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Summer 2005

Table Talk

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Jane Vandenburgh

Okay, I'm a moral-of-the-story type, so I take a book to the movies in case Kevin Costner starts doing something as inane as riding his horse through a rain of bullets with his arms outstretched like Jesus. That way I can go sit in the lobby and quietly read.

But I liked Alexander Payne's Election and was willing to stop dwelling on Sideways until folks started forming enthusiastic spit bubbles at the sides of their mouths and calling it "Shakespearean" in print. I know people love this movie and hate it when you don't, but Paul Giamatti's wine-spittoon-Xanax-swilling scene is just not "Shakespearean" by me.

Now, to not love this movie out loud is slightly odious of me, I'm given to understand. There are only a few who don't, a cult of two or three, and we seem to have committed a small act of cultural treason, as if those of us with higher educations better love this film or Hollywood people will never allow anyone to put words like "Robbe-Grillet" or "conundrum" or "plight" in any movie ever again.

What don't I like? Its lack of verisimilitude. And that its morals stink.

"Jane," my friend T.J. says, "did it ever occur to you that all it's trying to do is be a movie? That you don't have to go to the Dark Side over it?"

"And some of us don't even go to the movies for verisimilitude?" Heather adds.

"We don't?" I'm amazed. Everywhere I go and in everything I do I'm always looking for verisimilitude. I mean this: rocks, maps, street signs.

"Want verisimilitude?" Loren asks. He works at NPR and has been to Baghdad three times in the last fourteen months and he's frankly had it with verisimilitude. We're in the Cineplex, he's got me by the elbow and is pointing, "Take that right, then the second left, and you'll find Hotel Rwanda. That's verisimilitude. Otherwise you can come in here with us if you promise not to talk."

"Can I talk during the trailers?"

"You can talk all you want," he says, "but I'm not sitting by you."

I have only one friend left who will sit by me in movies but she lives in L.A., and she hates movies because she works in The Industry.

Right, sure, fine. I'm totting up my items on my note cards, which I intend to bring up over dinner. These friends of mine who won't sit with me in movies and I are going to eat after our romp in Wine Country.

First: What's up with Alexander Payne and the Mungy Thing?

Mungy is—as I've come to believe—what passes, in the world according to Payne, for verisimilitude: all rooms look tossed, squalid, drawers askew, everything covered with random items. All surfaces must be nicked, tacky, gunked-up, posted with formaldehyde warnings.

I first noticed the Mungy Thing in About Schmidt—it's meant to signify, I believe, something poetic about everything's being from Wal-Mart nowadays and nothing's ever lasting, but also points toward the transience of female sexuality, and microbes in hot tubs, and merlot, fatness, bad food, poor physical hygiene, general lowlifeness.

It's a style, an anti-Martha Stewart-ing, the world as boy's dorm room. In the verisimilitude of Alexander Payne, boys will be boys until they find the good clean smart girl who comes along and chats intelligently about the transience of the pinot grape as she folds all the laundry.

And it's the Munge Factor that brings us, after all, to the question of sexual intimacy.

Here's my question: About how many people do you think you personally get to go to bed with in your personal life with your personal body before you become nothing but a shit-heel fuck-artist and sex stops meaning much more than peeing or brushing your teeth?

So we're together on this, right? That the Thomas Haden Church character isn't necessarily damned to hell, but he does have something the itsiest bit wrong with his character, something that can be uninterestingly diagnosed in the DSM-IV and is very hard to treat? And that Jack's getting his face hammered by a motorcycle helmet, five, six times might not be exactly the punishment that fits the crime, that being his having to endure his own existence?

Now we all know guys like this and the movie's only trying to be a movie, Jane, and don't take the High Shakespearean Road—it just goes by Buddy Pic rules.

Okay, just a road movie, pre-wedding frat boy romp, Very Bad Things (minus dead hooker), so forth, lots of drunken driving, drunken dialing, drunken wine ordering with the state of inebriation strangely somehow coming and going, and the eating of someone's idea of California cuisine, food oddly munged up and blighted by that burnt-light look that derives from a Wine Flu hangover so intense you have to keep one eye closed in order to see anything.

Wine. Food. Golf. Sex.

There we have it, right? These are the Four Precepts and they are equal.

Golf equals Sex equals Money?

Oh, yeah, money. We forgot money: that all this is being paid for by the squalid little friend—and this really gets me, that Miles is the character we're supposed to like!—with money stolen from his mother's underpants drawer.

Hate to go to the Dark Side over this, Alexander, but this is some dark and mungy shit, man, that's gone too long unexamined.

The mom of Miles gets drunk, falls asleep on the couch in the living room with her skirt hiked up and cartoons on the TV. There's a tincture of squalor here, enough munge that she evidently deserves to be stolen from by our hero, her lying, entitled son.

But the clean blonde girl with socks folded and put away in their proper drawers in her unmunged room, with the advanced degree and a vocabulary poetic enough to whisper to Miles in his own soulful (pinot) language? Someone deep enough to GET the poor sweaty-palmed, poor-postured tenderhearted Miles?

Sensitive Miles gets the good blonde girl?

Sorry, guys, but this would never happen.

Know why? He's too self-involved and drunk to be any good in bed.

Also too self-involved and drunk to have written a decent book. Know how I know this is not a decent book? It's about ten times too long. And forgive me but the man's dishonest, remember? A lying, drunken thief?

Yup, sorry to bring up this tiny smattering of verisimilitude but like bug splat on the windshield of the Heaven that is a Wine Country so huge it's evidently annexed Buellton, human beings still don't physiologically get to drink ten twenty fifty bottles of wine like it's Tuesday Tuesday Tuesday and not get falling down shitfaced drunk. And while we're on the subject of vast amounts of stuff, would someone explain who picked up the check on this? Did someone run a tab?

Costs money to live like that. That, in the words of David Mamet, is why they call it money.

But this is what really bothers me about Sideways, now being touted as both a comedy and the best movie of the year: It purports to say something high-minded about culture while containing within it an odious idea.

That a teacher of English to eighth graders is less valuable to society (and less of a man to women) than some would-be schlubbish hack of a novelist whose book in manuscript is way bigger than the Manhattan phone book. Now, I know a lot of would-be novelists and trust me, Scarlet, most of their books aren't worth the wine swilled while writing them.

But the man teaching English? The man who gives an eighth-grade boy a good book to read? Think of the possibilities: The Heart of Darkness? Billy Budd? In Pharaoh's Army? A volume of Langston Hughes? A drunk is a drunk is a drunk but the man who puts a book into the hands of a boy might be saving that boy's life.

That one—the man teaching English to eighth graders—is my heart's prince.



Jane Vandenburgh’s The Architecture of the Novel will be out in 2006.
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