Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The White Man's Burden: The Woody Allen Papers

The opening scene is simple: A middle-aged man sits against a brown backdrop. A plaid button-down and tweed blazer cover his noticeably small build. His furrowed brow sits atop a pair of black thick-rimmed glasses and his hands move repeatedly as he tells the joke, in a pronounced New York accent:

“Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that's essentially how I feel about life: full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.”

This is Woody Allen. Writer and director, comedian and actor. This is Woody Allen’s way of starting “Annie Hall,” as he talks to the camera and outlines his character for the first minute and 40 seconds of the film.

The script for Academy Award-winning “Annie Hall” is only one of the thousands of admirable things in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The center, home to the first photograph and the Gutenberg Bible, also holds archives from iconic figures like Arthur Miller and Robert De Niro. Visitors come to the center to leaf through early editions of Shakespeare or gawk at Tim Burton’s notes on Act I of “Batman.” But for the Allen-obsessed, the center offers screenplays, signed photos, articles and other memorabilia to research and maybe even begin to understand the complicated and fascinating filmmaker. Or maybe just to worship his work up close.

Many might not understand why Woody Allen’s work deserves to be at the Ransom Center. His shares the same space and air as James Joyce’s and other figures’ that are, we could say, more easily understood. Through time Allen’s work has been deemed overrated by viewers and film critics have complained Allen simply writes himself, not a character.

But Allen himself is truly a character, and through his work he revolutionized not only the way films were made and the way stories were told, but the way characters were built. He took subjects that had long been ignored or feared and brought them to light, such as human sexuality and gender and the seeming impossibility of love and happiness. His characters buy pornography out in the open, claiming to be doing a “sociological study of perversion up to advanced child molesting” (“Bananas”) and take love advice from Humphrey Bogart’s ghost (“Play It Again, Sam”).

The collection, acquired from Andreas Brown of the Gotham Book Mart & Gallery in New York, showcases Allen’s personality through bits and snippets of pop culture iconography.

There are also articles written by and about Allen, his distinctive voice resonant in each. In the 1966 March issue of Esquire Magazine, Allen and actress Ann-Margret grace the cover above a headline that reads, “What’s New In Europe, Pussycat? A ‘With-It’ Grand Tour by Woody Allen and Ann-Margret.” Flipping the pages, next to an ad for a 1966 Buick Riviera (“the tuned car”) the reader can immerse himself in a photo-tour of European cities: Rome, Paris, Munich, London. All photos with classic Woody Allen commentary about the cities’ food, fashion and traditions. The collection includes other articles written by Allen, such as Life Magazine’s 1969 “My Secret Life with Bogart,” in which the New Yorker writes about his life-long imaginary friendship with actor Humphrey Bogart. In typical Woody Allen fashion, the article drips of satire and self-deprecation and jokes about his mother asking for psychiatric help after he was suspended from school.

Allen’s sense of humor became distinctive, but never boring or redundant. Allen used sexual humor to deal with his under-masculinization and inadequacy, which his characters constantly blame on their mother and Jewishness. Allen is a product of the 1960’s, after all. He represents the sociocultural changes and shifts in political thought his generation went through. From the clothes worn by his heroines, most memorably Diane Keaton as Annie Hall, who iconicized the androgynous look, to the pessimist attitude Allen depicts in “Husbands and Wives,” his creative style came to be associated with modern U.S. practices worldwide.

When going through the collection, one can get a sense of whom Allen was. That Allen-esque, Brooklynite personality that shines through in his writing and his films. Even in still photos, that Woody Allen charm comes through. The Research Center has boxes of black and white photos of Allen in Bill Ray’s “Life Picture Collection”: Allen at Ceasar’s Palace. Allen making coffee. Allen in his hotel room, playing the clarinet, a record player resting on a stack of papers, a typewriter humming silence while he plays. The pictures give the viewer a look into the 1960s filmmaker who made himself the audience’s most popular character.

Amongst “Annie Hall” publicity stills (whose tagline was “A Nervous Romance”) and screenplay drafts of “Manhattan,” the collection also carries short stories by Allen from The New Yorker and letters from actress and former partner Mia Farrow. But buried in one of the many boxes of the Woody Allen collection, under rave reviews from Frank Rich and movie posters for “Casino Royale” is a short cartoon strip. Drawn on the faded yellow paper is Woody Allen, his head balding, plaid shirt and those black, thick-rimmed glasses under the heavy brow, framing his eyes, upon his stereotypical Jewish nose. “I have the standard liberal guilt,” reads the strip, “agonizing about the fact that the white man’s burden turned out to be the white man.”

In the hollow Reading Room of the Harry Ransom Research Center, that strip is sure to make your chuckle echo.

Texas Quidditch

“Snitch, you’re such a dick!”

“Yeah, well, he’s allowed to be.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to yell at him!”

This exchange takes place between two black-and-green-clad Slytherins, after realizing the Snitch had pulled out one of the three hoops that loom behind the Slytherin Keeper from the grass. The Snitch, wearing a banana-yellow bandana, laughs manically as he sprints, fast—faster than anyone else on any of the four teams.

This isn’t a dream. This is just a Saturday morning on Whitaker Fields at the University of Texas at Austin. Author J.K. Rowling probably never imagined her books about a teenage wizard would become an award-winning, billion-dollar enterprise. Rowling probably never imagined the sport she invented for her wizarding world—which is played flying on broomsticks—would be played in reality, by Muggles (non-magic folk) running around with broomsticks between their legs, all over the world. But today quidditch is played in over 200 universities, all linked by the International Quidditch Association based in New York. All of these universities have weekly practice matches, regional tournaments and even, yes, a World Cup.

In that list of over 200 is UT, a university known for its subculture of pride and passion for football. But while its football team is famous, sometimes controversial and historic, the Texas Quidditch team is sweeping (pun intended) the modern world of college sports with the intensity only Longhorn Potterheads can bring.

It was Middlebury College in Vermont that founded intercollegiate quidditch, and the IQA was formed in 2007. UT was one of the last universities to register in 2009. But in the short while Texas Quidditch has been active, it’s already got enough to brag about: the team scored second place in the IQA Southwest Cup in Lubbock in 2011 and second place at a tournament in Texas A&M in 2010.

But more important than winning, many UT students love quidditch because it brings together two things they love: contact sports and “Harry Potter.”

“I love football,” says English major Alison Nitsche. “I go to all the Longhorn games and go to the OU game, but I also think quidditch is really awesome because it’s much more physical than you would think.”

The third-year UT student has been coming to watch the games since last year, when she first found out about it after a few of her friends tried out and made it into Slytherin. She sits on the bleachers, a hand over her eyes to block out the morning sun, and says people make fun of the players every once in a while.

“A bunch of my roommates and friends came out here with me and they made fun of it and laughed,” she says. “Because it is kind of ridiculous, people running around on broomsticks.”

She stops to clap and cheer as a Slytherin Chaser puts a Quaffle through one of the hoops.

Which brings up another subject of the sport: the terminology.

Rowling taught her readers about quidditch and its rules in the pages of her seven books. Matches are played between two teams of seven players riding broomsticks, using four balls and six hoops. The player positions include three Chasers, one Keeper, two Beaters and a Seeker for each team. The balls have their own names, as well: Quaffles, which the Chasers put through the hoops to gain points, Bludgers, which Beaters try to distract opposing teammembers with, and the Golden Snitch, a tiny ball with wings that is incredibly fast and difficult to catch. Once the Seeker—whose sole purpose in the match is to catch the Snitch—catches it, the match is over.

In real-life quidditch, these terms are used as well. Since the players are all “Potter” fans, the language and terms come to them like second nature. The main differences between wizarding world quidditch and real-life quidditch are, 1. players run instead of fly, and 2. the Snitch is not a ball, but a very fast—and sometimes mischievous—person.

But despite its origins, quidditch is like any other sport. Coming back to those people who may show up to matches time and again to point and laugh, every sport has its haters. In some cultures, American football has a negative connotation, associated with drunk fans and ignorant viewers. To some people, baseball is long and dull. Many deem golf a non-sport, and although soccer is known as the most popular sport in the world, its popularity has been slow to catch on in the U.S.

So being laughed at is a non-issue for quidditch players and everyone involved, who are too busy having fun and acting like people would at any sport event. The bleachers are filled with family members and fans with T-shirts that read “Weasley Is My King” (in reference to “Potter” character, Ron Weasley) and “Proud to be a Hufflepuff” (one of the four Houses, or teams). The crowd roars with shouts of “Way to go, Ravenclaw!” and “Watch out for that Bludger!” They wear their team colors, too: blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, black or green for Slytherin and orange for Gryffindor or the varsity team, which is the official team that gets to compete and go to the World Cup in November.

Others fight to get involved in any way possible, such as anthropology major Ashley Richardson.

“I love Harry Potter,” she says. “When I found out UT had a quidditch team, I was so excited. But I can’t really play because I have asthma, so referee is the next best thing.”

Richardson is a referee-in-training and stands on the sidelines to try to maintain order when the game gets a little too physical. She’s a die-hard Potterhead and was even a part of Pottermore, the “Harry Potter” fansite that will open for the general public in October, on the second day it opened for a select few. After all, if something sets Longhorns apart, it’s intensity. Even though there are over 200 universities practicing the sport, Texas Quidditch knows this isn’t only about loyalty to the world Rowling created, but bringing that fanaticism to a university that’s always on the leading edge and eager to try new things, eventually turning them into tradition.

“I know quidditch comes from England, but here at UT we always take things to the next level,” says Mariana Sada, a senior computer science major. “It’s all about showing other schools that UT dominates every sport, even make-believe ones.”

Sada speaks with the fervor of a Potterhead with burnt orange blood running through her veins. Sure, UT won’t be building a quidditch stadium with a jumbotron to capture the Golden Snitch’s every move any time soon. But the eagerness of the players and dedication of the fans, who wake up at 9 AM on a Saturday to cheer for their prefered team, makes one feel like history’s in the making at UT.

A heavy murmur from the crowd takes over and a girl wearing a “Don’t Mess With Texas” T-shirt stands up and points, yelling out, “Here comes the Snitch!”

Suddenly the yellow bandana flashes into view, the Seeker rushing after him, fast and somehow looking graceful, even with the broomstick between his legs. People from the surrounding fields stop what they’re doing—playing catch, soccer practice—and turn to look at the two quidditch players who run so fast they could trick the eye, it almost looks like the boys could fly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My World With Harry Potter

It was my mother who picked it up.

We were at a bookstore, the summer before fifth grade. I was walking through the aisles buried under a tower of books when my mother came to me, book in hand and said, “I think you’ll like this one.” I stared at the cover and just looked back at her, skeptical. She knew what I was thinking: “Sorcerer’s stone? What kinda crap is that?” But she insisted, telling me to read the back cover, saying it sounded “different.” She put it on top of my pile of books, and I decided to give in.

A few weeks later, having already read the rest of the books I chose on my own—none of which I remember, by the way—I decided to read the book my mother had pushed on me.

And so it began.

If I look back, I realize my friendship with Harry Potter couldn’t have had more perfect timing. I first traveled to Hogwarts just months before my life changed dramatically and forever. My friendship with Harry survived my parents’ separation. My friendship with Harry ignited my relationship with my best friend. My friendship with Harry supported me through my sister’s rehab, through my years in high school, guided me through the application process for college. Harry joined me in my new life in the States, has been the topic of many conversations with the first person I've fallen in love with, and Harry’s been the friend I’ve defended against many the ignorant Muggle. First and foremost, Harry Potter and the beautiful world J.K. Rowling created not only became a part of who I am today—it encouraged who I am, it influenced what I thought, and it guided me from one point to the next.

It’s true that these books pushed many people of all ages to read. Jo Rowling made people love to read. Reading was suddenly “in” again. But I’ve always loved to read. My sister has always loved to read. My father encouraged it, and my mother taught us how. So Rowling didn’t make me want to begin to read. Harry Potter isn’t the only character I know and love. It definitely isn’t the only source of literature on my bookcase and isn’t the only influence in my writing. But now, in my early 20s, Harry Potter stands next to my copies of Lolita and American Psycho. Harry Potter shares the space with Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch. Jo Rowling joins a list of personal literary gods along with Kerouac, Augusten Burroughs and Joan Didion. For me, Harry Potter will truly live forever.

There are few things I loved when I was young that I still cherish. Peter Pan, for example, which for me is the most genius story ever written. Anything by Roald Dahl, which for me will always be crucial for a healthy childhood. And many will never understand. To many, “Harry Potter” is a story of flying broomsticks and talking spiders. But to those of us who get it, this story will always be woven into our own lives. To those of us who understand, these characters will always be true friends.

Like all (or most of) the other Harry Potter book lovers, I found myself watching the films and thinking, “That is NOT the way it happened.” I always grew impatient mid-film, wondering, “Why didn’t they include this scene?” “Why didn’t they focus on this character?” I would talk and complain and explain and elaborate on things movie-goers didn’t see, things they couldn’t even begin to imagine. But through all the complaining, I knew that even from the very beginning, the films won me over, too.

I didn’t grow up with other Harry Potter fans. It wasn’t until years later that I began to meet people who loved the wizarding world as much as I did, who took refuge in it as constantly as myself. And through the years, I have read and reread the books. My copy of “Goblet of Fire” is faded and bent and extremely beloved. My copy of “Prisoner of Azkaban” has been on airplanes and roadtrips multiple times. And “Deathly Hallows,” I’ll just say it, might as well have been a Kleenex, splotched and invaded by my heavy tears.

When the final book was released, I mourned like the rest of the Potterheads—but there was still time, I knew, because a part of me loved the films, as well. It’s amazing how committed the team behind the movies was, and I can imagine, will always be. It’s truly a series of films that grew with intensity and magic. Its music, especially “Hedwig’s Theme” by master of sound John Williams; its special effects, which captured and gave life to our favorite things, like the Thestrals and the Marauder’s Map; the mesmerizing photography and style of direction, which changed year to year. The writing and interpretation, which must be one of the hardest jobs in the world to take on. And more impressively so, the series of film featured actors who were brilliant from the very beginning and others who grew—quite literally—before us, and through time, embodied the characters we had fallen in love with and also the characters Jo made us hate (Umbridge, anyone?). These are not just movies we love because they come from books we love. They are also wonderful films that stand on their own.

A week before Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part I premiered, I called up my boyfriend in tears. He was instantly worried, and asked me what was wrong. I could barely speak. I finally told him, “I just can’t believe it’s almost over.” I joked about it afterwards. I tweeted about it, and was a bit embarrassed by how honest the call had been, how vulnerable I had sounded. But my boyfriend knew then, and he understands now, that to me, this isn’t the end of just anything. This is the end to something that for many years gave me something to look forward to. It’s true… Harry Potter will always be there. I can always go back, and I can always daydream about what it would be like to have a Pensieve or wish I could have an hour of fun with Felix Felicis. But in many ways, it’s also the end to a story that changed many lives.

Sometimes I think how amazing it must be to be Jo Rowling and still have that story running through your mind. Because I know it must never stop. This is her world, and these are her people, and in the mind of Jo Rowling, they will always keep on. Jo will see their children, will imagine their future adventures, will be there to see them die. And I think that’s what got me the most about Harry Potter… As a writer, it gives one hope. That after so many years of history, after decades of literature, there is still the possibility of an original idea. Still the possibility of a magical, shockingly intricate, original idea.

I loved Deathly Hallows Part II. There are things they had to change, there are things they had to cut out, there are things that were slightly flawed, but everything worked. And I, of course, was a mess. As soon as the movie started, there were tears. When I saw Dobby’s grave, there were tears. When McGonagall defended Harry, there were tears. When Hogwarts started defending itself, good God, were there tears. Neville Longbottom, the boy whose significance the films could never even begin to explain, made me sob. There was so much to take in. I wanted to watch the scene—that crucial scene when Molly Weasley says the one curse word in the whole seven-book series, when murdering Bellatrix. I couldn’t wait to see the Gringotts dragon or Ron and Hermione’s kiss. But throughout the whole movie, I was dreading one thing: Snape’s death. Alan Rickman made me love Severus Snape the way Jo Rowling never could. He was exceptional. He was heartbreaking and perfect.

There is not much to say about this film in particular as there is to say about the experience and phenomenon Harry Potter is as a whole.

I grew up with Harry Potter. I grew up with these kids. I read the first book just a few months before I turned eleven and have to admit, for a while there, I thought maybe, just maybe, I would too get an owl, I would too get my letter. I know. It seems silly. But the thing about these books, the thing about these movies is… they make you believe. They make you wonder. They make you think, maybe we Muggles really don’t look at anything closely. A couple of weeks ago, there was a cat standing just outside my front door. It was just sitting there and staring, and when I opened the door, it didn’t budge. It simply stared. It startled me, and someone told me jokingly, “Hey. It might be Minerva McGonagall.” Oh, don’t you dare kid, I thought. Don’t you dare kid. So after all these years, I still wonder. After all these years, I’m still in love. Even now, I find myself looking at the books on my shelf and there’s an ache inside of me. I miss everything. So, so much. And so I go back, and I’m so thankful for literature and music and film, because they all allow us to always go back. To feel what we felt at the beginning. To rediscover. Today, I pity everyone who has missed out on this experience. And of course, after all these years I thank my mom for choosing that one book and realize, Mothers really are always right.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Manipulation for our own amusement. Sex for sport, lying for fun. Human beings constantly feel the need to feed off entertainment. We pull at the tight strings of social norms because we’re bored. We become enwrapped by intricate webs of lies and cover ourselves with heavy make-up, red lips, dark lids.

Our hair grows long and tangled with the desire to find another self. Only we’ve created a profession in which we can take on other roles, other selves, embody characters who seem more interesting, more complex, imaginary people who speak of and live the stories we wish we ourselves had truly lived. We jump from religion to religion, we look at different gods and hope one of their arms will reach out, one of the screws that holds them will one day come loose.

Boredom. We drown in the world of pornography to trick our minds into believing we are doing something which, in reality, we dare not do. We build cabins with toy logs and buy dream houses and drive tiny, plastic, pink Corvettes. We create our own Tyler Durdens to say what we can’t say. We live in the world of books, in the world of film, lose ourselves in the rhythm of beautiful music that makes us trust, helps us breathe. We lie to the blank pages of our journals, with the hilarious hope that one day we’ll look back and won’t remember none of it was true. We splatter paint to cover the harsh white of a canvas, and set up pictures on our walls to remind us of things and people we shouldn’t need reminding of.

But don’t think for a minute this is wrong. Don’t believe, even for a second, I’m saying this is bad. Because in the midst of lying, we create a circle that takes us back to the beginning. Because in the task of removing our make-up each night, in the process of choosing the heaviest jewelry and the perfect tattoos to cover our naked bodies, in between the lines of stories we read time and time again, and in the time we take to build that person we want, more than anything, to become…we create. Whomever once told you lying was wrong had a point. Honesty can be so much more intriguing. But while we act, while we color our worlds and dream up masterful costumes to become The Other, we are too creating. And in the hunt for entertainment, we become the humorous animal that is the human.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Miss You

You must get out, get out, get out.

“I always knew she was unusual.”

There’s this lump in my throat—stuck, and my fingers won’t move. I’m constantly uncomfortable, shifting my weight from side to side. My neck will crack three times a day, and I’ll roll over on my back and snap, and snap. My eyes tear up and it hurts to even open them when I wake up each morning. My nails bend, weak, and I dye them apple red to cover up the yellow stains.

My body is trying to tell me something. I have enough water each day, and I work and I laugh and I cry and I run and I cum. I scream. But my fingers won’t move. I feel, and I watch and I smile and I talk, I talk so much, all the time, every day. But my fingers won’t move.

She told me I was unusual, she told me to get out. I got out, but so far I’m further in, somehow. My fingers won’t move, and they’ve been tied to the same place for so long, finding no words, no dripping wax, just stale, hard, crippled have-tos. I only do what I have to, and I haven’t done what I want to. It hurts and my body’s trying to tell me something.

I miss you. I miss you like I knew you back when I thought you were all I wanted. When I was brave enough to think and dream about you, like ambition and accomplishment and truth. I miss you, I miss myself when you were in me, running through me, you made my fingers move so fast. About green eyes and cracked windows and blurry pictures and memory boxes. You remind me of the music that kept me sane and the screams that never left me. I miss you, because of you she thought I was unusual and because of you she wanted me to get out. But without you, my fingers are stuck, they bend only to fetch and scratch but not to connect. Not to speak. They’ve been silent for so long, since I got out. I got out and suddenly, they wouldn’t move.

My body’s trying to tell me something, and I think I know. I know that I have to try, have to surrender, have to stop making excuses, just make them move, make them dance, make them jump around a page, or a wall or a blackboard or a keyboard. Because I miss you, my words. I miss when words were who I was. Words are who I am. But I haven’t had you in so long, for fear. For fear of the weak, which I have been already. But there aren’t enough of you anymore to keep me alive, so I know that my body’s trying to tell me—to reach out. My fingers haven’t moved but they want to, to splurge and vomit on a dirty yellow page, just to feel relief. My fingers want the words, they need the words, and search my body and my brain and my gasping and my dreams.

You must get out, get out, get out. Words.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I was in the tenth grade when my AP English teacher gasped and asked me why I was reading what I was reading. I looked up, then looked at the book cover of Running With Scissors that I held in my hands. I laughed, and asked, “Why?” She told me it was excellent, yes, but a bit advanced for my age, no? Well. Yes, the gay sex scenes were a bit raw, and the sick and gut-wrenching psychology behind the characters that were—horrifyingly—real, were kinda hard to digest. But isn’t everything?

After that moment, my teacher got to know me and she never questioned my book choices again. The weird thing is, there are still so many books out there that I read and I shudder and cringe. Rape scenes are the worst, written with such harsh honesty that make me nauseous with fear. But I keep reading. Because we learn. Don’t we?

There are also so many books out there that I can’t manage to get through. My eleventh grade teacher still hopes, to the day, that I find some kind of space in my heart for Shakespeare (loved Macbeth, Hamlet annoyed me, and couldn’t get through anything else). But I don’t have that sort of patience.

It’s strange to see, as you’re growing up, the things you used to read. Yet there are things that remain, deep inside of me, and I reread and wonder who wouldn’t want them on their shelf. Who wouldn’t want those words in their mind, clawed into their soul, classics like Peter Pan and To Kil a Mockingbird and yes, the remarkable Harry Potter. And then I turn and pick up the latest books I’ve read, like Other Voices, Other Rooms and Rant. With more blood and underlying skepticism, creeping with violence and eeriness that only Capote and Palahniuk can deal with so majestically.

But sandwiched between classics and modern classics, I find something else. The author’s Sarah Dessen, and no doubt there are thousands of girls out there who know her from their youth. Through the years, as I’ve become drier and colder and yes, maybe a bit bitchier, Dessen remains. I reread This Lullaby a few months ago, one night when I couldn’t sleep and I needed something soothing. Even from the name, people wouldn’t believe I’d read it. It sounds so girly, and cheesy and… stupid. But so clear in her words and through the pages of her novel you’ll find truth. I don’t give a fuck, whether you’re 12 or 17 or a 21-year-old college student who loves the perfect shade of Scorsese red. You’ll still find truth in her stories. They’re simple and silly, but they’re still there, inside of me. Her characters are so stupidly real that it makes me laugh outloud. It’s chick lit, it’s easy and quick, and you take it to the beach and you’ll be done in a couple of hours. But that doesn’t make Dessen any less real.

I love to think about the things that stay the same, just because so many things have changed. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve led three different lives, and it feels nice to go through the pages of something I still recognize and that makes me feel the same. It’s extraordinary to find those little things, like horcruxes, that carry a piece of you that cannot die. However cheesy or girly or stupidly simple it may seem. It’s you.