Learn something new every day
Three of my family members work for the Lemont School District, in an area people outside the state would consider the Chicago suburbs. They like their jobs, but one crucial feeling was denied to them: the hope that some day, if the fates and weathermen allowed, school would be canceled.
In their stories to me, the administrators took on a cartoonish strength in the face of inclement weather. I pictured the superintendent in a yellow slicker, strapped to a tree in the middle of a tornado, waving in students from the bus dropoff and into Algebra II. Weather reports would warn of sleet downpours, or midget-height levels of snow, and they would prepare for another day on the job.
That is, until a recent Friday. The snowstorm promised overnight arrived late, snarling traffic at the exact moment (usually 4 a.m. or so) when a superintendent has to make the call. The kids rejoiced. My family rejoiced. Well, besides the one who was already on the road, a lack of hope causing his ears to block out that welcome telephone call.
Rocket Science – DVD
What’s better for a snow day than pop culture about high school? Probably about 4,023 other things. But give Rocket Science a chance if you’re looking for a high school movie both realistic and wholly absurd in its approach.
Director Jeffrey Blitz first brought us Spellbound, a great documentary about the peculiar world of competitive spelling. For his first feature, he writes and directs the character Hal Hefner, a quiet little bundle of nerves whose brain and tongue never seem to meet quite right. In a telling early scene, he practices in the morning what he’s going to say each day, even if life never measures up to his plans.
So for Hal to come of age, he must deal with the stuttering. The answer, as is usually the case in the mind of a teenage boy, comes in the female form (Anna Kendrick). She entices him into the world of debate, where motormouths hopscotch with logical reasoning until turning it into a force of nature. A movie that takes fewer changes would have Hal tear off the shackles of his affliction like a young Forrest Gump running from a pickup truck full of stone-throwers. But stuttering isn’t like that, as much as the audience might hope it to be. The lead character grows up in all the right ways, and the movie does the same. It’s a high school movie without Heathers, Mean Girls or even a Bring It On cheerleader to be found. It’s nice to know those movies do exist.
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin – memoir
Maybe debate wasn’t the right key to unlocking Hal. How about stand-up comedy? As Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up shows, the process takes an amazing amount of learning, and that’s even before studying drama or philosophy on late-1960s college campuses.
This certainly isn’t Cruel Shoes, as the focus isn’t as much on translating the comedian’s sense of humor as it is trying to tell the story about how a white-suited man with a fake bow going through his head filled massive arenas in the late 1970s. The lines that stick out most after this breezy (a couple hours on back-to-back nights should do it) read? The ones where Martin looks over his material and wonders – “Is that funny? Looking back, I don’t know.” As Martin’s performances evolved, it isn’t a matter of judging punchlines. It’s an entire act under the microscope, an entire idea. Describing it like that would be like calling any rambling essay a “think piece,” though, and the book isn’t like that, at all.
We learn enough about Martin’s family life to know he loved to perform at an early age. The tone is dry, sometimes humorous, but exacting in its quick observations. You can tell the whole story is a revelation to Martin, as he pieces together his adolescent magic tricks and other assorted odd skills and turns them into something worth paying to see. The biggest surprise? That even as he appeared on talk shows like the Tonight Show, he barely scraped by – what you think is the big break isn’t always as it appears. When the act takes off, almost inexplicably, you understand why Martin retreated into films – all the skills he honed in the early years were wasted on stadium seating.
You don’t get Martin’s full career (the pinnacle of L.A. Story, the paychecks from Cheaper By the Dozen), only the climb up the mountain. Unless you break a leg, the way down just isn’t as exciting – and for that, the book benefits.