Saturday, October 31, 2009

This Is Shit

My friend Rachel and I went to see the Michael Jackson (read Kenny Ortega's Big Cash Bonanza) movie, This is It. I think a more appropriate title would be This Is Shit. Watching it was like watching the last public video taken of Elvis a few weeks before his death; you're watching someone who used to be a vivid, electrifying entertainer, and now you're seeing a decaying, shell of a man, and it is uncomfortable. It felt invasive, like watching someone you don't know well get a private medical procedure.

The footage for This Is It came from Jackson's rehearsals for his farewell concert series in London; it was for his private archive, and clearly was not shot with the intention of having anyone see it, and it should've stayed that way. There was not enough material for a two-hour movie, nor was it high-caliber. MJ (as he's called throughout the film) looked frail and stiff -- almost arthritic. He didn't sing a lot of the lyrics to his songs, but whether that was because he was trying to save his voice or because he was bombed out of his mind, we'll never know. Well, actually, I do know that he was bombed out of his mind. MJ was barely coherent when he spoke; at one point he told his musicians to let the music "simmer" for a while longer. Another example showing how drug-addled his brain was: MJ filmed a new film noir-style concert video for "Smooth Criminal." At one point a nighttime cityscape fades into a movie marquis that says "Smooth Criminal." MJ and his dancers were trying to arrange a cue that depended on this video, and Ortega, the concert producer, asks Jackson how he can gauge the cue when he's standing in front of the monitor. MJ's response? "I'll feel it."

Rachel's opinion of the movie seemed to mirror mine; she said that about half an hour into it she was thinking, "It's dead. Now, can we eat it?" In spite of the half-hearted singing and arthritic dancing, many of the people in the theater clapped after every number! There were a few minutes of cool in the film: the new concert videos they had shot for "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal" were neat, and his dancers and musicians were amazingly talented. They mentioned that the dancers did physical therapy and pilates a few days a week, which I thought was interesting, but makes sense in light of the physical demands of their job.

The movie left me no doubt that London concert goers probably were going to see the best performance of their lives; every aspect of this concert was completely over the top, and Jackson said so when he reminded his co-performers that they were going to show fans "talent like they've never seen before" and take them "places that they've never been before." Even the rigor of the rehearsals, let alone the concerts, would've been daunting to a healthy 25 year-old, let alone a 50 year-old addict (that last descriptor was said with compassion, no judgment). I left the movie feeling certain that if Jackson, emotionally and physically decrepit, hadn't died in June, he certainly would've died during this concert series.

I'm leaning toward the opinion that this movie never should've been released because Jackson, the epitome of a perfectionist, would not have wanted us to see this. However, I have sympathy for the Jackson family, because MJ was millions of dollars in debt, which is why he was doing his London concert series in the first place. No doubt This Is It will earn the three Jackson kids a nice royalty, but in the end, it's their dad who loses, and Kenny Ortega who wins. For shame.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Twilight: Unrealistic Expectations?

I recently finished the Twilight saga series, which is about a teenage girl falling in love with a male vampire. The books make certain people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, including the fact that, ultimately, a teenage girl ends up screwing a 100+ year-old man. I shrug at that one, but a friend of mine has a concern about the series that I find far more potentially damaging and problematic.

The series is written with the teen audience in mind, and Edward Cullen, the vampire, is basically an adolescent girl's emotional equivalent of a wet dream. He is a SNAV -- Sensitive New Age Vampire. Forget Bram Stoker's Dracula, who treated his victims like the prey and vermin that they should be to a vamp. Edward adores Bella Swan, his love interest. He dotes on her. He doesn't want her to have anything less than the best in life, God forbid, like her beat-up truck that suits her just fine. He wants to buy her fine things, give her diamonds the size of golf-balls, and pay her college tuition to Dartmouth. Additionally, he is forever emotionally available, always letting Bella know how much he adores and loves her, and how beautiful she is. Edward is totally self-effacing and self-sacrificing. In fact, he's the vampire equivalent of the iconic Lloyd Dobbler in "Say Anything." It would not have been at all out of character for author Stefanie Meyer to write dialogue for Edward that would virtually mimic Dobbler's unforgettable, "Sir, I just want to hang out with your daughter. It's what I'm good at."

So, already we can see the problem: most men are not as generous in word or deed as Edward, and I can see that if a teenage girl expects her boyfriend to buy her jewelry or cars, or be effusive with praise and declarations of love, that girl will most likely be disappointed. When I was talking about this Twilight expectations issue with my husband, David, I admitted I had a little hesitation because he is the equivalent of Lloyd Dobbler in terms of looking out for me, his devotion, and his unending comments to me (and to everyone else, sometimes to my chagrin) that I'm beautiful and sexy. I know from talking to my girlfriends that most of their husbands are more reserved than mine, but surely there have to be some other guys like mine out there who leave a glimmer of hope for teenage girls that they'll find their Edward in shining armor, right?

Perhaps, except for this: Edward is content with being sexually abstinent with Bella, happy merely to stay in her bedroom all night and watch her sleep. It is Bella who is dying to do more with Edward, and she is the catalyst advancing their physical intimacy every step of the way. This really is the heart of the matter, and I believe poses the biggest problem of Edward's character setting girls up for disappointment. I don't know any straight men in relationships with women who would be content to be chaste (excluding men who might have other physical or emotional issues that interfere with libido).

There are certainly social factors that contribute to this, but simply put, testosterone makes people horny, and men certainly have a lot more of it than women do. I know of a female therapist who got a prescription for topically-applied testosterone for one week to see how it affected her sex drive, and she said it was revolutionary in terms of truly understanding the libido discrepancies that couples come to her with. She wanted sex all the time for a week. *sigh*

Anyway, Twilight certainly could mislead teen girls into thinking that teen boys are only interested in watching them sleep, but they have many personal experiences and cultural references reminding them otherwise. I don't think the covers of Maxim or Razor magazines leave any ambiguity about men's expectations of women. But girls aren't the only ones being lured into unrealistic expectations in our society; I feel like boys get misled by things such as pornography.

I fear for boys who learn about sex from porn, thinking that it's normal for women to have 24-inch waists and 50GGG circus titties. These same boys will become men who will believe that women will have ridiculous, screaming orgasms from one minute of intercourse, when many women can't come from intercourse at all. I have a dear friend who is a nurse, and a straight-shooter of a mom, and she is raising three sons. I give her a lot of credit because she has told them, repeatedly, why the porn she knows they're seeing somewhere is not realistic. Hopefully her kids will have more realistic expectations. For the many boys (and girls) getting their sex education from porn, I feel bad for all of them.

Whether its Twilight or porn, I feel like media should come with one big disclaimer, especially for teens: "Reader/Viewer beware! Ingest this with a big grain of salt. Real life is unlikely to meet your expectations."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spiritual Forecast: Clear and Sunny

I wanted to reflect a bit on the fall Jewish holidays that recently passed. This is the first year since 2006 that I've been able to enjoy them, because my Lyme-related pain interfered, and this time last year I was newly released from a hospital after being admitted for colitis.

Rosh Hashana: I used to really enjoy praying in a community when I was a teenager, but several years ago something changed that made it almost unbearable for me to sit in a synagogue. I had this crummy, self-conscious feeling whenever I attended services, like every part of my being was screaming, "Let me out of here!" I have no idea why this happened, but something magical happened on Rosh Hashana: it went away. I wasn't trying to get rid of my aversion; I suppose if I had tried, it would still be with me. But instead, sometime during services -- and not even at a point where I was particularly moved -- that discomfort went away. It was quite dramatic, as it was accompanied by physical feeling of going back in time. I felt transported through the last 15 years, and found my spirit back in synagogue when I was a teenager and I felt very connected during group prayer. I savored those few minutes, which cheesily brought me to tears, and then felt myself come back to 2009, very contented and not self-conscious. It was damn cool, and one of my new year's resolutions is to attend shabbat (sabbath) services more regularly, though definitely not every week. I am still Sarah, and I relish nothing more than reading the paper and falling back asleep mid-Saturday morning.

Yom Kipur: Yom Kipur was powerful too, because it was the first time in about 8 years that I fasted. I used to be on medication that could send me into kidney failure if I couldn't drink for 25 hours, and after I cut out that medication I was so sick from my current health problems that I couldn't fast. Add to that the fact that I'm a food addict in recovery who eats like clockwork, and I feared being triggered by fasting. But here's the kicker: if you're unable to fast on Yom Kipur for medical reasons, the way you have to eat is something like an ounce or two or so every 9 minutes (something like this), which actually triggered my food addiction worse than I thought fasting would, and I was right. So this year, I fasted, and enjoyed it in the sense that I felt very connected to God and my religious community.

Sukkot is my favorite Jewish holiday by far. I relish sitting outside in our sukkah, a cozy little hut, surrounded by friends and eating good food. Being close to nature always makes me feel closer to God and God's creations. David & I decided to honor this creation this year by not using a single disposable paper or plastic product in our sukkah. Those things are staples of entertaining in sukkot for reasons of convenience and ease, so foregoing them meant a lot of late nights washing dishes, but David & I both felt it was worth it, and high-fived each other for being totally sustainable this sukkot.

Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: I went to a local service, Rosh Pinah, which describes itself as a "dati [observant] community built around a common commitment to halakha [Jewish law], tefilla [prayer], and equality." This group sprung up inspite of intense opposition from my Rabbi at Kesher Israel, who very actively lobbied against it.

I tried to attend Rosh Pinah with an open mind and no expectations, and I found I really enjoyed the service. Women participated in leading services and reading Torah much more actively than they can in my regular congregation, yet it felt very natural to me. I think that one of my difficulties with attending services in recent years is that in an Orthodox congregation, it always feels like I'm a spectator. Men and women sit separately, which doesn't bother me, but my choices are to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary where I feel crowded and there's a lot of talking, or to sit upstairs in the balcony. Looking down from the balcony feels like watching a play; I don't really feel as engaged as I'd like to feel. I felt much more engaged praying at Rosh Pinah, which had a modest mechitza (divider between genders) and equal access to the bimah (altar) from the men's and women's sides. Additionally, people were super-friendly and glad (and frankly, surprised) to see me, which was nice.

Really sorting through my feelings on this has led me to a somewhat freeing, yet also uncomfortable, realization: I am much more committed to observance than I am to Orthodoxy. For years now, when people have asked if I'm Orthodox, I answer, "Well, I'm not really orthodox about anything. But I am an observant Jew, yes, and I belong to an Orthodox synagogue." My husband is quite invested in the Orthodox community, but we manage to maintain a comfortable, congenial space around our religious differences, in part, because day-to-day our religious practices don't look that different! The acts I do to worship God like strictly keeping kosher, praying mincha [afternoon service] most days, and keeping shabbat and holidays are all things I do because I feel like they are God's will for me and I desperately want a connection with God. I don't do them because Jewish law says that I should. It's probably bad that I don't find that so motivating, but I don't. My spirituality is driven by something different, but no less powerful. But certainly less reliable; I realize I could decide that God doesn't care about me keeping kosher, and then it would go out the window, but it wouldn't. Because:

I don't entirely disregard halacha. It's important. I believe that God gave some form of oral law to Moses at Sinai, but I have a hard time squaring what that might be with some of the misuse of power (or, just well-meaning errors about things like how electricity works, etc.) that I think Rabbis have engaged in in the name of halacha. I realize, by the way, that this is not air-tight theology I'm expressing, nor do I claim that it is. I'm just trying to give voice to some of my thoughts around this.

I never want to be uncomfortable praying in an Orthodox synagogue, and I am inherently very lazy, which means I won't be huffing the 30 boring minutes to Rosh Pinah alone all that often, but I'm glad it's there and I do hope to go back to services there.

Sorry I've taken so long to post; I've had a lot of physical challenges lately that have made typing time very cherished, and I'm spending a lot of time on the computer for a big community service project I'm working on. That will be over in 2 weeks.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

True Blood Season 2: The Good, The Bad, and The Sexy

Contains spoilers

I hope that season 2 of True Blood is the worst season of what I hope will be a long, fun series. I know this analysis is three weeks late, but hey, my pain was uncontrollable, and I was literally unable to write this then. Let's start with the bad: I hated that Maryann story line. I admit that in the beginning I was intrigued by this beautiful, mysterious, do-gooder who came to rescue Tara from jail and give her a new chance at life. But as she got more and more bizarre, she unequivocally ended up in the "too weird" camp. Even though season 2's numbers were twice that of season 1, all of my friends who watch the show agreed that the Maryann story line -- that she is a "maynad," a mythical, immortal god who wields humans like puppets for her own amusement and carnage -- was just too darn weird. This took up a tremendous percentage of the episodes, and frankly, it got old. It did provide some important moments to further the story overall, like illustrating that Sam, once again, genuinely loves Sookie and would even die for her. It was ironic for him to literally trust his life to Bill -- basically his arch-enemy for winning Sookie's affection. Sookie's grief when she thought that Sam died was palpable. Could this foreshadow Sookie ending up with Sam (God forbid) at the end of the series? Clearly, she cares for him deeply.

Fans have reacted pretty harshly to Queen Sophie Ann; many have said they expected her to be much meaner. Produce Alan Ball's hilarious response to this was, "You don't want to blow your wad the first time you introduce a character!" I'm keeping an open mind about Queen Sophie Ann; Evan Rachel Wood is beautiful and talented. I really liked her in the beginning because she was witty, classy, and cool. I loved the line, "I haven't enjoyed sex with men since the Eisenhower administration." Did anyone else notice how quickly she seemed to change her tune? By the last episode of the season it looked like she wanted to rape Eric! Do you agree?

Another bad move: Bill, what in the hell were you thinking proposing to Sookie so soon? Season 2 took place over the span of eight days. During those eight days Sookie, while travelling to an unfamiliar city, was: kidnapped, at the scene of a suicide bombing, almost raped, and totally traumatized by the scene in the finale leading up to Maryann's death, when she thought Sam was killed. And at the end of this, Bill proposes to her? The plane tickets to Vermont threw me until I remembered that Vt. was the first state to legalize vampire-human marriage. To her credit, Sookie didn't do the lame heroine thing and immediately said yes. She had a nervous breakdown and excused herself to the restroom, where she had an epiphany that she really, truly loves Bill and wants to be his wife. By the time she got herself together to come back and tell him that, Bill had been very obviously abducted. This was a great setup for the next season, so I can't rate the proposal as all bad!

Now, for the good stuff: it started with the Best Apology Ever that Bill offered Sookie in episode 1 after she confronted him about killing Uncle Bartlett, who sexually molested her as a child. After Sookie threatens to break it off because of his casual disregard for human life, Bill blocks her exit at the door and says:

"Sookie, I cannot and I will not lose you. For all the ways I have dismayed, aggrieved, or failed you, I swear I will atone. But I am not sorry. I refuse to apologize for what you have awakened in me. You, you are my miracle, Sookie. For the first time in 140 years, I felt something I thought had been lost to me forever: I love you. And for that, I shall never feel sorry."

Men, memorize this. Tattoo it on your arm. I really think this is the absolute Best Apology Ever. It was, of course, followed by an amazing make-up-sex scene. Wow. David just asked me that since Bill cries blood, does he also ejaculate blood? I told him that hadn't been discussed, but it wouldn't surprise me.

More good stuff: I loved Jessica's evolution this season. "Making" Jessica, meaning turning her from human to vampire, was Bill's novel punishment for killing Long Shadow, the bartender at Fangtasia, who was about to kill Sookie when Bill staked him. Vamps killing vamps is very taboo, and the usual sentence is 500 years chained to a coffin in silver. But since Bill has never been a maker (due to his ambivalence about the lifestyle), the Magister wanted to play with him and force him to turn Jessica, a sheltered, home-schooled child of abusive, right-wing Christian parents. I hated Jessica last season; she was such an impetuous brat. But she's growing up to be a sweet vampire, and really coming in to her own. I have always loved Hoyt, the good ole' boy in Bon Temps who is intrigued by vampires. I love Jessica and Hoyt together, and hope that in season 3 they can reconcile. I also really liked the little detail that for Jessica & Hoyt every time they have intercourse is like the first time -- literally! Vampires quality of immediately healing anything that is breached or injured sadly applies to her hymen too. Poor Jessica! I'd investigate other sexual outlets if I were her.

Oh, Godric! He was a fan fave and for a very good reason. Godric, Eric's maker, was seemingly kidnapped by the rabidly anti-vamp Christian group The Fellowship of the Sun (FOTS). It turns out that ethereal millenium-old Godric is sick of the hatred and ways of the world. He's tired of vampires acting like sociopaths, and we learn that he willingly turned himself over to FOTS as a sacrifice, since they were hell-bound determined to torch a vampire come hell or high water. The drama around Godric going missing, which was the whole reason Eric summoned Sookie to Dallas in the first place, led to another great line in the season. Sookie asks Eric if Godric is his maker, and Eric replies, "Don't use words you don't understand." Sookie retorts something like, "Well, whoever he is, you clearly love him." Eric dryly replies, "Don't use words I don't understand." Loved it! I want to quickly mention that I liked the show's treatment of Jason in FOTS; I think his character grew as much as poor, witless Jason can grow.

Episode 9, "I Will Rise Up" was a high point in the thick of that Maryann-Maynad crapola. When Eric and the Dallas vamps foiled Godric's suicide plot by "rescuing" him from FOTS, Godric decided to literally stay up and watch the sunrise, which would kill him. I sobbed at the exchange when Eric bid goodbye to his beloved maker. I was touched by Sookie's innate kindness and devotion, staying with Godric to the end since Eric couldn't, and then trying to comfort Eric for his loss. Godric proved so popular, Alan Ball hinted that there might be many Eric flashbacks with Godric -- after all, they have 2,000 years of history together, so there's a lot to mine.

In conclusion, I strongly preferred season 1, but the high points of season 2 still made it a worthwhile use of my rec time. I can't wait to see where things are going in season 3. I plan to catch up on some of the Sookie Stackhouse novels until then, and of course, the Eclipse movie comes out at Thanksgiving for more of my vampire needs.