A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Culture

At a Paper, a Headline Style

by evanmcmurry

I know NYT headlines are notoriously obtuse, but come on:


That’s a technically accurate description of Gone Girl the way “Retirement, and Now Travel Difficulties” is an accurate description of Lear.

HuffPost Editor Calls You a Liar for Your 10 Novels List

by evanmcmurry

HuffPost tech editor Alexis Kleinman thinks your 10 Novels That Shaped Me lists are bunk:

No, your favorite book is not “The Sound and the Fury.” No, you did not finish “Infinite Jest.” “One Hundred Years Of Solitude”? You read that in 10th grade. I know because I was in that English class with you.

Yeah ok.Tthis is as much categorical error as it is strawman. Here’s Kleinman’s switcheroo:

Sure, we’re calling this “books that changed the way I think” but really it’s just meant to be your favorite books.

No it’s not! Favorite books and books that shaped you/stuck with you certainly can be coincident, but not necessarily. One of the interesting things about the list was that making it forced you to distinguish between books you liked and books that have had an sustained and consequential effect on you. (The Long Goodbye, for instance, would make the former list but got struck from my latter.)

But Kleinman thinks you’re covering up your actual, trashy reading tastes with random selections from Le Canon:

There is nothing wrong with liking popular books. You shouldn’t be ashamed to have read Harry Potter a dozen times. [Ed: nobody is.] Reading is just like anything else: it can be fun and it can be challenging. There shouldn’t be a stigma against fun books. [Ed: there isn’t.] If you’re super picky, remember that fluffy books can be gateways into more serious literature, ya prude.

Per Kleinman, here’s the “real” list you faux-elitists would have written if you’d been telling the truth:

1. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone
2. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
3. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
4. The Phantom Tollbooth
5. The Hunger Games
6. Fifty Shades Of Grey
7. Gossip Girl
8. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One
9. The Lord Of The Rings
10. Where The Sidewalk Ends

Leaving aside that FB published metrics of the lists (they were watching) that revealed that most people did disproportionately list the Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, this misses the entire point of the exercise, which, once again, was not to name the most recent titles you gorged on but works that have stayed with you. 50 Shades of Grey went through a trillion printings, but nobody’s rereading it — just ask the charities overburdened with unwanted copies. The Hunger Games sold like gangbusters, but will anybody still be reaching for it on the shelf in ten years?

The 10-novels lists was a perfect filter for fads; only the books that survived multiple apartment moves made the cut. That’s how One Hundred Years of Solitude ends up on the list and 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t: because you read One Hundred Years of Solitude in 10th grade, and still do.

Not All Honesty Is the Good Kind

by evanmcmurry

Of course, now somebody’s offering Donald Sterling the “Hey, he’s honest about what he believes” off-ramp.

First off, it’s not like Sterling’s comments were made in a press release. More to the point: this brought to mind the infamous “black woman in yoga class” essay. You may recall that some, including the editor that commissioned it, defended that piece by commending the author for her honesty, even bravery, in addressing her own race-based discomfort, even if she did project that discomfort onto the other woman—to which the rest of the world responded “so the eff what?”

In short, it’s good to be occasionally reminded that candor is not always a virtue—or, more specifically, that being true to your beliefs doesn’t necessarily excuse them.

NaNoWriMo to the End of the Line

by evanmcmurry

This is the logical conclusion of NaNoWriMo: a book nobody will read but that makes all the participants feel good about themselves, featuring the most generic, faddish plot possible, and clocking in at three times the length of the prompt, because if the words don’t matter, why not have 80 million of them?

In Which The New Yorker Explains the Joke It’s About to Tell You

by evanmcmurry


The only way it would be better is if it were followed by an 11,000-word piece on the American history of this “humor.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 4.04.19 PM

Can House of Cards be Feminist if it Doesn’t Have a Brain?

by evanmcmurry

Amanda Marcotte may have detected a feminist streak where there is none in House of Cards’ second season, not because the show isn’t that feminist but because it simply isn’t that thoughtful. Consider (blah blah spoiler alert), in discussing Claire’s live-TV admission she’s had an abortion:

Interestingly, no anti-choicers protest or threaten Claire until after the tabloid press starts a rumor that she is an adulteress. This decision on the part of the show ends up driving home the idea that anti-abortion sentiment stems mainly from a desire to control female sexuality.

I’d like to believe that’s true—it would be a powerful and incisive subtext if it were. But that’s assigning the show a political acuity it demonstrates nowhere else. This is a season in which (blah blah spoiler alert) Democrats get a political win by using entitlement reform to save the GOP from shutting down the government, the tea party scores electoral victories through huge political donations rather than scrappy primary sabotages, and Dems try to save their midterm majority by impeaching their own president. What are the odds House of Cards got that basic, CNN-level stuff wrong but nailed the nuances of subterranean culture war motives?

Guy Fieri is Full of It, Slow-Roasted Single Origin Coffee Edition

by evanmcmurry

No one’s surprised that Guy Fieri slapped his frosted tips upon a “rockin” box of coffee called Flavortown (where Smash Mouth plays daily). But do note Flavortown’s entry toll:

A “hand-picked” sampler of sixteen K-cups will set you back $12.95 on Amazon, which puts the flavors — price-wise, anyhow — up there with some single-origin micro-roastery kinds of coffee.

One of those “funky flavors” is the “American Diner Blend,” because nothing says authentic cup of joe like pour-over prices.

This is just your semiannual reminder that Fieri’s “diners, drive-ins and dives” schtick is a bald excuse to jack up the price.

The Heavyset Black Girl and the Big Black Guy

by bisonmessink

There’s been a silly hubbub over a silly article assigned by a silly editor at XOJane this week. The crux of the controversy is that a privileged skinny white etc girl was made so uncomfortable by the alien presence of a black woman at her yoga studio that she went home after her distracted asanas that night and wept. And then wrote a tortured essay about it.

Much of the reaction has rightfully centered on the author’s pity, revulsion, and terror at the black woman’s “heavyset” physique — which reminds me of another phenomenon perpetrated, often innocently enough, against black males.

I remember one rainy evening ten years ago, a friend and I — two white college students — were waiting in our school’s student union for a buddy to come pick us up in his big boat of a Buick. So when we saw a big boat of a Buick pull up and then stop in front of the building, we ran outside, fast as we could through the rain, and hopped in the car before we got too wet. Neither of us noticed until we had pulled the doors shut behind us that we had jumped into the wrong car. Behind the wheel of this particular Buick was a black guy our age who was not the white friend we were waiting on. This fellow sat perfectly still in the driver’s seat and greeted us with cool deadpan: “What’s up.”

My friend and I started cracking up immediately at our error, apologized, and ran back into the building.

It was a funny little moment, and in the coming days I heard my friend retell the story what seemed like a million times. And I noticed — each time the story would build up to the same punchline: “And then we look over, and behind the wheel it’s this big black guy!”

Of course, the black guy whose car we jumped into wasn’t big. He was normal-sized, the same size as us. But emphasizing the big-ness of the black guy adds danger, excitement, and a comic emphasis on the “boy did we ever end up in the wrong place” part of the story. And in my friend’s memory, I’m sure the black guy was big, even if it was just a coded sense of danger or intimation he felt at finding himself unexpectedly in the car with a black man.

A small and innocent and even humorous exaggeration? Sure. But ever since, it’s made me notice every time I hear a white person characterize an average-sized black male a “big.” I hear it all the time. It has nothing to do with the size of the black man, and everything to do with the base fear of him.

In Elena, Family Becomes Nexus of Class Warfare in Putin’s Russia

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a wonderfully shot, perfectly acted Russian drama, Dostoevskian in its moral poles and Chekhovian in its refusal to resolve them. Placing the viewer smack in the middle of the two classes of Putin’s Russia—the sleek rich and the crumbling poor, with nary a middle class between them—the film embodies with play-like economy the competition between forces of greed and the bonds of family, a struggle the latter can’t even hope to win.

Elena is a middle-aged former nurse who, late in life, has married up to a wealthy businessman she once cared for and now lives with in his modern condo; she dotes after him, he does a bit of ordering around, but they have a couple of scenes together that convey, if not the romance of a first marriage, the genuine affection of a second. But Elena’s family did not rise out of poverty with her; she brings them money in their slot of an apartment, stacked somewhere in a dilapidated building that looks like it might one day fall like Communism. Elena’s son has had two children of his own, accidentally, and the eldest is in danger of being sent to the army or prison if someone doesn’t pay for he and his woeful grades to go to college.

Elena and her husband Vladimir argue continually over whether he is expected to support her deadbeat relatives, but nothing is decided before Vlad has a heart attack. Rather than see the benevolent light and come around to Elena’s family, he instead gets a visit from his decadent daughter, Katya, a lissome animal who’s lived off his wealth her entire life while cultivating a bored appreciation of what Vladimir calls “the pleasures of life.” She tells Elena she doesn’t “give a flying fuck” that her father nearly died, but once in his presence the two reconnect over an essentially capitalist worldview of which both, in their own ways, are virtuosos: he has relentlessly earned money at the neglect of all else, while she has luxuriated in his profits long enough to know that money is all that matters, however much she faults him for believing that to the point of having ignored her. Father and daughter do not like each other, but they are of a piece: they have mastered Putin’s Russia while Elena and her kind have not, and this Darwinian verdict overtakes all else.

At home, Elena is reduced back to her servant role, preparing Vladimir’s meals and medications, but when Vladimir begins to compose his will, his decision about who gets all his money, his wife or his daughter, has already been made. Indeed, it was never really in question in this post-Communist society. Elena is ultimately a film about how class divisions—which Russia had tried, in name at least, more than any other country to eradicate—re-form in what Marx called the “reproductions of the means of production”: the family and all its tiny dramas. For all that Marx presented wide-lensed histories of dialectical materialism, he knew well that capitalism perpetuated itself every night in the home as much as it did across centuries in the factories. And if class divisions could be found at home, so too could class warfare, something Vladimir should have thought more about as he yelled his wife’s name across the house to bring him more coffee or close the blinds. When Elena warns him that one day “the first shall be last,” Vladimir, his will half-written at his side, rolls his eyes at the tired Biblicism, not knowing it will be one of the last movements he makes.

This is all executed without a moment of didacticism, though the characters do stand around having existentially-bare discussions about class and the pointlessness of breeding and that old standby, What It Means To Be Russian. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin’s taut script, in which not a word is wasted, can take partial credit for this, as can the patient, confident cinematography. Yes, this is the type of film in which the camera lingers on a twig or chair or a table corner for > 10 seconds, and if you need “Top Chef”-esque jump cuts or else you break into apoplexy, this film may not be for you. The slow shots exude pretension at first, but they frame the action well, establishing us in the still, quiet world of day-to-day life so thoroughly that we feel trauma’s interruption as intensely as the characters do.

But within this narrowly-staged drama, the onus is ultimately put on the actors to convey the emotional complexity of their characters, and both Nadezhda Markina as Elena and Elena Lyadova as Katerina achieve this with aplomb. Lyadova portrays with relish the feisty intelligence lurking just beneath her sleepy, trust-fund facade, often through nothing more than a knowing look as she curves her supine self over the shape of a couch.

But Markina is so committed to her character that she seems at times to even surprise herself. As Elena prepares herself for her cataclysmic crime, Markina walks across the house she’s been living in for the past two years and nearly trips on a step. Elena would have known that step was there—she’s not only lived in the house but cared for it, and no doubt could draw a blueprint of it with her eyes closed. But the character, about to commit an horrendous action, is in unprecedented territory, and the step that she’s probably made one million times before suddenly trips her up. Little moments like these make the studied cinematography go down more smoothly, which is pretty much the definition of an actor carrying a film.

Elena is not perfect. It ends abruptly, both in Chekhov-like ambivalence and before the story feels complete. It’s also a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism: the flame of a candle Elena lights for a saint while praying for Vladimir to recover is repeated later in a sinister, guilty glow when she burns an important document; the power goes out in her family’s apartment, and a scene later her grandson, the one who so needs into college, starts a fight with and then gets pummeled by some thugs in front of the very power plant that cut off his family’s electricity. These symbolic rhymes make the film cohere, but too heavy a reliance on them undercuts the verisimilitude of such moments as when Elena strikes a match to burn the documents and misses on the first match. (What a great detail: doesn’t every first match go out before you light what you need to light?)

But these are minor quibbles. Elena so wonderfully throws us into a moral miasma, at once headline-specific and timelessly allegorical, that not only are the miniature faults forgiven but forgotten as the drama unspools itself. In the last shot, we see an entirely new family forming in Vladimir’s old living room, and indeed the dialectic of Vladimir’s wealth and Elena’s poverty do seem to have created something new. But, as Marx would tell you, this is hardly the end. In fact, he would say the violence of a few minutes before more likely marks what’s in store for Russia as it transitions into a rigged, atavistic brand of capitalism, one that will bring increasing strife between classes until crimes like Elena’s will seem less a private shock than history acting itself out.

Linklater’s Bernie Turns A Fascinating Murder Story Into A Shallow Romp

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

Bernie, Richard Linklater’s newest film, is an odd, disjointed, always fascinating but ultimately shallow movie about Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a mortician and town vivant in Carthage, Texas, who inexplicably takes up with a nasty widow twice his age and then just as inexplicably murders her. The film is based off a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth (who shares screenwriting credit here), and has all the elements of drama except the drama itself.

Two enigmas swirl about the film, the first Black’s Tiede, an eccentric, gregarious, Christian and possibly gay assistant funeral director for whom the entire town of Carthage swoons. He sings like an angel at church, dispenses tax advice to his blue collar buddies, and goes above and beyond for the widows whose husbands he prepares for the afterlife.

Bernie meets his biggest challenge in Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a modern-day Faulkner figure who terrorizes Carthage as the tight-fisted owner of the town’s central bank. Bernie refuses to be rebuffed by the widow, and before long he draws her out of her house, and then is taking trips and cruises on her dime. But as Bernie is accepted into her home and purse, he finds her complex of dominance intractable: no sooner is he in her will than he’s also in her command. Being Marjorie’s servant is too much even for the cherubic Bernie: he puts four bullets in her back and hides her in her freezer, preserving her body until he can give it the burial he, as a professional mortician, knows it deserves.

Bernie is as fascinating a protagonist as one could hope for, but we never get any insight into why he so doggedly pursues the widow, especially once his Christian generosity succeeds in overcoming her crusty facade. Black is a poor choice for the lead; everything that makes him a gifted comic actor—that incessantly mugging face, his ironic knowingness—destroys him as a dramatic one, something that’s been on display ever since he spun like a top through the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Here he plays Bernie like John Waters’ vintage store owner in theSimpsons, as if he just can’t get over how dang quirky his own self is, and it layers a patina of self-awareness onto Bernie the man couldn’t possibly have possessed. Even when Black, a talented vocalist, takes the mic at church, there’s an element of Tenacious D-level ham that makes us doubt the sincerity of the character whose sincerity is the very point of the film.

Shirley MacLaine does a much better job as Marjorie, but is restrained by her underwritten character. Marjorie Nugent is the second enigma of the film, as much a screen for the projection of the town’s suspicions and prejudices as the shut-in of Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” But the film refuses to plumb her depths as well. We don’t know why she’s mean; why don’t know why she’s estranged from her family; we don’t know what leads her to treat Bernie the way she does, either when she makes him the first person she allows into her life in years, or when she makes him pay dearly for that allowance. There’s a wonderful scene in which Bernie pleads for Marjorie to stop chewing her food so much, the one pet peeve of a soul who, as a bit character puts it, just doesn’t know how to tell someone to “piss off.” The mischievous joy in MacLaine’s face as she continues to chew the bite and pointlessly torture Bernie is the best moment in the whole film, its one true investigation into the nature of power and cruelty that the rest of the movie merely references.

As for the rest of the movie, it strikes an hokey tone more in key with Black’s mobile eyebrows than MacLaine’s wily intelligence. Wacky banjo music plays under the townspeople’s more-Texas-than-Texas aphorisms, and as much fun as the film truly has in exploring small town idiosyncrasies (one man says Texas is really five states, then goes on to list seven examples), this rompish feel makes for a disjointed tone most reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s uber-strange The Informant!. That film was more interested in participating in its hero’s solipsism than exploring it, and the result was an uneven match of tone and subject, a lighthearted jape that undercut the tragedy of its delusional protagonist. “Isn’t this so much fun?” the movie seemed to be saying, even as lives quietly dissipated.

The same problem haunts Bernie. The entire drama is taken as a quirky escapade; the movie ends on such a note of whimsy that you leave the theater without completely understanding that a sincere and generous person has been put in prison for the rest of his life after betraying his faith and morality by shooting another human being.

Texas Monthly is supremely adept at striking the right balance between their state’s big-haired baroqueness and the gruesome crimes that unfold there. But film adaptations have had trouble capturing the combination. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s The Client List began life as a Texas Monthly article; Jim Carrey’s character in the excruciating I Love You, Phillip Morris was a regular feature in the magazine’s Bum Steers list. Both of those films failed in greater degree than Bernie, but for much the same reason. Everybody is having a zany good time—and Skip Hollandsworth, whom I’ve seen describe stories in editorial meetings, always has a zany good time telling them—but they seem to be taking the drama for granted. Bernie turns Bernie Tiede’s tragedy into a sort of adventure, and in doing so deprives him of the dignity he so righteously showed his corpses. The last time someone treated him that way, he shot her dead. Shouldn’t we take that seriously?