Why I loathe open concepts

I well and truly cannot understand why HGTV pushes open concept houses so heavily. Unless they’re laid out in the right way, living in one is an absolute nightmare.

I’ve been in many houses and apartments with semi-open concepts I had no problem with, and seen others I like on video tours. What makes them different and better than the magnified studio apartment style so in vogue now is the floor plan.

A home with an L or U shape has rooms located off of halls, or an enfilade-style arrangement where all the common, public rooms lead into one another through archways, pocket doors, or partial walls.

Copyright The Fixers; Source Wikis Take Manhattan 2009

Likewise with townhouses in many large cities, which are narrow and deep by necessity. While the upper floors have rooms located off the hallway, the parlor floor tends to have common rooms leading into one another. Sometimes there are doors; other times there are archways designating each room.

But what I can’t tolerate is a square-shaped open concept house!

Why do I hate this style? Let me count the ways.

1. Walls and doors exist for a reason. They designate each room for a separate purpose, and ensure privacy, peace, and quiet.

2. Not as much space to hang pictures, put up bookshelves, and store things.

3. The lack of walls also equals poor temperature control. In the summer, it’s much hotter. In winter, it’s unbearably cold.

4. Did I mention no privacy? These houses seem designed for joined at the hip families who are constantly together, never doing anything in separate rooms.

5. Someone at the door can automatically see into the entire house!

6. Absolutely atrocious acoustics! You want to watch TV, read a book, or do anything in the living room? Not if people are in another “room” all of ten feet away or right up the stairs! Everything is magnified like a tsunami of unbearable noise—speech, running water, the other TV, kitchen appliances, aluminum foil, drawers being opened and closed, rattling utensils, the ice machine.

7. It feels like being in a gymnasium.

8. There’s a reason studio and efficiency apartments are only meant for one person or couples just starting out. Why increase the square footage of that floor plan for an entire house?

9. Read any old book or historical novel, or watch any film from before about 1950 or historical drama. You’ll see rooms located off halls or a main common room (usually the parlor), not one giant open space trying to be multiple rooms at once. It was particularly important for the kitchen to be located well away from the main rooms and to have a door.

10. Speaking of the kitchen, do you really want guests to see drying or dirty dishes stacked up 10-20 feet away, to smell food all over the house, or to watch you preparing food?

11. You’re constantly all up in everyone’s business by default of having no place to retreat to.

12. Less flexibility for converting rooms to other uses. 

13. They just look cheap and emotionally sterile!

14. Many people are so enamoured of open concepts they gleefully tear down walls and rip off doors in old houses.

15. Since everyone can see everything from any vantage point, it necessitates more frequent cleaning to avoid messes.

16. It just doesn’t feel like a real house!

17. They’re a terrible fit for those of us who love vintage interior decoration and furniture.

Walls and doors will be mandatory in my next home. I’ll specify I only want to see pre-1950 houses, and if a contemporary house is all I can afford, I’ll save up to install walls and doors as soon as possible. Open concepts are truly an architectural abomination, no matter how heavily HGTV pushes them.

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

Dracula disappointed me

Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, 1931.

I was really looking forward to watching the 1931 version of Dracula, always having had the impression it’s one of the all-time greats and classics of horror cinema. Instead, I found myself yet again disappointed by something surrounded by years of massive hype.

For all the issues I have with Nosferatu (to be discussed more in-depth next October), at least that film succeeds brilliantly at creating a creepy, spooky, foreboding mood, with tension in the air. It’s all thrown away with a whimper instead of a bang, but at least it’s there.

Béla Lugosi cuts an awesome figure as Count Dracula, though he seems to do about as much active vamping as Max Schreck, which is to say, not nearly enough. It does start out promisingly, but once it moves to London, the stiltedness begins.

1931-dracula-bela-lugosi-y-david-manners-01

Stripped of all the hype and classic status, this is just another creaky, stilted early talkie. So many early talkies feel like filmed stage plays, since the first sound cameras couldn’t move very far and still pick up noise well. Dracula was indeed based on a stage play, but I really don’t feel like that best-suits any kind of horror story.

The horror is more talked about after the fact, instead of shown as it’s actually happening. How is that supposed to create a frightening mood? Silent horror films work so well because they’re not bogged down in a bunch of dialogue. We see horrific events, and experience the building of a creepy mood. Even in a sound horror film, do you really need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s happening?

Forget horror; ANY film, of any genre, becomes boring and stilted when there’s more dialogue than action. Books also suffer when they’re little more than talking heads.

4.0.1

We never once see Dracula biting anyone, rising up out of his coffin, transmogrifying from bat to human, or even just showing his fangs. Beyond that, we don’t even see bite marks on anyone’s neck! Come on, those are basic elements of any Dracula story, no matter which version it’s based on!

Horror movies don’t necessarily have to be a nonstop parade of horrific images and frightening events. Sometimes the horror is more about a foreboding mood, a creepy mystery, or dark human emotions, not paranormal creatures, psychotic murderers, or blood and guts. However, I didn’t get a palpable sense of any type of horror here.

A slow pace also doesn’t work with most horror films.

van-helsing

The film was directed by the legendary Tod Browning, though he was a last-minute choice. This wasn’t his project from the jump, which seems to suggest, sadly, that it’s just an urban legend that Lon Chaney, Sr., would’ve played Dracula had he still been alive. Still, I can’t help but imagine how awesome Lon would’ve been as Dracula, even with the same script and stilted feeling.

There’s also an old rumor that Carl Laemmle, Sr., of Universal Studios, wanted the awesome Conrad Veidt to play Dracula. Though he had to go back to Germany with the advent of sound, due to his thick accent and poor English, Lugosi also had a heavy accent, and his troubles with learning English are well-known. It could’ve worked with Veidt.

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Just because I most love old films doesn’t mean I automatically love all of them. It’s such a myth that lovers of classic cinema think it’s immune from criticism, only watch it because it’s old, refuse to watch anything modern, or heap praises on films just because they’re old. There were just as many bad apples then as now, even if I’d much rather watch a bad or mediocre old film than something current.

I’d give this a 2 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, but there was nothing special or innovative about it. Even Lugosi’s character didn’t do much to elevate the overall experience.

Why I HATED Life Is Beautiful

Happy Shavuot!

(Among the pages I was unable to recover during my frenzied search of caches and web archives in the immediate wake of losing my old Angelfire site were both of the long, detailed rants I wrote about this film. I wrote those pieces when the film was much fresher in my memory, but I’ll try my best to recreate and summarize the most important points.)

I actually hadn’t thought about this insulting farce of a film in a good long while, but since I mentioned it in a recent post, it seemed like a good opportunity to excoriate it anew. So, let’s do that!

La Vita È Bella is one of the most overrated films of the Nineties, and of recent memory. I’m not going to squee all over it simply because it’s a (supposed) historical drama, a foreign film, and (supposedly) about the Shoah. Yet apparently many other people do squee all over it for those very reasons, simply because they’ve barely seen any other foreign films or historical dramas. Contrary to popular belief, a book or film about the Shoah isn’t an automatic tear-jerker or even high-quality just by mere virtue of its subject matter.

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Robert Benigni thinks he’s the second coming of the great Charles Spencer Chaplin, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Whatever you think of Chaplin’s personal life and politics, you at least have to give him credit for being a great filmmaker and comedian. Even a lot of people who find some of his films overrated at least respect his place in history and cinematic genius.

Benigni is always on, constantly mugging for the camera, doing obnoxious slapstick, making himself the center of attention, never deviating from the same personality, pouring on the pathos at all the “right” moments. Chaplin’s Tramp character, and the later non-Tramp characters he played in talkies, were much more nuanced. He had the right mixture of comedy and seriousness, the ability to be a sweet, put-upon underdog and then fight back against bullies. I also never feel emotionally manipulated by Chaplin, being told when to laugh or cry.

Also, to Chaplin’s great credit, he later said he would never have made The Great Dictator had he known the situation was anything but funny, and much worse than what everyone thought.

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The first half of La Vita È Bella actually isn’t that bad. It’s not particularly memorable or great cinema, but it’s at least somewhat bearable. There are a couple of amusing moments scattered throughout, and Benigni is in his element. Although it’s obvious he shouldn’t be casting his real-life wife in all his movies. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady, but she’s not a great actor.

There are a lot of plotholes and undeveloped storylines and characters in the first half. Why, for example, would Dora leave her comfortable life to marry some Jewish joker? How did Guido get into a country club on horseback, without being kicked out and punished? Why did she finally fall for him?

The second half is what most people have the biggest beef with. It’s a complete slap in the face to historical memory to depict the Shoah as Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp Meets Hogan’s Heroes. Seriously, that’s exactly what the second half feels like. Dark, irreverent comedy can be done well, but one has to be very careful about the execution. Benigni has claimed it’s supposed to be a heartwarming fable and not taken seriously, but then why even choose this particular setting?

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Guido and Giosué would’ve been killed for any one of the stupid things they do during the course of the second half. Stepping out of line, trying to talk to guards, wandering around at ease, taking over the broadcast system, hiding in the Barracks, you name it. There’s never any real sense their lives are in danger.

Real children who survived the camps were under no illusions as to what was really going on. They didn’t believe it was just some big, elaborate, fun game. They couldn’t get away with hiding undetected all day. Unless they’re supposed to be at a camp like Terezin, there’s no way a child would’ve been spared upon arrival. At least give us a plausible if unlikely reason a child wouldn’t have been gassed on arrival, like the gas chambers malfunctioned that day, or there were too many people waiting to be gassed. I call BS on no one ever seeing this kid or a child being totally shielded from all the horror and deprivations.

My stomach turned when Guido joked about buttoning themselves up and washing themselves up with their friends. I felt so sick and nauseous anyone would even make a joke about that. The second time I watched this film was even worse than the first, and not just because it was a dubbed version.

If you’re going to depict something that was extremely unusual/unlikely, at least ground it in circumstances within the realm of plausibility, and emphasize this wasn’t normal. I’d give this a 2 out of 5, since at least the first half was bearable, there were a couple of genuinely moving moments sprinkled in, and I believe Benigni’s heart was in the right place.