Sunday, July 31, 2011

Comfort Video, Disaster-Style

The other night I got home from work, exhausted and out of sorts. I was debating what to do with my tired-ass evening when I saw just the ticket—some cable station was showing Deep Impact at 7:00. Perfect! It’s my favorite kind of comfort video—a disaster movie. There’s something wonderfully escapist about doomsday flicks; my own troubles always seem smaller when I consider the fact that I don't have to pack my car and head for the Southern Hemisphere like those poor schlumps on the screen. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Deep Impact, or chunks of it, and that got me to thinking about other movies that I watch over and over and never get tired of. They aren’t by any means my favorite movies; strangely, most of my favorite ones (The New World, Minority Report, L.A. Confidential) are so stressful that I can’t watch them very often. No, these comfort movies are different—they may not be great cinema, but I love them and I end up putting them on again and again like a pair of warm flannel pajamas. So here are the first three comfortfests that spring to mind, starting with the aforementioned Téa Leoni classic. Now that I see these in a list, I notice that they all have very strong female leads. Apparently when I want comfort video, I also want feminism.

Deep Impact. This is the one about the comet that’s on a collision course with the Earth (not to be confused with Bruce Willis’s hamfisted Armageddon, released the same year, which starred an asteroid and Ben Affleck’s fake teeth). What I love most about Deep Impact is how we see the disaster unfolding from the viewpoint of Téa Leoni’s greenhorn TV reporter—she’s the one who shows us what’s at stake, all in the way her hands shake as she clips a microphone to her lapel, or how she chugs a martini during an awkward get-together with her father and his new wife, who are oblivious to the looming disaster. The movie also got stellar performers for the smaller parts—Maximillian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, James Cromwell, Robert Duvall. This movie’s full of good scenes, so I can tune in at any point and watch a half hour and enjoy it. But seen in its entirety (2-1/2 hours), it’s surprisingly touching—it makes me cry in all the sucker spots. The Duvall subplot is the only thing that holds on too long, and there’s a car accident in the first reel that feels completely gratuitous (you can practically hear somewhere at the script meeting saying, “If only it had a fiery crash in the first five minutes.”) And by the end, I’m always playing a game with myself—name any other good movie that Téa Leoni made. (I looked up her filmography just now. Thank goodness for Ricky Gervais’s Ghost Town.)

Contact. Confession time: I usually can’t make it past the part where they figure out the alien Rosetta Stone. And though it's not technically a disaster film, up to that point, Contact is everything I love in a movie—an ambitious sci-fi plot; the biggest discovery in the history of humans; an obsessed, socially challenged female scientist (Jodie Foster); and even Matthew McConaughey, before he got ground down to a soft powder by all those romantic comedies. Again, the best part is seeing the thrill of the story—somebody out there is trying to talk to us—through the eyes of Jodie Foster’s character. In fact, the first, crucial moment of discovery—when Foster hears that pulsing screech in her headphones—is played out in an extreme close-up of her eyes, which suddenly fly open. And then it’s all headlong, techie bliss as she throws her laptop in her old convertible and fishtails across the desert, yelling right ascension and declination numbers into her walkie-talkie to her napping crew back at the SETI lab. Later, after they crack the code on the alien transmission and figure out what the message says, they lose me with the fanatic preacher guy, and the weirdly gratifying death of Tom Skerritt, and a few clumsy forays into religion vs. science. But the charm of the movie is that it’s a love letter to the universe penned by the always upbeat Carl Sagan, who was a treasure—sort of a Gene Roddenberry for the real world.

Twister. This one is pure guilty pleasure. I know the special effects are cheesy, and houses don’t actually roll like tumbleweeds. And the way they call the benign, doughy Bill Paxton “The Extreme” makes me wonder what actor that line was originally written for. But I love the way the two women play off each other. There’s Jami Gertz, with her pretty teeth and terrified-deer eyes, playing—let’s face it—the sane one. And then there’s Helen Hunt in her wifebeater tank-top, basically playing a hyperactive ten-year old, with just a touch of oil-rig worker. And there’s poor Bill Paxton in the middle, getting smacked by both of them, and then by Mother Nature as well. He sort of saves the day, but Helen Hunt saves it too. And handsome-but-evil Cary Elwes gets his comeuppance (I like to imagine him yelling “By…your…leave!” as he’s sucked into the tornado). But of course the actual twisters are what move the movie along—pretty much one for every scene, more of them than most storm-watchers get near in a lifetime. And a special shout-out to Alan Ruck, who is sweetly memorable in everything he does, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Eureka to—again—Ghost Town.

More later.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New Things in the New Neighborhood

 Jumping spiders

Very big ants

A brown grasshopper on the freshly painted front door

The whispery poplar tree in the back yard

Canada geese honking overhead

Quails running into the blackberries at the end of the dead-end street

The wuhf of the neighbor’s Basset Hound

The big, empty softball field behind the Mormon church

Box elder beetles walking across the driveway


Air conditioning

The Swiffer

The oven, which beeps annoyingly whenever it’s done something that other ovens take no pride in, like reaching the temperature I set it for

The sliding screen door that doesn’t latch

My neighbor, whom I can barely see over the back fence, a man who never seems to wear a shirt and may be naked entirely

Middle-aged women talking to themselves in the aisles of the Shop-N-Kart

The gun aisle at Bi-Mart

The two horses grazing across the street, their long tails sweeping across their hocks

My neighbor Alissa, who goes for walks in the middle of the day

My neighbors, two young men who open their garage door on hot days and play ping-pong

My garage, which smells like my father’s work clothes

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Top 5 Scariest Things in Houses for Sale

I recently bought a house. This didn’t happen overnight—it was the culmination of a 15-month search during which I toured 42 houses and drove by about 100 more. With the help of my saintly real estate agent, I feel like I just finished a college course (ask me anything—flag lots, tankless water heaters, asbestos siding). And during the journey, I saw some scary stuff. Sure, there were the usual horrors—water damage and crumbly carpets and retaining walls that were about to fall and kill somebody. But it was often the small things that soured me on a house, the little stuff that made me scratch my head and say, “Who thought this was a good idea?” These, then, are my top 5 house turn-offs.

Cutesy wallpaper. During the Victorian era, wallpaper served a purpose—covering up old horsehair insulation or something. But the 1960s had no such excuse, unless people thought there was a shortage of ducks and flower baskets, judging by how many families glued nostalgic patterns of them to their walls. My favorite is the wallpaper that runs in a strip around the top of the room, a busy motorway of violets or frolicking children that pulses at the top of your view no matter where you look, making even an empty room look messy. It’s basically two-dimensional clutter.

Blue countertops. What was it with blue kitchens in the 1980s? Did interior decorators make a deal with psychotherapists and try to give us all clinical depression? Some of these gloomy countertops still linger, bathing whole kitchens in their sickly glow—dingy yellowish blue, leisure-suit powder blue, plastic-turquoise blue. Just try to find potholders that go with those.

Religious icons and new-age kitsch. I’ve got nothing against crosses, crystals, or Buddhas, but even for a skeptic like me, those objects leave a kind of spiritual wake behind them. I can’t help thinking, are the old owners taking God with them when they move? How will the spirits of fortune find me when all those prayer flags and guru pictures go somewhere else? In one house, the owners had taped “affirmations” to every wall—little strips of paper with empowering messages typed on them, like “I am wealthy in every way” and “I will always have more than enough money.” Ironically, it was a short sale. This made me think way too much—about how these people so obviously failed; about how religions prey on people who are down on their luck; about how some people soldier on with only their paper-thin faith. It sort of got in the way of “my couch would look good in here.”

Strange smells. This was a tough one—I’m sure that most owners cleaned the house before they showed it. But I still picked up on odd smells all the time. Over and over, as I walked into houses that smelled vaguely of dogs, or farts, or old people imprisoned in the attic, I thought of that cliché about how you should bake cookies just before you show your house. It’s good advice, and not just because it masks bad odors. Sometimes the “clean” odors are the worst of all—one person’s “fresh” is another person’s “motel smell.”

Slipcovers. I know you’re not buying the furniture when you’re looking at a house, but I was surprised at how much slipcovers put me off. I don’t care if you dress them up with piping or velveteen ropes—those ill-fitting muslin sacks are the decorating equivalent of the scariest type of horror movie, the kind where all the gore takes place off-screen. That couch can’t possibly have as many cigarette burns and cat stains as I’m imagining. Or can it?

OK—your turn. In the comments section, what are your top house-for-sale turn-offs?