poet & artist whose life is constantly under renovation. She graduated Lincoln College with high honors and went on to study Creative Writing, Children's Literature and Poetry at Illinois State University and Heartland Community College. Her dream, since the early 90s, has been to acquire literary world domination. In her spare time she plays full-contact tiddlywinks, studies mime architecture & says humorously inappropriate things on Twitter. You can typically find her, dressed like a confused, fairy princess, in Asheville, NC....unless she's at home hiding under her desk.

Now onto the interview...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Week in Seven Words #153 and #154

Week in Seven Words #153

The cineplex is shot through with escalators that go nowhere, dumping you into narrow corridors with dirty red carpets that smell of popcorn and detergent.

An alley at night - giggles and dinner party voices and quiet windows where people sit alone and listen to their neighbors making merry.

Wine and the illusion of lasting friendship.

The thirty minutes of previews I sit through show me that two kinds of things will happen in movies this coming year: 1) people will have gun battles on space ships and crash on unfamiliar planets where they'll have gun battles with beasts while possibly being targeted by sinister conspirators in tight body suits 2) people will fight criminals and go on road trips while cracking jokes and suffering repeated bodily injury.

She's stunned that the one good vegetarian restaurant left in the area has been converted to a meat place. She even goes so far as to ask the people who work there if it was worth it - if they're really making more money now.

The lake in the park is like the mirror, cold and silver, in the Sylvia Plath poem.

He talks about how a famous rabbi didn't want to refer to hospitals by the usual Hebrew term of "be'it cholim" (which translates to "house of the sick"). He preferred instead to call it "be'it refuah," or "house of healing," because that would be more hopeful and encouraging to people.


Week in Seven Words #154

They're experts at getting to the buffet table first and parking themselves there even after they've filled their plates, to ensure that they'll be the first to get seconds too.

To her, ignorance is a source of deepest shame. She bluffs, doesn't ask questions, and retreats behind nonsensical answers so she can keep hiding what she doesn't know.

I love how coincidence can seem like finely tuned machinery (maybe it is?), life steered along with delicate pulleys and conveyor belts. I hear the right words on a day I really needed to hear them. I show up unannounced, and arrive right on time.

His finger, almost definitely broken, is puffed up with the skin tight like sausage casing. It's hard to look at it, even harder to hear the pained noises he makes when it gets touched.

Most of the time when I go to this synagogue's services on Saturdays I feel like my batteries are getting recharged. I want to work on carrying that feeling of connection and quiet contemplation into the rest of the week.

No matter what comes of it, I'm happy the experience has made us closer than we have been in years.

It has everything a customer service phone line should have: long wait times, an annoying automated voice, convoluted instructions, and operators who greet you brightly before hanging up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Worth Watching: Midnight (1939)

Title: Midnight
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is a quick-thinking American gold-digger who arrives in Paris on a rainy night, penniless but wearing an evening gown. She's picked up at the train station by a gruff taxi driver, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche), and the two drive around the city and stop to have some food.

Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore plotting in Midnight

Though they're attracted to each other, Eve can't imagine getting involved with a taxi driver, so she flees his cab and crashes a late night recital attended by upper class notables including George Flammarion (John Barrymore), his wife, Helene (Mary Astor), and his wife's lover, Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). Eve passes herself off as a noblewoman, and the only one who sees through her guise is George, who offers her money to break up his wife's affair by luring Jacques away. So Eve finds herself in a dilemma - should she marry Jacques, the wealthy playboy, or tenacious Tibor, who's been searching for her ever since she disappeared from his cab?

Claudette Colbert as Eve Peabody in Midnight

Colbert is charming and funny, and gives her character a hard edge too, as Eve tries to focus on the intrigue she's involved in and not get sentimental about anyone. The filmmakers seem determined that she and Tibor get together, but there are moments of troubled reflection on her part. Eve tells Tibor that her parents' marriage soured over money issues. And she can't imagine keeping house all day long as Tibor drives around in his taxi. Their conflicting outlooks on life are a real issue, but because this is a light-hearted comedy any concerns are swept away. They'll have their happily ever after even if it kills them.

The ending wasn't as funny as I'd hoped it would be (some parts of it made me cringe). You know how I wish the movie would have ended? With Eve and George teaming up as con artists and infiltrating royal palaces and embassies across Europe. I really liked the dynamic between Colbert and John Barrymore as co-conspirators.

Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore plotting in Midnight

Barrymore's performance in Midnight is deranged. The gears in his head are whirring a few seconds out of sync with everyone else's. He comes across as bored, rich, and off his rocker. In short, he's delightful.

John Barrymore and Mary Astor in Midnight

He and Colbert are the highlights of this movie (along with Rex O'Malley playing Marcel, Helene's witty and effete confidant). The dialogue is funny, the characters play off of each other well, and even though Tibor and Eve's romance was problematic and didn't move me much, at least the comedy side in this comedy-romance was entertaining.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster Community).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Interview with John Hayes

For a few years now I've been following Robert Frost's Banjo, a blog run by John Hayes, and it's my great pleasure to bring you this interview with him. His blog has introduced me to a lot of beautiful poetry and music (including his own), and I've bookmarked many of the posts for repeated reading and listening. I also have copies of two of his poetry collections, the excellent Spring Ghazals (which I reviewed here back in 2010) and The Days of Wine and Roses.

John Hayes is a musician & poet who lives in Portland, Oregon in the company of several guitars, banjo & ukuleles. As a musician, he has performed with various bands in Idaho & Oregon, including the Alice in Wonder Band, the Bijou Orchestrette, Five & Dime Jazz, Bonnie Glenshee & others. As a solo performer, Hayes plays old-time blues, focusing particularly on music from the Mississippi Delta region from the 1920s & 30s. As a poet, Hayes obtained an MFA from the University of Virginia, where he studied with Charles Wright & Greg Orr. He has self-published four collections of poetry.

On to the interview...

Monday, January 14, 2013

Human After All

I've published a short story at Front Porch Review called "Human After All." It opens like this:
After the fire ruined her face and body, Aisling didn’t want to live among people.
You can read the story here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Interview with Naida

Today you're going to be treated to this wonderful interview with Naida, who runs The Bookworm blog and crochets. She's one of my oldest blog friends, and among the reasons I enjoy visiting her blog are the large variety of reading recommendations, author interviews and guest posts, fun memes, and regular doses of Pablo Neruda and other great poets.

Before we start with the interview, here's a bio of Naida:

Naida is a daydreamer who works a full time job to support her book and yarn obsession. She married her high school sweetheart nearly seventeen years ago and is a proud mom of two. She loves it that people mistake her for being her children's older sister; it's a special treat, and she soaks it up. After attaining an Associates in Business Admin, she's been working in the banking industry for about a decade but hopes to make her way back to school one day for her Bachelors Degree.

Naida's favorite past times include reading books with her daughter, listening to her son play original melodies on his acoustic guitar and cuddling up to watch tv with her hubby. She likes to go hiking with her family in the summertime and she likes to go running, when she finds the time.

She enjoys good music, the kind that makes her stop and think about life and love. Books and poetry that break her heart are always her favorites.

Naida has a chihuahua named Diego who thinks he's her third child; come to think of it, he kind of is. She's a Jersey girl who curses in Spanish when she's really angry but she doesn't like to get angry often because life is too short and precious to waste on being mad. Her hero is her mother, her favorite foods are lasagna and her mother-in-law's homemade spinach pie, she's a chocoholic and her favorite band is Mumford & Sons. She hugs and kisses her kids every night before bed and she counts her blessings every day.

Now, on to the interview!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Every Angel Is Terrifying and Tiger in the Snow

Collection: Tails of Wonder and Imagination: Cat Stories
Editor: Ellen Datlow

Title: Every Angel Is Terrifying
Author: John Kessel

Kessel wrote this story as a sequel to Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The title, "Every Angel Is Terrifying," is taken from the "First Duino Elegy" by Rilke.

The main character is the murderer from O'Connor's story, and he moves through this one like a fallen angel bringing devastation to his little corner of the world. He recoils from what's beautiful, maybe because it overwhelms him, and he can't trust it; it could be that he wants to destroy it before it destroys him.

Kessel makes excellent use of details; there's always something jarring and out of place, much like the fugitive himself who remains uneasy in his new life. Here he considers the room he's renting from a lovely landlady, Mrs. Graves (I don't think Kessel could have picked a name that foreshadows this lady's fate more obviously):
The room she rented him was twelve feet by twelve feet, with a single bed, a cherry veneer dresser, a wooden table and chair, a narrow closet, lace curtains on the window, and an old pineapple quilt on the bed. The air smelled sweet. On the wall opposite the bed was a picture in a dime store frame, of an empty rowboat floating in an angry gray ocean, the sky overcast, only a single shaft of sunlight in the distance from a sunset that was not in the picture.
At one point Mrs. Graves tells him, "Sometimes I wish I could live in the world of goodness. But this world is good enough."

For the fugitive it never is. He ensures it isn't, by choices he's made in the past and by the course he charts in the current story. Even if the rest of the world doesn't see him for what he is, he knows himself, doesn't he? No matter what resolutions he's made since the O'Connor story, he can't sustain faith in himself or understand the faith that others might place in him. Faith can be delusions or platitudes; how can it be trusted? It's relatively easy to destroy this kind of faith, isn't it? Especially when no one really sees him as he moves among them.

From what I remember, he comes across both as an adult in control, making his terrible choices, and as a helpless child knocked around by powerful external forces - for instance, by old murder victims avenging themselves on him. His eyes seek out omens that he thinks might tell him his fate; he's waiting to be led and transformed by something outside of him. Does he want someone to come along and lead him by the hand (or maybe just put an end to him once and for all)? Will he accept a human hand held out to him? Maybe he is waiting for a light or a truth that is more definitive than humanly possible - a light that will either fall on him in sure blessing or expose him harshly and damn him once and for all.

There's a sense of disorientation in the story, where as a reader you sometimes doubt what's real and what isn't; the fugitive is very much apart from everything around him, and he can't handle uncertainty. I liked the general atmosphere of the story and how, similar to O'Connor's story, even mundane details can raise goosebumps.

(And if you're wondering why "Every Angel is Terrifying" showed up in a book of cat stories, all I'll say is that there is a cat, spilling over from O'Connor's story.)

Title: Tiger in the Snow
Author: Daniel Wynn Barber

This turned out to be a wrenching story. It closes in around you as you read; you slowly realize what's happening, and at that point you can't look away - you need to stare it in the face.

The story begins with Justin, a young boy (two years shy of Junior High), visiting his best friend Steve's house. Usually they have so much fun together but this time he isn't invited to sleep over for the night. He'll have to walk home through the snow.

What he fears isn't walking home on a snowy night, but the thought of a tiger lying in wait for him - a white Siberian tiger that blends in with both the snow and the shadows. He knows it's a ridiculous fear (his father once told him so) but he can't shake it off especially when his quiet neighborhood seems so different in the snow.

But tonight the usually comfortable features seemed alien and warped out of reality under the snow, and finding himself in this strange white landscape, Justin suddenly felt the tiger-fear return. It bobbed up and down within him until he could almost feel the tiger's nearness, so close that the hot jungle breath seemed to huff against his cheek.

The conversation at the end of the story is terrible and gentle. ("Yes... I thought it was you. You've been following me all my life, haven't you?")


[Edited: 1/2015]

Other recommended stories from this collection include: Coyote Peyote by Carole Nelson Douglas, Puss-Cat by Reggie Oliver, The White Cat by Joyce Carol Oates, Gordon the Self-Made Cat by Peter S. Beagle, and Guardians by George R.R. Martin.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Week in Seven Words #151 & #152

Week in Seven Words #151

When the book I've worked on makes its way into the world I feel a nervous happiness.

Short clips of improv comedy are like shots of an energy drink.

The blink of the cursor measures time.

She tries to give me 'supercalifragalisticexpialidocious' as a mathematical solution. I am unmoved.

Step 1: Recognizing a problem. Step 3: Doing something about it. Step 2: Inertia.

At the front of the line there's usually someone whose library card is lost among a hundred compartments in a purse or whose money is floating around in a bottomless coat pocket.

The water is beaten down by the wind.


Week in Seven Words #152

He isn't toilet-trained but he's started to seek out privacy when nature calls. He tries to find a quiet spot in the house where he can stand or sit in his diaper, and if you approach him, he warns you off with a plaintive "No, no..." until he's done.

I see the sculpture in the wan cloudy light of a winter afternoon, so I don't realize at first that it has color sliding through it - a pale lavender flowing like liquid through its metal veins.

The view from the window is one gray smear, like a Monet painting of London.

I like historical tours of downtown where you learn that criminals were hanged and traitors shot in the peaceful square where people now eat their lunches by the fountain and text each other.

His expectation of instantaneous results have given way to pragmatism; there's so much more work to do, so much farther to go.

I had a feeling she'd stop being angry with me, because she'd want to know how my date went.

He's been asked to sort his toys neatly into drawers. But there are so many of them, and he'd rather be playing than organizing his room. So he labels one drawer the 'everything drawer' and piles as much stuff as possible into it. Unfortunately it doesn't pass inspection.

Worth Watching: In Her Shoes (2005)

Title: In Her Shoes
Director: Curtis Hanson
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Rose (Toni Collette) and Maggie (Cameron Diaz) are sisters and close friends, but their relationship is strained, because they're both different in ways that heighten their insecurities. Maggie is "the pretty one" who is locked into the role of a bimbo and a flake; Rose is "the smart one," considered plain and bookish and dependable. They've lived with this unhealthy dynamic for years, stuck in their respective roles, and it takes a major falling out between them for their lives to change for the better and for their relationship to grow stronger.

Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette

It's their estranged grandmother, Ella (Shirley MacLaine), living it up in a retirement community in Florida, who helps reconcile them.

Shirley MacLaine

There's much to enjoy in this movie. There are moving recitations of poems by Elizabeth Bishop and e.e. cummings in scenes that show someone having a moment of breakthrough or connecting with another person in a new and deeper way. The filmmakers take care developing the sisters' relationship and prompt us to think about the way we define ourselves - how is it that we become the people we are, for better or worse, and what changes our self-perceptions?

A chunk of the movie is set in Philadelphia, and it was a treat for me to see Rittenhouse Square, the 30th Street Station, and of course the Art Museum steps, because you can't have a movie set in Philadelphia without someone running up the Art Museum steps. This time with dogs.

Toni Colette on the Art Museum steps in Philadelphia

I think people who've just heard of this movie in passing assume it's merely fluff, but it's a little deeper than you expect and at times is beautiful. One major aspect of the movie I didn't like was how Rose's job situation is handled - not her need to rediscover herself or change, but the resolution to her work troubles and engagement to the man she winds up dating (and in general, I thought that there's much about the general family relationships, between father, grandmother, and stepmother that remains largely unexplored). As for Maggie, I like how the movie ends for her.

[Updated: 11/16/14]

*All images link back to their source (Flixster Community).

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Room with a View: "the real and the pretended"

The characters have a strange quality in E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. Sometimes they come across as real and deep; other times they seem to be made of colorful tissue paper.

The world of the book is also divided in two. On the one hand there's passion, nature, and honest conversation: rare moments when people speak their mind or know themselves (or realize what they could be). On the other there are petty social conventions, which get in the way of truth and beauty. The book opens with two Englishwomen - Lucy Honeychurch and her older, poorer relation, Charlotte Bartlett - traveling in Italy. Instead of experiencing Italy with all of their heart and mind, they're wearing culturally approved blinkers. They're saddled with guidebooks that tell them what's beautiful and worth seeing and what isn't. They're burdened with the company of narrow-minded pedants and opinionated bores who need to make sure everyone thinks and talks and acts in the correct way. Charlotte herself seems to be one of those bores, but by the end of the book you'll get a long sad glimpse into her that shows you what she might have been.

Cover image for A Room with a View

In the course of the book Lucy will choose between two men that represent the division running through the book: George Emerson and Cecil Vyse (just by their names, guess which one is a prig). George is poetry and passion and troubled moods; Cecil has no concept of real intimacy but cuts a good-looking smart figure.

Lucy has grown up in a society where she's often had to deny or excuse her thoughts and feelings, to the point where her own voice is lost in her mind among others. Playing piano - not in the conventional accomplished way of women her age, but with real soul and understanding - is one consistent way she expresses herself where her words fail her. Conversations communicate very little that's genuine or clear.

On the whole I felt detached from the characters. I wasn't walking among them; they were on a stage, and I was watching them from different places in the audience (sometimes needing binoculars). Where the book really leapt out and grabbed me were in isolated passages, here and there, beautifully written and sharing some insight into human nature and society.
The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy's first aim was to defeat herself... The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul.

(I'm adding this post to the list of Classics Club Challenge books.)