Friday 5: We Can Work It Out

Holy moly what a week.  I’ll recap sometime this weekend.  I need to pound this out and get myself to bed.

  1. What’s a real-world lesson you learned from your first job?
    My first job was putting books on shelves at Aiea Public Library when I was in ninth grade.  I made $3.85 per hour ($4.10 after six in the evening — it was a state of Hawaii thing).  A good lesson I learned is that small children make a lot of work for people in service positions.  The worst part of my job was easily straightening shelves in the easies.  There was nothing easy about it.  It took me forever to get the easies in order, but there was this girl (actually, she might have been in college, so girl may not be the right word) who seemed to do it really quickly, really well, and without complaint.  She just got down to business and got it done, and maybe that’s another real-life lesson I learned there.
  2. What was pleasantly unexpected about your current (or most recent) job?
    Speaking of libraries, I discovered this week in my new job (about which, more later) at the state’s largest university that I have borrowing privileges in the library.  I have yet to exercise this privilege, as it’s taken me every ounce of waking energy just to do what I have to do, but I have taken a few moments to look up a few things in the online catalogue, and I have to say it’s all very exciting.
  3. What are some identifying tools of your trade?
    I have two trades: writing and teaching.  For writing, I’ll go with my idea board, which is basically a bunch of stickies stuck to a wall.  For teaching, the easiest answer is a gradebook, but I haven’t had a physical gradebook in a million years, so I think I’ll go with dry-erase markers.  I’m particular about my markers, and I still carry some around in case I’m ever called upon to write on a dry-erase board.  This hasn’t happened in half an eon, so this behavior may fade away, but among the first things I put into the top drawer of my new desk at my new job were several Expo bullet-tip dry-erase markers of many colors.  These are, by the way, my second favorite.  They don’t make my favorite anymore, the Avery Marks-a-Lot markers with the liquid ink in the reservoir.  They were so juicy!  You could do neat stuff with them, like make ink splatters by whipping them in the direction of the board.  I haven’t had occasion to look for some alternative, and it wouldn’t surprise me if someone has filled the niche (there are still liquid ink highlighters out there, so I don’t see why not).  I still have one somewhere, the last of a dead breed.
  4. What’s something a job required that you thought was far outside your skillset?
    Counseling frustrated parents of teens.  I didn’t get into teaching because I have decent interpersonal grown-up skills.  I don’t.  But when confronted by unreasonable parents, I’ve learned how to listen to them and somehow talk them down, and get to what was really bothering them (it was seldom about me, no matter how the conversation began).  Just listening to someone goes about as far as you need it to.
  5. Robert Frost wrote, “My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / as my two eyes make one in sight.”  To what degree have you united your vocation (your job) and your avocation (your hobby)?
    For most of my professional career, I was all about this.  I ache every day with longing to be back in the classroom.  But somewhere in the ridiculous demands of that glorious, wonderful, humbling work, I forgot that I memorized, in eighth grade, the last stanza of this poem because I wanted to write.  I’m not quite there yet — the type of writing my new work requires isn’t quite it, but I feel I’m getting closer, and it’s why I’ve pursued an opportunity like this (about which, more later).

Almost.  The.  Week.  End.

Friday 5: Animate

From here.

  1. In what ways are you like an ox?
    I always imagine that oxen are quiet and thoughtful.  I don’t know how quiet I am, but I am something of a loner and I consider myself thoughtful.  So I guess that.
  2. In what ways are you like a rabbit?
    I don’t know a lot about rabbits except what I read in Watership Down, a novel in which rabbits are pretty much impossible to stereotype.  Still, they go on kind of a long, focused journey, and I’ve done a bunch of long, focused walking this past year.
  3. In what ways are you like a snake?
    My favorite football player of all time was nicknamed Snake.  I guess that doesn’t help much for this question.  The serpent in the Fall of (hu)Man story went after Eve first.  That’s pretty much my move as well.
  4. In what ways are you like a goat?
    Are goats kind of solitary and mind-their-own-businessy?  Or am I putting characteristics of sheep (which I have recently been calling my spirit animal whenever someone asks) (although I’m changing that to an okapi now) on goats just because they make similar sounds?  I also eat a lot of junk.
  5. In what ways are you like a rooster?
    I do like my hens!

 

Review: Election

Election (1999)
Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I first saw Election before I was aware of Alexander Payne as a director, enjoying it for what I considered Reese Witherspoon’s breakout performance and Matthew Broderick’s almost Willie Lomanesque portrayal of a well-meaning teacher who lets things get away from him. I was also only a few years into a teaching career and too green to relate as strongly to Broderick’s Jim McAllister as I do now.

What strikes me most now is how despicable each of the main characters is, with only Chris Klein’s Paul Metzler truly acting with best intentions. A football star injured in a skiing accident, his prospects for a great senior year seem wrecked until history teacher (and Student Council advisor) McAllister encourages him to run for student body president. McAllister’s reasons could pass for sympathetic and encouraging if not tainted by a dislike for the only declared candidate at the time, Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick. Tracy is the classic overachiever, driven by some desperate need to be excellent and successful according to all the usual academic metrics. She pretty much owns the student council, and Paul is reluctant to set foot in her territory, but at McAllister’s urging, he cluelessly gives it a go. Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is furious with Paul because he’s dating the girl she loves, so she launches her own campaign for the presidency, delivering a speech in which she promises to abolish the student council as her first act.

Why is McAllister so resentful of Tracy? The reasons he offers—that she’s the sort who does anything to get what she wants, and that she should learn before she graduates that this is no way to behave—are weak, and seasoned educators like him should know that what he proposes never works. He’s also obviously bitter about the career-ending affair his best friend and colleague had with Tracy, even going so far as to suggest she was complicit in his friend’s downfall. She is, but she’s a child, and no reasonable teacher blames the student in a situation like this. The dismantling of McAllister’s career and marriage are not the results necessarily of bad thoughts by a bad man: I can certainly sympathize with his impulses in both areas. He is despicable because he cannot rise above these impulses and act as his better self. I imagine that in marriage, as in secondary education, one must be able to do so every day.

Payne does excellent work with this film. A lot of the playfulness is gimmicky, such as the voice-overs by multiple characters, but it works really well, especially with the freeze-frame effect he uses as his narrators break into the action to explain things. His fondness for casting non-actors in supporting roles lends super believability to the world in which the film is set. Teachers, students, and support staff move, talk, sit, and dress the way they do in a real school, and Payne’s decision to film in a real school during the school year is another plus. McAllister drives a blue Ford Festiva, a tiny car for a small man, but shoot. He’s a teacher, and that’s a reasonable car for anyone living a teacher’s life. I know, because I drove a red one.

As he does with Hawaii in The Descendants several years later, Payne offers views of Nebraska that we don’t see in most films, the everyday boringness of a strip mall or roadside motel, for example. When McAllister drives from home to work, the scenery behind him is dull, flat, and concrete, like the stuff most of us see every day on our own commutes. Black comedies tend to be somewhat outrageous, and Election qualifies, but because it’s rooted in so much realness, it feels a lot less fantastic and a lot more believable.

While it has a lot going for it, the film falls just shy of greatness because of one thing it doesn’t do well at all: sympathize with Tracy Flick. There is a short moment near the end, where during a voice-over, Tracy gives us a hint of what her relationship with her former math teacher means to her. It’s not enough, though, and through most of the film, it’s too easy to see her just as a hyper-ambitious, self-serving annoying young woman. We sympathize with everyone else throughout the film, but Tracy only gets that brief instance when she reminds us of how a grown man who was supposed to keep her safe instead took advantage of her, and how her vulnerabilities might have something to do with her behavior. Nobody seems to weep for Tracy Flick, which is how she would want it, but she is the real victim in this story full of victims.

8/10
81/100

Friday 5: Forward

From here.

  1. What are you looking forward to in your personal life in 2017?
    Although I don’t really have an idea of how this will look, I’m hoping to be slightly more social this year than last.  I also would really like to finish the next draft of this long writing project I’ve been workingon for the past couple of years.
  2. What’s something you’re planning ahead for?
    The new gig is going to make it tougher and easier to hit my weekly step count goal.  I’ve been playing around with different ideas for the commute in order to address this.  The most appealing solution might be to ride a bus part of the way and walk part of the way, in each direction.  Last week, I walked the whole way from home to the new office, and it was about a 2.5 hour walk, but that was at night when it’s cool and when there’s far less street traffic.  It’s five miles or so, however, and that’s a good number.
  3. How intense is your to-do list for the last days of the year?
    Pretty intense.  I have a lot of work to do, for two clients, and I’m behind on my reviews for books and movies.  Need to get some groceries, too, and do some housecleaning.
  4. What’s something you’d like to jump past, between now and the end of the year?
    Almost all of my podcasts are on vacation, so I would like to jump past the vacation part, if that’s possible.  How do you jump past a non-happening?  Meanwhile, thanks to Julie, I’ve recently discovered the Judge John Hodgman podcast, and it’s super smart and super funny.  I’m working my way backward through that, and it’s been helpful, but I still miss my regular stuff.
  5. How will you ring in the new year?
    I’d like to see a movie in the theater and then spend the rest of my time quietly, at home.  Maybe with a DVD or two.  That’s the rough plan, anyway.

Fibula Rasa

Christmas was mellow.  I got most of my shopping done Friday, with one or two last things to pick up Saturday, and that always puts me in the mood for Christmas.  I have a low shopping tolerance, but not when I’m Christmas shopping, which I genuinely enjoy, even under trying circumstances.  It’s not as much fun in leaner times, for sure, but I’m mostly past those days when I just didn’t have enough money to get something decent for my closest relatives and friends.

Had a nice breakfast before taking the bus to see the folks.  We watched football and chatted.  I did some work (I had a deadline Monday).  The nephew and his girlfriend came by, we had a nice meal, we watched some more football, the niece came by.  I never saw my sister, so I sent her gift along with my nephew.

As has become my routine, after the last football game, I walked to Pearl Kai (it’s about two miles) and picked up a bus home to Kalihi.

The Raiders keep winning, but they lost Derek Carr to a broken leg, a terrible injury that pretty much wipes out any chance Oakland has to make it to the Super Bowl.  He’s regularly cited as the main reason the Raiders have returned to respectability, and it’s difficult to conceive of their advancing very far into the playoffs now, although with the level of competition so bad this year, I wouldn’t rule it out.

As I have been saying all season, I’m just happy with the winning record.  The fact that they’ve won twelve games is gravy to me; the playoffs is more gravy.  If they go out early, I’m fine.  They can come back next year with greater expectations.

I walked more steps last week than in any week since I started keeping track (about three years ago).  More on this next week, but it’s giving me some problems about next year’s resolutions.

I’m pretty sure I have more to say, but I began this at 7:30 last night and it’s ten hours later and I still haven’t posted it.  So I’m done even though I’m not done.

Review: About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I’ve often said About Schmidt is an utterly forgettable movie, mostly because although I saw it in the theater in 2002 when it was released, I could remember almost nothing about it. There were a Winnebago and a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub, but if a third plot element were the question in Final Jeopardy, I’d have gone home a loser. So in my review of (and catchup on) Alexander Payne’s directorial oeuvre, I was looking forward to this one because it seemed almost like seeing something new, while also not looking forward to it because I was pretty sure my not remembering it was precisely the correct response.

I was right on both expectations. By itself, it is a forgettable film, setting up some kind of emotional equation it never solves, like those reactions in tenth-grade chemistry you have to balance, connecting this oxygen atom to that hydrogen atom and making it all even out. Examined as part of Payne’s filmography, which was my intention this time, it’s a lot more interesting. Although plot-wise it has almost nothing in common with Election, the film Payne directed just before it, or Sideways, the film he directed just after, it has interesting thematic and film-making similarities.

Primary among them is Payne’s interest in representing his home state of Nebraska in a way that seems to be uniquely his. The opening shot is mimicry of the first moments in Citizen Kane: from a distance, across a vast, flat cityscape, we see a lone high-rise. Subsequent shots bring the building closer, seen from different angles but always with the tower occupying the same place in the frame, growing larger and larger, until we are inside the building and see a bored Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) at his empty desk, watching the second-hand of the clock tick off the final moments of his professional career. Omaha is no Xanadu, and Warren R. Schmidt is no Charles Foster Caine.

Matthew Broderick in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt all play small men living small lives, the first two in the middle, and the last near his end. We drop into Jim McAllister’s life just as he’s making his idiotic choices, into Miles Raymond’s sometime after, as he’s still dealing with the consequences, and into Warren Schmidt’s as he discovers that his mistakes were made long ago, without his being aware of them, as he earned professional success only to discover that a life’s work has amounted to nearly nothing. It’s a good idea, but I have difficulty understanding Payne’s intention. How am I meant to feel about Schmidt’s journey and destination, by the time this film concludes?
(spoilers in this paragraph only)

Schmidt expresses his concern about his daughter’s marriage, in a well-done scene with Hope Davis, where she says something like, “Oh, now you care about my decisions?” We don’t know exactly what’s come between her and her father, but it’s easy enough to imagine that it’s the stuff that happens to many of us in our own families. So far, so good. But then Schmidt offers a toast at the reception, at first a bit awkward, but then gracious and seemingly heartfelt. Are we supposed to take his words at face value? It’s difficult to tell whether he’s had a change of heart or is merely playing a part. Cut to the final scene, where he’s sitting home alone at his desk, certain that his life has amounted to nothing. He’s been writing letters to Ndugu, a young boy he’s sponsoring through one of those charities, and there is a letter from his teacher, telling him how much Ndugu has appreciated his gifts, along with one of Ndugu’s drawings, a crude representation of a man holding hands with a boy. Schmidt begins to sob, and the film is over.

Is this a moment of despair, or is it a moment of redemption? I could tolerate not knowing if there were evidence enough to support either conclusions, but there isn’t. I suppose the stronger case can be made for despair, but there’s been enough good interaction during Schmidt’s trip to imply that he’s got a lot of interesting living to do, if he decides to live it. Another possibility is that Schmidt is finally taking a moment to grieve properly, but I think he has his moment the night he sleeps on the roof of his RV, and our last image of him should be more positive.

Now that I’ve seen this film three times (once in the theater, twice on DVD) I’m much fonder of it than I once was, but it’s really no better a film. Seven years ago, when I first set up my Criticker account, I ranked it 66/100; I think 60 is more like it now.

6/10
60/100

Friday 5: Something’s Afoot

  1. What’s the nicest pair of shoes you’ve owned?
    About fourteen years ago, I bought a rather expensive pair of shoes.  Or maybe they weren’t so expensive.  I’m kind of cheap when it comes to shoes, so I don’t know what expensive shoes are.  These were a nice pair of black dress shoes from J. C. Penney and they were about a hundred and twenty-five bucks.  They look good; I still have them.  They are in need of a good shine, though, and I haven’t worn them in maybe five or six years.  When I wear them, I usually get complimented on them.  They’re okay for what they are, but I don’t wear them unless I really need to.
  2. What’s likely to be your next shoe purchase?
    Almost certainly some athletic shoes for walking around in.  I just bought a really, really cheap pair of all-black Avias at Walmart for fifteen bucks, and they’re a lot better than I’d have expected.  They look pretty good, good enough to wear to my job interviews this past month, and they’re confortable enough.  My right foot has been a bit achey lately, and I’m wondering if it’s the shoes.  The right shoe’s been noticeably loose, but I tightened up the laces last night and it felt a lot better.
  3. Where’s your favorite place to get shoes?
    For my entire teaching career, I wore all-black Vans to work.  Teaching really dictates athletic shoes over dress shoes, no matter what they tell you about appearances.  The same is true of jeans, but both schools where I taught have been slow to embrace this fact, because apparently appearances mean more than practicality, despite very few people ever actually seeing me teach except my students, who didn’t care what was on my feet.

    So all-black Vans were a nice compromise.  They’re comfortable for most of the moving around I did, and you’d have to look closely to notice they were really skater shoes.  There used to be a Vans outlet nearby, down at the old Dole Cannery, but when it opened a new location in Waikele, where all the outlet stores are, it closed shop in town, so my go-to has been Famous Footwear.  But I do prefer the Vans store when I can get out there.

    I once bought a pair of running shoes from ESPN, back when they sold gear from the website.  They were marked down quite a bit, and I was running five days a week after work, so I kind of thought this would be the most hassle-free way to keep myself in decent shoes.  I’m thinking I will go back to online shopping for shoes in the near future.

  4. When did you last swap out the insoles or laces on a pair of shoes?
    I get insoles almost all the time now.  Since the budget dictated really inexpensive shoes this time around, I bought some gel insoles that cost about the same as the shoes, so call it about three weeks ago.  So yeah.  I’m gellin’ like a felon.  I haven’t bought laces since high school.
  5. What were the last shoes you got rid of like?
    I wore all-black New Balances for almost the whole year.  I bought them for the office when I was working in Chinatown.  They looked great, but then I no longer worked in Chinatown and didn’ t need to get dressed up, but by then I was really used to them, and they were built for activity anyway.  I Shoe-Gooed them twice to get a few extra miles out of them.  Finally had to toss them when the hard rubber sole actually wore all the way through to the foam-rubber cushion beneath.  I conservatively estimate that I put 2500 miles on them.

Know Payne

I’m having a personal Alexander Payne festival.  Started with Citizen Ruth, which I’d never seen, and followed it with About Schmidt and Election, both of which I saw but really didn’t remember.  I’ve got The Descendants and Nebraska next, both of which I remember quite well.  I really don’t need to see Sideways again, since I’ve seen it at least thirty times, but I probably will anyway.

I wasn’t aware that Payne has a few actors he likes to work with.  They’re an interesting group.  I was aware that his home state of Nebraska is the setting for several of his films (all but The Descendants and Sideways). something that definitely contributes to his aesthetic.

He’s an interesting director, and I’m enjoying revisting all this work.  I don’t think I’ve noticed yet any signature moves, although at least three of his films ends with his main character completely alone.

I was super disappointed that About Schmidt didn’t come with a director’s commentary, but there is an extensive collection of deleted scenes, with written notes by Payne, and that helped a lot with getting a grip on his thinking.  I’m hoping I’ll find time tomorrow for the commentary on Election.

Review: Citizen Ruth

Citizen Ruth (1996)
Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Tippi Hedren, Burt Reynolds, Alicia Witt, Diane Ladd. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

Ruth is a single indigent woman, probably in her late twenties, arrested one day when she’s found unconscious after huffing paint. She’s been arrested many times, and has had children removed from her custody, and now the judge has had enough. He’s asking the prosecutor to try her for felony endangerment of her fetus, prophetically uttering, “I hope I’m not setting a precedent here.” Before she is sent to lockup, the judge tells her that he’ll reduce the charges if Ruth will abort the baby.

At her lowest moment, she asks God for help, and within a minute, she is joined in her holding cell by a group of anti-abortion protestors. They see Ruth’s plight and offer to take care of her, hoping to counsel her away from the abortion. Now Ruth is a symbol for a cause, but do her new friends care about her, or only about her unborn child and the message its birth will send to pro-choicers?

When she spends some time with the pro-choicers, she asks them a question they don’t have an answer for: do they still care about her freedom to choose even if she chooses to have the baby? As long as she’s not being coerced into having it, can she still be the symbol they wish her to be?

There’s a little bit of stereotyping in presenting the people on both sides of this battle, but darn it if it isn’t spot-on stereotyping. I recognize and sympathize with people in each of the camps, and if they seem a bit cartoonish, they aren’t really that exaggerated. The film doesn’t seem to take a position on either side of the debate, but it does make the point that Ruth, who can charitably be called not the brightest of women, knows a lot more about what she wants than anyone’s giving her credit for, and that in their eagerness to gain ground in this tug o’ war, they aren’t taking the time to understand the person they’re tugging at.

Citizen Ruth has a lot going for it: a thoughtful and creative script, some excellent acting by Laura Dern, and some really good laughs from unexpected places. Despite all this, it’s still a slightly unsatisfying film. For all its effort to make Ruth a real character among real people in a real social struggle, it doesn’t do very much to develop anyone else as more than a person serving a cause, except maybe the teenaged daughter of one of her pro-life patrons (Alicia Witt) and the bodyguard for her pro-choice supporters (M. C. Gainey), so that what’s really mild stereotyping comes across as full-blown, thoughtless stereotyping with no imagination. A film that begs its characters to get to know the person huffing that paint should make some effort to present those characters also as real people.

It’s still worth a look for its daring premise and for Dern’s very funny choices. This is Alexander Payne’s first full-length feature, and it feels like a starter kit for what came later, and it’s so far his only movie not to be nominated for an Academy Award. Not a great film, but promising enough.

6/10
62/100

Amy Adams Films Ranked

I haven’t seen as many as I thought I have.  The numbers following the release years are the ratings I gave them, if I gave them ratings.  That clump of 7s and 70s probably changes its order from day to day, although I feel pretty good about the higher 7s and the lower 7s.

For a while, I was only writing full reviews and bothering to rate films I saw in theaters, but of course now I’m doing it for everything I see.  I need the reviews to remind myself of what I’ve seen and what I thought about it.  It’s one of the reasons I sometimes rent films I’ve already seen; just to get another look so I can write a review and try to nail things down in my increasingly faulty memory.

I haven’t rated Junebug, which I only saw a couple of years ago, but it’s easily a 90+.  When I rented it, I watched it three or four times (once with the commentary) before sending it back.  Need to see it again.

  1. Junebug (2005)
  2. Her (2013), 84
  3. Enchanted (2007)
  4. American Hustle (2013), 81
  5. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) 7/10
  6. The Muppets (2001), 74
  7. Julie & Julia (2009), 7/10
  8. Sunshine Cleaning (2008), 7/10
  9. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), 73
  11. Trouble with the Curve (2012), 72
  12. The Fighter (2010) 71
  13. Man of Steel (2013), 68
  14. Leap Year (2010), 66