I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Myra Breckinridge”

I remember reading “Myra Breckinridge” about five years ago after perusing the selection of Gore Vidal novels at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. I found the novel to be delightfully wicked in a way only Vidal could do and, in the context of when he wrote it, a fascinating critique on masculinity, femininity and what was considered “deviant behavior.” (I regret what I’ve read of Vidal’s work is rather small and I need to rectify that problem.)

I later learned there had been a film adaptation done and since the novel seemed impossible to film and also has a premise that only seems eclipsed in absurdity by a Chuck Palahniuk novel, it felt like it deserved a place in “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

At the start of the movie we meet a young man who is about to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The young man is named Myron Breckinridge (Rex Reed) and we jump forward to California where Myra Breckinridge (Raquel Welch) has come to take a job at an acting academy owned by Myron’s Uncle Buck (John Huston). Myra, as it turns out, used to be Myron and is hell-bent on destroying the very idea of masculinity and ensuring female dominance. She befriends student Mary Ann Pringle (Farrah Fawcett) and sets out to destroy the hyper-masculine student, Rusty Godowski (Roger Herren). Meanwhile, there is an agent and recording artist named Leticia Van Allen (Mae West), whom Myra tries to get to represent Rusty.

The biggest problem with transferring “Myra Breckinridge” from a novel to a film is it loses all of the nuance of Vidal’s novel. What works as a very effective satire of gender and sexual norms at the time comes across as an exploitative film with an edge of transphobia due to Myra being a crazed misandrist who uses sexual violence to emasculate a man. Although this isn’t too far from the premise of the novel, a lot of the message of the book ends up being muddled because of how this film is made. However, Vidal’s intended irony of the incredibly gorgeous feminine woman being transgender would potentially come off as transphobic no matter how you would make the film today.

It’s worth noting at the time he wrote the novel and this movie was made transgender women were likely viewed as horribly cartoonish women who had masculine features and feminine features. There weren’t prominent transgender women like Laura Jane Grace, Candis Cayne and Laverne Cox to shatter the preconceived notions of what transgender women are. Still, a lot of the things Vidal does in the book could in a critique today be viewed as poor satire, but in the context of the target of his satire the novel arguably works. (It’s worth noting the novel was published pre-Stonewall and although LGBT people existed prior to Stonewall, that was the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement and after that awareness of LGBT people arose.)

If you push aside how Vidal’s razor-sharp writing is not well transferred to the film and came to this with no knowledge of the book, it would still be a terrible film because it feels like three different films were being made at once. The Van Allen subplot, which works out well in the novel, feels tacked on and West does not feel like she’s in the same movie as the rest of the actors. You could honestly cut out the character of Leticia Van Allen and maybe have a better film. But it wouldn’t be that much better largely because of director Michael Sarne constantly using archival clips from old films throughout the movie. Although this sometimes works for a comedic effect, it mostly serves as a distraction from what is going on during the course of the movie. Did we really need a clip of George Sanders applauding in “All About Eve” while Myra is raping someone using a strap-on dildo? No.

There’s also muddled scenes like one where Myra gives Myron a blowjob, which is either the world’s weirdest fantasy, or just a scene that seemed like a good idea to Sarne at the time–he wrote the screenplay–and doesn’t work well on the screen. The ending also lacks the impact of Vidal’s novel, but really anything in the movie lacks the impact of Vidal’s novel.

What is possibly the weirdest cast assembled in Hollywood history gives the most inconsistent overall performance. Fawcett and Reed give very lovely and natural feeling performances, while Herren and Huston feel performances where it feels like Sarne yelled, “ACT MASCULINE” and then pointed a camera at them. Welch gives what is a delightfully campy performance, but it would only work if everyone around her were being equally campy. Meanwhile, I have no idea what is going on with Mae West’s performance.

Finally, I would really like to watch a movie for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” where there is no sexual assault. All three films in this series have featured sexual assault or attempted sexual assault and I’m a little tired of seeing it in these movies. If it pops up in whatever the next movie is, I might just skip watching it.

Verdict: Skip the movie, read the book, unless you enjoy watching confusing trainwrecks.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Divergent”

Divergent poster.I think I need to watch Dominic West dancing in “Pride” first.

(watches clip)

Okay, I’m back.

“Divergent” is based on the first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth and as is the trend now, this is part of a movie series that will be a quadrilogy. In “Divergent,” we are taken to futuristic Chicago where people are divided into factions. At a certain age, people are tested to find out what faction they will join, but apparently they can choose. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) is from an Abnegation family, which means she is from a family of selfless public servants. She is given her aptitude test and it comes out that she is a Divergent, which means she has attributes for multiple factions. She is warned to keep it a secret because Divergents can think independently and can’t be controlled. Tris goes to select her faction and she goes for Dauntless, who are the brave train jumpers who also serve as the military force and are kind of viewed by Tris as the cool kids, which I will get to in a minute. Tris struggles in training, but eventually excels and people become suspicious. Meanwhile, a plot is being hatched by the Erudite, who are the smart people who want to be in power. Oh, and since a love interest is required for film adaptations of Young Adult novels, she falls in love with Four (Theo James).

May we please talk about the beginning logic of the film? I understand the whole faction thing since it’s not too far off from dystopian social structures seen in “The Hunger Games” and the fantastic “Legend” triology by Marie Lu. But with “Legend” we see a similar test where people find out where they belong in life. In “The Hunger Games” there are the 12 districts that each specialize in something and those districts are theoretically keeping the harmony of Panem together. But with “The Hunger Games” there’s a very clear upper-class that is served by the districts. The biggest glaring problem with the social structure in “Divergent” is there’s an entire group known as the factionless who live under the L tracks. They serve no purpose in society and it seems odd that in a society where at least one faction is hell bent on killing those they feel are a threat they don’t go and kill the factionless. They serve no purpose other than to be helped by the Abnegation.

But then there’s the fact that all 16-year-olds get tested to find out what faction they belong in, but apparently they can choose–although Tris makes a comment to Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the Erudite leader, that she would rather people don’t go with a choice that strays from what the test told them. So if people can choose and could be cut from their factions if they don’t pass the training, why does the government even administer the test?

Now that I’ve gotten through the problems with the logic, to the other problems with this movie. Woodley and James are just not compelling lead actors. Her acting feels wooden and stiff compared to the supporting actors and she has no on-screen presence. James at least feels like he’s trying, but he is playing Stock Handsome Love Interest and doesn’t do much with the role. Worse is when Woodley and James’ characters kiss I felt like it warranted a shrug, not a cheer. This is THE couple for the movie and I didn’t care that they finally kissed, largely because I didn’t feel like Woodley had any chemistry with James.

I also don’t really care about the characters. Whenever something happens to a character I find myself being unfazed by it. Characters are killed and there’s no emotional resonance whatsoever because there’s not really a connection the audience can make with any of these characters.

There is also an odd unintentional tonal issue with this film. Tris mentions having respect for the Dauntless and almost admiring them and it’s made very clear they are the security forces in Chicago. This feels a little uncomfortable now because of the dialogue occurring in this country around police shootings and police brutality. We have a film set in Chicago–which has a horrible history of police torture–where the main character chooses to join this group that later in the film, while under mind control, does start murdering innocent civilians. It’s completely unintentional, but that aspect of the script and the character feels a little uncomfortable particularly in the current climate.

The film also has horrible pacing because a good half of the film is spent having the new members of Dauntless be trained. Imagine if the training sequences of <i>The Hunger Games</i> occupied as much time as the actual games. After those are done we leap to the climax of the film, which seems abrupt and comes out of nowhere, as if it was realized something needed to happen other than watch Tris train to be a member of this faction. It’s a joyless slog of a movie which features an ending that led me to wonder why there are three more films after this. On the other hand, a good save in the event the film does poorly like “City of Bones” or many other failed YA film-adaptations.

On one final note, this is the second film in this series where there has been an attempted rape of the main character. In “Catch Hell,” Regan Pierce is drugged and Junior attempts to rape him, only to be suffocated by Pierce and then eaten by a gator. In a test given to see Tris’ proficiency as a Dauntless, she is put in a mental simulation where she has a series of trials. In the final trial a virtual Four goes to rape her and she knees him in the nuts and escapes. Please, screenplay writers, for the love of all that is holy, stop using sexual assault as a plot device because you can. Unless you’re going to explore the aftermath of sexual assault, just don’t use it in your plot. Even then I’m not even sure if I want to see sexual assault used as a plot device.

Verdict: Avoid at all cost. You could do so much better things with your time. Even watching “Catch Hell” would be a better use of your time.

What Makes a Musical Artist Belong to a Community?

The finalists for the Radio Milwaukee Music Awards were announced on Tuesday and there were quite a few that weren’t surprises, like GGOOLLDD doing really well in various categories and Marigolden by Field Report being a finalist for Album of the Year because Marigolden is the best album of the year, even when you remove the Milwaukee-specific label. (Disclosure: I am a member of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and I did vote on the categories for the music awards.)

Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took issue with some of the finalists, comparing it to the Grammy nominations, which seems odd since anyone with access to a computer could vote on the finalists, as is pointed out in his piece. Levy points out that Field Report’s “Home (Leave the Lights On)” was not a finalist for Song of the Year and Vinyl Theater didn’t get anything.

The interesting part of his piece is when he points out the the artists who aren’t particularly based in Milwaukee that are finalists.

The solo artist category might also cause some major grumblings. Nominee Grace Weber had a great year with her new soul-pop album “The Refinery,” and fellow nominee Tony Memmel is a talented singer-songwriter. But neither live in Milwaukee any more; Weber’s been calling New York home for eight years now, while terrific solo artists with noteworthy years, such as Brett Newski, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams and Sam Llanas, were overlooked.

Weber is at least treated as a Milwaukee artist. She appeared on Radio Milwaukee’s 414 Music Live, which brings Milwaukee musicians in its studios and have them perform three songs and do an interview. Weber is from Milwaukee, but lives in Brooklyn. There are plenty of great Milwaukee musicians who live in the city, but since Weber is in fact from Milwaukee, I personally see no problem with her being included as a Milwaukee musician.

There are some musicians Milwaukee may rally around because they have a Wisconsin connection. For example, some people may latch on to Justin Vernon and any of his projects a Milwaukee label because he’s from Eau Claire. Never mind that Vernon has actually dissed Milwaukee. Vernon and his projects have received a level of recognition most bands can’t receive, but it seems confounding to give him the level of love he receives from some Milwaukee residents. (There was even Bon Iver day declared in Milwaukee once.) Although there are Milwaukee connections with his projects, do you put a band whose front man said Milwaukee is a “dark, beer-drunk place” on a pedestal?*

Then comes the question of how do you determine if a band does belong to an area. One-half of Sylvan Esso is from Milwaukee, although the band is based in North Caroline. But by the rationale of “Grace Weber is a Milwaukee musician because she’s from Milwaukee” then Sylvan Esso is from Milwaukee and Sylvan Esso is treated by some as a Milwaukee band, from my perspective.

But Weber does come back to Milwaukee and performs on local public radio stations and does interviews. Maybe going to Brooklyn and recording music is best for her career. Milwaukee, after all, is a city where The BoDeans were named Best Milwaukee Rock Band by readers of the Shepherd Express and when I think of The BoDeans, I think, “Weren’t they on the bill for the 1999 Iowa Caucus?” (Tyler Maas and Matt Wild of Milwaukee Record discussed that last bit better than I probably could. The part about The BoDeans being named Best Milwaukee Rock Band, not them possibly playing the 1999 Iowa Caucus.)

While some bands in Milwaukee seem to gather a huge following after a short time period–I was at GGOOLLDD’s performance on 414 Music Live and that was one of the largest turnouts I’ve ever seen–the question comes as to if they can make it big outside of Milwaukee. I can yell on Facebook and Twitter all I like that you need to listen to GGOOLLDD and The Living Statues, but it might not make much of a difference to someone in Ypsilanti, Mich. or Chicago if those bands don’t get air time or ever perform there.

At the end of the day Weber is from Milwaukee and she did release a great album. There are bound to be people who will complain because there is always something for people to complain about. If Weber moved to Brooklyn and said “Yeah, Milwaukee, I’m from there. But it’s just a bunch of people who drink constantly. It’s so sad.” It seems more of a situation of someone from the area going and making an awesome album Milwaukee residents can be proud of. If you live in the city or were raised in the city, you get to be an artist who can call that city home. Those things ultimately influence your art. And, yes, some artists were left off, like Hayward Williams, but that happens with awards.

If we want to consider Weber a Milwaukee musician, go ahead. Lines should be drawn at some point as to what makes someone a Milwaukee musician, but I don’t think places like Radio Milwaukee should start putting a residency requirement on bands to be eligible for the award.

*Vernon was in a band called DeYarmond Edison with Chris Porterfield, who is the frontman for Field Report. So Vernon does have bands with Milwaukee connections. It’s just that Vernon isn’t the Milwaukee connection. Also, go listen to Marigolden.

The Problems With the Ice Bucket Challenge

By now you’ve probably seen videos of people having buckets of ice dumped on their heads, be it on the news, on Twitter or on Facebook. The challenge is part of an effort to raise awareness for the ALS Foundation. The challenge is fairly simple: Someone has a bucket of ice dumped on their head and then challenges three other people to have ice dumped on them. The process is then repeated. Get ice dumped on you, challenge three more people. The catch is if you don’t participate in the challenge you then have to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation.

Right there is the first problem with this challenge as it frames donating money to the ALS Foundation as a punishment. It essentially says, “Oh, you don’t want to have ice dumped on you? Guess you’re chicken. Guess you’ll have to donate $100 to the ALS Foundation.”

However the ALS Foundation did issue a press release calling recent donations to the group as a result of the ice bucket challenge “unprecedented.” This is good to see even if the way you are urged to donate money is framed oddly. It could also mean enough people getting ice dumped on them are saying, “Hey, this is for the ALS Foundation,” leading people to then look into the group and what ALS is and then give money.

The challenge has led to a variety of people having ice dumped on them. Conan O’Brien, Matt Lauer and Ethel Kennedy have had ice dumped on them. Maybe you’ve seen your local meteorologist participate in the challenge or your best friend from high school do the same as well. Even President Barack Obama was challenged to participate, although he chose to donate $100.

The scope of people participating in the challenge certainly seems to be very large, but at the same time there are people on social media who are participating in the challenge and not mentioning the part about the ALS Foundation. As a result the true purpose of the challenge can be lost and it seems it is starting to be lost.

The troubling part of the challenge is still the fact that it is framed as “Have ice dumped on you or donate money.” As a result people participating in the challenge can come off as “I would rather have ice dumped on me than donate to a charity that has a really good purpose.”

Although the ice bucket challenge is proving to be great for the ALS Foundation since they’ve seen a huge increase in donations, it might be time for groups to rethink using viral content for good causes. Often the efforts seem to be misguided–remember that time you were supposed to post your bra color on Facebook to raise awareness for breast cancer?–and the purpose gets lost as more people spread it around social media.

An Ode to “Mass Text”

Every year I write for Punching a Jayhawk about the worst music videos of a given year. Last year’s choice for the worst music video of the year, “Stupid Hoe,” was so delightfully bad because it was jam packed with decisions leading one to wonder how anyone thought any moment of that video was good.

As 2013 wore on, I wondered where was the delightfully awful music video for this year. How had I gotten through six months of the year and not found a flat out terrible music video?

And then “Mass Text” was unleashed upon the world. It’s okay for the first 14 seconds of the video, although Tay Allyn, the song’s singer, is texting her crush named “Drew Crush,” but then she sings the first verses of the song.

Why didn't I get your mass text?

Or perhaps you might enjoy the German translation instead.

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 11.38.12 PM

The music video then continues with her asking over and over why she didn’t get his mass text because she’s in his contacts. We then see her in a school hallway as Drew Crush and his friends walk by and check all their phones as they get a mass text.

Here’s the first problem: She’s wondering why she didn’t get his mass text, but why is he checking his phone and reading the mass text if he sent it? Unless he sends his mass texts to himself.

Then she looks dejected and plays with Barbie dolls, sings a bit more and then plays with her dog. She then sits in a stairwell and writes the song we are listening to at the very moment.

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 7.12.03 PM

Allyn then sits at lunch, gazing at Drew Crush when her friends come over with the discarded lyrics of “Mass Text” and encourage her to sing at the homecoming dance. As we all know, everyone wants to hear a song about not getting a mass text when they’re awkwardly dancing at the homecoming dance.

A bunch of her friends then get her ready for the dance and the video does that cliche thing where the girl with the glasses removes her glasses and discovers how beautiful she is. The problem is, people viewing the video have already seen her without her glasses on for most of the video.

Glasses off

Allyn then arrives at the dance and performs with her friends, serving as back up dancers. Although the pink fingerless gloves with her light blue dress seems like an odd fashion choice, nothing compares to the bit of choreography that occurs a few moments later where Allyn and her dancers put their hands up to their heads in a phone gesture while she sings “Mass text, mass text.” I’m not aware you can read a text while the phone is up to your ear. Is this a feature available on iPhones?

Mass text

She then leaves her dancers on the stage, continuing to do awkward dance moves, as she walks up to Drew Crush, saying she’ll get his mass text because she’s in his contacts. They kiss, as is inevitable in this music video and then there’s this:


The music video can’t end with us having an image of Allyn and Drew Crush kissing in the context of the dance because she’s going to get his mass text it has to show us her smiling at an iPhone that’s playing video of them kissing.

So I salute you, “Mass Text” for being really bad. I don’t know how it was possible to make such a bad music video.

Monica Goes to Teavana

I went to Teavana on Thursday while at the mall and after trying tea I found a tea I wanted to get a cup of to go. Plus, Starbucks bought Teavana so my Starbucks card works there.
I told the sales associate what tea I wanted and she said “Well, this will be three dollars and some change if you get it as a cup to go. If you buy the loose leaf, you can make 20 cups out of two ounces and it saves money.” The tea was $8 for two ounces, so I asked if I could have one ounce of it.

“Oh, you have to get two ounces of a tea. We have a minimum of two ounces.”

She then gave me a catalog of their teas and I saw Rooibos Chai was $4.80 for two ounces. I asked for two ounces of Rooibos Chai.

“Well, you need to buy one of our tins. They cost $6 and $7. They help protect the tea and make it last for a year.”

“I think I’ll skip the tin.”

“But it’s refillable.”

“I’ll buy a tin some other day.”

“But the tea won’t be as good if you don’t buy this tin.”

“I’m not interested in buying a tin.”

This, by the way, is my favorite part of Teavana’s strategy. According to them, you must buy one of their storage tins for tea or TEA AS WE KNOW IT WILL CEASE TO EXIST. Teavana overall tries to sell you on all of the things they have that are a bit overpriced. You need to prepare tea? You’ll need one of our tea pots, a small one of which will cost you more than $100. You want to prepare tea on the go? Buy a tumbler we have, which will cost you at least $40. And the proper way to brew their tea is to use one of the infusers, which starts at $20. But my favorite part is how they sell their storage tins.

The sales associate scooped up some of the Rooibos Chai leaves and put it in a bag to weigh it. The bag of tea leaves weighed 2.6 ounces.

“That should be okay,” she said.

“No, it isn’t okay,” I said. “I asked for two ounces of Rooibos Chai and that’s 2.6 ounces.” Now, if it had been 2.3 ounces, I wouldn’t have complained. But 2.6 ounces is closer to 3 ounces so I felt I needed to say “That’s too far away from the quantity I asked for.”

“Well, it’s in the bag so I can’t put it back in the tin.”

I bought the tea, which was possibly a mistake. I should have walked out to let them know I don’t appreciate their sales methods. Unfortunately, I really wanted tea and purchased the 2.6 ounces of Rooibos Chai, which is very delicious. This experience is not a unique experience from what I’ve heard, which disappoints me. I like good tea and if Teavana has a tea I’m willing to fork over $16 for in order to obtain just two ounces of it, I would do that if they didn’t have such intimidating business practices. (Teavana does have tea that costs $16 for two ounces) I want to buy my tea in peace without someone trying to hassle me into buying a $20 tea infuser or a $40 travel thermos.
At least the tea is good. On a positive note, it makes me appreciate Argo Tea even more.