Ebertfest 2005: Murderball

Murderball, about Olympic-level quadriplegic rugby players both on- and off-court, screens to much ballyhoo on Ebertfest’s second day, and deservedly so. As Ebert says in the post-movie discussion, it’s a complete film that’s at once a backstage story, a reconciliation story, a rehab story, and a competition story about the US team's rivalry with the Canadian team coach, former teammate and notorious hardass Joe Soares.

The first scene, in which American player Mark Zupan silently changes into his rugby gear in a small bedroom, sets the tenor: suspenseful, modest, unflinching. It is the most physically exposed any of the players will appear, but no details are ever spared, from the varying levels of disability of members on the team — one guy lost all his limbs to a childhood disease — to whether and how they can schtup. (Answer: mostly yes, and with some rather hot tamales). And though it’s a real sports movie, complete with ESPN-style action photography often shot from the height of the chairs, the stakes are much higher and very different. It’s not as if just playing is winning, Special Olympics style. In their armored chairs, these guys are cyborg gladiators, part men, part machines, and 100 percent out for blood. But each of them has already conquered so much internal mishegos in order to come to terms with their physical limitations that they radiate a Buddha-like equanimity right below the surface of their boys-will-be-boys bluster.

The exception is Joe, the 50something Team Canada coach who may be the most decorated quad rugby player to ever grace the court. Hailing from Portugal by way of Providence, Rhode Island, he’s anger incarnate, snarling at his violin-playing son who worships the ground he rolls on and who lovingly dusts the wall of trophies he has collected. Jargon-spouting, only unintentionally humorous, Joe is grimly set on besting the US team since he sued them for retiring him when he got older. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro pull no punches when it comes to depicting Joe’s real disability: a one-minded Massholia that (as always) trumps all other cultural and life experiences and that he is forced professionally and physically to confront. We see how, on his anniversary dinner, he responds to his long-suffering wife’s toast to him with a toast to Team Canada. We’re even privy to the operating room when his heart is literally surgically opened.

Joe’s emotional self-reckoning — check out the violin awards section he eventually adds to his trophy wall — dovetails with a rapprochement between Zupan and his lifelong best friend who, when they’re both 18, unintentionally, drunkenly pitches him out of the back of his truck and permanently paralyzes him. Neither storyline take a backseat to the actual face-off between the Canadian and American teams in Athens. Here’s where Murderball most sharply veers from more typical sports documentaries. The big match is captured with significantly less fanfare than is its emotional impact on the defeated players, who crumple into girlfriends’ and family members’ arms in painfully long shots. If winning isn’t everything, transcending failure is. And if there’s one thing these boys know, it’s how to get back up again and defeat emotional and physical obstacles just when most think they’d roll over and play dead.

At the question-and-answer period following the screening, Zupan and Joe join the filmmakers and Ebert. It’s refreshing to see that the feel-good post-coital of the documentary hasn’t altered either player. Zupan (who wheeled impatiently out of Playtime halfway through the screening night before) projects the same barely suppressed bemusement that he shows off-court during the film. He also still clearly loathes Joe, who, as onscreen, is loathsome in a totally likeable way. While the coach grandstands in bumper-sticker speak, Zupan can’t help but grimace.

Team Canada has axed Joe to his considerable confusion: “I don’t know what those guys wanted!” he tells the crowd with a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. When asked whether he'd hire Benedict Arnold Joe back on as US coach, Zupan says, “My first reaction is no." Joe’s smile temporarily tightens, how much his olive-branching to Zup is a job appeal suddenly revealed.

But both guys are united in their frankness, especially when it comes to negotiating their disabilities. In an especially good question, Ebert asks the players how the qualification system plays out. In the film, it’s established that each player is awarded a number of points based on how able-bodied he is: only eight points are allowed per team on court at a time. The bizarre result, Joe and Zupan acknowledge at the discussion, is that these players who spend so much of their life transcending their disabilities have to temporarily play up their weaknesses. Not to mention that, as the film also explores, committing to quad rugby typically only can occur once someone has psychologically eliminated the possibility that he's going to walk again. A strange dance between acceptance and rejection of limitations.

As for how to approach the disabled, “It’s always better to ask questions,” Joe establishes. Zup takes it a step further. “If someone asks me how I'm different, I say, 'I’m shorter than you. That’s the big difference. But you hit me, man, I’ll hit you back.'”

Every Murderball review is bound to deploy the word "balls" in one way or another, but it ain’t about balls. It’s about heart.


Ebertfest 2005: Playtime

Leaving New York City’s two-week window of unhateful weather was tough cookies already, but almost as soon as we set foot in Champaign-Urbana, thunder clapped and great bolts of lightening danced. It was worth it to watch festival heavies tread gingerly on the fine rugs at the university president’s house rather than in his garden, where the opening ceremonies were set to take place. Between the wall-to-wall carpeting and the abundance of white folks, I could've sworn I was back in my high school boyfriend’s rec room; a powerful craving for grape soda and French kissing seized me. Instead, we gnawed on prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and chatted with feminist professors before we crashed through the rain to catch the opening screening.

Not shockingly, Tati's Playtime is an entirely different experience when screened in 70mm on the jam-packed theater’s enormous screen, introduced by a real-life organ. Truly a silent movie with dialogue, the few lines spoken — and the myriad languages in which they are uttered — are irrelevant as the story is conveyed so clearly nonverbally. Following a host of mid-‘60s characters from the airport through one day in a sound-stage Paris, the film’s protagonist is the human race itself as seen through a kind of National Geographic lens. As highly stylized as a Buster Keaton jig cut out of modernist sharp corners and floppy flowered hats, every moment recalls the very droll mis-en-scenes buried in more acclaimed, more narrative-driven narrative films of the same era. Imagine, for example, if the whole tone of Breakfast at Tiffany’s took its cue from the rhapsodic party scene with the heiresses, the vamps, the barking agents, the woman laughing, the woman crying, the treacherously long cigarette holder, and Cat prowling matter-of-factly amidst people’s fur stoles. At that, imagine if life did.

In the discussion that followed, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum revealed to Ebert that he briefly worked for Tati. Since typically working for your heroes sours you on them forever, just the fact that Rosenbaum still trips over himself in praise for the filmmaker is momentous. “You had to be aware that everything that crossed his path made its way into his movies,” he said.

Rosenbaum also spoke of a sadness about the isolation and sterility of modernity that he felt permeated the film, particularly through the use of architectural details like doors and windows: The sharp lines of the airport and city streets give way to the wild curves of a later nightclub scene, where social boundaries are metaphorically and physically scotched. I’m not so sure. An existentialist joy imbues each frame, a love of humans in all their vanities and ungainliness. Tati embraces his characters the way a parent unconditionally loves his errant child.

Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival 2005 Overview

Never mind that it took trekking to the big-shouldered, big-burgered land of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, for Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival April 20-24. And never mind the perversity of jumping NYC ship just as Tribeca reared its overhyped head. A chronic case of cinennui has been kicked, and all it took was four days of Ebert-selected movies screened in a dilapidated, grand theater for 1,000 cinenthusiasts, mulled over slowly and surely in long question-and-answer periods, aided and abetted by Long-Tall Sally shakes and steak(burgers). Ebertfest 2005 was the cinema studies grad school experience we all wish we’d actually had.

The premise of the festival is brilliant in its simplicity: films that Roger Ebert really digs. Initially, the festival solely focused on unjustly overlooked films, but as this was its seventh year, the category of unjustly overlooked was bound to slide into semi-deservedly overlooked. Better instead to uphold movies that deserve a closer look, a decision this year’s programming reflected, and which Ebert himself acknowledged before each screening. (A festival name change looms if only so he can sidestep the definition song and dance in years to come.) So the bill of fare: Playtime; Murderball; Saddest Music in the World; Heart in the World; After Dark, My Sweet; Yesterday; The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Baadasssss; The Secret of Roan Inish; Primer; Map of the Human Heart; Me and You and Everyone We Know; Taal. Crazy good.

Dave Poland, Lord of the Hot Button and Movie City News hooked me up but swell in the University Union where all the Swells were residing, complete with a green VIP pass to the green room, where junior mints and wacky taffy flowed like wine. After a Coney Island ride of a flight, he met me at the airport and immediately greeted Jason Patric, Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum and numerous (significant) others whom I should’ve already recognized on my tiny plane. A powerschmoozer I am not.

In the mornings, a kitchen klatch convened in — no joke — the student union to talk shop. Bad coffee and sugary scones breeds more cinemaspeak. Kubrick became the Elijah at the table and DP offered his Eyes Wide Shut rationalization thesis. My alternathesis — that Kubrick’s films were unremittingly remote due to being unremittingly male — landed about as well as Ishtar; those who agreed expressed their sentiments out of earshot from the rest. The first day I also picked a fight about the new pope with Toronto Film Festival pope Dusty Cohl, who graciously pardoned me after a beat. Someday soon I will learn to keep mum till my blood sugar properly spikes.

Steak n Shake, a local franchise founded, no kidding, in Normal, Illinois, turned out to be the Peach Pit of the festival. The festival was small enough so that every night after screenings, a crew collected under the fluorescent lights to talk movies past, present and future. It was enormous whipped-cream-topped strawberry shakes (Ebert’s wife Chaz bought me one of my own the first night, and I got hooked) and two-tiered Swiss burgers with the likes of Guy Maddin, Jason Patric, Mario Van Peebles, Rosenbaum, DP, and the Murderball crew. No late-night drinking here; the drugs of choice were sugar, dairy, and good old red meat here in the Midwest. Boozy confessions replaced by giddy, sugar-bred free associations. The hangovers, however, were just as bad.

Neither of us were able to stay for the whole festival as seders called from the really big-shouldered land of Chitown, but a breakdown of highlights that we encountered — cinematic and otherwise — follows. Should we have been able to stay longer, no doubt director John Sayles and performance artist Miranda July would have been real boons. I’ve heard only amazing buzz on July’s new feature, which I'm disgruntled to have missed again, and, well, Sayles is Sayles, Silver City or not.


Freelancers: Unite Your Freewheeling Asses!

I'm Little Blogger on the Prairie this week, looking at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Festival and suffering from wonky old-school Internet connex. Having a fine old time otherwise — which I'll launch into shortly — but wanted to point all and sundry to Yancey Strickler's call to freelancers. It's time we freelancing writers and editors really organized ourselves. Working Today and other freelancers' unions provide us health insurance but not much else, and recent experiences have brought home the fact that we all need to step up our support for each other. Check out Yancer's proposal, and email either of us with idears please.

Also, while I'm in the bidness of touting Mr. Strickler's bloggy, please note his homage to R&B divadom. Best line: "R&B was once the milky cleavage of a heaving bosom wailing love notes to the wind; now it's a navel flatter than the Platygæan Hypothesis getting bossed around by some scrub in a tank-top who's at a loss on how to love anything other than a girl." Yes, yes, y'all.


Sloppy Seconds DVDs (The Incredibles, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spanglish, I Heart Huckabees, Sideways)

Yancey’s had flu for a week and I’m Barely Employed Bertha (rolls right off the tongue, don’t it?) so time together has become a bed-in of the asexual variety. Since we’re a. products of our (respective) generations and b. not John and Yoko, no revolutions have been planned nor questions of a deep philosophical nature deliberated. Instead, we’ve been on the sacrificial lamb, drowning our snot and sorrows in new DVD releases to spare others the horror of deservedly deleted scenes. Oh, such lofty superheroes we in pajamas be.

The theme: Love and Life in the Disappointing Face of Mortality. Or: When We Realize Even Superheroes Aren’t Superheroes. All movies I saw last year, and with the exception of Sideways, all movies I loved when first I saw them. The test, then: Did they make us feel sicker and sadder in our time of woe? Or (marginally less pathetic): Were they better the second time round?

The Results

Turns out Sideways is an ideal renter, though I balked at joining its fan club when it came out last fall. Former TV star Thomas Haden Church’s gummy schtick fares better when returned to its rightful size screen. You can linger in the sun-dappled Tuscany-by-Cali wine country with the time you’ll save after skipping the split-screen montages, and you can piece together Paul Giamatti’s best performance by editing out the too-long sadsack sequences. (Everything after they return from wine country is overkill.)

As for the extras, they confirm what before I’d only suspected: Alexander Payne is a smug prick. Most DVDs include deleted scenes without much fanfare from directors, possibly because they’re embarrassed by what typically amounts to dirty underwear, but Payne precludes the whole of them with an enormous typed essay that fills three different screens. Not to mention that he introduces each individual deleted scene (each duller than its predecessor) with a loving homage in the same shitty font. It’s a testament to his fairly exceptional wit that his films are as good as they are, given that he’s clearly never learned that art flourishes when you kill your babies. Hey, Payne, KILL ALL YOUR BABIES. Consider him told.

Ready for umpteenth bad lead regarding this flick? I heart I Heart Huckabees even more the second time around.

Everything lives inside that movie that I could ever want.: french farce; ‘60s psychedelia; big, hard spiritual questions about meaning and responsibility tossed into the air like a pizza pie that never flops. J’heart heart heart Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as the good-parent existentialist detectives (a sort of reprise of Tomlin’s eye-twinkling acid mommy in director Russell’s Flirting with Disaster); Jude Law as the smarmy fuck we all know he prolly really is (LA gossip was he fired his agent and manager after Chris Rocked him at la Oscars); Marky Mark earnest as you want him to be, rasping out critiques of capitalism and petroleum use and existentialism with all the indignation of a nine-year-old boy straddling a dirt bike, which, incidentally, he does; Jason Schwartzman, so hangdog highlarious as the floundering environmentalist that his Rushmore performance will never be dismissed as a fluke ever again; and, may it please the court, Naomi Watts putting her normal stridency to good use as the former model slouching toward enlightenment in overalls and a lil bonnet and a mud-smeared face. If only all movies could hit you on as many levels as this one. It manages to hit all the stages any spiritually thirsty Westerner undergoes on a quest for enough peace of mind to tolerate the mundanity of the mall — from the initial revelation that everything is connected, to the dawning that pain’s inherent to being alive, to a reconciliation of that whole process. Only, the journey is rendered shorter and smarter, which is what movies are supposed to do for us.

As for the extras, note in particular the extra Huckabees commercials. I never liked her before, but I kind of have a hard-on for Watts now. Girlfriend is (a) good sport.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was better first time round. The ‘50s-style science fiction still melds well with the philosophy MA jokes; Winslet’s performance is still only bested by Imelda Staunton’s Vera Drake in the annals of 2004; and it’s still the best Charlie Kaufman movie yet, which is saying rather a lot. Sunshine is a fantastically original movie that has a heart rather than a navel. But on another viewing, clever occasionally slides into cloying, complacent, and other c words. Second time in, it’s harder to ignore Jim Carrey’s selfish performance, in which he sucks up all the air in his scenes. And once you know the story’s outcome, the plotline devolves into Jack and Chrissy land occasionally. Truth told, so stir-crazy was I by the time the film itself finally ended, I didn’t even watch the extras.

Spanglish was the most underrated movie of 2004 and the extras go a long way toward suggesting why. The movie as an event proved an interesting case study of how critics can sink a movie. (Sideways reviews showed how critics could make a movie, as Times critic AO Scott pointed out.) Its reviews tanked, mostly focusing on what was perceived as Téa Leoni’s gross caricature of an insecure wife, and director James L. Brooks' cultural imperialism despite his obvious good intentions. The fact that a very sharp, very decent movie had been made was overlooked.

There’s not a bad performance in the lot, including those from Leoni, a real 40s-screwball movie dame, and Cloris Leachman, boozily teaching torch songs to her young grandson. Even man-of-the-house Sandler lays aside his idiot savant mugging for this film, though the good cop-bad cop dynamics between him and Leoni grated, as did the zero sexual chemistry between man-of-the-house Sandler and Paz Vega as his Latina maid. Watching it at home meant I could hide in the kitchen during their love scenes; it's embarrassing how Sandler’s not enough of a grownup to summon a response in or for a woman as formidable as Vega.

Brooks’ roots lie in some of the best sitcoms ever made, and the weaknesses and strengths of Spanglish betray those beginnings: an immediate emotionality, snapdragon dialogue, strong but strangely two-dimensional characters, and a tendency to be pat — as if conflicts needed to be wrapped up before the commercial break. When we watched the deleted scenes, Yancey drawled out: “I can see why he’d want to delete scenes that showed other sides to the characters.” Fair enough. Rare are the deleted scenes that suggest a far better movie ended up on the cutting floor. But then again, I’ve not watched the Gangs in New York DVD.

Also of note: a special featurette on how to make chef Sandler’s egg sandwich. Practical!

I saw The Incredibles at Thanksgiving with my sister and her boyfriend, and we girls who’ve only studied Spanish kept whispering “incroyable!” in a French accent over and over. It was too good to compliment in only one language.

It was nice to take in the movie itself again, not surprisingly as director Brad Bird made Iron Giant, the only other animated movie worth watching over and over. But we were much more obsessed with the extras, which took more than an hour to watch in full. Included is a ‘50s style cartoon of the Mr. Incredible and Frozone, which you can watch with Mr. Incredible and Frozone’s commentary (Craig T. Nelson and Samuel Jackson, respectively; sweet Georgia Brown). Also included are “cast” bloopers such as when Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets too elastic — she's just so wacky — and a vignette narrated by author Sarah Vowell who, bizarrely, provides the voice for Violet, about the similarities between her character and Abraham Lincoln. This DVD's comedy is as layered as, well, Arrested Development. Incroyable.


All Hail the Queens (Beauty Shop, Miss Congeniality 2, Destiny's Child, The Ashlee Simpson Show)

I’ve got female camaraderie on the brain and so, it seems, does everyone else. In researching the the Mitford sisters (amazing in their own right), I've also stumbled upon The Furious Lesbian, the badly titled (and rendered) biography of Mercedes de Acosta, a humorectomized if bold-as-love playwright and dyke at a time when most people didn’t even know the word lesbian, let alone utter it. A pining sadsack overall, de Acosta did know to hold real salons for the ladies, a tradition that should be immediately resuscitated — and not just on L Word nights.

On a more prosaic level, girls are doing something besides preening for the shall-we-say proverbial male gaze over at MTV. In the constant loop running of The Ashlee Simpson Show, Jessica Simpson freaks out not on behalf of her shoes nor her circus dog Daisy but her little miss sis botching up the Orange Bowl. "Oh, gawwwd. Take care of my sister! Please take care of her." The most selfless and certainly the most authentic moment captured on video of this decade's worst Daddy's Little Girl, it renders Barbie nearly human. (Nearly, mind you; there's a lot of plastic on that carcass).

Then there's the Destiny's Child song, "Girl." The video is sure-fire. Open-eyed and earnest, Beyonce's a human embodiment of lipgloss: jailbait-style sexy despite that too-slick veneer. She's one of the few singers working the Hot97 circuit right now who actually sings from her belly rather than through her nose: Her "Work It Out" holds up against the finest her R&B mothers ever let loose. Plus she still sings with Destiny’s Child even though she’s clearly making enough bucks on her own. The video itself, a Sex and the City homage to their enduring friendship, breaks me up even when I'm rushing in the morning. Decked out to the nines, the three prowl the city and counsel each other on their lousy relationships in that always-affecting minor key they sing in so gustily. Some lyrics:

Take a minute girl, come sit down
And tell us what's been happening
In your face I can see the pain
Don't you try to convince us that you're happy

Girl, you don't have to be hiding
Don't you be ashamed to say he hurt you
I'm Your Girl, You're My Girl, We're Your Girls
Want You To Know That We Love You.

This time round, it's the boys who are but mere eye candy, secondary to the primary relationship that's being serenaded: the girls' friendship. Um, is this MTV?

Actually, these moments speak to a little women's-women trend found on mainstream movie screens right now, too. Take the largely unanticipated success of the Queen Latifah vehicle Beauty Shop, all about a you-know-what and starring and produced by Dana Owens herself. Or the anticipated but largely undeserving success of that piece of you-know-what Miss Congeniality 2, starring and produced by the Sandra Bullock, the reigning queen of the normally endearingly bad movie.

Congeniality is by all rights too lousy to waste much time discussing. Suffice it to say FBI Agent Bullock finds herself with a bad-ass partner (Regina King, who almost emerges unscathed from this clunker), and hijinks and shenanigans ensue. Also William Shatner is involved and the climactic scene takes place in a pirate theme park. Ye gods. Note please that pirates and William Shatner rank lower (or is that higher?) than stand-up in the comedy hierarchy of crap.

Beauty Shop is a much more entertaining way to fritter away two hours. Alicia Silverstone sports a wicked bad hillbilly accent and drops it like it's hot; Alfre Neward drops Maya Angelou lyrics and African fabrics while she fries hair; Kevin Bacon drops an Austrian accent as a stylist adding a whole new family tree to his six degrees of separation (soooo much easier to connect him to Snoop Dog now). Latifah herself is easy-peezy as an Atlanta-based stylist who opens her own shop with a loan teased out of a follicly challenged bank officer's split ends. She brings along her high-end white clients to her black neighborhood and supports a musically talented daughter's high-priced education while she rescues her shiftless sister-in-law from a slide into street-walking. Oh, and she conducts as an afterthought a highly unconvincing love affair with jazz pianist Djimon Hounsou. (It's always highly unconvincing when Latifah kisses boys.)

Weirdly, both movies buckle under a burden rarely found in Hollywood vehicles: overearnestness. True, the writing stinks to the high heavens of the unmistakable fragrance of Scripts By Committee 101. (Motto: Let no plot device remain unturned.) But the real problem stems from how every scene doggedly imparts some kind of lesson a la Davey and Goliath,though they're hardly lessons little Davey might deliver. More like Gals! Women friendships deserve loyalty! and Hey, sister, men aren't the be-all-end-all! or, best of all, Mentoring younger girls is fun!

I complain not about the lessons, only that they are so unsubtly delivered. Nor do I complain that the men in these features are mostly auxiliary; it's absolutely refreshing for women's friendships, autonomy and (dare I say it) solidarity to live at the center of not one but two films gracing the malls across the US right now. Five minutes of the rarified drek of Sin City, in which testosterone overload (and Tarantino and Rodriguez' self-indulgence) distorts every character, even the females, reminds us how a few too many good intentions aren't that bad a thing these days. (Why exactly are cats like Tarantino and Rodriguez counted as edgy when they so gleefully reinforce the status quo?)

In sooth, very few movies or TV shows like Beauty Shop exist. As pat as its storyline is, that this film roates around a widowed black mom supporting her family by launching her own business successfully and treating her employees, neighbors, and (most shockingly) her mother-in-law with love and respect is fairly revolutionary. Yes, it's the black movie equivalent of vanilla — the film's biggest dramatic conflict comes in the handy package of a beautician shop inspector — but the point driven home over and over is more piquant: that the true gauge of female success is the degree of integrity she preserves daily. Maybe, if we get adjusted to that idea, it will eventually transcend being such a gimmick that it subsitutes for actual plot. (The few other mainstream movies that convey similar messages — Legally Blonde, the Where's-Waldo lesbian drama Fried Green Tomatoes — smack of the same saccarine.)

But as long as social (and familial) conditioning still dicates that when the going gets tough, the tough collapse into the nearest sperm donator’s arms like a 19th century maiden with the vapors, and so long as the merging of a financial object and a sexual one still masquerades as valid grounds for marriage, such doggedly earnest movies prove useful anyway. No matter how kind and patient your sweetheart is, boy or girl, there’s no beating the strings-free support of your long-time girlfriends, the ones who’ve witnessed you pick yourself up from a fall enough times to be able to remind you that you can do it again — and to dispense that all-elusive uncomplicated hug. Short of that, if all your girls' time is now claimed by the likes of little people and husband people, apparently right now there are them screens, silver and small alike.

I clamor to them.


Andrea Dworkin 1946-2005

Talk about ass and kick ass, one of feminism's fiercest moms has died. A serious, unwavering polemicist, Dworkin was a hard ass with a hard line — sometimes too hard for this '70s baby — but one that's always been sorely needed and will be sorely missed.

Here's to you, crazy lady.


My Inner Norma Rae

For the bulk of my working life, I've been a freelancer. Early on, I realized I didn't dig having the parameters of my life dictated by fluorescent lights, cubicle walls, petty middlemen, and rush-hour traffic, and figured there had to be a better way to make a buck. I'd paid my way through college by working as an artist's model and as a waitress, and swore that I'd only work jobs that in some way made use of my degree once I received it. I've always kept to that, and as a result have been a freelance editor to pay my bread and butter ever since I quit working at the garment workers' union — which, as it turned out, treated its employees roughly as badly as the errant shops that we were always laboring to organize.

But ain't that always the way?

Truth be told, I don't really dig editorial work that much anymore, at least the kind I'm doing still. For in order to remain free-lance, I've persistently avoided any upward mobility. Eventually, if you're good enough at your job, you get offered a higher, steadier position. I've never taken one simply because the claustrophobia of someone else dictating the tenor of five days of every week far outweighs the allure of a regular paycheck. Not to mention that managing editor gigs and the like always entail a level of bureaucracy to which I'm hardly suited.

The result, of course, is that I still do a hell of a lot of copy editing to pay my bills. And the more I work as an actual writer, the more this editing feels like a distraction that I resent, one too close to my actual work to not drain it in some way. I slog on, because after a decade, it's the only way I know to make a quick buck. Back in the day, I mostly separated church and state by editing architectural publications, and I still don't ever edit at publications for which I wish to write seriously. I'm convinced no one trusts the creativity of someone who's carefully excised their extra commas. Now I tend to work on publications in the entertainment industry that keep me informed about the shite that I write about and occasionally provide useful contacts.

For the last few years, I've edited in various capacities a television magazine owned by a well-endowed if nefarious company that can certainly foot my bills. The work is mostly easy and typically relevant to my own field, and if the prose is too slick and the office politics totally dysfunctional, I can keep mum since I know I'm only there a few weeks at a time. More importantly, it's financed my life as it's paid a very handsome rate.

So what do you do when it suddenly doesn’t?

For the last few months, I've not been paid by those guys. I know what happened: My overworked boss forgot to submit the invoices for my compensation. And once he realized it, he was loath to shuttle my paperwork through because he was loath to highlight how irresponsible his actions were, either to me or to his supervisor in turn. The result of that small act of selfishness has been that I've been unable to pay my rent let alone go out for dinner. Not getting paid for two months of work has meant that I've had to clear through my scanty savings, borrow money, impair business relationships based on the good faith that I pay my own bills on time, worry my parents who are old enough so they deserve to not worry about their oldest daughter. My life has been on hold.

As a freelancer, you always do have to be on your best behavior. If you prove too much trouble, you can simply not be rehired come next month. It's certainly not in your best interest to roll heads if you want to keep a gig, and until I wasn't get paid for my work, I had no intention of letting go of this cushy situation. I've been practically the only freelance writer I know who carries absolutely no debt. So in my repeated inquiries, I tried my best to be super polite, all while my savings account has steadily dwindled.

Being a woman who already can be perceived (and lo! I hate this expression) as a ball breaker simply by the virtue of taking up a fair amount of space is also a factor. The only way to compensate for being clear and outspoken when you're working under a male boss is to be not only funny but deferential. In other words, I sweeten my shit up at work.

But when, by Friday, an empty mailbox yawned at me once again, it was clear to me that I'd essentially been working my money job for no money like a stone-cold sucker. By then, I couldn't breathe for lack of finances. If it endures long enough, the shitty feeling of being super broke when you owe and are owed nags at the back of your head even during sex. It was time to step up the tone and do whatever it took to get paid.

During the process of then going over his head, sweet-talking the secretaries at corporate and leaving frank messages on his superior's voicemail, I realized how little my boss had actually done to take care of the problem. Eventually he faxed in my invoice, but he only acknowledged to me that he hadn't done so before when he knew I already knew. God forbid he of his own volition request that accounting expedite the month period it typically takes to process paperwork. Why? Because it didn’t really matter to him that his small carelessness had derailed my whole life unless I made it inconvenient for him.

It came down to me saying I wouldn't turn in any of the stories that I'd assigned on the magazine's behalf, that I wouldn't let any freelancer who I'd trained for them work there again, to writing a shaming letter that would have made George Bush admit he was wrong before they they agreed to fedex my check (and you know corporations can always expedite a check when need be). It came down to me having to reach far back in my bag of tricks and access the shite I learned from the garment workers to get my dollars. It came down to me standing on a table, essentially, with a big sign that read "UNION."


As freelancers, we writers and editors work our asses off for jobs that never grant us insurance, let alone bonuses or vacations. The least these people can do is pay us without making us jump through hurdles. Yet how many of us get paid as regularly or as well as we should? And how carefully do we always broach that subject, fearful as we are of biting (read: irritating) the hand that ostensibly feeds us? Even now, after being treated like a subhuman for months, I'm wary of posting these comments.

I keep thinking on it. I do these stupid small-time jobs so I can finance the rest of my endeavors. If they end up instead depleting me to the point that I can't get anything else done — and note how infrequently I've updated this blog in the last few weeks — what's the point?

The point is that freelancing as both an editor and a writer has still meant that I could take off on an ill-advised trip when I wanted to, that I could still work out in the middle of the day or have a long lunch with a dear old friend, that I could sometimes stay up till 4 am or get up at 4 am to write. It meant that I didn't have to answer ultimately to anyone but myself. It meant that I could write about what I wish. But what if, as right now, I can't sleep let alone write because I'm so worried about how I'm going to pay my electric bill in the next few months? What if I now feel like I'm dancing awkwardly between self-respect and solvency?

We seem to think these days that unions are deeply outdated. We white-collar kids don’t even know our labor rights, let alone insist they be enforced. Most everybody gets screwed in some way by the new companies that look impressive as hell on our resumes. I've written and edited for I don't know how many hipper-than-thou pubs over the last few years that employ college grads for diddly, make us work weekends and nights without any benefits, let alone overtime, pay us when it suits them, drop deadlines like bombs, and remind us how disposable we are when we utter the slightest peep. Email only worsens things, as there's no excuse in employers' eyes to not constantly be on call. Most companies, truth be told, should be called LaborViolations.com rather than whatever oblique wordplay they use as their monikers. And all we do is complain over overpriced cocktails without much recourse.

There's not much room for, you should forgive the term, true bohemia in our current climate even though it's necessary to create truly original art. I never want to make a ton of cash; I don't give a fuck about working for all the glossy publications that treat copy like mere captions for celebrity pics. I simply want to lead a life of financial integrity, in which I finance myself, the occasional trip, the occasional emergency, and the occasional loved one who needs my support through work I believe in.

I know how to live on not so much cash; have been practicing that skill forever so that I could pursue a life on my own terms rather than on someone else's. For I truly believe that only when you lead a life that entails acceptable rather than unacceptable compromise can you excavate your authentic self well enough to write from it.

Sure enough everything happens for a reason, and this experience has helped me affirm that organizer within myself again. Helped me experience anger as a motivating force rather than merely as a sick drain. But I'm devastated that things are still so rough, are only getting rougher in our political climate in which fascism is so glibly confused for patriotism, in which the rights of middle and lower class Americans grow increasingly less germane to the leaders who purport to represent us. It's time to kick more ass. For all of us to try to use our art and commerce to wake each other up rather than inure us further.

What's scary, of course, is I don't know if I can do any more work in good faith for an employer who has shown such disregard for the work I do. I also, simply put, don't know how else I will live. How I will feed the cats. What's exciting is now I get to find out. It's time for me personally to shed my old-school lefty feelings of being repulsed by money, as a friend recently observed, and become truly self-employed. Money can finance wonderful endeavors in addition to problematic ones.

As they say in my country, what the fuck?