time after time

(8 april 2009)

i’ve been watching saved by the bell in the mornings lately. primarily because every episode has been seared into my brain, thus obviating the need to wear contacts or glasses. but i was struck by something today.

how devastating is zack and kelly’s breakup?

you know, the one where they sit on the picnic table outside the costume ball while slater and jessie (I’M SO EXCITED!!!) spano lip-sync that sad, sad michael bolton song about how can you possibly go on living when the person you love no longer wants you.

let’s think about that for a minute, because that is awful.

a truth the gravity of which i think we were spared in our youths because saved by the bell unfolded largely outside of time.

most of us grew up with it in syndication (tbs from 3:05-4:05 and wgn from 4:00-5:00) so we’re accustomed to the patchwork sequencing. slater and zack would be best friends at 3:05 and then the knives would be out come 3:35. zack and kelly were dating one hour then just friends the next. tori was everywhere and then she wasn’t. and at 4:30 zack would kiss lisa, something no one would ever mention again.

since it was a show set outside any logical order, it’s appropriate that the dvds reflect a similar chronological disarray. there, the episode of zack coping with the kelly breakup actually precedes the breakup itself. which is nice in a way, because watching them break-up, you already know that, after acting out with screech’s strangely attractive cousin and getting a lecture from the gang, zack will recover and he and kelly will reunite as friends at lisa’s birthday party and zack will admit that the college guy kelly dumped him for is actually kind of cool.

it is when you make the sadistic effort to watch these episodes in logical order that you realize how completely ridiculous an interpretation of a post-breakup this really is.

because this is an awful breakup.

they are sitting on a picnic table in full elizabethan dress. because kelly’s parents apparently practiced the rhythm method and consequently have 800 kids, kelly couldn’t afford to buy a dress of her own, thus, she is wearing a dress that zack has bought her and which, in a surprising touch of realism, exposes way more bosom than is probably right for a saturday morning kids show. her breasts seem to be taunting him as he, in a move that seems the final emasculating blow, wears tights- tights!- for her and yet still she has just called him by the name of another man as they win the bayside equivalent of Couple of the Year.

as if that weren’t devastating enough, as they sit together on the picnic table, serenaded with the lyrics “how am i supposed to carry on/when all that i’ve been living for is gone,” zack asks kelly for a last dance

ouch, my heart.

of course, zack morris would do this. because zack morris could be nothing less than a gentleman. he would have to do the honorable thing.

but i like to think there’s an alternate universe. one where kelly goes out dancing and catches jeff the douche with a college girl and realizes she made a horrible mistake.

but then, that can’t happen now. that happened eight episodes earlier.

Stars, Tabloids, + Sex Taboggons

(16 may 2006/23 september 2010)

Long, long ago, back in the dark ages before US Weekly, the movie magazines reigned supreme. A special breed of tabloid that the film studios cunningly created in the 1920s as a publicity tool,  the movie mags spent their first 40 years offering puff pieces on everyone’s favorite stars. But, because it is often hard to make money being nice, in the late 1950s, the tone of their coverage took a salacious turn and veered towards the tantalizing cocktail of glamorous lives, naughty headlines and provocative photographs that beckons to us from newstands to this very day.

Tabloids, as a genre, engender little loyalty, so the industry has always depended upon newsstand sales to an extraordinary extent. To this end, movie magazine editors rushed to find celebrities who exercised broad appeal and would hold the public’s interest over long periods of time. Three months was considered an eternity. Thirty years had never before been done.

Much as popcorn kept movie theaters afloat after the advent of television, so Jackie Kennedy salvaged the movie magazines. She never starred in a movie but she featured in the movie magazines to such an extent that  in 1962, Variety enthusiastically hailed her as the “world’s top box office femme.” The prevailing editorial policy of all of the 40+ movie magazines then became this: to regularly feature the First Lady alongside “any lady or gentleman of the screen and television who misbehaved.”

Among the ladies and gentlemen misbehaving at the time, Liz Taylor was queen bee. Thus, despite the absence of any legitimate connection, Liz and her then-husband Richard Burton would become Jackie’s “magazine relatives.” Ultimately, the Jackie-Burton-Liz tabloid triangle pervaded the national consciousness to such an extent that it created among magazine readers a Pavlovian response to the three principle players. According to sociologist Irving Schulman:

If new photographs worthy of inclusion at deadline were not to be had, art directors arranged jigsaw cutouts for Jackie-Burton-Liz, and in a very short time indeed a national conditioned response was established. Purchasers who saw a photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy would think immediately of Elizabeth Taylor and what she was doing; conversely a photograph of [ . . . ] Elizabeth Taylor would conjure up an image of Mrs. Kennedy.

The Jackie-Liz connection would become so integrated into the popular culture that in the Hollywood treatment of the Jackie story, The Greek Tycoon, the lead female character was named “Liz.”

In the beginning, particularly during the Kennedy administration, the movie magazine coverage remained somewhat circumspect. The couples served as simple foils for one another; the Burtons’ racy exploits emphasized the Kennedys’ elegance while Jack and Jackie’s élan exaggerated Burton and Liz’s decadence. In the fall of 1963,  the question of the Kennedys’ “Marriage & Taste” versus the Burtons’ “Passion & Waste” was of such critical social import that  Photoplay gave it major coverage.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that this circumspection ceased with the death of JFK. As Jackie marched into single womanhood, the tabloids switched course and focused on the remaining threesome- cropping cover photos and manipulating gossip to suggest romantic intrigues, clandestine meetings, and unorthodox sexual proclivities. Richard Burton and Jackie Kennedy may never have held hands, but thanks to clever editors and decoupage, on countless magazine covers they did.

The tabloids intentions here were completely pure: they sought to unite “Jackie” with the Burtons because “It would truly be a new, fun, fun world for Jackie– for the Burtons are fun, fun people.” And, really, who didn’t want Jackie to have fun?

Editors could not have created more different and more profitable characters to mash-up. Women loved to hate “Liz,” an actress who seemed constantly on the brink of personal disaster; they simply loved Mrs. Kennedy. In the words of pop-philosopher Wayne Koestenbaum, “Liz was trash; Jackie was royalty.” It was the perfect mix.

In the American consciousness, Jackie and Liz presented two entirely different versions of femininity in practice. What this translated into was Jackie being the woman everyone should aspire to be and Liz being the woman no woman would want to become (never mind that Liz seemed to always be having a hell of a lot more fun).

This dichotomy is nowhere more vividly exemplified than in the 1962 magazine, JACKIE and LIZ. The commemorative opens with a page that explains the editors’ reasons for comparing Jackie and Liz: “They shine in completely different constellations and exert a completely different emotional and moral effect upon us… To compare them [ . . . is] a way for us to examine the natures of the stars we create, and in the process discover something about ourselves.”

What we, the reader, should discover is clarified in a simple headline on the same page: “LIZ TAYLOR: A Warning To American Women; JACKIE KENNEDY: An Inspiration to American Youth.” Jackie was “WOMAN OF THE YEAR,” “Mistress of the Washington Merry Go-Round,” and “First in the Hearts of Her Countrymen.” She “KEEPS HER MAN HAPPY,” is “SURROUNDED BY LOVE” and only “Leaves Her Home For Service.”

In very stark contrast, “Liz” was the “SENSATION OF THE YEAR” and “STAR OF THE ROMAN SCANDALS.” “A Woman Without a Country” who was “Caught in the mad Marriage-Go-Round” and “SURROUNDED BY FEAR,” she faced “A THREATENING TOMORROW.”

I know no women who would welcome a threatening tomorrow. Life is hard enough as it is.

In JACKIE and LIZ, Jackie was lifted up as a shining paragon of virtue and good. To gossip columnist Fanny Hurst, her place in people’s affections was a barometer of the national well-being. So long as we all loved Jackie, the world would be ok.

In contrast, through “unsavory Taylor-Burton headlines, the shabby stories of shabby lies, of multiple marriages, infidelities, divorces, broken homes, displaced children,” Liz- heaven help her- had “steered her sex toboggan down a dangerous run.” A message that was, no doubt, not lost on readers whose own marriages might be lacking “the fire of passion” and women who might be tempted to follow Liz’s less traditionally feminine example by steering their own toboggans along her perilous path. Let there be no doubt, “Roman Scandals” were not welcome here.

Collectively, the tabloid narrative implies a sexual rivalry between the two women. When Jackie, allegedly rankled by Liz’s affair on the Cleopatra set, didn’t attend the movie’s Washington premier, TV Radio Mirror rushed to declare it: THE DAY JACKIE ‘SLAPPED’ LIZ! In the article, prudish Jackie frowns upon Liz’s amorous exploits and Liz’s doings appear spectacularly more whorish when on parade before Jackie’s puritanical restraint. Yes, Liz’s indiscretions were startling by contemporary standards, but she appears downright depraved beside Jackie’s sanctity.

In later years, all this would change.  With“Jackie’s” slide toward Greek decadance, the rivalry would continue to dominate newsstands but the headlines would grow increasingly sexual and provocative: AMERICA’S TWO FALLEN QUEENSONE NIGHT WITH JACKIE’S HUSBAND MAKES LIZ’ DREAM COME TRUETHE NIGHT ONASSIS TURNED TO LIZJACKIE DISGRACED AS ARI BOOZES IT UP WITH LIZ IN PUBLIC BARTWO DESPERATE WOMEN GAMBLE ALLLIZ’ PREMARITAL HONEYMOON PLANS INVOLVE JACKIE’S HUSBAND!


Jackie’s very appearance in the movie magazines suggested a massive shift from their original function as an advertising vehicle for motion picture stars. Both Liz and Jackie were exaggerated icons, however, Liz, an actress, was in fact selling a product– herself and her movies. Because Jackie had nothing to hawk, her life itself was turned into a movie for the public’s entertainment. By the early-1960s, it was playing out on newsstands all across the country.

In time, the differences in the unique relationships readers developed with both women would become more apparent. Liz’s connection to the public derived from total revelation. In Life the Movie, film and culture commentator Neal Gabler succinctly catalogs Liz’s shifting societal role:

Taylor’s early appeal as a life performer was her willingness to expose her private sexuality, first with [Eddie] Fisher and then with [Richard] Burton, and to provide a voyeuristic charge for those who read about her. Her later appeal, when she was no longer a sex symbol, was her willingness to expose her dysfunctions as melodramatic entertainment: her ballooning weight and subsequent diets, her drug problems, her vexed marriages and romances, her various illnesses.

In contrast, Jackie’s audience was tantalized by what she withheld. Her adamant refusal to reveal herself or her private life created a vast expanse of ignorance, which proved fertile ground for wildly speculative assertions and implausible fantasies. Because Jackie refused to participate in the tabloid pageant, the magazines reached out to readers—inviting them to select a wedding dress for Jackie’s remarriage, to suggest a hairstyle, and to pass judgment upon her hem lengths. In a manner eerily evocative of American Idol, the movie magazines fostered the public’s sense of interactivity in Mrs. Kennedy’s life. After her remarriage in 1968, Motion Picture even invited readers to vote to “BACK JACKIE,” as if their support would have a real effect upon the new Mrs. Onassis.

In American culture, Jackie acted as a tabula rasa, onto which everyone from little girls to frustrated housewives could project their fantasies of glamour and romance. As an Onassis acquaintance once said: “Jackie was nothing; an ordinary American woman with average tastes and some money. She was a creation of the American imagination.” Yet, within the tabloid culture, Jackie heralded a new age, in which “an ordinary housewife writ large” could become a star. And as that great arbiter of celebrity- and friend of both Jackie and Liz- Andy Warhol once said, “More than anything people just want stars.”

© faith e.

Review: Black Sun

(5 march 2007)

Upon its initial publication in 1976, Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby was dismissed by The New York Times as “a three ring circus of scandal and anti-social behavior.” Perhaps the Times was right—but, seriously, what a show.

The nephew of the bazillionaire J.P. Morgan, the eccentric poet Harry Crosby scandalized Boston society by marrying a divorcee and fleeing to Paris to establish the renegade Black Sun Press. He flirted with Romanticism, Decadence, and Surrealism only to settle for a combination of narcotic experimentation and sun worship vividly manifested in wretched verse: “The Sun! The Sun! / a fish in the aquarium of sky.”

A “minor” poet, Crosby ran with the “major” literary figures of 1920s Paris. He drank with Hemingway and Cummings, published Joyce and Lawrence, pissed off Wharton, and was eulogized by Eliot and Pound. He was the quintessential dabbler—manically tarting his writing in every available shade of literary dress. According to Wolff, “during five working years Harry duplicated a century of complicated aesthetic traditions.”

And what better way to conclude such an earnest, unimaginative career than with a typically clichéd bang? In December 1929, the thirty-one year old married Crosby was found shot dead—his toenails lacquered red and his feet tattooed—alongside the corpse of his married girlfriend and with a letter from another woman in his front pocket. Contemporaries considered Crosby’s murder/suicide his best poem. Wolff considers it his final literary experiment.

Wolff’s background in fiction and his narrative approach to biography lend Black Sun the feel of a splendidly executed novel, which is appropriate given the performative nature of Crosby’s entire life. Though Wolff is clearly fascinated by Crosby, he knows his subject is nutters and he’s astute enough to capitalize upon that as Crosby’s greatest charm. It’s a shrewd move, and Wolff’s snide jokes and witty asides strut memorably alongside Crosby’s maverick conformity and appalling verse.

Though the 2003 edition of Black Sun features no textual changes, Wolff includes an intriguing new afterward. Responding to the question “Why [write about] Crosby,” he explains his interest in this man who was reduced to a footnote by most 20s scholars. Wolff rejects Crosby’s reputation as a Lost Generation archetype and finds him interesting simply because “What Crosby said he’d do he did, exactly.” He was “not merely some posturing dandy of the boulevards. He acted everything out—everything; there was no lag for him between thought and experiment.” Crosby’s shoddy, suicidal poetry made his intentions quite clear.

Harry Crosby is not an important literary figure. He was, after all, only famous by association and his own poetry never developed beyond the subject matter of adolescent angst. But, as Wolff admits and Black Sun proves, there is “something about [the poem’s] very badness”– something about Crosby’s very badness– that is haunting: “Like Icarus, of whom [Crosby] wrote, he flew toward the sun till it melted his wings of wax [ . . . ] unlike Icarus, however, he was forewarned.”

Geoffrey Wolff, Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby. New York Review: NY, 2003.

decline + fall

(21 april 2007)


2007 began with one resolution. i was going to read books i already own, most especially the 500+ pagers. way back in january, this seemed like a very exciting madcap sort of literary la adventura. ultimately, it’s kind of sucked.

i read one book at a time. i have always done this. i have never not done this and i never thought i would be the kind of person who doesn’t do this. but, at the moment, i am not doing this- a fact that has mildly unhinged my sense of self. every morning my eyes open to a pile of books on a nightstand and i fear that i have wandered into the bed of some unfocused person with curiously similar literary taste.

then i remember. this is who i am now. a girl with a commitment problem.

it seems increasingly likely that i may be a girl who lives a very very long life only to die with that damn shelby foote, the memoirs of the duc de saint-simon, and michael bellesiles’ arming america still unfinished, still piled on the bedside table, still bookmarked at pages 425, 364, and 243 respectively. and this simply will not do.

yet, how to put a stop to it? over the years, i have come to avoid bookstores like the plague, because they get me in trouble. it would be like an alcoholic hanging out at a liquor store- a plainly unwise move. but a literary rut demands desperate measures, and what better way to resolve a handful of languishing reading relationships than a book-buying rampage?

because book-buying can sometimes be a rather difficult thing to avoid when one is a lover of books, i’ve developed an array of emotional armament to protect myself from flagrant biblioindulgence. a bookstore trip should always be a group activity, because in company one is less likely to throw down the credit card with reckless abandonment and walk out with the collected works of anna maxted and the marquis de sade.

when a solo bookstore encounter cannot be prevented, a pen and paper are vital because one can then peruse the shelves jotting down titles, which creates a sense of interactivity without actual purchase. these titles can then be added to a 34-page amazon wish list, creating the illusion that they are at least members of one’s virtual library if not the real thing.

i honestly can’t remember when i last went to a corporate chain bookstore by myself. but today- defenses down, pen and paper at home, caution thrown to the pleasantly warm wind- i fell, exhausted, humbled, and literarily broken-down, into the loving arms of borders. two and a half hours and three wildly different books later, i left him and walked home in the sunny saturday afternoon, grinning like a fool because all is again well in my written world.

heydays are passing

(7 march 2008)

i had high hopes for kurt andersen’s heyday. over-inflated, fool-heartedly high hopes, largely based upon a catchy cover. in this i greatly erred. it was supposed to be a “joyful, wild gallop through a joyful, wild time.” “a thrilling voyage.” “a dickensian calliope.” “fiction at its finest.” and yet, heyday was neither joyful nor wild. it was ponderous. it was wearisome. it was there will be blood minus the milkshake. in essence, it was beyond boring as dirt.

in the weeks since i finished it- as i went on a restorative gallop of my own through classic fiction- i’ve wrestled with what exactly was wrong with heyday. why didn’t it work? what was wrong with me that i thought it didn’t work when every critic from baltimore to banff alleged that it did? i think i’ve finally nailed it. and i think it has a lot to do with there will be blood.

perhaps this is naive, but i think a novel and/or a movie has to build up to something. it has to be going somewhere, no matter where and no matter how seemingly inconsequential. and it can’t just show you where it’s going- it has to take you along. this doesn’t mean there must be some great societal point (though if it’s trying to make one, it sure as hell better), but there does have to be an engaging element beyond a lone oil rig explosion or sending an arrow through the antagonist’s eye on the final page. and, for me, that’s what that film and this book came down to. those were the moments where i sat up and thought, at last! maybe we’re going somewhere! alas, we didn’t.

for a book trying to capture the frenetic energy of 1848 new york and a film trying to the depict the internal unrest of an admitedly deplorable character, both were oddly stagnant. as though andersen and anderson simply forgot to instill their work with the movement and agitation that should have been at the very heart of what they were trying to do. there was tension, yes. tension restrained to the extreme. and exhaustion. but no energy.

if there will be blood had ended at the scene in the church where daniel is baptized, i would have been a believer. i would have walked out of there blabbing on and on about what an unbelieveably incredible film that was. but it didn’t end there. it went on and on and on. and yet, it went nowhere. the same with heyday. collectively, the pair of them were the very definition of running to stand still. and i guess what we learn here is that does not work for me. i have to go places. i have no patience for standing still.

tall, dark and deadly

(24 june 2010)

my beloved dear friend lara ehrlich has written a book. a phenomenally wonderful and amazing book. and when we gathered last weekend to review over mimosas and tots, i had one word of caution- that she needed to consider the book’s message about women and violence. because in a dark, dark book, that seemed to me the darkest part.

i said that then and i’m not so sure now. because i was thinking, at the time, only of the parents and the press. never once did i worry about the kids. because i think kids should be allowed to read whatever they want. and i think writers have an obligation to their young readers to- for lack of a less melodramatic phrase- take them into darkness.

because this is where we learn our lessons. these books of our youth.

i began reading sweet valley high at the ripe old age of nine. when, after a 4th grade field trip to the atlanta zoo, a friend handed me a copy of #7: dear sister.

knowing nothing of the motorcycle accident in #6: dangerous love that had put elizabeth wakefield into a coma and caused her amnesia and personality change in #7, my enthusiasm was largely motivated by a discrete notation in the front of each book announcing that it was intended for “age 12 and up.” i had been secretly listening to madonna’s true blue for months, but reading SVH three years before it’s publishers had deemed suitable seemed spectacularly more rebellious.

spurred by the same nostalgia for the recent past that inspired me to re-watch the entirety of dr. quinn and weep violently at nearly every episode’s astonishingly hokey yet unbearably heartwarming end, last summer i returned to sweet valley high. and like a reunion pre-facebook, i was shocked to the core by how everyone had changed.

the emotions and dramas of youth seem so indulgent when one knows how seldom high school relationships pan out. but the wakefields, they do not know this. and so by page 49 of #1: double love, jessica is crying “tears of angry frustration” and 66 pages later, even perfectly pulled-together elizabeth is “filled with despair.”

by the time #5: all night long– in which jessica stays out ALL NIGHT LONG with an older (read: 19) mustached man- rolled around, i realized my under-aged self had, to some extent, been oblivious to the dark side of sweet valley.

yeah, yeah, elizabeth is in an accident and tricia martin dies of leukemia, but what i absolutely did not remember was how terrible some of the boys were and how violent were their ends.

for instance, good old john pfeifer. in the awesomely titled #90: don’t go home with john, lila goes home with john and is nearly raped. but then john dies…

ronnie edwards, the first boyfriend of elizabeth’s bff enid, is characterized on wikipedia as “a highly scheming and very selfish troublemaker.” but then an earthquake hits sweet valley and he dies…

liz’s friend luke lives in london and is- inexplicably- a werewolf. until he dies…

poor jessica’s boyfriends fare the worst. sam woodruff is in a drunk driving accident. christian gorman is in a fight with kids from a neighboring school. inevitably, both die.

[dear wikipedia, thank you for having a surprisingly extensive sweet valley high listing and The Greatest Plot Summary Of All Time- “#122. A Kiss Before Dying The feud between Palisades and SVH reaches a deadly conclusion when Christian Gorman is accidentally killed, and Jessica wins the surfing contest.”]

in the face of all this death and squandered youth, i- like carrie bradshaw- couldn’t help but wonder… what does this mean? the fact that i loved a series of books in which- aside from todd wilkins- the recurring male characters who escaped violent death can be described as an “often drunk bad boy,” “a handsome jerk who was disliked by almost everyone,” and “a rich, handsome snob”?

ultimately, i’m pretty sure it means nothing and is useful only as an indicator of how uninterested i was in boys at the time and how much that has changed now.

because it was for different reasons that francine pascal’s sweet valley high was the most significant literature of my young life. namely, #40.

#40.

on the edge.

wherein regina, the deaf girl who just moved to town and had surgery to restore her hearing, is dumped by her boyfriend, gets in with a bad crowd, overdoses on cocaine and dies.

i was a deaf girl.
i had just moved to town.
i’d had surgery to restore my hearing.

O.M.G.

i didn’t know it then but this would be the penultimate reading experience of my life. the ribbonless typewriter in extremely loud and incredibly close and the last three pages of the knight of maison-rouge were almost as impactful but only almost. and, really, nowhere near.

because nothing is ever so fresh or scary or vivid as when you are young and don’t yet have the words for it. when you are experiencing it for the very first time. the only first time. presumably that is why this silly book has stuck with me all these years.

before #40, i had not known i could die.

*sigh*

(14 october 2006)

i love france, marie antoinette, and swashbuckling. thus, i’m rather ashamed to admit it took me twenty-five years to discover a french novel about swashbucklers rescuing marie.

for weeks i’ve wanted to articulate the terrible beauty that is alexandre dumas’ the knight of maison-rouge, but there are no words. so i loaned it to a friend in the hope that she would be able to express it. but the words failed her as well and we were reduced to swapping emails of *sigh* and oh! the lovely.

KMR is the literary equivalent of tilapia. try it. it will blow you away. but beware, its charms are subtle. this is not the greatest novel in the world. there’s some plodding. some really, alexandre, where are we going here? moments. and since it involves the french revolution and miss marie, there’s a nagging sense that the majority of the characters are going to lose their heads. but the final pages. The Final Pages.

the first time a book made me cry was the third grade. sweet valley high #40, ON THE EDGE. regina (the deaf one, no less) got mad at her jock boyfriend, went to a crazy party, took a line of cocaine and died. at sweet valley high, we had battled steroid addiction with regina’s jock boyfriend and covered reckless partying with jessica wakefield, but no one had died. the moral “deaf girls gone wild wind up dead” did not escape me. it was shocking. nightmarish. i wept for three days.

i can’t remember the last time a novel has affected me quite so much as #40. where i put it down and was left in a funk by fictional characters. biography bowls me over almost without fail, and KMR is historical fiction so perhaps the history lent it some added emotional thrust. but whatever it was, KMR is the new #40.

regina died in a coked-out haze of juvenile prose that had me sobbing about the unfairness of mortality. KMR left me wide awake, repeatedly turning on the light, wiping away the tears, and taking in the terrible beauty again. reading them again. The Final Pages. words- i have none.