(SHORT NOTES) Really Happy Stuff: NPR Pop Culture Hour, James Franco, and more!

Sunday means one thing: NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour.

I’ve combated the all-work-no-play epidemic by reserving time every Sunday for my friends at PCHH. And for the little jingle from Mike Katzif’s band Hello Come In that ushers in each new podcast and consistently puts a little smile on my face.

De dum. De dum dum dum.


(I’m wondering if my use of the word “friends” is premature. Whenever you share an interest with a friend or acquaintance there’s that initial, “Well. You must me OK if you like (insert pop culture reference here),” so this makes me think they’d at least like me a little. Upon first meeting, Stephen and I would most likely talk about the magic that is “Kung Fu Panda,” Linda and I would relive our favorite moments from the brilliance that is “Community,” Trey and I would cry over “The Big C” finale because none of my friends watch it and I really want to talk about Adam crying in the garage of gifts, and Glen and I would wrap up via reminiscences about our separate albeit similar experiences at swim-up bars with happy, smiling people in exotic locales. That was a long sentence, but it was worth it.)

Anyways, through an ongoing process of trial and error, I’m finally twiddling down the online sources on which I rely for all things news, and NPR’s coverage of the arts via podcasts like PCHH remains at the top of the list. So, thanks to NPR hosts Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Trey Graham, and Glen Weldon, I’d like to use one of my favorite NPR podcasts as inspiration for a little weekly section on my blog. (Follow the gang here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/) The podcast often closes with a section called “Things Making Me Happy,” during which the hosts talk about what’s made them happy that week. So, I’d like to do the same thing here.

However, as discussed a few weeks ago on PCHH, it’s important to recognize online lists and recommendations as very, very subjective. If you don’t like me, then you probably won’t be interested in hearing what I have to say about James Franco’s new book. But if you’re reading this, you’re most likely Claire (or another one of my close friends who actually reads these posts), which means you’ll hold my opinion a little higher than said person who hates me.

So, this week in Happy, with a capital H:

1. It Gets Better Project

Last September, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner to give hope and inspiration for young people dealing with harassment. As the website explains, the “It Gets Better Project” has since been created “to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach–if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone—and it WILL get better.” Thousands of viewers including celebrities and activists have joined the cause, and you should, too. Click here to learn more and watch the videos: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/


2. James Franco

This guy fascinates me. He shares my desire to know a lot about everything, so I try to live through him vicariously as he hops around from university to university, impressively soaking up all the knowledge he can and then moving on to the next one, like a vampire sucking blood from a human. (Is this simile too graphic? I have a funny visual while writing this of Franco literally hopping on land from NYU to UCLA, thirsty for knowledge.)

Most people know him as James Franco the Actor, but he’s recently dabbled in performance art and has also just published his first book, a collection of short stories called Palo Alto.

Our time at NYU coincided by one semester so I had the unique privilege of being taught by him in a small classroom one evening. He brought in Yugoslavian/Serbian/Montenegrin performance artist Marina Abramović to speak to us, and they both left me just as confused as I was when the lecture began as to what performance art really is. Something about communication between the artist and the audience without a script. Nevertheless James (Is this too informal? Should I call him Franco?) was quite engaging while speaking. It must be the acting.

In the past two weeks I’ve also read Palo Alto and seen both “Howl” and “127 Hours,” his latest acting vehicles. His book is a light and innocuous read, comprised of short stories about troubled misfits in his hometown of Palo Alto. A few of the stories feature a female narrator and recurring characters, which ultimately create the most engaging narrative. I understand why reviews have intimated Franco should stick with acting, but if you ignore the Bret Easton Ellis parallels and at least try to separate the actor from his words, I think you can find Alto to be a quick and enjoyable read.

While he may not write with the poetic brilliance of Ginsberg, he embodies the famed Beat poet perfectly in the biopic “Howl. Scenes with Franco reading the 1955 controversial poem are joined onscreen by beautiful animated sequences that bring the poem to life, footage from the obscenity trial surrounding the actual reading of the poem in the 50s, and interviews with dialogue taken straight from a Playboy magazine interview in which Ginsberg was asked about his struggles with his homosexuality.

But if you prefer a one-armed Franco (his left, to be exact), perhaps “127 Hours” should be your Franco flick of choice this holiday season. Unless your stomach can’t handle a human game of Operation, that is. The movie is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, the twenty-eight-year-old who got stuck in a Utah canyon and was ultimately forced to amputate his lower right arm. While it’s easy to get lost in the anticipation of this final extraordinary event, I most enjoyed when the film slowed down and we just got to see Franco reacting to his surroundings. The footage from the camcorder Ralston used to record his experience was released to Boyle and Franco during the making of the movie, and it was these recreated moments that felt most personal and engaging. Boyle drives the story in a fast-paced “Slumdog” tradition via split screens, quick cuts, and pumping music, but it’s these slower scenes that really let you in on the pain and torture Ralston endured. And then there’s always a good ol’ cameo from a life-size Scooby Doo blowup to pump up the action.

Kudos James, kudos. I look forward to seeing what you do next. I recommend a one-man Off Broadway show during which you read Kerouac’s On The Road cover to cover.



3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Go into any bookstore and you’ll most likely find this book, cover facing proudly forward, in any one of the main displays. And rightfully so. The premise really speaks for itself: Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in a dystopian future where one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen must participate in the annual Hunger Games, a televised fight-to- the-death battle. The reader joins Katniss on her high-stake journey as she volunteers to take her sister’s spot in the Games.

I’m fascinated by the idea of humans as conditional beings, those whom could do the unexpected given the right time and place. And this is exactly what the book explores through Katniss’s fight for survival. You’ll be asking questions throughout: Why would she risk her own life? How can the Capitol create such a cruel event? More important, how can they then publicize it for all to see?

The more interesting questions, however, arise when thinking about what you do if you lived in the fictional country of Panem. Would you be able to watch this on TV? Would you be able to kill another human being if it meant you could survive and bring glory to your town? The answers will keep you busy, and the book will most likely be over before you know it.

But don’t fret. There are two more books in the trilogy, and the movie adaptation obviously has a tentative start date next year. (I use the word “obvious” because making movies from books is the thing to do these days.)

I’m thinking Saoirse Ronan would make the perfect Katniss.



4. “The Simpsons” opening credit sequences

Since most opening credits stay the same week after week, I appreciate “The Simpsons” for switching it up and using FOX and Banksy references, among many others. Click here and watch the opening credits of “The Fool Monty” and “MoneyBART”: http://www.hulu.com/the-simpsons

‘Nuff said.



5. “Community”

This season Trey and Abed built a blanket fort, which quickly became the site of Jeff and Annie’s pursuit of Professor Professorson, a Turkish district, a Latvian parade, and a Civil Rights Museum.

What other show could pull off consistently wacky but brilliant A- and B-plots each week?

‘Nuff said.


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