Cover Me: Matt Alber Does Whitney Houston

I am a big fan of unusual and unexpected cover songs. I thought here would be a good place to share some of my favorites. We’ll see if I can keep this up every week.

This week, I introduce you to my latest obsession, Matt Alber, who made the pop dance tune “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” into an emo lament I can’t stop listening to:

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Believing in Atheism

I had a debate with a friend shortly before Thanksgiving on whether or not atheism is a religion.

You see, I am surrounded by a fair amount of atheists in my line of work and, as a theist, this tends to lead to some friction.  Your mind might be jumping to the conclusion that as a somewhat lax Catholic, I am the one telling them they are wrong.  On the contrary, I get preached to by atheists far more often than I get preached to by Catholics, by Pentacostals, by Mormons, or by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I endure so much preaching from atheists (I’m looking at you BJ Nemeth), that I often wonder if part of their doctrine is similar to religions that encourage believers to spread the word.  I’ve told BJ more than once that I fully expect him to start going door-to-door, ringing bells to proclaim to home owners “You know there is nothing, right?”

If you don’t believe in God or the afterlife, more power to you.  If it makes you happy, who am I to judge?  I don’t even mind the preaching.  I understand that if you believe in something or the absence of something strongly, you feel compelled to share it.

There is one point where the aforementioned atheist friend and other atheists lose me though:

When they claim atheism is not a religion.

On the surface, I understand this argument.  Rejecting theism, the belief in god or gods, is choosing not to believe in what is often the defining trait of a religion.  However, there are several religions that do not require belief in a deity, like Wiccan, Taoism, Scientology (stop rolling your eyes), and some sects of Unitarianism all have a belief system absent of a deity.

So now it is time for me to be that annoying girl that whips out the dictionary to prove a point.  Here are the five definitions of “religion” as listed on Dictionary.com:

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, natureand purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

2.a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.


3. 
the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.

4. 
the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.

5. 
the practice of religious  beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

So, save for possibly the fourth definition, I am not seeing how atheism doesn’t apply.  The atheists I know hold the belief there is nothing and it dictates how they go about their everyday lives, they all seem to agree about the lack of a God, and, according to recent research, their numbers are growing by the day.

The thing about religion is that it extend beyond God.  Religions are cultural institutions, social constructions, and imbued with influence from aspects of society that have nothing to do with heaven, hell, or a higher being.  At its core, a religion is a belief system.  Now, while atheists may contend the lack of belief in a God is not a belief, I’m not sold.  Hearing atheists talk, the more I am convinced this belief in nothing is not all that different from belief in something in that they draw the same strength to get through life from their position that I draw from mine.

Mini Movie Reviews

A couple of folks have suggested I write more movie reviews on here. I don’t really write them for a couple of reasons. First, I mostly watch movies people are largely disinterested in. Second, I don’t really think my opinion on movies holds enough weight to trouble someone with 1,000 words on a single motion picture.

I do, however, track what I watch and how I felt about it on Pinterest, if any of y’all are interested. Just click the title of this post to see just how many films I take in on the regular (this list dates back to early September or so).

Mini Movie Reviews

Loquacious

Loquacious is one of my favorite words in the English language. I am not necessarily a fan of loquacious people though.  Part of the problem is, I am one of them.  I tend to go on, as you’ll note by the length of many of my blog posts, and I don’t really know how to stop sometimes.

I used to be much worse.  College tends to do this to you, as you learn to extend the length of your page-mandated papers by saying in three sentences what it takes to say in one.  I did take a Business Communication class in college, which emphasized short sentences and constantly preached “as few words as possible.”  At the time, I found the approach somewhat stupid.  These short emails we drafted often seemed to be missing details and, whatever you made up for in your dearth of words was negated by the fact that an email only one person needed to see was CCed to 34 others.

As a speech nerd, a student of film criticism, and someone who tended to do well in writing classes, I thought I knew better.  I marched into my first real world job as a Hollywood assistant, convinced that my ability to write clear script coverage was an indicator I may be wordy, but I was effective.

It took about three weeks before my boss called me in to her office. She couldn’t take it anymore.

“Jessica.  We spend all day reading words, thousands upon thousands of them.  You are one of the people I communicate with the most each day.  You have to cut down how many words you use to talk to me.”

This was also followed by a rant about my MLA-induced habit of putting two spaces after a period (something that has since changed slightly in the MLA style guide, but at the time was still pretty universally taught).  I thought this was my “Swimming with Sharks” or “The Devil Wears Prada” moment.  My irrational boss making insane demands.

While I maintain my love of the two space period, I would painstakingly go through all my correspondence in that job and remove it after the fact.  I would look at my sentences and take out unnecessary words and phrases. And I would dream of the day when I could stop.

Once I got out of Hollywood and went to grad school, I was free to be wordy me again.  However, I now had freshmen students as part of the program.  Freshmen students who turned in papers and assignments.  Then I realized what my not-so-evil Hollywood boss was talking about.

I can only hope I was less transparent at lengthening my work in college than my students were.  They could write the same sentence six ways, then turn it in on wide rule paper where the words never got within an inch of the margin or on typed paper in the absurdly large Courier font with two-inch margins.

This is also when my hatred for passive voice, the present perfect, and many other word verb tenses really took root.  More words does not equal more communication.

One more time.

More words does not equal more communication.

“I checked the mail.”

This is a clear, concise sentence. Idn’t it purdee?

“I went to check the mail.”

This is two words longer than it needs to be.

“The mail was checked by me today.”

Do you see how this is basically a sentence written in reverse? It is like a tiny game of “Clue”. What is happening to the mail? Who did the checking? Was it in the billiard room?

Five years removed from grad school, I find I have become my Hollywood boss.  She is right.  We read all day, every day.  As a result, my patience for wordy people wanes.  I draft emails specifically asking for yes and no answers.  I get novels in return.  They are not even novels that answer my question.  Much like my students at IU, they are novels trying to dodge the fact they don’t know the answer or know I don’t like what they have to say.

As the old-fashioned senior citizen on the inside that I am, I long for the days of paper.  I enjoy the convenience of ease and email.  I agree that it encourages literacy and reading on a level we haven’t seen in a couple of generations.  However, the great thing about paper and pens is that they are finite resources.  When you draft a letter or a newspaper column, they are very real and physical space restrictions that get you to think about what you are going to say.

As a result, we don’t bother to think before we word spew all over everything.  As my friend Dave wisely pointed out, even though you are writing less words, until you train yourself otherwise, it takes more time to be less wordy.  And time being a precious commodity, laziness kicks in and effective communication falls by the wayside.

As this increasingly lengthy post will attest to, the internet has space in spades.  Other than title and SEO description limits, there are very few restrictions on length or character limit.  That doesn’t mean that we need to get biblical in our post length though.  

The more you say, the less I hear it. Be direct. Be concise.  And remember that space on the internet may be an endless resource, but a person’s time is still finite and precious. Respect it.

Starstruck

For a variety of reasons, I have met more than your average number of celebrities in my life.  It started back in high school.  I spent the bulk of my high school years in Kentucky, but for reasons that are too long to go into, I did spend my sophomore year at a prep school in the San Fernando Valley.

The school happened to enroll a number of child actors and athletes, as well as children of actors and athletes.  One celebrispawn teen in my Computer Science class even went on to a reality show in which she and another celebrispawn briefly lived on a farm in Arkansas.

For some reason, I never got terribly starstruck around some of these big name celebrities coming to pick their kid up.  When I advanced to college at USC, the story stayed the same.  I would meet some notable people in my class, but I was rarely left tongue tied to interact with them.

This cool exterior helped me out in my days as a Hollywood assistant, where I had to keep calm around our notable clientele.  In poker, it helped me cover up the enthusiasm I had seeing some of my favorite pros for the first time.

This is not to say I never got starstruck.  However, I wouldn’t nervous around the likes of Jeff Golblum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Billy Bob Thornton, George Lucas, or any of the other very talented people I was fortunate enough to meet.  My nerves were reserved for celebrities with a more…acquired taste.

We were lucky enough to have Sidney Poitier speak to our class. My roommate needed me to clarify who he was, which I did between hyperventilating breaths.  In 2001, I ran into Jon Favreau in a campus Starbucks. This was back when Mr. Favreau was not much of a director and was best known for being Rudy’s friend in “Rudy”, and, of course, “Swingers”.  I stammered like an idiot and kept my cool long enough to return to my dorm room and run up and down the halls yelling, “I met Jon Favreau” followed by yelling the answer to the question, “Who is Jon Favreau?”

My most embarrassing moment with a celebrity came during my year in that California prep school though.  I was one of three performers in our theater department’s production of “Greater Tuna”.  If you’re unfamiliar with the play, it is typically performed with two actors each playing a dozen characters. We added in a third and divvied the roles up.

My teacher and director, Mr. Boles, was a fantastic man who thought I was doing some of the best performing he’d ever seen from me.  He was also familiar with my obsession with old movies.  So, he decided to do something very nice for me.  He invited his friend to a performance.  His friend was Richard Beymer.

Who is Richard Beymer, you ask?  If you know him at all, you either know him from “Twin Peaks” or, more likely, for his role as Tony in the film “West Side Story”.  The Robert Wise-directed musical has been a favorite of mine for almost two decades.  At the age of 15, I knew every word of every song and even committed a substantial amount of the choreography to memory.

When I learned Mr. Beymer was coming to see out show specifically to see me, I pretty much had a coronary.  I spent the time leading up to the performance glancing out the stage door to see if he was walking into the theater.  During the show, I spotted him in the front row.  He was filming some of the scenes with a camcorder, which in my mind was a clear indication I was to be his new protege.  I thought he certainly would notice when, in a scene in which one of my characters, a Southern grandma, dances with joy, that I incorporated some of his Tony choreography into my moves.

The show ended and I saw him standing and applauding as I took my curtain call. Life was amazing.

After the show, Mr. Boles told me I should come meet the man, the myth the legend.  I came in from the back of the theater, prepared to descend the stairs with the grace and flair of Rita Moreno to meet one of my heroes.

I made it one step.

Then my foot slipped on the edge of the step and I proceeded to tumble down more than a dozen stairs, landing at Mr. Beymer’s feet, a crumpled heap.  As he tried to help me up, concerned about my well-being, all I could say was this:

“You’re Richard Beymer.”

The stunned silence didn’t last long. He gave a bashful thank you, then proceeded to compliment me on the performance.  Then I unleashed the word vomit including my adoration for “West Side Story” and “The Diary of Anne Frank”.  I even mentioned my incorporation of the choreography. He admitted he had no recollection of the choreography of “West Side Story”. So I did the sensible thing. I performed it again, as if it would jog his memory.

Needless to say, that was the last I heard from Mr. Beymer.  Mr. Boles assured me he was impressed with me and even told me that his health wasn’t great and it was a feat that he even left the house for this at all.  I can only hope this wasn’t poppycock to cheer up a sullen, vintage-obsessed teenager.  Because with this story and several dozen more viewings of my worn VHS of “West Side Story”, I was able to recover from one of the more pathetic moments of my life.

Do The Right Thing

I already did my post on the movie “Flight”, but it did get me thinking about a type of movie that I really just can’t enjoy. It isn’t a genre really, but it is a trend you see in a lot of entertainment these days, most notably in comedies, but also in a lot of dramas, including one television show I refuse to watch.

Everyone talks about “Breaking Bad” and how amazing it is, but I won’t watch it. Why? Well, my understanding of this show is that the protagonist of this show is a high school teacher who sees his life come apart and he eventually becomes a meth dealer.

I don’t avoid “Breaking Bad” because I think it is going to be a bad show. I’m sure it is just as well-crafted as you guys are making it out to be.  However, I can’t handle watching a character make bad decision after bad decision. Yes, it makes for good drama, but as someone who enjoys shows by emotionally investing in them and becoming sympathetic and empathetic with the characters, it is too much for me to handle.

It sounds crazy, but I become so anxious watching characters make bad decisions, that I can’t enjoy the movie or TV show anymore.  Take “Meet the Parents” as an example. Most people find this movie hilarious, but I can’t get through it without feeling miserable. Watching Ben Stiller’s character dig himself into mess after mess after mess isn’t funny to me because I am so stressed that he can easily avoid the situation by acting differently.  I literally squirm in seat, physically uncomfortable with what is happening before my eyes.

I understand how strange I sound, trust me. I wish I could watch “The Talented Mr. Ripley” without squirming or see the humor in the depressing demise of the heroine of “Bridesmaids”, but I can’t.  I don’t need happy endings, I don’t an absence of conflict, and I can even handle one or two bad decisions.

It seems like these avoidable descents are becoming increasingly popular in movies and television these days. So, what has been a type of movie I can easily avoid is increasingly becoming a popular trend in American popular culture. I see the effectiveness of the drama and the realism that comes with these descents without redemption.  I am aware this is my issue, not the movies. Nonetheless, it has me thinking why people seem to have such an appetite for something I have no stomach for–the relentless suffering of someone caused by their own poor judgment.

“Flight” of Fancy

Before I get going, let me warn you that if you want to go into the Denzel Washington movie “Flight” blissfully unaware about the general gist of what the movie is about, you should stop reading. If you want to believe the movie bears resemblance to the previews, this is not the tumblr post for you.

In other words, SPOILER ALERT.

When I taught Public Speaking at Indiana University, I used to show the following video to get the point across to my students that introductions are incredibly important, as they set the scene for your entire speech.  This is a fake trailer for the horror movie, “The Shining”:

If you haven’t seen “The Shining”, please disregard what you just watched. If you have seen “The Shining”, I hope you found this as amusing as I did.  My students typically enjoyed it and it drove the point home well, especially because there were always one or two kids with no frame of reference for the film who were shocked to hear it is actually one of the scarier and creepier movies ever made.

Recently, I went to see “Flight” because I am generally a fan of director Robert Zemekis and because the 30 second trailers I saw on TV piqued my interest. It looked like a film about a mysterious plane crash, the ensuing investigation, and a man who may not be what he seems.  The blurb about it on Google Movies added to my enthusiasm about the film:

Whip Whitaker, a seasoned airline pilot, miraculously crash lands his plane after a mid-air catastrophe, saving nearly every soul on board. After the crash, Whip is hailed as a hero, but as more is learned, more questions than answers arise as to who or what was really at fault and what really happened on that plane?”

I guess, on some level, that is what this movie is about.  In reality though, this is your standard movie about an alcoholic’s descent to rock bottom with a plane crash serving as the inciting incident.  The crash itself is relatively irrelevant.  This is 90 minutes of Denzel Washington’s character, pilot Whip Whitaker, dealing with his alcoholism and drug addiction.

In other words, this is “The Lost Weekend”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, “The Man With the Golden Arm”, and “Leaving Las Vegas”.  In particular, it remings me of Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend”. Most of the movie is Washington by himself, struggling with his desire to drink. There is no mystery to solve, within 20 minutes everything is exactly as you would expect it would be.

That doesn’t make “Flight” a bad movie.  It isn’t great in my opinion, as it treads over all the familiar tropes of these previous films, adding very little save for the question of if Washington’s behavior can be excused in this instance since he managed to save a plane full of people from what should have been a crash that killed everyone on board.

It is interesting question, I suppose, but it doesn’t make this otherwise run of the mill flick rise to exceptional status in my book.  I will say that Washington’s performance is exceptional.  This is Oscar bait and the Academy should predictably  bite and award him with a well-deserved Best Actor nomination.  But Best Picture? I certainly hope better flicks than this will come along this winter.  

I don’t know who came up with the marketing plan for “Flight” that makes the crash seem like the centerpiece of the film, but I think they could stand to hear my lecture to my students on introductions.  This movie was not terrible, but because this flick and I got on the wrong foot with this misleading introduction, it left a more sour taste in my mouth than it would otherwise.  This movie went from B- to C for me because the experience was so marred by my expectations.

This isn’t the first time. Remember “The Family Stone”? Let me refresh your memory:

Looks funny, right? It kind of is at first. Until the major storyline involving one of the characters having terminal cancer comes into play.  As someone who lost a parent to cancer, I kind of like to know when I am going to stumble face first into a movie about it so I can mentally prepare.  I would think people with drug and alcohol problems or friends or family with drug and alcohol problems would want a similar warning before Flight. So that is what I am doing, giving you the heads-up. If you want to see a kind of depressing movie about a pilot with an alcohol problem with some great performances from Washington and others, go for it, I think you’ll like it.

If you want to watch something about a mysterious plane crash, this isn’t the place to find it. Maybe you can rewatch Season 1 of Lost instead.