Terrible Reviews: LaLa Land


When was the last time you saw a film that rearranged your view of reality?

My wife and I saw LaLa Land last night, and as the kids say these days, I am shook. SHOOK.

I can’t do my typical review on this film: the good, the bad, the wtf. I’m reeling from it, like I stepped into the ring with Ali for kicks. I’m seeing stars, occasionally blacking out, chasing the dancing elephants into every corner where they evaporate in ice-cream flavored puffs of smoke.

I loved it. Absolutely loved it. To put it in perspective — this coming from a guy who hates everything — not only am I satisfied in having paid extra to see it in the theater, but I immediately rushed home to buy the soundtrack. Granted, the soundtrack is currently on sale at Google Play for only $8, but still — I gave them my money twice in one day. TWICE.

Okay. Let me focus and try to tell you why you need to pony up and see this movie.

The visuals.

From the striking primary colors of the protagonist and her cohorts at the beginning of the movie to a stunning Fred-Astaire-esque soft-shoe against the backdrop of the cosmos, this is a movie working on your subconscious wonder center with every shot. Not since Jet Li’s Hero have I been so struck by the use of color and composition in a film. It’s stunning. Absolutely stunning.

The music.

It’s usually the job of the music in a movie to vanish into the background, to hover in that liminal space where you don’t really notice it but it still works on your subconscious. To surreptitiously set the mood while fading featurelessly into the background. But you can’t do that with a musical; the music has to be front-and-center, the dancing elephant in the three-ring circus.

And here, the music has to pull double — or maybe even triple — duty. One of the two protagonists, as a jazz pianist, lives and breathes and dies with the music. So it’s not only the lifeblood of the form of the film, it’s an integral part of the plot as well. Luckily, the musical score delivers like Domino’s. The leitmotif is in full force and the melodies are magical. It’s catchy and touching and powerful and it makes you want to listen to it again, which leads me inexorably to …

The feels.

I have a dirty secret to confess. I’m a theatre teacher, and I don’t get particularly sussed over musicals.

I know, I know. I can’t stand Grease, I would be fine without Les Miserables, and I barely bat an eye over Phantom of the Opera. I’m just not moved by the genre.

But this movie moved me. And, as has been well-documented here at this blarg, I hate everything. Yet, somehow, I found myself watching this movie, rapt, oftentimes with tears threatening to fall, as the two protagonists swirled around each other like binary stars in orbit.
I’ll concede here that I’ve been known to bust a tear at kids’ movies. Something about having kids myself makes me susceptible to leaking from my eyeholes when the emotional stuff starts. Mufasa falls into the ravine and Simba nuzzles at his lifeless corpse? Grab the tissues. Bing-Bong leaps from the wagon so that Joy can escape the ravine of oblivion? Definitely something in my eye.
But despite the decidedly lower stakes in La La Land — no dead parents, no shattered innocence, no longing for the simpler days of childhood — I found myself looking skyward and thinking of kittens, lest my wife glance over and catch me wiping at my face. The film is touching and heartfelt and, despite its whimsy, genuine.
The Verdict.
I could go on about how awesome the movie is. The freaking adorable tap dance number. The shameless homage to 80’s new wave music (complete with keytar). The (yes, I’ll mention it again) suspended-in-air dance among the stars as the couple falls head-over-heels in love with each other, and I fell right along with them.
All of that is secondary, really. What shocked me about the movie was this: I can’t recall the last time a movie jolted me so hard, so completely out of reality, as this movie did. For all of its two hours, I was literally transported. Pulled forcibly from the humdrum of the world I know and flung into the whimsical rollick that is La La Land. It’s just what the doctor ordered for a country desperately in need of a distraction; no surprise it’s up for so many awards.
This movie cracked through my carbon-reinforced, unemotional shell and inspired me. And if you can get past the super-campy opening number, it’ll inspire you, too.
Rating:
Four out of four lovingly polished Miles Davis EPs.
(If you’ve seen it, by all means, let me know what you thought. I’m still trying to rearrange my worldview around this movie.)

 


Cleansing the Stream


stream-1973015_1280

A writer’s brain is something like a mountain stream. It rollicks downhill, cascading in gouts of churning white foam over razor sharp rocks. It meanders dreamily around lazy bends in the riverbed. Sometimes it hurls itself off cliffs and pulverizes the stones below with its immense gravity. And eventually it dumps itself out into an ocean or lake brimming with the contents of other streams, other minds.

The stream also plays host to a panoply of life: the fish swimming upstream in their scaly mail, the bears whose merciless jaws slam shut on the hapless fish, the infinitesimal specks that feed upon everything else. All of which is lovely and poetic and whatever. Ideas are living things, is the point, and the current that beats at them and bears them along is fueled by the work the writer is willing to put in to those ideas. A flowing stream is a healthy stream. A stream that does not flow stagnates and rots.

But a stream also collects anything that falls into it. Dead critters. Tin cans. Toxic runoff. These things can poison the waters and taint everything that comes from it.

And there is a lot of poison threatening our streams, of late.

A lot of writers — in my circle, at least — are the liberal sort, and it’s hard to view the daily news, living in Trump’s America, as anything but a literal toxic cloud. (And I imagine even non-liberals are feeling a little more heartburn than they expected, these days.) It becomes very hard to write coherently and fulfillingly when you’re living in existential dread for the future of your country, of your loved ones, hell, even the planet.

junk-977603_1280

But the stream only purifies itself by flushing the toxins out. We have to keep writing, even when we’d rather not, because we’ll never get clear of this stuff if we don’t let it in, process it, and then purge it. That means writing every day, even just a little. Not letting the stream stagnate. The writing is like a stream. A few words becomes a sentence. A sentence flows into a paragraph. Paragraphs pile up and become pages.

And while we’re at it, we can also protect our streams. Limit our exposure to the whirling crap tornado, walling ourselves off from it where and when we can. Build a chamber — metaphorical for most of us, unless you’re one of those Neil Gaiman types who can indulge in a literal chamber of solitude — into which we allow only so much poison. Cut back on the news. Don’t go rage-reading every story pointing out incompetence and malevolence. Don’t go hate-sharing every link on facebook, every subversive tweet.

Don’t simmer, in other words, in the toxic stew that threatens your stream.

Stay plugged in — because what they really want is for you to give up and stop paying attention — but don’t try to grasp at every thread of the fraying tapestry. Grab hold of one or two strings. Engage enough to get good and angry and motivated. And then stop the flow of the poison. You can’t fix it all. You can’t properly get upset about every little thing that happens. And that, too, is a source of poison: the feeling that it’s all too big. Luckily, there are others of us out there picking up the slack.

We can’t avoid the pollution, but that doesn’t mean we have to drown ourselves in it. Stay afloat. Keep the waters flowing. Keep writing.

dory

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Hey, That Thing I Wrote Maybe Isn’t Total Crap


The first step in an edit is re-reading the thing you’ve just written. Looking at it with fresh eyes, eyes unlikely to look favorably on the darlings you coddled through the first draft; eyes more likely to attack those darlings at the eyesores they really are. Eyes that don’t give even the first hint of a sharknado how inspired you were feeling when you wrote it, eyes that only see the frayed edges where the stilted narrative is struggling to hold itself in one piece.

Problem is, that’s next to impossible.

But you wade in anyway, because if you don’t, well, then it was all a waste of time, wasn’t it?

I’m trying something a little different on this edit: I’m just reading the story first. Not going through with pencil in hand and notebook at the ready. Not with one eye on the adverb-elimination cheat-sheet on the wall. Not with my spell-checking and grammar-sensitive goggles in place. Just reading.

And maybe it helps that I’ve spent about nine months working on another project? Or that I mentally divorced myself from the original beginning of this particular story right around the time I reached the halfway point? Or that the past few months of drafting have worn me down as surely as desert sandstorms have blasted the face from the Sphinx? Or, maybe, and yeah, this is probably an ocean liner sinking under the weight of wishful thinking, but maybe I’m actually getting better at this drafting thing?

But it’s not that bad.

I mean, it’s raw. And it needs cleaning up. And I’m fast approaching the point where the bridge washed out, where I stopped worrying so much about making sure every little bit fit together and focused instead on telling the story that wanted to be told, that the screaming ego monkey wanted to tell. There’s pain ahead on this journey, no doubt.

But what really jumps out? It’s actually kind of fun to read. I mean, it reads like a book I wouldn’t mind reading. Sure, I know what’s coming and I know what glue fills in the cracks in the facade. But all the same, it feels like I’m just kicking back with a good book. Which is the goal, right? Don’t they say that in therapy? You have to love yourself first, before anybody else can?

So, the edit is starting off swimmingly. The weather is gorgeous — way too gorgeous for February, to be sure, but I guess we ought not to look this gift weather horse in the mouth until it global-warming incinerates us with the hottest summer on record in the coming months. I’m running comfortably and pain-free for the first time in recent memory. And we’ve got a week’s vacation coming up; plenty of time for me to read through the book and start the real work of ripping its guts out and hacking it back together.

Things are looking up.


Seams Impossible


It was a fun week off, but tomorrow I’m back to work on that least enjoyable step in the creative process: editing. I’ve edited a novel before, but man … looking at the edits ahead of me is a little bit like staring down the craggy peaks of Everest. This stuff ain’t gonna be easy.

I’ve taken the conventional wisdom for editing perhaps too much to heart, giving myself plenty of time in between drafts. Ideally, they say, you want to come back to your work as a new reader would come to the story, divorced from any cuddly feelings the author might have for this or that character or plot point. In my case, it’s been something like nine months since the ink dried on the first draft of the story I’m about to tackle. And the parallels between a nine-month fermenting process for a story and the time it takes to fully cook a human baby (yeah that looks a little wrong as I sit here and re-read it) are probably too obvious to list.

So: the characters in the story are likely to appear pretty fargoing foreign to me, especially given that I seem to recall introducing some pretty massive shifts in their development about forty percent of the way in. Likewise the plotting, since I’m fairly certain that my past self left a note to my future self to rewrite most of the beginning of the story with a different character as the protagonist. Oh, that Past Me. How easy it must be to come up with these tremendously bold ideas when you don’t have to do any of the legwork. Wouldn’t it be cool if your antagonist were a sentient pile of roaches instead of just a really nasty dude? How about if we set the entire story in an underwater hidden city? Or maybe the story all stays the same, except that now every single character speaks a different language? This guy, I tell ya. Just because he’s pouring the magical unfiltered story-gunk out through his fingers, he thinks he can suggest just any old thing.

Of course, without those crazy ideas — not the dumb ones, mind, because you can’t go diving down every rabbit hole to see what’s at the bottom — the story feels rote, uninspired, like a cardboard sandwich slathered in gluey mayonnaise. Some of the rabbit holes have to be explored, and that’s what the second draft is for: turning down the side streets that you noticed in the first draft but didn’t have the time for. Abandoning the main thread of the story you found yourself telling and hacking into the newly discovered jungle of the story you could tell.

And then, of course, comes the real work: the part where you look around at all the strewn and scattered bits of story, littering the floor like so much discarded fabric at a dressmaker’s, you collect the bits that look the least objectionable, and you start sewing.

So: may my needles stay sharp, may my plot threads not fray, and may my eye for fashion be clear. It’s going to take all that and more to get through this one.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


A Seed Corn Is Not What You Think It Is


**Spoiler alert. Runners tend to overshare, and I guess I’m guilty of being a runner who is all-too-willing to overshare. The post below might gross you out, but I have done you the favor of not including pictures.**

Haven’t written about running in a while, and partly that’s because, as I so often lament, there’s only so much you can say about running. But mostly that’s because it hasn’t been enjoyable.

The sardonic ones out there might say, with a guffaw, “WHEN IS RUNNING EVER ENJOYABLE?” And okay, yeah, sure, running is always a struggle, always an exercise (haw) in discomfort on some level.

But the discomfort of late has been above and beyond. Every step driving a tiny little spike into the bottom of my foot. Extra-padded shoes, hardly padded shoes. Ice by the bucket. Ibuprofen by the fistful. Spots of relief here and there, but never for more than a few hours.

Aches and pains come with the territory, but when something persists like this, you start to wonder if something is really wrong. So I took a few days off. Then a week. Then another. And still, every step felt like stepping on gravel.

I always feel awkward going to any sort of doctor. Like, this is my body, I ought to know pretty well what the fargo is going on with it and keep it in good shape well enough to go getting “professional opinions” on it. And going to the doctor for foot pain feels a little like going to the mechanic with a flat tire. Makes me feel dumb, is what I’m saying. Further, there’s always the possibility that when you go to the doctor, the doctor will tell you something is seriously wrong, and that’s not a thing anybody wants to hear. Particularly in this case, going to a foot doctor, I’m always afraid I’m going to hear: you need to stop running. But with a couple of months of pain in the bag and no end in sight, there’s little choice.

I make the appointment to see the podiatrist. But the last thing I want to have happen when I go to the doctor is to have him look at me like I’m an idiot and tell me “well obviously you have a blargle-wargle-gargle and you should’ve wobble-bobble-dobble.” So I research my symptoms. Best I can guess, I’ve got a swollen/pinched nerve in my foot. Incurable outside of surgery or a series of painful injections to literally deaden the nerve. Needles. Scalpels. Walking around on a numb or bandaged foot. Probably taking pills for months because this is America, why wouldn’t they prescribe pills?

I’m dreading the visit.

But I go. He asks me what’s ailing me, and I tell him, and he takes a look at my foot. Pokes, prods.

Doc: “Got a lot of callus built up there.”

Me: “Oh, yeah? Is that normal?”

Doc: “Probably not.”

All of which is said in that I don’t really have to think about it and it’s kind of silly that you did way I was sort of dreading. But he’s a nice guy, he doesn’t let me wallow in my stupid.

Instead, he reaches for a spikey-looking thing that looks like it could easily bring down an elk. Holds it aloft, then looks at the bottom of my foot as if sizing up a kebab for the skewer. I start to hyperventilate.

But it’s not a skewer, it’s a shaver. He starts shaving away at this thing. Flakes of dead skin sort of tinking into a metal tray.

He nods thoughtfully. “Take a look.”

I turn my foot around, peer at the sole like a monkey limbering up for a tree-jaunt. And there, right in the spot that I’ve felt but not seen for months, encased in a dead skin cocoon as it was, is this weird little blue-black speck.

A friend of mine in the third grade stabbed me in the knee with a pencil. Even today, I’ve got this discolored spot just inside the kneecap where (I’m assuming) the graphite sort of inadvertently tattooed the lower layers of the dermis. Blackish-blue and odd, just lurking below the topmost layer of the skin. Not painful, just there, and alien-looking.

This thing in my foot looks like that. And I’m thinking, what the hell is that?

So I say, “what the hell is that?”

Blocked sweat gland, he says. Gland gets plugged — bit of grime or dirt or whatever — and creates this little “core” thingy that irritates and calcifies, not entirely unlike a clam with a pearl. (“Seed corn” is one thing they’re called.) Except this “pearl” eventually becomes basically a rock embedded in the bottom of your foot. Which — no surprise — makes it feel like you’ve got a rock in your shoe, even when you’re not wearing shoes. No big deal — just shave away the dead skin, carve the bugger out, and off you go. Which he does. No X-Rays. No medication regimen. No surgery or impalement with needles. He just works with the elkstopper for another minute or so (I barely feel any of this, of course, it’s all just dead skin and callus) and then says, “all done.”

I twist my foot around again for a look. The speck is gone. In its place is a neat little indentation in the skin, as if a ball bearing had been pressed permanently into a memory foam mattress. I might feel a little discomfort for a day or so, he tells me, but nothing to what I’ve been feeling. Just the aftereffects of the tissue straightening itself out now that the obstruction is gone. He prescribes some ointment. (Breastfeeding nipple-chafe cream, it turns out, to help heal up the skin he had to shave away at. Seriously. My wife got a kick out of that.)

Still a little disbelieving, I ease myself down from the table (I’ve trained myself to ease onto my feet in every situation of late). Test my weight.

It doesn’t hurt. I try a few steps. Nothing. Dreamlike, I walk out of the office like I’m walking on bubble wrap. I stop at the store on the way home to buy some breastfeeding cream and spend the entire trip wondering at the fact that I’m walking pain-free for the first time in months. I get home and kick my shoes off, walking around barefoot on the hardwood and not having to step gingerly (I’d taken to wearing shoes or thick socks indoors like some kind of leper).

And because I’m an idiot, and there’s no sense not diving headlong into recovery, I lace up and go for a run the next morning. And it still doesn’t hurt.

It’s wild how we can become accustomed to the burdens we don’t realize we’re carrying. This tiny little speck had me walking like a man afraid to wake a sleeping baby (and I know a little bit about that). It made me give up running long enough to get good and cranky and feeling sluggish. It made me uncomfortable in my own home. I have to wonder if the speck wasn’t, in its own tiny way, responsible for a share of my writing misery of late: keeping me off balance, unable to relax, just sort of generally-being-off-kilter.

But all it took to fix it was five minutes and an elk-stopping harpoon. (Okay, it was probably just a tiny little scalpel.)

There’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere, but I’m too busy walking on air (almost literally) to think of it.

 


%d bloggers like this: