Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Title credits

“I’m not living with you! We occupy the same cage, that’s all!” Maggie the Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) snarls at her detached husband Brick (Paul Newman). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, written as a play by Tennessee Williams, was made into a film in 1958. Some plays do not easily translate from stage to screen, the film’s claustrophobia (almost all the action takes place in one house) enhances how the characters have trapped themselves.

Brick drinks himself into a stupor as Maggie sashays around trying to trick him into loving her again. Brick’s father, Big Daddy, is dying but doesn’t know it, and his other son Gooper and his brood of annoying children have dedicated themselves to giving Big Daddy a birthday celebration (and remind him to update his will). A storm on the night of the big party forces the family to face their demons, which are themselves.

Taylor especially is a spitfire of action here. She’s utterly ruthless as a woman who married for love and money, had one snatched away from her but will be damned if she loses the other. Newman reminded me so much of Marlon Brando in this role, brooding lion-like until all of a sudden he snapped. The homosexual subtext got scrubbed from Williams’ play for the movie, but there are still hints of it. The ending smacks of studio interference, and twists the brow of a modern viewer, but it’s a film filled with strong acting fit to burst out the screen.

Might be worth seeing alone for Elizabeth Taylor in corseted slips. You too will be tempted to act the grande, wronged Southern dame for the evening.

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Find your slip at Twolia’s Etsy shop.

The Cave Singers, Great American Music Hall (3/10/11)

Thumbs up

In this day and age, it’s hard to go to a concert without knowing anything about the band. Almost without trying you can find interviews, live footage, buzz, and backlash.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to attend the Cave Singers at the Great American Music Hall last Thursday and have it be a surprise. I had heard the band on one of my favorite radio programs over at KEXP, The Roadhouse. They play a loose, folky rock that sounds somewhere between Josh Ritter and the Avett Brothers. I had listened to and enjoyed their albums but managed to keep in the dark about what kind of band they were.

The last time I had been to the GAMH was some time in 2006, when a friend and I got passes through our college paper. I had forgotten what a beautiful stage it was (also how awesome tables and chairs are; yes, I am old). The opening opening act, I won’t write anything about, claiming that age-old journalistic excuse of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

The second opening band Lia Ices played a fantastic set, Florence & the Machine/slash/Bjork-y/slash/Vashti Bunyan. It was sweeping, intense folk music helmed by a gorgeous woman who I believe pulled off a lavender floor-length romper. (Her guitarist was wearing a denim, Ghostbusters-style worksuit. Maybe that was the outfit requirement for that show). A very welcome surprise.

Then the Cave Singers came out, playing a bluesier version of “At the Cut” than I had expected. The energy kind of went up and down from the more rollicking numbers to jams like “Outer Realms,” which was too much of a raga for me. I was won over by the lovely “Beach House,” which sounds even more haunting live. A really solid show by a band who I’m excited to hear more from in the future.

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The Cave Singers – Beach House

Lia Ices – Ice Wine


Someone could easily accuse me of having a slight prejudice against Sofia Coppola and I’d have a hard time coming up with a counter-argument. I enjoyed Lost in Translation, but found Marie Antoinette to be a lavish Vogue photospread with an admittedly excellent soundtrack. Her movies always feature waifish, lost young women navigating a world that bemuses them.

In Somewhere, the young woman is Cleo (played by the younger Fanning, Elle), daughter to the remarkably successful yet otherwise unremarkable actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Marco lives at the Chateau Marmont, that decadent LA hotel off Sunset that has seen its share of Hollywood debauchery. He whiles away his day having sex with very willing women, drinking Coronas, and generally hanging.

What can you do when your life of repetitive pleasure has made you so numb you can’t even enjoy a private pole dance by leggy blonde twins? Nothing, but oh, look, here’s your eleven-year-old daughter you’ve paid marginal attention to her whole life. Her mom’s having her own crisis and you have to take care of her for a few days before camp, so you head to Italy on a studio’s budget, eat gelato in bed, play Guitar Hero, and learn about deferred pleasure for the first time in your life (specifically, turning a naked girl in a sailor hat out of your bed).

Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, no doubt had similar experiences trailing after a famous father and got to witness some major celebrity pitfalls. And what is her conclusion – “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us! Lonely, Confused & Searching”? It doesn’t help that Dorff, at least as Marco, coasts by on amiability and fading good looks. There’s no intensity in his desire to be an actor; he fell in it, and the life treats him well. There is a great acting moment by Fanning the younger at breakfast in Italy, with her father and her father’s morning after. She gazes critically at both the woman and her father and coolly assesses but does not judge. The whole movie can’t help but lighting up while Cleo is around because she’s the most dynamic part of it.

I’m not doing the film justice entirely. There are some very sweet moments between Marco and Cleo, and some beautiful shots poolside and in Italy. But the stretches in between them are few and far between. It was the cinematic expression of apathy, and I confess I couldn’t see the point.

More? Somewhere trailer


Freedom is what I’d call a meat and potatoes novel. It’s the story of a family. It’s a linear narrative. It follows traditional story arcs and takes care to develop its characters. But it does all of this in such an elevated way that you’d think your mom collaborated with a Michelin chef to prepare your favorite childhood meal: you know you’re experiencing something unique, but it also tastes like home.


The best writing illuminates sentiments that you have felt, but articulates them with such clarity that you pump your fist in the air when you recognize your self on the page, and think, “Yes! This is exactly what I too would say if I was clever enough.” Like:

By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for her choices and all her freedom was more miserable (181).

Freedom is the story of a marriage, a family, the new upper-middle class liberal America, growing old in the aughts, growing up in general. Specifically it’s the story of Walter and Patti, two college sweethearts who marry and settle down as part of the early gentrifier wave in St. Paul, Minneapolis.

I know I’m lavishing praise here, but it really is a novel to reckoned with. The sentences are crisp, the story moves with purpose, and the characters are real to any reader, not just those who personify their demographics. It’s also an angry book, raging against the state of the world as well as how today’s young people choose to engage with it:

The nation was fighting ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster oven, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids in the mold of the banana-bread-baking Sarah, with their sweet yearning, their innocent entitlement–to what? To emotion (369).

You know that term “actor’s actor?” This book is like a novel’s novel. It’s got all of the strength and wisdom of the classics with all the potent immediacy of a newspaper.


I give it up, everyone in 2010! You were right!!
(In my defense, I had was #318 on the request list for the SF Library so that is why it took me so long.)

Book review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Recently I moved cities, so the length of my commute has more than doubled. Frankly, I don’t mind it, because the number of books I get to read has increased exponentially.

I just finished David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Truth be told, I couldn’t tell you how I heard about it. Most times I’ll read a review or recommendation for a book online, scribble it down, request it from the public library, and then scratch my head with confusion when it arrives some time later. Now I imagine gracious library gods who do the selecting based on their infinite wisdom and wicked cataloguing system.

Reality Hunger definitely came out of the sky for me. It’s far more philosophical than books I’ve been reading lately (cough, YA lit, cough). Shields offers a “collage” (a word he uses a lot) of quotations and personal insights, divided into 26 sections (after each letter of the alphabet), attempting to define our understanding of, and desire for, representations of reality.

The quotations are cited only as footnotes, and at first I kept flipping back and forth between the front and back of the book (argh! the reason why I still haven’t finished Infinite Jest!), but then I realized that the quotations intentionally blended with Shields’ own writing. The book is curated rather than written, like a catalogue of information snippets arranged as a new product (again, collaging). It’s more like a Lil Wayne mixtape of a book – original sources selected, tinkered with and injected with original material to create something that had never existed.

Even if I can’t promise that I completely followed some of the denser theory points, the book nicely complements our blurb-y tech culture, in which we over-tab our browsers and attempt to voraciously consume googles of information only to let it pass right through us.

This “bite-sized” structure not only soothes your scattered, internet-soaked brain, but makes an excellent commute read. I was able to jump from section to section with ease, just the way I’ve been trained to do (helpful when you are being jostled on a crowded train).

I must expose my shallowness and say that the first chapters, when Shields expounds on reality television and the overwhelming popularity of memoirs (or misery lit as it is known), engaged me the most. Both promise reality, but are processed enough in order to adhere to templated characters, plots, and redemptive arcs. The bad girl on a reality tv show is as much a stock character as the acrobat clown was in the 1700s.

There’s so much more to the book that I am not doing justice to – death of the novel, performance art, power of the viewer. Etc. But I imagine that the book was not made to be consumed in one sitting (or in several BART rides), but opened occasionally and perused. I would suggest that it would make a great 365 day desk calendar. And I imagine Shields would not take that as an insult, at all.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

My favorite setting for novels these days is fairly specific – post World War (either will do) England. Two favorites that cemented it for me were Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. I love how both wars forced British society, as unyielding and formal as it was, to accommodate deep social and economic changes – about things like women smoking, factory work and the (gasp!) death of the aristocracy.

Sarah Waters’ last book, The Night Watch, I absolutely adored. It too took place after the Blitz in London, about two women picking up the pieces of their lives as the city did, too. Her writing reminded me  of Elizabeth Bowen, an English writer of the 1940s and 1950s: taut and sparse, but full of psychological intrigue.

Waters’ new book, The Little Stranger, also takes place after World War II,  in a ruined county estate belonging to a penniless gentry family, the Antrys. The plot is straight out of a Gothic thriller, but set against the exhaustion of the post war period rather than the romanticism of the late nineteenth-century. The narrator is a country doctor, who grew up in the area, where his father was a tradesman and his mother worked as a nursemaid at the estate in question. (Sidenote: why are so many narrators doctors? There must be another career that signifies detached, clinical observation skills).

Dr. Faraday, as he is called, begins to care for the Antry family, coming to help them as they try to navigate an England that has no room, or even use, for their kind. As a self-proclaimed fan of the “post-war Britain” novels, I can say that Waters generally skirts on the surface with her characters, flushing them out beyond stereotypes but not quite letting the reader connect with them.

And (minor spoiler!), for a thriller-type of novel, the ending petered out. I detest scary things, so this was an investment, and I felt minorly annoyed that I didn’t get more scared. Nothing at all wrong with anti-climaxes, but rather a let-down after the heights of The Night Watch.

Review: The Hurt Locker

My roommate and I finally admitted to ourselves that the Netflix three-disc at a time option was not only wasting $4 a month for us (split!), but making us feel like failures. We would both get very virtuous and request documentaries about Katrina or Criterion foreign films….only to see them pile up and collect dust for embarrassing lengths of time. Somehow you feel judged by Netflix by not watching the “good” movie, like they know that instead you’re watching She’s All That on cable. Again.

What is so satisfying in sending back those red envelopes back almost immediately? I don’t know – but somehow it seems like you are beating Netflix at its own game.

Now that the Oscars are almost here, I feel an added (totally irrational) pressure of seeing the most-nominated films. Recently I caught Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Many critics have complained about the glut of war movies set in Afghanistan and Iraq. I too, was struck by how many movies were produced – but mainly because of how much the critics complaining about it (another clue that I spend more time reading movie reviews than actually seeing the movies being reviewed).

So to The Hurt Locker: I was blown away by the first third of the movie. Indeed, the opening ten minutes had the most graceful and elegant bomb explosion that I have ever seen.

A lot has been made of Bigelow, a female director tackling a so-called “masculine” subject matter. In my opinion, there was no marked difference in her style from other action, male directors. However, the film did lack female presence –  probably five minutes of footage total even included a speaking female character… but it’s impossible to say whether or not I would have noticed this had it been a male director.

The sphere of the movie purposely excluded women, focusing on three Marines in Iraq tasked with diffusing IEDs in Iraq. What was especially fascinating about The Hurt Locker was how different the art of war (at least the cinematic version) has evolved in the last sixty years. The most striking visual was the main character, Jeremy Renner, in what looked like a space suit, staggering in deserted, dirty Iraqi alleys, while the locals peeked from windows and balconies. We attack small pieces of wire now; there is no direct enemy.

Of course I couldn’t speak to how accurate the film is to what happened/is happening in Iraq. In movie trailer terms, it was “gritty” and “real.” But it certainly captured the desolation and impotence felt by members of the armed forces. And it hinted at what I see is the real tragedy: our inability as a country to reintegrate and heal our soldiers once they return.

It’s not a film that I would watch again soon, but I would very much recommend it.  Plus! We sent it back the same day that we got it! Us: 2! Netflix: 81!