My love for Frozen grows

With last week’s Academy Awards nominations announced, I was reminded again of how pleasantly surprised I was by “Frozen,” the Disney animated movie that’s a very loose retelling of the Snow Queen. It was a sweet, fun, completely enjoyable movie in its own right (and goodness knows I have sat through plenty of formulaic stinkers in the quest of a few hours’ respite with the kids). But what made it even better was how utterly awesome it was for girls.

Far more than Pixar’s “Brave” (which I found something of a disappointment), “Frozen” is girl-centered and empowering.

1. Anna, the heroine, goes off to rescue her sister – she’s the one driving the action, and at heart the plot is all about their bond.

2. Her sister (the snow queen) shakes off her fear about not being like everyone else and builds herself this cool ass ice crystal palace where she lets her hair down and belts out a song about being – and loving – yourself (“Let It Go”)

3. There’s insta-love, but amazingly, the movie pulls the rug out from under it. Finding a man is actually secondary!

I’m not saying this is some heavy-handed feminist treatise. Just, it’s nice to take the kids to a popcorn movie and feel like there’s something up there for my daughter.

Highlights of 2013

I’m a little behind in wrapping up 2013, but I’m still going to do it! Or at least try to make some notes about what stuck with me, mostly in the cultural realm. In terms of actual life 2013 was an incredible year — all about pushing through and turning corners — but it was very very difficult. I’m so glad it’s behind me.

THE BIG NEWS

Cover of DreamwoodGuys, I did it. I finally finished up my book, which got a new name (Dreamwood) and went through copy edits, and now I have galleys. Actual honest-to-God ARCs. All I can say to everyone is thank you. Everyone who has expressed any interest or been supportive, it just means the world. You know what? I had the idea for this book about 10 years ago. It was a tiny little nubbin of an idea and I wrote some stuff down on legal pads and noodled. And then I went through a whole saga. Seriously a saga. But who cares about that now? Because it’s done! Honest! It comes out in June.

READING

I read fewer books than usual this year – about 25 – partly because I was so busy finishing up Dreamwood. Here are a few standouts, kids and adult books all mixed together:

A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul – easily my favorite book read in 2013. Wow.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan – This book has the most incredible voice. Willow is such an original, wonderful character, and her story had me wishing I could hug her.

Intuition, by C.J. Omololu – Ah, this book is fun. It’s a sequel that takes things to a new level, features one of the best love triangles I’ve read, and has you pondering the gift (or is it curse?) of being able to remember your past lives. I devoured it.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin – more crazy vampire stuff on an epic scale by a really good writer. Increasingly you see lit fiction writers trying to write genre and they usually fail, which makes Justin Cronin all the more remarkable.

Canada, by Richard Ford – I was strangely taken by this. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I found myself thinking I preferred it even to The Sportswriter, even though it’s also ruminative to a fault.

MUSIC

This is the year I got way into Spotify. And I have to say, as a result, I’m listening to tons of music. Part of it is due to my day job, where I put the headphones on and try to laser focus. Here are my two most recent faves from 2013

Pusha T, My Name Is My Name – which was stripped down, minimal like Kanye’s Yeezus only not so overblown and without the lame lyrics (e.g., the infamous sweet and sour sauce line). This album had it all: hard, menacing (“King Push”), confessional storytelling (“Nosetalgia”), even the occasional dream (“Sweet Serenade”).

Deafheaven, Sunbather – Ha. Joke on me. Never thought I would listen to this kind of intense black metal but it’s amazing. It’s really hard to call out particular songs – but “Dreamhouse,” “Sunbather,” and “The Pecan Tree” are especially awesome.

MOVIES

Readers, I’m running out of steam on this blog post. Oh, I have so much to say about movies this year. But sadly not tonight. Before I go to bed here are my three favorites:

American Hustle

Spring Breakers

The Great Beauty

Happy 2014 to one and all!!!

Spring Breakers: Just enough too much

There are many things that can be said about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers – that it’s a candy-colored breast-fest and presages the fall of western civilization – but I have yet to see a review that talks about what I think is its most meaningful aspect: It’s a movie about young women figuring out for themselves what is too much. I thought it was great.

Perhaps it’s more than Spring Breakers deserves, but I think William Blake’s famous Proverb of Hell applies: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

When you’re young you go too far. That’s part of learning what too far is. Each girl in Spring Breakers has an internal compass that lets her know when she’s reached too far. Thus, we get one after another of lovely elegiac shots of the girls leaving Spring Break and returning to real life. (Visually the entire movie is stunning.) They’ve each gotten a bit damaged, but not too much – a series of inoculations on the road to adulthood. The first girl leaves because she gets creeped out sexually. The second girl leaves because she gets hurt physically. The last two (they’re really one entity) leave because they’ve reached the limits of their empowerment fantasy, which begins with them robbing a diner with squirt guns and ends with them shooting up a gangster’s paradise.

Are these four separate girls, or just different aspects of a collective consciousness? The fact that there’s no real main character just seems to indicate we’re dealing with a study in psychology rather than individuals. There’s a telling vagueness to the boundaries between the four –they are constantly draped over each other, touching each other’s hair, petting and grooming each other like meerkats. Maybe we’re simply seeing aspects of a personality.

If you resist the easy temptations of moralizing (and Harmony Korine does not make it easy!), Spring Breakers is surpisingly grounded. Nothing happens that these girls can’t handle.

Even when Alien (James Franco) initiates a menage-a-trois frolic in his gun-filled bedroom, and you’re dreading the inevitable icky scene, the two boldest girls turn the tables and you realize it’s all on their terms. This is especially true of the ending, which I know many critics had trouble with. The ending is so not real. It is Die Hard unreal. But for the two girls who engage in the fantasy of violence, what is the point they would need to blow past in order to feel like they need to leave Spring Break? Maybe a nighttime shootout while wearing matching neon bikinis and pink ski masks would do it.

This is a movie about finding yourself by exploring your own limits. All you need to do is look at the expression of pure joy on Selena Gomez’s face as she rides her scooter around the beach to tap into that desire to experience a deeper, freer self. Spring Break, Spring Break forever.

The brilliance of Tiny Furniture

Could everyone I know please see “Tiny Furniture” so we can talk about it? I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in which so little happened and yet there were so many things to discuss.

And I only saw it because my video store (yes, I still go to one of those) moved to a bigger space and now has a well-lit section for the Criterion Collection with the disc covers facing out so they actually look appealing. (Thank you, Five Star Video!)

There’s a million things to say about this movie. I’ll start with Lena Dunham’s body. Her character, Aura, is struggling with post-graduate life, she’s recently returned home to the fabulous place her artist mom has in Tribeca, and it so happens, she’s a bit plump. She takes her clothes off a fair amount – we see the video she made as a film theory student (stripping down to her underwear and wading into a fountain), we see her struggling into Spanx, and when her younger sister throws a party, Aura comes up with the not-obvious protest of parading through the living room without her pants. You cannot look away. You cannot talk about this movie without addressing the fact that she’s showing her body and somehow mentioning that it’s not a film body, it’s a real body. Except that it’s on film now, so that makes it a film body, except … whoa.

The movie’s very sly in making you think about things like bodies and art and representation but doing it via the easily underestimated story of this young woman. Because she’s privileged and searching, and has normal, everyday flaws and is kind of pathetic in her relationships with men, I think some critics dismiss Aura and/or the movie as jejune and annoying.

But it’s all quite stealth. Anything that’s annoying about this movie just circles you back to confront your own expectations about what should be seen on film. Watching it I realized how conditioned we are to go to the movies and expect physical beauty. We expect to see class differences that are billboard obvious and extreme (like in Bridesmaids, there’s the super rich best friend, versus Kristin Wiig’s version of a normal person), not fine gradations, which are the ones we deal with in real life. By now we expect some token people of color (the black best friend), not the uncomfortable reality that some people do move in circles that are pretty much all white. We expect that if we’re seeing a life of privileged navel-gazing there are winking elements of fantasy or absurdity (Wes Anderson, Woody Allen) or there’s a moral lesson attached about the dangers of money & success. We expect that women-made movies with women in them are frantically worried about what male viewers will think (Bridesmaids again?), and won’t go blithely forward, unconcerned, to explore female relationships and self-definition.

I’m hoping that “Tiny Furniture” is a movie like “Sex Lies and Videotape” – ten years later we’ll look back and be like, that changed everything. I haven’t seen Dunham’s “Girls” yet on HBO. But I think it’s a promising title.

Melancholia

What is it about Melancholia? I keep thinking about it. I think maybe it is my favorite movie of the year (easily possible since I’m not really sure what I’ve seen and nothing has really “stuck” that much). But I resist Lars von Trier. So maybe I won’t give into it.

Scene from Melancholia

But …. I loved it. It won me over first of all because it was funny. When do you expect to laugh out loud in one of his movies? You’d have to be a fool to hope for that, but Melancholia was more genuinely funny than many of the “comedies” I’ve seen. (Seriously, more laughs than “Bridesmaids.”)

I’m thinking about it so much though – and I think I love it so much – precisely because of the director’s and the movie’s own ambivalent relationship to pleasure. I read his director’s statement – it is almost as if he hates himself for making a gorgeous movie. He’s afraid of being misunderstood.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was like waking from a dream: my producer showed me a suggestion for a poster. “What is that?” I ask. ”It’s a film you’ve made!” she replies. ”I hope not,” I stammer. Trailers are shown … stills … it looks like shit. I’m shaken.

Don’t get me wrong … I’ve worked on the film for two years. With great pleasure. But perhaps I’ve deceived myself. Let myself be tempted. Not that anyone has done anything wrong … on the contrary, everybody has worked loyally and with talent toward the goal defined by me alone. But when my producer presents me with the cold facts, a shiver runs down my spine.

This is cream on cream. A woman’s film! I feel ready to reject the film like a wrongly transplanted organ.

But what was it I wanted? With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades. That much I know. But is that not just another way of expressing defeat? Defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators? Romance is abused in all sorts of endlessly dull ways in mainstream products.

And then, I must admit, I have had happy love relationships with romantic cinema … to name the obvious: Visconti!

German romance that leaves you breathless. But in Visconti, there was always something to elevate matters beyond the trivial … elevate it to masterpieces!

Cream on cream. A woman’s film! (Don’t you just hate him?!) I mean, is that why the planet must crash into Earth? Because a woman’s film must not be allowed? Is it the bride in a wedding dress that makes it a woman’s film? (And then this fear is so interesting, because I would say, who is he kidding, without women LVT would have no subject!)

Well, no worries, LVT has not made a chick flick. The movie is lovely, the people are monied and good looking. But the romance is with a world-ending planet. And really, even in the first half, when this threat is not even known, all the absurdities of convention are exposed. He has, reliably, elevated matters beyond the trivial. I can’t wait to see it again.

Well, here’s one thing to say for “Black Swan”

We saw “Black Swan” this past weekend and I found myself enjoying it much more than I expected. Of course, the rap against “Black Swan” is that it’s overheated psycho stew and tortures poor Natalie Portman with its misogynistic demands.

I don’t know. The night after seeing “Black Swan” I ended up watching “Eat Pray Love.” Now there’s a nutty woman. As I resorted to the sanity-saving move of fast-forward, I wondered why it’s ok for a movie to show Julia Roberts going mental on a bunch of guys and then running around the world in a self-absorbed funk. Of course, then I realized it’s because the movie is all about finding a man. (Ostensibly she’s finding herself, but come on.)

Sure, ballet dancers, stage mothers, and bitter has-beens – maybe all women – have reason to complain about how they’re portrayed in “Black Swan.” But what I loved about “Black Swan” was that it was a movie wholly centered on a woman, and the story wasn’t about her love life. There aren’t even that many mainstream movies that are about women; when you take that small set of this year’s releases and subtract romance, you’re left with … “Salt”? That’s slim pickings for anyone who would occasionally like validation that women’s lives have more to them than simply being an excuse for “Sex and the City 2.”

As for the misogyny, I ended up feeling less outraged by the movie and more thoughtful about what the role of the Swan Queen (the ballerina who plays both good White Swan and temptress Black Swan) means. Poor Nina Sayers, it’s not enough to be a hardworking good girl. The boss (and here is where I conveniently extrapolate from one fictional ballet company director to the whole of society) demands she be some kind of sexpot as well. “Black Swan” may be a delicious, delirious, teetering-on-the-edge thrill ride. But I came away from it thinking of the pressures on young women to be both high achieving and sexy. In a puritanical culture that’s obsessed with hotness, maybe everyone who wants to be in the spotlight needs to be a Swan Queen.

Wear the hoodie, Zuckerberg

We just saw “The Social Network” the other night, and it is my new favorite movie. Jesse Eisenberg, who I fell in love with in “Adventureland” (the movie that, seen post-“Twilight,” rehabilitated Kristen Stewart for me), somehow shed all his charming, goofy sweetness and instead was a smart, vindictive, socially awkward and occasionally nasty boy genius. It was a great performance, and if now I feel something like curious neutrality for Mark Zuckerberg, it’s because I really, really like Jesse Eisenberg.

Picture of Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network"

Actually, I don’t think Zuckerberg came off too badly. Our resident movie critic in the Chronicle called the movie “a hatchet job of epic proportions” and much as I love and appreciate Mick LaSalle for his courage in sticking up for “Flashdance” I have to disagree. Sure, he’s not warm and fuzzy, but Zuckerberg’s no Idi Amin, either. Personally, the thing I used to hate most about him was the hoodie. I could forgive Steve Jobs the turtleneck, but photo after photo of Zuckerberg at this or that conference in the hoodie drove me nuts. I used to pray that this guy would buy something with a collar just so I wouldn’t have to see him in the pages of the business section wearing that thing again.

After “The Social Network,” I’ve relaxed my position. Wear the hoodie! I don’t care. In fact, the more I think about the movie, the more I’ve come to accept Zuckerberg for his “outsider” ways (outsider at Harvard and in the world, completely typical for Silicon Valley). Or at least, I think that’s what I’m feeling in response to David Denby’s New Yorker review, which ascribes some of the movie’s power to the exquisite tension between director David Fincher (fan of outsiders, serial killers, et al.) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, good-guy humanist and creator of witty dialogue.

Yes, I’m feeling unexpected micro bursts of positivity toward everyone after this movie. David Fincher, who I blame for the 2+ hours of life I spent on the burnished vapidity of Benjamin Button – forgiven! Aaron Sorkin, I never watched “The West Wing,” but now I will! I even feel a little softer toward Steve Jobs – who had nothing to do with the movie, but who made me realize I have a serious bias against zillionaires who don’t wear a business uniform, as if I’m still a betrayed San Franciscan from the early 90s when people who looked like hipsters weren’t supposed to make money. (Actually I still am.)

I’m sure Zuckerberg was a conniving dick as a sophomore in college. But who among us has not been a good friend at times? Who among us would not go asshole when provoked by the twin exacerbations of venture capital and Justin Timberlake? The rolls of business are full of stories like this. This one just felt particularly relevant and entertaining. (I’m hoping for similar entertainment value over at Oracle when Mark Hurd and Larry Ellison try to work together, but we’ll see.)

So I no longer live dreading the sight of Zuckerberg in a sweatshirt when I sit down to breakfast. I’ve forgiven him for his sartorial choices, for the insensitivity of youth, and even for Facebook, which of course I’m still on, though it feels more and more tiresome all the time.

Juno

I saw it a week ago, but I am still experiencing “Juno” afterglow. I’d been prepared for letdown and overhype, but really it’s exactly as advertised: witty, wisecracking, sweet – this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” Now we are listening to the soundtrack constantly, and I am humming that “I am a Vampire” song that sounds like a fourteen-year-old and her friends are singing it in her bedroom.

And I’ve gotten over my brief spate of envy/fascination with the screenwriter Diablo Cody. She did write a great script. It was nice to go to the movie and feel like, hats off, Diablo! Because I simply hate feeling envious of anyone.

So, not at all envious, I have been reading now about Stephenie Meyer because I am just about to start “Eclipse” and for the procrasintation-inclined there are interviews with her everywhere. (“Eclipse”? Stephenie Meyer – surely these references to the gazillion-selling author of the “Twilight” series do not need to be explained.) And, if I were to be envious, the reasons would be that she has three kids, managed to write three great big satisfying books that are somehow not tired vampire re-treads, and seemed to do it without breaking a sweat. And, as I’m trying to finish revising “The Wolves and the Wood,” the sweat, unfortunately, is pouring off me in gallons. In rivers. If I updated my photo it would show me in, like, head-to-toe sweatbands. And that would be very gross, so I won’t.