Sunday, March 22, 2009

What I've Been Reading...

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales From a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams

If I were unimaginative enough to rate books and movies in terms of “grades” (“duh, guess this one gets a D...”), I'd probably give I'm Perfect, You're Doomed a B-, an A for effort, and in the top margin I'd scrawl a note in red ink: “Definitely engrossing, but should be funnier. Keep writing!” But I'm sure Kyria Abrahams doesn't need my encouragement to keep writing, and she knows more about being funny than I do, (she's now a stand-up comedian, after all). That said, I liked this, although with a title as awesome as I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, I was expecting more.

I did learn a lot about the Jehovah's Witnesses, a fundamentalist sect of Christianity that boasts followers like Michael Jackson and Prince. The basic gist of the religion is this: theirs is the one true religion, and Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and everyone else (including followers of other branches of Christianity like Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians, etc.) are all poseurs and are going be wiped out in the Armageddon. Only Jehovah's Witnesses will be spared and get to live on in a world free of atheists and other icky sinners. The Armageddon could happen tomorrow, it could happen twelve years from now, it could and will happen basically at the whim of Jehovah, so you'd better watch out, you'd better convert, and you'd better not miss any meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Oh, and celebrating any kind of holiday—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter, and even birthdays, is strictly verboten.

It's disturbing, but also quite hilarious when told through the eyes of Abrahams, a typical eighties child who loves Ricky Schroeder of Silver Spoons fame, even though her mother tells her that he “doesn't seem like a very nice boy.” From the age of eight, when Kyria is considered old enough to attend the Fellowship School, she is locked in an internal battle between adhering to the Witnesses' strict religious code and engaging in sinful activities such as attending the birthday parties of “worldly” friends and collecting Smurf figurines. Smurfs are demons, apparently, and there are stories circulating throughout Kyria's congregation about a Smurf doll that spontaneously came to life—right in the middle of the Kingdom Hall—screamed “Oh, shit!” and then burst into flames (because, y'know, Smurfs are evil and they hate Jehovah). Kyria becomes even more conflicted when she hits puberty, starts listening to ungodly bands like The Cure, and develops crushes on worldly boys (in Jehovah's Witness-speak, “worldly” is not a compliment). She longs to follow her heart and her hormones, but still wants to be a good Jehovah's Witness; the possibility of getting caught breaking the rules and thus being “disfellowshipped” is constantly hanging over her addled head.

When Kyria turns eighteen she marries a fellow Jehovah's Witness—a twenty-four-year-old part-time math professor and “stinky nerd” named Alan. She can barely stand him to be in the same room with him, but she is desperate to escape her warring parents and be able to have “legal” sex. At this point in the book things become murkier. Kyria becomes increasingly unsympathetic and downright nasty; treating her new husband horribly and trying to have sex with his friends. You almost want to give her a good shoe in the ass and tell her to grow up. On the other hand, such behavior seems understandable coming from the child of a dysfunctional home, a girl who grew up learning not to get too comfortable in “this” world, since any day now Jehovah would wipe out all the bad stuff so that the real believers could live a better life in “The New System of Things.”

By the end, Kyria thankfully grows up a little, gets gently knocked around by life and those fearsome “worldly” people, and is able to find her place among the sinners. I'm Perfect, You're Doomed isn't the best memoir I've ever read, but it is eye-opening, often humorous, and smartly written. And it's a good thing that Kyria turns out to be far from perfect, thank God—er, Jehovah—because who'd want to read about someone who is?

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

I was reluctant to pick up this book, mostly because I didn't love Juno, the film based on Cody's Oscar-winning screenplay. While it was a great story (not to mention wonderfully cast and well-acted), I found the hipster dialogue distracting, and the wink-wink cleverness rather annoying. I had heard good things about Cody's stripper memoir Candy Girl, but I wasn't keen to slog through more suffocatingly cool prose that her fans love so much.

Thankfully, the book isn't plagued by the same issues that caused Juno to crash in on itself. Candy Girl turned out to be a funny and very well-written account of Cody's stint as an exotic dancer, a year she spent in the employ of various Minneapolis strip clubs while settling into a new relationship with her musician boyfriend. Her writing is wry and sharply observed, and she doesn't skimp on dishing the juicy details while examining the bizarre quirks of an industry that is paradoxically exploitative and empowering (both for the dancers and the spectators, it seems).

Cody is determined to wring as much from the stripper experience as possible. She dances at all kinds of clubs, from the classiest to the seediest and everywhere in between. One is a cabaret-style bar with delusions of intellectual grandeur: the patrons puff expensive cigars and the walls are lined with shelves holding leather-bound books that no one reads. Another club is a gaudy neon nightmare that routinely holds “panty auctions” where a dancer prances across the stage wearing panties bearing the club's logo as the customers bid on the chance to prize a pair of undies straight from a stripper's body. One club, Dreamgirls, is staffed by such a ragtag crew of mohawked dancers and verbally abusive managers that Cody hilariously dubs the venue “Night Terror Girls.”

One thing I didn't need was the book's second-to-last chapter, “A Stripper Was Born,” a sort of denouement wherein Cody attempts to explain away her decision to pursue a brief career as a dancer. The chapter's placement is odd, and I think it would have served her story better had it been included at the beginning of the book—if it needed to be there at all. It seems superfluous for Cody to justify her choices, since it's pretty clear at the outset that she is a free-spirited nonconformist who is comfortable with her body. Plus, she's a writer, first and foremost. She got a great story out of it. That seems as good a reason as any to climb up on the pole and give it a whirl.

Monday, March 09, 2009

DVD Round-up, Part II: Drama!

Okay, here is my (long-awaited? You decide!) short list of dramas I've seen recently...(in alphabetical order, since I'm feeling anal today).

Arranged (or, "Yes, We Can All Just Get Along")
This was a little indie film I found tucked away in the "foreign" section of my video store (even though it's an American film). It is a simple story of friendship between two young public school teachers in Brooklyn: one an Orthodox Jew, one a devout Muslim. After a few awkward encounters in the staff room, the two women end up bonding over their dislike of the school's principal after she calls both of them into her office to passive-aggressively chide Rochel for her modest long skirts and Nasira for her headscarves. (At one point the brash principal even tries to foist money on them so they can buy more "fashionable" clothes). The women also find themselves in similar situations because of both cultures' beliefs in arranged marriage: Rochel's mother has enlisted the help of a shadchan to find her a husband, while Nasira's father has begun setting up meetings with eligible Muslim men. They lean on one another for support, commisserating over their bad dates and sharing their doubts about adhering to strict religious tradition in an increasingly secular society. It's a bit predictable, but well-written and nicely acted.

Verdict: A good one to watch with your mom (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Betty Blue (or, "Bitch Crazy")
A guy with a hook on his hand rips apart a mattress. A woman eats a pizza topped with garbage. A young man rubs soup on his face in an attempt to comfort his grieving girlfriend. A student film? Nah, it's Betty Blue, a well-loved French arthouse film from 1986 that I just recently got around to watching. And the film is, well....weird. The story centers on the outstandingly dysfunctional relationship between Zorg (Zorg?) an unambitious would-be writer and his young girlfriend Betty, who is more than a little insane. The plot is meandering and relatively non-existent. It is probably best-described as a "character-driven" film, with a lots of psychosis all around. Beatrice Dalle turns in a believable performance as Betty (she's good at acting crazy, anyway). She is definitely interesting to watch, mostly for her outlandish behavior but also for her vibrant, fabulously slutty 80's dresses. (She also seems to have an aggressive aversion to underwear.) She and Zorg (Zorg!) ramble around Paris and the French countryside, carousing with fellow neurotics, pissing off people and having lots and lots of sex. As their relationship progresses, Zorg becomes increasingly unnerved by the frequency of Betty's "fits", but his codependent allegiance to the cute little nutcase keeps him chained to her side. Betty finally goes completely berserk and pokes out her eye (this happens off-camera, thankfully). Zorg dresses in drag(!) and goes to visit his beloved in the hospital, where he commits a startling, irreversible act.

Verdict: Unfocused but entertaining, with an oddly beautiful ending that almost makes it worth sitting through. Almost.

The Class (or, "I'm Sorry, Did You Say Something?")
The thing that pissed me off most about this Oscar nominated French film was the review I read in The Onion's AV Club, which basically praised the film for not being your typical, cliche-ridden "maverick teacher inspires troubled students" film common in mainstream American cinema. Fine, geeks, it's all well and good to flout the rules, buck tradition and avoid tidy endings....but seriously. This director's "daring" decision to employ non-professional actors, the endless improvised scenes and the conflict-free plot put me right to sleep after 45 minutes, and I saw this thing in the theatre. The only other film that's ever done that to me? The Grudge, Part 2.

Verdict: Zzzzzz.....

The Lair of the White Worm (or, "Ken Russell Hates Women")
The best things about this 1988 crapfest: the title, Hugh Grant, and the ending.

Verdict: Don't bother (not that you would).