Wishing I Was Watching More Zach Braff Movies

I don’t know when people decided to apologize for liking Garden State, but I really wish I was around when this shift took place.  I very distinctly recall when the movie came out ten years ago and all of us fawned all over it, myself included.  I found my adoration justified. This movie channeled what I felt as a twentysomething perfectly. That desire to feel less like you were ambling through everything and that your life was headed in some sort of direction and had some sort of purpose.

I will not apologize for liking the quirky moments of the movie like silent Velcro, the African exchange student, and the tryst with the guy from Medieval Times. I won’t apologize for the soundtrack either, because you can claim the movie has aged, but this soundtrack is still sheer perfection. And I certainly won’t apologize for the fact that it replicates an experience common among white middle class Gen-X/Millenials, because white middle class Gen-X/Millenials need movies too.

I’m also not going to apologize for the fact that I rather enjoyed Braff’s new film, Wish I Was Here, for many of the same reasons. In reading the reviews, it seems like many people are raking Braff over the coals for treading familiar territory, but I don’t really see anything wrong with that. Woody Allen basically remade one-third of Crimes and Misdemeanors as Match Point. Richard Linklater gets immense praise for the Before Sunrise trilogy, which tracks the same characters from the night they met in Paris to present day. You could have told me the lead character in Wish I Was Here was Andrew Largeman and, other than wondering what happened to Natalie Portman, that would have been fine by me.

Perhaps it is just an instance of good timing, but Wish I Was Here very much captures the way I feel at 30, just like Garden State captured the way I felt at 20. I am currently changing a lot of things in my life and asking a lot of questions about what I want out of my future. This whole movie asks us to think about what we should be doing with our lives. Braff’s character confronts the many different paths his life could take.  As his ailing father fails to hide his disappointment in his son, Braff’s character Aidan dwells on how he failed to please his father. Seeking council from a rabbi, Aidan is reminded he needs to be a good father, perhaps needing to take a path to please his children. His wife, played exceptionally well by Kate Hudson, points out the sacrifices she made for him and suggests she deserves some sacrifices in return.

However, Aidan clings on to the idea that he deserves to pursue his own dream, which is an acting career. Many reviews suggest this guy’s need to be less selfish and grow up is too simplistic, a cry for pity that isn’t deserved.  Honestly though, while this may be a first world problem or the type of thing where people just want to say “man up” and move on, I am not ashamed to admit this seems like worthwhile territory to explore.

After years of my generation and younger being raised to believe they are special, what happens when the inevitable truth that we are not special sinks in?  I know this sounds petty when I put words to cyber paper, but as silly as it sounds, there is a certain amount of depression that sets in when you realize your life isn’t going to be what you envisioned.  In this movie, Aidan isn’t just grieving for his father, he is grieving for that time in his life which was still so full of possibility, where it still seemed reasonable to believe his big dreams would come true.

And though it may be twee and though it may be a movie all about first world problems, Braff directs the film so earnestly that I can’t help but buy in and follow along.  Braff isn’t afraid of feeling and admitting he is sad and that his brain is reeling from issues that may not seem as important to other people as they feel to him. This is a flaw in many critics’ eyes, but to me, it is Braff’s greatest strength. Culture these days seems to be more than willing to be unironically and openly happy and optimistic, but there still seems to be much resistance to expressing feelings like sadness or regret without some sort of edge or irony.  All of the praised dramas have to be dire with high stakes. There has to be dead girls or meth heads or homeless people. Being sad about the loss of a parent and questioning what direction your life is headed simply aren’t serious enough. To dwell in these questions gets written off as self-indulgent.

But, y’all, let’s be real for a minute—in this day and age, people are selfish.  They do worry about these seemingly petty things, and they worry about them a lot, at least I do. For my generation, nobody seems to be able to channel that angst and present it in a way that can be both entertaining and cathartic the way Braff does. I often question some of this criticism about his self-pity, because when I watch both Garden State and Wish I Was Here, I see a protagonist who is depicted as a bit of a screw up.  Braff never presents himself as a person to feel sorry for and that is it. Aidan is clearly a little immature, that is intentional.  It is a magnified version of a problem plenty of people my age have, presented in a way where we can both wallow in it a little, but laugh at ourselves and keep us from taking it too, too seriously.

So, I will continue to eagerly turn over my money to see his movies or fund them on Kickstarter or do whatever I can do to produce more dramas that spend more time questioning expectations between parents and children and less time brutalizing women or murdering your enemies or whatever the hell else always seems to happen on these “prestige” TV shows.

You can call him self-absorbed or whiny or filled with self-pity, but as I see it, Braff is one of the few filmmakers out there putting out material that bears an iota of resemblance to a life I lead. I don’t need my entertainment to mirror my life all the time, but having a guy like him out there producing movies that helps me reflect on my own life is simply something I am never going to apologize for.  

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Oooh, I had not heard of it, but I am intrigued enough to check it out. I have to wonder what a show like that would be like without the adorable and yet simultaneously sad earnestness and eagerness of some of those kids who still haven’t learned just cause their parents say they’re special doesn’t mean they actually are.
Oh, and I don’t know if you know, but our friend Steve Desmond actually worked on Kid Nation, so I’ll have to loop him in on this info too.

Have you heard of ‘Utopia’? It’s coming soon from FOX and is basically ‘Kid Nation’ with adults and now I just miss ‘Kid Nation’ and I think you’re the only one who understands that.

So I Think I Have a Problem

I used to watch a lot of reality TV back in the day, but lately I have culled many of shows from the roster.  Gone are most of the Food Network shows, Project Runway (yes, I am still that salty about Jeffrey Sebelia), Survivor, American Idol, Big Brother, The Voice, and even The Amazing Race unless there is a compelling All-Star season.

What remains are just five shows: Two Real Housewives franchises (OC and NYC), MTV’s The Challenge, Top Chef, and the mother of them all: So You Think You Can Dance.

I’ve written before about my love of dancing, so this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone who knows me. This show isn’t just great because I like dancing though. It is one of those reality TV shows that is very rarely about the production and the BS and the politics. These are people who have legitimately trained their entire lives for this opportunity and the hard work comes through as they perform an array of exceptionally difficult routines.  

Each week, I tend to have one number I obsess over, watching numerous times, marveling at the choreography and the dancers’ artistry, be it bringing it hard in a hip hop number or remaining gleefully chipper during a nonstop Bollywood routine. In the past, I’ve tended to post them on FB or Twitter, but for my non-dancer friends, they may not understand just how hard something is or why it is so impressive.

Just the other day, I was talking with my friend who is also a fan of the show about one of the contestants, Valerie.  First of all, this girl is the stinking cutest thing you’ve ever seen and her face is just magnetic when she performs.  Her “genre” (each of the dancers gets defined by their specialty) is tap, which she excels at. Thing is though, while she is a great performer, technically she is most certainly the weakest in the bunch when it comes to the other genres. This isn’t surprising. The skill set to be a good tapper does not easily translate into other types of dancing. You carry your weight in a very unique way, transitioning it up and down depending on the steps. You keep more weight in your feet than you do in genres like ballet. To excel at tap, you also have to remain relatively loose and fluid in order to make sure your feet make all the correct sounds. In tap, you can hear when people are wrong.

When I explained to my friend that Valerie lacks the sharpness of the other competitors, she was surprised. I told her to watch more closely next time and see that her arms are never quite in the right place, she rarely knows what to do with her fingers, and moving at the torso, something relatively unfamiliar to tappers, proves difficult for her.

She was shocked, but interested, so I thought I would try something new with my SYTYCD obsession and explain why I get obsessed with these routines and point out things non-dance people might not notice. For example, this week, my favorite girl competitor Carly nearly broke her leg and no one spoke a word about it.

The video above is a mini group number from last week choreographed by Travis Wall, who is normally a contemporary choreographer, but pulls off an incredibly staged jazz piece here.  First, just watch it through and take in how he takes advantage of the entire stage with the movements, plus how he choreographs with the camera in mind.

On the second time through, I want you to pay very close attention starting at the 0:56 minute mark. The girl being hoisted in the air is Carly. First off, can I just point off how much trust you have to have in these people to do what she is doing? When you do a lift like that, all of your tension is from the knee down because that is the part of your body being held by the lifters. She is letting her knees go to jelly and just has faith they will push her back up and not drop her.

Okay, as they are coming out of that trick, keep your eye on Carly and the tall white boy, Teddy, who was the one holding her feet during the lift.  As the group splits into the next formation, note that the two of them appear to be fighting. This is not the choreography. What happened is Carly’s foot got caught in the top of Teddy’s jacket. Unaware she was stuck, Teddy took off for his next location, dragging a hopping Carly behind him. He has the presence of mind to drop his jacket and release her, while an unflappable Carly still manages to make it to her spot and kick her leg in the air 180 degrees followed by a flawless double pirouette.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this chick very narrowly avoided a serious injury and did so without missing a beat. And that is why she is gonna win. Sorry, Tanisha.

You know who else is gonna win? This scruffy fella Ricky who starts the number off. If you have the patience to watch this a third time, don’t take your eyes off him. The judges have said this and it is true–this boy is on a whole different technical level than the rest of the field. When he is airborne, look at the control he maintains of every muscle in his body, then ask yourself if you would have any control whatsoever if two dudes flung you in the air as hard as they could.

None of this is easy, so even the worst contestants on this show are still miles better at dancing than I could ever dream to be. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play along, be a critic, and keep telling myself I think I can dance.

The Guilty Remnant

When I was a little kid, my parents would occasionally clash about my tendency to say “sorry” all the time. My dad thought I just figured if I said the word enough times, I could get away with anything. My mom though, she had figured out rather early on that I just felt immensely guilty every time I did the tiniest thing wrong or got in trouble. So, I would say sorry over and over again because I wanted to convey just how badly I felt to have screwed up.

My mom and I were recounting this today and it dawned on me I don’t really know where this tremendous sense of guilt came from. I always assumed it was your standard Catholic guilt, learned from my family after years of attending church. My mom was quick to point out that no one else in our family was like this though.

She’s right. My sister certainly doesn’t have this problem, and was in fact very adept at causing trouble without our parents ever finding out. I, on the other hand, could not sneak an extra cookie without eventually breaking down in a tearful confession.

My mother doesn’t exactly do much she needs to feel guilty about, but she certainly doesn’t stress about things. She can go with the flow, shrug things off, and, most remarkably, simply choose not to think about things that bother her.

The closest I had to a fellow guilt-ridden worry wart of a Welman was, funny enough, my dad. As my mom tells it, his mind raced all the time, but most of it was work-related stuff. His head was always spinning with ideas about computers and engineering, not so much with the interpersonal issues though.

Dolores, of course, blames the birthparents. “You were born with this overwhelming sense of guilt. I did not do that to you. You came that way.”

I raised an eyebrow at the suggestion it is primarily genetic to feel incredibly guilty anytime you screw up. The whole notion of guilt seems like a concept a child doesn’t grasp unless it is explained to them. I don’t think I just fundamentally understood that I should feel badly when I do something that hurts someone’s feelings or disobeyed my parents. So, what my mom said initially sounded pretty ridiculous to me.

She elaborated though, and that is where she got me.

“Your anxious nature is one hundred percent inherited. As long as I can remember, you’ve been an anxious, nervous person, even as a little kid. No matter what I tried to teach you, I couldn’t undo it, so yeah, that is inherited. You’d be surprised how much people are determined by genetics, Jessica.”

She makes a good point, which is basically that my personality is more inclined to latch on to the concept of guilt at a young age, setting me up for a life of feeling a little plagued by it. So, while my excessively guilty conscience does seem like something I picked up at church or from too many after school specials, my worrisome personality that primed me to fall prey to the concept, came upon delivery.

I often wonder how a kid like me, who is so drastically different from my parents and my sibling came to be. It seems too simple to just write it off to genetics. Certainly biologically related people can have a wide range of personalities, right? You couldn’t plunk me in any old family and have me develop a massively guilty conscience every single time.  My very straight-laced parents had to make a difference, being Catholic had to make a difference.

The question is how much of a difference? I will never know my birthparents, so it is tough to tell,  but maybe my mom is right that many of the things I thought were learned behaviors began with inclinations in my personality that are entirely inherited. I hope that more of it is learned than my mom suspects, because it would sadden me to think I don’t stand as much of a chance at being the genuinely good people my mom and dad are/were.  I don’t want to think they won’t rub off on me as much as I thought they would. I don’t want to let the family down after all. Learned or not, disappointing them is the kind of thing I would be just racked with guilt about.

Why You Should Be Sad James Garner Died

You may not be able to pinpoint exactly what you’ve seen the late actor James Garner in, but I promise you you’ve seen him in something. Even if you aren’t a fan of older movies, you probably saw him as “Old Noah” in “The Notebook”. Maybe you caught him romping around in “Space Cowboys” or flipped through an episode of “8 Simple Rules” after he joined the cast following the death of John Ritter.  If you’re into poker at all, you might know him from the movie “Maverick”, where he played adversary to the titular character played by Mel Gibson.

What you may not know is that Garner originated the role of “Maverick” on television years ago. You’ve probably not seen the show, especially if you are one of those people who believe television only got good in the past ten years or so.

So why does it matter that this past his prime actor is no longer with us?

If you’ve never seen a Garner movie, so be it, but if you’ve ever seen George Clooney in a motion picture, you owe a debt of gratitude to Garner for paving the way.  If you’re a Clooney fan who enjoys the way he can be both charming and self-loathing at the same time or appreciates how he always seems to be in on the joke, then you might actually enjoy James Garner more than you realize.

If you liked George Clooney in the Ocean’s 11 movies, check out Garner in “The Great Escape”, one of the greatest caper movies ever made. Here he is in a scene that gives you a sense how this war flick can be both riveting and dramatic, but retain a sense of humor (he is the one pouring the drink):

Honestly, much like I prefer funny George to serious George, I prefer the funny Garner who appears in rom coms like the underrated “Move Over, Darling” or “Victor/Victoria”. He even has a couple of dark comedies right up the bizarro “Men Who Stare at Goats” Clooney alley like the witty “The Americanization of Emily”, one of a couple of movies that pairs him with Julie Andrews to great effect, much in the same way Clooney spars so well with the prim and proper Catherine Zeta-Jones. While their chemistry is great, I’ll admit this anti-war satire is a bit bizarre with a story that centers on an attempt to market and propagandize the death of the first soldier on Omaha Beach. Check out the trailer and marvel that such a strange flick could be made by a studio in 1964:

Garner had a serious side too, which you can see at work in “The Great Escape” or in the melodrama “The Children’s Hour” with Audrey Hepburn.  He was also nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 80’s flick “Murphy’s Romance”.  As he aged, Garner deftly switched back and forth between comedy and drama, cracking people up in movies like “My Fellow Americans”, then reducing them to tears in “The Notebook”. If the twilight years of Garner’s career give us a sense of what we might expect from Clooney, I can’t wait for the superstar to stop taking on leading man roles.

Don’t let Garner try to fool you. He is not a common man. He is a charmer, winning folks over with his dry wit and good looks, then reigning them in with the type of talent we only see a few times every generation. So, since there aren’t many Clooneys in the world today, branch out. Start with “The Great Escape” and see the original Clooney stand out in one of the most epic ensembles ever assembled on celluloid.

The Beaver, My Grandpa, and a Poor Gal Named Virple

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He may not have taught me to be a writer, but my grandpa did teach me how to tell a story.  From a very young age, I marveled at how he could capture people’s attention, drawing them in with just a single sentence.

“Did I ever tell you about the girl name Virple?”

“You want to talk about artists? How about I show the self-portrait a beaver did of himself?”

The beaver really did do that, by the way. The little fella used his teeth to gnaw a log and chip away until it looked as though a beaver was climbing up and around it. It really is the darndest thing you’ve ever seen, and Grandpa certainly isn’t overselling it.  You don’t have to look closely and squint your eyes like trying to find the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, the thing is most certainly a beaver. It has a tail, it has eyes, it has a snout.  It’s a beaver. Made by a beaver.

But Grandpa had stories that didn’t necessarily need a prop.  If I learned anything from him on how to make a story work, it is intonation.  It is a gift passive-aggressive Southerners have down to a science.  He knew exactly which words to emphasize in a sentence to get the maximum humor.  He could accomplish so much saying so little, such as when he told us how he and Grandma fell in love. As Grandpa tells it, he would go over to her house and they would sit on the old porch swing. “And there we were,” he said so innocently, following it up by elaborating “Just swinging.”  Grandpa would always deliver these last words with the raise of an eyebrow or with a wry grin to insinuate that, while he firmly believed none of us grandkids should ever so much as touch someone of the opposite gender without putting a ring on it first, that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the most innocent kid you ever met either.

He taught me how to keep eye contact with a room, as most of his stories were recalled around a crowded dinner table.  When he chose to look at you during his stories, it felt like this tale was intended for you and you alone.  The rest of the people sitting around were simply observers of your one-on-one conversation.

Grandpa’s loud voice served him well, as he had the ability to be loud without shouting (a skill I like to believe I have myself).  With his slight Missouri twang, he often reminded me of the old comedians of the South like Andy Griffith or Tim Conway.  In fact, we used to sit around the table and listen to old Griffith tapes, like the story of his first football game.  You could hear in Grandpa’s stories how much he picked up from guys like this and the longstanding tradition of storytelling in my neck of the woods.

In fact, when I think back on my time with him, I recall very few conversations.  Honestly, we didn’t have too much of a back and forth. He and my grandma were never much for questions, in part, because they knew they weren’t going to like the answers.  It is an approach I can respect and, most of the time, appreciate, as I doubt my life choices are something Grandpa was ever particularly enthused about given that they produced no husbands nor babies, just a couple of seemingly nonsensical college degrees and a life surrounded by “degenerates”.  I always think his choice not to ask questions was a loving one.  Rather than pry into things that he disagreed with, we had an unspoken understanding we would focus on the things that made us both happy, and few things on my family vacations made me as happy as Grandpa telling me a good story, even if it was one I heard a dozen times before.

My personal favorite is the story of his classmate with the unfortunate name of Virple. I’ve heard it at least five or six times over the years, often at my own urging. Like a good straight man setting up the joke for his comedian partner, I would tee up Grandpa with a story of a classmate with an odd name, knowing this was to follow:

“Well, that is a weird name, but I don’t think it compares to the girl we knew growing up named Virple…”

I posted on Facebook the other day trying to see if any of my cousins remembered the details of Virple’s plight. I was surprised to hear others hadn’t heard the story, but what really shocked me was to discover how many stories I hadn’t heard over the years. My cousin Joel chimed in with his favorite, which sounds like a doozy I am pretty sad to have missed:

“I remember Hootie, who lives in a film roll container and is in charge of turning on the refrigerator light.”

Other cousins brought up the porch story, some sort of chicken plucking story, and my mom reminded me of the time her dad decided girls weren’t allowed to drive the tractor anymore. I thought I would be sad to hear of all the tales I missed out on, but the predominant response was a sense of relief.  In a family with 16 grandkids, the Virple story felt like my own. I’m sure others have heard it, but knowing I was the only one who really remembered it makes me think maybe Grandpa and I shared a little secret of our own after all. Maybe each of us grandkids had our own favorite story and he knew which ones to trot out for which kids.

Though he is still with us, Grandpa is in such a state I can’t really ask him myself. Instead, all I can do is recount my favorite stories with the family. Most importantly, I can continue to write and try to tell my own stories, hearing his drawl in my head influencing which words to emphasize, what direction to look in, and which story will go straight to the heart of people I care about.