Friday, July 17, 2009

If I Had A Million Dollars...With a Catch

"The Standard of Living" by Dorothy Parker

The ladies of Mad Men strike me as chums of Parker's protagonists.

Sure, polarizing figures evoke disdain. Whether third-world dictators, Hollywood socialites, or Dallas Cowboy wide receivers, when they stir the pot, America listens. The "Behind the True Hollywood Story" what-have-you covers their lives following their time in the limelight.

But what happens to the blips? The blahs. The nothings. The never-stood-a-chances. We all run across people who seem nice on the surface, very pleasant, kind, but slightly boring. Well, if telling the whole truth, they’re really boring. Other than pleasantries and generic common interests, no depth exists. I mean, how many times can you talk about the weather, inoffensive politics, mundane sports, etc.? Who really gives a fuck about what’s the proper stud needed in a standard household wall? These innocuous conversations don’t harm anyone on the surface, but really bore me to hell.

But we engage in them; pleasantries – despite root canal similarities – persist. No one gets harmed, and we go about our days. Then we, eventually (and sometimes thankfully), fall out of touch. Maybe a casual run-in at a convenient store or shopping mall transpires, but no scheduled meeting occurs. All parties benefit from the conversational exile – both the boring and the bored. But what lies in store for our forgotten almost-friends?

In my mind, that’s what the short story "The Standard of Living" by Dorothy Parker addresses. Simply, the narrative finds out what happens to the forgotten near-chums. It follows two bland if not slightly attractive (or slutty) friends who work as stenographers in post-World War II Manhattan. I picture the assistants that come on to the advertising executives in Mad Men, but with no emotional depth (meaning, these women don’t hold higher aspirations than serving as floozies).

Lacking an action-packed narrative arc, "The Standard of Living" deals with gluttonous, near-Gatsby gals and a Saturday-afternoon pallor game they play. The question: What would you buy if you had a million dollars? These ladies aren’t buying lots of macaroni and cheese, either (sorry Bare Naked Ladies). No, these dames – a term used in its most accurate way possible – possess a taste for the finer things: mink stoles, elegant pearl necklaces, perfume from Chesarie cats, you get the idea.

And the best part is the catch: you can’t do anything nice for others. As soon as you try to donate the money to an AIDS clinic or rescue adopted kittens or make sure the nuns in the Blues Brothers can run a school, it all disappears. The game’s purpose: act as entirely selfish as you possibly can.

Parker doesn’t fuck around with depth to these characters because there isn’t any. They want the best of the best and are chastised for acting altruistic in any way. The stories real purpose is about facing your fantasies and the world being harder (and more expensive) than you’d imagine, but I don’t care about that. Maybe I’m a lot like the Parker’s plump protagonists. I want what I can’t own, and I want to fantasize about it.

I mean, a million dollars is lot of money. It’s not what it used to be – a fact Parker alludes too – but if Regis Philbin digs it, I can too. I’d love a beach house, but that’s too ordinary – common as the ladies would say. Besides, an average beach house, even in today’s shitty economy, costs a few million. Once again, like the ladies in the story I won’t allow reality to sway my spending. Guitars cost some big bucks, but not to an excessive point. Easily, I can buy four brand new or vintage guitars (I’ll spare the axe-swooning details), and still comfortably count $950,000 in my pocket – a pretty liberal estimate. Sounds good for purchase number one.

How about a buffalo chicken factory? I love buffalo chicken, why not own a place that can serve me buffalo chicken all day, every day. Sounds good to me. I wouldn’t really want to get involved in all the murdering details, but as long as there’s some freshly-slaughtered yet delicious buffalo chicken, I’ll survive. That leaves me with like $100,000, give or take (Let’s all assume buffalo chicken factories cost $800,000).

Slowly these evolved into a genii’s three wishes, but so be it. I got a hundred grand to work with, and I’m going to make it count. I mean, season tickets to the Phillies or Eagles would be sweet. So would a private miniature golf club in my backyard. But, I really love my family. So I think a group trip to Ireland would make us all happy. There we could…

Wait, I didn’t mean it like that. They’d all be there supporting me. Any fun they partake in is purely supplemental. It’s still totally selfish. Oh come on. How could I go there by myself? You mean I LOSE IT ALL!

Maybe, I should have stuck to mink stoles like the Manhattan ladies.

Monday, July 6, 2009

James Dean Ain't Got Shit on Me

#92 A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens

Fonzi eventually became a corporate hack, right?

A leather jacket, greased backed hair and disregard for the English language. In 2009 these dudes are relics, but forty to fifty years ago they were it -- the shit. Riding a motorcycle with no place to go made you the coolest mother fucker in the world. The less direction and ambition you possessed the better. And why was that so cool?

It’s part of Americana to be aimless (The song “'Aaay'mless” was even sung by American rebel Fonzi in Happy Days the Musical). Maybe that’s because, as a nation, we’re a little aimless ourselves. We’re the rebels, the whippersnappers breaking away from old man Europe. Eventually, though, we became the man. Just like we know Fonzi eventually married Pinky Toscadero and stopped bagging preteens. Fonzi got a suit and tie and invaded Iraq like the rest of us.

Even in the literary world there are the cool cats. Writers like Ernest Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac seemed just as likely to smash your face in as to pen a sonnet. But these drifters all are part of our larger cultural history.

Rebels can be mainstream, too. That doesn’t make them less rebelish, though. Shaquille O’Neal is still a super bad-ass basketball player despite aging. In addition to his presence in the paint, Shaq is a pop culture icon. And he tweets. And his tweets are interesting and honest and give a glimpse into the world of a man that wears size 23 shoes. Twitter certainly is a fad that some (me!!!) have latched on to. To think that I could easily be in communication with Shaq anytime I want boggles me. It probably took Shaq eight seconds to set up an account, but with that action, he made him accessible to the world. I mean, can you picture Michael Jordan doing that? Plus, he doesn’t fake it like Britney Spears does. Shaq latched onto a mainstream idea and -- as a celebrity -- that makes him a rebel.

And I guess that’s the paradox of a rebel. The only people who really want to be outcasts are the most Plain Jane people among us. Fonzi pined for acceptance. Sure, his bravado was too much sometimes and he hated to admit he was wrong, but he never really wanted to escape. From his garage-attic apartment he yearned for the love and familiarity the Cunningham’s often took for granted.

And that’s what the film A Place in the Sun examines. There are no rebels without a cause. I’d argue that only true aimless people are drug attics. Rebels always possess some motivation, however veiled in may be. Even if it’s crazy, there’s still a driving force. The Joker loved chaos, Dean Moriarty loved to wander, and George Eastman from A Place in the Sun desired acceptance.

As a movie, A Place in the Sun was mediocre at best. The plot contained lots of holes and dragged at times. Lead actor Montgomery Clift – much like that Clash song about him – failed at evoking empathy from the audience. The idea behind his character and the questions his actions posed were enough to sustain me.

Playing a country boy, Clift wants to work in his wealthy, famous uncle’s factory. He doesn’t want a handout or to be included, he just wants a job and to orbit the celestial body that is his family. He’s dark, mysterious and kinda good looking. But that’s really all you know about him. Throughout the entire film, there’s really not too much revealed.

And then he goes out and murders someone. And all this shit hits the fan and all of a sudden, now he’s a big rebel. But I think he’s less, though. Murder is common, and it’s the easy way out – especially if it’s a crime that makes sense. OJ Simpson isn’t a rebel (especially since he got off), he’s just a little nuts. However unjustified he might have been, it totally made sense. Simpson found his ex-wife shacking up with some dude. What makes more sense that to kill him/her? Not right, just kinda logical. Like the Unabomber and Tim McVeigh are mass murdering, political message driven murders – they’re rebels. A crime of passion involves just dudes that overreacted at the wrong time when dangerous elements were around.

In the film, George lives a double life and finds himself in a love triangle. While a poor boy, he knocked up his nice, innocent girlfriend (Shelly Winters). Now he’s found moderate success and a fancy, rich lover (Elizabeth Taylor). What are you gonna do with the preggers broad? The obvious answer may not have been taking her out to the woods for a “romantic” getaway, renting a boat, and capsizing it, causing her to drown, but it worked. Until he got caught and stuff.

Which is even more interesting. If he wasn’t such a bumbling idiot rebel, he totally could have gotten away with it. His problem was that he drew attention to himself (with a laughable fake name) and interrupted a scout camp out by looking like -- or being – a crazy murderer roaming the woods in the middle of the night.

But that’s not what the original author – Theodore Dreiser in the novel An American Tragedy -- wanted to convey. He wanted a book about right verses wrong; if the murderer gets away at the end it looks like wrong wins – which makes for a bad Hollywood film, especially in 1951. I’m not sure if the novel made it so wishy-washy, but the film even makes the murder ambivalent. Eastman never denies that he refrained from helping his Baby Momma, but claims he didn’t kill her. This raises the question of whether inaction worse is than action. I mean, he gets the electric chair in the end, so I suppose the author/director/screenwriters decided inaction’s pretty bad (like in Seinfeld). What’s more interesting is the trigger happy capital punishment system in 1950’s America. It’s tough to put someone away without an eyewitness and all.

This movies really not worth watching, but its title provides ample fodder for discussion. What would you do to secure a place in the sun? The proposition of murder makes people cringe at first, but a guarantee that you’ll never receive an earthly punishment sweetens the deal. Rebel or no rebel, it’s definitely worth considering.
(#92) My Fair Lady directed by George Cukor