Monday, August 31, 2009

Seeing Inglourious Basterds With My Mother: A Tale of Daring Filmgoing, Surprise Reactions, and Swedish Neutrality

Two Saturdays ago, over breakfast at a charming little Long Beach diner, I asked my mother if she wanted to see Inglourious Basterds, the latest Quentin Tarantino film. Knowing that she used to scoff at my opinion that Pulp Fiction was the greatest film of all time (it was, until October 1998) and not knowing of any Tarantino film she had seen, let alone liked, I assumed the answer would be no. And an abrupt no at that. Instead, she said yes. This was curious. I wanted to see it too of course, the colossal disappointment of Kill Bill 1 still in my mind (barely attenuated by the slightly better Kill Bill 2 and Death Proof). So we made plans to see it this past Saturday.

But first I had to figure out why she said yes. Mom and I had seen a number of films over the past few years. Going to the movie theater was a good social activity to do with her because of her general boredom with regular conversation. We had seen Michael Clayton and Dreamgirls and Public Enemies and Slumdog Millionaire, safe picks all of them - nothing that would make either one of us too uncomfortable. A Tarantino film would be a challenge. Not having seen a great movie since 2007 (There Will Be Blood), I was ready.

We bought the tickets for the 5:40 show at the Glendora 12. Nothing like spending the hottest day of the year in the hottest part of the region, with the smoke from two not-too-distant fires blowing our way. We had just enough time for early dinner at the Corner Bakery. I will just say one thing about this dinner: Did the Corner Bakery absolutely nail it with the Poblano Fresco sandwich (add the roasted chicken) or what?

No, I'll add a second thing about dinner. My mother, anticipating the next couple of hours of life, said with disdain: "Is this movie supposed to be a comedy?" The word "comedy" was spit out dismissively, like Dick Cheney mentioning the Geneva Convention.

"Yes," I said, "At least partly."

"A comedy about hunting Natt-zees?" she asked, visibly perplexed. (Hadn't she heard of Hogan's Heroes? The Downfall Hitler Parodies?)

"Yes." End of conversation.

We got to the blessedly air-conditioned theater and sit through some unremembered trailers. Somewhere in there I went to the concession stand to buy...Gummi Bears! The movie began.

(No need for a spoiler alert: I will not given any important facts or plot developments away. Assuming you know the basic premise and if you don't want to know, stop here and do not look at the next paragraph.)

(One more aside: Do I ever consider the fact that my mother could be reading this blog, that she knows about things like blogs and Google? No, I do not.)

The discomfort starts early on when there is a very graphic scalping of a character. I knew ahead of time that there would be graphic scalping in the movie. I didn't think my mother knew. Later, I would discover that she had fair warning of the scalping and subsequent disgusting scenes (from People magazine, no doubt). Every time there was a knife to a scalp or forehead, my mother uttered "Oh God." Still, I have to hand it to her. She never looked away from the screen. I always looked away.

My mother has good theater-going manners and didn't say anything else or communicate with me in any way until the film ended, except for the several times she scoffed (something right in between "Ha" and "Hmmph") at the unlikely or "silly" (I know what she thinks) plot twists.

As we left the auditorium and someone uttered the inevitable "I hope the xxxxx aren't xxxxxx" joke (won't spoil that one for you), I asked Mom what she thought of the film, expecting her to say "It was awful" or "It was silly" or - worst case - "It was stupid" in her bothered Swedish-infused English. Instead, she said "It was very good."

"It was very good." Quite simply the strongest words of praise my mother has ever vocalized. Quentin - consider this platitude bigger than any Oscar you've won or will eventually win.

My quick review: She was right. It was very good. Excellent, actually. The stink of KB1 and the still-disappointing above-averageness of KB2 and DP has been washed away in the Rhine, leaving behind only Carradine's corpse. Basterds is one of the best films of the decade.

Back to Mom's reaction. Immediately after "It was very good" there was a pause, two seconds at most. Then: "Too bad none of it is true." I'm not sure if she thought that the public school systems in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were so bad that I didn't get the true story about WWII and that I would completely fall for the alternate tale told here. Or if she just wanted to make sure that the Jewish avengers of Nazi horror don't get too uppity. You see, my mother married an Egyptian, so she naturally sided with the Palestinians in the various wars and Intifadas vs. the Israelis. In 2000, my mother actually rode a bus from New Jersey to Washington D.C. to show solidarity with her many central New Jersey Egyptian friends on their very own "Freedom Bus." As she told me before her journey, "If Jews shoot our bus, we throw rocks back at them."

Then, she got to specifics, praising the acting performances in the film, "Even Brad Pitt." She heaped extra praise on the lead Nazi, played by Christoph Waltz (above). I have to agree; he was impressive. But not everyone got equal praise. "The guy who played Hitler wasn't very good. I've seen better." The word "better" received the Dick Cheney treatment cited above. She based her claim on how "crazy" he portrayed Hitler and the fact he was "too tall." I'm not sure if she just thought he was a bad actor or if someone of the Fuhrer's magnitude deserved better. I know better than to ask certain follow-up questions.

Finally, she had one more complaint and this one was personal. As we turned from Foothill onto Wheeler and approached the so-far-un-burned La Verne foothills, she said "At the beginning of the movie, Hitler was standing in front of a map of Europe and there were swastikas in all the places that Germany controlled. There was a swastika on Sweden. That's wrong."

The subject of Sweden's (in)actions during World War II might be a sensitive subject to an actual Swede. Still, being only half a Swede and being born decades after the war, I felt justified in saying "They weren't exactly opposing the Nazis" in response.

My Mom then passionately said (and she never passionately says anything) "Sweden was neutral!"

I could have said "My point exactly." To my mother, Sweden being neutral meant that they were against the Nazis. To the rest of the world, Sweden's neutrality during the war (and isolated incidents of helping out, or at least profiting from, the Germans) was a problem. I should also point out that Sweden did some nice things for the other side too. But I didn't say "My point exactly." Instead, I just stayed silent and planned this blog entry for the rest of the drive until I made the U-turn on the cul-de-sac and parked in front of the house that six of my closest relatives live in, a home that is roughly one thousand times the size of my own.

So that's the tale of Inglourious Basterds with my mother. Just a bunch of fascinating quotes and interesting reactions. As far as my own level of discomfort, I'll just say that there was one moment that I would have preferred to see without the person who gave birth to me sitting in the next seat but that moment was over in a flash.

Finally, as a screenwriter with no script sales to my name, I will see this movie again and pay close attention to two scenes: The opening farmhouse scene; and the French village bar scene. These are two flawless examples of character and plot development, tension building and releasing, and enthusiastic use of dialogue. As with the the CB and the Poblano Fresco, QT nails it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Please Gummi Bear Please

Why didn't people tell me about Gummi Bears sooner? These things are awesome! Soft delicate sweet pillows of luscious tastiness. To think I've spent roughly half of my expected lifespan NOT eating these things every day...!

Note #1: Gummi Bears is not "code" for something else. I really am referring to the eurocandy of the same name)

Note #2: Although some other versions of the GB may be acceptable, I like the ubiquitous original Haribo brand version. And though I wish no ill will on fans of other gummi shapes (worms, fish, etc.) and other gummi flavors (sour), I'm more than happy with the original.

Please enjoy a new poem, Couldn't Call It Unexpected #6. This is my first poem written entirely on the iPhone.

There's an Elvis Costello reference in that poem title. I steal from the best.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Man Who Wouldn't Smile: Thoughts on Family, Friends, August 13, and Breaheimfullerbar Hills

Fall must be on its way. I hear chanting in the stadium, half-muted tubas warming up to play those songs from the seventies (when you're in a college marching band, does it seem strange to be playing songs that, with just a few exceptions, were popular before you were born?). I run into new transfer students asking for directions to the "brick building" they were told to find (that narrows it down to about 47 buildings.) I recall my deep sleep from last night and realize that I'm finally getting those cool coastal nights I was promised upon subletting.

But then I look on the calendar and it's August 17. There's still a lot of summer. And as someone who will always prefer November to July, as someone who wishes February had 31 days and May had 28, I've got to not get ahead of myself. (I know - if February had 31 days, it would just push March and April and the rest of them forward and things wouldn't change that much.)

Speaking of August 17... last Thursday was August 13. In 1988, shortly before my first (of 3) moves to California, I wrote a poem called August 13th. It was a rambling, jaunty piece about my Minnesota life: 1984 to 1988 - four pivotal/seminal years of transition. I wrote that poem intending it to be a prologue to what was to follow - my life in California, my coming adventures as a new young man in a new new place.

To be honest, I was both excited and terrified in 1988. My family - far-flung in its international-ness since the day I was born - had fractured itself further the previous summer. My parents moved to Singapore on the day of my graduation from the University of Minnesota. The rest of my relatives were also far from me in the Twin Cities - the 96 or so relatives in Egypt, the four in Sweden, the three in Austria, the Disappeared Uncle in Parts Unknown, and, finally, the Others in Southern California. I chose to join the Others and attend California State University, Fullerton, entering their research-focused Masters' program in Psychology.

Normally, people don't come from nearly 2,000 miles away to pursue graduate work at CSUF. Sure, they may come from as far as Chino and Cerritos and Corona. But they don't generally come from Minneapolis. But there I was on a late August evening, orienting myself to this strange university by the freeway, with is boxy white buildings and its wholesome lack of tradition. I may have been a stranger to California and to Orange County in particular. I may have not known what the hell was happening in my life. I may have felt disjointed, disconnected from my friends (the ones I left behind in the cities I kept leaving), my new classmates, and my family. But really there was no better place/time to feel like an unknowing disjointed stranger than that college campus at that particular time.

By the time I settled in that fall - matriculating in Fullerton, residing in Brea, one town to the north, I have to admit that a geographical "home" was being built but in a haphazard way. My friend John from Minnesota joined me in Orange County. We made some new friends pretty quickly by indulging in late-night conversation at Denny's. And whether I accepted it or not, a good portion of my family was around me, dotting the hilly landscape.

My aunt and cousins were the first to arrive in California, back in the early 80s, settling in the city of Orange and eventually in Anaheim Hills. I lived in the latter place for a few weeks while I settled into California life and found that amazing apartment in Brea. It was a nice house, memorable for being smaller on the inside than it ever seemed from the outside. If I remember correctly (and I'm sure I do not), the house was on two different cul-de-sacs - dead-ends in two directions. Despite their Anaheim address, both cousins went to school in Fullerton, in the fancy college-prep public high school across the street from my university.

My sister and her new husband lived in a white-furnitured, white-walled, white-carpeted, white condo in Diamond Bar, north of the Orange County line, in an exotic land called L.A. County. They would eventually grow bored of their Mad About You couplehood and dive into Everybody Loves Raymond parenthood (with my mother playing the role of both grandparents).

We all lived in a mythical land called Breaheimfullerbar, straddling the L.A./O.C. County border and never more than a stone's throw away from the 57, the 55, the 91, and the inappropriately named Imperial Highway. Actually - make that Breaheimfullerbar Hills.

It was really a fruitless attemt at familial connection. It took all the effort in the world for the aunt to want to see any of the rest of us. The sister and brother-in-law would have been happy to never have to invite anyone up to Diamond Bar but eventually they had kids and realized that people liked to give gifts to their kids so they released the floodgates. No, without my own parents running the show, there was no point in pretending we were a unified force. Yes, I needed a family and yes I had a good friend (John) helping me along in the transition. But something was way off - the geographical structure was false, the center wouldn't hold...the college was an odd fit and Imperial Highway (the through-route between the families) kept burning down.

So I think I know why I made an interesting impression on a friend of mine who attended that same psychology master's program. She told me recently (August 13, 2009, to be precise) that she had a clear memory of my presence at CSUF. She told me that I was always around, in the corners, writing something down, not smiling.

I defensively cringed at this good-natured feedback. Always around? Where else was I supposed to go? In the corners? Maybe - but I wasn't facing the corners. Writing something down? Poetry! Manifesto! Ideas for theses. Not smiling? Well...

Not smiling. I had been told that before. When I stalkerishly located (i.e., Facebook search) a person I knew in Minnesota back in the late 90s/early 00s, she told me that I was remembered as the guy who wouldn't smile. So clearly, despite 10 years passing between the latter and former person's recollections, I hadn't learned how to display my inner joy and utter happiness to the observing world.

So, on this most recent August 13, reminded of my lack of smiling, I attempted an escape. You see, the person who told me this is someone I greatly admire. And my morose public persona is not something I've voluntarily cultivated. I gave her excuses - due to my full lips and big face, it takes more work for me to smile visibly. She wasn't buying the invisible smile theory. Okay, it was just shyness I said - once I overcame the shyness, I was a big wide-grinning happyman, No, she knew the truth. I didn't smile on the first day of classes at Fullerton in August 1988 or the last day in June 1990.

She said that she remembers me being heartbroken over a lost love "back home." Now, this could have been one of two different girls back in Minnesota. The fact that I can't remember which one makes me think I wasn't really heartbroken. I don't know if I said this to project an air of mystery or to explain my shyness but it was all a front. My heart was open, not broken. My eyes were open, not closed. My mouth wanted to speak, to smile. And though there were some memorable exceptions, it (I) didn't speak, didn't smile.

And why is that? I've covered the topic of my childhood shyness, my Engligh-is-my-second-language status here in this blog. But I should have been over that by 1988. I was an adult, a grad student. I had been in a real-life true "relationship." I was an overly social person back in Minnesota. I not only had friends but I had enough of them that I would make weekly Top 20 Friends lists in my graph paper journals of the mid-80s. (Yes, this fact is kind of disturbing.) Why didn't I smile? Why was I a corner guy - sulking into the lined paper of my spiral bound? Why did someone else make the same observation 10-12 years later in my third incarnation as a Minnesotan?

Was it that my family life ended? Did I lose something - slowly, methodically, deliberately - in those transitional years beginning in 1986? (sister leaves, parents leave, I leave and I leave again and I leave again... years later... father dies and mother returns and I retreat and I build something new and I get married and I come back. Here. And then the new life, the new family, ends and whatever is its substitute seems eerily familiar.)

Last year, my work supervisor handed me my annual performance review. On one page were anonymous quotes from co-workers describing their work relationship with me. Most were positive. One quote shocked me. This person said "You wouldn't know it by his normal demeanor but sometimes at meetings Ali can be quite funny." I'm staring at those words right now determined to know who said it. Not because I disagree with him/her. But I just want to know what my normal demeanor is and why it's so shocking that I can be funny. Doesn't he/she read this blog? Has he/she not read the story of Grandma and her stockings... the Sbarro Incident... the Singer and the French Fries? I guess not.

On this year's annual performance review, there were no co-workers surprised that I had a sense of humor. No, the lack of notable statements made me feel kind of like a cipher, like rather than being taken for granted, I'm simply not being remembered. Time to change that.

On the subject of "annual reviews" - I mentioned earlier the poem I wrote on August 13, 1988 titled August 13th. I would do the same thing - write a poem called August 13th - every year on that date through 1997. A few of those poems were great ones, notable for their perspective how things evolved from one 8/13 to the next. Others were placeholders that didn't need to have been written. I'll try to collect them all and put them on the poetry blog.

But back to Breaheimfullerbar Hills. I was in the heart of that place yesterday. I met my Mom for lunch at the Brea Mall. Most of our lunch was spent with me refreshing my iPhone so I could give her updates on how Tiger Woods was doing at the PGA back in Minnesota. ("One stroke back after 16... they both bogeyed 17.... he lost.")

After the meeting with my mother (Brea, it turns out, is yet another in one of our many "halfway points" between La Verne and Long Beach), I later drove east down Imperial and farther south and east to meet that same person who told me just last week that I was "always around, in the corners, writing something down, not smiling." I would be meeting her for our second date in the 21 years we've known each other. Now, my time with her last night - from the initial ringing of the doorbell to the extended goodbye on Loretta Drive - deserves a blog entry and a wistful recollection of its own. But what's important to mention here is that apparently I am now smiling freely, that my mouth is not too big to smile, that my head is not too large to hold that smile, that my fractures are not too permanent, and that summer is not so bad even if I like the colder seasons better.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Breakdancing Career, Reconsidered

I was rereading my piece My Career as a Breakdancer - published in 2007 on the site Eclectica. Anyway, I think it's awesome. I think the whole story ties together in a fascinating way. It's mostly about two people absent from my life - my late father and my long lost friend Jim. But in the shadows are the ghosts of women notable in their lurk (always there) and in the writer's (my) decision not to mention them. There's the mother who didn't have a strong opinion on the lawnmower or the war.  Eventually the war meant something. There's the sister who exists only as invisible fourth car passenger. There's the first girlfriend and the first wife, plot-deviced into the ethers before their time. And there's me.

Friday, August 07, 2009

I Cut My Own Hair

I have something to admit.

I did something this morning. For the first time in my life.

I cut my own hair. Not just a shave or a sideburn trim. I cut and styled and painstakingly analyzed every inch of my head.

Why? To save 26 bucks? Sure, that's a benefit. I never knew it was so easy! No, it started out innocently. I used my mid-level-barber-shop-quality clippers to trim the air around my ears and my sideburns. Then things were a little uneven. So I cut some more on that side and then some more on this side. And then I was perching my Macbook camera on the back of the toilet so the reflection of the door mirror revealed the back of my head.

So yeah. All those years I was paying women (three of whom I had crushes on) to cut my hair - I could have done it myself for free. And I would have been more consistent. And I wouldn't have attempted the failed fauxhawk experiment of 2004, as Carol Ann so bravely and Scottishly did. And all that money - $26 here and $18 there and $35 (!) after the Scotswoman switched over to the Gothy salon - could have been put to better use. Like maybe I would have bought that painting I saw in L.A. back in 2oo1 - Herve Villechaize's face centered on plush velvet, ornate decorations surrounding him.. and what's that? Eight netted pockets around the border, much like a pool table. They wanted $3000 for it. I think that's precisely what I spent on haircuts in this decade alone.

This is what I look like today, post-self-cut:

One song for the weekend and yeah it's them/him again. Enjoy:

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Hey Baby, It's the 4th of August

It shouldn't take this long. No - two weeks should not pass between posts.

(Talking to myself: Ali, Facebook is NOT a substitute for Blueprint Blue.)

(Ali, don't let this happen again.)

Meekly, I vow to never let this happen again.

Let me give you a quick life update:

June: Nothing
July: Nothing
August: So far, less than nothing

But look on the bright side: September is birthday month. October is World Series month and basketballs season begins month. November is my favorite month. December is Christmas which has got to be better than last year.

Here's an example of this unrelenting ass-kicking summer:

I want to trade in my "clunker" for "cash" a new(er) car. Let's see - insurance is paid up.... car payments are caught up.... car is in pretty good shape. Despite my insistence (and supporting data!) that my car gets better than 25mpg, the government website informs me that my car gets a "real" combined city/highway mpg of 19mpg. The requirement for clunkers? 18.

Well at least the Timberwolves are being overhauled. Ryan Hollins! Jonny Flynn! New Coach!

And Mad Dog - Thanks. That was nice. (Jason - enjoy your new power forward. Or are you no longer a Clippers fan?)

Finally - did Steve Barone from Lifter Puller really praise my blog entry about Lifter Puller even after I inexcusably forgot to mention him by name? Thanks for the note Steve and yeah your guitar and keyboards work was pretty amazing.