Sunday, September 14, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: Take Your Fad Diet and Shove It

Two unpopular opinions in a row?  Can the universe hold?

Eh, I was having a bit of a dry spell for a while, unable to think of anything I truly liked or disliked that most other people felt the opposite way about.  Then I remembered one of the most personal aspects of life, the one thing most likely to spur strong opinions.

No, not motherhood.

I'm talking about diets.  "But it's not unpopular to hate fad diets," you say.  Unless they're the ones you swear by.

I should back up and explain.  Now and then, I have digestive ailments, and I am sensitive to a variety of foods.  Tired of dealing with the issue, I went to a nutritionist at my glorified McDonalds of a hospital network, who determined that I was gluten sensitive.  (As to why I was not simply referred to a gastroenterologist?  My hospital network demands that you jump through hoops first, including attending a special class and then seeing a nutritionist.  Because going to a GI doc right away would make too much sense.)

I've heard a lot about gluten-free diets over the past few years.  One woman diagnosed with Celiac disease swore by it.  She did not eat any wheat products and bought special gluten-free everything.  I've heard people plagued by digestive issues claim that the gluten-free diet has changed their life, that they feel better, healthier, whatever.

Now I understand how someone with Celiac disease would find their lives improved.  What I don't understand is how it would instantly help someone who does not have Celiac disease, like me.  The nutritionist explained that there was a spectrum of gluten tolerance, that just because I didn't test positive didn't mean I wasn't sensitive.  Okay, true.

She also said that gluten had fallen under suspicion over the past several years because of the way wheat is grown and processed these days, making it less pure and healthy than in generations past.  Also sounds reasonable.

What I don't understand is why she would so quickly assume gluten intolerance when so many of my problems don't involve wheat-based products at all.

Why do I have issues, then, when I eat certain acidic foods, like apples, peaches, or certain tomato-based products?

Why do I get headaches when I eat fried foods or foods containing hydrogenated oil?

And why don't I have problems when I eat wheat-based products like pasta or certain breads?

It's highly possible that I am sensitive to certain foods containing gluten... but that I also have a variety of other food intolerances, making any diagnosis complicated and often a frustrating game of addition and subtraction.

It struck me that the nutritionist was rather quick to tag me with the gluten-sensitive label after asking me some very targeted questions over 10 minutes, the answers to which could have applied to several other ills.  Oddly missing were any detailed questions about my life, my stress load, my diet history, and my overall health.  What medications did I take that could impact my gut health?  These are questions that my physician should have asked, but neither she nor the nutritionist ever did.

Instead, the nutritionist gave me a detailed lecture on all of the gluten products I would need to flush out of my system to be truly healthy, including certain pastas, sweets and even certain toothpastes.  "Try it for a month," she said nonchalantly of this major life transition, even after I explained to her that I was about to start a new job.      

Even if I flushed all gluten products out of my system for a month and felt much better, that would not be proof that I should be gluten-free.  That's because my system has this frustrating tendency to do really well for one, two, even several months at a time, then freeze up and refuse to digest foods without protest for a week to a month.  I tend to believe it is based more on hormones rather than any specific thing I'm eating or stresses I'm feeling.  Therefore, I don't think one catch-all diet is going to solve everything.

Yet every time I turn around, I hear the gluten-free diet being touted as some kind of savior.  Are there no other food groups as suspect as gluten?  No other foods were grown with Roundup chemicals pumped into them, then refined to the point of zero nutritional value?

Applying the logic used for gluten, you could conceivably ban several fruits, vegetables, and corn products from your diet.  But then what would you be left with?

Which is not to say that gluten-free isn't a God-send for some people.  It's just that it isn't the cure for everyone.  People being weird and complicated and reacting differently to different things and all.

The gluten-free diet reminds me of a similar trend taking place, the insistence that no one is getting enough Vitamin D.  Because even if we walk around under the sun all the time, we must wear sunblock to protect against cancer-causing rays.  But that also prevents Vitamin D from getting absorbed into our skin, so we should also take the pill form, or else the Vitamin D deficiency... could give us cancer.  And a host of other ills.

While it's possible gluten intolerance really is a problem, I'm not anxious to limit myself to a very set number of foods.  So for now, I'm just going to try and keep a mixed diet and maybe avoid things I know my body really dislikes, such as junk food or anything with hydrogenated oil.    

Meanwhile, here is a drumroll of other diets that came highly touted, but never made sense...

1.  Atkins Diet.  Eat lots of red meat, butter, eggs, and very little anything else?  What could possibly go wrong?  Turns out any weight you lose is fleeting, while your health risks increase substantially.

2.  The water diet.  Drinking substantial amounts of water and eating little food will help you lose weight, sure, but it will also increase your health risks.  Once you start to eat normally again -- and you will have to eventually -- the weight will come back in a hurry.

3.  The detox diet.  These diets could involve suspect herbs or "treatments" to help our system do what it's already capable of doing, and likely cause more harm than good.

4.  The fasting diet.  See the water diet.  I knew one couple that did the fasting diet once or twice a week, which involved eating maybe 600 calories for the entire day.  They claimed it would shock their system into losing weight and detoxing, but what I saw were two older professionals in a high-stress occupation trying to survive on too few calories.  Not recommended... unless you are trying out for the role of Fantine in a Les Miserables movie.

5.  The no white flour or sugar diet.  Similar to, and may even be an ancestor of, the gluten-free diet.  This is supposed to help you lose weight, and it's easy to see why, but unless you are committed to eating this way forever, the weight will eventually return.

And whoever invented the rice cake?  For shame.

The above image is royalty free from

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Unpopular Opinion: I Hate Driving

"Well sure, lots of people dislike driving," you think.

No, I hate driving.

"Sure, lots of people hate traffic jams and speedsters and --"

No, I hate driving.  Not just hate it, but fear it.

Let me back up a little.  I don't hate all driving.  I actually enjoy driving to some extent, like on curving country back roads.  Driving across town?  No problem.

It's when I need to drive long distances on the freeway that the hate and fear come in waves.  By long distances, I mean more than 20 miles.

I can't fully explain where the hate/fear came from.  It arose not long after I first started driving, when I realized that 65 mph on the freeway was kind of fast!  It is probably mainly centered around issues of control: driving is one of the more dangerous activities in this country, and I really prefer keeping my risk of death or bodily injury low, thanks.

Then there is the claustrophobia element: stuck in one car, one position, for possibly hours at a time.  Your back hurting, neck and arms aching, attention flagging.  Who wants that?  It's a ringing endorsement for driverless cars.

Yet despite these problems, the general attitude is that you should just be able to get into your car and drive anywhere without reservation.  Even if you can get to the same place via public transportation.  Public transit is typically treated like the red-headed stepchild, often with good reason -- there just isn't enough of it, ranging widely enough, for it to be a reliable alternative.  Yet even when it is just as good, it is frequently overlooked.

At best, I get frustrated and tired when I drive long distances.  At worst, I work my way into a panic.  My heart beats faster.  My breathing quickens.  My hands get clammy.  Exits less than one mile away suddenly seem like outposts at the other end of vast terrains, which I will never, ever reach.  Driving in the middle lane feels like balancing on a high wire.  And overpasses?  Bridges?  *sounds of hyperventilating*

I've read stories about people stuck on overpasses or bridges because they are just so overwhelmed by fear.  That has never been me, but in the back of my mind, I always worry that it could be me... someday.  Yet because I understand I can't turn my back on driving altogether, I try to find coping mechanisms.

What I wish was that the world could be just a bit more accommodating of other options.

How about trains that run more than three times a day in a certain direction?

How about routes without 10 transfers, that make it three times as long to get to a destination as a car?

How about an alternative to buses that make 20 stops along a five-mile stretch?

How about public transit that leaves earlier and returns later?

How about public transit that goes faster and covers more routes?

How about public transit that doesn't make you feel like a squashed bug on most trips?

Or, if you must get there by car, but don't want to take your car, how about cabs that don't charge $$$ per hour?

How about a break from relentless car culture?  More and more people prefer public transportation, and the demand is high.  Yet too many bosses, city planners, and developers fail to account for this, sending people to far-flung areas with no alternative but their car.

My work has me doing more driving than ever, to places at least an hour away.  Public transportation to one location would have involved two transfers, and even if I took one of the earliest buses, I still would have arrived a half hour late.

In some ways, it is gratifying to face my fears and know that I can succeed despite them.

At the same time, I would rather be taking the train.

"Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"
The above images are royalty free from  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Through An Introvert's Lens: The Brady Bunch

For the previous installment, go here.

"Why even bother?" you might wonder.  When you think of media portrayal of introverts, could a less likely example come to mind?

Sometimes you find introversion, and treatment of introverts, in unexpected places.  And sometimes the examination of lack of introversion can be just as revealing.

First, here's the story.  Six kids, two parents, and a housekeeper, blended together through marriage in 1969, on a sitcom that would last five years.  While Mike and Carol Brady occupied a more central role in the earlier seasons, in later seasons, they would frequently be supporting players to the kids: Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, and Cindy.  Most episodes were surprisingly grounded in real life situations, such as school elections, fundraisers, football games, romantic rivals, school plays, and learning to drive.  That is, when they weren't about cursed Tiki statues, unlikely celebrity cameos, or being a professional pop band.

The Brady kids were together.  Like... always together.  Always in the same place, doing things... together.  They got along freakishly well for six teens and pre-teens who were not all blood relatives, forced to live in a tight space.  As a result, their personalities could sometimes blur... together.  Sure Greg could be unctuous and Marcia could be vain, and Cindy could... do whatever Cindy did.  But their interactions were often infused with a relentless upbeat chirpiness, not exactly what one associates with introversion.

So were there any introverts on The Brady Bunch?  Did the show support any introverted concepts or beliefs?  Let's take a look.

Did The Brady Bunch Have Any Introverts?  Wellll... Maybe, Kinda, Sort of

Again, introverts, in general, tend to have the following traits:
  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention
Does any of that apply to The Brady Bunch characters?

Let's start with the most obvious Brady: Jan, the "neurotic" one.  Jan was quieter than Marcia at least, liked to draw (in one episode anyway), and worried about seemingly deep issues like lack of individuality or identity.  That said, television sketches and the Brady Bunch movies have blown her insecurities waaay out of proportion, turning her into someone mentally imbalanced and unstable.  In truth, the canon Jan Brady was really not that different from the more bubbly Marcia.  She was quieter, but not much.  She would go to her room to brood at some point or other, but so would the other Brady kids.  Jan never seemed to have a problem with being the center of attention, or cared about discussing big ideas.  She is just remembered for being the neurotic one thanks to some noteworthy episodes like "The Not-So-Ugly Duckling," "Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?", and "Her Sister's Shadow."

Meanwhile, Marcia also worried about her looks/popularity/identity (see "Juliet Is the Sun," "Getting Davy Jones," "Today, I Am a Freshman," "The Subject Was Noses") and had moments of espousing big ideas (even if she completely caved in the end... see "The Liberation of Marcia Brady").  Hell, even Bobby, arguably the most amiable of the Bradys, had crises about being too short, his lack of musical talent, and his identity.  All of the Brady kids had identity issues at one time or another.

What you didn't see were episodes where one of the kids wanted to stay home and read a book rather than go to a party, or episodes where any of the kids cared deeply about their grades, or about subjects in school.  The only invention tended to revolve around pranks on each other, such as the (admittedly creative, if wildly implausible) "ghost" in the attic.  Greg showed bursts of creativity as a photographer and song writer, but that was mixed with him being a popular football player and lady's man.  Cindy was quieter than her sisters, but that may have been less because she preferred observing than because she was the damned youngest and wasn't consulted for anything.  So in terms of which of the Brady kids was an introvert... probably none of them.

While some of the kids had traits associated with introverts, such as talent for writing or the arts, they never seemed to be an organic part of their characters.  They seemed to exist because the plot required them, or because it would look good to have them.  Greg was a song writer... then a baseball player... then a football player... then a song writer/budding rock star again (at a time when shows like The Partridge Family were picking up steam).  Jan was in artist... in one or two episodes.  There simply isn't enough evidence that they were introverts in any real sense.
Wait, Jan had glasses.  I stand corrected!

Actually, if there was anyone in the Brady family I think was an introvert, it was Mike.  Mike had his own office that he liked to retreat to in order to do work, sure, but no doubt he also used it as a means of escape.  He always seemed a bit remote and sarcastic, though that could have been Robert Reed's personality seeping through, much the way Christopher Plummer showed his disdain for The Sound of Music in his portrayal of Captain Von Trapp.

As for other introverted characters on The Brady Bunch, the show's treatment is interesting.  On the one hand, you have the time-worn scenario of "nerd girl just needs to remove her glasses and let down her hair, and she'll be a new person" with "My Fair Opponent."  In that one, Molly Weber was not necessarily an introvert, but she fit the frequent stereotype of an introverted person as shy and awkward, with glasses and her hair back in a ponytail (which inspires a memory of this scene).  After Marcia gave her a makeover, she was not only prettier, but her personality suddenly became more outgoing (if not more interesting).

Then there was Harvey Klinger, possibly the only bona fide intellectual to grace Bradydom.  He wore thick glasses and loved bugs with a capital L.  Yet he was also Marcia's first steady boyfriend and someone she was so hot for, she went out of her way to master details about the insect world just to please him.  If Carol and Mike questioned her taste, it was only briefly; mostly, they were active in helping her achieve her goal, and were mainly concerned about Marcia and Harvey getting too serious, too fast.  There was no "Oh Marcia, you should go out with someone more outgoing" or the like.

Similarly, The Brady Bunch mainly treated with respect another nerd and possible introvert, Harold Axlerod in "Juliet Is the Sun."  While it did lightly poke fun at Harold's squeaky voice and awkward demeanor, it also never suggested that Harold was a poor Romeo.  Rather, the show made clear that the problem was Marcia's Juliet, who had grown so conceited, she threatened to ruin the play.  (Seriously Marcia, it's a school play.  Get it together.)  Maybe The Brady Bunch's message was that it's all right to be a bit bookish and reclusive and geeky if you're a man, but if you're female, you need a makeover stat.

But overall, unlike Saved By the Bell, which treated anything introverted with withering disdain, The Brady Bunch didn't punish introverts.  It just kind of, sort of, tended to forget that introverts even existed.

No Space to Be an Introvert

Not only did the show not have many obvious introverts, but it did not even provide much in the way of space to be an introvert.  The Brady boys and girls were each three to a bedroom, which seems painfully cramped for a non-introvert let alone someone who regularly needs space to recharge.  (No wonder Greg and Marcia fought so hard to win the attic.)  If someone needed time alone, the other kids were necessarily inconvenienced, such as in the episode where Greg was trying to write his "hit" song and locked his brothers out of the bedroom, leading them to pound on the door in protest.  Only Mike had a private room to call his own.

I won't even get started on the one bathroom for six kids...

There was not only a lack of space for being alone to think and recharge, but also little time for the Brady kids or Carol to be alone.  When they weren't at their dozens of extracurriculars, they were participating in family ho-downs, Roaring Twenties parties, trips to the amusement park and the Grand Canyon, fairytale theatre in the backyard... you get the idea.  It sounds like a dream for anyone who has always wanted to belong, but if you are the type who needs downtime, it could be a nightmare.  If you lay on the bed to decompress, Carol would probably come in and surmise that you were coming down with something.

Bradys were not permitted to wallow or ponder.  Their problems had to be confronted and solved.  Part of the reason, obviously, was because it would make for more interesting television than if their family just let them be.  But it also shows an intolerance for anyone who would choose to be alone, and a general disbelief that you could choose isolation for healthy, happy reasons, as well as troubling ones.  

But Why?

Why even look that deeply into the reasons?  Well, what else is this blog for?  I would say the reasons were that Sherwood Schwartz, the creator, and his writers knew shit about how to develop characters.  His two most well-known shows, The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, were both peppy and silly, with characters whose personalities were an inch deep.  In fact, the characters on Gilligan's Island made The Brady Bunch characters look like they came out of Breaking Bad.  Gillian was stupid, the Skipper was irascible, the Howells snobs, Ginger pretty, and so on.

But also with The Brady Bunch, Schwartz seemed less interested in the individuals and more interested in the situation.  As recalled imprecisely from Barry Williams's Growing Up Brady (yes, I am that big a fan), Schwartz was most interested in seeing how a blended family got along.  In that sense, the individuals involved were less important than the group as a whole.  Never mind that the group results have more impact if we know the individuals.  And never mind that Carol, Mike, and the kids acclimated to their situation at warp speed, to the point where Carol would make comments about Greg as if he were her biological son ("He gets it from my side of the family" and so on).

But most of all, I think Schwartz just wanted to make a fun show.  And much the way incredibly interesting and meaningful computer jobs can't be portrayed on screen in a compelling manner, showing kids reading does not make for good television.  Of course, there are other things he could have done to portray an introvert's life as interesting, but why do that when there's a family sack race to watch?  Adios, Johnny Bravo.


To sum up, how does The Brady Bunch treat introverts?

Number of Introverts: ???

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Depends.  If Mike Brady is an introvert, yes.  If not, no.

Is the Introvert Active?: See above.

How Do the Other Characters Treat the Introvert: If Mike Brady is an introvert, with respect (though his introversion is not emphasized).  If not, treatment of other introverts ranges from "transformation" treatment to respect and even passion.  But mostly introversion is noticeable for its absence in the characters' lives.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.   

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five Unpopular Opinions

Normally I provide one unpopular opinion and expound at length.  However, the unpopular opinions I have lately are on subjects that are not especially weighty.  That is not to say I couldn't find more to say about them at a future date.  But for now, I give you not one, but five randomly chosen unpopular opinions.

1.  Get off my lawn!  Usually when that expression is used, it is meant to paint the speaker as a crotchety, out-of-touch, inflexible nincompoop who hates the free-flowing awesomeness of young people.  Omigod, how dare this geezer resent young people romping on his lawn?  It's like he cares about respect for other people's possessions or something.  If you worked hard to maintain your property, or something equivalent, why shouldn't you resent the people who make light of, and ruin, your efforts?        

2.  I can't stand Pixar's UP.  People treat this movie like it's the high watermark of cinema.  The first 10 minutes were poignant, but the rest?  The little boy made me want to rupture my eardrums with a pencil.  The "house flown by balloons" could have been so inventive in Miyazaki's hands, but was never used to its potential here.  Instead, it became a standard adventure film, where the bad guys chased the good guys through the jungle.  To show how not-old and still relevant he was, Carl performed physical feats with his walker that gymnasts could not equal.  This would not have bothered me -- it is a cartoon, after all -- if I weren't watching UP with my father, who at a too-young age would never again be able to cross a room without the aid of a walker.
Like he wouldn't break his back having to pull an 
entire house.  Yeesh. 

3.  I never want to hear the words "selfie" or "photobomb" again.  When did taking a picture of yourself, or getting caught in someone else's picture, become such a novelty that it required its own catchword?

4.  No, she is not "the worst." It's become a trend among media critics, and in general, to respond to someone's actions with a sneering "She (or he) is just the worst!"  Whether it's a celebrity who wore the wrong outfit or a character who slept with her best friend's boyfriend, you can count on this critic to mark it with the withering putdown of an eighth grader.  I don't even need to mention why this expression is ridiculous -- the daily newspaper is filled with offenses far worse than anything Marni did on Girls.  But calling someone "the worst" also smacks of laziness.  The critic doesn't need to describe why the characters' actions were wrong.  Just call that character "the worst" and the reader gets the idea.       

Nice try...
5.  I do not find Don Draper sexy.  Love him or hate him, gay or straight, we are supposed to be overcome by his magnetism and his utter beauty, right?  I mean he's attractive, but... eh.  His personality is too loathsome, his outlook too static, for me to ever separate it from his admittedly fine physique.  Then again, I'm a little weird when it comes to what I find attractive.  For instance, I don't think present-day Colin Firth is that sexy, but I do find the real George VI (whom Firth played in The King's Speech) to be quite the looker.

I just said that I don't find Colin Firth sexy?  Now I'm going to get it.

You on the other hand......... *swoon*

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Downton Abbey: To Downton or Not to Downton This Time Around?

By which I mean: should I keep blogging about episodes of this series?

At this point, it doesn't matter: for us luckless Americans, Series Five of Downton Abbey begins in January 2015.  But Downton will begin airing in the UK and other parts of the world soon, and already promises that earth-shattering changes are on the way.

The year is 1924.  Socialism is on the rise, and the Labour Party runs the country for the first time.  There will be change like never before, and Downton Abbey may not survive!

Pause and consider what you just read.  Does it sound different from what was promised in previous series?

Unprecedented change in the social order?  Check.  Downton may come apart at the seams?  Check.  Downstairs characters reveal a desire for social advancement?  Check.  Lord Grantham sputters with outrage?  Check.  The Dowager Countess has the perfect witticism to capture it all?  Double check.

Each year promises remarkable change, but the greatest upheavals -- Matthew and Sybil's deaths -- were unplanned, thrust upon the show by the actors.  Otherwise, every episode features Downton Abbey and its slow, stately lifestyle, only offering a glimpse of the gritty outer world when Bates gets in trouble for something.  The most socially rebellious character, Tom Branson, has been tamed into an agreeable house pet.  The most disgruntled downstairs resident, Thomas, has been a soldier and a businessman, but always ends up a servant.  Daisy has more outs than you can count, yet somehow prefers to remain in the kitchen under the tutelage of Mrs. Patmore.

Upstairs, Mary has boyz... please.  The Dowager is witty, Cora simpering and clueless, and Lord Grantham is offended by the very idea of change.

For Series Three and Four, I wrote a blog post recapping each episode.  This year, I don't have the patience.  It's like watching a ferris wheel turning.  Downton will be pretty and timeless and utterly dull.  I not only don't feel inclined to blog this time around, I'm not even sure that I want to watch.

Then there is Edith's plot line with her bastard daughter and the Gregson disappearance.  That alone could get me to tune in.  But of course, it depends on how Fellowes portrays it.  If he continues to force poor Edith to endure misery upon misery while Mary lives the charmed life, I'll have had it.  Give Edith some victory, Fellowes.  Make us feel like you care about her, even a little.  She is by far the most interesting upstairs character.

So for Edith's sake, I will likely tune in, but I probably won't recap every episode the way I have the last two series.  Since I don't have as much time to blog these days, I don't want every post for a month or two to be about Downton Abbey.  Instead, I may just write an essay or two critiquing Series Five.

Will it be the season of change?  Or more of the same?
The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Monday, August 11, 2014

How I Research My Novel

Still very busy and dealing with some big life changes, blah, blah, blah...

That said, I've been meaning to write a blog post on how I do my research for my Victorian novel, if only because it's a vital part of my writing process, and I'm always interested to see how historical writers approach it.

Many writers declare that research is their favorite part of the process and that writing comes second.  I feel the opposite.  I enjoy research and get excited when I discover new details, but for me, the story is the thing.  I want to harvest enough details to provide a realistic setting.  I don't want to wallow in research books for months on end; rather, research is like an itch that I need to scratch until it disappears.

That said, providing a wholly believable setting for a historical story, especially if the story is broad in scope, can take quite a bit of research.  Reference texts, contemporary novels, newspapers, pamphlets, maps, you name it.  As for where I find them:

1.  University Library.  I'm fortunate in one respect: I'm an alum of a university with one of the best library collections in the world.  For $60 a year, I have full access to all of the libraries, and can therefore hunt through stacks that have scarcely known human beings.  I have cracked open books that have not seen sunlight for at least a decade, judging by their musty odor.  Many of these books are rare, and could easily cost over $100 to purchase, so not only do I have access to them, but I also save money.

2.  Amazon or Other Online Bookseller.  How I learn about these books in the first place is usually through Amazon or Google Books searches, or searches in a similar book search engine.  It's especially nice when I have the opportunity to read snippets of the books to see if they are the type I need.  If they are not available at the library, I order them from an online bookseller.

3.  Google Books.  Another option is to download books from Google.  Often Google will have reference materials that I just can't find elsewhere, especially certain magazines and pamphlets.  For example, one of my characters is a doctor who writes an article for the Lancet.  Google Books contains multiple copies of the Lancet from that time period that I can use for reference.  And best of all, it's often free!     

4.  Historical Newspapers.  This option obviously doesn't apply to everyone, but I have frequented a British newspaper website where, for a certain price, I can access newspaper articles dating back to the 1860s and earlier.  The biggest surprise: learning that the front pages of old newspapers were completely consumed by advertising.

5.  Good Old Wikipedia.  When I want to learn a little background about a subject, I often start here.  While yes, Wikipedia articles need to be taken with a big grain of salt, it is a good resource that has led me to several pertinent books on my subject matter.

And what do I do once I get the books?  I skim through to find valuable information and then proceed to type like mad, almost word for word.  I had over 400 pages of research for the first novel.  Is this a normal way of going about it?  I don't know.  I imagine other researchers underlining and marking passages, maybe taking a few notes on a separate pad.  I like to type out large paragraphs of notes because that is how I end up truly absorbing the passage, feeling the details of the time period.  Then, rather than hunt through the source book to find the passage while I am writing, I just scan my notes.

The research process takes me months and can be exhausting and frustrating, especially when I realize how many questions remain unanswered.  But when I have a breakthrough, it is a wonderful feeling.  Right now, I feel like I'm getting close to being done with the research for my next novel, but I'm not quite there.  I'm starting to see the outlines of the characters' lives, such as where they would live and how much money they would have to live on.  However, I still need to research how they would get around, or how certain illnesses were dealt with back in the day.

Looks like it's time to hit the books once more.      

The above image was taken by Mattox and is royalty free.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (Reich?): Cabaret

I'm cheating a little here.  I had said that (except for The Sound of Music) I would stick to reviewing movie musicals produced in the last 15 years.  I had intended my next Movie Musical segment to be about Jersey Boys.  But I just haven't been able to get out to see it.  My "meh, why bother" attitude reflects what I felt when I saw Jersey Boys the musical, and also the movie's general reception.  I do intend to review it before it leaves the theatres, but a Les Miserables movie event it is not.

Then recently, I saw the 1972 movie Cabaret on television, the first time I was able to watch it the whole way through.  Figuring that I would just forget the details if I waited until after reviewing the post-2000 movies, I decided what the hell.

Cabaret is in the Right column because I couldn't justify putting it in the Wrong column, but it's a much more tepid Right than I ever imagined it would be.  Cabaret the movie and stage musical alike are widely celebrated -- the movie if not more so because it made significant changes, yet retains the core of whatever made the stage version so good.  (Some critics of Les Miserables felt that it should have done the same.)  Both are based on a short novel by Christopher Isherwood called Goodbye to Berlin (1939).  While in the original stage musical, the lead female, Sally Bowles, is British and Cliff Bradshaw American, the movie changed it to reflect the nationalities in Isherwood's story, with Sally American and Cliff Bradshaw -- now Brian Roberts -- British.

Set largely in a cabaret club in 1930s Germany, Cabaret sets the whimsy of its lead characters' lives against the growing threat of Nazi power.  It should have stirred many feelings in me, but with the exception of one scene, it didn't.  Maybe it just reflects the fact that I grew up in a different time, and movies are made so differently now.  So while I can say that Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles was winsome, or Michael York as Brian Roberts was awkwardly charming, or that many of the numbers were staged imaginatively, I can't say that any of it left a lasting impression.

Plot Synopsis

Sally Bowles is a young American singer at the Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Berlin, with hopes of becoming a big success.  At the boarding house where she lives, she meets Brian Roberts, a young British writer who plans to tutor Germans for a living while completing his Ph.D.  Since Brian's room is closet-sized, Sally allows him to tutor students in her much larger digs.  So begins their unlikely friendship and even unlikelier romance, interspersed with the madcap numbers at the Kit Kat Club and dark images of the Nazis' rise.

The Good

Gritty Subject Matter.  Cabaret is hardly the first musical to be set during a volatile time period -- The Sound of Music was set also during the Nazi rise -- but it should be applauded for not shying away from the atrocities of Nazism, even at the risk of becoming a "downer."  The Sound of Music portrayed the Nazis as a relentless swarm, but beyond annexing Austria, we never really got a sense of what made them so disturbing.  Cabaret reveals the slow-growing anti-Semitism of everyday German people and the horrors that result.  One character's pet is murdered.  Police stare at a bloody sheet covering a body.  Sally and Brian's landlords trade opinions about a Jewish banker conspiracy.  Even the Kit Kat Klub introduces a number with a gorilla intended to represent a Jewish woman.

But of course the number that makes the hairs on one's neck stand on end is "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  The iconic scene begins with an outdoor eatery in a bucolic German hamlet.  An angelic-looking boy's singing interrupts the diners' chatter.  Only the boy's face is shown in close up, so right then we suspect something isn't quite right.  As the camera pans down, we see that he is in a Nazi Youth uniform.  Yet his siren song is gripping the villagers one by one.  The longer he sings, the more his voice is joined by others, until it's a lusty anthem sung by the entire crowd.  (All but one elderly man, who must be sadly thinking that the country had enough violence not so long ago.)  It's a microcosm of the fervor that gripped Germany throughout the course of the decade.  Well done.      

Good Performances.  For reasons I go into below, the characters of Sally and Brian did not interest me as much as they should have.  However, they came across much better than they otherwise might have due to Liza Minelli and Michael York's performances.  Minelli is lively throughout, with her distinctive hair and makeup style.  Even beneath that, I can still say that her resemblance to her mother, Judy Garland, who died just three years earlier, is pretty strong.  As is her speaking and singing voice.  Minelli's voice is not as strong as I would like (I know, blasphemy), but she can sing, and does so with gusto throughout.

However, I was more drawn to Michael York's Brian.  Perhaps it was his warmth, his quiet reflectiveness.  He has a sense of the changes taking place much more than silly Sally does, though even he can't fully comprehend.  The more minor characters are good as well, especially Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who is at all times cynical and over the top.  A sinister clown, as the best clowns are.    

The Less Good

Lacks Energy.  Was it wrong of me to say this?  Somehow I feel like it was.  But truth be told, I just expected more vibrancy from a movie that spends long segments in a hedonistic cabaret.  Not Baz Luhrman levels of camera spinning and color explosion, just more life to burst out of the screen.  Yet something about the film felt flat to me.  To the extent that the cabaret scenes were active and alive, that energy did not carry over into the non-cabaret scenes involving Sally and Brian.  These scenes felt slow-paced and seemed to last far too long, with the obvious exception of the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  Maybe it's just that I grew up in a different time.  Maybe MTV has conditioned me to expect bursts and dazzle, rapid cuts and sweeping pans.  Maybe my brain can't appreciate the stately pace of a 1972 film.  Regardless, I was never quite engaged with what was happening on screen, and thus never felt emotionally invested in the characters.

The Songs.  With the exception of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and the "Money" song, none of the songs stuck with me.  I know that some are classics, and shame on me for being critical, but that's just how I feel.

Less Deep Than Appears.  Maybe Cabaret isn't meant to be deep, but then why do a story about the carefree days before the Nazi rise at all?  What is strange about Cabaret is how little Nazism touches the lives of the main characters.  Brian is disturbed by growing Nazi sentiment, but it is his student and her lover who truly feel the effects.  Sally seems completely oblivious, not even reacting to the growing pro-Nazi sentiment of the Kit Kat Klub.

Because of this strange detachment, the Nazi threat never feels as dangerous as it could.  Cabaret seems to rely on the audience's knowledge of the actual Nazis' deeds to provide the necessary horror.

The human drama falls short as well.  Sally may be enthusiastic and unconventional, with a father who just doesn't understand, but there's not much more.  That gets wearisome after a while, even with Liza Minelli's spirited portrayal.  Maybe some of that is intentional: the writer of the story upon which Cabaret is based meant for Sally to be of little talent, but under the belief that she was destined for stardom.  The problem is that Minelli's Sally actually is talented, so if satire was intended, it is never clear.  Meanwhile, Brian is stiff and thoughtful, while sometimes surprisingly playful, but it's hard to say there is anything more to him as well.

Cabaret's message seems to be: "Look at these people and their little unimportant lives.  How silly of them to resent their fathers or to revel in their threesomes when the real threat is growing all around them."  If so, then my response is, "so what?"  Big bad things happen all the time while we go about our daily lives.  Are people just supposed to put their desires on hold to appear concerned enough about a threat that they probably can't do much about?  Yet I have the feeling Cabaret also wants us to be invested in Sally and Brian's relationship struggles.  For reasons I have already gone into, I'm not.  Maybe I'm over-thinking this.  Or maybe I'm not thinking about it enough.     


Cabaret is a classic, and as I've noted above, nothing about it is overtly weak.  It just isn't as dazzling and hedonistic, or dark and powerful, as it thinks it is or wants to be, and that leaves me with an "eh" feeling when I watch it.  Still, it is well made and well worth a viewer's time.  So Willkommen!

For more Movie Musicals That Got It Right or Wrong, go here.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.