Tag Archives: Arts

An Ode to Movies

What’s a Jew to do in December when Hanukkah was, like, so November?

Everybody knows the Jews created the cinema to give their people a home during the Christmas month more widely known as December. (In my own cosmological version of the Universe, the Jews were a little nebulous puff of stardust that popped amidst all that big banging out and said, Let’s film this sh*t.)

This totally works for me, as I’m Jewish and movies are my favorite thing. In truth, there’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting silently for approximately 90-120 minutes and being transported to another world. There’s a subtext to be inferred here: Jonathan, you like movies because you get to escape your life for approximately 90-120 minutes. But, dear reader (Hi, Mom!), I promise I’m not indulging in film as a symptom of depression. I don’t like movies because they distract me from real life. I like them because they illuminate the emotions of real life, particularly the really hard and complex and messy ones.

That Time Someone Sneezed and Workers Left a Factory

Though my aforementioned creation story is unlikely, I think it’s worth mentioning the real history of movies. We’ve come a long way since the carnival novelty that peep-show parlors offered in the late 1800s. From spectacles of the past to full-blown stories of the present day, we’ve changed. A lot.

The history of film in one paragraph. (With videos!) Let’s do this:

The world in the 1890s was full of new things: cities, steam engines, hot air balloons! Motion pictures became a way to capture and record this rapid change. Thomas Edison was one of the first dudes to realize that these moving pictures could attract a paying audience—in April of 1894, Record of a Sneeze premiered in New York.

The Lumiere Brothers then improved upon Edison and showed that logical, organized, minimalist events could reveal a story (e.g., Workers Leaving the Factory)

Editing soon learned the power of a cut (e.g., The Gay Shoe Clerk, Edwin S. Porter, 1903)…

…and then Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, sound, movie studios, Hollywood, the Great Depression, Casablanca, film noir, TV, and Alfred Hitchcock happened. My film history class only covered origins through 1960, so we have to stop at Hitchcock because I don’t know what happened after that.


Meryl Streep and Beyoncé, the two finest actresses of recent decades, happened.

Sitting Is Boring?

My excitement always peaks when I hear one of my creative heroes talk about the allure of movies. Andrew Stanton, a fellow Pixarian, says movies are at their best when they infuse wonder. Martin Scorsese, who I’ve had the privilege of hearing speak a few times in New York, has a more technical answer:

 Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It’s fundamental—because cinema is created with light, and it’s still best seen projected in dark rooms, where it’s the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light—which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things—interpreting the world. Metaphors—seeing one thing “in light of” something else. Becoming “enlightened.”

Charlie Kaufman says we like them because our brains are wired to turn emotional states into movies. And me (I have an IMDb page, just like my hero Charlie does!)…I think my attraction to movies is constantly evolving. As of late, I view movies as a mirror to the cycle of life. We’re born a blank slate, ready for experience to color us in. Similarly, when those lights in the theater go down, I take a deep breath, clear my mind, and mentally ready myself to be thrust into another realm—to learn a new world, really. Where are we? What’s the time period? Who are the characters? What are the rules of this world?

More important, there’s a deep and profound satisfaction for me in the knowledge that an ending is going to come—to know that I’m going to get a full story, realized from some subjective beginning to some kind of subjective ending. In that way, movies often take away the anxiety of real life in which the future is unknown and scary. Movies, for me, are sometimes more digestible than real life. I feel this way about all of fiction, really—movies, books, theater. They’re like snippets of life, safe and contained within the confines of the screen or page and stage on which they exist. And, for that, I love them all dearly.

A Year of Movies

In January 2013, I started keeping the ticket to every movie I see in theaters. Though I lost a few of them, my envelope is currently filled with 40 tickets. You know how I feel about recommendations, so I offer the following list as just that—a list of what I’ve seen recently and the impressions these films left upon me, starting with two older films that I just got around to seeing this year:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009 (dir. David Yates)

I haven’t seen this one since it was released in 2009. If you’ve watched all the preceding movies, you may be able to notice something that happens with the actors in this installment: they got good. They’ve all settled into their roles (thank Moses Emma Watson stopped delivering every line with her dramatic huffing and puffing), and it’s really, really pleasant to watch. Plus, the sexual tension makes me giggle.

Stories We Tell, 2012 (dir. Sarah Polley)

Sarah Polley’s documentary is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. It transcends its genre as it addresses, in short, the philosophy of truth. The subject is Diane, Polley’s late mother. She’s shown in old home movies; yet, as the story unfolds, the footage becomes questionable and you may just start to wonder what’s real and what isn’t.

Frozen, 2013 (dirs. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee)

“Let It Go.” It’s magic. And totally a LGBT anthem. Just download it on iTunes immediately, okay?

Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013 (dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen)

The latest from the Coen Brothers finds us in the winter of 1961 in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. To watch this movie is to essentially watch Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling musician, as he tries to find a couch to sleep on over the course of one week. The tragedy is that he’s a good musician, but not a great one. What makes me happy: Carey Mulligan (who never smiles), the cat that deserves an Oscar nod for his/her performance, and a young Bob Dylan cameo.

American Hustle, 2013 (dir. David O. Russell)

This one is a story based on the Abscam affair, the criminal investigation of the 1970s in which the F.B.I. called on a swindler named Mel Weinberg to help ensnare public officials. The cast is full of strangers: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence (!!!), Jeremy Renner, and Robert DeNiro. It’s really a work of art. What makes me happy: every scene featuring an F.B.I. supervisor played by Louis C.K.

Nebraska, 2013 (dir. Alexander Payne) 

Payne (Sideways, The Descendents) likes his journey stories. His latest, shot in wide-screen black-and-white, follows old man Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte), from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. What makes me happy: the scene in which the men lounge around and watch football. It just feels so damn real.

Blue is the Warmest Color, 2013 (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

The NC-17 Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Festival. A 179-minute exploration of Adèle, a high school student learning what it means to love and to be loved. She dates guys until she meets Emma, a girl with blue hair who changes her life forever. What makes me happy: Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) who act with their faces instead of their words, resulting in two of the most mesmerizing onscreen performances I’ve seen this year.

12 Years a Slave, 2013 (dir. Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) is easily one of my favorite directors. His latest is said to be the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery. There’s a scene I’ll never forget in which Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn African-American kidnapped into slavery, hangs from a tree with a noose around his neck, supported by only one foot as it barely touches the muddy ground. Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey in a performance I can’t describe with words. This movie didn’t make me happy, but it did leave me thinking about the thousands who never knew freedom.

Other 2013 notables: Blue Jasmine (for Cate Blanchett), Cutie and the Boxer, Spring Breakers (for James Franco), Don Jon (for Julianne Moore), Fruitvale Station, The Great Gatsby, About Time (for the lovely message about what it means to be a father and a son), The Way, Way Back, and Monsters University (for the DVD bonus features that I got to be in with my Pixar buddies!).

My first Hollywood movie premiere.

My first Hollywood movie premiere.

The End

So why tell stories? 12 Years a Slave offers an answer: because we can. The above films are film at its best. When I left the theater after watching each of these, the world seemed just a little bit heavier. In a good way.

Life for me, as it seems, has really become a series of moments that exist between whatever movies I happen to be seeing that week, month, or year. Movies have changed my life, and I hope that never changes.

I found this picture in a photo album at home in Maryland. The caption read, "Which way to Hollywood?"

I found this picture in a photo album at home in Maryland. The caption extending from the top of my white hoodie read, “Which way to Hollywood?”


(THE LONDON CHRONICLES) #1: Batman, Brighton, and The Night That Shall Not Be Named

Dear Reader,

There’s something very sexy about getting a handwritten letter in the mail, so I’ve decided to get all 21st century on your arses and reflect on my London semester via the next best thing: a digital blog post written in the form of a letter. Addressed to whom, you ask? You, of course! Yes, you. Please accept these in place of pretty postcards boasting Photoshopped images of London’s most famed tourist attractions. You’re welcome. I know we’re both so green these days.

Forgive me for being short, but there’s a lot to say about my first week but not a lot of time in which to discuss it because I must figure out how to access Netflix and Hulu immediately.

My trip here was relatively uneventful. I took a nonstop flight from Washington, D.C. to London Heathrow, during which I sat next to a woman who smelled like an old-woman fart. I caught the end of this excuse for a movie called “Source Code,” fell asleep, and then proceeded to be both financially and emotionally robbed at the London airport by the international conversion fee.


In short, my first couple days required very little adjustment because living in one city makes it easier to get settled in another. Also, London isn’t terribly different from New York. It’s just a lot more expensive and a lot more architecturally schizophrenic. I easily navigated to my first few days of orientation in a building that was used in the Batman movies. Moreover, I survived these few days of orientation by pretending I was an extra in these aforementioned Batman movies. This made things more exciting, as at any moment I could’ve been spontaneously attacked by the anarchist yet wickedly awesome Joker! I was also tricked into being cooked on a hot bus for five hours while visiting London’s big touristy sites, but the upside to the trauma is I got to go through all the pictures on the iPad of my new friend, Kelly. Then we became best friends.

This is Kelly. She likes striped pouches.

After an unsurprisingly otherworldly meal at IKEA, we had our first night out. We went to a club called G-A-Y. It was a gay club. As we arrived, I was quickly ushered to the metal detector on the right side like a celebrity while my female friends got held up on the left side. This was sexual discrimination in action, but I liked it. Then I danced around like a drunk girl and befriended Michael, the security guard outside who introduced me to my new favorite show, “The Only Way Is Essex.” (Think “The Hills,” but in the UK and with a pig named Mr. Darcy.)


My second night out was…well we don’t talk about this night. It’s lit-ra-lly [said in a British accent] a non-memory. The next day I took a redemptive day trip with my Kelly and my new BBC friend Juan. We took the train to Brighton, where it was grey and rainy and so “Never Let Me Go.” I loved it. We survived a roller coaster,

"It's Turbo Time!"

jumped on trampolines, and got to see the bachelor pad of 21-year-old King George IV. He had dragons on his ceiling like a pimp! We also enjoyed an Italian dinner with profiteroles that were otherworldly but not of the same other world as the IKEA meal because the IKEA meal was better.


Then classes started. So far I’ve only had Writing For TV, which is taught by a wonderful British man named Archie. Today we pitched our ideas for the pilot of an original TV show. It was bullets of fun. I’m also in a class called Arts and Theater in London. In addition to going to a museum and a theater performance each week, we attend lectures about lots of things and stuff. Today we received a packet about the Normans and the Plantagenets! What a funny name!

Calm down, you. I know what you’re thinking. So, as a person, how have I grown since moving across the pond? Good question. Kelly took me to the local grocery store and taught me how to buy food, so basically I won ten Maturity points. I can now make a salad out of spinach leaves, dried cranberries, feta cheese, and two teaspoons of anxiety.


My apologies for composing this blog post (read: sexy old-fashioned letter) with the literacy of an elementary school child.

Until next time…

Humbly yours,


(SHORT NOTES) Bedtime Storytelling for the Digital Age: A Comic

I decided that Alex Gregory’s comic depicting a father reading his son a bedtime story needed a little update. (Note how my attempt to redraw his comic resulted in a father wearing Harry Potter-like glasses. I’m guessing this is how my excitement for the final installment of the movies manifests itself. I’m OK with this.)

(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.