Talking to Phil Collins’s People

“So if you’re looking for your big, breakout single, you might wanna put a bid on this one tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Because we are talking to Phil Collins’s people, right? But then again . . . aren’t we all?”


As I mentioned in the notes that I wrote over on Tumblr to accompany my Best of 2013 mix, in recent years I’ve distanced myself from the Pitchfork-approved musical hype machine and have tried to reconnect with artists that genuinely bring me pleasure. And part of the pleasure of this shift has been to honor my instinct to privilege musical skill over enthusiastic ineptitude. (I am the daughter of a former music teacher, after all.)

The more and more of the indie stuff I listened to, the more and more I realized that no one really knows how to write songs anymore. Sure, it’s possible to isolate catchy hooks here and there, but I’m talking about legible, satisfying harmonic and melodic structure. (And yes, I realize that this puts me firmly in the crabby old lady realm of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”)

@maura, Maura Johnston

Nevertheless, one of the unexpected results of my refocusing on craft is my rediscovery of Phil Collins.

Phil Collins

I know that, post-American Psycho and in the hopefully waning days of hipsters’ kitschy obsession with so-called yacht rock, there’s almost no musician as ready-made for sneering punchlines as Phil Collins. And I would have been ready for a quick takedown myself in years past.

After my back went out for the second time in college, a dear friend made me a “get well soon” mix CD that unironically included “I Can’t Dance” on it, and I was secretly embarrassed for him about it for months. How hopelessly uncool, I thought.

Another friend of mine, who’d spent a couple summers during college painting houses, used to like to say that the best days were when, listening to the local soft rock radio station for hours on end, he would hear a Rod with a Phil chaser. I loved this anecdote because it exemplified exactly what kind of radio station that was and because, at the end of the ’90s, anything that smacked of ’80s culture was immediately suspect, immediately to be derided.

So, it’s been quite a shock to me in the last few years when I’ve heard a Phil Collins or Genesis song on the radio in a public space and realized, “wait a minute—this stuff actually sounds terrific.” As their former ubiquity has diminished and as we’ve now graduated to making fun of the popular sounds of the ’90s and ’00s (have you listened to Interpol lately? It sounds absurd), it’s finally possible to hear those Collins songs for the impeccable pop songcraft that they represent.

@afelus

And yes, there appears to be a small groundswell currently advocating for a reappraisal of Collins’s work. A quick Google today turned up a couple pieces: “Is Phil Collins the Godfather of Popular Culture?”; “We Will Rock You: A Spirited Defense of Phil Collins, Part 2: The Reckoning”; “Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers.” I’m sure there will be others soon enough.

It’s safest, of course, to say “hey, his early stuff with Genesis is actually really cool and sonically challenging” or “do you realize that he played drums on a handful of Brian Eno’s legendary solo albums?” as a way of distancing oneself from the still-tainted ’80s pop hits. But, fuck it, I’ll speak up in favor of those pop hits.

Though at a certain level I understand that familiarity breeds contempt and that people (especially self-styled cultural critics) hate nothing so much as massive mainstream success, I’ll never understand why catchy pop songs get such a bad rap. Do people not realize how difficult it is to write something that sounds so simple and connects with so many people?

Take “That’s All,” for example.

For whatever reason, it’s the song that always comes to mind now when I want to build a case for Collins’s unique genius. (I know it’s a Genesis song, and was coauthored by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, but it’s clearly of a piece with the poppier direction that Collins was taking the band in the post-Peter Gabriel/prog rock days.) He’s mentioned that this song was an attempt to write something straightforward and Beatles-y, and it succeeds marvelously without sounding like a straightforward Beatles homage the way countless power pop acts do. Plus, the reference is not just sound; it’s not just relying on certain guitar effects or vocal processes to indicate its influences/inspirations. There’s an honest-to-God song in there, too, packed with satisfying hooks and hummable melodies.

The combination of the opening piano riff and the dead-simple kick drum/high hat combo sets the stage for the most immediately memorable part of the song, that “A” section. Collins sings the melody through the first time down one octave, giving a slow burn quality to a song that, intentionally, starts out with a lot of air in it. For a band that’s notorious for their complexity and precision (and, again, often mocked for it), there’s a looseness here that really makes you, as a listener, lean into the groove, seduced by where it could possible go next.

The B section of the song shifts to a major key, with a kind of oompah rhythm in the bass line and a calliope-esque keyboard part that establishes a neat tension with the minor-key A section sandwiched around it. And with the return of the A form that we heard at the top of the song, Collins takes the melody up an octave, which, as it strains the upper limit of his vocal range, lends that immediately identifiable, shouty intensity that he’s perhaps best known for as a singer. Snuck in underneath that signature sound, however, is, as Brian pointed out to me, the elaboration of an increasingly Ringo Starr-esque drum part (especially check out the fill before they go back into the major-key B part, and the fill that takes them back out of it).

The C section/bridge is perhaps the most ’80s-ish part of the song, with the slightly bigger drums fills between phrases and slightly more R&B-inflected vocal runs in the melody line. It whizzes by in a flash, though, bringing us to Banks’s keyboard solo over the chords from the A section. He embroiders the basic melody tastefully, never letting the filigree distract too long from the hooks. And the keyboard sound itself is delightfully, bizarrely reedy.

The rest of the song repeats the familiar form that’s been established—BACA—before letting Rutherford solo out over the remaining ABA fade. And though the form remains consistent, the accompaniment gets a little more frenetic with the addition of a tambourine, handclaps, more backing “oohs” and “aahs”, a repetition of the basic melody line on the keyboard, one startlingly big cymbal crash as the volume starts to cut out, and one last one for good measure right as it’s fading down to nothing.

The very clear structure here is incredibly satisfying, giving you as a listener just enough repetition without ever letting you feel bored or lulled into sing-songy sameness. It also takes incredible restraint to let a song build so incrementally over the course of four and a half minutes, without blowing its wad too soon or too dramatically. It’s just incredibly sophisticated musicianship all around.

So, I’m happy to be in a place personally where I don’t feel beholden to any cool factor when it comes to really grooving on the things that sound good to me at any given moment. I think a lot about something that Travis Morrison said in an interview with Vice last summer. When asked if there was ever a time when he felt self-conscious about his musical taste, he responded: “Not really, no. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t think musicians think like that. Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste, if that makes sense.”

I suppose that’s the conflict at the heart of what I guess I’d call the tourism I was participating in through music blogs ten years ago. I was trying to consume like a Music Person, rather than letting the bedrock of my own musicianship inform my ability to listen, appreciate, and fall in love with the sounds and songs that spoke to my heart.

Delany and the City

Chris Smith, "Wabash Under the L"

I don’t remember when I first consciously realized it, but I am a devotee of The City.

And though of course I love my current home of Chicago, I don’t mean the Windy City exclusively.

I am devoted, and probably even addicted, to the energy of urban spaces. To the cityscape and all its people and possibilities. Any connection that I’ve felt with wild or sparsely populated areas—such as the deserts of New Mexico, the coastline of County Kerry, the mountain passes of the Cascades, and the hills of Southern Indiana—usually, ultimately, stems from the way that nature gives me the opportunity to disconnect from the things that do irritate me about city living. That cleansing then allows me to realign myself to that which truly matters to me about urban space when I finally return to it.

In my early years of living on my own in Chicago, I was always surprised by the very palpable sense of relief I would feel getting off the commuter train at the Randolph Street/Millennium Park station after spending an afternoon or weekend with my family in the suburbs of Northwest Indiana. More than just escaping poisonous and demoralizing family dynamics, my return to the city always felt like a return to a rhythm that my body intuitively understood.

Chicago Cultural Center

Emerging from the underground station to see the beautiful architecture soaring into the sky, to feel hundreds of people bustling past me without giving a damn about me one way or another, to hear the whoosh of cars and buses and the rumble of the elevated train—the embrace of all of it made me feel so comforted, so at home, so at peace. People often talk about the excitement of a city, of the sense of possibility that anything can happen here, and I’m sure that’s part of it for me. But there’s also an indefinable sense that I know how the city works.

My body understands, on some preverbal level, the way cities support, encourage, and even thrive on intensity, whether it’s the intensity of achievement, creativity, restlessness, high-stakes risks, or the ever-present opportunity to find love (be it the kind that lasts as long as a locked glance with an alluring stranger or the kind that lasts a lifetime). I resonate with the overlap of historical grandeur with of-the-minute invention, with the prosaic beauty of functional spaces like alleys and fire escapes, with the permission for hardship and breakdown to be enacted in full view of passersby, with the tenuous togetherness inspired by local sports, music, or political heroes.

Chris Smith,

My passion is mainly intuitive, so though I love reading about cities, too, I’m far from being any kind of amateur scholar of urban studies. I’ve picked my way through bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities without ever actually finishing it and am currently doing the same with Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is one of the best damn things I’ve read in the past 10 years. But I’ve never so much as picked up a copy of Devil in the White City. Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography has been on my to-read list since its release a few years back. I’ve likewise been meaning to read Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue since hearing artist and writer Edie Fake mention it last year as an important reference point for his incredibly moving gallery show Memory Palaces.

But, when I learned that Delany himself, currently Critical Inquiry‘s Winter 2014 Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, would be giving a public lecture on Friday, January 31, I thought I’d better at least dip into the book before heading down to Hyde Park. Though I’m not quite halfway through with it, it’s as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. But the joy of seeing Delany speak live belongs in a category all its own.

The fact that I even had this opportunity to attend his lecture, with only about a week’s notice, is yet another testament to the endless opportunity and variety inherent to city living. But when the man himself is such a towering figure of erudition, compassion, and radical sexual politics, I found myself moving beyond the self-satisfaction of being at the right place at the right time and into the realm of “I needed to be here today.”

It wasn’t just that I found my brain stimulated by his reflections on what his literary legacy may or may not be. It’s that I felt both inspired and privileged to behold a person so at ease with himself, in mind, body, and spirit. And it wasn’t just me—I felt a shift in the room over the course of his talk, as the audience of intellectuals realized that it’s possible to strive not just to be smarter or more widely published, but to be a better person, living a more joyful, more connected, and thus more meaningful life.

He explains in his writer’s preface to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:

I hope these two extended essays function as early steps (though by no means are they the first) in thinking through the problem of where people, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, working class and middle class, Asian and Hispanic, black and other, rural and urban, tourist and indigene, transient and permanent, with their bodily, material, sexual, and emotional needs, might discover (and even work to set up) varied and welcoming harbors for landing on our richly variegated urban shore. (p. xx)

And in the spaces between reading that, and hearing him speak, and driving home on Lake Shore Drive, with the exultation of Chicago’s skyline rising up in front of us, I was grateful to have my commitment to The City not only renewed but reinvigorated by seeing how much more there is for me to learn here.

Photo by jimkim_2000

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A Vegas Baby

The Sounds of '66

My first boyfriend skipped his senior year in high school to start early as a freshman in a fancypants program at the University of Southern California. He left for Los Angeles at the end of the summer we met.

Pastel Sky, Eric Lo Photography

In many ways, it was the perfect relationship for 16-year-old me.

I got all the romantic pining and pre-e-mail love letter writing with none of the daily negotiations of when we were going to hang out or any other reality-based buckets of cold water that would have quashed the highly romantic narrative I adored being the center of. We lasted about two years this way, and I have no regrets about any of it.

Love letters

Well, I guess except for the typical regrets that come with simply having once been a teenager and thus having lacked the emotional intelligence to handle highly charged situations that inevitably become a bit easier to manage when one gets older.

He came back home to visit his family often enough that first year, but going into the second year of our relationship, which coincided with the beginning of my own senior year in high school, I was feeling squirrely and ready to declare a bit of my independence. So, late that fall of ’96, I decided that I would fly to L.A. to visit.

Airplane

Looking back on that trip, I know I was an emotionally voracious wet blanket. I was especially pouty and sullen any time I was expected to interact with large groups of his friends. I wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and didn’t know how to communicate my crushing disappointment when it became clear that he wasn’t going to allow me to, you know, lock him in a quiet, dark room with me for two or three days straight. He welcomed me to join in his revelries with his friends and, rightly, felt no qualms about proceeding about his business when I feigned jet lag and went to bed early the night of my arrival.

I fared a bit better in the ensuing days in one-on-one interactions with his roommates and other closer friends. It being USC, at least one of them was studying filmmaking, and happened to mention how much he’d enjoyed a new indie film that had just come out, in limited release, from Miramax, called Swingers. The title went into my mental Rolodex for the next several months.

The Town Theatre (Jonathan Miano, The Times)

Fortuitously, that following spring of ’97, I saw that Swingers was scheduled to screen at the late, lamented Town Theater in Highland, Indiana, the place where I saw so many great things that year of my own burgeoning interest in film. I don’t remember much about that first viewing, only that I instantly loved it and knit the film into my personal pantheon of films that felt like they truly belonged to me without having first been passed through my father’s tastes. I’d felt the same way about Pulp Fiction when I first saw it two and a half years earlier and would feel the same again when I saw Rushmore two years later. And there were countless others, of course. But Swingers somehow felt special because I’d first heard about it from some college kid in Los Angeles, at a time when I was busy fashioning myself into the kind of person who knew cool people that knew cool things.

Swingers

I watched the film repeatedly in college and even had a poster of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau hanging on my closet door for a period of time. I was fully in my “one of the boys” phase of life, and few things made me feel more IN than taking this film to heart. All the inside jokes and clever lingo and the revelation of how regular-seeming but impossibly witty guys related to and bonded with each other was irresistibly appealing. I couldn’t get enough. For from feeling like an outsider, like one of the unknowable girls these characters lusted after or found otherwise elusive, I felt like I was part of their clique, part of that group of tight-knit friends. (And clearly, so did many, many other people, as the recent delightful oral history of the film over at Grantland makes clear.)

Even though, in real life, it was challenging for me to, say, fly to L.A. and find a way not to be an awkward spazz around my boyfriend’s friends, Swingers nevertheless succeeded in seducing me into riding along to Vegas with these screen-friends on their us-against-the-world adventure.

*

Recently, my now-boyfriend brought home a copy of the Sammy Davis Jr. live album The Sounds of ’66.

The Sounds of '66

Even though I actually am a performer and have played in my fair share of late-night, high-energy, never-to-be-recaptured shows, I find myself resolutely not identifying with any of the musicians on this album. Least of all Davis himself. When I listen to this album, I am completely surrendered to his showmanship. His masterful command of the band, his voice, and the crowd delights me like few things have recently. At the slightest provocation, I will repeat his opening remarks, “Any noises that come from the audience or any of the people or any side noises you might hear, know that they are NOT canned—they are LIVE” like it’s a mantra.

I listened to the tracks during my morning commute on a particularly jam-packed train car last week and felt instantly completely immune to the stresses of the situation. It was like Davis was creating a magical, protective bubble that extended not just to his audience of showgirls and high rollers who’d come to let their hair down after hours at the Sands but to any of us, at any time, with any need to be elevated out of the mundane. Such is the force of his talent and charisma.

In this instance, though, it’s actually those invisible, unnamed showgirls populating the audience who I am most compelled to identify with. Hearing them clapping and cheering and just generally losing their minds (particularly whoever’s really going nuts at the end of “Once in Love with Amy”—a woman named Amy, perhaps?) touches me for the way it conveys that, yes, Vegas in the mid-60s really was as swinging as we’d like to imagine that it was. They were there to take full advantage of all its glamour in all the ways they could. But in many ways their pleasure is the actual aspirational part of the recording for me, a reminder to enjoy my own lived moment as a woman, without either hiding or persisting in my old belief that being one of the guys is the only game in town.

My Cookbook Jamboree

Ani's Raw Food Kitchen

It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned to eat by reading cookbooks.

When, at age 27, my doctor told me I weighed too much and that my blood pressure was so high she was going to have to put me on medication, I figured, well, I guess it’s finally time to change my habits.

I tried Weight Watchers for about five minutes. Regardless of the calorie counting, I sensed that I was undernourished and nutrient deficient. In some dimly lit cavern in the back of my mind, I recalled having read an interview with actress Naomie Harris in which she talked about how Woody Harrelson introduced her to raw foods while they were filming the movie After the Sunset together. With this shadowy concept of raw foods in mind, I reasoned that I couldn’t possibly go wrong if I just started eating a ton of fruits and vegetables. So, my conversion to vegetarianism, and eventually to a raw vegan diet, began.

Raw Food Made Easy

Raw Food Made Easy

The first order of business was buying a cookbook. I searched Amazon and was happy to come across Jenny Cornbleet’s Raw Food Made Easy: For 1 or 2 People. The name was its obvious selling point. I was living with a roommate at the time, and we generally went our own separate ways food-wise, so the idea of making dishes in individual servings was appealing to me. Especially since I didn’t know what I was getting into with this dietary shift. But, since I was never much of a cook prior to that, there were no bad habits for me to unlearn or recipes to miss or ingredients to regret not being able to use. I was as blank a slate, culinarily, as it was possible to be.

Thinking back on it, I actually have no idea what I ate for those first four years I was living in Chicago! I think probably a lot of pasta and chicken breasts made on a George Foreman grill.

I eased my way into the raw food thing gently, by learning how to make desserts first—avocado-based chocolate puddings, apple crumbles, and such. Then, I added in raw vegan versions of familiar, identifiable entrees like spaghetti with tomato sauce (made with zucchini spiralized into noodle shape) and various nut-based pates. The other wonderful thing about Cornbleet’s cookbook was that it didn’t call for any exotic ingredients that I would have been afraid to try (with my then-limited palate) or that would have been hard to find outside Whole Foods (I don’t think I probably had ever stepped inside a Whole Foods prior to this new dietary era).

Ani's Raw Food Kitchen

Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen

Once I felt a certain level of proficiency using Cornbleet’s cookbook, I graduated to Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen by Ani Phyo. The recipes were slightly more complex, but the book was longer and had more to choose from and so I felt comfortable skipping over anything that was daunting. I gained confidence in the kitchen, and though I tried to never be an obnoxious proselytizer, I was always pleased to be able to share the food that I’d made with people and hear them say they genuinely enjoyed it.

Over the next few years, I did manage to get healthy enough that my doctor took me off my high blood pressure medication. This was a triumph in itself, and I’ll always be proud of that, but secretly, of course, I was dismayed that that accomplishment didn’t magically result in my suddenly having a brand new body. My skin cleared up and my eyes were blazing white and I did lose a pretty significant amount of weight, but it was never enough. I was never transformed. I was never not me.

Still Me

Still me

Not to mention, the vigilance to maintain the raw food way of life ultimately became too much of a time investment for me to sustain it long term, especially once I started getting busy in other areas of my life that left me with less time for experimenting in the kitchen. So, over the next several years, I stopped identifying myself as a raw foodist. I continued to drink green smoothies pretty much every day (thank you, Victoria Boutenko!) and remained vegetarian (for the most part), but my raw food recipe books languished on my shelf for longer than I’d like to admit.

But these days, I have a new cookbook love: jae steele’s Get It Ripe. My boyfriend remembered that it had a great recipe for peanut butter cookies, so we purchased a copy about a year ago just for that. Luckily, it’s been the source of a handful of terrific new recipes that we now make and eat regularly: Sesame Kale Soba, Coconut Cauliflower Chana, and Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.

I will never be the kind of person who can just throw a dish together based on feeling. I don’t trust myself enough to improvise at that level. But, it’s gratifying to have a shelf full of cookbooks that I can rely on to fill in the blanks if the cupboard is less than well stocked and I need to make breakfast in a pinch. Knowing where to look for the answers, in this case, is enough.

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Tony Trigilio’s “The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1”

Tony Trigilio's "The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1"

My favorite thing about Tony Trigilio’s The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is, honestly, probably the title.

And considering how much I absolutely loved this first installment of the multi-part project, that’s saying a hell of a lot.

On the surface, it couldn’t be a simpler and more accurate description of the poem’s content and scope—it’s a comprehensive overview, in verse, of every episode of the old soap opera Dark Shadows, which Trigilio watched with his mother, yes, while he was a child. But, by the time I finished reading Book 1, I found the phrase starting to run through my head at odd moments, like a scrap of melody—especially that catchy, parenthetical bum-bump “of my childhood” at the end. Beyond the pleasant rhythm of it, though, I found myself turning it over in my mind repeatedly as I began to more fully appreciate and take in its poignancy.

More than just the retold plot lines of an old TV show, the real dark shadows of this book are the excavated memories of childhood nightmares, family tensions, adult regrets and reckonings. As his memories of the episodes merge with his current reassessment of the show while he rewatches, in present time, the DVD box (coffin) set, these cheesy characters open all manner of vistas for him onto the places where ghosts of the past are finally ready to be dealt with. Just as the show itself jumps from the late 1960s back to 1795 and he must find a way to keep the narrative straight for us as readers, he likewise jumps from 2012 to 1967 (with various stops in between) to find the threads that keep it all straight inside himself, emotionally and spiritually.

Coincidence, arriving
at the 10/2/67 episode on 10/2/12,

as if reading about aliens traveling
hundreds of light years wasn’t enough

to imagine time is circular rather than linear,
that all moments in time exist at the same time

As I begin to embark on my own reassessment of the childhood incidents and influences that continue to affect me in adulthood, I was so deeply touched by, and grateful to, Tony’s willingness to divulge private moments with such fearlessness and clarity. (Full disclosure: Tony and I play in the same band!) Learning to strum Johnny Cash chords on guitar with his father, sitting with his dying cat not long after his divorce, and, perhaps most movingly, telling how his mother watched her deaf-mute brother finally speak in the hospital in the last moments before his death—these are the images that will haunt not my nightmares but my dreams for how truthful and resonant I too aspire to be on the page.

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Italian, Film, and Me

When I was in fourth grade, for some reason the gifted and talented program that I was placed in decided to hire a woman, two days a week, to teach us German. Why not Spanish or French? I have no idea. My best guess remains that the administrators simply couldn’t find an instructor in Northwest Indiana prepared to teach either of those languages to a roomful of nine year olds.

At any rate, Fraulein Leep was a delightful, energetic instructor auf Deutsch, and I took to the language immediately. I think at that age, I was probably just on the edge of that neural plasticity that allows children to become proficient in a second (or third, etc.) language much more effortlessly than adults. If it had been spoken around me more often than just two days a week, and/or presented as language immersion rather than dry grammar and vocabulary lessons, I probably would have achieved something close to fluency. Regardless, I had a natural affinity for the language and seriously studied it from then all the way through high school. I even declared German as my major as an incoming freshman at Indiana University, before abandoning it for English and Film Studies.

In high school, desperate to weasel out of math and science classes whenever I could, I eventually added French and then Spanish to my schedule. I’d convinced my guidance counselor it was OK because I would be going into international studies, hoping to become a translator or interpreter. I can no longer recall if I actually believed any of those arguments myself. But, I do know that I genuinely loved studying languages for the sake of themselves. I was also quite impressed with my newly invented identity as “language girl.”

So convinced I remained of my ability to pick up new languages with relative ease that, in the summer of 1999, I decided that I was going to teach myself Italian. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful had recently been all the middlebrow rage, and I remembered a Mexican literature professor mentioning that he was able to get around Italy just fine, speaking Spanish, as long as he spoke slowly enough. I reasoned that the bits of Spanish and French I knew could only help my effort, so I procured a copy of Italian for Dummies to get me through the basics.

I was working that summer in the office of a small steel manufacturing company in Hammond, Indiana. I recall very little of whatever tedious tasks I was assigned to complete, only that there was barely enough to keep me busy for a full day. This was just before the Internet really took hold as a business necessity, so, instead of spending my downtime surfing the web, as I would were I in that position now, I somehow got away with reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels in chronological order and studying my Italian flashcards at my big metal desk in the corner.

Since I never had anyone to practice or converse with, though, very little of the Italian I managed to cram into my brain stuck with me. But, I developed something of a fixation on Italy itself. Still considering myself a nascent Woman of the World, I declared that the next foreign country I wanted to visit, after I spent the summer of 2000 studying abroad in London, was Italy. In proto-vision board style, I took home a clean paper placemat from some church fundraising spaghetti dinner to hang on my bedroom wall, simply because it had a map of Italy on it.

Life, as it tends to, intervened, though, and these past fifteen years I’ve been less the international playgirl than I thought I would one day be. A weekend trip to take precepts at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto in the summer of 2009 made Canada my next visit outside the U.S., followed by ten or so days in Ireland three years later. I still haven’t been to Italy and even question whether, as a woman in her mid-thirties in the post-Eat, Pray, Love era, that aspiration might even be an embarrassing cliché at this point.

So, as Italy remains a dream for me, it makes sense that I would adore the deliciously dreamlike film The Great Beauty. Chicago’s excessively cold temperatures were no match for its two hours and twenty minutes of beautiful people wandering around Rome, celebrating life and philosophizing about death. I’ve always been notoriously bad at parsing plotlines (something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy makes my brain numb), so I was grateful to this nearly stream-of-consciousness visual extravaganza, where nothing much happens anyway. I was freed to just revel in the endless dance party sequences, the golden light bathing the city’s architecture in a sensual glow, the impeccably fashionable clothing worn by even the minor characters, and the director’s loving meditations on the lines in lead actor Toni Servillo’s face.

With notions of failure, and regret, and loss, shading the edges of the revelry, though, main character Jep Gambardella finds himself questioning the choices he’s made with his life. Was it the right career? The right place? The right time? His friends and associates (and often strangers as well) repeatedly ask him why he never wrote a second novel after his first and only youthful success, as if there could be a satisfying answer to such a question.

Because I watched my own father fail, in ways both major and minor, for so many years, I’ve long had a soft spot for these kinds of stories about men reckoning with what they didn’t, and couldn’t, achieve in their lives. Now that he’s gone, and now that the passage of time has brought me to what, I suppose, counts as the beginning of the middle of my own story, I wasn’t sure if I was identifying with Jep’s aimlessness on behalf of my father, or on behalf of myself. Jep, though, does eventually find inspiration for his future in a key memory from his past. I have to believe there’s still plenty of time for me to not only find inspiration from my past but to actually allow it to remain in the past as I build a future for myself that’s better than any dream.

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Why Scorsese and Stiller Are This Holiday Season’s Most Meta Directors

I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street a heck of a lot. Sure, I feel a little dirty about it, and worry a bit about what Rachel Syme in The New Yorker calls its potential for winning “bad fans” (“watch closely as Scarface posters in frat houses are quietly replaced with Wolf ones,” she says), but when I think about my experience of watching it, I know that I was having fun.

And, one of the most fun things about it was DiCaprio’s performance. Not just because it was an insane, shameless, fearless, Oscar-worthy, can’t-tear-your-eyeballs-away tour de force (which, pretty much any review you’re going to read right now will likely agree on), but because it was so pointedly referring back to his whole prior body of work as an actor.

I’m not enough of a fangirl to be able to get chapter-and-verse comprehensive about it, but, for example, tell me that wasn’t a Titanic joke in the scene when they were on the ship in the storm and he was standing behind the actress playing his wife, his arms around her, while gripping the railing and looking (in this case, fearfully) into the distance. And, even if DiCaprio insists his Quaalude-induced slug crawl from the country club to his car was a reference to a viral YouTube video, I think it’s also a piss-take on his “I’m a serious actor because I’m portraying a character with a handicap” Oscar-bait performance from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As the hopelessly starry-eyed newbie in thrall to Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of the film, he could be gesturing toward any of his former ingénue characters—an out-of-his-depth Romeo, perhaps? I’m sure there are other examples.

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Another instance of “did that just really happen?” meta-commentary in this year’s crop of holiday films was the Benjamin Button sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Some critics seem to have thought it was hilarious; others, predictably thought it was a tonal misstep. But I was primarily fascinated with the way the joke was directly referring to another movie based on another early 20th century short story that took the story’s title and basic concept as a jumping off point, disregarding everything else.

Even however many years after its release, I stand by my assertion that casting Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button is the most intriguing part of that needlessly bombastic film. There’s no way that, without him, the film could evoke the emotional resonance of watching a person age in reverse. It requires an actor who’s been so famous for so long for being so beautiful that our own nostalgia for that person’s youth will filter back through the film we’re watching. (I guess maybe Johnny Depp could have worked the same trick? Or, can you even imagine some alternate-universe version with Elizabeth Taylor?) It was a genius bit of casting, in league with DiCaprio in Wolf as I just mentioned above.

But, that’s where the brilliance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stops. There’s almost nothing in Fincher’s turgid film that resembles the playful, snotty smarminess of the short story. (And, I say “smarminess” as a huge Fitzgerald fan! It’s just that his fixation on his own youth is both why he’s awesome and why his writing often reads as overly self-satisfied and insufferable.)

In much the same way, both film versions of Mitty (I’ve seen bits of the Danny Kaye movie and found it nearly unwatchable) have taken Thurber’s sad, sick-feeling short story that’s centered around anxiety about masculine ineffectuality and turned it into a man-child’s fantasia about Living Yr Dreams! or Becoming the Hero of Yr Own Life Story! or somesuch hokey Hollywood garbage.

And, getting back to my whole point here, does Ben Stiller actually realize that’s what he’s doing with this Mitty adaptation? I think he does! I think he’s admitting it with the Benjamin Button parody! I think he’s essentially saying, “look, y’all, the movie version of Benjamin Button pissed all over the Fitzgerald short story and no one seemed to care, so this is my fair warning to you that I’m going to do the same thing now with Thurber. Don’t say I didn’t tell you in advance how it was going to go down. Peace out.” I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as an actor and a comedian and, despite the almost bone-chilling cynicism of this little hat-tip, I have to say, it’s pretty brilliant.