26 January 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rom-Com

Oh, Hollywood. You paint the world in such broad strokes. You would have us believe that estrogen hard-wires the females of our species toward an affinity for the chick flick, that genre of cliche-ridden, tear-stained, make-over montage-featuring, romance-worshipping movie that is your supposed contribution to womenkind. Honestly, Hollywood, I'm insulted. And not that interested in watching your ingenue du minute meet cute, get hurt by and then proposed to in a rain storm/train station/crowd scene. Snore city.

And yet.

I recently discovered that I don't actually hate your chick flicks, after all. Let me explain.

When I was younger, I wanted my movies to challenge me. Drugstore Cowboy, The CelebrationThe Celebration: these were amongst my favorites. Movies that wrung me dry, didn't tell me how to feel, beat me severely about the head and shoulders with their angst. That kind of thing was my kind of thing.

Then a little something called life happened. Now that, as an adult, life is itself a challenge, I don't particularly need my movies to be so, too. Gimme beauty, fun, frivolity. Hell, a few songs never hurt, either.

My slow descent from art house cinema started innocently enough with the period drama. I've always been fascinated with the past, and until they discover a time machine that actually works, the period drama is the closest I'll ever get to experiencing it.(Visit here for a fantastic selection of period dramas, listed by era.)

Now within the category of the period drama is an important subset called the costume drama. Beautiful clothes makes me happy, so is it any surprise that I'd slap down $12 to see pretty ladies shrink wrapped in corsets and crusted in jewels? Gimme some costume loving, particularly set in the distant past,

Sophia Coppola's incomparable Marie Antoinette: confectionery color palette shaded with human darkness = one fine movie

and I'll eat out of your hand.

Historical drama, corset classic... all merely gateway drugs, my friends. It was only a matter of time ...

Sometime in the past year, I desperately tried to justify a binge of frothy romantic comedies. That's when it occurred to me: chick flicks can be redeemed! All it takes is a special kind of main character: strong, silent, occasionally wooden ... (but not like this). Houses! I mean houses, folks. When an architectural gem figures prominently enough to stand up to the lead actors, you can count me in.

My introduction to this phenomenon was the stinker Practical Magic. Even the usually stellar Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as spinster witch aunts couldn't salvage it. And yet it was good enough to watch more than once, (on mute) only because of this gorgeous Victorian:

I've spun many a daydream around this house. Ballroom, library; there's square footage enough for a smorgasboard of theme rooms! Do I even need to mention that the whole thing overlooks the ocean? *Sigh*.

The next fantasy cinema home I fell for was in Under the Tuscan Sun:

in which Diane Lane lives out the universal fantasy of making over a stately but stubborn  Italian. Mark my words, next time I get divorced, I'm moving straight to the Italian countryside to plonk down my alimony payments on a crumbling gem-in-the-rough. (NB to Mr. Sybarite: I'm only kidding, honey. Ti amo!)

With Nights in Rodanthe Diane Lane (hello, again!) more or less copyrighted herself as the official Chick-Flick-House Lady. When I say the above structure was the most interesting part of the movie, please believe me and spare yourself the agony of watching it. No, really. I mean it. There's only room for one inanimate romance per film.

Having now fully embraced the romantic comedy genre, I had no problem seeing It's Complicated. It stars Meryl Streep, so in this case, at least you get credible acting. Though it was a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic diversion, I most loved my moments inside her character's sprawling 1920's Spanish-by-way-of-California ranch house. (But the part where her character excitedly begins renovations to give her a "real" kitchen made me slightly apoplectic. All single moms should have kitchens as beautiful as hers!) Those interested can find an excellent, if maniacally exhaustive, write up about it here.

Apparently, the decor of the Diane Keaton film Something's Gotta Give was so beguiling it has inspired its own eponymous style. (Now I understand why I also liked The Holiday: both were production designed by Jon Hutman.) Clearly I'm not the only person taking as much pleasure in the backgrounds of these films as in the foreground.

And though it may be common to focus on the backdrops of rom coms, is it, well... odd? Are we freaks? Do men do this too? Judging by the general male desperation to avoid romcoms, I'd say not so much. Just what is this about, anyway?

I can only speak for myself. I only went deep into the genre after my daughter was born. Initially I thought sleep deprivation had lowered my entertainment bar. But I've connected the dots and recognize that my chick-flick-house obsessed mode kicked in during my 2nd trimester. Nesting is a scientifically documented phenomenon amongst pregnant mammals. So maybe this fascination for the beautiful homes in film arises out of that urge, itself -- I would argue -- part of our ancient gathering instinct. At least, that's what I like I tell myself when I feel overwhelmed by the need to make my house perfect. (It's not me -- it's millenia of evolution driving me to comb through the Craigslist furniture section for hours on end!) Does that not echo the eons that women have been sifting through fields looking for edibles to bring home? Can we help it if even in the dark of the movie theater, we're still unconsciously feathering our nests, providing the best living environment possible?

Being a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom) has only exacerbated my house fixation; mostly because I've never spent so much time actually in my house. Much of that time I'm stuck on the floor with my daughter, leaving my mind to roam... to improved furniture placement.

Like a toddler arranging every toy car in his collection by size and color, maybe I've become a bit obsessive about whipping my house into ideal shape. Having everything in its place is soothing. Toddlers obsessively order their little worlds in reaction to the big scary, unordered world to which they are just waking up.  Hmmm... big, scary, unordered world... sounds a bit like brand new motherhood.

Nuts. Does that mean I have to admit Hollywood is on to something, and knows me better than I know myself? Fine, just don't expect me to interrupt anyone's wedding to make a public declaration about it. Blatantly plagiarising the work of production designers, on the other hand -- I do.

15 January 2010

Photo finish Friday: Antarctic Explorers

It all began with this arresting image:

And before my retinas had even finished processing what I'd seen, I'd added Ernest Shackleton's expedition of Antarctica on the Endurance to my ever-lengthening list of obsessions.

If you haven't seen any of the documentaries about this, put one on your Netflix queue already. One of the most extraordinary elements of the story is how well-documented it was, as it occured.

After his awe-inspiring exploits, Endurance second officer Tom Crean returned to his hometown, put away his medals, opened a pub, and never spoke of his Antarctic adventures again. He died at the age of sixty-one, of an infection from a ruptured appendix. Lack of immediate medical care finished off what starvation and brutal cold could not.

Modest Mr. Crean, I salute you.

Tom Crean's South Pole Inn, Annascaul, Co. Kerry, Ireland

11 January 2010

Happy New-ish Year

Happy 2010 everyone. Wow, a new decade already?

Please pardon the dirt under my fingernails. That would be the after-effect of clawing my way back up the cliff I appear to have plummeted from approximately 3 weeks ago. While the holidays were much needed time off, I didn't intend to vacate the blogosphere for quite so long. Unfortunately a nasty virus got the better of me and I spent two weeks exhausted. Every free moment (read: every moment Bunni was asleep) I collapsed into bed -- woozy, weak and very down on myself for my lack of productivity. I couldn't even get it together to post Photo Finish Fridays! But here I am, back and maybe even better than ever. Well, that remains to be seen, but wouldn't it be nice?

Now that I have energy again, here is what my creative itches are propelling me to do of late:

1)Re-arrange the living room

Because it is an easy, recession-proof way to feel better about where you live. Because it is always a great idea to begin fresh, as it were, at the start of the year.

Though spacious, my living room is a particularly unwieldy shape: the front door opens smack into the middle of a double-wide space, prohibiting many desirable furniture arrangements.
But after 10 years of living here and countless attempts to solve the conundrum, I sat down with a piece of paper and drew out a solution:

It is genius, if I say so myself. The only downside is this solution requires six pieces of furniture we don't actually own. Though I know how to find a bargain, the cost of six new pieces of furniture will prohibit an overnight makeover. The new arrangement will just have to trickle into our lives slowly.

2) Uphoulster pouf-shaped ottomans in Baja blankets

One of the pieces I'll be looking for is the ottoman, also known as the hardest-working piece of furniture in the house. It earns its keep by multi-tasking, standing in for a coffee table (just plop a tray on top), extra seating, a footrest, even a toddler toy. I'm combing Craigslist for just the right shape pieces (if I was super- handy, I'd build my own) I can take to the upholsterer to re-cover. My fabric of choice will come from my collection of striped Mexican blankets, of the variety frequently sold at the border, because of its durability, stain-proof quality (hello, unnatural fibers!), and cheerful color scheme. Viva la revolucion!

3. Get back to work on my book

My writing group re-commences tonight after a long hiatus. I was on the fence about whether to re-up, as I didn't know what to submit for workshopping. I was feeling crappy about the master's thesis-turned-memoir-turned-novel I'd been editing last year. But having barely survived the funeral pyre after receiving an uncomfortable comparison to a romance novel, the pages beckon again. Wading through an exhaustingly cerebral novel helped; its utter lack of emotion inspired me to decide to tackle my book again, this time with a commitment to making it a memoir and telling (yikes!) the terrifying truth.

SO. Enough about me. Let's hear about you. What creative impusles drive you at the moment?