Midnight in Paris

While watching Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, you may feel as though you’re getting a forbidden peek at your college English professor’s dreams. Would-be writer Gil (Owen Wilson, inexplicably—but quite effectively—serving as the stand-in for Allen) travels to Paris with his insufferable fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and winds up, owing to some unexplained magic, spending his nights hobnobbing with some of the greatest creative minds of the 1920s: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, just to name a few. He slips away into the bygone era every night at the stroke of midnight, but returns to his real life before the next morning; his time in the past is exciting, fulfilling, and even romantic, a clear contrast to his time in the present.

The wish fulfillment elements are all there: these literary and artistic luminaries welcome him warmly, a beautiful woman falls for him, and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) even offers to read his manuscript! Still, this decidedly tame turn of events (he doesn’t even get into a fight with Hemingway!) works perfectly for the movie’s general themes of escape, nostalgia, and an overly-romanticized approach to the past. Gil longs for a time he has never even known, and shuns a present seemingly overstuffed with both vulgarity and pretentiousness. He believes he could be the writer he wants to be if only he were constantly surrounded by these creative people, and inspired by their festive milieu. What he doesn’t realize—though Allen clearly does—is that this time period will never be as special to the people living in it; it will always be a more exciting place to visit, to dream about, than to experience day to day.

Certainly, these writers, painters—and even a matador!—are important figures today, but back in their own time, they had no promise of enduring success. They were vulnerable to the usual worries of writer’s block, of not producing their best possible work, of fading into oblivion. And thus, they, too, may have daydreamed of earlier times, of artists they would never know, but ones whose work continued to influence them. One can only wonder if Gil, having found a magical portal to a more anonymous 1920s Paris, would have been equally charmed by what he found. Certainly, it would be less thrilling to talk with a random Parisian about Hemingway’s latest novel than it would be to talk with Hemingway himself. But therein lies the moviegoer’s dilemma: Is it possible to understand the folly of Gil’s nostalgia while still reveling in the excitement of seeing these literary expatriates brought back to life?

I hope so, because I found every moment with them to be a treat. Though played somewhat broadly—almost always for laughs—these figures fit just perfectly with how we now imagine them. Hemingway (Corey Stoll), a macho caricature, is always ready for a fight, eagerly asking Gil (no doubt with a nod to Wilson’s signature broken nose) if he boxes. Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), flighty but adorable, flits and flirts through every party, much to the concern of her obviously enamored husband. They certainly seem like the kind of people whom anyone would enjoy meeting at a party, but the fact that these people are literary celebrities—and that this party is accompanied by Cole Porter singing and playing the piano—just makes it that much better.

Ultimately, that’s how this movie feels: like an exclusive invitation to the best party you could ever attend. Sure, it’s nostalgic, and contains the usual trappings of nostalgia. Nonetheless, it’s a thrill, particularly for us former English majors, who have already spent plenty of time with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot in the usual way. It’s the perfect antidote to the blockbuster comic book movies that dominate the summer box office. And as you barely stomach your way through yet another movie about cars turning into robots, you can at least sit back and think, “we’ll always have Midnight in Paris.”

Goldengrove

Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Nico, the thoughtful narrator of  Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove, is 13 when her beautiful, talented 17-year-old sister, Margaret, drowns in the lake behind their parents’ home. Still chubby, worshipful, and unsure of herself when Margaret takes what turns out to be her final plunge into that peaceful lake, Nico must deal not only with the grief of losing her role model, but also the usual adolescent struggles of growing up—both physically and mentally—and finding an identity. Her parents, naturally, are no help as they each resort to their own methods of coping and retreating from the world. Thus, Nico must navigate this unsure time with very little guidance.

With each passing day (during which she barely eats), Nico finds that she is leaner and taller—that is, that she looks more like Margaret. Though initially a source of embarrassment, this similarity in appearance soon feels like a special bond, a way to keep Margaret close. It also gains the attention of Margaret’s boyfriend, Aaron, an artist who has always been described as “having a screw loose.” Nico and Aaron’s shared grief leads the two to find solace in each other, even if their “friendship” isn’t quite friendship at all, and their encounters (during which she wears Margaret’s clothes) verge on a Vertigo level of inappropriateness. The main concern becomes whether Nico can emerge from her dead sister’s shadow, whether she can develop an identity all her own, whether she can resurface when Margaret could not.

I felt as if I, and not Margaret, was the one who had disappeared, or as if I’d become a petri dish in which my sister was growing. There were days when I wanted to say, “I’m the living sister.”

Prose’s elegant writing elevates what could be a standard tearjerker into an emotionally astute meditation on both grief and maturation. The author is wise enough to allow Nico a childish naïveté while still endowing her with impressive awareness. Furthermore, she understands the grieving process, which Nico, as well as her parents, must go through in order to have any clarity on their situation. She creates an almost stifling atmosphere of grief, which—though at times difficult to handle—is effective. Though the novel itself is fairly plot-thin (and understandably so), it boasts impressive details that make it all the more fascinating and real. Nico’s father, for example, develops an obsession with a 19th century doomsday group called the Millerites, who gathered on a nearby hilltop to be raptured (and, it goes without saying, were greatly disappointed); Nico’s mother begins pursuing a love affair with pills, which are guiltily prescribed by the family doctor who failed to detect the danger of Margaret’s heart condition. Nico’s unhealthy relationship with Aaron, which begins to resemble the old movies that Margaret was so fond of, is only one of many misguided transferences, addictions that, if left unchecked, will have dire consequences.

Fortunately, Prose is interested not only in the descent, but also in the reemergence. She allows the family their time for grief, but also emphasizes their need—and capacity—for recovery. As the summer winds down (indeed almost all of this book takes place during the summer immediately after Margaret’s springtime death), the family slowly begins to accept the reality of a world without Margaret. They reassemble their fragmented lives, and take comfort in one another rather than in external distractions. Slowly, they earn perspective, seeing the world not through an underwater haze but for what it really is.

I came to understand that Margaret’s death was an entity, separate from Margaret. My sister would always love me. But her death was a monster that would rip me apart, if it could. Time passed; the monster aged and lost some, but not all, of its power to ambush and wound me.

Goldengrove is a sad, contemplative book, apt to promote a sad, contemplative mood, but it is worth the while of many different types of readers. For as moody and melancholy as it can feel, it is also a credible coming-of-age story. Nico’s clear, sensitive voice rises above the depressing subject matter to craft a narrative that is both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Stuff Moms Like: The Killing

My mom and I both watch “The Killing”—and last night we made a point of watching the finale together—but I think that, at this juncture, we both have very different feelings about it. It’s the kind of show that started out great: it had a compelling marketing campaign, and it began airing just when other shows were wrapping up for the season. But at this point, if one of my friends told me she was going to start watching “The Killing,” I’d tell her to just watch “Twin Peaks”—or, hell, “Pretty Little Liars”—instead.

It’s not that I think this show is bad, necessarily, but rather that I don’t think it ever knew what it wanted to be. My mom is optimistic—she’s in it for the long haul—but I, like many others, can’t get over the fact that a show boasting a complete mystery over the course of 13 episodes didn’t deliver on that crucial detail. You see, last night’s episode ended on a cliffhanger, which, though in some ways satisfying, essentially undercut the appeal of the show. What was touted, more or less, as a miniseries, has instead been stretched out indefinitely. The lack of focus, already painfully obvious, has at this point become almost laughable. “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” has instead become “Who Cares?” and “Who Stole 13 Hours of My Life?” …Which is not to say that “The Killing” has actually been a total waste, or that all is lost. But, seriously, how much should we viewers be expected to invest in this show before we finally get some payoff?

What “The Killing” is and what it professes to be may be two very different things, but this much is certain: The show details the investigation into the murder of high schooler Rosie Larsen, whose body is found in the trunk of a car used for the campaign of an upcoming mayoral candidate. As can be expected, all is not as it seems, and everyone–from Rosie’s parents to her teacher to, of course, the politicians—has a secret. Yet, “The Killing” also has a softer side, one that shows, unflinchingly, the various ways that grief can manifest. Viewers spend equal time with the police and Rosie’s mourning parents, and observe the shockwaves that a single death can send through a community. After a knockout first episode, the show began to falter, until eventually the pacing was simply confounding, and the twists haphazard. Still, it had on its side some exceptional performances, great atmosphere, and, of course, the promise that at the end of 13 weeks we would know who had killed Rosie Larsen.

Despite some genuinely shocking developments, and some truly heart-rending moments, “The Killing” has yet to live up to the promise of its marketing. It has been misrepresented as the antidote to the typical police procedural—too often it falls into the same gimmicky traps—and claims of its sensitivity to the grieving process are undercut by the fact that the Larsen family can come off as rather one-note. Furthermore, its similarities to “Twin Peaks” have only further clarified the ways in which this show is inferior to the David Lynch classic. Yet, I would still consider myself a fan, as there are continually scenes that shock me from my apathy. Moments like the one in which Rosie’s mother, alone in the bathtub, imagines what it’s like to drown (as Rosie did) are chilling; it is the show’s ability to channel the most desperate spaces of the human mind that makes it stand out.

There are still many unanswered questions, not only about Rosie, but also about the detectives, Linden and Holder, who have recently begun to develop into interesting characters in their own right. I am hoping that a second season will mean that all of these questions can be approached with careful consideration, and answered in a satisfying manner. Still, I, like Rosie’s mother, have learned that you can only hold your breath for so long. It seems that even on TV you can’t always find the answers you crave, or the closure you need. Does this signify the beginning of a new kind of show, one that delays gratification until the point that it is no longer desired? Or have the writers simply been so greedy (or misguided) that they refused to end the case before they had wrung every last drop from it? I hesitate to call the move brilliant, but it does require a certain amount of gall. We are now on the line just as much as Rosie’s parents, wondering if our questions will ever be answered.

I am glad that both my mom and I watch “The Killing,” because I need some perspective. I need someone to remind me of what I like about it, and to help me focus my own complaints. My mom agrees with me on many things—for example, that the mood takes precedence over the story, and that the writing can be weak—but she’s also able to find the thrill in it, to accept it for what it is. As I read the angry reviews that draw me further away from my initial reactions, I am grateful for someone who can remind me of how I found the finale not only frustrating but exciting. Of how I found the show, for all its faults, a unique experience, a welcome diversion. For those who have yet to watch “The Killing,” I would recommend holding off until season 2 is about to start. But, with the chance to watch it in one seamless run, I see no reason why somebody should reject this series. I only hope that a second season will allow the writers to focus their efforts, tighten their storytelling, and of course…tell us who friggin’ killed Rosie Larsen!

Super 8

Super 8 is, as the title suggests, a movie about moviemaking. It is a coming-of-age story and monster movie all wrapped into one, with tender moments and extreme explosions in equal measure. It is a paean to the youthful enthusiasm for Super 8 cameras that, clearly, defined the developmental years of both writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. In short, it is the kind of film that its young protagonists would love to be able to make, and that, happily, older versions of them have.

I liked Super 8 more for its sweet, subtle understanding of the adolescent experience than for its overblown (often literally), and frequently cheesy, sci-fi posturing. Its monster movie framing (disappearing residents, military intervention, the whole shebang) felt too extreme for a movie already rich with interesting characters. The comically intense explosions (an early scene has the children scrambling for safety as a train explodes before them, and the parts from it rain down from the sky) play giddily, but absurdly. They are more examples of special effects that the kids wish they could produce than actual serious events. (Still, it is a neat trick the way the kids incorporate the events around them into the plot of their movie, thus making their backdrop more “real” and less amateurish.)

I thought all of the characters felt authentic, which is what really put all of the action into perspective. I cared about Joe (Joel Courtney), whose own retreat into making Super 8 movies is as much about healing from his mother’s recent death—and his father’s distant parenting—as it is about creating a work that might be good enough to win a contest. I also cared about his friends, who each have their endearing quirks: Charles (Riley Griffiths), the chubby screenwriter/director, was my favorite, not only because his friendship with Joe is so profound, but because he is the kind of kid whose sensitivity is so utterly lost on his less mature friends. When he explains to the others that he expects to “thin out” in the next few years, the moment is both hilarious and heartbreaking. The few glimpses we get of his life show that he is just as rich with his own problems as Joe is (though blessed with two loving parents, it seemed clear that he isn’t receiving much attention, either); these two characters, along with Elle Fanning’s Alice, really contribute to a compelling drama. The fact that they are kids doesn’t make the story any less engrossing.

But what is the story really? Prior to the movie’s release, it was one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, and led to a lot of speculation on just what kind of monster this monster movie had. Lest I ruin anything, I will simply say that the monster itself, like most monsters no doubt, is most interesting when viewed by the devastation it leaves in its wake. Abrams wisely keeps its appearance, and history, out of the first half of the movie, instead fueling the action with anticipation, suspense, and a few shocking attacks.

This is what, in the beginning, our protagonists know: A train transporting some mysterious cargo is derailed, intentionally, by the kids’ science teacher, Dr. Woodward. A huge explosion follows, something is released from its restraints, and the military, almost instantly, floods in to secure the crash site. After that, strange things start to happen. All the town’s dogs wind up in other parts of the state. The sheriff goes missing. It is clear that something strange and sinister is at work, but it is hard to know what to do, or where to go for help. Even the Air Force can’t be trusted, for they won’t reveal to the citizens, or even Joe’s father—who is a police officer—what is going on in their small town. It is only when the kids develop the film from their Super 8 camera, which was still rolling at the time of the explosion and, mercifully, not destroyed by the flying wreckage, that they discover the true nature of what has been terrorizing their town.

The story itself isn’t terribly unique or inventive, although it has a great set-up. In truth, the shroud of secrecy was probably unnecessary, for there are no electrifying twists, nor any unexpected subject matter. The fact that it was produced by Steven Spielberg should clue you in to where it’s going. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t deliver. It is visually appealing (certainly worth seeing in theaters), and the acting is solid. Elle Fanning really impressed me—she has officially become my second favorite Fanning (ahead of Dakota, but behind “…with a giant palm while I eat grapes and am carried on a portable throne”). Still, all of the kids were good, and I really appreciated their earnestness. While the ending left me rather bored, it was redeemed by the completed version of the kids’ Super 8 film “The Case,” which played during the end credits. All in all, enjoyed the movie for what it was, a nostalgia trip that didn’t skimp on the action. Would I have preferred if it it been more about growing up, and less about things blowing up? Sure. But I’m boring like that.

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