The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Time for True Confessions.

I occasionally enjoy reading Stephen King. (Sweet rollerblading Christ, I hope none of my English profs down in Williamsburg are reading this.) Come on now--did you really think I spent all of my leisure reading with a cup of tea, a cat in my lap and a copy of Mansfield Park? Oh, wait. You did think so because sometimes I do. Pffft.

I enjoy King for the same reason that I enjoy horror movies. Sometimes a good scare is just damned fun. And really, there are worse novelists out there. Honestly, horror novels do tend to the schlocky, but in a world where Danielle Steele and Erica Jong exist, I think that my guilty pleasure isn't too bad after all. King's characters are usually pretty believable, and have that sort of Everyman quality that a good scary story needs. After all, if it's going to frighten you, you need to be able to imagine yourself on the streets of your hometown when, all of a sudden, everyone's undead. (Actually, I feel that way on the streets of Baltimore rather often.)

With this in mind, I checked out a copy of Full Dark, No Stars a few days ago. While I'm not going to claim that the four novellas within are successors to Fitzgerald, I'll give them some props. This is exactly the kind of book you want when you've decided that it's Saturday, you haven't got anything to do, and it would be fun to stay in bed until after noon with a book.

One of the stories involves a woman who makes an extremely unpleasant discovery about the man to whom she's been happily married for years. That one is by far the most interesting, and probably the most unsettling. The other three are, essentially, revenge stories. I'm never quite sure how I feel about revenge stories, anyway. Probably, we all like them because...well, don't we all fantasize about avenging perceived injustices, sometimes?

Of the three, though: One was still a fun story, but it was pretty much already done, if a little more artlessly, by the cult movie "I Spit On Your Grave." If you know the movie, then you won't need any more information. Another features a man who's secretly hated his "best friend" for decades and, with some supernatural help, is able to get back at the friend by destroying his "perfect" life. (And don't a lot of us want to do that, too?) The remaining story has an unreliable narrator (see, still an English teacher at heart, ain't I?) who cools his wife because she's pretty much of a nasty bitch, and suffers hideous consequences.

In all four stories, the reader ends up siding with the protagonist, despite their less-than-pleasant actions. And I think that, after all these years of surreptitiously enjoying King's work, I'm starting to understanding why my snooty profs wouldn't appreciate him. It's not that his plots are poorly-constructed, or his characters bad. It's just that...I've kinda read this before. Often. Or, in the case of one story, I saw it at a drive-in twenty-five years ago.

Also, in the bitchy-wife-gets-horribly-offed story, King uses a fictional setting that he's used in several other tales over the years. I don't like recurring devices in an author's work, and I particularly dislike having to buy into a recurring mythos. I didn't like it when Lovecraft did it with Arkham, and I'm not wild about King's Hemingford Home, either. When he's set stories in Derry, Maine, it's just a setting--but in the wake of The Stand, Hemingford has become this sort of magical touchstone. While I understand the idea of continuity, I find this one a bit contrived.

Big props, though, for his naming a "walk-on" character Rhoda Penmark. And big props for you, readers, if you know who Rhoda Penmark is.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Since Video Americain, the local video store of great randomness and much joy, went to join the Century and the Valencia in the Big Movie Studio in the Sky, my friend B. and I have been at a loss for what to do on quiet evenings. By "quiet evening," what I probably mean is that either no one's having a party, or I'm still feeling the aftereffects of a non-quiet evening the night before. Either way, sometimes it's just good to chill with a movie.

And, since both of us like old movies, or at least fairly offbeat new ones, Video Americain was just the right place. I always wondered how many actual new-release, popular type things they rented, since I'm fairly sure that most people in Charles Village are also weirdos who like B-horror from 1958.

So it was with great reluctance that we decided to explore Netflix, which at least promises to have a bazillion movies right at your fingertips. And it sort of does; but mostly they're DVDs and you can't just decide right now that you're going to watch a movie. Given my viewing patterns, I need right now.

They do have a fair amount of stuff that's immediately available and streaming, though, so we've tried a couple.

Last night's viewing: A Rage to Live.

You know, it wasn't a terrible movie. With a cast of also-rans in the Hollywood pantheon (Suzanne Pleshette and Ben Gazzara), it's better than I'd expected it to be.
See, here's the problem: I love the original novel, and you know the old saw--if you love the book, run away from the movie. In the case of A Rage To Live, it's not so much that they screw up the story, it's more that they didn't really use much of it at all. It's pretty much a movie named for a book that uses the book's characters, while doing away with 80% of the book's plot. Sort of the same way that Taco Bell is inspired by Mexican food but doesn't really have much to do with actual Mexican food.

John O'Hara's novel is fairly complex, so I'll not get into a plot synopsis, or worse, compare its plot with that of the movie; I've forced too many high school students to do that sort of thing to ever want to do it myself. Besides, since the movie's plot bears so few resemblances to that of the novel, it would be far more effort than it would be worth.

So, my question: Why--particularly in the mid-20th century--did Hollywood insist on doing this with novels? If they'd followed the actual plot of the book, it would still have been a pretty good movie. I have a feeling, since they cast minor stars in the main roles, that they were hoping to trade on the book's popularity anyway, rather than using it as a star vehicle. Thus, people probably went to see it because they'd liked the book, and probably did just what I did last night: spend most of the film thinking, "but that's not what happens!"

I don't want to imply that it's a bad movie, because it's not. It's simply that, other than character names and setting, it doesn't have much to do with the book. The same script could have been used, with different names and a different locale, without bothering to buy the rights to the novel. John O'Hara himself wouldn't have noticed any resemblance.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

With more time on my hands, lately, I've been able to do more reading. Not, of course, the reading that I should be doing: you know, stuff about running your own business, or what's going on in the world.

Side note on that: A few years ago--hell, nearly fifteen years ago--when I first discovered the Wonderful World of Dis...I mean, Intertubes--I found it thrilling that I could read the newspapers of any city I wanted, at any time. When I was a kid it was possible to get the metropolitan dailies of several cities, from several Baltimore news-stands. By the 90s, news-stands were pretty much gone, most cities were down to one newspaper, and in Baltimore you were lucky to get the Washington and Philadelphia papers, much less Richmond and Norfolk. So it was awfully exciting to read those, and Roanoke, and Allentown, even Hagerstown online. I was so well-informed that I creaked when I walked from sheer informational overload. Not surprisingly, the novelty wore off after a few years. I kept up with Baltimore, Richmond and a couple of other places. Then, I got tired of Baltimore and its myriad problems, and got to a point where I only read the Richmond paper online, if I even bothered with that. So--end result? I now know diddly-squat about the world, except what I actually see.

But I am hitting the library a lot more, lately. And, as always, I'm a sucker for novels set in the South. I do try to avoid the magnolias-n-moonshine heaving-bosom genre, but it's difficult. Let's face it: an awful lot of people have made an awful lot of money writing an awful lot of really crummy romantic novels about the South. Unfortunately, almost every third one of them gets marketed as "the new Gone With The Wind." There can only be one of those, though; even Margaret Mitchell expressed a pointed lack of interest in writing a sequel.

I'd always sort of lumped Anne Rivers Siddons into that benighted genre, so when my mother suggested Peachtree Road (which was indeed heralded as a new GWTW)I was skeptical, at best. But I did need something to read, and there it was.

I seem to be developing a habit of writing about things that I read before I've actually finished reading them, and here I go again. Thus far, I rather like the book. It's not as just-plain-bad as a lot of Southern-setting novels. Unfortunately, Siddons does fall into a lot of cliche traps. She overuses a few conventions that should have gone out in the '30s. A particularly annoying case in point is the reference to various characters as "he (or she) of the..." Fill in the blank. Piercing grey eyes, ethereal grace, indomitable nature. Take your pick. Once in a while, it isn't a bad device, but I've seen it repeatedly in the book already, and I'm only halfway through.

Siddons also seems to want to be Serious, and therefore gets pretty heavy-handedly metaphoric. Having spent my undergraduate years looking for metaphors where there probably weren't any, and my teaching years explaining them (probably also where there weren't any), I'm so damned sick of metaphor that I could pee moonshine. No, that is NOT a metaphor--it's hyperbole.

And of course, there's the token character who gets involved in the civil rights movement. It strikes me that a lot of Southern authors feel a need to redeem their Southern-ness by including such a character. While obviously a significant part of Southern history, after you've read forty-eight novels in which it becomes a plot device, it loses its literary impact and becomes an annoyance.

Still, Siddons is far ahead of the crowd. After slogging through one Pat Conroy book in my life--which I spat upon here a couple of years ago--it's good to see a memoir-style piece of fiction that isn't trite and contrived to the point of nausea. She tells an engaging story and clearly "gets" Atlanta and its people. (She should; she's from Atlanta.)

Another side effect of the book is that I've gone nuts looking at Google Maps to see all of the places in and around Atlanta that appear in the book. Even though I've never particularly liked Atlanta, it's great fun looking at pictures of it. I may even need to make a road trip. Between various novels and Google, I have a feeling that the Silver Meteor and the Crescent are going to be seeing a lot of me in upcoming months.