Saturday, January 31, 2009

Slow Burn

Since Burn After Reading is now out on DVD, I thought I'd post the review of this film that I wrote for the school paper, The Conversationalist. Enjoy!

Slow Burn

It’s been ten years since the Coen brothers released their comedy The Big Lebowski and over two decades since Raising Arizona, but the wait for another classic Coen comedy is over. Burn After Reading, the Coen’s new spy comedy, delivers the same offbeat humor and head scratching twists of their earlier comedies. It also gives the viewer, who may have balked at the bleak No Country for Old Men, a bit of a break without compromising the Coen commitment to profanity and violence.

Burn After Reading follows Linda Litzke, played by Frances McDormand, and her co-worker and friend, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), as they attempt to sell a disc of government secrets that they found in their workplace. They are quickly engulfed in lies and intrigue that threaten their ultimate goal – to raise enough money for the lonely Litzke to remake herself through plastic surgery. John Malkovich plays the disenfranchised CIA agent, Osborne Cox, who is trying to recoup his lost disc, and serial adulterer, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), is a fellow government employee.

As in their other films, the casting was pitch perfect. While lesser movies might get lost in a sea of stars like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Burn manages tight dialogue, witty banter that is never cute, and characters too weird not to be believed. The dedicated Coen fan may have to wade through a line of Brad Pitt groupies to get their movie tickets, but once inside the theater, the experience is free of Hollywood stars preening for the camera. Both Pitt and Clooney play slightly goofy, unglamorous (though likeable) characters lost in a maze of CIA spooks and clandestine meetings.

Though both Pitt’s and Clooney’s performances were admirable, the standouts in this film were Frances McDormand and John Malkovich. McDormand charms the viewer in scene after scene as her guileless character wanders from one bad situation to another with her unfortunate haircut and easy smile. Though Litzke (McDormand) is far from an innocent, her quirkiness and simple motives keep her likeable throughout the film. Those going to see Malkovich repeat his usual over-the-top performances may be a bit disappointed. He manages to dial down the craziness just a notch, and ultimately, the audience is left feeling that his every word and action is justified by the craziness around him. In fact, Malkovich’s character seems almost sane in comparison to everyone else.

Though Burn After Reading does appear upon first viewing to be a return to the Coen comedies of yesteryear, there is a subtle difference between Burn and their previous films. Burn After Reading watches like an extended joke. You know the kind: The guy at the bar tells a story that makes you laugh along the way, but deep down you know there’s going to be one heck of a punch line. This movie was fun and surprising all the way through, but as for the ending? Wait for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Party's Over

Tonight was the last night of Fiction Tutorial, and I'm left feeling a little sad that it's over. I'm going to miss the weekly one-on-one conferences with my professor, the classes chock-full of information and great exercises, and discussions with all the talented writers in our class. We did go out with a bang tonight, however. We had a table full of goodies to eat, and Professor Pietrzyk even brought some Beacon tea! The best part of the evening was the time Professor Pietrzyk took to answer all our questions about getting published. Then after telling us all the depressing, nitty-gritty of the publishing world, she gave a great pep talk. She reminded us that all the obstacles in our way were irrelevant if getting published was our desire. It doesn't matter how long it takes, you just have to keep writing - every day - and submitting, submitting, submitting. I've been putting off submitting my work to journals until I was "ready" for too long. After tonight, I feel pumped up and ready to get down to the hard work of submitting...and getting rejected. The only sure way to fail is never to try...cliche or not.

The best part of the day was my conference with Leslie Pietrzyk this morning. She really liked my revision of my story. That makes me so incredibly happy that I was able to absorb everything we talked about and come up with a new draft that synthesized what she suggested, plus the changes I wanted to make. I did get a good laugh, though, when she pointed out that near the end of my story I had a character doing three different things simultanteously...with her hands. When I jokingly suggested that my character actually had three arms, she said that I should have mentioned that earlier in the story. We both got a chuckle out of that. Isn't it funny the little things that you miss in your own work?

We finished our final decisions today for what will be included in the 2009 issue of the Concept Literary Journal. I am so excited because this year we had fewer poetry submissions and more fiction, so the issue will have more fiction and less poetry than the previous issues. Since most of the Concept staff are primarily fiction writers, I like to think that this issue will reflect us and our focus as writers. I am also really excited about the artwork we have selected and, in particular, the artwork that will be the cover art. I can't give the details since acceptance letters haven't been sent yet, but it is really powerful, and I think it ties well with a journal that will primarily feature women writers.

It seems like my blogs have been ending with a paragraph or two that have nothing to do with the paragraphs that precede, and this entry will be no different. When I went through the mail tonight, I found a small card addressed to me. I couldn't imagine who it was from, so I was really curious when I opened it. Inside I found a handwritten note from some lady I had never met - a lady from our new church introducing herself and telling me about all the different classes and Bible studies for women that the church has to offer. This is just another chapter in the book entitled How Holland Park Church Is The Friendliest Church Ever. At every turn, we have been welcomed and befriended, from the first day we visited to every Sunday night at Life Group. After months of prayers about our church situation, we are so grateful that God has led us to Holland Park. Not only do we love everyone we've met, but the classes and preaching have been wonderful, full of deep spiritual teaching and discussion. And to think we found the church via a Google search. Isn't the internet wonderful?

So, it's been a good week so far, a good month really, but the party is about to me over. Next Wednesday Spring Term starts, and it's time to buckle down for the final sprint. Challenging classes (I ended up with 2 honors classes in one semester), Concept deadlines, and a very full schedule will put an end to the leisurely pace I've enjoyed since the end of Fall Term. I'm sure I'll be back in the swing of things in no time, but right now the thought of all that work makes me want to crawl under the covers and hide. I'll spend the next week psyching myself up for the challenge...well, that and submitting my work to every journal I can find.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bittersweet Chocolate

I take it all back. For the past week, I've been complaining about our homework in Fiction Tutorial. Our professor assigned us one of those eavesdropping dialogue exercises, and I HATE those. I don't like eavesdropping, and I never hear anything good (dialogue-wise, not good as in juicy.) Consequently, I've been putting it off. So today (the day before it's due), I had to buckle down and get it done. I treated myself to lunch at Monsoon Noodle House and set to eavesdropping. Once again, I didn't hear much, but I did hear one or two phrases that triggered something in my mind. I threw in a few phrases/sentences I heard people say over the weekend, and then I got to work on the scene we were assigned to write using the at least 4 of the collected phrases. I can't believe it, but I actually got a useful scene to go in my linked sequence of stories! I'm so excited. What's really great is that the scene is not from one of the four stories I'm working on for Senior Seminar. It's actually from later in the sequence...stuff I'll need in order to continue working on this sequence once I graduate.

Speaking of graduation, it's getting to be that time...time to think about life after I graduate. On the surface, I'm too excited for words. I'm doing all the graduation things that all the "traditional" graduates do. I got my Senior pictures taken. I even got a class ring. Senior trappings aside, however, there is a lot to take in. First, there is graduate school to think about...where to apply, hoping I'll get in, hoping I'll be able to produce high quality work once I get in...will I be uncovered as a fraud who actually shouldn't be allowed to write an email, let alone a work of fiction? Then there's life after Converse. I've gotten really spoiled by my time there. Every day, I get to go to a place where all the professors are there to help and support you, and I am surrounded by other women with the same interests and drives as mine. We can talk about one short story for three times longer than it took to read it, and rip apart each other's work and still be friends. Most of the other creative writing majors are traditional aged students, and they don't seem to realize what they have there. I've been out in the work world, the real world, for lack of a better term, and it's nothing like the cozy, cocoon that is college. There may not be much time left in my final year, but I'm going to soak up every last minute of it.

Tomorrow night is our final Fiction Tutorial class, and I am so sad. Leslie Pietrzyk has been wonderful, and I have learned so much in one short month. I know I have some awesome classes waiting for me in Spring Term, but I really hate to see this month end. (Okay, it probably has a little to do with the fact that I only have class once a week right now, but it's the quality of the class, too.) I'm just hoping that Senior Seminar will be a kind of continuation of this past month - great discussions, amazing one-on-one time with my professor, and crazy progress on my stories. In the meantime, we'll celebrate tomorrow night with fiction and brownie bars.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Glorious, wonderful, unsurpassable SOLITUDE!

Today has been one of those wonderful peaceful days where there's nothing you have to do, so you're just grateful for everything you manage to do anyway. I even went outside and walked today...that's right, I voluntarily exercised. I'm pretty sure that pigs will be soaring by my window pretty soon, so I'm keeping the blinds closed. After a full weekend and with a busy week to come, I'm enjoying the quiet today. No tv this afternoon: just my laptop and then my book. Tommorow and Wednesday will be full of fiction class, writing center, and meetings for Concept. We're almost to the deadline for decisions about what to include in the 2009 issue of Concept, the literary journal at Converse College. All the girls on staff are amazing, and I'm really excited to hear what they have to say about all the submissions we've received.

Of course, there is one upside to being so busy this week: I get to enter all of my appointments into my newfangled phone. I am now completely obssesed with it. Steve and I spent at least an hour, maybe longer, downloading ringtones online the other night. Now, if you should happen to call me, depending on who you are, my phone will either play the theme from Arrested Developement, the opening music for the Hercule Poirot movies, or the killing music from Kill Bill (also known as the theme from Ironsides.) I even found a ringtone that says, "Bueller...Bueller...Bueller?" for whenever I recieve a text message. Everywhere I go, not only will I be able to communicate in short, cryptic burst of text, but I can also celebrate my dedication to the film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. If you were to leave me a voicemail, my phone would quote a line from Monty Python's Flying Circus. (I think I chose that one just to annoy Steve.)

Speaking of Steve, he gave me a great idea for a story last night. Isn't it amazing how things come to you. I spent the summer writing and struggling through my complete lack of ideas, and I came back in the fall to suffer through a list of classes that had little to nothing to do with writing. I'm three weeks into my fiction tutorial, and now my brain is brimming with ideas. Steve and I were in the grocery store parking lot just loading our bags into the trunk of our car. Not exactly the place where you go for inspiration. And so here we have Exhibit One for the argument against writing holed up in isolation. Bummer. Now I have one less excuse to stay home.

As for staying home, well, I'm making an effort to be less of a recluse. Every Sunday night, Steve and I go to Life Group with a bunch young marrieds from our church. I'm even going to a women's Bible study on Thursday night - chock full of a bunch of women I've never met. This does not come naturally to me. I'm quite content to stay at home with Steve and the girls (the cats) and watch tv or a movie, maybe play a little Rock Band. But, I am trying to do better. Just last week, things seemed promising. I found out that the girls in our small group also shared a love for all things HGTV. We loved and hated all the same shows. So this week when they were talking about movies, I thought, I can join in this conversation, too. Guess again. Steve must be right, after all. I am the only woman on the face of the earth who doesn't like Sleepless in Seattle. All the women were oohing and ahhing over their favorite chic flicks, and the most I could manage was "I like movies where things blow up." (At least the guy next to me agreed with me.)

Apropos to nothing in this entry, I also wanted to include a picture of the wonderful bunch of kids who invaded our house Saturday night. They were so much fun, and Abby is still asking when they'll be coming back.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

One Ringy Dingy

So tonight we had a house full! My kitties went from their sedate, laid-back, stress-free life to an evening of 9 people in the house, five of which were children. Hobson remained unimpressed by the crowd of younguns, but Abby was a star, letting every friendly, little hand stroke her. In fact, I think Abby went into immediate withdrawals when all the willing hands left, and she had to resort to giving Steve and me the sad-nobody-ever-pets-me eyes.

If you know me, you know how I am about the house. I like things neat and tidy and orderly. It's probably a result of 13 years of living in my own house with no one to mess things up but me (or Steve)...well, that and being an only child. So, five kids (four of which were under 12) running around, eating dinner at the coffee table, drinking soda, playing outside (and then in and back out and back in) was a good experience for me. Overall, I think I did pretty well. I couldn't quite relax, but I did manage to keep the cursory glances around the room to a minimum. (And these were great kids, by the way.) Steve, of course, was a cool customer. He just dove in, playing the PS3 with the kids, never breaking a sweat. Whenever we have kids, they're going to love him...and either hate or fear me. Oh well, I supposed every family needs crowd control.

Today was also a big day because I got a new cell phone. This is a big moment in our marriage. For the first time EVER, I have a cooler phone than my husband. I feel this may cause some tension, causing an imbalance in our familial technology equilibrium. Steve just got a new cell phone a few months ago, but while we were standing at the Verizon counter, he had to check with our sales guy to see when he would be eligible to get a phone like mine. I feel such a sense of power...makes me generous. I allowed Steve to play around with my phone for a few minutes this evening. Between the new phone and the new iPod Nano I got for Christmas, I feel like such a technophile. And to think that when I met Steve, I didn't even own a VCR!

Now, it's after midnight and I'm still up on my laptop tapping away at my blog, yet another sign of my technological growth. Unfortnately, there is no technology that will make me want to get up and be at church at 8:45, so I better go to bed!

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Doctor Is In

I can remember when mentioning Doctor Who in the presence of people my own age resulted in either a blank look or some comment about how their dad used to watch that show. But gone are the days of a show with hokey sets and visible zippers in costumes. Doctor Who is back with just enough camp and way better special effects. Now he's finding a new audience, and I am no longer the only person under 40 who loves the Doctor.

Wednesday night in my fiction class, I heard some people talking about "the Doctor." When I showed them the picture on my laptop's screen (a picture of David Tennant as the Doctor) one girl swooned, swooned. Keep in mind that these girls are all at least 10 years younger than I am. When I mentioned that there would soon be a new actor playing the doctor, we were soon bemoaning the loss of our beloved doctor...just like I did when Christopher Eccleston left...just like fans have done every time the Doctor has regenerated.

Last year, I was walking down the hallways at school and saw a girl with a t-shirt. It had a picture of the TARDIS on it. (The TARDIS is the Doctor's ship, an old-fashioned police box, and it stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.) The t-shirt said, "You never forget your first doctor." Very true, I think. Mine was Tom Baker, a kooky doctor with a hat, impossibly long scarf, and a pocketful of jelly babies. I thought nobody could ever be a better doctor than him...until the next doctor came along anyway. So, today, as I am cleaning my house and doing laundry and all those very prosaic things that must be done, I am going to watch the Doctor, my Doctor. Maybe the new guy will by my Doctor, too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Really Long Case of Benjamin Button

Okay, so I admit it - I've never read "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." But like every other other English major in the world, I have read The Great Gatsby, and based on that, I'm guessing that F. Scott Fitzgerald is turning summersaults in his grave.

First of all, when we did we become so politically correct that we have to "improve" the work of our greatest writers? I mean, let's face it, the 20's were not a time of great racial equality. The Great Gatsby is full of offensive names and racial slurs because at that time in our nation's history, we had a far less enlightened view of racial diversity. So, so some genius in Hollywood thought they should give old Ben Button a black foster mother to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy? And what's with the tie-in between Fitzgerald's story and Hurricane Katrina? I know we all like to read great literature and see profound parallels with modern times, but does that give us the right to bastardize great works of literature to further our own political and social ends? I, for one, say no.

My own purist concerns aside, however, the film has other problems. The first 20 to 30 minutes feel more like an hour, and when a movie is already pushing 3 hours, the viewer really feels the slow parts. Then there is the leading man. I will be the first to say that Brad Pitt is a wonderful actor and, let's face it, beautiful, but the filmmakers felt the need to really work the female viewer angle. I lost count on the number of gratuitous shots of Brad Pitt zooming along on his motorcycle or Brad Pitt staring meaningfully into Cate Blanchett's eyes.

I could have taken most of the above complaints in stride, however, if not for one thing: the modern portion of the story. First there is the old woman telling the story. She did everything but throw the Heart of the Ocean into the the water. Did the screenwriter really think the audience was that stupid and unable to detect unoriginality? Then there was the blind acceptance of a man living backwards. Julia Ormond's only question is one measly little, "Did this really happen?" While I can forego my disbelief for Fitzgerald's created world, I have a hard time swallowing its intersection with the world in which I actually live. If some dying old woman told me my father lived backwards, I would call for the nurse to up her morphine, not dig through her belongings for postcards.

Despite all of this, though, the movie isn't unwatchable. Brad Pitt can act, and Cate Blanchett is beautiful and moving. If the filmmakers had left the story alone and skipped the modern-day tie-in, it could have really been something. The cinematography and score are lovely, and the acting is solid. I just would have waited for the DVD rather than going to the theater had there not been so much Oscar buzz. At least watching at home, I could have spent the three hours on my sofa, in my pajamas, with a pause button.

Getting Started

Every single creative writing professor I've ever heard, seen, or read says the same thing: You need to write every day. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, but just the act of writing every day allows you to be open to the creative process. Well, this is me being open...I'm starting a blog. Sure, it's not great fiction, and I know that somehow Hemingway managed without one, but I'm giving it a try anyway.

This month in school I am taking the Advanced Fiction Tutorial with the amazing Leslie Pietrzyk. If you haven't read anything of hers, check out her novels A Year and a Day and Pears on a Willow Tree. She is a wonderful writer and an outstanding teacher. The best part of this class is the hour-long individual conferences we get to have with her. She gives great feedback and really gets you thinking. The second best part of the class? The homework. Last week's homework was to start a Beginnings Journal where you write the first paragraph of a story each day. It's a great way to get the creative juices flowing, and I highly recommend it.

Sadly, January Term only lasts, well, to the end of January. But this is it folks. This is my last spring semester, and then I'll be a college graduate. A few more months and I'll be starting the scary process of applying to grad school. MFA programs don't care about your good grades or your extra-curricular activities, so I'd better get writing some quality stuff to impress those admissions people!

So now my mission is to crank out some brilliant fiction and to try and get my tutoring work started. I figure my experience of working in the college writing center and years of English classes and writing workshops ought to be good for something.

While writing is a major part of my life, I am also a wife, an avid reader, a devoted cat owner, and active in church. With all these different things going on, I keep I thought I'd add to my list of responsibilities, by getting a dog. My husband is obssessed with Komondors, a Hungarian dog that is bred to guard sheep. You've seen them on the dog shows...a giant white dog that looks like a mop? We got word from our breeder this week that our dog (already named Sam) is no longer just a theoretical pup! Her gorgeous dog, Lily, is pregnant!! So we are very excited, but more about that in a later post. I've GOT to go do something productive like laundry or thinking about dinner.