joss stone

If you haven’t guessed it, I’m a big fan of Joss Stone, the 27-year-old English singer/songwriter whose music more than tips a hat to the likes of Aretha, Dusty, and Janis but whose bluesy soulfulness is uniquely her own. I’m mesmerized by her sound, which recalls the music of my childhood, and by the barefooted, flower-in-the-hair performances that take me back to my hippie youth, such as it was.

For a while, though, I didn’t even know Joss Stone was a singer because I first saw her in Showtime’s The Tudors, where, during seasons three and four, she was cast as Anne of Cleaves, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII — who cruelly contrived to get rid of her because he found her unattractive. (“I like her not!” bellows actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s King Henry to anyone who will listen.) Hers was such a poignant, understated performance that I couldn’t have even imagined such a sexy singer would be hiding beneath the dull, thick costumes.

Sexy, indeed! …”but not slutty,” as one man pointed out in a comment he posted on YouTube — a comment that has me thinking about what it means for a woman to be just enough sexy. It’s that Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene thing, the angel/whore split that dogs our collective unconscious and confuses even the best of men.


“Hideously beautiful”

Scarlett Johansson Under the SkinJonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror film Under the Skin is not for everyone, but, once seen, it seeps and settles.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the alien femme fatale who is somehow birthed onto the west coast of Scotland for the apparent sole purpose of hunting down lonely men in her white Ford Transit and luring them back to her dark, oozy flat. What she does with them once there we cannot know for sure, but evisceration seems to be a part of it.

Yet trying to understand its precise meaning is a fool’s errand because the power of the movie is in the evocative: in the dark, rainy streetscapes; in the dialogue that sounds sieved through gauze; in the menacing soundtrack that is like “a locust plague of dry tremolos, the strings pressing down until the sound has reached a roar.”

Or in a startling erection, a hand pierced by a rose thorn, a vacant stare above blood-red lips, a rapist gone silent and scared.

What is most potent about Under the Skin, though, is its insistence on showing us at every turn the terrible and terrifying power of sex — a power we little understand, and one that awakens in us that which is at once alien and deeply human.

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It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.


On body odor and forrest surpassed

karl pilkington

I wasn’t sure what to make of Karl Pilkington when I first encountered him on the Ricky Gervais Show. As sidekick to the giggly, unapologetically mean Gervais, Pilkington (or his persona) seemed too much of a whiny ruminator—even for me. But, having watched him evolve through his travel documentary An Idiot Abroad, which aired last year on Science, and now through his The Moaning of Life, which aired this month on the same channel, I’ve warmed to his deadpan crankiness.

In his new series, Pilkington globe-trots once again, this time to see how different cultures approach what he calls “life’s major events.” In the first episode, he attempts to understand why people have children; in the second, he sets out to determine how people achieve happiness; in the third, he tries to discover more about how—and why—people marry.

In this most recent episode on marriage, Pilkington travels to Los Angeles, among other places, where he attends a “Pheromone Party” and meets up with young singles intent on finding partners who pass the sniff test. The idea for the gathering is goofy-seeming: sleep in the same t-shirt for three nights; place it in a plastic bag and freeze it; bring it to the get-together, where it will be numbered as well as coded for the wearer’s sex (pink or blue); and let prospective mates stick their noses in the baggies, inhaling deeply as they do. When they hit on an odor they like, participants stand in front of a projector and hold up the marked baggie in the hope its owner will claim it.

Then I thought that perhaps it wasn’t so wacky after all since, to survive, humans, like other animals, live by their wits and follow their noses. I thought, too, about how my own sense of smell drives my life—and always has done. How many times have I run from a public place, for example, because I was overwhelmed by smoke or perfume or smells of rancid food? And, how many men have I welcomed into my life, or turned out, because of a sweat or a cologne that made me swoon, or gag.

And, just a few words about the movie Captain Phillips, which has received several Academy Award nominations this year, including one for best picture and one for best supporting actor. I didn’t have very high expectations, thinking wrongly that it would be a Hollywood blockbuster bent on exploiting the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. But, in fact, it was an extraordinary film. Barkhad Adbi’s nuanced performance as the pirates’ leader managed to inspire in me both terror and compassion. And, though he wasn’t nominated for the best actor award (but should have been), Tom Hanks, as the captain, gives a performance that transcends anything he has done to date. You won’t want to miss it.




Spike Jonze’s new film Her is an exquisitely tender paen to fragility and a whisper of a cautionary tale about what can happen to our humanity even when we think we are looking. Set at some point in the not-too-distant-but-just-distant-enough future, the movie is billed as a love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system (given voice through Scarlett Johansson); yet, to describe it in this way is to reduce it to a cartoon we can snicker at and then dismiss.

In fact, the audience was pin-drop quiet, and certainly I have not been able to stop thinking about the story, though less interesting to me is the idea that we are more and more lost to our Machines. I know this to be true the minute I step out on a busy street in Washington, DC, and find nearly every last pedestrian with his or her head bowed to a handheld phone. Or check my rearview mirror at a red light only to see that the person behind me is reading or sending a text message. Or watch with horror as I fill my own lonely evenings with empty Internet surfings launched on my multiple electronic devices.

More compelling are the high-waisted pants worn by Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, which left in me such a mournful impression that I have only to call up the visual image to feel the grief it evokes. Its power, I think, lies in the space between the top of the pants and Theodore’s shoulders—just enough to give the sense that shoulders and waist would nearly meet if life were to bend him one bit further.

The day after I saw Her I found myself thinking about a joke I had not remembered for years, the one that goes like this: A mild-mannered Midwesterner arrived in New York City for a vacation. Somewhat bewildered by it all, he approached a taxi driver with great caution and was heard to ask, “Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me how to get to Times Square, or should I just go f*@! myself?”

Originally from New York, I split my sides when I first heard it; yet, I think I would have found the joke funny no matter my origins. For me it was either laugh—or break.


Erica’s terrible horrible no good very bad day

untitledOur hearts go out to Erica, who, according to a Citi Simplicity TV commercial, had a really crappy day. Poor girl spilled coffee all over her keyboard, got gum on the bottom of her pink stilettos, found a parking ticket on her windshield, AND forgot to pay her credit card on time. Good thing she has kickboxing to help channel her frustrations. An even better good thing is that Citi, merchant of kindness and good will, doesn’t charge late fees or a penalty rate for its Simplicity card — EVER (“as in NEVER ever,” says the voiceover).

Maybe we can petition Citi to export a similar credit card program to, say, Syria, where Iman, who is eight months pregnant, has no end of bad days: Yesterday, her house was blown apart, her son was shot in the face, and her husband fled with his brother. Just imagine how much a no-fee card would perk things up in her life.

Thanks for having me

christoph waltzI’m made nervous when a news show guest says “you’re welcome” after she or he has been thanked for coming on the program. There doesn’t seem to be any modesty in it, which makes me feel even more wobbly in a country already teeming with gasbags. Which is why I was so happy to hear actor Christoph Waltz tell Charlie Rose the other night that he was grateful for the chance to come on his show and to talk about his new movie Django Unchained.

“Thank you very, very much,” he said at the end of the program, and in that repetition was a certain humility which touched my own hope and which helped me see that for years now I have been losing faith in the possible.

It is not hard to give up on life or to forego a place in it. What’s hard is living each day with the recognition that we are all of us weak and wanting.


Easier said

know thyselfI have devoted much of my life to knowing myself, or trying to know myself, but it has been a little like running after my shadow. The more I try to think my way into self-understanding, the more elusive it becomes. I appear to do better when I take an indirect approach.

These past three years of my life seem like lost years, where I have fallen down a rabbit hole and have not known how to find my way out. If you were to ask me why this has been so, though, I would most likely shrug. If, however, you were to ask me about my TV-watching behavior during this time, I might have more to go on.

For the first six months, I watched anything. I see now that I was so bombed out that I just needed noise and moving pictures to swaddle me. Then, I graduated to crime shows: Law & Order, Without a TraceThe Closer, In Plain Sight, and the like. They were unashamedly formulaic, and I found comfort in their predictability. At least something could be counted on.

I moved onto the The Dog Whisperer, Nature, Nova, and the Science Channel and was caught there for a long while. Because I didn’t go out much, through these shows I could feel wonder and some hope, but without risking much of anything. They were my church, for a time.

Eventually, when I found myself judging César Millán’s choice of post-divorce women, I knew it was time to move on and my attention turned to shows like Downton Abbey, Homeland, and Breaking Bad. Everything about these shows was inspiring—the writing and acting most notably—and I suppose I was ready to be inspired even if I didn’t know it.

For the past few months, I have cared only about watching the news and have become great friends with Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman and Hari Sreenivasan and many others. I’ve been poking my nose out the hole, but now I’m going to have to squeeze my whole body up and out.


Movies taught me everything I know, alas

all mine to giveLast night, I watched all of All Mine to Give on TCM, and it was not an easy thing to do. I rolled my eyes for 103 minutes, and, when it was over, I vowed to express my vexation in writing. I was not so much bugged by its melodrama, though it was hard not to giggle at the overacting, backlot sets, and emotionally leading music. Happily, cinema has evolved. I was bothered more by the idea that movies like this helped to shape my sense of the world and the part I was required to play in it.

Set in 1856 America, All Mine to Give (based loosely on a true story and originally titled The Day They Gave Babies Away) tells the tale of Scottish émigrés Robert and Mamie Eunson (played by Cameron Mitchell and Glynis Johns), who settle in Wisconsin at the invitation of a relative, have a litter of six children, and succumb to diphtheria and typhoid fever, respectively.

On her deathbed, Mamie tells her eldest son, Robbie, that he must find good homes for each of her soon-to-be orphaned children. After her death—and on Christmas day, for crying out loud—he sets out in the snow to deposit his brothers and sisters in homes he has chosen for them, and he does so without first conferring with the adults who are to assume this burden. “Sure,” they tell 12-year-old Robbie when he appears out of the blue on their doorsteps, siblings in hand. “We can take another kid. No problem. And, hey, don’t be a stranger. Bye.”

So, when I was young, and impressionable, this is what I learned from All Mine to Give and movies like it:

1. To survive, you need to buck up and never complain, even if you are asked to do something no child should ever be asked to do.

2. You should not feel, much less show, sadness when sad things happen, like when your spouse dies, or when your parents die, or when your brothers and sisters are taken away from you—and from each other—and you are left all alone.

3. Children are really small adults and don’t much need the comfort or counsel of real adults.

4. Though life is impossibly hard, solutions to impossible problems are easy to find. Why, you can give away a kid just like that, and no one will even blink.

5. Everything in life should happen fast: Above all, grief over the loss of a loved one should never extend beyond 103 minutes.


Taking creative risks

When I found out Javier Bardem had married Penelope Cruz, I was heartbroken. When she gave birth to their son, Leo, though, I resigned myself to the idea that he would never leave her for me. Still, I continue to follow his film career because I can’t help myself.

Although he was extraordinary in The Sea Inside and in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I think his best film so far was Biutiful, in which he plays the dying Uxbal and for which he received a 2011 Oscar nomination. There are few actors who can ennoble suffering the way he does, and there are few who can embody sociopathy like he can.

In No Country for Old Men, for instance, he won an Academy Award for his role as the diabolical Anton Chigurgh. In the new James Bond film, Skyfall, he is equally chilling as Raoul Silva, the bleached-blonde cyberterrorist at the center of the movie. Unlike the villains in other Bond movies, though, Silva is multidimensional, and Bardem’s performance is nuanced and infused with the kind of suffering he has brought to his other roles.

As I think about Bardem’s movies, I can’t help but reflect on what it means, and what it looks like, to take creative risks. It’s got me thinking about my writing…and about playing it safe. Or not.