books tell stories

A few years ago, a friend and I sat down one summer night and watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It was the first in a these-days-aborted attempt to watch all the movies on AFI’s top 100 movies list. I’d seen a good chunk of them already, he’d seen another batch, and there were about 30 that were new to both of us. We got through “Singin’ in the Rain” (#10), “Maltese Falcon” (#23), “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (#30), “Network” (#66) and a few others with the help of Netflix queues and the AFI Silver Theatre, but somewhere along the way we stopped actively attacking the list. (“Rebel Without a Cause” (#59) is playing tomorrow night at Screen on the Green.)

The lesson here? I approach top 100 lists with enthusiasm, and then that enthusiasm wanes. The lists, in short, are like many other aspects of my life.

The last time I tried similar project for books, I settled on the Time 100. It came out in 2005 and had a few main advantages over other lists, such as the good sense to include “Watchmen” and the noticeable absence of Ayn Rand and  James Joyce (I’m looking at you, Modern Library).  That’s as far as I got, though: settling on the list. I think that was about four years ago.

And so, inspired by someone else’s attempt at that good old Time list, I’m trying again. As this journey of 100 books begins with a list, a few thoughts emerge already:

— Two books (“Grapes of Wrath” and “Watchmen”) are already part of my book project photo set.

–Several authors (William Gibson, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh) are well-represented on my shelves, but I’ve somehow skipped the particular books on this list.

–I Do. Not. Want. to read “Revolutionary Road.”

–Speaking of movies, the adaptation of James Dickey’s “Deliverance” isn’t on AFI’s main 100, but it’s #15 on the thrillers. I wonder how many other movie/book crossovers there are among these collections? For their Dashiell Hammett entry, Modern Library went with “Maltese Falcon” (#23 on AFI); Time here picked “Red Harvest.” Oh, and here’s “Gone with the Wind” on both, too (#4 at AFI).

–I swear among the 6 or 7 times I was assigned to read “Beloved” between 11th grade and graduating with a BA in English, I actually did read it at least once. But in those five years, that book was so dissected, so ripped apart, so analyzed as to no longer resemble anything worth reading. I want to try it again for fun without having to hand in a paper at the end of the semester. (No book reports here, right?)

–My favorite part about the Time collection is how few books on it I’ve read

And now, the list:

The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser

Animal Farm, George Orwell (* but I should probably reread this)

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Beloved, Toni Morrison (*yeah, probably ought to reread this, too)

The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell

The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

A Death in the Family, James Agee

The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen

Deliverance, James Dickey

Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone

Falconer, John Cheever

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (*actually in progress now)

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (please note the Web address you are currently visiting)

A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

Herzog, Saul Bellow

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul

I, Claudius, Robert Graves

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Light in August, William Faulkner

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Loving, Henry Green

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Money, Martin Amis

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Naked Lunch, William Burroughs

Native Son, Richard Wright

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

1984, George Orwell

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

Possession, A.S. Byatt

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Rabbit, Run, John Updike

Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow

The Recognitions, William Gaddis

Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (ugggghhhh)

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carre

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (Do I get half credit for reading Anais Nin’s diary?)

Ubik, Philip K. Dick

Under the Net, Iris Murdoch

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

White Noise, Don DeLillo

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys


Five movies in a week*

November 25, 2008

Nov. 16: Let the Right One In

Nov. 16: La Belle et la Bete

Nov. 22: JCVD and Slumdog Millionaire

Nov. 24: Twilight

i: Let the Right One In.

It had an impossibly high rating of 97 percent when I decided to leave work a few minutes early to catch an afternoon show at E Street. (It’s since gone up to 98 percent.) “Terrifying,” they said, comparing it to some of the scariest things Guillermo Del Toro has come out with the last few years. Others were calling it the anti-“Twilight,” a description I could get behind. Plus, it’s in Swedish.

Nordic mystery, vampirism, youth angst…these are all normally things I can get behind. This time? Not so much. I’d really like to see the movie all those reviewers are flouting, because it seems like it would be awesome.

ii. La Belle et la Bete

French! The ’40s! Experimental film! Jean Cocteau! Ripped off by Disney!

In news that should surprise no one with any awareness of pop culture, there’s a Disney movie about this very same story. It is very popular. There is singing and dancing and Jerry Orbach, and it won Oscars. Strip all that off, though, and this was the source material Disney stole. Think they gave credit for it? Hells no.

If and/or when I ever have kids, they’re getting this version first.

iii. JCVD

Speaking of off-the-wall French filmmaking, No kidding, this is probably one of the most fun movies I’ve seen this year. This one and the one below are coming out as the audience favorites from the festivals this year, and they both deserve it. I secretly want Jean-Claude Van Damme to get nominated for this.

iv. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle does edgy really well. And he does crowd-pleasing family warmth just about as well. This is the first time I know of that he’s done both at the same time, and it’s good. Not spectacular, not life-alteringly awesome like, say, “Trainspotting” was, but a solid good.

v. Twilight.

Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. Ugh.

I haven’t read the books. After reading about the last one and its not-even-thinly disguised anti-choice awfulness, I lost any interest in reading them.

I had my vampire phase. Every girl I know had a vampire phase. Mine manifested through Laurell K. Hamilton books, which (like every series of everything ever), got less fun to read as the series went on and as I got older. But I still read the Charlaine Harris books, and I’m digging the “True Blood” adaptation on HBO, so there’s still a part of me that digs that stuff. Maybe it’s better to say I had my lame vampire phase, and once I got through it I settled into an appreciation of the better pop culture vampires, which Jezebel has helpfully collected for me. (Spike! Oh I miss you.) All of this is a long way of saying I’m not dismissing the whole movie because I just don’t get little girls and their love for brooding, pale and mysterious men. It’s entirely possible I would have read the Twilight books if they were around 15 years ago, though I’d like to think I had enough sense as a 13-year-old to have recognized them for the dreck they are.

Yeah, yeah, I’m saying all of this without reading them. Because no good source material could have brought such an awful movie from the normally great Catherine Hardwicke. Can someone explain this to me? What the hell is up with the massive box office for this movie? Great, so suddenly Hollywood realizes women and girls go to the movies, too. But ladies, if you keep turning out for shit like this, we’re not going to get anything better. This is how the boys got “Punisher” and “Daredevil.”

As I sat watching the prom scene at the end and itching to get the hell out of there, I realized that certain things are best left to die at the age of 17, including affection for bad vampire books, chaste boyfriends, and melodramatic swooning. I need to get drunk or something, because the brain cells that thought seeing this was a good idea deserve to die.


October 26, 2008

Coilhouse this morning reminded me of this amazing, trippy, embarrassing, so-bad-it’s-possibly-scarred-me-for-life Halloween institution.

I loved this movie. I loved this movie in ways that only a maladjusted slightly loony 8-year-old girl could ever express. I watched it every year until I was probably 18, and I’m sure a visit to my parent’s not-ready-to-throw-this-stuff-out closet would reveal that I wore out the VHS on which it was recorded. This movie warped my childhood to the point that when I finally got around to seeing an episode of “The Facts of Life,” I recognized Charlotte Rae as That Woman From ‘The Worst Witch’ instead of the other way around. I am positive my earliest affection for “Rocky Horror” was a direct result of Tim Curry’s role in this movie. (I’ve since grown to love it on its own merits, as all God-fearing 20-somethings must.)

I loved this movie.

Having watched huge chunks of it today (thank you, YouTube. Thank you.), I’m suddenly faced with wrapping my head around the fact that my slightly batty youth wasn’t actually made up by my now-kinda-bored brain. My childhood–represented by my love for watching Tim Curry fly around in awesome ’80s graphics and sing (!!)–was every bit as wacked out as I remember it being.

That makes me so happy. Everything else about life can change and redevelop and fade away, but Tim Curry’s awesomeness is the one constant I will count on until the day I die.

EDIT: Andy says: “Without the clip, I’d claim you hallucinated this movie.  Even with the clip, I’m not entirely convinced.” My brother says: “Holy crap! It’s like Tim Curry doing a Tim Curry impression after eating a whole box of David Bowie!”

Apologies to both actors, but I spent almost all of “The Duchess” increasingly convinced that Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are the exact same person. Compare: Exhibit A and Exhibit B.

Not at it matters all that much anyway. No one’s heading to see an honest-to-god bodice ripper (seriously, bodices get ripped. Well, neatly snipped with scissors anyway) for the silent and angry actor brooding in the corner (sorry, Liam Ralph). What drew me in was the elaborate outfits covering those flimsy bodices and the dashing young man in the center of the dance floor (hello, Dominic Cooper, where did you come from?). And the hair*. “The Duchess” is that movie that come January and February will win awards for costume design and makeup unless someone releases their More Epic, More Outlandish Period Drama before the end of the year. And poor Keira Knightley will be shuffled off to content herself with a Golden Globe nomination. (She’ll be back again next year, fighting tooth and nail with Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts for the Best Female To Star In a Shakespeare Adaptation**. Or maybe the year after that seeing as how she’s just apparently been cast–against type, against all things good, against everyone’s common sense–as Zelda Fitzgerald.***)

Right. Back to “The Duchess.” I think it might be the first of a new kind of movie: Cinepedia. (Wikema? I’m still fine-tuning this one.) It’s the cinematic equivalent of wasting an evening on Wikipedia. You click on innocently enough because you heard something about…something. You’ve got a nagging question to answer. The nag resolved, you click over to something else, then something else. It’s that down-the-rabbit-hole experience and before you know it it’s 10:30, you’re sitting in the dark, you’ve missed dinner, there are some empty soda cans on the table (when did you get those?), and the only thing you have to show for it is some poorly sourced general knowledge that you’ll forget by the time the next pub quiz night rolls around anyway.

Now imagine that in movie form. Liberties have been taken for whatever reason, though the basic framework of events did actually happen. You leave two and a half hours later with a little bit of factual information and the fuzzy feeling that some of what you saw may actually be true, though you’re inclined to distrust most of it. Sound familiar?

The only thing missing Sunday afternoon was the ability to theater-hop to auditorium five for a biopic on Princess Diana with a stop in auditorium seven for a brief course on Spencer family lineage. (On the way, there’s a trailer telling explaining that the bodice-ripping gentleman is the earl for whom the grey tea is named. Truth!)

Somewhere, a young techie kid is growing up, and when he’s 17 and ready to launch his first company, he’ll get rich off this idea. It’s like YouTube wedded to Wikipedia. Web 3.0, here we come.

* Dead-animal-as-wig-adornment alert!

**Really, Joshua Michael Stern? You go straight from “Swing Vote” to “Lear”? That’s awfully ambitious of you.

***As the proprietress of a blog named after Gatsby and a huge fan of Zelda (more than Scott?), I register a great big WTF?!? to this news. I have to go with Jezebel on this one and vote for Amanda Seyfried or someone suitably softer.