Sunday, February 21, 2010

Needled: Why Men Should Watch "Project Runway"

Coming across on the boat from Hyannis last week, I saw quite a few married couples, but none of them were talking to each other. The wives were in one group discussing who had gotten face work done, and whose kid was getting suspended and whose husband was sleeping with the Swedish au pair. They talked about books and movies and how to deal with their mothers-in-law and how short a skirt you could wear at age forty.

The men were talking about work.

Most of them were building contractors, so they were talking about the price of copper flashing, and the difficulty of procuring clear trim white pine. I felt bad for them. Their conversations were boring and they could have had the same boring conversations at Marine Lumber or any job site on Nantucket. Was there really nothing else to talk about? My Dad told me that the best advice he ever got as a kid came from the football coach at the Hill School. “You’ll never be any good at this game,” the old man told him. “You’re better off playing with the girls.” He had been doing precisely that ever since and highly recommended it. I hung out with the wives on that boat trip. The story of how one woman was breaking into her husband’s email and deleting messages from his girlfriend, struck me as more interesting than the off-island price for a new table saw.

Then I came home and watched two straight hours of Project Runway.

I tell people that and it’s like I just told them I was a cross dresser. “Hey!” I feel like saying, “I’m watching them make the clothes – not wearing them!”

It’s annoying because there’s nothing gender specific about Project Runway .On one level it’s no different from American Idol or MTV’s Real Life or any of the many shows Project Runway has spawned (cooking competitions, hair-dressing competitions, even an upscale architecture competition on the Sundance channel). There are strong personalities – the Diva, the snob, the hard-working loser, the modest visionary the insanely self assured disaster. (The most talented ones always have the least to say for themselves, whether they’re cutting fabric or singing Celine Dion tunes) You have the judges, including the chillingly Teutonic Heidi Klum (“You’re OUT. Auf Wiedersehen”); you have the mentor (Tim Gunn) … you have the nasty remarks and last minute panic attacks and desperate overhauls at the last minute.

But on Project Runway you get something more.

Every week on the show the ever decreasing number of designers accept that episode’s challenge, and actually design clothes (whether its making evening dresses out of burlap, creating a garment made from material found in the grocery store, or making a garden party ensemble from whatever they could find in the flower district). We watch them create something new every week, whether it’s brilliant or awful or somewhere in between. This is a level of ingenuity and ionvention we can fully absorb and judge for ourselves. The singers on American Idol don’t write their own songs; we can’t taste the food prepared on all those kitchen combat programs. But we can see the dresses, and watch them being stitched together, in an hour long fugue state of vicarious creativity. There’s no reason in the world why men shouldn’t enjoy this just as much as women. It’s like the vilified ‘chick flicks’ which are basically just stories about people, rather than explosions. Men are people. Cutting them off from so much of the fun of life seems unfair and absurd.

But then, I drink hazelnut coffee and wear pink Crocs. So maybe I’m not the best person to ask.

The Problem with Independent Movies

I just finished watching Fish Tank, a much lauded independent film, written and directed by Andrea Arnold, starring newcomer Katie Jarvis and Inglourious Basterd Michael Fassbender. I disliked it intensely, and it made me think of another independent movie about a disaffected young woman, The Good Girl. Jennifer Aniston starred in Miguel Arteta’s film sight years ago, but not much has changed in Indie world since then. Life is still bleak, apartments are still grimy, people are still aimless and rude and self-absorbed. The camera is still-hand held, even if it’s digital now. Fish Tank looks like it might be the first film ever actually shot on someone’s smart phone. Though I suppose it would be an insult to the filmmakers to accuse them of buying such high-tech toys. I remember some indie film-maker joking at the Oscars a few years ago “This is surreal -- the dress I’m wearing tonight cost more than my movie.”

But there’s more to the intemperate personalities and squalid settings of most independent films than cranky moods and low budgets. There’s a philosophy at work here, and it’s the philosophy that annoys me the most. The inverse snobbery of these films makes a brazen statement to the audience: “This is the truth. This is real life. Of course it’s ugly and unpleasant. If that’s too tough for you, there’s a Sandra Bullock movie playing next door. We are not here to entertain you. Get your infantile jollies elsewhere. We owe you nothing. We don’t make cheesy deals with jaded thrill junkies. Pay attention. Embrace your boredom and discomfort. Medicine is supposed to taste bad. Iodine is supposed to sting.”

The clear implication is that they’re better than we are. It reminds me of an old girlfriend of mine who made an imperious virtue out of her self-inflicted misery. Sadness was more than unfortunate phase (or a clinical condition): it was a badge of honor. Attempts to cheer her up always ended in defeat – the fact that you were happy destroyed your credibility. Happy people were shallow, superficial children who didn’t grasp the appalling horror of the world, or the tragic ironies of human existence.

There’s only one thing to do with a person like that: flee.

In much the same spirit, I rarely watch an entire independent film. Give me Sandra Bullock any time.

Here’s why: regular movies like me. They want to win me over. They think (craven panderers!) that I need a reason to be interested in their characters and situations. They attempt to provide such reasons and in the process often wind up telling engaging stories populated with memorable people. You can trace this effort back to 1938, when Ernst Lubistch – along with screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brakett-- invented the ‘meet cute’ Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert are both shopping for pajamas, fighting with separate clerks because he only buys the bottoms and she only buys the tops. They make the obvious arrangement and they’re off to the races. Most importantly, we like both of them and actually care what happens to them.

The great James M. Cain explains the point brilliantly in 1 1944 preface to a collection of novellas called Three of a Kind. He attributes the story-telling wisom he dispenses to theatrical producer William Harris Jr., who clarified things, thusly:

In this story you think you want to write, they meet, they have lunch, they talk, they like each other, they fall in love. That’s how it does happen. But I don’t pay $5.50 for that. It may be love but it’s not a play. I don’t feel anything, and making me feel is what you’re after. Look, I’m sitting at a window, looking down at the park. There’s two benches there, one with a couple on it holding hands. Well, there’s no news in that, is there? I guess they’re in love but they can go right down and get married and send me a card from Niagara Falls and I don’t care a bit. On the other bench is a girl reading a book. She’s got a little dog there, and every now and then she exercises him by throwing a ball out on the grass and making him bring it back. A guy comes along, takes a look at her, and passes by. When he takes another look at her, I know he likes her looks, and right away I wonder what’s going to happen. Now if she looks up from the book and jumps up and runs over to him and kisses him, it’s still love, but I’m bored. But if she looks up, and he walks away quick, I know they’re strangers. I see him stop at a peanut vendors, and I wonder what he’s up to. He buys peanuts, comes back, sits on the bench, pays no attention to her. But the dog he pats on the head He starts on the peanuts, but right away he peels one and pitches it up in the air for the dog. The dog catches it, pricks up its ears for another. Turns out the dog likes peanuts. Next thing, the girl is watching it and laughs. The guy raises his hat, moves over. They both play with the dog. He’s done it, Cain, he’s pulled something, he’s got me interested. I stay right there watching them. I ought to be writing a scene, but I want to see how this comes out. After a while, when he flags a cab and they all three drive off together, he, she. And the dog, they’re my favorite lovers that day. It’s the same way with anything you write. Before you can interest me in a story, you have to interest me in them.

This is the essential narrative truth that independent films no only fail to grasp but actually repudiate. They have their dogma (they even have a school of filmmaking called dogma), but I think something much less fancy and high-falutin’ is going on underneath the academic double talk.

It makes me think of the first lecture I ever attended at Vermont College, Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders. These insects were purely graphic: if a student used the verb ‘to be’ enough times on a page, Doug could draw a dot in the middle and draw lines out to all the examples until the page looked like a multi-legged spider: not a good thing. The verb to be is a mere connector; it doesn’t tell a story; you should never promote it to the fall-back verb in a tough sentence, I loved Doug’s example. The student writes, “The barn was red.” A perfectly acceptable sentence, grammatically correct an inoffensive. Try substituting a real verb – suddenly you’re telling a story, something like this, perhaps “Red paint peeled from the barn, revealing a scabrous undercoat that exactly matched the old man’s complexion as he hammered on the FOR SALE sign and walked away for the last time.”

Years of work with graduate writing students have helped Glover understand the subtle reason why so many students choose not to seek out the fresh sprightly interesting verb and settle instead for that lifeless stalwart of the passive voice,”to be”.

It’s too much work.

Finding the exciting, vivid verbs to drive your story means that you (and not the reader) have to do the work of imagining what’s really going on, how it looks and smells and feels. Student: “The rabbit was on the lawn”

Or you could write it as Keats did, as quoted by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to his daughter (“lucky girl,” Doug added), explaining in great prose verbs drive the sentences:

“The hare limped, trembling, through the frozen grass.”

So am I saying that Independent filmmakers are lazy? No – just the talented ones.

I don’t care about the others. But ones who do have a spark need to get to work. They have to realize that watching an angry teen-ager yell at everyone in her path for the first fifteen minutes of a film gives me no reason to care whether or not she finds love with her mother’s boyfriend at the end. They have to realize that a juiceless, washed out character like Jennifer Aniston’s Justine Last in The Good Girl presents no feature of interest. People like her exist? So what? When I was reading scripts for a Hollywood agent, every bad writer played the same card: “It’s a true story.” Nothing matters less. True stories have no third acts. True stories happened to you – I need something to happen to me. Forget the true story. Tell me the interesting story.

That’s how you get from the Independent Spirit Awards to the Oscars.

Fitness After Fifty: The Book Nerd's Workout

Full disclosure: I’m 57 years old, and twenty pounds over weight – and that was fine with me, at least until I caught a glimpse of myself, ambushed by a an unexpected mirror. I can’t tell you exactly what I saw (I’m sure you can guess) but it did not match up with my svelte 20-year old self-image. It was a stiff does of reality I couldn’t shake. All those pairs of pants kept getting tighter, and it wasn’t just the shrinking effects of the dryer, though I remain a staunch supporter of the shrinking effects of the dryer.

I had to fix the problem, but I knew my options were limited. Getting up at six A.M. and running five miles sounded good but I had tried it before and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. A personal trainer would have been great, but it was a little out of my price range. My son had gotten fit just by running on a treadmill, so I talked Annie into the idea and looked them up on line: too big, too expensive. You needed a separate room for a piece of equipment like that. All of this was at the stage where just thinking about exercising seems almost like the real thing. It takes up time, distracts you, tires you out. Plus you get that all-important sense of self-satisfaction: You get to say stuff like “Exercise” (at least thinking about exercise) “just happens to be a major priority for me!” Notice the “happens-to” formulation, a favorite among self-righteous jerks who invoke coincidence just to deny it; and thus imbue their random opinions with the gravity of fate.

Well it all sounded good but I was still getting fat.

My solution was to join the local health club.

They had treadmills – and a shower, which my current antique apartment did not. There were other people there – who could be depended on to snicker at me if I slacked off (Peer pressure is good, once you’re out of high school). I would get to drive there, and buy coffee afterward. It seemed like a manageable proposition. Of course, there was always the locker room issue, you know … getting undressed around other men (I think of Woody Allen in Annie Hall, explaining why he doesn’t shower at the tennis club: “I’m not comfortable being seen naked by a man of my own gender.”). But I figured going a little later than other people – as a painting contractor, my time is pretty much my own -- might cut down on the crowds.

It was worth a try.

Plus if you give some one three hundred dollars in advance for three months of Health Club membership, you feel especially profligate and irresponsible (not to mention lazy and puny and lame) if you don’t go. It’s a good system – it puts every kind of pressure on you, and the combination usually works.

So now we have to talk about the machine itself. It takes you through a work-out, increasing the incline and decreasing it, measuring the twenty minutes in two and three minute segments, praising you (“Great job!”) and encouraging you (“Only six more minutes!”) as you go along. It’s a little abstract, being praised by a machine, but the worst part is, I’m so craven I like it. “That machine says I’m doing a great job!” I told myself. Later on, I asked the instructor about the calorie-burning meter display, and he just laughed. “It’s an average,” he said. “The machine has no idea how many calories you’re burning.” So maybe it was just as unreliable about how good a job I was doing. Liar. But I didn’t care. Flattery will get you everywhere, treadmill machine.

The real problem was those minute and two-minute increments. I got caught up in them and the workout seemed to take forever. I needed a distraction. I don’t have an iPod, and I don’t really like listening to music when I’m exerting myself, anyway They have magazines at the club but the print is way too small to read comfortably while jogging. TVs line the walls, with the sound off, but they’re placed diabolically remote from the treadmills, rendering the close-captioning illegible. This is bad because I realized quickly that distraction is the key to getting through a workout. What do I do when I’m bored any other time? I read. But books were too cumbersome to set on the treadmill’s shelf and once again, the print was too small, anyway.

Driving home on the third day, I realized the solution, with that familiar twinge of retroactive impatience and annoyance. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

That day I ordered a big print edition of Virgina Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from Amazon. I wanted a book I had been meaning to read for a long time, something challenging. I wanted to improve my mind along with my body.

When the novel arrived in the mail, I razored out the first twenty pages and took them to the club with me. They fit perfectly on the Treadmill shelf and to my mild surprise they were utterly engrossing. And distracting: I ran six minutes before I even noticed I(three had been my outside limit before I partnered with Virginia). What the lady herself might think of me vandalizing her novel to place the pages on an exercise machine, I have no idea. I hope she’d be pleased. The thing that might please her most I discovered entirely by accident. The big print renders her book shockingly accessible. Classic literature has always meant small type: brown pages packed tight with tiny indecipherable text. It’s like the way we see World War Two in black and white, from all those grainy newsreels. But people shot color footage then also (John Huston made some stirring documentaries), and seeing those times in all the hues and shades of the real world creates a haunting new intimacy with those people. It restores the dignity, the imperative human truth of their long-extinguished lives. Big print does the same thing for the classics, removing the mystique of eyestrain and rendering the sentences, however antique and complex, fresh, approachable and seductive:

Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogueof the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.

Good writers control your breathing: you literally hold your breath though a compound sentence and pant along with a series of short staccato ones. With Virginia Woolf in charge of my respiration and my mind taken up with Mrs. Ramsay’s walk into town with the egregious Charles Tansley, the exercise becomes almost incidental.

My next goal: twenty minutes at 4.5 miles an hour through all the inclines …and Mrs. Dalloway Then 5mph and The Moonstone! Six mph and Middlemarch. But why stop there? Seven mph and anything goes -- Mao II, Midnight’s Children, Mason and Dixon --

I’m unstoppable.

I just wish there was a private shower at the club.

Falling in Love With Football: A Super Bowl Valentine

In 1977, The Oakland Raiders finally returned to the Super Bowl. I was living at the beach that year, temporary roommates with my best friend, Stephen Salinger, a life-long Raiders fan. He made food, invited friends in, cheered through the game and celebrated for days after the Raiders’ decisive 32-14 win against the Minnesota Vikings.

I went surfing.

He couldn’t believe it. I had to be the only man in America not watching the game. It was perverse, it was pathological. It was unpatriotic. But there was a swell running and, in a favorite phrase of mine at the time, football was just “guys jumping into piles” anyway. I thought I was ‘above’ football, but the truth is I was a petty little snob from an upper East Side, socialist-leaning family (My mother voted for Adlai Stevenson. Twice). We went to anti-war demonstrations and Pete Seeger concerts (Yes, we sang along), not football games. Running photographs at half-time from Shea Stadium to the pressroom at The Daily News, years before, I had gotten a closer brush with the sport. I came away impressed by the sheer size of the players and the gladiatorial brutality of the game itself. But I wasn’t inspired to watch.

I later became friendly with one of the players on the field that day, Jets cornerback Steve Tannen. We sat in my step-brother’s living room watching another Superbowl, and he explained what was going on. I still didn’t get it. My smug superior pose was like a suit of armor. I clanked when I walked. An actual NFL player was sitting on a couch with me, explaining the intricacies of the game, and all I could think was, “This is way too complicated for such a dumb sport.”

I might never have discovered the game at all, but around ten years ago, something completely unexpected happened.

I fell in love with a fan.

. Annie and I worked together in my contracting business and we were painting a kitchen one Sunday afternoon, when she put on the radio. Not NPR as usual, but an AM station out of new York city, WFAN. The Giants were playing and she didn’t want to miss the game. She liked listening almost as much as watching, which was convenient since the hated Patriots had knocked the Giants off the Boston television stations most Sundays.

Bob Papa and Dick Lynch called the games better than the boneheads FOX and ABC, and she liked constructing the plays in her mind from their rapid-fire descriptions: “It’s third and eighteen, Collins in the shotgun. Amani Toomer split wide left, Cross to the right, Tiki Barber in the slot. Long snap from Center. Collins back to pass. He has Amani Toomer up the left side line, he’s all alone … the pass is short, he comes back for the ball, makes the catch, in typical Toomer fashion, dragging both toes in-bounds. That’s a miraculous catch at the twelve yard line and – no, there’s a flag on the play. It’s coming back, folks.”

I didn’t understand most of this. It was like listening cricket or curling. But Annie sure did. I’ll never forget her howl and rage and frustration at that moment, when it turned out that Roman Oben had forced the holding call.

“What the hell are you doing?!” she shouted at the radio. “They’re killing us with these penalties! You don't hold there! Not there! Not now! We’re giving them the game! Why can’t they just let them play? Now watch! It’s fourth and inches and Fassel’s going for the field goal! Just give Tiki the ball! Let him run it!” But he didn’t, and the kick went wide. Another dismal day for the Giants.

But the fans were used to days like that, in the lean years before the great squad of the mid-eighties and the tough years since. And at the end of all those seasons, they’d just sigh and say “Maybe next year…” There was always plenty of time to lick your wounds and prepare for the next season: it was a long way to September.

Eventually I learned the terminology, and more and more every Sunday I got drawn into the games. It had happened the same way for Annie, as a little girl, sitting with her Dad, watching the games on television – or traveling to Yankee Stadium, and even the Yale Bowl, during those seasons when the Giants didn’t have a venue of their own. Football turned into the best way to spend time with him: it gave them an endlessly fascinating topic in common, and a perfect strategy for getting to know her otherwise difficult and remote father. A few years later I saw Remember the Titans and thought I glimpsed a little of Annie in the white coach’s ten-year old daughter, screaming at the TV. Not that much has changed. She still paces and chides and screams “GO DEFENCE” on those crucial goal-line stands. I don’t think Annie sat down once through the whole of Super Bowl 42, when the Giants triumphed in their rematch with the hated Patriots.

She’s had her glory moments as fan. She submitted a song about the team – lyrics to the tune of Ora Lee -- in a FAN contest, and won it. She wound up singing on the radio with Offensive Tackle Karl Nelson. Bob Papa had written “Good” on the sheet she submitted – as terse and emphatic as the call on an extra point. Some sample lyrics—

Twelve and Four

Twelve and Four

We are playoff bound

With Stephen Baker in the air

And Otis on the ground

A friend of Annie’s worked for the New Yorker, and the big day got written up as a Talk of the Town piece.


The more I watched, the more I fell in love with the game. I gloried in the spectacular pounding the Giants gave the Vikings on the way to that other Super Bowl, in 2000 – and suffered through their humiliating loss to the Ravens, a few weeks later. We drove all the way down to Connecticut for that calamity. Annie’s whole family was morbidly in tune with the team, reading the mood on the field even before the kickoff. “They look flat,” her Dad announced as the Giants out onto the field. It seemed nuts to me, but they were right. “It’s all about emotion,” Annie told me, and I began to sense that myself, feeling the shifts in psychic energy on the field with that crucial touchdown before the half-time, or the break in concentration when the other team called a disruptive time-out.

With the increasing popularity of so-called ‘reality’ TV and the cultural ascendance of unscripted drama – from The Great Race to American Idol, from Survivor to The Biggest Loser – I started to realize a curious small truth: football is our true reality TV, and our most fascinating unscripted drama. I had seen football movies like Varsity Blues, where the final victory was a foregone conclusion. In the actual game, anything can happen. An interception or a turnover, a miscalculated on-side kick, can turn a game upside down.

I realized that football defines itself through series of paradoxes. It represents a kind of utopian view of America, where people work together toward a common goal, a world without rancor or racism, a peaceable kingdom … where men are broken and battered in ferocious combat every week. It’s a brutal sport that rewards elegance and grace, that elevates men to unparalleled stardom through intricate self effacing military teamwork; a bruising physical competition that relies on levels of knowledge and intuition and cerebral analysis that would give a MIT statistics professor pause. It takes place on a hundred yard playing field, and yet any individual game can be decided by a matter of inches; It plays itself out over almost four hours but so often resolves itself in the last few seconds – that over-time field goal in the air as the clock runs down.

It draws familes together, like Annie’s; and friends, like Stephen and me (we commisterate now, about the Raiders and the Giants); and cities, like New Orleans and Indianapolis, whose teams will be duking it out this Sunday in Miami. And it gives us an extraordinarily diverse cast of characters to enjoy: The old legends thinking about retirement, the kids scoring their first NFL touchdowns ever, in the autumn sunlight; the younger brother struggling in his brother’s shadow and the older brother moving closer to the title of greatest quarterback of all time, and closing in on it this weekend, beyond the glory of another ring. And the other players who’ll never get the ring – Tiki Barber, who retired too soon; or Barry Sanders, quitting because he was contractually bound to play out his career with a losing team. All the great careers ruined by traffic accidents and drug scandals, or by carrying a loaded gun in the waistband of your sweatpants and accidentally shooting yourself in the leg.

It’s a complex, fascinating world and I know I’m a part of it at last as I wait for Peyton to throw that first pass on Sunday, and wonder what happened to his little brother’s team, lying down to be trampled by the Vikings in a humiliating final game, and blow out a long breath and say, “Oh well. Maybe next year.”

I’ll be watching the Combine and the draft on the NFL channel, discussing the prospects with my family (The Giants need help on their offensive line). It’s not much, but I’ll take what I can get.

It’s a long way to September.

Avatar; Footnote to an Asterisk

In comparing the Avatar box office grosses with Titanic, various showbiz pundits have pointed out that the figures are somewhat deceptive -- tickets cost more now, so you have to sell fewer of them to get the same dollar amount. Will Avatar ever sell as many tickets as Titanic? There's no way to tell (though it's starting to seem possible), but the usual adjustments for inflation don't really apply here the way they usually do. There is another factor at work, one we've never seen before. It throws off ythe pundits' calculations.

These higher ticket prices are not a function of vast economic forces, the inevitable rise of ticket prices over the whole marketplace for a decade or two. Much of this increase is voluntary, and specific to one film. People willingly paid a considerable premium to see Avatar in 3D. They accepted, even embraced, this one-time spike in movie pricing, happily forking over as much as twice the usual admission for this particular experience.

Avatar made more money faster than any other film in history because people were willing to pay so much more to see it. That's not just a footnote to a box office asterisk. In an era when most people prefer to pay less for movies and see them on cable, or rent them through netflix --or else just wait until they're on normal television, that's an un paralleled endorsement by an unequalled number of people for a unique film experience.

No asterisk required.