30 June 2011

Three Times: Norwegian Wood

Three reckless assumptions made while waiting in line to see a film about a Haruki Murakami book I hadn't read:

1. There will a man who suffers because his beloved is missing/dead/spectral. It's the only way Murakami does things. In Anh Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) loves from early adolescence Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), a quiet girl unavailable to Toru until the suicide of her boyfriend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). So Toru goes on pining for Naoko, who winds up ensconced in a remote psychiatric ward with really poor patient oversight (there's a lot more hand jobs than I've observed in contemporary American facilities).

2. The man will be unable to act with any agency. Toru spends most of his time away from Naoko in his college dormitory. During one downcast luncheon he meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara, created by some genetic alchemist for maximum cuteness and wearing enough carefully selected barrettes to make Style Rookie jealous). Despite her well-developed skills in flirtation, this Pinkerton dreamgirl cannot shake Toru's loyalty to Naoko.

3. The film will be filled with jazz. Here I was way off, and not just because the story obviously involves the title song. Somehow the Radiohead fanboy news did not trickle down to me that Jonny Greenwood was scoring the film. I scribbled in my notebook that the sounds are like "mournful glaciers" and the music was, at least at Seattle's Egyptian, bracingly loud (grumbling sidenote: this is the same theatre management that turned the volume all the way down for Malick's The Tree of Life, to the point that subtitles would have been helpful).

Three favorite visual details:

1. Norwegian Wood, particularly in the opening sequences, is loaded with quickly sketched, memorable images. Toru spends his only pre-sanitarium time with Naoko in the lavender light of her apartment, with background lilacs and hydrangeas emphasizing her delicate nature. When they embrace, their bodies run down the frame diagonally to create more tension than your average sex scene.

2. Charmingly, late 60's Japanese university students carry their books strapped together in belts, which are often complimentary to their outfits. What's more, these outfits often involve brightly patterned sweatervests! At times there's such a giddy display of Japanese prep on screen that I had to stop myself from clapping.

3. Later in the film, Tran supplies a great metaphor for the nature of letter writing. Toru's missive to Naoko is interrupted when he starts to pick at a barely healed scab in the palm of his hand. This action is interspersed with shots of nettles from around Naoko's sanitarium--all of that thorny past drawing blood.

Three secondary characters with surprising impact:

1. Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) is Toru's playboy college chum, with hair never less than carefully-coiffed and a closet full of rakish turtlenecks. He's the man that makes you ask yourself how rad was college in Tokyo in the 60's? He encourages the caddish side of Toru and why not--he's constantly hooking up with ladies in swank apartments that are decorated indistinguishably from an Anthropologie store.

2. Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune) is Nagasawa's long-suffering girlfriend, totally peripheral for all but one sequence, when she hosts a dinner party. As she gives Nagasawa a tongue-lashing for his unapologetic girl swapping, the camera bears down on her and we have one of the most extended closeups in the film. She's wearing clear-beaded necklace that makes it look like her head had been reattached to her neck. Hatsumi's turn in the spotlight even ends with a cab ride straight out of In the Mood for Love.

3. Reiko (Reika Kirishima) is Naoko's roommate/guardian/music teacher for most of the film, though she eventually gets to know Toru much better (through a kind of sexual grieving familiar to Murakami fans and Chazz Reinhold). She performs an aborted acoustic version of "Norwegian Wood" early on--only to drop out for almost an hour--and returns at the very end for logically confused reasons. I suppose she promotes melancholy.

Three notes on the relationship between Tran and Murakami's work:

1. I felt that Tran did well to make his own Norwegian Wood though he could not resist a quintessential Murakami passage. Midori, on the topic of dessert:

"Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don’t want it anymore and throw it out the window."

There's the author's theory of love in four short sentences.

2. Tran generated more drama than I expected in a Murakami adaptation with his aggressive use of sound. Besides Greenwood's sometimes punishing score, there's a lot of anguished wails from Naoko that rip through all Toru's gentle affections. No matter what else I think about her acting, I acknowledge that Rinko Kikuchi can make some really loud noises.

3. Tran draws closer to Murakami with his choices in cinematography. There's a recursivity of long tracking takes that follow characters at a distance, like the lovely one in which the camera starts with Toru and Naoko on a forest path, winds with them a while, then loses them in the trees. Lengthy scenes like these reminded me of Jun Ichikawa's tidy Tony TakitaniBlind Willow, Sleeping Woman). Murakami works are not fast-paced and I'm thankful that Tran used deliberate compositions instead of an over-reliance on voiceover narration. A few weeks after seeing Norwegian Wood, I'm just as nostalgic as I ought to be.

18 June 2011

Six Summers Ago I Was 22

[I started last summer’s reading with “I Like You More Than Friends” by Cord Jefferson and had the idea to write something similar. It’s only taken me a year to do so! If you need to set a mood for this longread, put on Tegan & Sara’s The Con, which they were kind enough to record for this period in my life. The whole album and “Nineteen” in particular, which I can’t listen to at all unless I listen to it twenty times in a row.]

Six summers ago I was 22, looking out the window of the cafeteria at Bennington College and asking myself who is that Cuban woman who’s always outside smoking? 

The act of dragging on a cigarette accentuates cheekbones in a way that’s always appealed to me and I was not unmoved by this humid, noirish scene: a young lady, puffing away under a streetlamp adjacent a dumpster.

There was (perhaps) a Cuban in the writing program that I had (perhaps) not met at first-termer orientation, that monument to stilted conversation.  It was days later when some helpful soul, no doubt judging me for ogling this girl out the window, said her name was R and that she was the youngest person in the program, just 20.  This was upsetting because I’d thought I was the youngest (and, therefore, the most precocious) writer. Though I can assure you I still looked like the youngest writer.

When I was finally introduced to R it turned out I’d made that most common of errors: mistaking a Jew for a Cuban.  Her profile was Roman and it turned out she was just kind of tan. If we’re being honest her haircut was, if not a purebred example of the species, at least in the mullet family. But nicely highlighted with a quarterhorsey sheen, resting on her wide shoulders.

My reading in this era was mostly confined to high Modernism so my mental catalogue of R must have also included Hemingway’s description of Brett Ashley, her “curves like the hull of a racing yacht.”

Longtime readers of WTT know I have just the slightest tendency towards cynicism and this was in full force as I listened to the program director’s oft-repeated spiel about how the Bennington Writing Seminars were a vortex. The first week of the residency was more like a tepid whirlpool of mercilessly unseasoned vegetarian meals eaten with disapproving middle-aged women. I was all eye rolls and afternoon naps until the final weekend in Vermont, when it got really fucking hot.

On a sweltering night (perhaps the evening after my constant shit-talking induced a four error debacle from Tom Bissell in the poetry vs. prose softball game) I stepped into an even swelteringer barn to hear Frank Bidart deliver a 75-minute long reading. “The Third Hour of the Night” is a life changing artwork that, amongst various murders and buggeries, is about Benvenuto Cellini boiling every piece of metal he can find to forge his Perseus. When the windows to his workroom burst into flame in the poem I looked up at the windows in the barn, wondering if they’d do the same.

Wandering back dormward that night I thought long and hard about the profound sacrifices one must make for one's art and whether or not I could still sneak into the cafeteria and get some more Moose Tracks ice cream.

A day or two later, before my lunchtime Moose Tracks ration, I was alone at the end of a long laminate table, eyes downcast to avoid another round of beginning writer conversation filled with phrase, “my work,” when R appeared and asked if I might eat with her. I don’t remember how I replied but there wasn’t any decision-making involved. I’m highly suggestible.

R’d been so perturbed by her classmates’ critique of her workshop essay that she’d stayed up all night and rewritten the piece to the satisfaction of Phillip Lopate (in 2005 parlance: P-Lo). I’ve always been impressed by people who do things—in my five Bennington residencies I wrote precisely nothing. Of course I’d like to read the piece I said. Yes right now.

My memory elides any events between reading her essay (I’m sure I found it quite good) and the last evening of residency, as the party for graduating MFAers wound down. I discovered R was upset again, this time because a student had claimed to hate her, “for being so fucking talented and so young.” At the time this seemed like a silly reason to hate someone, and I told her so. I added that the hateful woman had fled my workshop crying when her (not even terrible) poem about a barn fire was being analyzed.

To be fair, most of us were basketcases by the end of a residency: depressed, horny, tearful, belligerent. I think Bennington authorities limit sessions to ten days because any longer and there’d be too many homicides. It’s a wonderful place.

My conversation with R moved to a nook outside my corner room in Swan (Swann’s) dorm. The picture window at our backs, the folded quilt underneath us, the wall sconce amber lighting all around—these objects straddle a before and after in my life.

R startled with her perception and intelligence and I tried to follow in a feverish, dehydrated way, saying anything to keep pace. Then as now, I’m often short on amusing biographical material. R was not.

She piled personal details that I wouldn’t then have dreamed fact checking. She described undergrad years at Sarah Lawrence—addictive, I still think of the letters in the name of the college formed from lines of cocaine. She described her broken engagement—charming, crazy kid stuff. She described her health—grim, despite all appearances. She described her family—Tenenbaumian, with at least one autistic-genius brother and a figure skating mother.

The best thing about writing poems and having long one-on-one conversation is that you really get to stare at something. At a reading earlier in the week, our director Liam Rector ended his poem “Song Years” with the words, “the cruelty of it overwhelmed me.” I could take the conspiratorial shape of her eyebrows, the directness of her tiger’s-eye colored eyes (perhaps—I’m notoriously bad at remembering eye color) and the vicious white of her teeth. But the pink definition of the bow of her upper lip is just cruel.

In the second hour of the conversation I noticed R starting to throw out some subtle signals: “I knew the next person I’d fall in love with would have long hair.” I looked over my shoulder.

I remember the negotiation was tense as to whether we could kiss. I’ll eat lunch with whomever but I’m no pushover when it comes to making out with beautiful women—you can’t just force me into it. I demurred, as one sometimes does when one’s intuition and one’s pants are pointing in opposite directions.  Only after more compelling arguments were made did I solemnly agree we would make out. But certainly not until after I’d brushed my teeth. The hard water out of the tap.

I smelled of whitening toothpaste and deodorant (I had reapplied and made a joke of transferring some from my underarms to hers). R smelled like the whole day. We walked from my building to hers (the smokers dorm!), which overlooked something called (and I’m not making this up) the End of the World. We had to go there because her room had “a real bed”—that is, one with a grownup, non-plastic mattress. We slapped at late night mosquitoes and sometimes our hands trailed behind resolute shoulders long enough to bank into each other.

Here’s the part you won’t believe. Her room was lousy with fireflies. She’d left the window open and the screen was mostly holes and there were green streaks all around. I’m not even sure the room had a light. We took laughing hold of as many bugs as we could, insect bodies bumping gently into our closed fingers as we threw them into the hallway, where they mostly wandered back while we went for more. There were always more. Fireflies are very stupid creatures.

R hadn’t lied—her bed was a real bed. The first residency you don’t know to bring your own sheets so your skin suffers the low thread counts you’d expect from a down at heels mental institution. The sheets were one of several excuses I used to explain the fact that I couldn’t stop shivering. I feared I was revealing a lack of worldly experience because, even in the dead of night, it couldn’t have been less than 80 degrees out.

R’s blue-striped halter-top, paired with rather surprising leopard print knickers, and the onslaught of oxygen-stealing kisses didn’t help me regulate my breathing. I was embarrassed in an undershirt and disintegrating gym shorts. These were my younger and more vulnerable years—picture Linus and his blankie.

The lucky thing is that people who are great at something can help others to raise their game. “Mmm, you’re fun to kiss.” There were further requests and not a few close calls but I preserved in maintaining my honor. I even, unconscionably, slept for an hour or two.

R was up early for a workshop (we were here to become writers?) and I walked the dewy path back home. Waiting for the shower water to warm I contemplated myself in a pained, baked-contact gaze: raccoon eyes, suffering skin, and disastrously puffy hair (my god the humidity!)—I had forgotten I looked like that.

I’d brought Tender Is the Night for comfort reading and picked it up to forget for a while longer. The best is young Dick and Nicole, so in love, staring off the sanitarium verandah at those Swiss cities below, braceleted in white light. Never to be seen again.

09 June 2011

Best Friends' Weddings

I'm one of the world's biggest (admitted) fans of the 1997 Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend's Wedding, which makes it less surprising that I reflected on the film fondly while watching Kirsten Wiig star in Bridesmaids. The most obvious connection is at the end, when our lavender-garbed heroines come to terms with losing their best friends to their best friends' spouses. Whether it's the dashing Rupert Everett or the doofy Chris O'Dowd, said heroines are then consoled by someone with an accent originating in the UK. And, given the frequency of glittering helicopter shots, Bridesmaids' Milwaukee is almost as glamorous as MBFW's Chicago.

Otherwise, it's surprising how much successful Hollywood comedies have changed in the last 14 summers, starting with the stars themselves. MBFW is cast in the classic structure: romantic leads (megastar Roberts and rom-com stalwart Dermot Mulroney) and supporting characters (up-and-coming Cameron Diaz and suave homosexual Rupert Everett). Bridesmaids, however, follows the Apatow-Phillips ensemble-casting-over-top-line-star formula with Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kamper and, to an extent, Rose Byrne recognizable first as television actors. Though Wiig co-wrote the film and appears in almost every frame, I could almost as easily imagine any of the aforementioned women as leads.

IMDB says Bridesmaids is only 20 minutes longer than MBFW but it felt much longer to me. Roberts is locked safely in a decades-old formula, with each sequence (slapstick, musical, dramatic) tied up in a bow and cut. Wiig's film is unrulier, with higher quantities of both madcap and slack scenes. We don't just have the suggestion of gastrointestinal distress, we have characters vomiting on the heads of characters who are vomiting, a woman shitting in the sink, a woman shitting herself in the street in a wedding dress. (This necessitates a fashion tangent: one thing I always notice in MBFW is Julia's anachronistic high-waisted black jeans. 1997 must have been about the last moment you could get away with wearing such a cut without appearing deliberately unfashionable. They're something closer to what McCarthy wears in Bridesmaids.)

For me the most gripping moment in Bridesmaids is a downbeat scene the morning after Wiig's character hooks up with O'Dowd's cop for the first time. She wakes up to find he's purchased a ton of kitchen equipment so she can bake for him all day. We're meant to think this is a sweet idea that she can't get into it because of her commitment issues but it seemed to me like a fucked up, "get in the kitchen!" moment. She's justified in rejecting his offer regardless of the "baggage" from her previous failed baking venture (ruthless Wisconsinite graffiti artists changed the Cake Baby moniker on her closed shop to "Cock Baby").

But, even more than dick jokes, the Apatow-Phillips era is defined by lines are often improvised or appear to be improvisational. Bridesmaids peaks on the girls' airplane trip when Wiig gives her inspired, zonked out riff on the snottiness of more or less everyone on board, from friends to flight attendants. My favorite line in the film is probably Rose Byrne dripping (from her first class seat) that there's more "sense of community" in coach. The fakery required for everyday socializing is then delightfully eviscerated each time Wiig emerges through the curtain to first class. Roberts does any number of deplorable things in MBFW but she would never allow herself to be so big a mess. Our comedies grow untidier by the day.