Archive | August, 2011

Move on

27 Aug

When you hate moving as much as I hate moving, there’s probably more to it than the hassle. Don’t get me wrong—that’s a big part of the anxiety. I like having stuff; I don’t like taking that stuff and putting it into boxes. I can’t use my stuff when it’s in boxes, and I can’t lift boxes when they’re heavy. There are a lot of obstacles here. Still, I’m self-aware enough to know that there’s a deeper root to my hesitation.

I remember moving to Berkeley seven years ago. The only way I could cope was insisting that it was a temporary situation. Never mind that I intended to stick with the whole college thing—I was determined to never think of the Bay Area as home. Which was naïve, obviously, but I was 17. (For reference, I also thought I’d be going to grad school!) The difference between “moving” and “a very long vacation” is what kept my stress level relatively low. And for that whole first semester away from home—my “real” home—I dreamed of returning to LA.

I’m not trying to be poetic: I literally dreamed about LA all the time. I also dreamed about my teeth falling out, but that’s neither here nor there. It was only at Thanksgiving, when I took my first trip back since moving north, that I realized how deluded I was. Life in your hometown doesn’t just take a time-out when you leave. It seems obvious now, but I assure you it wasn’t at the time. Just as I assure you I spent way too many tearful nights overidentifying with that scene in Garden State in which Zach Braff talks about losing a sense of “home.” Bad movie or not, the sentiment rang true. I suddenly didn’t feel as though I belonged anywhere. I was an idiot to purposely avoid adjusting to Berkeley, and I was an idiot to pin all my hopes on LA staying just as I’d left it. You can’t go home again, stupid.

If you told me I’d still be in Berkeley in 2011, I would have a) called you a liar, and b) been surprised humanity managed to survive that many years of a Bush presidency. But here I am, sitting at the same coffee shop I’ve been coming to since first forcing a caffeine addiction on myself. What I found after a few years of living in Berkeley was that I wasn’t so much looking for a “home” as I was looking for stability. I missed LA because I was used to LA, because I understood my life there (more or less), and because there were routines and patterns I associated with the city. Moving somewhere new means establishing new habits, and holy crap, that is not as easy as it sounds. But eventually I was settled.

Too settled, maybe. Sometimes I think I could live here forever. Not because I’m so smitten with Berkeley—although it’s objectively a nice place to live—but because I’ve once again let my fears of being uprooted get the better of me. As much as I’ve come to appreciate LA when I go down for extended vacations, I’m still comforted by my ability to return back to a rather mundane existence in the Bay Area. But there’s a difference between being secure and being stagnant. I could stay here indefinitely, but I don’t want to. I know there is more for me in LA right now. And while I’m also sure I could make more of my current life in Berkeley, experience shows me that I won’t.

I need to push forward despite the discomfort, and that means taking my stuff and putting it in the goddamn boxes. I’ll think about leaving my apartment for good. I’ll think about saying goodbye to the friends I’ve made here, though admittedly many have already left. And I’ll let that anxiety wash over me, because you have to feel it build before you can feel it subside.

I don’t want to move. There, I said it. I want to be in LA, sure, but I don’t want to have to make the choice, to take the action, to plunge myself into once-familiar waters. I’ll do it because I owe it to myself to not let anxiety hold me back. I’m nearing the quarter-century mark (hey, it’s as good a milestone as any) and growing up means facing fears, right? Besides, the logic of my decision to move will soon trump any feelings of unease. If it happened before, it will happen again.

And with that, I’m going to stop staring at the boxes—and start filling them.

Inane bullshit

22 Aug

you seem like a good writer, why waste your time writing such inane bullshit?

This is maybe the best backhanded compliment I have ever received. It was a comment on my last post, my (apparently controversial) defense of Kim Kardashian. And while normally I’d let a bitchy remark like that slide, I’d actually like to answer the question. So, “Ben,” you’re in luck! Why do I “waste my time” writing about the Kardashians and vampires and other seemingly useless facets of pop culture?

I’ve encountered various versions of this question over the years. Sometimes it’s not a question so much as a suggestion that I might want to write about something that matters. It usually comes from people who “don’t even own a TV” and only see foreign films and keep the radio perma-tuned to NPR. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to live your life free from pop culture clutter, but just as that’s your prerogative, this is mine. The way some people feel about sports, the way others feel about history—that’s how I feel about mainstream entertainment.

It’s not that I don’t also have an appreciation for the highbrow. (Ask me about Faulkner!) It’s just that I understand the importance of pop culture in our society. I also think that almost anything, however silly or irrelevant you might find it, is worthy of analysis. The Kardashians, for example, strike you as frivolous. A fair assessment, to be sure, but they obviously have a huge effect on the media, television, and angry commenters all over the internet. Doesn’t that make you wonder why? We can probe and expose trends without validating them. We can put our own spin on “inane bullshit.”

Kim K. aside, though, there is plenty of pop culture that I legitimately care about. It’s not all ironic appreciation and musings on popularity. I sincerely care about Buffy comic books and A&E’s Hoarders and the Final Destination series. I don’t necessarily think they’re great, but I do consider them to be worthwhile diversions. To that end, I never worry about wasting my time by indulging in pleasures, guilty or otherwise. As a wise pop musician once said, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”

But am I wasting my time writing about this stuff? Am I wasting your time by suggesting you read it? Of course not. (And if you do think it’s a waste of your time, by all means, don’t read it.) The way I see it, someone has to write seriously about pop culture. It can’t all be E! News briefs and gushy TV Guide reviews. (Which is not to say those outlets are useless either—they just serve a different purpose.) I’ll readily admit that much of my writing has been inspired by the great Chuck Klosterman, who has a broader depth of pop culture knowledge than I could ever hope to attain. I highly recommend you check out his work, even though it’s going to make my blogging look worse in comparison. See, I’m a giver.

Why police what other people are writing, anyway? “Inane bullshit” is a relative concept: one man’s trash is another man’s camp classic. When you tell people to only write about what’s important, you’re ignoring the fact that a writer’s relationship with his subject is likely different than yours. Nothing is inherently a throwaway topic, especially for those of us who relish the opportunity to dig deeper. And luckily for you, Ben, my decision to write about Kim Kardashian doesn’t take away from other writers’ decisions to cover Bachmann’s presidential aspirations or Libya. There’s plenty of room on the internet for all of us.

So, why do I waste my time writing such inane bullshit? Because I’m not wasting my time. Because it’s not inane bullshit to me. But mostly, because I can.

My vampire boyfriend

15 Aug

I hate Twilight for a lot of reasons—first and foremost that it teaches young girls to feel ashamed of their burgeoning sexuality. But Twilight also made vampires lame, and while that’s not as serious an offense, it’s not one I take lightly either. I’ve always loved vampires, even from an age when I couldn’t possibly appreciate the consequences of eternal life. I spent my high school years watching Buffy and Angel, and wondering why I never got to kiss anyone with fangs.

Now I feel ashamed of my vampiric urges. It’s not only Twilight‘s fault, but damned if it doesn’t feel that way. Tween vampire romance is hot right now, and that ruins things for the rest of us. Even more adult entertainment like True Blood has turned steamy vampire-on-human action into fluffy cuddleporn. (Yeah, there’s still fucking, but oh, God, the pillow talk.) But rather than accept defeat and give up my dreams of vampire romance, I’m going to reclaim the concept. When I say I want a vampire boyfriend, I don’t mean Edward Cullen or Stefan Salvatore or even Eric Northman. They suck. If that’s what vampires are like, I’ll stick to humans and maybe the occasional warlock.

But I’d like to believe the right vampire is out there, somewhere.

My vampire boyfriend will be a nice guy. He won’t drink human blood, ever, except possibly a little bit of mine, consensually. (I’m not 100 percent sure about this. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.) Part of the sexual appeal of vampires is that they’re dangerous, but I’d rather not be in any actual danger. And even if my vampire boyfriend is mildly threatening—not to me, but by virtue of the fact that he’s a vampire—I don’t want him to be a dick about it. Like, yeah, you’re a powerful bloodthirsty being: doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole. There’s nothing cute about bad manners. And to that end, if I do decide he can have some of my blood, he damn well better ask first.

My vampire boyfriend will respect me. He will not be a misogynist tool who thinks all women in the immediate vicinity need protecting, and he won’t look down on me because I’m a human. (A fragile, skittish human, to be precise.) He’s going to have to accept that while he has certain strengths mere mortals may be lacking, it’s obnoxious to lord those other over people. Plus, we all have different skill sets. Maybe he can tear off an enemy’s head with ease. No big—I know all the state capitals. (This isn’t true, but you get the idea.) Relationships are about balance: I want a boyfriend, not a bodyguard. Well, I want both. They just shouldn’t be one and the same.

My vampire boyfriend will know how to have a good time. None of that brooding shit. I am dating a vampire for the excitement, not because I need someone to out-mope me. (Seriously, though, don’t even try.) I have a pretty broad definition of fun, so going out to a movie is probably sufficient. But he has to sit through it without pouting—unless it’s about animals, in which case we’ll both cry. And if it’s a period piece, he’s not allowed to spend the rest of the night talking about how many historical details they got wrong. (My vampire is at least 300 years old. Crazy, right?) He’s going to laugh, often, especially at my dumb jokes. He’s going to be active on Twitter, where he will resist the temptation to overuse the #vampirepersonproblems hashtag.

My vampire boyfriend will not skulk around, ever. He won’t hide out in my room and watch me sleep, because I snore and I would really rather not subject his heightened vampire senses to that. Yeah, he’s going to have a different sleep schedule, but given that I keep pretty late hours, I’m confident we can make it work. And he’s going to have his own friends. Some of them will be vampires, but maybe he’ll hang out with a few werewolves, too. (So over that completely arbitrary rivalry.) We’ll never be bored waiting for one another to wake up, because we’ll have our own shit going on. Though, on that note, he’s not allowed to be grumpy when he wakes up at night.

My vampire boyfriend will love garlic or he will learn to love garlic. Anything else is a dealbreaker.

And that’s what I want in an undead life partner. Oh, relax, I’m not really deluded enough to believe in vampires or any other supernatural creatures, really. But just because I’m in my mid-twenties doesn’t mean I have to let go of all my youthful fantasies. Besides, I might one day meet a really pale musician, and a lot of the same criteria will apply.

Seven modern horror films you should watch

6 Aug

I talk about comedy a lot, and I write jokes on Twitter, so you might assume comedy is my favorite film genre. You’d be totally wrong. See what happens when you make assumptions? I’m actually a huge horror fan—not that horror and comedy are mutually exclusive. And since I’ve already made a post telling you what comedies you should watch, I figured I might as well do something similar for horror. While I have a great appreciation for the classics (favorites: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby), I wanted to focus on films made in the 21st Century. (Look, I had to narrow it down somehow.)

So here are seven modern horror films I think you should watch, in no particular order.

1. Jennifer’s Body (2009). Written by Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama. I lied. This one’s first because it is my favorite modern horror film. It’s also one of the most unfairly maligned movies in recent memory. This is a sharp, witty, and—best of all—female-centric horror movie. It’s certainly not the scariest on the list, but it appeals to my sensibilities perfectly. Horror can be funny without being silly; it can offer social commentary without hitting you over the head. And why all the Megan Fox hate? This role is perfect for her. Bonus points for the queer undertones, which are overt long before the girl-on-girl action.
You might also like: Ginger Snaps (2000). Another great blend of horror and comedy, with strong female characters and high school metaphors.

2. Hostel: Part II (2007). Written and directed by Eli Roth. I once got in an argument with a friend over this movie. She said she could never watch it as a feminist and a human rights activist—I guess the implication being that I hate women and love torture. Which, uh, no. In many ways, this film is a play on the rape-revenge genre (I Spit On Your Grave, The Last House on the Left), so, yes, you see women suffer. But the women are your point of identification, and there is great satisfaction in the revenge. If you’re being tortured in the first half of the film, you’re also—spoiler alert—castrating your captor in the second.
You might also like: The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Lots of torture, but Rob Zombie’s film is interesting for the way you’re forced to identify with the torturers.

3. À l’intérieur (Inside) (2007). Written by Alexandre Bustillo, directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. Of all the movies on the list, this one was the hardest for me to sit through. It is completely brutal, a product of a movement Artforum’s James Quandt dubbed “New French Extremism.” Thematically, the story of a pregnant woman terrorized by a woman trying to steal her unborn child is horrifying. That aside, the violence is shocking and relentless. It’s also completely necessary to the film. Even if you have to watch this movie through your fingers, you have to watch it.
You might also like: Trouble Every Day (2001). Another New French Extremism movie with Beatrice Dalle, who is honestly just really scary.

4. Frozen (2010). Written and directed by Adam Green. You know what’s scary? A seemingly invincible urban legend serial killer. (Green’s Hatchet and Hatchet II.) You know what’s scarier? Getting stuck on a fucking ski lift. Frozen tells a very simple story: three friends are left hanging on their way up a snowy mountain. They have to survive frostbite, hunger, and wolves—things most of us don’t have to contend with, but that are grounded in reality. Frozen does a great job making the open air feel like a confined space—these three are outdoors, but they have nowhere to go. That sense of claustrophobia is palpable throughout.
You might also like: Buried (2010). Perhaps more thriller than horror, Buried is one of the best claustrophobic film I have seen.

5. The House of the Devil (2009). Written and directed by Ti West. This is a bit of a strange pick—not because it isn’t great, but because the film takes place in the ’80s and is very much indebted to the decade. Nevertheless, it is a modern horror film that is remarkable for the way it avoids and subverts so many modern horror conventions. I’m also a big fan of movies that traffic in subtlety, only to arrive at an over-the-top conclusion. The huge reveals aren’t what makes it scary—that’s the suspense. But the switch from creeping dread to “holy shit” is a fantastic mindfuck. You thought you knew what was going on, but you had no idea.
You might also like: The Last Exorcism (2010). Without giving too much away, this movie’s structure shares a few notable features with The House of the Devil.

6. Splice (2009). Written and directed by Vincenzo Natali. Yes, really. Here’s yet another movie I think most critics just didn’t get. It does have its share of ridiculous moments, though I’d argue all are intentional. In some ways this sci-fi horror film could also be called a dark comedy, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. There are plenty of movies about science gone wrong—don’t mess with mother nature, and all that—but Splice also includes incest, rape, and pedophilia. These aren’t intended to shock, but rather to unnerve the audience, and it is indeed a movie to squirm through.
You might also like: The Fly (1986). OK, it’s not a post-2000 movie, but it’s a classic, and you should watch it immediately.

7. The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Written and directed by Alexandre Aja. Let’s get this out of the way first—I am a huge fan of Wes Craven’s 1977 original. But Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes is one of the few recent horror reboots that gets it right. The film follows the original pretty closely, until a certain point at which it goes off-the-walls crazy. In my mind, a good remake should honor its source material, but also expand on it. Not to mention the fact that Aja, a New French Extremism director, has a fantastic style. I loved about half of Haute tension, but he lost me with the awkwardly homophobic twist.
You might also like: The Last House on the Left (2009). While it’s not perfect, it also does some interesting things with Wes Craven’s original. Plus, Aaron Paul!

A conversation with Michael Ian Black

4 Aug

Photo courtesy Michael Ian Black.

Michael Ian Black needs no introduction.

Ugh, OK, fine. He’s a comedian and an actor and a tweeter. I asked him if I could do an interview to promote “Very Famous,” his upcoming Comedy Central stand-up special. Mostly I just wanted to grill him about his recent diagnosis of bursitis in his elbow. Does that count as gotcha journalism? Maybe. Here is a complete transcript of our conversation—you decide!

Louis Peitzman: Normally I prepare a bunch of questions in advance, but I just wrote these in the last five minutes. So they’re going to be really…
Michael Ian Black: This is going to be a freewheeling conversation.
LP: Yes. Basically. I wanted to start by asking the question on all of our minds, which is, how is your elbow feeling today?
MIB: Thank you for asking, and I know that everybody is concerned. I’ve been getting a lot of emails, a lot of texts, some telegrams from overseas. And the thing that everyone wants to know is, what’s going on with your elbow? Is your elbow OK? Are you gonna die? And after seeing the doctor, he prescribed some antibiotics for my bursitis, and he told me I should start feeling better within 48 hours. So, we’re gonna see. I think we’re all entering the wait-and-pray period right now.
LP: Are you disappointed that it’s not gout?
MIB: I am disappointed. Well, I’m disappointed because I really liked saying that I have gout, and I really liked saying that I have elbow gout, for all the obvious reasons. On the other hand, apparently once you get gout, you’re susceptible to getting it many times in the future. And having this experience, I don’t feel like I need to relive it. And the comedic effect will diminish over time if I keep saying I have gout. Like Chicken Little, eventually people will grow tired of that. They’re not gonna respond to it in any way, shape, or form.
LP: Well, I wanted to ask a little about your special.
MIB: You don’t want to talk more about my elbow?
LP: I mean, I do, but I feel like people might want to hear about what you’re doing on Comedy Central.
MIB: OK, but my health…
LP: Your health is kind of secondary to that.
MIB: [sigh] All right. Let’s talk about my special. I don’t care.
LP: Why did it take you so long to get a stand-up special on Comedy Central?
MIB: I never tried before. ‘Cause I didn’t really do stand-up before. I started doing stand-up a few years ago. And then I signed with this new agent, this new stand-up agent about a year ago, maybe a little bit more. And I said, “What do you wanna do?” And he said, “This is what we’ll do—you’ll go on the road and then in about a year, we’ll do a Comedy Central hour-long special.” And I said, “You can just do that? You can just say, ‘I want to do a special,’ and they’ll say, ‘OK’?” And he said, “Don’t worry about it.” And then that’s what happened. I don’t know if he had to pay somebody off. I don’t know how exactly it came to be. But he just said we’ll do that, and then we did it. Can’t argue with that, somebody in show business who keeps their word.
LP: Now, what’s the main difference between stand-up and being a talking head on VH1?
MIB: You see a lot more torso in the stand-up. And if you’ve got a torso like I do, that’s something you want seen. Do I have rock hard abs? No. But I have gently cascading abs. That’s the main difference—my abs.
LP: How do you stay in shape when you’re traveling?
MIB: I do what Wham! did when they were getting ready to go out on their “Make It Big” tour, which is, I played badminton for hours and hours and hours.
LP: Wow, that’s a lot of badminton.
MIB: It’s at least three hours. But that’s what they did, and it worked for them. I see no reason to change something that’s already working. And, what’s nice is, I got Andrew Ridgeley to play badminton with me. He wasn’t doing anything.
LP: The title of your special is “Very Famous.” Are there any other celebrities out there who understand where you are, fame-wise?
MIB: I think there’s probably a handful of celebrities who kind of understand the rigors and the trials that I go through on a daily basis being very famous. The Dalai Lama comes to mind. Vladimir Putin comes to mind. Silvio Berlusconi. Neil Armstrong. Bigfoot. I think that’s probably it.
LP: And some of those people aren’t even on Twitter, so they don’t really get the full effect.
MIB: Well, without giving away too much, they all are. But a lot of them don’t want to be found on Twitter. Understand what I’m saying?
LP: Yes.
MIB: When you reach a certain level of fame, and let’s call that level the “very famous” level, you basically know everybody in that level. There’s just events that you find yourself at with these people. And also, like you were saying, there’s only a certain small group of people who can really, really understand. And I’m not even gonna try to explain it to you, because it’s like going to Hogwarts. They don’t start you off with the most complicated spells. You start off with the easy spells, because it’s all you can understand. So all I’m going to tell you is, it’s amazing to be this famous, and it’s hell to be this famous.
LP: Do you think that Josh Malina is jealous of you?
MIB: I can’t speak for Josh Malina, but if I could speak for him, I would say yes.
LP: I wanted to ask a little bit about “Sad, Sad Conversation”: how long do you think you can sustain it? Do you think it’s just going to keep going with lots of sad, sad or just mundane things to say?
MIB: I don’t know. I mean, it’s certainly not experiencing any tremendous growth, either creatively or in terms of viewership. But does it need to? You know, some things are fine just the way they are. I’m not looking for “Sad, Sad Conversation” to take off and be the thing that lights the world on fire. It probably will, but I’m not looking for that.
LP: I also wanted to ask about Twitter. Did you know that Favstar is down right now?
MIB: I don’t really know what Favstar is.
LP: You don’t know what Favstar is?
MIB: I know that it exists, but I don’t really know what it does, or what it’s for.
LP: Well, for people who are less famous than you are, you can see who stars your tweets and retweets them. So if you don’t have as many followers or as much general adulation, you can kind of get that gratification from seeing tiny little avatars starring your tweets.
MIB: Oh, I see. And then what do you do with that information?
LP: Oh, you just congratulate yourself.
MIB: You feel really, really good about yourself?
LP: You use it to replace whatever’s lacking in your life.
MIB: And what’s an average number of retweets that you get?
LP: Oh, it really depends. If you’re saying something political about Sarah Palin, you might get 50. If you’re talking about your gas, I don’t know, five. It really depends on who you are. But I just wanted you to know it was down. I don’t know if you have any pull there.
MIB: No, I’ve never been in touch with those people. As I said, I don’t really know what that service is.
LP: I guess you don’t need it. It’s more for us.
MIB: It’s nice that people like you have something like that.
LP: I agree! Do you feel like you’ve discovered new comedic voices through Twitter and WitStream?
MIB: Of course, of course. Many, many, many. There are so many funny people out there, yourself included.
LP: Well, thank you. I wasn’t even fishing for comp—I was a little bit fishing for compliments.
MIB: You obviously were, and that’s fine.
LP: What advice do you have for people who also want to have 1.6 million Twitter followers?
MIB: I guess the best thing to do would be—well, there’s two things you could do. The first thing would be to very, very good at Twitter. Just be excellent at it, and do it all the time. But the second, easier thing to do is just become very famous.
LP: And that’s just something that happens to you?
MIB: Well, no, I mean, you have to do it. But you should just do that.
LP: Well, that’s good to know. People will appreciate that advice. I wanted to close by asking if you’d like to see a picture of me dressed as McKinley for Halloween.
MIB: Sure.
LP: OK. I’m gonna put that on my blog then.

(Halloween, 2007.)

LP: Well, thanks so much for doing this, and for all your support.
MIB: Look, I consider us friends. But I don’t know how to pronounce your first name. Is it “Loo-is” or “Loo-ie”?
LP: It’s “Loo-is.”
MIB: OK. I didn’t know.
LP: Well, now you do. Now we’re closer. Is it “Ee-an” or “Eye-an”?
MIB: Either one.
LP: OK. I’m gonna say “Eye-an” like Ian Ziering.
MIB: There’s no bad press, right?
LP: Not at all.

“Very Famous” premieres at 11 p.m. this Saturday, August 6, on Comedy Central.