Monday, December 20, 2010

Reality Bites My Ass: Tiny Furniture

I'm a really big fan of the "new adult" genre that publishers are kicking around: lit geared toward the 18-25 set, about coming of age in a world very different than that of our parents.  (Last year's Commencement is a poignant, funny example.)  In some ways, angsting in one's early twenties might seem like whining of the White Girl Problems or Stuff White People Like kind: many recent liberal arts college grads have parents who won't let them starve, a host of knowledge, and free time to burn, so what's the problem?

Maybe I'm outing myself as a liberal arts college grad here (in case the rest of this blog wasn't any indication), but there are a lot of problems.

Liberal arts degrees might not score you a plum job in the working world, but in this economy, neither will more "practical" areas of study.  More and more college grads are having to move back home for financial reasons.  And the early twenties are weird.  You're not quite a kid, not quite an adult.  The older generation might scold you for perpetuating adolescence, but with no direction or means of support, what the hell else are you supposed to do?

In her debut film Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham explores these issues more or less successfully.  She plays Aura, a newly-minted film theory grad who's spent the last four years in Ohio (if I had to venture a guess, I'd say at Oberlin) and is now returning to her native Tribeca.  Aura's single mom (played by Dunham's real mother) is an artist who never really held a day job, so she's not pushing her daughter into the realms of full-time employment.  Though Aura could use some direction.  She's recently been cut loose by her boyfriend, is growing more distant from her best friend who's still in Ohio, and just wants someone to tell her who she should be.

As Aura drifts through a hostessing gig and flirts with two losers (one of whom would be cute if he lost the hipster 'stache, the other way too hirsute and lispy for my taste), hanging out with her "bad influence" of a childhood best friend (Jemima Kirke, who's fantastically British and offbeat), I kind of wanted to shake her.  Tell her she's been given every advantage and just to snap out of it already.  And to be fair, she does get quite whiny, she has terrible taste in dudes (her ex-boyfriend doesn't sound like much of a prize either), and Dunham isn't always the best actress (neither is her mom--their scenes range from touching to downright painful).

When I didn't want to smack Aura, though, I recognized the early twenties experience in all its teeth-gritting uncertainty.

Because it's a time when the world expects you to emerge from college fully formed, knowing exactly who you are, when you're only just beginning to figure it out.  It's a time when you realize the hothouse university environment, enriching as it may be, hasn't taught you any actual survival skills, and you're going to learn more from  your mistakes than the things you do right.  It's a time when relationships change, especially family dynamics (Aura's relationship with her overachieving teenage sister, played by Dunham's real-life sister, is incredibly real in its up-and-down nature).  It's a time when you have to reassess exactly who and what you want to be, and even though you'll learn down the line that you'll constantly change your mind, at this point you just want to make a decision and be done with it.

So, sure, Tiny Furniture can be aimless and totally twee, but it also speaks a lot of truth.  Kudos to Dunham for not backing down and giving the quarterlife crisis a fair, honest representation.

Though I do wish the ending would have been more concrete.

(And I realize in making that wish, I may be missing the point.)

What do you think of this "new adult"/quarterlife genre?  Any recommendations?  Leave a comment!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Sing-Off: Glee, Without the Suck!

Yes, I still watch Glee.  As skeevy as Mr. Schu can be, Matthew Morrison is yummy and has an incredible voice (still jealous that my mom got to meet him in 2002 when he was in Hairspray on Broadway).  As annoying as Rachel can be, Lea Michele can sure wail.  Quinn and Sam are cute.  Brittany's funny when she's part of the C plot and the occasional A plot.  Mike O'Malley's the best dad ever, and the Darren Criss-led "Teenage Dream" has inspired obsession from me and my sister.  (O hai, Darren Criss.  Please don't be gay.  Please.)

Speaking of "Teenage Dream," I hate the original version.  So why do I love the cover, other than the fact it's sung by people who can actually sing?

The fact that it's a cappella.

You see, I am an a cappella nerd.  When I was in college, I auditioned for my university's group to no avail.  My brother, lucky bastard, has been in two different groups, one of which paid him to sing all summer.  And when Ben Folds released his University A Cappella album last year, it was like peanut butter meeting chocolate for me.  My only complaint is that there wasn't a version of "Zak and Sara" (my all time favorite Ben song).

Last year, I got into a little show called The Sing-Off on NBC, a mini-series of sorts in which a cappella groups from around the country competed for a big cash prize and a record deal.  I loved it, down to host Nick Lachey, his corny puns, and his constant, constant insistence that it was A CAPPELLA, NO ACCOMPANIMENT, JUST VOICES, DID I MENTION IT'S A CAPPELLA, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS IT'S NO VOICES!

This year, it's even more indulgent, more group-y, more dorky and therefore more awesome.

Here's how it works: ten a cappella groups compete for, once again, a cash prize and a record deal.  You've got everyone from a high school group where EVERYONE'S TOTALLY DIFFERENT (but of course the Homecoming Queen is the lead singer, and I spy a purity ring, EW) to the pretentious yet virginal Whiffenpoofs from Yale to a bunch of old dudes led by someone named Jerry Lawson who apparently was a big deal back in the day (anyone?).

You also have an L.A. group called the Backbeats, featuring one of Bob's friends, who happens to have a really good voice and looks adorable on TV.

Judging these musical folk are former Boyz II Men falsetto Shawn Stockman--who's largely useless, aka The Randy, Pussycat Dolls (former?) member Nicole Scherzinger (need I say she's the Paula?  Slightly more coherent though), and one of my personal musical heroes, the incomparable Ben Folds (who unlike Simon isn't an asshole with man boobs, but who like Simon gives good, helpful critiques).

A cappella takes a tremendous amount of skill, which I could never reach despite years of voice lessons and choirs.  You must possess a flawless ear: so you can pick up your own part in an arrangement and also so you can tune out the seven singers around you who are all blaring different things.  No divas, please--you must be able to blend.  Beatboxing helps.  It's intense.

Also, most a cappella puts a new spin on songs, unlike more and more of Glee lately (I do not need another shot-for-shot Britney Spears video.  Come on, Ryan Murphy).

My personal favorites are the aforementioned Backbeats (come on, one of them slept on my couch last year!  Oh yeah, and they're really good), Street Corner Symphony (gotta love Southern hipster boys), and Groove for Thought (oh my God, they're a group of music teachers from Seattle that include a father and daughter, and they're soooo dorky but they totally own it).  I also hesitated to root for Committed because they are really, really religious and that weirds me out, but my God, they sound like Boyz II Men 2.0 and I was a huuuuge Boyz II Men fan in the '90's.  When I was 14, all I wanted was to dance to "On Bended Knee" with a boy who loved me.

So let's sum this up: The Sing-Off is just like Glee, only without:

  • Auto Tune
  • That stupid "school jazz band" that conveniently appears and disappears whenever
  • Finn (need I say more?)
  • Santana and Brittany's manufactured fauxbian drama (either do a queer-girl storyline--please do, it would be interesting!--or don't.  And give Santana some motivation for her actions other than just being a heinous bitch).
  • Pregnancy
How can you NOT?  Tune in Monday and Wednesday this week!

Here are a few of my favorite performances:

Monday, December 6, 2010

TV Twin: Community's Britta Perry

Remember in the heyday of Sex and the City (or, hell, seven months ago when that abomination of a fanfic-gone-bad second movie came out) when ladies and gay guys were all, "I'm a Carrie/Charlotte/Samantha/Miranda?"  (My friend Bob swears that calling oneself or someone else a "Carrie" is the very opposite of a good thing.)  I will admit that I more or less participated, as my sister swears I'm Miranda 2.0.  Thank God my ex didn't knock me up after getting one of his balls removed.

So, okay, I'm somewhat of a Miranda.  But even more these days, I'm a Britta.

Last May, I posted a tribute to one of my favorite shows now or ever, Community.  This season, the show's  gone in some new directions (not to be confused with New Directions on Glee, which I have a love/hate relationship with, but that's a whole 'nother post): more episodes that are stand-alone, more objectification of Joel McHale (not that I'm complaining), and most of all, more of an ensemble feel.  What began in the pilot as a morality tale of a lying asshole being put in his place has evolved into a story of a group of friends, at once archetypal and multi-layered, stumbling and grappling as they search for the next stage in life.

It's been fun to watch everyone grow--even old-man Pierce has his moments, falling into the "wrong crowd" with a clique of sassy old people known and feared as the Hipsters.  However, one of my favorite character evolutions has been Gillian Jacobs' Britta, who's gone from bland everyalternagirl love interest to full-fledged human being, equally misguided and wise as she frequently knocks heads and boots with McHale's Jeff Winger.

By "favorite," I sometimes mean "painful."  Britta's blundering antics can be wincingly hard to watch.  Because at times, they are so much like my own.  Here they are, the top 5 reasons I relate to Britta more than any TV character ever:

1.  Terminally unique, for better and for worse.
When I was an obnoxious pseudo-goth-depressed law student, one of my favorite professors warned me against alienating my preppy classmates by being "terminally unique."  My dark and despairing but stubborn mind had no idea what she meant then, but now I look back and wince at what a poseur I was. Throughout my late teens and twenties, I fell right into the hipster trap of disdaining things I deemed mainstream and embracing the alternative.  There's nothing wrong with doing this, if that's genuinely what you believe.  Not me--I loved indie bands but also secretly cranked the pop music I publicly denigrated.

Even though we don't see flashbacks, Britta stands out as the girl who never quite fit in.  She's a high school dropout, she wears leather jackets, she's lived in New York and is a vegetarian.  And she's very, very vocal about all of this.  I like to think I've evolved past terminal uniqueness (and yes, I know this is an NA/AA term), and I just own it.  However, sometimes my friends tell me otherwise.  We're growing into who we are, Britta and I, and hopefully we'll get to the point where we don't need to advertise, we'll just be.

2.  "I don't think straight with nothing to prove."
Oh, how I identify with this Fun. quote.   And if she knew about it, maybe Britta would too.

It was revealed in Season One that Britta is a high school dropout, and part of the reason she's at community college is to get back at everyone who thought she was a failure.  It's unspoken that many of these people have forgotten about her, or give even less of a crap than they did ten years ago.

I did graduate high school; however, I was almost held back in kindergarten.  Not because I was behind academically, but because I was shy and physically a little behind.  Upon getting confirmation that my smarts were more than up to speed, my mom and dad (the latter of whom studied to be a teacher), basically told my teacher she was full of crap.

I found this out in seventh grade, when I ALREADY felt like a freak amidst my loud, athletic, pink around the collar classmates.  It made me even more determined not to be like them.

I graduated valedictorian (and a kickass dancer to boot).

Even now, at age 30, I often feel like I'm two steps behind everyone else.  And I need to catch up at all costs.  No matter what I accomplish, it isn't quite enough for me to prove that I'm no longer the shy little farm-town girl who walked slower and talked quieter than the rest of the class.  Ridiculous?  Yeah.  But like Britta, I constantly feel the need to "show" everyone.  Even though--surprise!--nobody cares.

3.  Likes all the wrong guys.
Even though she's a smart, tough chick, Britta's romantic judgment often leaves a lot to be desired.  In season one, she had two main hookups: professional Hacky Sack-er and hippie musician Vaughn, who eventually wrote a song declaring Britta a "gee dee bee" (figure it out), and cocky lawyer/fellow Spanish 101 survivor Jeff.  When Jeff's former girlfriend Professor Slater decided she wanted him back, Britta used her status as candidate for Transfer Queen to make a declaration of love she wasn't sure she felt.

Been there.  Oh God, have I been there.

I tend to go for the guys who are confident to the point of arrogance, smart-ass to the point of borderline disrespectful.  I like the ones who flaunt their brain cells in the face of those less astute.  And sometimes, these guys turn out to be jerks, but oh no, I keep coming back.

Vaughn is long gone, but Britta and Jeff's relationship remains interesting in its stickiness.  Do they have a genuine love connection?  Probably not.  Jeff's a preppy douche, Britta's a wannabe hipster.  But they're both cynical, darkly humorous, and enjoy a good argument.  I don't know if either is looking for romance, yet they're perfectly suited as friends with benefits.  I joked the other day to Bob that I may as well wear a T-shirt saying, "Looking for Jeff Winger."  'Cause snarky friend with hot benefits sounds pretty amazing right now.

4.  Opinionated, yet goofy.
Britta goes to protests, eschews meat and takes women's studies courses.  Yet she also does the robot, spews awkward comebacks, and once dressed as a flower for a dance recital.  Sure, the quirky not-quite-together gal has been around since Mary Richards and Diane Chambers, but rarely have I connected more with one.

I hate it when TV shows and movies manifest female quirkiness in the form of manic pixie dream girls (see also: Natalie Portman in Garden State.  I have never wanted to murder a fictional character more).  Everyone has their little weirdnesses, but it doesn't mean they're a) dumb, or b) a plot device for a sad sack whiny male to realize that life is awesome.  Britta and I both try too hard to be different sometimes, without realizing that we're strange already--just not in the ways we pretend to be.

5.  "I try to act compassionate, because I'm afraid I'm not."
This line, uttered after Britta and Jeff's paintball game tryst in the seminal "Modern Warfare" episode, hit me in the gut like a ton of bricks.  For a rare moment, these two stop posturing and sexual-tension squabbling and have an honest conversation which results in Britta's confession.  And it makes so much sense for her character, a vulnerability that feels real rather than put upon.  Britta's proud of the white liberal shell she's built around her, but deep down she's worried she's just not nice at heart.  (Jeff has similar struggles as he realizes more and more that he's not as clever as he thinks he is.)

Yeah, this hit home.  I mean, I donate to charities whose work I believe in.  I work for a nonprofit about whose mission I am passionate.  I try to be a good friend to those with whom I am close.

Yet I struggle with the fact that I'm probably not a nice person.  I'm snarky.  I'm judgmental.  I like to think I'm better than I used to be, but maybe I'm not.  And it wears on me a lot more than I'd like to admit.

That one line, so succinct and earnest, is the one that made me sit up on my couch and say, "Damn."  It put into words what I'd never been able to verbalize.

So yeah, I love Britta.  It may be weird to identify with a fictional person so deeply, but I do.  Might as well own it, right?

I think I should add Gillian Jacobs to the list of Celebrities I Never Want to Meet.  Because I'm sure I'd blather, "Omigod, I am SO Britta," and I'm sure she gets enough of that noise.

Two of my favorite Britta moments:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Caution, Navel Gazing Ahead: NaNoWriMo Reflections

So I won.

For the second November in a row, I got achy muscles from dragging my laptop everywhere, spent way too much money at Starbucks and Borders (the latter's spinach omelet sandwiches are like crack.  Delicious, eggy crack), listened to sixties and seventies rock almost exclusively, and cranked out prose that was, more often than not, total and utter shit.

And 65,000 words later, I emerged with a first draft.

If you've read this blog in the past month, you know about my involvement in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and my NaNoWriRant against certain writers who think people such as I are deluded chumps.

However, when I started writing, I WAS, in fact, somewhat of a deluded chump.  I really, really wondered why the manuscript I rewrote TWO WHOLE TIMES wasn't, in fact, getting me an agent.  I totally thought I was better than most YA writers out there, more original, funnier.

Then I started taking classes and going to workshops and applying for residencies.  In doing all this, I learned that not only are there a plethora of highly gifted folks out there, most of them worked way harder than I to perfect their craft.

I learned to identify my own issues with plotting, character development, just plain ideas.  I learned to listen to critiques--even if I didn't always agree, there was usually something in there that was helpful.  I learned that in classroom exercises, I should stop trying to impress everyone and just. freaking. WRITE.

It was during one of these freewriting prompts that I got an idea.  An idea that became last year's NaNo.  My third full manuscript, and the first one that I honestly believe has potential (and before you call me "deluded chump," I've had other non-family members say it too).  One year, one writing residency, and a gazillion revisions later, I'm STILL working on the damn thing.  My inner editor is a total bitch now.  And she's not letting me send it out till it shines like the top of the Chrysler building.

But a few months ago, things shifted.

I went through a dark period.  I was constantly sad, angry and stressed.  Things I used to really enjoy--like dance class--started losing their meaning to me, and consequently I stopped going as often.  My writing slipped by the wayside, too.  I felt like I had no capacity for creativity left, not to mention I was bereft of energy.  And when I wasn't writing, I was beating myself up for not writing.

In fact, despite the fact that I had a story I'd been jotting notes for since February (when I wasn't revising my latest project), I almost didn't do NaNo this year.

Then I thought about it.  I needed to get back in the habit of just sitting down and writing.  And this story was calling to me.  Even if I never, ever visited the project again, I had two protagonists talking to me and I wanted to get all of it down on paper.

And I did.

Mind you, November was a big month.  I signed up for another burlesque class, started going to yoga more often.  I have a full-time-plus job.  Mid-month, my best friend Bob moved back from L.A.--a wonderful, emotional experience for me--and crashed on my couch for a couple of weeks while getting his Chicago life together.  I even found time to blog and write film reviews once in a while.

But every day (almost, I think I took a break on Thanksgiving), I sat down and wrote.  And most of it's awful.  There are plot holes, characters who disappear, and inconsistencies galore.  In fact, if and when I revise this thing, I already have a list of stuff that needs to be fixed, which I'm positive is just scratching the surface.

I sat down and wrote.  I got back in the habit, refreshing me for the long process of edits ahead as I rewrite my work in progress for the umpteenth time.

I remembered that writing makes me happy.  Yes, I want to get published.  It scares me how much I want it.  But it's not about that.  It can't be.  I have friends who are published authors struggling to sell their next book.  And brilliant agented YA writers like Natalie Whipple struggle with submission as well.  I can't write to publish.  If it happens, great.  But most of all, writing makes me happy and that's why I do it.  Simplistic?  Yeah.  But totally true.

Now I have two stories I believe in.  And the two manuscripts I wrote before--though I'll never show them to anyone probably--are special to me, because they helped teach me how to write.

My astute and tough-lovey pal Xander Bennett of Screenwriting Tips . . . You Hack said once that the point of a first draft is to exist.  And now my first draft of Satellite exists.  Yay.  Awesome.

But while I'm celebrating, I'm thinking about how to tweak my work in progress, The Kids Don't Stand a Chance, so it's infinitely more readable and doesn't suck.  After spending November telling a completely different story, I'm refreshed and psyched to revise, revise, revise.

Hi, writing!

It's good to be back in the saddle again.