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RickI’ve weighed in on the alpha hero debate in the past. I’m not a big fan of traditional alphas—the tormented tough guys who don’t much like women but are willing to make an exception in the heroine’s case. My problem with them stems from the only slightly latent misogyny in the concept and the fact that a lot of the alphas I’ve known in real life have been jerks. But I’m not particularly taken with the ill-defined “beta heroes” either. At best they seem to be alphas with a sense of humor. At worst, they’re nuts.

So what am I looking for in a hero, anyway? It occurred to me the other day that what I really want is a self-aware alpha or SAA. Alphas do, in fact, have some positive characteristics. They’re usually honorable, loyal, and protective. To those positives, the SAA can add not just a sense of humor (which he usually has in spades), but a sense of the absurd—something the average alpha needs desperately.

Because when you think about it, the role of the alpha is basically sort of, well, silly. He’s encouraged to embrace ideas and attitudes that will probably get him a lot of bruises and possibly a life-threatening injury or two. Think of Rick in Casablanca, mocking the absurdity of his melodrama: “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.” His position is both heroic and faintly ridiculous, and he knows it only too well.

Moreover, if the heroine is worth the hero’s time, she’s likely to be unimpressed by his alphaness. The days of the heroine who swooned with gratitude at the big, strong man who came to rescue her are long gone. While the heroine frequently can’t rescue herself, she’s at least going to try. “This is some rescue,” Princess Leia snarls at Han Solo before she figures a way to get them out of the Empire’s prison.

For me, there’s a great deal of attractiveness in a man who can see the absurdity of the task he’s set for himself, and who can occasionally laugh over his stumbles. Someone who takes himself, and his heroic role, with a very large grain of salt.

Most of the writers I admire write this kind of hero, particularly those whose books have a slightly humorous approach. Jennifer Crusie’s books are wonderful examples (see Faking It and Welcome To Temptation). Susan Elizabeth Phillips is similar (check out Natural Born Charmer). Loretta Chase has done it again and again: Lord Perfect and Mr. Impossible both have SAAs. Writers who do less humorous books can also come up with the self-aware hero. Joanna Bourne’s spy series has both impossibly smart heroines and impossibly sophisticated SAAs—my favorite being Adrian Hawkhurst of The Black Hawk. Eloisa James conjures up a wonderful self-aware hero in Three Weeks With Lady X. Even Nora Roberts has the occasional SAA, such as the cartoonist hero of Tribute.

I’ve tried to make all my heroes SAAs, although some of them are more in that mold than others. My newest hero, Paul Dewitt in Finding Mr. Right Now is definitely SAA. He’s a writer on a reality show (yes, they have writers) who gets dragooned into being a bachelor on a new bachelorette-finds-love program. He knows only too well how absurd his life has become, particularly when he falls for the show’s associate producer. As we say in the romance business, hijinks ensue—but the right people end up together in the end.

Because, of course, any romance heroine worth her salt will value a SAA. Just look at Han and Leia or any of the other couples mentioned above. A sexy guy with a sense of humor and a healthy dose of self-knowledge. What’s not to love?

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Love, Sort Of

Love, ActuallySo this is the tenth anniversary of Love, Actually, the British ensemble film that’s become a Christmas staple for a lot of us. I’ll go on record here as being a fan—I find the film funny and touching and ultimately charming. I’d much rather watch it than a lot of Christmas movies (::cough:: Miracle On 34th Street ::cough::). But as is the way with cultural phenomena, when a lot of people like something, you’ll eventually start getting pushback. Christopher Orr slammed Love Actually in the Atlantic. Lindy West went after it with a metaphorical hatchet in Jezebel. Other people weighed in with negative comments.

The thrust of all these bad reviews is basically that Love, Actually is over-rated romantic tripe, and that people who like it are sentimental dummies. For those of us who occasionally fall for romantic comedies, these are familiar arguments—most romantic comedies get hit with nasty reactions at some point. But it seems to me this argument misses the point. It’s not a question of whether Love, Actually is good or bad. The question is why a critic feels called upon to go after people for liking something he/she doesn’t.

Criticism serves a purpose—a good critic can illuminate why something works or doesn’t work. But there’s something about this ex post facto criticism that grates. In a sense these critics aren’t so much analyzing the movie itself as they’re analyzing and dismissing the people who happen to like the movie. It reminds me of something William Goldman once said—snobby people can never really like anything because they’re afraid some even more snobby people will say, “Oh, so that’s the kind of thing you like.” In effect these critics are sneering at the movie’s fans: “How can you like something so puerile? Allow me to kick it to pieces to show you how mistaken you are in your bad taste.”

It isn’t just Love, Actually that gets hit by this kind of reaction. Pick a movie you like and do a quick search. You’ll usually find somebody who’s quite willing to tell you it sucks. Love Casablanca? Silly you. Some Like It Hot? Nope. Pauline Kael, that doyenne of movie critics, seemed to specialize in this kind of movie fan bashing at times, as witness her dismissal of the wildly popular  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Love, Actually has a lot of admirers too, but it also has a lot of people who don’t like it. The important question is So What? So what if you don’t like a movie? Why should that mean you need to go after those who do? If you think you can convince them to dislike the movie, let me assure you that’s not going to happen. The idea that you can somehow persuade someone to dislike something they admire or like something they hate by giving them your own detailed hatchet job is sort of ludicrous.

Believe it or not, I don’t much like The Sound of Music, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in that opinion. Does that make The Sound of Music a bad movie? Nope. It just makes it a movie I don’t like very much. You are within your rights to like or dislike anything. But that doesn’t mean you get to make that decision for everybody else, or to make fun of those who don’t share your opinion. That’s not being a critic, that’s being a crank. And Lord knows we already have more than enough of those!

So if you haven’t seen Love, Actually, I invite you to check it out. And make up your own mind. It really doesn’t matter which critics like it and dislike it. What matters is your opinion. In the end, in fact, when it comes to choosing what film to see, that’s all that really does matter.

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My Ten Best

casablancaA couple of weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly hit a new level on the hubris meter: they listed the 100 best in a variety of entertainment categories, movies, television, plays, music, and books (and therein lies another blog post). Predictably, I disagree with a lot of their choices, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. Everybody has their own hundred best. There is no ultimate list, no matter what Entertainment Weekly says. So in  the interests of screwing with the Establishment, I’ve come up with my own ten best movies list—not twenty-five, not fifty, not a hundred. I make no promises that it’s final, and I should point out that it’s my list rather than the list. I say this to forestall any complaints from Citizen Kane/Gone With the Wind/Titanic proponents. Y’all undoubtedly would have different choices on your list.

1. Casablanca. The ultimate “movie movie”. If you’ve never seen it (and I didn’t until I was in college), you owe it to yourself to check it out. Crisp dialog, twisting plot, and a great hero. And yeah, I know I’ve called it the ultimate guy romance in the past, but that still doesn’t ruin it for me. It just works on most of the levels movies are supposed to work on.

2. Goodfellas. The movie that made me love Martin Scorsese. Yes, it’s violent—very, very violent. But it’s full of exuberance and energy and bouncy film technique, with possibly the best use of soundtrack songs ever. It’s a spectacularly well-made movie, with the longest panning shot I know (don’t tell me Touch of Evil; Scorsese does it better).

3. The Silence of the Lambs. You may remember this as another ultra violent movie, but you’d be wrong. There’s really only one very violent scene, and it’s absolutely necessary for the plot. The rest of the movie is all about dread, and it’s maybe the most fearful movie ever made. Plus it has a wonderful performance from Jodie Foster, one that simultaneously emphasizes her vulnerability and her strength.

4. Julie and Julia. Nora Ephron’s best as far as I’m concerned. About food and love and female accomplishment. And Meryl Streep is sublime as Julia Child.

5. Bullitt. Why I love Steve McQueen. The plot is so twisty that Robert Vaughn (who played one of the villains) says he didn’t understand it even after they finished making it, but this is the ultimate hero movie. Just relax and watch McQueen be McQueen.

6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/The Sting. Don’t make me choose—I just can’t. Newman and Redford were the ultimate buddies who made “buddy movies” possible, and none of the others ever touched these two. Plus both movies are shot beautifully by George Roy Hill—I live nearby some of the settings for Butch Cassidy and Hill did a marvelous job.

7. Nashville. There were a lot of Robert Altman movies I revered and some I didn’t like much, but Nashville sums up his multi-character, overlapping plot structure better than any other. And the underlying message about politics and entertainment still holds up today if you can ignore the seventies fashions and hairdos.

8. Some Like It Hot. Go ahead—watch it without laughing. I dare you. That slumber party scene on the train may be sexist as hell, but it’s also freakin’ hilarious. Billy Wilder’s greatest (and yeah, I’m including Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity).

9. Singing in the Rain. Tart, fast, funny and the ideal musical. Yes, I know Gene Kelly wasn’t as nice as he seems to be on screen. So what? It’s still great.

10. North By Northwest. Hitchcock fanatics may prefer Vertigo. But this one has humor and thrills and iconic scenes (the crop duster, the chase across Mt. Rushmore). And Cary Grant playing a weaselly advertising man who’s redeemed by chaos.

So those are my ten best. Feel free to disagree. Feel free to add your own. Feel free to comment on the idiocy of anybody coming up with a “ten best” that purports to be anything other that a list of personal favorites. I make no claims to the ultimate here, but all of these movies are worth seeing. Trust me.

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Nashville posterI remember a couple of years ago when a new series of Robert Altman DVD’s were issued one of the critics in Entertainment Weekly claimed that Nashville was overrated. To this I respectfully reply “Balderdash.” Nashville is one of those rare movies that were not only masterpieces when they first came out, but that have become even more trenchant in the years since.

When Nashville was first released a lot of time was wasted trying to guess who the country music stars in the movie were supposed to be. “It’s Loretta Lynn—no, Tammy Wynette—no, Dotty West.” These days, that’s a lot less likely to happen, and that’s all to the good, given that the artists the characters are based on are mostly dead. It doesn’t really matter if Barbara Jean is based on any particular singer or not (and I’d go with not), she’s a real character with real, heartbreaking issues. The Hal Phillip Walker character, the unseen political candidate, seemed somewhat unrealistic in the seventies, when the two major parties still controlled elections. Now, he seems like a familiar figure from a few elections past. And the intersection of show business and politics is more relevant than ever. What might have seemed like an exaggeration in 1976, seems absolutely prescient in 2013.

And, sadly, the assassin is just as realistic now as he was in the seventies. Maybe even more so, given the rancorous political atmosphere of the present.

Some things don’t work. The clothes and hair styles seem wildly dated, for one thing, and the few references to race don’t really come across as strongly as they should. And Lily Tomlin as a gospel singer is still a stretch. But Altman’s unblinking version of reality still stings. Tomlin’s singing may not work, but the realization that she’s just as callous about sex as Keith Carradine’s tomcatting singer is still a stunner. Geraldine Chaplin’s “Opal from the BBC” is as biting a satire of the press as you’re liable to find. And even the minor characters, like Shelly Duvall’s witless twit of a groupie, have an impact.

I don’t want to get into arguments over what Altman’s greatest film is, but let’s all agree: Nashville is definitely in the running.

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Who Is That Guy?

Garret DillahuntSo I’m watching Vegas, and all of a sudden there’s this guy in glasses—a character called Jonesy. Only the thing is, I know him. From somewhere, some show, some other show, that is. I’m now no longer paying attention—much—to the story. I’m trying to remember where exactly I saw that actor before. Why he looks so familiar. And then, when the episode is almost over, it comes to me. He was this wormy little creep named Dewey on Justified. Tattoos, weird hair, very pronounced Kentucky accent. Only now he’s wearing hornrims and a snapbrim hat. And to make things even more interesting, according to the IMDB, he’s actually Australian. He’s an actor named Damon Herriman.

I love movies and TV shows, and I tend to remember actors and actresses who make an impression on me. Only I don’t always remember where it is I saw them before. And it usually bugs me until I figure it out—bugs me enough, sometimes, that I spend most of the program trying to figure out who it is and why I know him/her. Which means I don’t always pay as much attention to what’s actually happening on the show.

Take Garrett Dillahunt, for example. I first encountered him in the late-lamented series Life. He played a nasty Russian mobster—he was icy and blond and thoroughly unnerving. His death at the hands of the hero (Damian Lewis, the sort of villain on Homeland) was the climax of the series. I kept running into him on other series like Burn Notice, usually playing villains. It always took me a minute to recognize him because he was no longer blond and no longer had a Russian accent. He got me again, however, when Raising Hope started. It took me forever to recognize the lovably dim father as Garrett Dillahunt, and after that I kept expecting him to have a psychotic episode and blow everybody away.

If you’re a fan of one of the big, character-driven series like The Wire, this can become almost obsessive because those actors keep showing up again and again in other series. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, it’s…Bunk! Isn’t it? Isn’t that him? And isn’t that the guy who played one of the kids in the projects, you know, the one with the hoodie?”

Fortunately for me, my husband is a tolerant soul and doesn’t tell me to please shut up and go away. The latest episode of this particular craziness was when we watched a rerun of an episode of Leverage. The actress who placed Nate’s ex-wife, Kari Matchett, was hauntingly familiar. I could almost remember her doing…something. It drove me crazy until I was fixing dinner the next day and then, suddenly, I remembered she was the head of Annie’s department in Covert Affairs.

This is, of course, fairly nutsy behavior. The only thing that keeps it from edging over into full-blown psychosis is the blessed Internet Movie Database (IMDB). If all else fails, I can flip open my laptop, head over to IMDB while the show is on and generally find a link to whatever previous performance it is that I’m remembering when I see an actor in a current role (“Anne Ramsay on Dexter? Oh yeah. She was Jamie’s best friend on Mad About You!”).

Otherwise, I’d probably be lying there at two a.m., wide awake, still moaning, “I know that actor, I’ve seen him before, who is that guy?”

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The Remake

George SmileyIt’s no surprise that I hated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when I finally got around to seeing the movie. I’m a huge fan of the TV version made back in the seventies with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Where the movie tries to cram all the multitude of betrayals and deceptions found in John Le Carré’s book into two hours, the series takes five or six, allowing your sense of the intricacies of the plot to develop along with Smiley’s. The movie screws up the chronology of the story, putting Smiley’s interview with Connie before he talks to Ricky Tarr, which makes no sense at all since it’s Ricky who provides the identity of the Soviet courier and Connie’s memory that ties him to Karla. Plus having Irina executed on camera is cheap sensationalism not found in either the novel or TV series (and yeah, if you don’t know the story, these sentences might as well be written in Urdu). But as I was watching (and fuming), I found myself wondering why the movie had to be made at all. The TV version was definitive. Why mess with it?

The logic of remakes usually escapes me. I understand why studios keep remaking Batman and Spiderman movies—they’ve got an audience of fanboys that will keep going back to see each version. But why remake something where the original version is perfectly good, other than the obvious “to make money” answer? Sometimes there’s ego involved, as when Gus Van Sant did his weird shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. And sometimes there’s a legitimate interest in trying to see the same work from a different perspective, as with the Coen brothers and True Grit (and no, PG, I don’t want to have that argument again!). Shakespeare can be remade indefinitely, as can classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, because each generation sees the plays slightly differently. And a book like The Great Gatsby that was never turned into a movie successfully can be tried repeatedly by directors who think they might get it right this time (although my hopes for Baz Luhrman aren’t high). But if a work has been done successfully the first time, I’d argue that the director needs to have a very good argument for doing it again—something beyond just “this time I’ll be the one doing it.”

So far, remakes have steered clear of classics like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca, although the latter has been remade under other names, like the Charles Bronson version (no, I’m not kidding). I like to think this is because nobody has the chutzpah to believe they could redo them successfully, but my guess is no producer is dumb enough to believe a remake would be financially successful (particularly in the case of GWTW). There’s also the “signature part” argument—All About Eve could probably be remade and has been done on Broadway as a musical, but what actress would be willing to put herself up there against Bette Davis’s performance?

I guess I’d argue that the only works that really scream to be remade are failures. If a work has promise and gets botched the first time around, remaking it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s generally acknowledged that David Lynch butchered Dune, the popular novel by Frank Herbert, so a remake like the one that’s currently in the works has some logic. But I’m still not sure I’ll see it. I return then to my original point: in most cases I’m more interested in seeing original work than in seeing new versions of old stuff. And Gary Oldman, superb though he is, just isn’t George Smiley. Alec Guinness is.

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A couple of weeks ago the hubs and I had dinner in a time capsule. It was a steak house on the high plains in Nebraska, but it was like wandering into fifties Vegas—zebra upholstered banquettes, thick carpeting, Sinatra on the soundtrack. A whole lotta Sinatra on the soundtrack. In fact, by the time we’d finished dinner (my annual prime rib), we’d heard most of Frank’s Greatest Hits, including “Softly, As I Leave You.”

Now “Softly” (as it’s usually known) is a legendary Sinatra tune. It’s actually an Italian pop song by Antonio Da Vita and George Calabrese translated into English by Hal Shaper. You can hear Sinatra sing it on YouTube, but lots of other people have recorded it too, including Andy Williams, Doris Day, Michael Bublé, and Shirley Horn. You can see the lyrics here.

The thing is, as I listened to the song this time, I realized something—the singer in this particular song is one prime SOB. To me, the song isn’t romantic, it’s infuriating. Maybe I was too young to understand it when I heard this the first time (and maybe back in the day those lyrics didn’t seem so bad), but boy do I understand it now.

The situation is this. The singer is leaving his Significant Other (I’m going to go with masculine pronouns here because of Sinatra, but it could just as easily be a woman). The SO is asleep and the singer doesn’t want to wake her because she’ll beg him to stay. So he’s just going to tippy-toe away before she wakes up because he can’t “bear the tears” after all the years they’ve spent together. Whether he’ll contact her after he gets wherever he’s going isn’t clear, but right now he’s outa there.

Stop and think about that for a minute. This is a long-term relationship—they’ve been together for years. But the singer is such a chickenshit that he can’t bring himself to take the time to even tell his SO he’s leaving. And why not? Because she’ll cry and it’ll get messy. Moreover, she might try to embrace him or kiss him and, well, he just couldn’t take that, it would just break his heart.

But not enough to get him to be a mensch and stick around to announce his intentions. The SO apparently has no idea this is going to happen. The singer is leaving “long before you miss me,” so we assume the SO is going to be totally in the dark when she wakes up and finds he’s no longer in his accustomed spot next to her. Given old Silver Tonsils’ aversion to unpleasantness, she may never find out exactly why she’s been dumped. He is, as I say, the very definition of a prime SOB.

Why had I never noticed before what a bastard the singer is in this song? I think it’s because the music is so lovely, and the singer’s delivery is typically so dramatic. You hear those quivering tones, those throbbing strings, and you never stop to think about just what words are being sung. But it makes me wonder how many other songs in the Great American Songbook are about jerks and cads. How many songs have I listened to over the years without really hearing them? We’re accustomed to hearing attacks on hip hop and rap, but maybe they’re not the only songs that seem to celebrate things that shouldn’t be celebrated.

At least in the case of “Softly As I Leave You”, I’m listening now. Trust me, the next time I hear it I’m going to be thinking C’mon, lady, wake up and kick his ass!

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