Sunday, October 30, 2005

Toni Bentley Watch

Toni who? You know, the woman who wrote the book about finding transcendence through anal sex--about how she entered paradise through her exit or some such. Called The Surrender. Oh, right! Right. She's got a piece in The New York Times Book Review today on a collection of women's letters from the Revolutionary War to the present. Why do you care? Yes, good question. Well, this is the second book that she's reviewed for them in the last couple of months, and I suppose I'm a little worried that they're turning her into some Daphne Merkin type who now gets exclusive rights to the opining on anything related to women and literature because she confessed before God and the chattering classes that she likes to do something very naughty in bed. Her first offense was a front-cover review of Vindication, a really lovely, lively biography of Mary Wollstonecraft; in the review's opening lines she made some reference to women being great dramatizers--when, you know, maybe that's just you. I like to think that Wollstonecraft, who spent her life writing and living in opposition to women trading on their sexual charms--and writing and living in opposition to any specious generalizing about who women are--would be rolling in her grave to think that some self-dramatizing former ballerina had the honor of reviewing her biography. (Oh, said a former dancer friend of mine, a ballerina would write a book about that.) Makes a lady think that the only way she's going to get byline action is by putting her exquisite perversities on display like so many pieces of delicate, slippery, unsubstantial underthings.

Which brings me to the Maureen Dowd showcase in the magazine. So we don't like it when men take us up on our half-hearted offers to go dutch and Botox is setting the movement back about thirty years? You don't say. Those towering and castrating-looking red pumps Dowd wears in the accompanying picture sure are fascinating, though. I did like the line about how she longed for the style and wit of the 30s while growing up in the Eros-mad sixties. That I'd like to read about. And if you would too, you should look up a book called Fast-Talking Dames by Princeton lit professor Maria DiBattista. In which DiBattista discusses why the rapid-fire, razor-sharp dialogue engaged in by screwball heroines of the 30s makes for a shining (equal) moment in American sexual relations. That then got obliterated by the John Wayne type.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Shopgirl Bloodbath!

On Sunday my sister and I went to see Shopgirl. We love Claire Danes, we love Steve Martin. Well, I start to lose it during a scene where Danes is doing nothing more than sitting on her futon in blanketous white pajamas, sniffling so stoically and gracefully because (I think I got this right) she has stopped taking her antidepressant and Steve Martin does not love her. Stop crying! I say to myself. It has been a very long time since I've read Pauline Kael other than the capsule reprints in the "Goings On About Town" section of The New Yorker, but I think that she would not approve of me losing it at a movie that really is nothing more about some girl who isn't getting what she wanted out of life. I think: Anthony Lane would probably hate this film. Stop crying! But then a few scenes later my sister loses it. We exit the theatre and a tall man asks me what movie is everyone crying over, and I feel a bit better because I thought we were the only sentimental fools.

What made it so sad? asked a friend who also wanted to see it. I tell her that it was that this was the first time I think I'd seen this particular sort of female yearning and loneliness, the kind that is a particularly urban female yearning and loneliness, put up on screen. Plus it was communicated largely silently through Danes' face. And her character acts in so much good faith but is let down by the men who were drawn to her (precisely because of the radiant good faith). Oh, says my friend in recognition, the usual girl story.

The usual girl story. And how often does that get told without stilettoes and vibrators and velvet ropes and pink drinks and glib wisecracks as props? And without being something based on a book by Jennifer Weiner that inspires weirdly long stories in the Times about the shoes that serve as the story's main metaphor. (Ms. Weiner, I will read your books one of these days because you are from Philly and somehow got Elaine Showalter to give you props, but chick lit deserves the disrespect it gets, and you can't convince me otherwise.) And when will the female condition ever be extrapolated by audiences and readers into something approximating the human condition? [Raise fist to sky here.]

Which is why David Edelstein's Slate review made me wanna throw stuff. And I usually enjoy him. It is not that I can refute him point by point, because I do see how the movie can rank "among the most noneventful romantic triangles ever committed to celluloid" and is "sadly vacuous, with a sadly vacuous center." I see how it's really no better than Pretty In Pink with Richard Neutra houses and she makes drawings not dresses to show that she is Creative and Unique. But having been what he calls "a blob of neediness" I must object, even though I know my objections are entirely personal in nature. It should not be the chief end of art to make you feel better about your own girl misfitness. But re: the nonevent, Virginia Woolf tells us that "life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged" and obviously he has never been a young woman in a big city baffled by her own desires while being simultaneously hampered and bolstered by a moral center. Because the film nails that. And I think his objective critical faculties may be clouded by the subjective: I bet he probably had to pick off a few blobs of neediness back in the day, and it made him tired. My other friend pointed out, astutely, that perhaps he suffered from the same male narcissism he spotted in Martin and his character, but had to annihilate it rather than own up to it and/or merely acknowledge it as a phenomenon. Also, I smell some misogyny. Dude, if you had ever been on the business end of male withholding, you might feel differently. (I should mention I love men. Really.)

Finally: "In any case, the best performance is by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as the conniving but peppy slut at the perfume counter. Her big scene—farcical, filthy, surprising—is also the best in the movie." Screw you, Monsieur Edelstein, for privileging the peppy slut when I can get that always and everywhere from Us Weekly and oh, nearly every corner of culture? See--I told you this was personal.

For a really good appreciation of Danes, who is doing what Molly Ringwald (straight face, y'all!) should have done when she got older but ended up making Fresh Horses and Betsy's Wedding (the latter I paid to see in the theatre because my love knew no bounds), see Suzy Hansen's New York Observer story of last week. Once I figure out how to link, I will, but I think you all know how to Google.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Last Night Joan Didion Saved My Life

Well, more like the other night. So on Monday some friends and I went to see Joan Didion read at the Paula Cooper gallery over on W. 21st Street. I'd never seen her read, though she is a patron saint, and figured I should go pay my respects. You had to buy The Year of Magical Thinking--first edition, signed--from 192 Books to gain admission. Since I do not have an office job, I volunteered to go early to lay out various personal effects on folding chairs. The high drama, perhaps to be expected from a certain segment of the Didion fan base--I myself go in for the cool customer making lists of what's in the linen closet and the larder--began early. A flock of probably wealthy, chunky-necklaced middle-aged ladies who clearly had been waiting all day for this, began hectoring the blazered bookstore staffer about their waiting list status. Some people play a mean game of tennis, or sing solos in the church choir—these women hector. Chairs still were being brought in; we all had to keep waiting. Then some leather-jacketed and near-balding writer--for the Voice, I think he said?--hectored the staffer about not being able to gain admission without having bought a book, walked out I swear while whipping his scarf around his neck. I was embarrassed for us all, and felt my own migraine coming on. Then Stephin Merritt showed up with a tall companion; they both seemed to be wearing tan field jackets, and Merritt, under a red baseball cap, seemed to have ginger hair. I always thought he had dark hair and sunken eyes and looked more like a crushed cigarette stub of a man--but here he looked almost as if he had been eating a lot of cheese and butter and had been taking the Irish setter to Maine a lot. I related all the high drama to one of my friends when she arrived and she gave two snaps up and said "Joan Didion!" in response. Another said: "Do you think she'll sign my book 'To a fellow Cal alum?'"

Ok, so Didion. Too-large navy blazer over a salmon colored cotton cable-knit crew. Too-large glasses--picture Carrie Donovan, only more square--and, heartbreakingly, one tortoiseshell butterfly clip holding one side of her bob off of her face. Maybe it was even plastic. All of us ladies died: "That clip!" It was not anything we would have ever worn ourselves, or expected her to wear, and I think it spoke to valuing expediency but not vanity, and some weird mix of grandmotherliness and girlishness. I'm still working out the totemic nature of that clip. But then I saw her slowly, deliberately sweep some hair away from her cheek and it was as if she still thought of herself as a beautiful woman who knew the power of her beauty.

And then she read. When she came to the bit about Dunne, after rereading A Book of Common Prayer, telling her "Don't ever tell me again that you can't write--that's my birthday present to you" she broke up. And others broke up too. Breaking up behind expensive and severe eyewear.

During the Q&A she revealed that she still isn't sure she can write. "And publishing books doesn't make it any clearer," she said. Someone asked why she loved Honolulu so much. "Well, it's simple. It's blue. And pink. And there are flowers, and it smells pretty."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

It is on.

More TK, as they say.