Love In The Time Of Christmas

Like most every person, the holiday classic Love Actually is a regular in my Christmastime small screen rotation. Viewings ramped up in college—my roommates and I averaged four per season. It’s a nice point of contact for all of us around this time of year, now that we’re scattered across the country.

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In keeping with this very special tradition, I snuggled up earlier this month for my first annual viewing. A selection of my real-time thoughts below, as I rode this particular rollercoaster of emotions for the first time this holiday season.

If you’re really committed (or unfamiliar with the various storylines), I recommend reading while watching, to give these unfiltered comments some context. A festive holiday beverage is also encouraged.

Note: Text has been edited for brevity, but content is almost precisely as it was recorded.

–Elise

DECISION: Fave storyline—Sam and Joanna. This kid’s eyes are the darkest, deepest chocolate-brown, against ghostly pale skin. He is a faery child. With a broken heart.

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WHY DO YOU LOVE KEIRA KNIGHTLY, BRO? WHY? IS SHE TRULY SPECIAL, B/C I DOUBT IT?

Liam Neeson mourning wife, pre-Natasha Richardson Tragedy: always uncomfortable and sad. Eeek.

The British are so different from American folk. They joke/talk about sex and death (“wee motherless mongrel”) immediately and without pity. It’s astounding.

Would the UK ever elect a single man Prime Minister? This is a think-question. Also, would he be allowed to joke about murdering someone on government authority?

Remember when things were recorded on VHS? I mean, really.

“It’s a self-preservation thing, you see…” BEST USE OF A DIDO SONG. EVER.

Laural Linney/Karl is the saddest storyline. Did you know that the only other movie credit of note for the actor playing Karl is The 300? Is anyone surprised? No.

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I have a theory about this one – Laura/Karl get BACK TOGETHER after a couple more awkward encounters at the office, post-weird almost hookup. Also, remember when middle school dances were this way?? Fast songs turn into slow ones really unexpectedly, and dance-partner expectations suddenly skyrocket??? Are holiday parties really like this? Seems like bad business – though great for holiday sex.

Christmas is definitely the time to do dumb and amazing things. Most people are slightly tipsy most of the time, and literally everything shuts down, so you don’t feel guilty sitting around and catching up on TV or reading because WORK CANNOT BE DONE. Even the president goes to Hawaii for two weeks, and North Korea is done catfishing Sony.

Secretary is the wooooorst. We hhhaaaate herrrrrr.

This is probably some of the best work that Rowan Atkinson has ever done. He is the all-knowing, omnipresent and slightly derivative joker character who somehow makes everything come together – the fool, for fans of Early Modern Drama.

“THIS IS SO MUCH MORE THAN A BAG.”

“Fancy a Christmas drink?” (aka, simulated blowjob ask-out scene). I just had to explain what body doubles are to my friend’s mom, who is watching the movie with us. Full disclosure: spent many an early-watch of this movie believing that these two were porn actors. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

“AND HE’S GOT A BIG NOBBBBBB!”

I must say, excellent music choices all around. Santana soundtrack-ing Colin’s arrival in Wisconsin? Just perfect. Ever wonder where Kim Bauer, Don Draper’s wife and that girl who plays a Russian model in like six movies started out? Look no further than this Milwaukee dive bar!! Giving American ladies everywhere a good name.

Are five-somes with four girls really not overwhelming to a single man? Disbelieve.

“It’s a real first!”—something so sad is about to happen! Don’t open it, Emma Thompson—IT’S JUST A JONI MITCHELL CD!!

Terrible Secretary: Is that B always in pajamas? Get some real clothes.

CHRISTMAS EVE!!!

Took me forever to realize that the Billy/Fat Manager Joe was not a homosexual thing. It’s friendship—love. Which is so subtle and great. Not that I don’t love homosexual love. But seriously. It’s great.

“All I want for Christmas is you!” It’s very strange to say this outside of the context of the song. Seems stalkery, or like you’re a simple idiot and don’t know what sentences sound like out loud. You’re cute, but figure out how to be better at charming Martin Freeman. He’s a gem, and deserves more.

“Look everyone, it’s Uncle Jaime!” Why did you bring me cloves of garlic from France? I can get those at Whole Foods, if I really want fancy ones. P.S., for people who are traveling internationally right now and want to buy me presents—cashmere.

“Say it’s carol singers!”

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So many logistical problems with this scene:

  1. What if Peter answered the door???
  2. Is it not suspicious that carolers are accompanied by string instruments?
  3. Dear continuity folks: You have him dropping placards on the ground throughout the scene. Then, cut to walking away with all placards perfectly ordered, under his arm (after the strange double thumbs-up thing). I don’t know why this bothers me, but it really does. When were these collected, and neatly stacked?
  4. Keira Knightley kiss: This is a point of great moral ambiguity and debate among friends and family. Is this kiss a gift–or a terrible and unnecessary betrayal, as well as a confusing thing for Mr. Preppy Man, who is in love with you for no reason? I rather fall into the camp of “relatively harmless,” mostly because big romantic gestures are difficult to for me to let slide without any kind of recognition whatsoever. I would probably do it. Just being honest. Don’t know if this makes me bad, but I hope not. Doesn’t mean I love you any less, future husband (especially if you are as sexy as Chiwetel Ejiofor).

I don’t really want to talk about the Prime Minister/Natalie ending. I feel very meh about it, this time around. I can’t help but notice there are many charming, older British gentleman matched with women more than twenty years their junior this film. It’s a little discomfiting. Pre-prostitute Hugh Grant and the always delightful Colin Firth mitigate this a bit, but mostly—come on.

Christmas concert: The break dancing boys in the background are my absolute favorite people in this climactic final scene. What an excellent touch, guys.

“I never told your mom enough—I should have told her every day, because she was perfect every day.” YES.

I really wonder what would happen if I came up to an airport attendant and was like, I NEED TO SAY GOODBYE TO THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. Would the Christmas spirit move them to let me past? Probably not, but I like to think this is possible, always.

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Heart-picture collage!! Airports really are like this, I think. Except I sincerely hope that the Secret Service, and “coppers” protecting our elected officials are better on their game than these guys are. Is that lady in a red coat, about to jump our PM, a threat?! Let’s let her elbow past us and see!! Oh, good—it’s just his (terribly inappropriate) girlfriend. Just saying, this could have gone down poorly.

Such terrible pop songs on credits. Boo.

WE LOVE YOU! SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!

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The Voices In My Head

Live from Sixth and I Synagogue, in Washington, D.C.!

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It’s weird to develop relationships with radio personalities. You get to know their voices intimately—inflection, tone, laugh, cough. You decide what they look like. You become terrified that their real faces won’t measure up, or will somehow change everything.

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I hate hearing recordings of my own voice. Fortunately, I avoid microphones and rarely call my own phone through to voicemail, so the audio is easy to avoid. When I do hear myself played back, I don’t like it. Is my voice always that deep, and vaguely androgynous? Why do I say some words with a British cadence, and why hasn’t anyone told me to stop? But most of all—my recorded voice doesn’t sound like me, as I imagine myself to be. It’s disconcerting.

A voice without a face is a strange thing. My favorite radio personalities and podcast hosts are in my head, but disembodied—not fully real. The voices of Ira Glass, John Hodgman and Audie Cornish are, in many ways, more the message they deliver than they are themselves. Depending on who’s speaking, I’m ready to listen quietly, or laugh along, or think very seriously about Syria.

I have spent hundreds of hours listening to NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon speak, and their pop culture podcast is much more to me than just a group of people, talking about stuff. They are an authoritative bunch that has introduced me to some of my favorite books, movies and TV shows. Their voices—full of warmth and character—command respect, and not a little bit of devotion from the likes of Alison and me.

I attended the most recent live taping of Pop Culture Happy Hour at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. I wish Alison had been with me. I saw Linda, Stephen and Glen in action, and guess what? They have bodies, and very expressive faces, and are actually a little discomfited sitting before hundreds of plaid-and-glasses wearing NPR nerds. They are used to microphones and a studio. We are used to piping them into our brains through ear buds. It was strange for everyone.

Glen was my favorite panelist to observe. He played to us and with us, and made us promise to buy his book. He also spoke about this very phenomenon: the explosive popularity of podcasting in 2014, and the way that the relationship between “disembodied voice” and listener is evolving as a result.

Glen spoke about the intimacy of podcasting—it’s not straight-up news reporting, with all the journalistic rigor and formality that often requires. Podcasts showcase “the rough stuff,” very personal process stories, without time-stamps. Podcasts give the impression of being raw, immediate and unedited. In the moment.

PCHH is still an NPR program, so my feeling is that Linda’s podcast will never sound quite as informal or unfinished as, say, SERIAL. But being physically present with this group hammered home the fact that the voices in my head (the radio ones) aren’t godlike or all-knowing. They’re just people. Telling stories, or being goofy. Or being Sarah Koenig (whatever that means).

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That’s what Alison and I are doing—we’ve got stuff to say, and we’re finding a way to share, whatever that means for us. We’re nothing special—not yet. We expect to be very famous, quite soon.

–Elise

It’s About Time: Project Omar, Part One

Hey, have you guys heard of this show called The Wire? It was on HBO like a bajillion years ago. Just discovered it, and I can’t believe no one’s talking about it yet. You gotta watch it—so good.

JUST KIDDING OBVIOUSLY.

This is the first installment of a segment that Elise and I are calling, “It’s About Time,” in which we chronicle our experiences consuming pop culture that we somehow missed along the way. The Wire is first up on my TV bucket list.

For a long time, I was really scared to watch it. Snobs and low-brow enthusiasts alike rave about it, but I thought that somehow, I wouldn’t “get it” and would have to retire permanently from the pop culture game. In college, Elise and I took a class taught by the handsomest, most boring professor of all time, in which we watched modern interpretations of Greek tragedy. Season One of The Wire was on the syllabus, but—as it was homework—I couldn’t quite bring myself watch the whole thing.

Fear not, friends, because I have now made it through Season One in its entirety—and it’s real good! But, as you are a human on the earth, you know that this is not news. What follows is the episode-by-episode, stream-of-consciousness diary I kept, as I watched The Wire for the first time.

Episode One – “The Target”

Just like a good improv scene, the first season starts in the middle. When I first watched, I had no idea who anyone was or what the hell was going on. I remember thinking Stringer was Avon for the first like three episodes. Zero hand-holding here, although on second viewing (three years later), I’m following it all much more easily.

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Lurrrrrrve Michael B. Jordan. (Shout out here to our dear friend Betsy, who wore a bee costume and a Bulls number 23 for Halloween. Get it?!?) Wallace is from the projects, and he knows that Alexander Hamilton wasn’t a president? RUH ROH DOOMED CHARACTER ALERT.

Episode Two – “The Detail”

Everyone’s names are so satisfying to say. Avon Barksdale. Jimmy McNulty. Kima Greggs. They’re so crisp in your mouth. The early 2000s sound quality helps too.

The detail’s resident screw-up, Prez, pistol whips a kid in the projects and blinds him. Lieutenant Daniels tells him to lie—say the kid was coming at him, and that he feared for his safety. This is all very Ferguson-esque.

Episode Three – “The Buys”

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Is this a prequel to Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture?

OMG too many eerie Ferguson parallels, right down to the police major saying “We did nothing wrong.”

Then there’s a scene where D’Angelo explains chess to the kiddos working under him in the pit. WE GET IT. IT’S ALL A GAME, AND MOST OF YOU WILL BE SACRIFICED FOR MONEY/DRUGS/POWER. Effective metaphor, but heavy-handed to say the least.

OMAR’S HERE! Finally.

Episode Four – “Old Cases”

McNulty and his partner Bunk check out an old murder scene, likely Barksdale’s doing, and break down the scene using variations of the work “fuck.” I once tried to explain the scene’s genius to my mom. Did not go over well.

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Omar’s gay y’all. Even his make-outs are gangster.

Episode Five – “The Pager”

Prez shows the first signs of not being a total idiot by cracking the pager codes, due to his love of word searches. Imagine what a boy genius he’d be if Sudoku has been a thing then. So I guess we’re supposed to be on his side now? He’s a terrible cop. But good in the office. Hello, gray area!

D’Angelo’s gf’s hair at their fancy dinner is REAL ‘90s.

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I’m guessing “the bug” is AIDS. Yikes bikes! Did everyone really call it that, uniformly?

Episode Six – “The Wire”

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WHO SAID THIS?! Dominic West must have updated his own Wikipedia page, because I swear he’s a hair’s breadth away from a Shakespearean sonnet every time he speaks. Idris Elba’s American accent, on the other hand: legit. Mmmmm sexy.

McNulty picks up Omar, while his kids are in the backseat. I’d love a spin-off featuring Omar’s side gig as a babysitter. I’d call it, “Omar Comin’ to Tuck You In.” Or something. Name TBD.

Episode Seven – “One Arrest”

Rain Man Prez strikes again, decrypting more pager code.

The actor who plays Bubs has some serious acting chops. Watching him sit in the Narcotics Anonymous meeting, clearly wanting to be clean, is killing me.

This hitman-type Bird is the most stereotypically thug dude on the show, but I guess you gotta throw at least one real shit in there. Nothing human-seeming about him at all. And then they beat the shit out of him in the interrogation room. Eesh.

Episode Eight – “Lessons”

Stringer is taking Econ! Hope he does better on his final than I did on mine in college. I did not understand macro, at all, and thus my dreams of a business minor were dashed. “Dreams.”

Shardene’s glasses are amazing.

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Episode Nine – “Game Day”

“Maybe we won” – Herc. HAHAHAHAH JK, we’ll never win the war on drugs. Haven’t you learned ANYTHING from this season yet?

Episode Ten – “The Cost”

Ohhhhh Orlando. What is going on with your hair?

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Bye, Omar! K.I.T. in NYC!

Kima tells all her lesbian friends the reasons why she became a cop. This is one of the few unearned speeches so far, and is a dead give-away that she’s like thirty minutes away from being shot.

Episode Eleven – “The Hunt”

It’s sort of charming that Wee-Bay loves tropical fish. But he’s a murderer and rapist and rolled up that dead stripper in a rug, then put her in the dumpster. Gray area? Probably not this time.

NO, WALLACE, DON’T COME HOME.

Episode Twelve – “Cleaning Up”

Kima’s in the hospital, and the higher-ups blow their wad, in order to show the public that they’ve gained some traction in the drug war. The best paper I wrote in college (for the aforementioned class) was about this episode. I argued that, by using shots of televisions that were airing the press conference instead of showing the press conference directly suggests that, our real lives, all we see is what “the man” chooses to present to us. The press conference looks like a step forward, but in fact, it’s mostly for show. I know, I know, I’m a genius.

RIP Wallace. See you when I revisit Friday Night Lights.

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Episode Thirteen – “Sentencing”

Stringer and Avon move their headquarters to a funeral home. As someone who once worked in the obituary call center for The Baltimore Sun, I can tell you that Carlton C. Tompkins is not a real funeral home in the area. Carlton C. Douglass on the other hand…

Of course Bubbles wasn’t going to stay clean, but my heart is still broken.

There’s hardly any music in this season at all. None of the emotional moments in the show are underscored to boost effectiveness. It’s all done with stone cold writing and acting. Awesome.

Well, that’s it for Part One—stay tuned for Season Two, which features the docks. I’m less than intrigued, but can only assume it will also be amazing.

—Alison

Another Essay About Feminism

I wish I could read every book at once.  

–Text from Alison, December 5, 2014

Books are often far more than just books.

–Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

I have been a reader for my entire life. I don’t remember when I fell in love with books. I know that my uncle once accused me of “skimming,” because I read so much, so fast (and for that I’ve still not forgiven him). I know that, at one point, I exhausted my Elementary School library’s supply of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, and tried Agatha Christie, per my mother’s suggestion. I guess she assumed all mystery novels are equal, in the eyes of a ten-year old? She was wrong. I was petrified, and didn’t sleep for weeks.

We moved a lot, abroad. My sister and my stories became my best, most reliable buddies. Once, I was hospitalized with a terrible infection, missed four weeks of school and worked my way through much of the Jane Austen canon (hating most every moment). When I returned to school, weak, dizzy and still “the new girl,” one chick eyed me nervously and said, you’re pretty, now that you’ve lost so much weight! I remember thinking, I’ve made a friend!

In her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay writes, “Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read…Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.” To her, I would say: kindred spirit, I recognize you. Let’s talk about what you’re reading, right at this very moment.

Bad Feminist isn’t a novel, or a collection of fictionalized stories, so instead the reader “loses herself” inside Gay’s crazy-cool brain. Her essays are deeply personal, and explore topics ranging from Jerry Sandusky to The Hunger Games. Gay is an academic, and a critic—but she allows personal experience to inform every opinion. That’s why I like this book—her ideas are informed but also thoughtful, because she allows her humanity, with all of its biases and flaws and tics, to color each word.

It’s hard to speak about the essay collection as a whole, because so much is covered within each piece—but the unifying idea here is that human beings are flawed, and so are our ideologies. Feminism is an ideology, and also a way of being—therefore, it is as complex and problematic as the people who live by it. Feminism is easily misunderstood, and easily discounted. It is, above all, a human concept, and deals in an immensely human concern: equality.

(Feminism isn’t necessarily about women’s rights—it’s about the right of all people to be equal, feel equal, to love, respect and honor each other humanity-wide.)

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I no longer subscribe to the idea that there are books that everyone should read, in order to become a better person. A couple of years ago, I fell in love with Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, and decided this was a book everyone needed in their lives. The book is hilarious, smart and makes really important observations about the insane, gendered world we live in.

Turns out, Gay read that book too—and devoted an entire essay to the ways in which How To Be A Woman actually fails, while acknowledging its strengths as a feminist tome. Gay applies the same standard to The Hunger Games, GIRLS and Amy Winehouse. And all of these things—some of which are my favorite things in the world—are now better, to me, for all of their shortcomings. I’m reminded not to worship at the altar of a text, simply because I enjoyed it. This is why I love to read: something like Bad Feminist comes along, and I discover that I’m still learning—about myself, and the things that move me. I’m still learning how to learn.

I’m sad for people who don’t read, or think they don’t have the time. I don’t mean that to sound condescending, even though it does. I imagine those folks are smarter and more informed than I am in lots of ways. I just can’t imagine a life without all the stories I’ve read, the characters I love—and this incredible means comfort, this vast store of knowledge, this way that I can make myself better.

So I keep reading.

–Elise

In Defense of Assholes

In Aaron Sorkin’s creative middle age, his new work has garnered a bad reputation. It’s pretentious and condescending. It romanticizes White Men with Ideals. Every woman is engineered to be a female, fuckable version of Sorkin himself. And, re: his latest venture The Newsroom: a cable news show is a less-than-inspiring setting to explore Big Ideas. As much as I love Keith Olbermann (and by love I mean, I’ve watched a couple videos posted around the ole FB, and he seems cool), I don’t really care about what went into making his MSNBC show. Twenty-four hour news networks exhaust me and are, ultimately, unnecessary. If there was actual, worthwhile analysis happening, that would be one thing.

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But I’m pretty sure a re-run of Revenge would do more good than this breaking story.

Oh, did I mention that I love The Newsroom? Because I really do.

I see its flaws. Aside from the typical Sorkin bullshit highlighted above, it has the serious problem of tackling the news with the benefit of hindsight. How could the characters not come out on top after their coverage of the Boston bombing? The writers had over a year to tackle the issue. And last Sunday’s episode had a stodgy plotline about old vs. new news that sounded as if it came straight from the mouth of your grandfather at Thanksgiving. (You know, “All these kids and their tweets.” That sort of thing.)

Whatever, I’m still into it.

The Newsroom plays on my emotions, and I 100% let it. Everyone makes paragraph-long speeches about justice and love and America. The music swells at all the right moments. Everyone is good at their jobs, and it’s sexy.

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This is true of Sorkin’s other work too. The West Wing, The Social Network, A Few Good Men: They all feature single-minded, stubborn assholes. But these assholes are on the noble side of complicated issues. They’re on the side of truth and equality, where weaker people might founder. And everyone is so fucking well-spoken. I eat it all up with a spoon, gladly.

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It’s unlikely Sorkin will ever make another West Wing, and we’re all worse off for that. In the White House, people “doing the honorable thing” actually deserves the warm fuzzies of hope that flutter through my heart. America! But I’m not ashamed that I buy into the same cheesiness when I watch The Newsroom, despite its weaknesses. It makes me feel GOOD, ok?! It inspires me to work harder at what I love, and reminds me what passion in the workplace looks like. It makes me want to take big risks, in life and love and work. It moves me to read the actual news. Frankly, for me, it does everything that Sorkin sets out to do with his writing.

But no way would I ever say that to his face. Wouldn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

– Alison

Coming To A Theater Near You

As part of what has become a family holiday tradition, I went to see the latest installment of The Hunger Games in theaters with my uncle and cousins.

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The movie was great! I love the books, and largely approve of their casting choices. I’m a sucker for quality on-screen adaptations of post-apocalyptic young adult fiction–which does not make  me special, but in fact fully mainstream. Don’t care, though. I was there first.

For better or for worse, Mockingjay was exactly what I wanted it to be, and nothing more. I’ll probably see it again, two to six times.

So, for what may be the first time ever, I don’t have a lot to say about a movie. Go see it! It’s fun! Archery is awesome, Team Peeta FOREVER, RIP Phillip Seymour Hoffman (sigh).

Instead, I want to talk about the previews.

First: a live-action Cinderella, from Disney.

Top takeaways: CGI does not make everything better. Why wish for a dress that is digitally doctored to look more alive than the actor inside it? Nobody needs that much glitter.

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Top takeaways: Haven’t seen the original for years –and it turns out, the whimsical story I loved as a child is actually an abomination of child labor laws, making light of horrendous poverty and corruption within our adoption system. Thanks.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Top takeaways: Wait, this is still happening?

Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb

Top takeaways: RIP Robin Williams (sigh).

To all of these, I ask: why?

Sorry, I know why. These movies make money. Even Cate Blanchett misses her Elizabethan costumes every once in a while, and so decides to slum it as a tepidly-drawn but well-dressed Evil Stepmother. It’s a lucrative gig, I imagine.

But still–who is the audience they’re targeting here? We were all there to see The Hunger Games–a story that arguably launched a new kind of story in cinema, designed for kids AND grown-ups (can’t much say the same for Night at the Museum), with active, interesting female leads (sorry, Cinderella), and addresses some pretty hard stuff, head-on (come on, Annie).

So, I guess the question is not so much why, but–for who? We’re all used to sequels, re-makes and re-dos–but these are not answering any kind of demand that I can identify. It’s pure fluff, that doesn’t even look like much fun to watch. It’s just–taking up space.

We all like to watch gooey, kind-of-pointless things, especially during the holiday season. But, given what’s coming to theaters this year, may I make a suggestion? Troll your Netflix, channel guide and local Redbox for the good-bad-old stuff: A Little Princess, You’ve Got Mail, A Christmas Story. Maybe even the original Cinderella or Annie, or the first two installments of The Hunger Games! Just ’cause Cate is dipping down, doesn’t mean you have to.

–Elise