40 Year Old Virgin

_The 40 Year Old Virgin_ made me happy. Like the fabulous Catherine Keener, I endorse the obscure appeal of fuzzy men on bicycles.

It isn’t always easy to eavesdrop on how men talk when women aren’t around, but this has been a good movie season for it. Straight men’s affection for each other moves me far more than any Meg Ryan drivel. If only they hadn’t ruined the real love story in _Wedding Crashers_ with a chick-flick ending.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

If _Lord of the Rings_ shows the terror and confusion of the First World War, and Orwell’s _1984_ is a portrait of post-war London, then the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captures seventies England, which is run by vile, blobby civil servants and depressive (robot) functionaries. Arthur Dent is a mopey Englishman surrounded by Yanks who are dazzling, confident, and dim. His main source of comfort is cups of tea, which never arrive. Because it’s seventies England, bowls of petunias in space are funny, and so are absurdist answers to weighty questions.

If I sound hard on the film, I don’t mean to be. Monty Python cast such a shadow that the comedy of cringe and absurdity is still around, and mostly holds up. I never got into the HG2G radio series or books, but was always fond of the kind of boys who did, and this movie makes me miss England, or at least the England of the BBC and Douglas Adams. The cast is lovely. Mos Def’s cheekbones seem picked to set off Martin Whatsisname’s perfect, lumpy ordinariness; I would have liked to have seen him in more scenes. Bill Nighy turns up–yay. Sam Rockwell has a great time in every movie he’s in. The closing song, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” makes full use of Neil (Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Broadway voice. As for the glowing, intrepid Zooey Deschanel character ending up with that particular Arthur Dent, well, I’m glad they explained the bit about the Improbabability Drive. And I want the number of her dermatologist.

Douglas Adams took equal delight in technology, nature, and the arts, and that was rare in a country that still forces kids to limit their study to three subjects from the age of 15, herding them into art or science pens as if the Renaissance had never happened. It shows in his writing, which roamed joyfully. Before he died suddenly at 49 he had dreamed of getting HG2G made into a film, and so it was sweet to see an Adams-faced planet swim into the very last frame. “For Douglas,” ran the closing dedication; indeed.

Vera Drake

In the Angelika Theater on Houston Street, the rumble of the subway adds to the suspense of every movie and the theaters are laid out like midsized planes. Worse: the guy behind me was the kind who would watch Fox just to yell back at Bill O’Reilly. Between coughs and refolding his crackly raincoat, he tossed angry comments at the screen like a Yankee fan getting trounced by the Red Sox.

    “Oh for crying out loud. She has a frickin’ right to her body. It should be legal,” he said, as a young girl cried and dithered before her backstreet abortion. When the police came to arrest the woman who performed it, he was bitter. “Here come the pigs. Here come the pigs. Yeah, just watch this.”

I wish he had. He missed the point. Mike Leigh’s movie, about a North London family in 1950, has compassion in every frame. His post-war London is drab and freezing, indoors and out, and yet you want to warm yourself at Vera Drake’s hearth–even though it’s a two-bar electric fire turned on as a luxury. Imelda Staunton’s currant-bun face reflects her Irish name, and like some of the women of my childhood, her character’s care for others seems as natural as breathing. Vera Drake cleans rich people’s houses by day, pops in to make tea for sullen invalids, looks after her bed-ridden mother, and takes in bedsit waifs. She is plain as suet, blessed with cheerfulness, and cherished by her husband and two children. You don’t often see people like her in movies or books. Vera makes happiness look easy, but Leigh takes pains to show that it is, instead, a series of choices, and far harder than misery.

Vera also helps girls in trouble. Girls who can’t manage. She’s done it for years, in secret, for no money, grating pink carbolic soap into a basin of hot water and disinfectant. She calms them down before she syringes the soapy solution into them with a rubbery hose. “Don’t you worry, dear, you’ll be right as rain.”

When one almost dies, she is arrested.

We don’t know why she did it. Leigh’s restraint is beautiful. He stays with the particular, and that’s the force of the film. The “pigs” that my seatmate spat at turned out to be sympathetic and humane. 47-year-old Imelda Staunton looks agelessly ancient as Vera, as women of that generation did. Vera’s husband, who looks substantial and content at his tiny wife’s side in their tiny flat, seems to shrink beneath the high courtroom ceilings and the tall, well-fed detectives. Every period detail is perfect, down to the pointed red manicure on Fenella Woolgar, who is exasperated at the friend who begs for her help over afternoon tea. “You’ve gone and got yourself into trouble, haven’t you?”

The characters do the best they can with reality–the war is recent and vivid, the Pill has not been invented, and abortion is illegal and shameful. They are not the lunatics we depend on to effect change in the world; instead their lives are overturned by the world as it is. Leigh lets his actors show how with their faces rather than the words they can’t find, and it’s affecting. Vera’s beloved son rails at her for “killing little babies” and letting the family down. Mr. Angry in the seat behind me railed back at him. He missed what Vera didn’t: the hurt and bewilderment behind the accusations.

I’m (mostly) pro-choice, from a country that (mostly) isn’t, living in a country that’s split by the issue. Abortion is complicated. This movie is rare in showing complexity without comment. Rarer still in showing true happiness. It felt like a better choice for this election eve than _Farenheit 911_.

Riding the Subway with John Turturro

After months of bike commuting, I’ve fallen off the wagon.

These things creep up on you. My bike was stolen. The tire of the replacement was slashed. I moved to Prospect Heights, which is well-named: after twelve hours at the office, the climb up Flatbush Avenue feels like a stage in the Pyrenees. Back in Carroll Gardens I could beat the chicken-bus F train to work if I pedalled hard. But up in these Heights, we have the B and the Q, sleek bullet trains that get to Manhattan in fifteen minutes. My good intentions wobble when the choice is forty minutes on the bike.

It doesn’t help that a few weeks ago my company moved to an office in glamorous NoLiTa, where the air-conditioning is as ostentatiously wasteful as a Pacific Islanders’ feast, and where you can’t bring a twenty-five dollar bike up in the elevator. You’re can’t even look like that kind of thing might occur to you. Instead we wear our winter clothes in August and zip around the loft on Razor scooters, partying like it’s 1999.

Then there was the Metrocard. I signed up to have the cost of a monthly Metrocard deducted from my paycheck, tax-free. Once that little plastic card was in my wallet, I felt as compelled to travel as the Pope. Even though I understand the economics of sunk costs, every bike ride felt like it cost me money.

So for a whole month I became a Q Train junkie, docile as every other straphanger. I liked it. I’d scribble in my notebook, or catch an extra hour a day of reading. I liked not having helmet hair and smeared mascara. I put on a few pounds as bike gristle melted back into belly fat. In the mornings, I’d listen to John Turturro.

I’ve been riding the subway with John Turturro since I moved to New York. He is my constant. When I lived in midtown he showed up twice on the E and once on the B. Once, in Carroll Gardens, I rode the F Train pressed up against his guayabera shirt. But in Prospect Heights our relationship has deepened. Every morning I get to the Seventh Avenue station at 9.27. (We are internet slackers–it’s 1999, remember?) Every morning, John Turturro is there. I live in the kind of neighborhood John Turturro would live in, and that makes me happier than a penthouse in the Dakota Building.

John Turturro commutes with a man and a woman who might be from his production company. He never sits down, even when there are seats. His companions are much shorter than he is, and they are clearly bananas number two and three. They don’t say much, but John talks plenty.

He looks good. Forty-five suits most men better than twenty-five, I think, especially the gawky ones. He’s very tall and lean, and that frizzy trapezoid of hair he used to have is now cropped and graying nicely. He still rabbits on, though, like a guy who hasn’t realized he turned out well. Or like a Brooklynite.

I look at my book and listen to him talking about some production snarl. I picture him as Barton Fink, so wrapped up in his own Talent that he does’t realize that John Goodman is more of a monster than his pompous little screenwriter could ever dream up. Same voice. I see him kneeling and begging for his life in _Miller’s Crossing_, so that you despise and pity him all at once. Same Brooklyn whine. Or as a hapless murdering fuckwit in _Fargo_. Or tossing pizza dough in a neighborhood just like Prospect Heights, as Pino in _Do The Right Thing_. Or in Redford’s _Quiz Show_, where his Queens character was so outer-boroughs that he made my fillings ache. Turturro is always memorable. It’s a surprise to see, after all that cowering onscreen, that he’s well over six feet tall and growing into his looks. How strange to become a success by playing jumpy failures.

His subway monologues are mostly about some production he’s doing. Sometimes, though, he talks about his diet and exercise regime. We all have this private fascination with our own bodies, but we don’t always get to hear the exterior monologue from a movie star–even a Brooklyn movie star. He can keep it up from Seventh Avenue to Canal Street. The kind of food he eats–not Atkins, not low cawbs, but lower cawbs. How he feels on the third set of reps, now that the trainer is making him slow it down. His cardio routine. What his nutritionist says. I love listening to this familiar voice riffing on his own little world. It’s pure Barton Fink.

But it can’t last. I can’t sit like a slug while John talks about reps, and I don’t hold with gyms. On Saturday, I took Benny’s bike down to Fifth Avenue Bikes in Park Slope, to get my slashed tire fixed and to flirt with Felix, the Puerto Rican sales guy. Back in my rich days, I’d bought three new bikes there, mostly because Felix loves his job. His guys patched up my jalopy without a murmur about the rusty wheels. My Metrocard runs out tomorrow, and I’m back in the saddle again.

Bread and Circuses

By the time my body clock struck 5 a.m. and the hobbits shuffled onstage one last time, the Oscars were redeemed only by the yummy fixins and beloved company at Dom and Mark’s place in Cobble Hill.

I’m allergic to Billy Crystal. All the chicks had called each other beforehand and said ‘Nobody’s wearing anything pigmented, okay? Pass it on.’ Hollywood actors spouted guff about ‘practising their craft’. Charlize Theron showed up orange and thanked her _lawyer_. The only bright spot, apart from Annie Lennox, was the revelation that sheets of straightened hair are officially over, and soft, sexy waves are back. Especially for Eugene Levy.

With a mixed sense of dread and duty, I finally dragged myself to see _Return of the King_ last night, still jetlagged and increasingly irritable. I can see why so many people enjoyed it, and I’m glad they did. Unfortunately, I’m not the target audience. Though I’m ridiculously suggestible in movies about human beings–prone to weeping and terror as the director sees fit–I find special effects so distancing that I want to leave the cinema. They are never good enough if we come out saying ‘Great special effects’. I sat there wondering how they did the lumbering Harryhausen monsters instead of being transported by the story, which I didn’t understand. I daydreamed about Orc extras sitting around the catering tent and chatting in Kiwi accents. Jackson taunted me with fake endings too many times, until I was ready to yell ‘Jump, Frodo, jump!’

LOTR interests me only as a study of Tolkien’s First World War experience, where childhood friends from the shires marched off to interminable battles that were beyond comprehension, and the only cause that made sense was loyalty to each other. But I didn’t need nine hours of the cherub-in-peril stuff, even with a few years’ break in between. I’m too old and cynical not to splutter at the dialogue, and by the eighth hour of Sam Gamgee’s plump, sweaty yearning, my brain had superimposed Philip Seymour Hoffman in _Boogie Nights_.