Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Taxonomy of the Chick Flick

My lovely wife of almost 28 years, Debbie, likes a good chick flick once in a while, so it is inevitable that I am irritated once in a while. I guess she thinks there's more to life than gangster movies and Steelers highlights.

But the term "chick flick" is seldom qualified or quantified for us. Can the rules of chick-flickdom be codified? What follows here is my best attempt; I'm sure a more perceptive film critic could do a better job, and please feel welcome to add your own codicils in the "Comments".

1. Chick flicks feature actresses who are not too beautiful. I call it the "Meg Ryan" rule: any actress more beautiful than Meg Ryan can't make a living in chick flicks. Needless to say, Catherine Zeta-Jones would go broke if she had to act in chick flicks. Hit the bricks, Nicole Kidman, that porcelain skin and those long shapely legs won't do you any good here. Go make some more vampire movies, Kate Beckinsale. Cute is good. Pretty is okay. Beauty is not. Sandra Bullock, not Charlize Theron. Kyra Sedgwick, not Scarlett Johansson. And for you old-timers, Audrey Hepburn, not Sophia Loren. Chick-flick heroines must be "girl-pretty", a term coined by a buddy of mine. A woman is "girl-pretty" if girls think guys ought to find her attractive, but don't. It's easy to determine which girls are girl-pretty. If a woman were to catch her husband checking out pictures of Reese Witherspoon online, which is highly unlikely, she would compliment him for having good taste. However, if instead she were to catch him sneaking peeks at Jayne Mansfield's considerable decolletage, he'd get a lecture on the destructive effects of Internet porn. Reese Witherspoon is girl-pretty; Jayne Mansfield would have starved before landing any part in a Nora Ephron screenplay aside from evil villainess/bimbo. And the director would make certain to cover her chest.

2. Chick-flick heroines have usually been done wrong by a man. Divorced. Abandoned. Husband. Lover. Lecherous boss. Drooling teacher or professor. Mistreated. Or worse, underestimated. In "Legally Blonde", all bases are sufficiently covered by having an ex-lover *and* a professor/boss mistreat *and* underestimate the virtuous heroine.

3. Chick-flick heroines attract losers, but are not attracted by losers. However, sometimes the loser successfully conceals his losing qualities until the denouement. The scene where she tells off the loser is usually the second most important scene in the movie.

4. The chick-flick heroine is the smartest person onscreen and can usually see everything more clearly than any other character, except her own love life. Until she figures it all out. Figuring it out is nine-tenths of the plot.

5. Often the intelligence comes across as withering sarcasm, and only the virtuous male romantic lead is able to withstand it all stoically and with good cheer -- up until the scene where, against all odds, or reason, or good sense, he confesses he's fallen head over heels for the castrating termagant. Some chick-flick film makers like to propagate the myth that the bitchier the woman, the more virtuous and desirable the man she ultimately captivates. "You've Got Mail" and "Kate and Leopold" are chick flicks cast in this particular mold. A man would have to be out of his mind to be attracted to the protagonist feminist-castrator characters portrayed in these movies (played to perfection by Meg Ryan in her post-cute phase), but this sub-genre of chick flicks attempts to sustain faith in the existence of the hypothetical man who finds bitchiness irresistibly sexy. And why not? Somebody has to keep hope alive for the millions of women in Georgetown and San Francisco who imagine that they're just one apoplectic snit away from finding Mr. Right.

6. She's a brave woman facing the challenges of life on her own terms, and overcoming them on her own terms. She's almost always a professional of some sort -- usually a journalist or publisher or editor, or some other brainy profession that isn't too wonkish or geeky. If she is a techie geek, however, of course she's better at it than all her beta- and gamma-male geek eunuch buddies, who unanimously acknowledge her as "the best", even though it's effortless for her, whereas they've sacrificed everything -- social skills, relationships, a life -- to get where they've gotten.

7. The trappings of royalty never hurt. "The Princess Diaries" movies have proven that. Talk about effortless virtue.

8. It's great if the chick-flick heroine ends up marrying the rich guy (even better if he's royalty, too, but rich is usually good enough) -- but it's for love, of course. Everyone knows rich guys (and princes) are, in our egalitarian world, no more desirable than a sanitation worker -- but why take any chances? And be he a prince or rich businessman or idealistic lawyer, it's only after he acknowledges how puny he is compared to her, and how empty his life would be without her, that he wins the fair but choosy maiden. That's the first most important scene in a chick flick.

In my opinion, and for what it's worth, the best chick flick ever made was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- but it broke most of the rules listed above. Except for rule 1.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas 2010

As the song goes, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.” Well, no fire here, but the heat pump in the backyard is wheezing like a cheap blender grinding out its last margarita. Today, we enjoyed one of those Arctic-style Yankee storms that breezes through Virginia Beach infrequently when Chicago and Minneapolis are through with them. They can have this one back. Schools were closed today and we stayed home -- which is good, since the scariest thing in the world is a Virginia Beach driver in a 4x4. Around these parts, they think NASCAR is a Driver’s Ed documentary, and sliding sideways is no big deal if it means beating Junior to the Wal-Mart. Much better to stay home and watch “White Christmas” for the thousandth time on AMC Channel. But there’s something about watching Danny Kaye cavort around on a sound stage with Vera-Ellen that makes me think of Richard Simmons with a good haircut.

In March, I attended the Eastern Trombone Workshop at Fort Myer (Arlington, VA) again for, what, the fourth time? My buddy Ray Crenshaw from South Carolina and I are making a regular spring ritual out of going up to hear the old pros and the young students perform. Trombone-playing as an art form may be dying, but ironically the players just keep getting better and better. But this year, the trombone intermezzo was interrupted with a little side trip to attend a Tea Party protest at the U.S. Capitol, on the day before ObamaCare was passed. From all over the country, thousands and thousands showed up, finally tired of paying the piper and seeking to exercise their prerogative to call the tune. Cousin Jim Dise and I rode the Metro into downtown D.C., where I got to yell at Congressman Dennis Kucinich. It was a gorgeous day for a protest and the whole experience really spoke to my inner hippie. Problem is, at some point during the past forty years we quit smoking dope and started electing them.

Then, in June, Ray and I took the time for another trip, this one out to Elkhorn, Wisconsin on a quest for a new trombone slide. We got lost for a while in Kentucky and discovered mile after mile of beautiful horse farms, and not a glue factory in sight. We spent a day in Batesville, Indiana with my friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher and their son Danny, a budding sax player who plays in a National Guard band. Elkhorn is just a few hours’ drive from Indiana, and much of that time was spent admiring the Chicago highway system at speeds of up to 5 mph. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is an odd little resort town (like driving down I-80 and taking the Bahamas exit) where we ate dinner at a little beer joint along the shore. But having lived in the Midwest, I knew to avoid the seafood, and to be particularly wary of anything with the word “oyster” in the name (Midwesterners have very strange ideas about where oysters come from). The next day we went to the Edwards Trombone factory, where we met Christan, who helped me select the best slide to match my playing, er, “style”, I guess is the word that applies here. Christan is well-known in the trombone community and his advice is sought by great players from all over the world all the time. Well, this wasn’t one of those times, but still he was very helpful. Once we found the right slide, it was obvious. Even Ray observed, “Wow! That almost sounds musical!”

Debbie and I had been planning to take a vacation trip to Philadelphia in August, but she was seduced by the cruise prices and called an audible. So we took a cruise through the eastern Caribbean with some friends -- Ray (you’ve met him) and his wife Sonja, and Kevin and Ann Schmalz from Binghamton, NY. The four of them are all French horn players, so every time the ship’s horn blasted, they went running to put their right hand in it. Just kidding. We departed from Baltimore, a four-hour drive from Virginia Beach, only to pass right by Virginia Beach on our way out to the ocean. Cruise ships don’t do bus stops. Debbie and I had taken pretty much the same cruise back in 1996, and I remember having dismissed Puerto Rico as the “Cleveland of the Caribbean.” This time, it made a much better impression on me –it seemed very festive and exciting. Especially so, since the wives couldn’t wait to ditch us once we got ashore – in order, armed with .45 caliber credit cards, to terrorize the local merchants. While I was almost frantic with worry, they were blithely shaking down the jewelry stores. “Stand back or the Fruitz watch gets it!” Kevin showed us something I had never seen before – at noon, we cast almost no shadow at all, as the sun was almost directly overhead, a phenomenon of summer in the tropics. (Kevin and Ann had played in the Caracas Symphony Orchestra, so they had seen this before.) St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, is actually more shopper-friendly than Puerto Rico -- particularly for the gentlemen, as this gentleman prefers Scotch. Against my better judgment, Ray and Kevin talked me into taking a lift up the side of a mountain, and as we dangled hundreds of feet above rocky terrain, anxious thoughts of Third World mechanical prowess filled my head. Steel cable had never looked so fragile. And for what had I risked my life? At the top of the mountain were a bunch of touristy gift shops. Shangri-La with cash registers. One of the shops had exotic birds, the idea being to pose for a picture with one of them. One large white cockatoo only had eyes for Ray, and kept snapping at his owner when she tried to pull the smitten parrot off of his arm. In the Dominican Republic, some of us (Kevin, Sonja, and Debbie) visited limestone caves featuring pre-Columbian art on the walls and post-Columbian bat droppings on the floor, while others of us (well, me) explored the caves on the ship, particularly the ones with cold beer on tap. Ray struck up a friendship with some local musicians in Haiti, and jammed with them at the ship’s beach party. Ukuleles, bongos, and French horn united, performing Caribbean pop music with a unique undercurrent of Richard Strauss. Or perhaps Sgt. Pepper. On the last day, we said hello/goodbye again to Virginia Beach as we passed by en route to our final disembarkation in Baltimore, separated from home by fifteen miles and another day of traveling.

It has been another year of working for Virginia Beach Schools for both of us -- Debbie in the classroom with her violin bow and conductor’s baton, me slaving over a hot keyboard writing the computer code that helps keep the information flowing. We each have a second career, namely, to serve the needs of the furry aristocracy. We’re talking about lives totally devoted, like some perverse monkish sect, to serving vows of gluttony and sloth. Buster is a twenty-two-pounder who makes cans of cat food by the crate disappear, along with the occasional unwary mailman. And Buster loves Gabby, no lightweight herself at seventeen pounds, who despises Buster. So instead of helping Buster work out his tantalizing fantasies amid the awkward logistics of mad passionate Sumo affection, Gabby spends each day hiding from her waddling suitor. Don’t know what he sees in her. Recently, Gabby was knocking us out with some horrible, varnish-blistering cat breath, so we took her to the vet for a teeth-cleaning – only to be knocked out again by a bill for $680. Next time, we’ll try to save some money and take her to an actual dentist.

All in all, it has been another terrific year in our terrific lives together -- married almost 28 years. We are so thankful to the Lord for His many blessings. We know these are tough times and life could get very interesting in a bad way, economically or health-wise, as we are no longer spring chickens. More like tough old buzzards now. No matter what happens, we will do our best to count our blessings and keep the faith. The Lord has a plan, and though we don’t always know what part we will play, we need to be determined to play it as well as we can as it unfolds before us. We hope that you and yours will have a blessed Christmas season, and each and every day remember the glad tidings of great joy that moved the shepherds, inspired the wise men, and brought hope and joy into a fallen world.