The real James Ellroy

James Ellroy appeared at The Writer’s Center on Saturday night, in conjunction with George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival.

It was probably one of the most fun literary events I’ve been to in a long time.

Ellroy is certainly bigger than life, a factor made even more prominent by the fact that he is actually a big tall person. His presence literally fills the room. And when he talks, he has a loud, booming voice that modulates and riffs through the words like singing, like a sermon.

He believes, at his core, that he is doing God’s work. And who are we to argue? It’s that level of conviction that makes him such a compelling literary figure. If you know his backstory–his mother was murdered when he was a child and the murder has never been (“will never be,” in his own words) solved–it’s easy to understand his fascination both with the macabre underbelly of shiny Americana and with an unflinching ability to expose it to the harsh light of day.

And he has a charisma about him that is really difficult to ignore. The audience who came to see him were huge fans, voracious readers of his work, and knew his books inside and out. During the Q&A session that followed, Ellroy expounded on everything from the innerworkings and motivations of characters in LA Confidential to which Anne Sexton quotes are his favorite (confidential to DB: he started his talk out with “I was born doing reference work in sin;” could not help but think of you).

Although he has a big personality and a big sense of his legacy, he is also utterly approachable and a man of the people. He enjoyed “bullshitting” with the folks who came to get their books signed and, I felt, sincerely wanted to know what they thought of the event, of his new book, etc.

He also shared a fifteen minute diatribe on his loathing for the “internet invaders” who are threatening the supremacy of the printed word.

I wonder if America’s growing fascination with all things tabloid and scandalous is connected to Ellroy’s growing fame–did one feed the other? Or is this symptomatic of something else changing in American culture?

Ellroy claims that the murder of his mother exposed him to the reality that there are “two Americas.” The surface one, the one we live in, and a second, shadow America, where powerbrokers, politicians, and money circulate and determine the long-term path we’re on.

I Know What You Did Last Semester

First, the good news: Sorority Row, while gross and formulaic, was actually an enjoyable horror film.

I’m glad horror films have started to up their production values. Sorority Row is filmed with your typical handheld-shaky camera work (think Blair Witch with slightly more stability) combined with some very slick sets, lighting, and steadycam work. The opening was like a very long tracking shot through a wild and crazy party, the camera moving from room to room as we finally see one of the Theta Pis running upstairs for a special party shot leading up to the film’s premise-spurring prank. The shots and lighting are particularly strong here.

You get your usual archetypes: the sexy girl, the brainy girl, the bitchy girl, the Lindsay Lohan, the sanctimonious girl, and the vengeful girl. Something they plan goes horribly wrong and then…flash forward to graduation when someone comes along (or back?) to extract revenge.

Sorority Row plays up the suspense more than the gore, for which I was grateful. The actual killings are brief, but the film, like the killer, plays with its prey, taunting it. The plot was so obvious it felt like Braille at times, but with movies, as in with life, I find the lower I keep my expectations, the more often I am proved right–or pleasantly surprised.

One thing I have to say about the actresses in the film is that they really commit to their roles. The performances were believable–even Audrina Patridge of The Hills, who surprised me by sounding more like a human being than she does when she’s on TV. And I didn’t see one instance of rolly doe eyes when she was on screen. Good job, Audrina!

And yes, I kind of like Rumer Willis, too. Although one of the other stars sounded just like Demi Moore in St. Elmo’s Fire and I kept thinking how weird it would be to star in a movie with someone who talks like your mom.

In Defense of Irritants

If you haven’t heard yet, Perez Hilton got punched in the face.

The story is long and tawdry, but the summary is that will.i.am allegedly asked Hilton to stop poking fun at Black Eyed Peas on his blog, Hilton allegedly called him a “f—–,” and then will.i.am’s bodyguard allegedly gave him the bruise in this photo. In front of a lot of people.

There’s a thoughtful discussion of the fallout that I agree with. Perez Hilton is crude, childish, incorrigible, and unrelenting. Yes. These are all true things you can say about him. His blog is pure, unadulterated ridiculousness, shaming celebrities for innocuous (or even shameful) behavior, sometimes making fun of people he just doesn’t like.

And I say, Well, so what?

If anything, this alleged incident hasn’t really demonstrated that a large number of Americans would like to see him punched in the face. It’s demonstrated that Hilton has power. It might be dubious cultural power, but it is power serious enough to spur a bestselling recording artist to ask for some critical leniency. I might note this is the same band in which Fergie routinely pees her pants on stage, but that’s really neither here nor there.

Hilton is a kind of antihero for the gay community. Although we don’t all identify with him or the way he very publicly behaves, he’s one of the few people speaking up publicly about gay civil rights issues. He put Miss California on the spot on Prop 8 and started the chain reaction that ultimately led to the reversal of her state title. And, although it was ill-advised, perhaps his use of the gay slur “f-word” has revealed something else: that some men still consider being called the “f-word”–even by a childish, crude imp like Hilton–worthy of physical violence.

If you’ve seen the video, you know the conversation is brief, and that the punch comes immediately following Hilton’s beeped-out use of the f-word. And it’s not like the paunchy, pink-haired Hilton was so much of a physical threat that the punch was made the preempt other violence.

If you read the link above, there’s an interesting discussion of how quickly we can determine whether or not someone “deserved” the violence they received. It was an argument used against Matthew Shepard, that his advances toward the two killers created “gay panic.” Don’t even get me started on “gay panic.” It’s only a slight evolutionary step up from “Dan White ate too many twinkies and, in the sugar rush, killed Harvey Milk.”

Was this anti-gay violence?

Why We Can’t Help But Love Lauren Conrad

It’s Lauren Conrad’s last season on The Hills, they’re saying, and it seems to me a good opportunity to self-examine why I can’t seem to feel anything but love for her.

She’s pretty much everything we should hate: fabulously rich, dubiously famous, amazingly beautiful, and accepting hand-over-first the extraordinary opportunities presented to her. But despite the outward appearance and definitions, she’s also exceptionally down to earth, hard working, and sane.

Lauren Conrad and her stints on Laguna Beach and The Hills represent a few typical American fantasies. First, the obvious: that we have all the resources we need to live a lifestyle of decadence and leisure. It’s true; she does. She eats out at the hottest LA restaurants, goes out to bars and clubs regularly, and has a flattering luxurious wardrobe. She jets off to Cabo–becase, why not? Or plans an impromptu trip to Hawaii with the girls because hey, girls need to get away sometimes too.

But her narrative arc on The Hills is really a rags-to-riches story turned upside down. If all our material needs were met and all we had to focus on were giving our lives meaning, what would we turn to? Work and love, the only things missing. Lauren’s career Cinderella story found her working a highly-coveted internship at Teen Vogue, where she will forever be known as “the girl who didn’t go to Paris” when she could because she wanted to live with her alcoholic deadbeat boyfriend instead (but she went to Paris the next year, so don’t worry). She scored a hot job at fashion PR firm People’s Revolution with Kelly Cutrone, one of the best reality TV personalities ever. She works hard, she makes tons of mistakes, she learns from her mistakes, and she keeps working toward her dream.

This makes her a singularity among the rest of her friends in LA, which is the second fantasy Americans hold for themselves: that we are the sane harbor in a sea of totally fucked up people around us.

Two words: Heidi Montag. Nice girl, but whoa. She gots problems. Well, problem: Spencer Pratt. Lauren’s pal Whitney was pretty down to earth–but then again, we never saw Whitney’s life beyond Teen Vogue and People’s Revolution. On The Hills, she existed solely as Lauren’s sounding board and sage advice giver. Audrina, also a nice girl, can’t seem to stop falling for the wrong guy, and can’t say shit when she has a mouthful. Pile on Brody Jenner, with his penchant for douchbaggery, getting thrown in jail for fighting, and chickenhawking young ladies and you’ve got quite a mix. Oh, and Stephanie Pratt, who, like a mosquito, knows exactly what to buzz in people’s ears.

As she mixes with everyone, Lauren is our touchstone, generally unflappable, her eyes bulging out at the antics around her the same way ours were. She flatly confronts the lunacy around her to the people she has issues with, and she avoids gossiping beyond the harmless or inane. She’s also a great friend, always there when people need her–even Heidi sometimes.

Ah, Lauren…what will I watch when you’re gone? Here’s to hoping you’ll follow Whitney to Diane von Furstenberg in NYC, where you can bitchslap the smarm off Olivia’s face and take your rightful place: on my television and in my fashion fantasies.

She’s the One

Let’s just say it: I’m obsessed with Martha Stewart’s tweets.

I’m getting the hang of Twitter. Slowly. Now that it updates my Facebook status, I like it a lot better because I’m not duplicating efforts–I hate duplicating efforts.

I love following (note: this is not the same as stalking) Martha. Today she’s traveled from Hollywood to the Texas panhandle where she’s touring some kind of factory:

“feedlots everywhere, 66 miles from new mexico, 100 miles from okla. beef, oil, tilt rotors, bomb disablement all here.”

I imagine Martha driving solitary down a two-lane stretch of dusty Texas highway (I mean, next to her driver), tweeting as the existential experience of America’s nothingness moves her.

This made me love her all over again. Oh Lindsay we love you get up.