Preteen American Gothic

To say I looked up to Aimee would be an understatement. She was, to me, the epitome of the Cool Older Girl. She was only two-and-a-half years older, but she seemed light-years ahead of me. Boy-savvy and sardonic, Aimee was thriving in that mysterious world called middle school, and she was everything I hoped I would be in a few years.

Aimee and I first met when I was about nine and she was eleven or twelve, when her mother started dating my father. They eventually broke up, but for about two years Aimee and I had a very clear older sister, younger sister dynamic. She clearly found me annoying at times, but it was clear she, the youngest in her family, loved getting to be the older one for once. There was a line drawn clearly between us: Anna and I were the little kids, and she and my older brothers were the cool teens. When my dad and brothers treated me like a baby, I got angry and resentful, but when Aimee got bossy, I still paid close attention to her, because I knew I had a lot to learn.

Sometimes learning from Aimee meant putting Scotch tape on your legs because it was allegedly an exfoliant; sometimes it was folding your arms in just the right way so boys wouldn’t stare at your brand-new boobs. She read love letters from her boyfriends out loud to me (the two most important boys in her life were named “Tom” and “Tim,” and I often got them confused), and I read her teen magazines voraciously. She already wore a regular rather than training bra, could rap all of the lyrics of Gangsta’s Paradise, and spoke proudly and openly of pausing the movie during Now and Then to try to get a glimpse of Devon Sawa’s butt. (Which, of course, wasn’t actually his butt. That would have been illegal.)

Looking back, she was clearly trying very hard to impress me, but honestly, she did not need to try that hard. I don’t think I ever saw Aimee as a just another kid like me: I thought she was basically grown-up — the way my teenage brothers were — and completely fearless. She wasn’t afraid of the big roller coasters at Disneyland or Six Flags, and she’d never been scared of big dogs. It didn’t take much to scare me, and she knew it. She’d already laughed at me for being afraid of Chucky from Child’s Play. And once, Aimee, originally from the Midwest, had thought it would be funny to play me a song about “eating dead bodies” from one of her favorite Midwestern bands, some group I’d never heard of called “I.C.P.” (I remember being appalled, but not scared.) My chickenshittedness was the biggest difference between us, something I desperately hoped would change in me at some point in the next two years.

But I think my perception of her changed slightly one night, when I was ten and she was twelve. She was sleeping over at our house for the weekend, so we did what all preteens did in 1998: we went to Blockbuster Video. We picked out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for Anna, and Aimee suggested The Goonies for me, which I hadn’t seen but had heard good things about (mostly from my old studio teacher, who had actually worked on it).

“You’ll love it, it’s a great kids’ movie. I used to watch it all the time when I was little,” said Aimee. “But I’m going to get a scary movie for me.”

“Can I watch it with you?” I said. I felt I had recently proven myself by managing to watch Scream with her and my brothers.

“No,” she said. “This is going to be something you can’t watch. It’ll be rated R, and it’ll be too scary for you.” There was a note of smugness in her voice, and I felt annoyed as I watched her walk off to the Horror section. She’d also recently told me I couldn’t read her copy of A Child Called It—which in retrospect was probably a good idea, but I was always unhappy at being told what I could and couldn’t read. Besides, the VCR was in the family room, and she and I were going to go to bed about the same time. How was she going to enforce this?

It turns out, not very well. We brought home our movies, put on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for Anna, who got bored of it and went to bed halfway through. Then Aimee announced it was time for her movie, and I made up my mind not to leave unless she and my brothers absolutely made me, or until I got scared. But Aimee, as it turns out, had not really rented a scary movie.

She had rented Ken Russell’s Gothic.

If you’ve seen a Ken Russell movie, you will know why that was a big mistake. If you’ve never seen a Ken Russell movie — well, that’s just fine, really, because honestly, I’ve never seen a full Ken Russell movie, either. But I know enough about him. His aesthetic was basically Liberace’s saying that “too much of a good thing is wonderful,” except he didn’t typically deal in good things, he mostly dealt in pain, the dark side of Catholicism, and creepy sex scenes. It’s been said that his “obsessions” were “Nazis, naked women, and the inevitable crucifixion.” From what I understand, most of his films are a lot like the weird movie you see before you die in The Ring, only two hours longer, with brighter colors and better music, and at least three more orgies.

That was not what Aimee had been expecting. She had only chosen it because of the title. “Gothic” meant something very specific to most preteens in the late ‘90s, and Aimee was probably expecting something like The Craft. She was not expecting a weird psychosexual romp through Lord Byron and Mary Shelley’s ids.

“What… is this?” She said, a look of confusion and disgust on her face as Lord Byron’s maid put on a mask and wordlessly stripped to strange synthesizer music. This wasn’t scary, and it wasn’t even risqué in that fun, giggly sleepover way. This was something she was not ready for, and probably would not ever be.

“Do you want to just put on Goonies?” I asked, quietly, and she nodded, still scowling. I ejected the tape, which we were probably less than twenty minutes into, and put in the other one. Aimee looked a little defeated, but also relieved. It had probably been a while since she’d had to bow out of something that was too much for her, but it was a feeling I knew well.

At least she got the satisfaction of being right about something: we watched Goonies at least three times before having to take it back to Blockbuster. It was a great movie for kids, and we all loved it.

Stuff I Did This Week: I did an interview with Lui Asquith for Mermaids UK, to talk about being an ally to trans and nonbinary people, mental health, differences between the UK and US, and why we need to listen to kids. They asked fascinating (and sometimes challenging) questions, and I was happy to answer! Compassion and listening really do go a long way!

I also made an appearance on the George Lucas Talk Show! It was a weird and wonderful time, we talked with Greg Proops, watched an episode of Arli$$, gave my cat an Arli$$ name, and raised money for Foodbank for NYC!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Piss Off, Dom

The Quarantine Watchlist, Part 2

I’ll admit, I haven’t been watching as many new movies lately. It’s been easier, especially with Anna around, just to re-stream Mad Men or watch something I’ve already seen. But here are a few I have watched, and my thoughts on them.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood - Oh, Mr. Rogers. I was raised on his show, and while I don’t really believe in having heroes, but if I did, he’d be one of them. I cried all through Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about him, and I cried all through this movie. Tom Hanks doesn’t look or sound like Mr. Rogers, but he does feel like him.

There’s so much in this that could have been done poorly, that could have been maudlin, absurd, or exploitative, but because it’s done by Marielle Heller, it’s wonderful. She might be my favorite American director working today: she really knows how to get into the dark places with such finesse, and to get into the sad places without getting sentimental. I also think Matthew Rhys is one of the best actors working today, he has had my heart since The Americans. (My friend Jaclyn Backhaus said that after seeing him in this, she thought, “Who is this true actor’s actor?”) Halfway through watching this, I remembered he’s also Welsh, so probably had no idea who Mr. Rogers was! Sure enough, in an interview, he said that he had never heard of him, and Keri Russell yelled at him for it. (Don’t worry, he watched it.) Now that is good acting.

The Apartment - I don’t know if I would have fully understood this movie if, a few years ago, I hadn’t engaged in what my friend Tom Blunt’s partner’s mom calls “Pencil Can Therapy.” Basically, she relaxes by decoupaging aluminum cans, and we tried doing it, too. It was really relaxing, but something I ended up putting on my pencil can was simply fascinating to me. It was from a 1961 Life magazine with Jackie Kennedy on the cover, and I still think about it all the time (the fact that it is also on a pencil can on my desk probably also helps me remember):

I mean, my god, they really didn’t see what was coming, did they?

But The Apartment is the perfect movie for that time. You see what’s behind those “prosperous years.” So many people working so hard, for this alleged prosperity that anyone could have, that really only a few people would. Women allegedly having slightly more freedom, but still getting jerked around and taken advantage of. Ultimately, though, Joan Holloway was right: for a comedy, this is also an incredibly sad movie. It’s all about lies: your boss lying to you, your lover lying to you, the American Dream lying to you, learning not to lie to yourself. There’s a reason the musical based on it is called Promises, Promises.

I’ve never seen young Shirley MacClaine in anything before. (I think in my mind she is always about fifty, and already a full-blown eccentric.) It was interesting to see her as young, beautiful, and vulnerable as she is in this. I’d also forgotten that Jack Lemmon is such a great physical comedy actor. Watching him move in sync with his typewriter? Adorable.

Klute - I’ve been curious about this movie ever since I listened to You Must Remember This’s series on Jane Fonda (and Jean Sebring). I haven’t seen many Jane Fonda movies, really only 9 to 5, and whatever you think about her, personally, you can’t deny she’s had a hell of a career. I also really love Donald Sutherland. I thought the writing was great, even if I couldn’t stop thinking of the Woman in a Seventies Movie video; Fonda as Bree seems to be the ur-example here. I liked that they at least tried, in a very limited, ‘70s way, to show the thoughts and feelings of a woman in sex work, without just relying on the same old fallen woman tropes. But it does make me wonder what the more accurate portrayals of sex work on cinema actually are, or if there even are any.

My friend Harry, who I watched this with (via zoom) said he’s heard people say say Donald Sutherland as Klute is the ideal man. Personally, I’ve never been one for the strong silent type or the bodyguard romance trope, but I guess I can see it. I was very concerned he wouldn’t be able to rescue her in time, and she’d be killed. This is a ‘70s movie, after all, and a noir. But — spoiler alert — she lives, and is safe. Funnily enough, I actually can’t remember that many noir films I’ve seen that ended all that, well, darkly. Noir-ishly. Casablanca ends with a bit of heartbreak, but for noble reasons. Really, the only one I can think of with a truly dark, depressing ending is Chinatown, and that movie is all kinds of messed up for all kinds of reasons. Maybe I just need to see more noir.

All the President’s Men - This is undoubtedly a good movie. I appreciate what it did for cinema and that one really wonderful episode of the Simpsons. There are some truly thrilling moments. It’s also one of the few movies I’ve really liked Jason Robards in — blasphemous as it may be, I usually find his performances a bit wooden. Still, both times I’ve watched it, I’ve fallen asleep in the middle.

It’s probably also a generational thing. I know it’s different for those who grew up during this time, but I just feel like we lived through like fifty different Watergates with W. and currently live through about fifty a week with Trump. How about Nora Ephron knowing Deep Throat’s identity years before anyone else, though?

Stray Dog (1949) - Yes, I still love Kurosawa. Yes, I’m still in love with Toshiro Mifune. My god, just the way he wipes his sweaty brow in this movie! A few years ago I was in a hotel room, traveling for work, and I ended up watching a docudrama about postwar Japan. I realized I didn’t know that much about the actual rebuilding of Japan. Kurosawa captures it here (and in several other movies) so well. The Tokyo in Stray Dog does not look like any Tokyo I’ve ever seen in any other movie, or in real life. It looks more like Ground Zero in the years after 9/11, or the ruins of Pompeii. And no wonder: it had been razed by the single most destructive bombing raid in history.

Kurosawa’s relationship to America and the West is always interesting to me. So many of his influences were American or British, but he didn’t seem to shy away from critiquing the Westernization of Japan, particularly in movies like Ikiru (think of Takashi Shimura’s shitty, materialistic, money-grubbing kids) and The Bad Sleep Well (hello, American-style capitalist corporate corruption!) There are no Americans in Stray Dog, but there’s talk of women who have started wearing dresses instead of kimono, the changing manners at the police station, and a wild goose chase through a rapidly-changing Tokyo. It’s a story of PTSD both on a personal and a cultural level. The howls and cries of the “stray dog” will stay with me.

Ball of Fire - I wanted to see more screwball comedies, so my movie buddy Harry suggested this one. (I also knew nothing of Gary Cooper other than Tony Soprano namedropping him.) There were some funny lines, but ultimately, I think this was a corny premise (a 1940s Snow White) stretched too thin, and wasted on a great ensemble cast. Barbara Stanwyck is fabulously charming, funny, and beautiful in it, but she’s also playing a dancer, and it doesn’t seem like she… was much of a dancer? Or at least she doesn’t appear to be in this movie, there’s a rather interesting YouTube compilation of her performances, set to a Ricky Martin song from twenty years ago (?) where she does some ballroom and breakdancing (!) and does just fine. Still, I’d love to see her in more.

Cover Girl - After Ball of Fire, I wanted to see a dancer who could actually dance, so I went with a Rita Hayworth movie. And this one has Rita Hayworth AND Gene Kelly! Holy shit! Now these are the kinds of movies I grew up on, the kind my mother would watch when we were home sick from school, so we wouldn’t think that staying home was all about fun. This worked with my brothers, who quickly tired of technicolor musicals, but backfired with me, who loved them. I can still remember watching Funny Face and enjoying every second of it, even though the night before I’d had a fever so high I’d been hallucinating. (Fun fact: this was about two weeks before we started filming Matilda. I’d gotten better by then, but my voice hadn’t fully come back, so we had to re-dub all my lines from the used car lot in ADR later.)

The conflict at the heart of this movie is whether Rita Hayworth’s character Rusty is going to give up dancing in her fiancé Gene Kelly’s cabaret after she becomes a modeling sensation. Is she going to go to Broadway with a rich beau, or stay in Brooklyn with her friends? You can guess, but it’s still entertaining. Rita’s an amazing dancer, Eve Arden and Phil Silvers have so many great one-liners, and there’s a scene where Gene Kelly, arguing with himself in his head, ends up having a dance duet with his own reflection. But probably my favorite part is when Rusty, Gene Kelly’s Danny, and Phil Silvers’ Genius end up at a diner after each weekend late night show, ordering oysters so they can look for pearls. It has a very familiar “theater kids going to Denny’s” energy. In a good way, I swear.

That Thing You Do - This one I’ve seen before. In fact, at one time, I had probably watched this movie more than any other movie. It was always on TV when I was a kid, and it had great music (and lots of cute actors and actresses), so I loved it. And I loved watching it again at 32. It’s not a movie that changed the world, but it’s a simple story that is done so well.

Adam Schlesinger’s death hit me hard. I’ve always felt he was under-appreciated, and so many musicians I’m close with adored him. He was close with my old college friend Rachel Bloom, and made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the brilliant show that it was. There’s so much to say about him, but really I think my friend Joseph Fink summed it up best here. “That Thing You Do” is just the perfect pop song, that sounds perfectly like the ‘60s, and is a masterwork in itself. There really didn’t feel like any other way to celebrate his legacy than to celebrate his music, and be glad it existed. Next I’ll have to watch Josie and the Pussycats.

Stuff I Did This Week: Performed in Gaby Dunn’s Ocean’s Eleven But Make It Gay! I got to play Carl Reiner’s part, which felt… fitting. If you didn’t have the chance to stream it, you can watch it here! It’s worth it for Steph Beatriz’s coolness, Mal Blum’s ridiculousness, Elise Bauman and Natasha Negovanlis as drag twins, and Jen Richards eating in every single scene.

I also got to make an appearance on Michael Chakaraverty from the Great British Bake Off’s Instagram Live, and he said the jam recipe Anna came up with was the best he had ever tasted. What a compliment!

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: In the Back of the Larder

The Spring of Our Discontent

This is not my first spring in L.A., but it feels like it.

It’s been three and a half years since I moved back from New York. I’ll admit that when I moved away from New York, I was tempted to write an essay. It’s a rite of passage, the “leaving New York” essay. It’s not so much an essay as an apologia, a way of defending oneself. See, if I write down the reasons why I left New York, then you can’t think me weak for leaving. It’s the ultimate “it’s not you, it’s me.”

I didn’t ever write it, because no one cared. There are more than enough New Yorkers and former New Yorkers writing about New York. Besides, I was happy to be back in L.A. I’d missed California. Although when I did miss New York, it felt like a gut punch. It was very specific things that I missed, and it was often just memories of walks. Walking from the East Village down to Chinatown on a warm night, from the Upper West Side to Chelsea on a cold night. Trekking up to Fort Tryon Park to see if we could better see a meteor shower from there, and lying on the ground looking up at the thick, orange-tinted cloud cover to watch what looked like tiny grains of sand streaking through the sky. Walking with my then-boyfriend through Central Park, hearing faraway music, and bursting into laughter when we realized it was the carousel playing a tinny version of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.”

The one thing I miss the most, though, is the thing I never thought I would. I missed summer in New York.

Summers in New York are notoriously disgusting, and I hated them while I was living there. The humidity seemed to trap all the smells and pollution all around you, you felt grimy just walking down the street. Sudden thunderstorms brought migraines and ruined clothes. The air conditioners on the subway trains worked so hard they actually made the subway platforms ten degrees hotter, and walking into the stations felt like descending into hell. I remember one summer night, when I was living on St. Marks Place, when it was too hot to sleep. We had no air conditioning and heat was rising from the cars and restaurants and throngs of people outside into our tiny bedrooms. Finally I filled up a cup of water, poured the entire thing onto my bed, and lay back down. Utterly disgusting, I know, but it did help me cool off enough to sleep.

There was something about that level of absurdity, though, that felt like a respite. Living in New York was so hurried and harried, but you couldn’t help but take things a little more slowly, and a little less seriously, in the summer. There was a sense of everything easing up, because there was no other option. So we suffered through the hot, sticky days together, and wandered more in the long daylight hours, and long into the night.

Summer in L.A., once you’re out of school, doesn’t really feel any different than any other season. You’ve already been wearing shorts and sandals (and if you’re good, sunscreen) all year long. It’s hot and dry and sunny, L.A. at its apotheosis. But I still prefer it to spring. Spring has always been my least favorite season. This is a bold statement, I know, considering I have very bad Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter. But I actually don’t mind the cold so much. (The way I see it, I love winter, but winter does not love me back.) I know that spring represents change and warmth, but it just doesn’t feel that for me. Maybe it’s because April means my mother’s yarzheit, but that’s only one day in a season. More likely it’s because I’ve never really lived anywhere that had a proper spring. My last few years in New York, we went straight from icy, wintry Aprils to prickly-hot Mays. People suggested it was climate change, or just wondered aloud where our springs had gone. Meanwhile, spring in L.A. always just felt like summer junior: we started going to the beach and the pool in April at the latest. “I guess it’s spring, I didn’t know. It’s always 75 with no melting snow,” ” as the Rilo Kiley song goes.

The idea of four distinct seasons is something of a Eurocentric, Northeast US-centric idea, anyway. I’ve heard that Indigenous people of the L.A. basin believed we had two seasons: the dry season and the wet season. I’d say that’s right, though the dry season is twice as long as the wet season, so people tend to forget the latter exists.Maybe there is something, though. An end to the wet season, a drying-out period, something you could call spring.

I only noticed it when I went out last week. I wanted to take a walk so I could give Anna some space, and listen to “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” for the first time on my own. I took back streets to try to avoid other pedestrians, and wore a mask. I haven’t gone out in public without once since the lockdown, and honestly, I’ve felt a bit judgmental of those who have gone out without them. My hypochondria has reached historic heights right now, and we’re supposed to be wearing them, anyway. But when I saw a gorgeous new jasmine plant, I double-checked to see if anyone was around, then lowered my mask to take a deep inhale.

My first breath was pure, new jasmine, the scent of so many of my memories. Then I took a second breath, and took in the air around it. It was also clean and pure, but there was something else in it, something I couldn’t identify. I didn’t know what it was, all I know was that it smelled like spring. Spring in L.A., spring in the Valley, with Spring Dance recitals and lemonade stands and running in the sprinklers. Something I’d never thought I’d missed. Something I’d never thought I’d experienced. And I felt a deep sense of sorrow, because now it was mostly lost to me, to all of us. I hadn’t felt sad about having to stay inside before.

I put my mask back on and walked on, but wondered if I would have noticed the change in season if I hadn’t been quarantined. Maybe it’s like how when you see a baby, or even a puppy or kitten all the time, you don’t notice them growing so much. Then you don’t for a little bit, and when you see them again, they seem to have grown up all at once. It just can’t be noticed when you’re with them, when you’re in it.

When I arrived back home, I checked the young jasmine plant Anna bought me for my birthday last July. For the first time, I saw tiny white buds.

Fun Stuff I Did This Week: This week wasn’t that exciting, although I did watch The Half of It on Netflix, which was SO GOOD and heartwarming and smart and which you all should watch!

But! This week, I’m going to be doing two very cool things! Tomorrow morning, May 3rd, Anna and I will be baking with Michael Chakraverty from The Great British Bake-Off on Instagram Live! Michael was one of my all-time favorite contestants and I was so sad to see him go last season! He’s been a complete sweetheart to me on social media and I’m so thrilled to get this chance. We will be streaming starting 10AM PDT!

Also, I will be joining Gaby Dunn’s Queer Live Reads next week! I’m not going to say what movie script we will be reading, and it’s actually one I’ve never seen before, but the actor whose role I’m taking is something of a comedy legend. Keep an eye on Gaby’s twitter feed!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Udder Cow! (This show probably exists, they do love bad puns and calling people “cow”)

To Be a Kid in a Seventies Chapter Book

My name is Kit, which is short for Francesca! The boys I play ball with call me “Attila,” though, ‘cause I’m a real killer!

I live in The City! Anybody who’s anybody lives in The City! (Unless they live in the country, where people act pretty much the same but say “reckon” more.)

I just started saying “damn” and “hell!” They’re the best damn words in the world! Also my Gram-Gram and I watched an old movie on TV, and now I call all my friends “sweetheart” like the old man in it!

My best friend’s name is something like Dodger or Hammy, and no one knows their real name. Not even their parents. They say I shouldn’t break into their house through the fire escape anymore, if I want babka, I need to call first.

I either have a little brother or an older sister. If I have a little brother, he’s a goody-two-shoes and the cat likes him better than me and I hate him, and he also doesn’t have a real name, just a nickname I gave him, and it’s something like Stink Face. But he’s still my constant companion, probably because he’s smarter than me and has money.

If I have a sister, she’s a real priss who likes boys, and she’s always talking on the phone about Roger or Burt, and we are banned from the public pool for fighting with the lifeguard about having to wear swim caps.

My mother is an actress or a singer. She mostly does commercials. My father either doesn’t exist, or he works as a lawyer or on Madison Avenue. We either have a lot of money, but act like we don’t, or we don’t have a lot of money, and it’s not an issue, except when it is.

My mentor’s name is Old Mac, and boy, did they set me straight about about the power of friends and a good, solid work ethic.

Once I punched Rodney Satterfield right in the nose!

Things just aren’t the same since we lost Mitchie. (Mitchie either died tragically, or moved to Connecticut.)

I still feel real bad about shoplifting those false eyelashes, even if I did give them to my mom. Maybe especially because I gave them to my mom.

Boy, I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it! My teacher’s a man this year!

I don’t smoke yet. In my grade Sheila, Francine, and Linda M. are the only girls that do. Hammy and I once stole some cigarettes from my mom when we thought she was at Analysis, but she came home and caught us and made us smoke the whole pack. Boy, did that make us ralph!

One day last March, Hammy and Diana and I split a cab across the park, but then Diana, whose mom is a Women’s Libber, told the driver he was a male chauvinist pig, and he kicked us out. Then when we were walking through the park, we found the bag of money, and well, that’s kind of how the whole thing started…

Wendy Hollingsworth is a real snot-nose. She wears a bra!

Dickie Albertson said I have too many freckles to ever be pretty, but Guy Wilkerson, my cousin Donna’s boyfriend, who’s fourteen, said I “might just turn into a good-lookin’ chick” when I get older.

Aw hell, my mom’s such a drag! I think I’ll break into one of the most guarded institutional buildings in The City and just hang out there for a while.

Old Man Papadakis who runs the diner says I’ve got swagger! So much better than Old Man Gruber the grocer, who always tells me “I oughta tan your hide!”

Can you believe Jakey-Snakey in the seventh grade says he sneaked into a dirty movie?

Summer has the most far-out clothes I’ve ever seen! But Marcy says that’s because she lives with her Gramma and Pop-Pop who feel bad for her because her mom ran away to live on a farm with hippies.

Linda S. asked if I wanna come to Puerto Rico with her this summer, but my mom said no. So I’m either gonna go to camp, or hang out on the fire escape spitting gum into people’s hair.

Somebody better tell Sharon she’s not in the club anymore.

I know all about the divorce. Even though I’m not ‘sposed to.

Mom says Old Mac is in the hospital. I bet they’ll be just fine in a couple of days!

Hell and damn, I sure hope I’m played by Jodie Foster or Kristy McNichol!

Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Great Britain’s Greatest Traumatising Public Information Films

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