Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Frances Ha

I watched a very interesting and easy movie a couple of nights ago called Frances Ha. Wasn’t sure what something called Frances Ha was going to be about.

It was about this generation of—what are they called? Millennials? Stupid name. Stupid idea of naming generations. The Baby boomers are big on this.
Anyway, kids my daughter’s age, the ones just graduating from college, just out now trying to find jobs, their way, the meaning of life—or at least a place to live without having to mortgage their future, a future already mortgaged to forever college debt. Anyway, Millennials looking for an identity.

I loved the dialogue. So realistic. I felt like I was listening in to a phone call. Conversations seemingly about nothing, about everything. Reflecting a group that can’t be serious about much because everything is hanging in the balance. Haven’t they been told the world is going to hell in a handbasket? A generation forged by a Recession (just pretend it isn’t a Depression) where there are few decent paying jobs—at least for people with Liberal Arts degrees. Though I think even law grads and finance majors are having a hard time too. I think anyone not already born rich is finding their choices limited right now.

But that’s the thing about Frances Ha—she wasn’t even aware there are choices. She seems to flail from one thing to another, much like her resistance-style dancing comprised of falling and fake falling, twisting and turning. She doesn’t seem to know which way to turn next. After hearing about her best friend moving to Japan (her career and relationships appear to be way more solid than France’s) Frances decided to go to Paris—for a weekend.

Thus, more into debt and more lonely than ever. We cringe at her “mistakes”, the places she ends up, the dehumanizing sex, where no one actually seems in love, more like slipping into a moment, easily left behind like passing time.

Frances is better than this in an awkward, grasping way. We hope the best for her. For all Millennials handed a sucky future—economic and environmentally. A future co-opted by the Baby Boomers.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Rent/Download it this weekend—and have a Happy Thanksgiving (Someone is going to get the hatchet, just make sure it isn’t you.) !

Monday, November 25, 2013

This Burns My Heart

I am having the hardest time imaginable getting started this morning (now afternoon), this Monday before Thanksgiving break, this snowy day in the frigid cold, cold that has arrived way too early in the season with temperatures hovering in the low 20s!

I have things to do, but all I really want is to drink tea and stay warm. Even crossing the street to my office (I know I have it easy compared to some people) paralyzes me with numb hands and cheeks, my eyes constantly watering from the wind-driven snow.

Can’t wait to have time off!!

Yesterday I attended and participated in Chicago Book Expo—a fancy name for a pop-up book venue. It was VERY well attended and had top-rate speakers (take it from me; I was one of them!). I’ve already blogged about Aleksandar Hemon. So today I will mention Samuel Park.

His book, This Burns My Heart, he said was based upon life experiences of his mother. In particular a story she often told about getting her hair and nails done the day before her wedding. Park described his mother as a beauty—and she must’ve been because without doing anything special she attracted the attention of a stranger who approached her coming out of the hair salon and asked her for a date. You can tell she was an adventuresome lady because she actually thought about it, but in the end declined saying she was to be married the next day.

And so the two parted. But ever since that fateful day the story and idea that her life could have gone another way stayed with her, through what proved to be a difficult marriage. In her times of doubt, there always arose in her mind the road not taken. What if she’d gone on that date?

So Samuel Park wrote his story. Samuel Park published his story. He went on a book tour to the West Coast, near where he’d gone to school and at one of his bookstore appearances a Korean girl approached and told him—funny—our stories are much the same. My mother tells a similar tale of turning down a wealthy, attractive man hours before her wedding.
 Odd, thought Park. But then the same thing happened at another bookstore event. A Korean came up and said, my mother tells almost this exact same story.

I can almost imagine Samuel Park’s horror. What’s going on?! I’d be afraid of being accused of plagiarism or stealing someone else’s idea. But eventually he came to see that many women like his mother had a narrative they told themselves when times got tough. That out there waiting for them was another life. Possibly a better one. But, nevertheless, they had had a choice and even if the life they chose wasn’t perfect, they’d made their bed and slept in it and probably made it up afterwards.

It’s nice to think that our one life is actually made up of many bends and turns, not a straight line. And that perhaps running parallel to what is now is another course, the road not taken, the relationship left unexplored, the plane ticket not redeemed, the meal left uneaten. Myriads of possibilities. The mirror with facets for all perspectives.

As a person who writes memoir and blogs about memoir, I found all of this fascinating. The book he wrote once upon a time about his mother’s life experiences, about her once-upon-a-time, was nothing but a fairy tale. It is like a hall of mirrors. Non-fiction fiction.

I look forward to reading this book. It doesn’t matter what’s up or down, real or real-ish, memoir, memory, or memoirous.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Media Overkill

Have you heard?

It’s been 50 years since Kennedy’s assassination. JFK.

Sorry I’m not trying to be sarcastic, and I think I touched upon this during the anniversary of King’s speech and the march on Washington. There is just so much media saturation of these commemorative moments that it suddenly turns into something else.

Probably how Lincoln’s birthday has degenerated into a time to sell cars or mattresses or bedroom furniture.

No one remembers what Thanksgiving is about, because it’s been transformed into the day before Black Friday—and today I read that even Black Friday is getting a make-over because now retailers want to promote the weekend BEFORE Thanksgiving as the big retail day.


So back to the grassy knoll and media overkill. I tuned into PBS last week for a Frontline special on Oswald and the assassination. I really respect public television and Frontline documentaries—but was there overkill? Yeah. I probably saw in 50 minutes Kennedy’s head explode eleven times. Each time I flinched and put my hand up.

It reminded me of the frequency of TV rolling the images of the Boston Marathon bombing. Is it ingrained in your imagination now also? So that if even verbally prompted by the words Boston Marathon bombing our brains roll the footage—that one guy falling to the ground as a result of the contusive blast and the look on his face.

I believe that media overkill actually robs this time of remembering of its impact. Right now I bet you anything some twenty-something is thinking—Geez hurry up and get over it ’cause I got another show to watch.

Who knows? But I suspect the momentousness of what happened that day is surely lost on them—reduced to the same level as a mattress blow-out sale.

Maybe like how I felt that days so long ago—shocked that my morning of regular programming has been interrupted by footage of a black hearse and a very sad woman with a veil over her face with two young children. I remember most the two kids, wondering, as any child close to their age might, what was happening?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chicago Book Expo, Nov. 24, 2013

The Chicago Book Expo is a pop-up bookstore and literary fair open to the public being held on Sunday, November 24, 2013, in the Uptown neighborhood from 11am-5pm at St. Augustine College, 1345 W. Argyle in Chicago.

I'll be presenting at this @ 4 pm.

Pop-Up Memoir, Jane Hertenstein
In this pop-up book venue, Jane Hertenstein, author of numerous flashes, will guide participants through a lively workshop of isolating a memory (your first apartment! the one who got away!) and helping you to shape your own mini-memoir.

Hope to see some familiar faces: like Aleksander Hemon who will also be presenting opposite of me on the schedule--drat. Aleksandar Hemon: The Book of My Lives [Chaplin Hall]

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Month of Birthdays

I just got over my birthday--it sounds like a sickness. Actually it's a plague.

The first week in November brings about 7 birthdays that need to be observed. Not just a Facebook quickie, but card-worthy. If not even out to eat necessary.

So for the third time this week I was fĂȘted--even as I fĂȘted and lauded others.

While at the same time Christmas keeps coming soon. Maybe it is the desperation of retailers who this year have to contend with a "late" Thanksgiving--throwing everything off. But the past two days, days out celebrating, I've heard Christmas music playing in the stores and walked through Macy's where the windows are decorated and the floors displays are all about the "holiday."

A little sad really. That things do no have a time for every season. The seasons all get rushed. No wonder people feel crazy. Global warming and our own internal clocks are throwing the planet off-kilter.

Or maybe I'm getting old. The years keep rushing by. And the only people who seem to notice and long for the days when Halloween was Halloween and Valentine's Day didn't come until February, are people my age.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s latest movie (I loved Away From Her, Julie Christie was transcendent!) is right up the Memoirous alley. One one level it is a young woman’s exploration of her own creation myth while on another level it is about how a talented director chooses to edit—what to leave in and what to take out of the story of her own life. The film is a mirror with many facets. It is also smoke and mirror—as a viewer we’re not sure what is real. Sort of in the same boat as Polley as she proceeded with this endlessly puzzling project.

Once again truth is a mystery and memory is only one part of the whole.

At one point in the film, toward the end, when we think (as a viewer) all of it has been told, there are no more revelations, her brother asks into the camera: What is this movie about? And Polley stumbles for a succinct answer. “It is about memory and how we tell the story of our life.” She goes on to relate that she chose to focus on the discrepancies, where each character in the film, in the play of her story/life/history tells their side, what they know for sure. Which doesn’t always jive with the last witness interviewed. She opines that truth is ephemeral, hard to pin down.


“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” These words by Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace) comprise the very first lines we hear in Stories We Tell, and they more or less sum up what is to come.

The film centers on Diane, Polley’s mother, an actress herself, who died when Polley was age 11. That’s one story. She was beautiful, vivacious, and full of secrets. Again nothing new—we all have untold stories we wish to be left alone and untouched by the light of revelation.

Then there is Polley’s story, full of doubts and family myth. –You don’t look like the rest of us. Where did you get that blonde hair? The milkman brought you. The milkman is your father.— These aren’t statements from the movie, but actually the stuff I heard about ME growing up. I was the odd one in our family. (Surprise!) I didn’t resemble any of my brothers and sisters. My mother always told me the milkman brought me—which made total sense because I remember as a baby in the crib listening for the milk truck in the milk light of EARLY dawn—I’d lay there and make the motor sound until my lips were numb from the reverberations.

So I “get” how she felt growing up, hearing her older brothers and sisters joke about her and her so-called provenance.

Except that she decided to do some research and look into her birth. She had been a mid-life-change baby, born when her mother was 42. Diane died at age 53, taking her version of the story with her. So Polley set out on her own to reconstruct a time when her mother was in Montreal working on a play for 2 months—about the time she was conceived. Her father had come for a visit and the visit was conjugal, meaning her parents had relations. So there was no need to question the timing—except Polley needed to probe in order to set her mind at ease. That’s when she discovered her mother had had an affair.

In a weird coincidence Polley met up and had coffee with her birth father who spilled the beans, as it were. Much to ALL of OUR surprise. But actually, I thought it was coming. As a storyteller myself this revelation gave the film arc, explained character motivation.

But the loose thread of this revelation caused the whole thing to come unravel. There was so much more about Diana that needed to be told.

Now we come to where even I was fooled. I should have seen it coming or simply put 2 and 2 together, but I was too absorbed: Polley had me eating out of her hand, as it were. The director was directing me. I’d follow her anywhere.

We learn that about 60% of the movie are reconstructed scenes shot with real-life actors. We’re hoodwinked. Yesterday I blogged about War of the Worlds and how the format lent itself to audiences totally believing the faked news reports of Martians invading. In Stories We Tell there are actual home videos that lend an air of authority. What we aren’t told is that some of the footage, the majority of flashbacks, comprised of shaky hand-held recorder sequences, are not the real thing (Rebecca Jenkins plays Polley’s mother).

In fact I didn’t believe it until I re-watched the last 15 minutes to pull off a transcription of an exchange of dialogue and saw Polley in a shot where she was directing the actors playing her siblings and her mother. Why hadn’t I noticed that before!!?

In an interview Polley defends the idea to add fake footage. She wasn’t meaning to manipulate, pull a fast one, yet it is all part of the layers upon layers of storytelling that get interjected and overlap when we try to sort out the past, of WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.

It’s certainly odd, this blatant artificiality, but it’s also a construct that is genius in its self-reflexive design, underlining as it does the film’s argument about the blurring of truth and fiction in memory. Polley is no fly-on-the-wall; not only does the filmmaker include in the film behind-the-scenes footage of herself shooting and prepping the actors, but she does so with the interviewees as well, asking questions, answering questions, giving directions—all in a bid to expose the contrivances and manipulations behind such a  project. In this regard, Stories We Tell is really more of a documentary about documentaries, and one that calls into question the soundness and fidelity of the ‘nonfiction’ format itself.

Truth is a rabbit trail, taking us from Toronto to Montreal, from sibling to sibling, from home movies to family scrapbook and photo albums to—reconstructed images, actors standing in for family members.
“We were making a movie about storytelling and this was a version of that,” said Polley in an interview in Los Angeles prior to the film’s opening. “It was always part of the premise to not pretend that this was some factual thing, that this was as close to the truth as we could possibly get with a million different versions — and one of those versions is this film.”

Interviewer: I remember at the Sundance screening some lady asked “So were those recreations?” and I was like “Oh my god…”

Polley: I remember in a rough cut screening this really brilliant novelist who is a friend of mine, really one of the smartest people I have ever known and has written books about film. I remember at the end of the first screening everybody was talking about Rebecca Jenkins and how great she was and he went “Why is everybody talking about Rebecca Jenkins?” Like, “Oh, because she played my mom.” “What do you mean, she played your mom?”

Stories We Tell is history—what we know and don’t know, told from dozens of points of view. It’s my story too.