Sunday, December 30, 2007

War is a perfectly starched white apron

The greatest tracking shot I've ever seen is the one that concludes the Battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, the quintessential war-is-mud film. Carrying Falstaff's boy (young Christian Bale), Henry (who else but Branagh) travels the length of the field, finally getting to the slight rise at the end to gently deposit the boy's dead body and bow his weary head in victory. There are longer ones, and more technically advanced ones, but to me there are no more moving ones than this. [YouTube it here.]

Part of its effect is due to the fact that all sound is completely blanked out by the music, which begins with a single singer singing Non Nobis and merges into an orchestral chorus that climaxes with Henry's stand on the hill.

I've just summed up the little something extra that Atonement, the film of Ian McEwan's great novel, is lacking. Sadly -- as in it makes me sad, not that the film is sad and pathetic. As a matter of fact, it's quite good, but Joe Wright, the young director, doesn't seem to quite know yet how to give things their maximum punch. The much-buzzed-about tracking shot is technically superb, but it has no point; it doesn't focus tightly enough on Robbie to be about him, and the chaos of Dunkirk could just as well be shown in a series of shots. Similarly, Atonement's score is damn annoying, with its oh-so-clever-and-ominous repetitive typewriter key sounds and plinking piano. It's also too loud, like Merchant Ivory to the max. Give the film its epic sweep and its epic score. Nobody's asking you to John Williams it; Gustavo Santaolalla has shown what you can do with a simple score.

Which brings me to the other odd filmic comparison I want to make, Brokeback Mountain. Without giving away too much, Cecilia and Robbie's star- and war-crossed love doesn't have the dramatic forbidden quality of Jack and Ennis', nor does it have the beautiful symbolic quality of Ang Lee's art direction. Were the color tones off here? Did James MacAvoy just need to be in a shirt that matched his pretty blue eyes? Well... maybe. The stark simplicity of Brokeback, with its black and white hats and clean shirts, does a lot to monumentalize their love and make its loss worth regretting.

Interestingly, Wright tries some of the same things; Cecilia looks absolutely gorgeous even in a bomb shelter (and not at all unhealthily thin, so I take back what I said about the trailer), and Briony's hospital apron remains impossibly white through hundreds of incoming wounded. But instead of Brokeback's bright quality, it comes across more like Cold Mountain where you wonder how Nicole Kidman is getting her eyebrows waxed in the middle of plowing time.

'Tis a pity. The script is not bad, though I don't love all the choices they made, and the acting is very good all around. It may not be coming across, but I liked and enjoyed the film. It just didn't quite reach the top of the mountain.

Academe's expo, then?

Several objections were raised to my Woodstock comparison, on the grounds that MLA is not at all about free love, or any kind of love at all for that matter, or fun, or music... OK, I happen to find MLA to be a fun crossroads, but have it your own way. Perhaps a better comparison would be the Columbian Exposition of 1893, in which a utopian city was built for the purpose of showing off Chicago and the United States, with exhibits, some living, from every civilization but a heavy stress on the technology and superiority of the West.

This just happens to be in my mind because I half-read Devil in the White City, which is about the expo. I liked the architecture part but not the murder mystery part. I should also note that by calling MLA the Expo, I am not in the least implying that a murderer was stalking the Hyatt's sacred halls, unless you count the deadly fears that plague the job candidates.

However, MLA is a huge exhibition and parade, and it shares the political foibles of the exhibits of the Columbian Exposition -- a large topic that I will address another time. Some decisions certainly get made that will help shape the future of literary studies and pedagogy in the U.S., but for the most part it's a chance to see what others are working on, show off your own work, get a job, network, etc. Highlights for me included watching W. J. T. Mitchell smack down N. Katherine Hayles' proposal that we phase out departments in universities and turn to "problem" studies instead (i.e., topical organization like urban studies or, one she suggested, poverty studies). This is particularly interesting, because I've been watching Northwestern's graduate school phase in clusters that supplement departments, but they are not all problem-based; some are area-based instead (e.g., Latin American studies). Useful as supplement; as replacement, just as subject to stodginess and territorialization.

Returning to the general conference experience, I met with many friends, new and old, and was delighted to unexpectedly re-meet Michael Berube, formerly of Le Blogue Berube, which was a model of what public academic blogging should be -- much as Michael himself is a model of what a public academic can be. I have kept this blog more to my personal arts consumption, which I'm happy with at the moment. But the range and sheer volume of Michael's four-year blog was something else; the archives are still on his website, and worth a look.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Academe's Woodstock

I am running back and forth to MLA, the Modern Language Association's conference, for a few days; this year it's in downtown Chicago on the river, too near to get a hotel but far enough to bemoan that fact when it's snowing.
This conference is the biggest thing in literary studies, and most of the job market opens fire here. I lack time and energy to blog if I want to make myself look presentable, so instead, I point you towards the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog. MLA is a big crazy show, and I am actually very fond of it because you can see so many out-of-town acquaintances and friends. It occasionally draws sardonic fire from newspapers with some pretensions to intellectualism; I recall a piece a few years ago when it was in New York that attempted to make my old professor Stephen Greenblatt sound like some kind of playboy Hollywood mogul equivalent.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Traditional Christmas media at the Kim homestead:

1) The Ben-Hur chariot race. Sometimes we actually start from the beginning of the film, but as far as I'm concerned, the film dies with Messala. The chariot race is every horse-lover's dream; MGM just used it to show off their stables and stuntment.

2) Rudoph the Red-Nosed Raindeer. I love that animatronics.

3) Kiri Te Kanawa singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas." We've phased this one out.

4) Julie Andrews singing Christmas songs. This one is intermittent.

5) We often catch It's a Wonderful Life on TV, or as Phoebe on "Friends" called it, It's a Sucky, Horrible Life and Then You Die. The two highlights for me are Mary using the phonograph to power the turning spit with the chicken over the fire, and George's reaction when Clarence calmly announces that he's an angel. "Well, you look about the kind of guardian angel I'd get."

A highlight of years past was the televised concert with Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade singing carols. I love Flicka (von Stade); she was born in NJ and sang in a La Scala Cenerentola that I loved when I was a kid. I got to see her concert at Symphony Hall here recently, which was obviously just a kick to see her live. She still has a lovely voice.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Enjoy whatever your food traditions are. We'll be doing our usual hodgepodge of Korean.

Monday, December 24, 2007

That's an expensive wastebasket

As I mentioned, the Milwaukee art museum has a fantastic Chihuly installation (and a mammoth Calder mobile, with circles the size of auto tires, but I don't really go crazy for those.) Apparently, these museum pieces are the most famous Chihulys, but I'm more familiar with the wavy plate sculptures that mimic natural forms. The museum has one of those as well.

I like glasswork, and Washington state is definitely the hub of American glass artisans right now, partly because of the available sand variety, but also, I'm told, because of tax breaks and so forth that have driven many artists north from Arizona. Everyone's other favorite hub is Venice, of course. My uninformed perception is that the Washington work tends to be more sculptures and Venice is more towards houseware and crafts, but no doubt there's plenty of both in either side.

Dale Chihuly hit it big in the '70s, and his work is astronomically priced by now. Ironically, he can no longer blow glass himself, because he lost an eye in a car accident and the lack of depth perception is dangerous. However, he has a large and thriving studio in Tacoma.

I don't mind admitting that I first heard of him by name on Frasier, which after all is set in Seattle. Frasier has a big Chihuly bowl on his mantel. There's an episode where he juggles it for some reason (they used a replica, since the real thing was valued at about $30,000) and another where Daphne, who is compulsively eating, hides half a Twinkie in it. Frasier finds it and hands it to Martin, saying, "Dad, how many times do I have to tell you that my Chihuly is not a wastebasket?"

Beautiful stuff, anyway, even if unaffordable.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

On the second day... turtledoves, but a fun trip to Appleton, WI, hometown of one of my favorite middle-brow American authors, Edna Ferber. Who, you may ask? Well, Edna won a Pulitzer Prize and was very popular in her own time, hanging out with the glitterati and theatre folks of NYC, but now it's the movies made from her books that are remembered, chiefly Showboat and James Dean's Giant. That's her with Jimmy to the left, apparently either demonstrating or learning how to twirl a lasso.

The beautiful Appleton historical museum, which looks oddly like a castle (former Masonic temple) had a small but informative and well-chosen cabinet on Ferber, including two of her typewriters (she hated hand-writing) and lots of her first editions. (Houdini, the other famous Appletonian, had a whole floor.) The gift shop also was selling a novel of hers that I had never encountered before, a tale of a logging family called Come and Get It.

Afterwards, we drove around town looking at Edna's old stomping grounds, including two houses that she lived in, the former site of her father's dry-goods store (on Main Street), and the temple she attended, the best-preserved of them all. All of these spots are immortalized in her most autobiographical novel, Fanny Herself. It doesn't paint a very flattering portrait of the temple's congregation, though; Ferber seems to have resented them for looking down on her mother for working after her father's death, rather than starving to death genteelly.

On the way out of town towards Neenah, I even got to see the paper mills mentioned as destroying the environment in Fanny. To be sure, they're still belching out a tremendous amount of smoke, and I'm sure the land around them is no prettier than when Ferber took a swing at them.

Friday, December 21, 2007

On the first day...

...of my visit to Wisconsin, we went to the Milwaukee Art museum, which is architecturally spectacular. Well, at least the new section is, with its "sailboat" sunscreen panels; the museum looks like it's going to sail off into Lake Michigan. You walk into a huge atrium with sky-high windows (currently framing a large Christmas tree) and a crazy, colorful, twenty-foot Chihuly sculpture.

The collection itself is small but very nice, with the highlights being several Georgia O'Keefes, lots of Flemish/German painting, a fair amount of medieval articles, and one sarcophagus. I appreciated their attempt to arrange things in the new section chronologically, which is a great teaching tool. In the older section, it's more by exhibit; there was another, more normal-sized Chihuly in the glass section and a wonderful collection of Arctic photographs/art, including a beautiful and informative composite drawing/satellite photo of caribou migration. Also some really interesting modern art.

Not to be sordid, but the gift shop was also unbelievably beautifully designed. The Met could take a lesson from them. The basement restaurant also lovely, with huge windows on the lake (which radiated cold, of course, but were well worth it). All in all, a well-crafted smaller museum, and definitely worth the visit if you're ever in Milwaukee.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Uncut and unexpurgated

I am just returned from a trip to Wisconsin to visit two lovely friends, which will provide material for a few more posts. Tonight just a quick thought; I have finally watched the entirety of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. I have to say that it does tempt me to jump on the SP bandwagon years too late, weird as it is to watch Saddam Hussein having sex with the devil now that he's dead. Aside from the acidic reflections on censorship, the music is actually unbelievably rich and melodic, and I think the orchestration is some of the best I've ever heard in a musical. This baffled me until my friend informed me that it was done by the same fellows who did Hairspray, which is a testament to SP's huge fan base. The growly, vampy last verse of "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch" is, I don't mind saying, one of the most brilliant conclusions to a musical number ever.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A plug for myself

Well, it's out. My short story, which was accepted into a brand-new startup Asian American literary magazine, the Kartika Review, is finally available not on newsstands everywhere, but instead is downloadable for free. Even if you don't want to read it, go give them the website hits to tell their investors about.

Here's the direct link to the inaugural issue. You can download just my story, which is called "To Herself," or the whole issue. I haven't read the whole issue yet, myself.

I wasn't so sure about this story even after it was accepted, but after rereading it last night, I can safely say's not as bad as I thought.

I do think it's great that this magazine is trying to fill the void left when the APA Journal had to close its garage door two years ago, but it must be tough to start a magazine. I didn't even know that they weren't going to do a print run at first. Now they say that every three issues they'll do a print anthology of the "highlights," which to me seems like shooting your contributors in the foot ex post facto. But small print runs are so expensive that it must be almost impossible for an independent startup. I hope they can get some synergy with other specialty AA mags.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pretty wondrous

I've been meaning to post about Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for a while. This book was showered with praise and has been dubbed the best book of the year by a lot of Christmas shopping lists. I am happy to be able to chime in with the general chorus for once.

The book is a crazy, playful, violent, heartwrenching rummage in the lives of three generations in a Dominican(-American) family, taking place in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, with the odd airplane scene. For New Jerseyans or Rutgers alums, it's a real treat -- go Perth Amboy, which is where my brother was born! For just about anyone, it's a real treat as well. Sit back, buckle your seatbelt, and prepare for the crazy.

Doesn't matter if you don't know Spanish, which is plentifully strewn throughout the novel. Doesn't matter if you can't get the Lord of the Rings references, either. The Dominican history, on the other hand, is provided by the narrator in unskippable, bitter, hilarious footnotes, most about the dictator Rafael Trujillo. The pastiche of language, cultural/historical references, and skipping back and forth in time, make this novel unforgettable, though the essential stories of the three generations are all well crafted too.

When talking it over with a friend, I dismissed the originality of it somewhat, saying it wasn't anything Joyce hadn't done, but she quite rightly pointed out that the updating of that form is entirely original. So is the messing about with language and form; it's like Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man meets Gloria Anzaldua. I admire the craftsmanship of the novel immensely, and definitely recommend it. It didn't quite give me a transcendent experience, but it gets close. I think I'd actually have liked more about the narrator, who is in some ways a tremendously sympathetic character, and the brilliant voice of the entire novel.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Die Oper ohne Plot

I went to see Richard Strauss's opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) at Lyric Opera of Chicago two nights ago. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but left with some big questions about the staging.

Opera staging is a tough sell these days, with the experimental often not going over well and the overly traditional seen as stagnant (yeah, Met, I'm talking to you, with those old Zeffirelli monster sets still hanging around). This opera started off more or less traditional and rather minimalist, with a bed and a basin standing in for the whole palace, a falcon (a singer) flown in in a cage that was lit up instead of trying to make it invisible -- all right, that's a little less traditional, but the home of the Dyer and Dyer's wife, poor mortals visited by the shadowless Empress and her nurse, was fairly literal: a door where a door should be, a fire pit where a fire should be.

Then the opera itself takes a weird turn, as spirits appear and a young man (a gold-sprayed male model) appears to tempt the Dyer's wife away from her duties as a wife. This apparently liberated Paul Curran, the director, in Act III, when Dadaist set pieces started to appear. I'm sure that there was some reason that the boat the Empress was riding in was an upside-down gigantic white umbrella: the perversion of things from their rightful use and the lack of symbolic protection, etc. I'm sure that there was also a reason that the Fountain of Life was represented by a gigantic plaster hand: grasping at what you shouldn't, etc. I could come up with interpretations all day.

But did it really add anything to to the opera? I'm not sure that it did. Seeing as Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto is largely an injunction to bear children, one can see why the production notes were really selling this as the Empress's journey of self-discovery. I think these weird moments were meant to enlarge the moral scope of the opera, but in the end, all they did was keep me intrigued for the wrong reasons.

Oh yes, the music. Very well done by the enormous orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis. This was also the first time I have heard Deborah Voigt live since she famously got her stomach stapled after (but not because!) Covent Garden did not hire her because she was too fat. Sure enough, she was climbing ladders in this production, just because she could. The sound has definitely changed, I think; it's brighter and sharper, with a little less of that extreme control that huge singers often have. So at least it's not a Callas story.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Caspian trailer!

It's out! Trailer for the new Narnia movie, Prince Caspian.

Go watch and we'll talk about it in a couple of days. I'm a little fantasied out. The only thing I will say for now is that Caspian's too old. How will they ever make a Dawn Treader?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

How much is not enough?

To extrapolate from my question two posts ago, Golden Compass took in $26.1 million domestically, less than studio execs hoped for (they admit to wanting $30+ million, though I think they were lowballing that on purpose). It cost $180 million to make. That's... a lot.

It also took in $55 million overseas, and they hope for great staying power because of the holidays. The audience was apparently mostly families (not at the 9:50 pm screening I went to, of course), and those don't tend to give great opening weekend boom. But still, it's not a huge figure. They did a fair bit of marketing, but nothing too extraordinary, so of course they're going to turn a healthy profit. I just wonder how happy they'll be about laying out another, say, $300 million to shoot the next two, which if they have an ounce of sense they will do back to back like the Pirates sequels or LOTR.

Though I am all for the indie film (and Juno raked in a huge per-screen take), I do get very curious about the big-business end of things. Box Office Mojo has a handy chart of the all-time box-office takes, which only lacks a ratings column to be perfect (conventional wisdom being that an R movie excludes a good moviegoing audience, teenage boys). I was appropriately staggered to see that the record opening weekend is for Spiderman 3, which took $151 million, and that Fellowship of the Ring "only" took $47 million. Looking at it, I think there's hope for the Pullman franchise, because a PG-13 franchise will probably go up (note how many of the top ten are franchise films).

On the other hand, it helps if the movies are good and therefore much-anticipated. The reviews for this one did not glow, though not all were bad.

I also wonder for the first time how much the writers' strike has affected box office takes. I surely can't be the only one who is often made more aware of a movie by seeing the star shilling for it on late-night TV. More Kidman and Craig might have pulled in a more grown-up audience.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Quick prediction

Half an hour later, I stand by everything in the post below, but if the Golden Compass were to lean over, look me in the eye, and ask that age-old question, "Will you still respect me in the morning?", I think my answer would be...


Friday, December 7, 2007

Asriel. Lord Asriel.

Sorry, sorry, couldn't resist. Just got home from an opening-night screening (my first in a long time) of The Golden Compass. No spoilers here.

I will pause first to note that this movie features Russians and Asians as the evil hordes. How refreshing.

No long post tonight, just a quick post-mortem: the child star, Dakota Blue Richards, is very good indeed. Nicole Kidman's slightly scary botoxed look works really well for her role. Not enough Daniel Craig (who plays Lord Asriel, for those who didn't get the joke). The bears rock (and the bear battle got some spontaneous applause). So do the daemons; the animation is good, if overused. Did we have to dive into the golden compass every time Lyra pulls it out? Beautiful sets and costumes, as you'd expect, and a slightly overbearing but pretty score from Alexandre Desplat.

Overall, I really enjoyed the movie, and it helped that I actually had forgotten quite a lot of the book -- haven't read it since it first came out. But it's missing darker tinge and heart to really push it into the big leagues of Epic Fantasy; that might come in the next one. (It's worth noting that screen time was less than two hours, making it kid-friendly but not character or plot development-friendly.)

And yay, Derek Jacobi is in it, which I had forgotten. A little retirement money for the man.

So here are the big questions: 1) how much money does it need to make for the studio to commit to the next one or two, and 2) how on earth will they ever be able to schedule Nicole Kidman and Mr. Bond at the same time, and before the already leggy-looking Richards grows out of her role?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sweet charity

Yesterday I was told about Nick's Flick Picks, a site kept by one of the lovely profs here, so I skipped over to take a look. I don't know how I had never heard of this, but Nick's site brought the truly lazy green site Blackle to my attention. Blackle is a black-background Google, essentially, but run by Heap Media with the search powered by Google. The idea is to conserve energy by using a black screen rather than a blazing white one (same principle as turning down the brightness on your screen to save battery power).

It is, unfortunately, very hard to read for a long time. So if that doesn't float your boat, you can always go to the laziest way to fight hunger at The Hunger Site, where one click (limited to one a day) donates 1.1 cups of food. You can also save the rainforest at its companion site The Rainforest Site, save animals, donate books and mammograms, etc. It's really expanded. This may feel pathetic, but if I add up all the cups of food I've donated since college, it's quite a lot of food. And I probably have my own tiny patch of land in the rainforest somewhere.

I also have a sneaking fondness for those sponsor-an-animal sites, where you buy a penguin in Argentina for a year and they name it after you, send you photos, etc. Sponsoring a panda is really expensive, but a penguin is a nice, affordable gift.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Not Peter Sellers

Tonight I went to a Harvard Club event (my first!) with the brush-haired opera director Peter Sellars, who is in town to direct John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera. Peter went to Harvard and became nationally renowned for his wildly original direction even while in college. I pause to gnash my teeth with envy and shame.

He teaches at UCLA now and talked about his teaching with such love and conviction as I occasionally possess myself, and I found his wild interdisciplinarity very inspiring. His enormous lecture class, Art as Social/Moral Action, takes up a single topic (this semester's is food supply, organics and genetic engineering) and gets expert speakers in to address it from all kinds of points of view: chemistry, marketing, anthropology... Very Harvard, as he smilingly noted, to get to experience everything through the most expert people. His final exam is one of the most original I've ever heard of, and most likely to allow for creative thought (as well as the usual dreck). Part I: Describe a moment of change in your life. How did it come about--what pressures from outside, what took place inside? Part II: What is the future of the food supply? Part III: Link the two.

In other words, how are you going to bring about change in the world? Peter (I can't call him Sellars, somehow -- so stiff and formal) teaches tons of athletes, and pointed out that they are people who already have a media platform before they leave college, much like he did, and that he hopes to get them thinking about things in new and interesting ways. Which is what I always hope to do with my students, and perhaps occasionally accomplish. I had a good quarter.

Peter also spoke very passionately about the opera Doctor Atomic, which is a Faust-in-reverse take on Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the bomb, and the need to rethink and erase nuclear proliferation. I admit that he is right. Other than the usual spurts of anti-axis-of-evil rhetoric that I hear and snort at, I haven't thought about the arsenals still nicely aimed and ready in a very long time -- not since Model U.N. in high school, at least not in depth. I greatly look forward to seeing the fourth staging of this three-year-old opera.

I also hope to nip round backstage to see one of the singers, James Maddalena, the original Nixon of Adams' most famous opera Nixon in China, who played Sharpless in Boston Lyric Opera's Madam Butterfly when I was an extra. Jim and Frank Kelley, who was also in that production, have worked with Peter very often on Adams and other projects.

It was a good night. Sometimes, amid the politicking and slow dissertation writing, you need to meet people who remind you why you got into 'all this' (I wave my arms in the general direction of the arts, public intellectualism, and teaching) in the first place.

Friday, November 30, 2007

In Fashion, Veritas

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, has been mocked and reviled for many reasons: her supposed impossible standards and bitchiness, as sent up so well in The Devil Wears Prada; her thinness, her lovelife, her liking for socialites, her crush on Roger Federer -- with which I have a sneaking sympathy.

I also have sympathy with something else she's said, which drew if not outright mockery at least an air of faint bemusement and is-she-serious. She said that if you looked through the pages of fashion, they would tell you what was going on in the world just as surely as if you looked through the back issues of, say, the NY Times.

It might not always be completely clear. But you can see the military influence in past seasons of fashion, new materials that mean new technologies or new imports or new concerns with organics, patterns of price and consumption revealing market fluctuation. Nostalgic/ironic Soviet kitsch is big now in Russia. And didn't I just post about greenness? Today I bought a little Christmas present for a friend, a purse/wallet made out of the Times and covered with clear plastic. So with eco-chic, we've reached a point at which looking through fashion also means looking through the Times. Prescient, isn't she?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Clash of the Titans

It was a long and convoluted thought process that put it into my head, but one of my favorite old Hollywood movies is Becket (1954). And it's a rare person who can even discuss this movie with me; come to think of it, I'm not sure I have ever found anyone else who has seen this movie. Maybe I'm not mentioning it at the right times.

It is a very faithful adaptation of a play by the great French playwright Jean Anouilh, which is in its turn an extravagantly unfaithful take on the historical events leading up to Thomas Becket's death and canonization. Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier starred in its English-language premiere; in the film, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton light up the English countryside for miles around, helped by John Gielgud. Two of the greatest screen performances ever, as far as I'm concerned. Both were nominated for Best Actor and common talk at that time was that they split the vote and allowed Rex Harrison to sneak through for My Fair Lady.

Why hasn't it lasted? Oh, a lot of reasons: big period drama, next to no romance, very talky, very heavy on the discussions of religion, and the sheer damnable opacity of Becket's shift from Crown to Church. Not for everyone.

There are also some nice stories behind the making of the film. O'Toole and Burton apparently drank each other under the table regularly during filming, and they also supposedly switched roles right before filming started. Burton is so fantastic as the aggressive, wenching Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days that you can well imagine him as a great Henry II, but O'Toole's high-strung explosiveness and raw neediness are almost painful to watch. Much as I love Burton and his legendary voice, this is probably O'Toole's show.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Begrudging applause

As you all know, I have been missing my late-night TV; in grad school, I got in the habit of taking my laptop to the futon with me and doing some light work while watching late-night.

After a hiatus, in which I watched movies or simply stayed at my desk, I went back to the futon and discovered that NBC has taken the inspired route of airing reruns of Leno -- oh, but not recent reruns. They've gone so far back into the vault that it's like watching a bemusing time capsule. Last night, Julia Roberts was on... to promote Pelican Brief. Jay's hair was gray and he was asking her all about Lyle Lovett, who she had just married.

I have to admit that they're fascinating to watch to see how fast our pop-cultural framework changes, something that always trips me up with my students. This is the Harry Potter generation. Just think, in a few short years we're going to be teaching students who grew up obsessed with Hannah Montana.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It ain't easy being...


Today I was chatting with a friend while happily honing his knives and listening to his dog's tag clink as it pattered around his feet, and I started yammering on about this article I had read in the NY Times about Chicago's new green alleys. The green alleys are made to drain rainwater and runoff back down into groundwater, and they will also keep temperatures more temperate, care for your children and do your taxes. This is the usual sense of green.

Then I suddenly realized I had just read another such green article in the Times, about green holiday gift-giving. This was a more peculiar article, because it started out with what you might expect: people giving homemade gifts from recycled objects, light bulbs, etc. But then it became an anti-capitalist mantra, with people volunteering for charity rather than giving gifts.

That happens to be green. But it's something that people used to do all the time and never think of calling green. It was more like "getting back the true holiday spirit" or "being unselfish" or thinking of the starving children in Africa while pushing your broccoli around your plate. So I ask you, a la Carrie Bradshaw, since when has green meant good?

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for greenness, and have always conserved everything. I got in a very long and complicated discussion about showering once in college. I grew up turning off the shower water while soaping; that is, you turn it on, wet your hair, turn it off, shampoo. Turn it on, rinse, turn it off, soap, turn it on, get out. Let me tell you right now, this takes some fortitude when your parents also believe strongly in conserving the central heating.

My friend's roommate from Slovakia had apparently grown up the same way, and somehow his roommate had found out and they had started talking about it -- perhaps his roommate had heard him. That's how my roommate at math camp found out about my showering habits, because she would keep thinking I was done with a very quick shower and then hear the water come back on.

A long discussion ensued; many found this exceedingly strange, but it's the same logic as turning off the tap while you brush the teeth. I decided that those who grew up where hot water took more work than just turning the dial were a whole lot more conservationist! Conserving work, coal, wood, whatever. It wasn't green, just practical.

In other words, being green now just means being not so luxuriously consumerist as most middle-class Americans take for granted. And therefore, with our true Puritan roots coming out, that self-denial must be good.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

As my brain rots...

I really am going to have to take a break that involves reading a more serious novel at some point. Somehow, reading for teaching doesn't help. I learned when I was consulting that if I don't read seriously for too long, I start feeling weird, literally as if my brain needs flossing.

One of my friends has been recommending Jasper Fforde for a while, and I got him to read on the elliptical. I started with the first one, The Eyre Affair. As you can tell, loaded with literary allusions, seeing as it's about a female literary detective who tracks down forgers, scammers, and literary characters come to life. Kind of a sci-fi meets female James Bond meets Haroun and the Sea of Stories meets romance. It's pretty good, but moving a bit slowly mid-book as it seeks to entangle you in the terribly clever intricacies of its plot. I don't know if I'll keep going on the series.

But I also happened upon some Sherlock Holmes stories. I've read a lot of these Doyle followers, and these are decidedly the best I've ever found. Donald Thomas is the author, and he's written many books, including a couple of Holmeses.

Princess fever

On an unrelated note, I read a Newsweek article about Disney's skillful marketing of its Princesses and how they're planning huge adult-targeted product lines: princess towels, princess weddings, princess honeymoons... And incidentally, Pocahontas and Mulan, who are practically action heroes compared to the others and are of course two of very few minorities, are not usually included -- no dresses, no crowns means no marketing.

Given this nausea-inducing deification of girlie values, I suddenly feel bad about wanting to see Enchanted. Netflix it is -- then I feel a little less like I'm giving the studios big money.

And by renting a DVD, I'll be giving even less than $.04 to the writers.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The great jukebox in the sky

I have finally concluded my tour of Hugh Jackman's career highlights with a bootleg DVD of the Broadway musical The Boy From Oz. It's all Peter Allen's music, linked together by the warhorse device of a jukebox musical that tells of his showbiz rise and death. I didn't realize how many of his songs I knew, like "The best that you can do is fall in love," "Everything old is new again," and "I Honestly Love You." Unfortunately, if I tell you that this last is sung by a dead character dressed all in white, that pretty much sums up the problems of this musical.

A lousy, lousy book and poor characterization, leading to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli being practically caricatures. Some of the most boring group choreography I've ever seen; I've seen better with non-dancers bobbing and kneeling in timed patterns. A "hidden" childhood trauma that "accounts" for Peter's emotional stuntedness. And a big splashy Radio Music Hall performance screaming out for a huge production number inexplicably done with next to no flair, though considering the rotten choreography, I can't imagine it could have gotten a lot better.

Against this, you have the songs themselves, some very good singers in the supporting cast, including a truly charming, cartwheeling, tap-dancing little boy playing young Peter (and probably getting beaten up on the playground, poor kid). And, of course, you have Hugh Jackman's sheer star power. He is a very good singer, a little uneven. He's at his best in the big power ballads and splashy numbers. Moves well, not exactly Gene Kelly. Who cares? You can't look away -- which is why the musical got by, since he's on stage most of the time.

Listening to the dead people sing, in two numbers. You would think they would have known to pull that stupid stunt once at most. One is Hugh Jackman's partner, who sings "I Honestly Love You" to him after he dies of AIDS. Could he not have sung it on his deathbed? I ask for so little.

And yes, two men kiss, Peter's called a fag (in a loving way, kind of, by his blustering manager), he rubs all up against some one-night-stand lover. I do wonder if any families or conservatives ever walked out! I remember hearing tales of people walking out of Rent.

This musical lasted a year on Broadway and closed when Jackman's contract was up, of course. He wanted it to go on and apparently particularly wanted Ewan McGregor to take his place. McGregor is another one of these multi-talented men I hate to love, and he's done a musical in the West End (and Moulin Rouge). He and Robbie Williams both turned it down. The problem was that they needed a big star to keep it going, but Jackman is so damn brilliant and engaging that it would have been a thankless task to follow his Tony-winning performance; the ensemble is not enough to keep it going, nor is the musical and staging. Not to mention that it looks like an exhausting role.

Well, I still greatly regret that I never saw it on Broadway, but if Jackman ever makes his Carousel movie post-writers-strike, I'm there.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

You've got to be kidding me!

I see that Hillary Clinton, Mrs. It Takes a Village, has decided that childhood isn't so important after all, or rather that Obama's childhood isn't, since his life abroad will apparently not help him with any perspective on foreign policy whatsoever.

Now I'm not saying that anyone who lives abroad necessarily gets a useful perspective, but discounting it altogether is just the kind of emphatic statement that Hillary never manages to make when it's about something important, like, say, her stance on any issue of any note.

Today's post title is a quote of the greatest American male tennis player, that lovable John McEnroe, whose podcast with Borg and Federer I am about to listen to instead of going to sleep.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The digital tree of life

Being completely dissertated out for the moment, I took a break tonight to watch Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, which I had been planning to see when it was released in the theater years ago, but got scared off by bad reviews.

And being quite prepared to tear my hair, reproach Darren, and sigh in exasperation, I was... surprised! It is a good movie! Perfectly comprehensible, I think, and gorgeous, well-acted, minimalist writing (I suppose that could be a negative). I think people must have been just put off by the science-fictionnness of it all, with all the experimentation on animals, time traveling, and three storylines in different time periods (though there's a bit of a catch to that last). I won't spoil anything by telling you that, essentially, Hugh Jackman is always chasing after an antidote to death for the sake of his beloved, Rachel Weisz.

What it ends up being is a beautiful fable about accepting death, and perhaps it might have gotten better reviews and even been a better movie by centering just a little more on the modern couple, in which Jackman is a scientist and Weisz is his wife, dying of cancer. But to hell with reviews, it's an interesting film.

And although the extras about the making of the movie are a little slow and pretentious, with eerie music, they're absolutely fascinating from the point of view of filmmaking. (I have them running even as I'm typing this.) To watch Jackman gagging and convulsing while surrounded by ten huge dudes with cameras, light reflecting boards, mikes, etc., in the middle of a half a set, is to see a total lack of inhibition. I've watched behind-the-scenes before, and probably the best known ones are the LOTR extras. But those were amazing because they showed how detailed a job WETA did, while here I've mostly been marveling at just how little the actors knew of it until it was finished in post-production.

Actually, it's almost destroying that gorgeous movie for me, seeing poor Rachel Weisz do take after take with a lens six inches from her nose.

I like it.

OK, quick carping about kidnapping Mayan mythology helter-skelter... but...

I like it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What's on the list?

I avoided one of my miserable wandering tours of the library today just by dropping off my books and heading straight to the gym to read what I had, like it or not -- another 'women's fic' book, this one about the events leading to Pope's Rape of the Lock. I always liked Pope.

But someday, when I finish this chapter and pause to read for real again (i.e., not at gym), I had better prepare myself for an efficient library trip. What am I going to read?

Monica Arac de Nyeko is a name that's come up. I like reading modern foreign literature, and African lit is perpetually overlooked.

Junot Diaz just gave a talk here that I couldn't go to, so I think Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Denis Johnson(?)'s Tree of Smoke about the Vietnam War. I got that one to try to read it on the treadmill, and boy, was that a mistake.

Some Harold Pinter.

That'll do for now. I could use some good nonfiction as well, but don't have anything in mind. Took a look at Freakonomics but decided that I already knew that crappy apartments were described as 'charming.' Maybe some history?

Time for Rushdie's East, West (need to prep lesson plan). What's on your list?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Beyonce in dreads?

I'm not reading as much these days, which is because I'm working almost nonstop on my dissertation. That's why there's so much about musicals lately; just do the youtube search and let them play while I switch back to Word.

I just stumbled on the oddest bit of musical news from July, that Beyonce was in talks with Disney to star in a film version of Tim Rice and Elton John's Aida. You might know this best from the single released off the preview, Elton John and Leann Rimes' "Written in the Stars." I am somewhat flabbergasted and yet it's perfectly logical, because I suppose Beyonce wants to make musicals, and she needs either a musical that the studios are willing to cast colorblind or one with a black female lead. Among the latter, Aida is pretty far up there, and it allows for a lot of Beyonce looking regal and gorgeous.

Not the greatest of musicals, which explains the flabbergastedness -- it took 10 years for Rent to get to film, by which time the actors were all in their thirties, and I haven't heard anything about Wicked being made into a film. So I would think that either Beyonce signs, or it doesn't get made. The other jaw-dropping part of the article was that Christina Aguilera might play the other female lead, Amneris; I hope that's not the case unless Aguilera has unsuspected acting chops, because that character needs to be funny with unexpected flashes of depth.

I speak authoritatively because I actually saw this musical on Broadway years ago, and was lucky enough to get to see it with Adam Pascal, Roger from Rent. He was also the original Radames in this one and came back at the end of the run, which is when I saw him. I wonder if he'd be in the movie too? The cast was fantastic--Felicia Finley played the Aguilera role.

I'm all for musicals being made, and I like Beyonce, so here's hoping it gets made. I bet she's hoping not to be overshadowed by another Jennifer Hudson. I also wonder frankly what she'd look like in the film. Aida in the musical is a Nubian princess, and she was always played on Broadway by a very dark-skinned actress with dreads, cornrows, or a close crop, the better to contrast with the -- I'm not kidding -- all-blond Egyptians. Beyonce's hair is going to have to go!

Women's film and theater


Just watched the trailer for The Other Boleyn Girl, which I had not realized was scripted by Peter Morgan, writer of The Queen and Frost/Nixon. How did he come up with witty banter like this sack of crap? "I'd know [a great man] if he were before me." "Do you see one here?" "Looking. Found one."

My ears are bleeding already. I suppose a really great actress could do something ominous and flirtatious with those lines, but for all that the media has been ramming Natalie Portman down my throat as a Great Actress since the day she was born, I still haven't forgiven her for the ear-bleeding, pencil-through-the-eye moments she gave the world in Star Wars I, II, and III.

Well, the movie looks lavishly costumed and setted, not to mention that it co-stars the winsome Scarlett Johanssen and hulky Eric Bana, so plug your ears and sit back. Comes out in February.
I've been YouTubeing the musical Wicked as well. Didn't realize that this was also about female solidarity, but the two witches are best friends and enemies. I guess this is more or less a constant fascination in the arts, but between all the sisterhoods on one side and bromances on the other, I'm starting to feel like calling people 'friends' is pretty lackluster.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Women's fiction?

Not chick lit, exactly, but you know those books I'm talking about: books about famous historical or mythological women, or often the overlooked daughter, sister, or wife of a historical, mythological, or fictional hero. Sometimes borderline bodice rippers, sometimes more philosophical, these books have pretensions to being serious literature that a half a moment of examination will deconstruct. Ahab’s Wife springs to mind, as does The Red Tent (I'll get in trouble for that one, as I know many people liked it), a wanna-be Red Tent about David’s first wife, which I can’t remember the title of at the moment, Leonardo's Swans, Lizst's Kiss... The Other Boleyn Girl, which I mentioned the other day, is a prime example, as is almost everything that Philippa Gregory writes.

These books are all rescue fiction, telling us the stories of these strong, fierce, overlooked women, whose stories are amazingly similar across time periods and countries. Almost leads you to believe that they’re a reflection of the society they’re being written in, doesn’t it? I notice an almost pathological focus on the love/hate relationships among women, particularly sisters—The Other Boleyn Girl sledgehammers this theme, as does the book I just finished on the elliptical today, Nefertiti, which is really about Nefertiti’s younger half-sister. Anyone who was once a tweenage girl being stabbed in the back by other tweenage girls trying to be cool probably has to admit the partial truth of this, regardless of any wave of feminism. Add in the detailed description of clothing, jewelry, face paint, etc., and really, all you have is chick lit dressed up in historical sheep’s clothing.

Now, by that, do I mean the clothing of a sheep that existed in history, or sheep-shaped clothing that existed in history?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Over the weekend, I watched my second Woody Allen film ever, and I only watched it because I was renewing my Branagh kick. Yup, Celebrity, the black-and-white film about a New York writer who observes, craves, and wrecks all chance at celebrity. It was chiefly mentioned for Leonardo DiCaprio's appearance as a spoiled brat of a hotel-wrecking supermegamoviestar. But I also remember reading reviews of Branagh's performance that all featured the word 'frightening.' It is indeed completely terrifying, because he's so Allen-like that it's positively uncanny -- a stammering, bumbling, fumbling, pathetic wreck of a man. From the hyperarticulate Gilderoy Lockhart or Henry V to this character, you can never fault Branagh for his technical skill. Not even in Wild, Wild West.

The movie is too episodic in the beginning, but stay with it and it really gets going in the second half as Branagh wrecks his life and ex-wife Judy Davis builds up hers. If you ever find yourself reading a few too many tabloids or celebrity blogs, just watch this movie, which will cure you of all longing for celebrity in two hours. For that alone, it's probably worth the rental!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Find Your Quail

Right now, I'm happily listening to "Find Your Grail" from Monty Python's Spamalot over and over and over again. YouTube rocks.

So does Sara Ramirez. She's an amazing singer. Pity she's being wasted on Grey's Anatomy now, but that whole show has jumped so many sharks that... I can't come up with anything suitably hyperbolic to finish this sentence.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Atonement trailer!

Finally watched the trailer for Atonement! You can see it here.

I love this novel (Ian McEwan again). Can't discuss it terribly well without giving away far too much, but the hook goes something like this: 13-year-old Briony accuses her older sister Cecilia's lower-class boyfriend Robbie of a terrible crime, and spends the rest of her life trying to... atone. The novel has several different tones and points of view... all great, but I did spend quite a bit of time arguing about the earliest section with my friend, who found 13-year-old Briony 'unrealistic.' Why, because we're all so logical at any age that we can expect all 13-year-olds to sound like... what? (I'm still unconvinced, clearly.)

This movie has been getting great buzz, with Keira Knightley (Cecilia) already tipped for another Best Actress nomination. Romola Garai, who I liked so much in As You Like It, is the older Briony, and Vanessa Redgrave is the very old Briony. That character's getting some good acting. The trailer does look good, so I am now officially excited.

But can I be totally superficial for two points? One being that Knightley coming out of a fountain in a wet dress is just scary. I don't want to be one of these women who bitterly castigates other women for being too thin, but I do hope that no young girl thinks she should try to look like that. The other being that while James MacAvoy (Robbie) is a very good actor, I unfortunately cannot get the image of him as Faun Tumnus from Narnia out of my head. And not just Tumnus -- Tumnus wearing green spandex pants with dots on them so his goat legs can be CGI-ed in later.

Frost/Nixon; Morgan/Howard

Tiny whimper.

I've just learned -- having apparently blocked it out when looking on the imdb page in the past -- that Ron Howard is directing the film version of Frost/Nixon. Directed, rather, since it has gone into post-production (shooting started right after the Broadway run ended).

Some of you know that I was stark raving mad about this play in August, and still am really. I saw it on Broadway twice, the first time from quite high up and the second time just two days before the end of the run, from front row center. Both times were fantastic for totally different reasons; from high up, I could appreciate the blocking and lighting and get a better sense of the audience reaction, while in the front row I could see beads of sweat and also see through the blackouts to watch the actors setting themselves up for the next reveal, which was technically fascinating. It is a great play about David Frost, the TV journalist, and Nixon coming together to do an interview post-Watergate and post-resignation. The play's tension revolves around the fact that both men see this as one last chance at the spotlight, with Frost's career in disarray and Nixon's quite obviously on the rocks. No need to tell you who wins.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that it was an intensely gripping 100+ minutes (no intermission). Nixon's summation of their divergent personalities, playboy and pigheaded fighter, is devastating in its simplicity: "You don't know how fortunate that makes you." Beautifully written and some of the greatest stage acting I've certainly ever seen. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are reprising their roles. The lesser roles will be taken by Hollywood fodder rather than the stage players, which is to be expected. Sam Rockwell takes the narrator's role, which the first time I saw it was played by Remy Auberjonois, son of Rene Auberjonois from one or the the other of the Star Treks, but who I'm embarrassed to say I know chiefly as Frasier Crane's professor.

Right. Whimpering. The reason I'm whimpering just a little, and very quietly, is that Peter Morgan wrote this play (you might know him best from writing The Queen). I must have asininely assumed that Stephen Frears would be directing. But from what I've just googled, that apparently was never even an option; there was a lot of jockeying, Howard was very keen on doing it and doing it now, and Morgan wanted it made and out before the Bush administration leaves. Now, not having seen the Da Vinci Code, I feel no fear when I hear that Howard is directing a film. Actually, I figure that it will be solidly entertaining, well knit, dramatically gripping. But I never expect true greatness. And for me, Frost/Nixon was one of those experiences -- twice -- in which the entire world around you disappears. I was kind of hoping to have it on DVD.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

No Prestige

Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johanssen, and David Bowie. That's all the advertising the Prestige really needed, or so you would have thought. It more or less flopped in the wake of the Illusionist, which featured Ed Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell. Two beautifully pedigreed magician films. I liked the Illusionist quite a bit, but I wasn't throwing bouquets at it. Now, Prestige... aimed higher and fell harder, I think. It might have been more interesting if I hadn't figured out the movie less than halfway through, which left me sitting hopefully on my futon, waiting for some crazy other twist that I hadn't figured out. There wasn't one. The title of my post comes from the formula for illusions given in the film, which says that the setup is the pledge, the disappearance is the turn, but that the trick is nothing without that final reappearance, the prestige. Well, this movie tried to follow that formula, but if you know what the prestige is and the whole movie is about showing you how it happens, then where's the magic?

Probably in the character development, which it could have used a touch more of. The acting was fine, but you basically have to take it on trust that Hugh Jackman's wife's death precipitates a lifelong obsession; it's not developed in any interesting way. Oh, and not to be snippy, but I'd like to see Scarlett Johanssen sharpen up those British consonants a bit more in The Other Boleyn Girl, in which she's playing the eponymous heroine.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Alas, poor Oprah

It's going to be a bit of a winding road here at the start. Stay with me.

One of my profs, of all people, pointed me towards the NY Times article on Jessica Seinfeld, who apparently was always a little hated by those in the know, was recently accused of plagiarizing her cookbook, and thanked Oprah by sending her somewhere from $10,000-$20,000 in designer shoes as a thanks for appearing on Oprah's show.

Blog commentary on that last groused about Oprah's shameless delight in this ridiculous extravagance, the same kind of consumer delight that makes millions of women feel that they have to rush out and consume in order to feel as powerful as Oprah. I haven't seen anything positing it against two of Oprah's more recent big events, though.

When popping over to YouTube to watch a little more of Hugh Jackman hosting the Tonys (I am really that girl in your college hallway who listened to the same song all the time), I saw some new feature about Oprah on YouTube, something about her favorites or... I don't know, I couldn't be bothered to look. On the other hand, you also can't get away from coverage of this sexual abuse case in Oprah's South African school for girls. I don't know what the general opinion of this is, but I've seen Oprah as quoted from saying everything from 'responsibility rests with me' to 'I didn't do anything wrong.' No doubt Oprah's faithful will rally to her, fueled by reports that she wept for a whole half hour (poor thing) when she heard about the charges. No doubt they will also want her shoes and watch her uploaded videos.

I don't know what to make of Oprah, to be honest. I never quite have. On the one hand, her rise has been astronomically impressive. She does good things -- lots of charity, lots of healthy living shows, lots of nice books. I enjoy the show. Dr. Oz has taught me a lot. But her aim square at a certain segment of the population with huge aspirations towards more material comfort seems by bypass those who can't possibly afford Christian Louboutin shoes, and those are the ones she affects to love the best.

Of course, as a literary critic, I also found her involvement in the James Frey case rather odd;
most critics I know didn't much care about the whole fiction vs. memoir vs. autobiography controversy, except for the truth in advertising principle, because we know that autobiography and history are always-already (sorry) so convoluted and fictionalized. But there's another case where Oprah swung wildly from 'I don't care' to 'you liar,' and that one was distinctly a case of caving to a media frenzy that she could not control.

Sorry, no big payoff to this set of musings. She is a triumphant bundle of contradictions. But it did cross my mind that I just can't imagine what is going to happen to Oprah's empire of taste as she gets older and slower, let alone when she passes on. I think it'll take me until the void appears to really judge her legacy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The heat of a thousand suns

Finally finished Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns last night, a tale of domestic abuse in Afghanistan that will make your hair curl and your liberal conscience groan, but all the while you won't be able to put it down. I like Hosseini's writing, I really do, although his heartwrenching moments do get a little manufactured. 1) Depressing or disappointing episode. 2) Long wait. 3) Bring episode up again in a quick, unexpected allusion. 4) Stand back and watch the waterworks.

But he writes so well, particularly in his descriptive passages, that I'm inclined to forgive the vaguely mechanical quality, which might also be a function of the very looping plot. It focuses on two women: Mariam, an illegitimate child who grows up isolated and worshiping her wealthy and Westernized father, and the much-younger Laila, a gorgeous, petted and liberally educated child with a happy family. The Soviet invasion and other assorted disasters that Afghanistan endured combine to trap these two in exactly the same miserable situation, however. I won't spoil the plot twists for you, except to say that it is not a walk in the park.

This book, unlike Hosseini's previous hit, The Kite Runner, takes us up to the present day in full gory detail (KR focused more on the past, as I recall), and that's the part that makes me groan. I don't doubt in the least that Hosseini is depicting the Afghanistan he knows
and clearly loves, and nobody could expect anything but a thoroughly depressing narrative from that. But I do worry about the uses to which the novel can then be put, as in "look how screwed up this country was; clearly we need to invade and fix it." (Not that anyone is worried about fixing Afghanistan these days.) In particular, Suns includes an abusive husband calculated to fulfill all evil stereotypes of Islamic gender relations, and he is rendered so vividly that the loving, supportive husbands also depicted don't balance him out at all.

Hosseini also suffers from Peter Jackson syndrome, the need to have ending after weepy ending in quick succession.

Still, a thoroughly good read, and one I'd recommend, because it clearly has been vexing me. And as you all know, the one thing I love even more than a book I fall in love with is a book that I can carp about until the sun goes down. Or a thousand of them.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Top of the world, Ma!

It's been an exhausting day over on the tennis blog, with the news of Martina Hingis' retirement and positive cocaine test at Wimbledon. But I can summon up the energy for a post here.

The Enola Gay pilot died today. I ought to look up his name, but why bother, when I don't know the names of any of the tens of thousands of Japanese he killed? I never knew much about him, except that he was so well brainwashed that he never regretted even for a moment having been the one to drop the bomb on Hiroshima (he didn't fly over Nagasaki). He was proud of how well the plan was executed.

It's probably best for that man's sake that he was, because otherwise he would have had one hell of a miserable life--and really, can you imagine the higher-ups sitting around a table picking a human weapon for the job? Interestingly enough, I read in his obit that he did have a crew, and presumably there were multiple crew members who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, too. But this guy became the poster boy for the atomic bomb. I wonder what's happened to those others. ("Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won't answer any more...")

Look, WWII is a war we look back on as a well-justified war, in contrast to this one, and it needed to end. But dropping nuclear weapons is nothing, I repeat nothing, that a so-called civilized nation should be proud of. And there's no doubt that racism made dropping those two bombs easier than it would have been over Germany. Rather, no doubt in my mind; there was controversy again over a Smithsonian exhibit in '95 or so, with the pilot and other groups protesting that it showed too much sympathy for the Japanese (those whining, dead, maimed, cancer-riddled bastards) and, this more reasonably, underestimated the aggression of the Japanese government and possible American casualties in an invasion of Japan. I guess no matter how often we try to flagellate ourselves with the notion that governments aren't people, it doesn't sink in.

Oh, and the Enola Gay? Named after his mom, apparently.

I was thinking to buy my mom a spa visit for Christmas.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Beautiful Laundromat

Doesn't sound as good, does it? I taught My Beautiful Laundrette today and ran out of time. It is such a weird, interesting little film, and I really don't think I had ever seen it before. Director Stephen Frears, who also directed The Queen, described it once as a little film about a gay Pakistani laundry owner. I suppose that that about encompasses it. But as my students discovered as I made them map out the multiple narrative trajectories, it is ridiculously complex for a 93-minute film.

On the one track, Omar enters the family business, and it really is the Family Business, with porn, drug-running, cars, and who knows what else. His uncle Nasser puts him in charge of a broken-down laundromat; he enlists his old pal Johnny's help and steals his (cousin? not sure) business connection Selim's cocaine drop to fund its renovation. The laundrette is a big success, with waves stenciled on the walls and a sound system, but Selim figures things out and demands repayment. Omar and Johnny commit robbery to get the money, but Selim tells him that it was just a lesson: stick by your family.

That doesn't even get us to the end, but you get the idea. The other track (literally, track; train tracks are a big motif in the film) is Omar and Johnny's romance, which only becomes visible halfway through the movie. The striking thing about it is that although it is complicated by race, class, and politics, their physical affection really comes across as tender and playful, and really quite adorable. Even though Omar uses Johnny's labor and sometimes loves treating him like a servant, he rushes in to shield him with his own body in the end when Johnny is being beaten up by his old gang. It's a striking contrast with Brokeback Mountain, which was controversial in how rough and violent the gay romance chiefly was.

Then you have other tracks, with Omar's drunken and disillusioned father, his frustrated cousin Tania who he almost marries, his uncle Nasser's lovely and friendly mistress Rachel, allusions to the National Front...

The film has lasted because it is a great slice of anti-Thatcherite life in the '80s, and of course just because it's a great film. (I used it to teach the concept of postmodernism.) It has big currency now as a queer film, although when it came out, it apparently wasn't taken up by the queer filmmaking community because of identity politics (director Frears, writer Hanif Kureishi, and as far as I know the two star are all straight) and because the filmmakers were more interested in promoting it as a black film (black in the British sense).

It has also lasted because it's the film that launched Daniel Day-Lewis. Yes, the future Last of the Mohicans hunk played Johnny. And star power ain't the word. He's fierce.

Poor Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar (an interesting, very understated performance) has languished in the hell that is minority acting. I wonder if they ever talk.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Los amigos de Peter

My kingdom for an all-region DVD player! I've encountered this problem quite a bit recently, a couple of times for fun and once for work, but all British. My Branagh kick extended to an early quirky comedy, Peter's Friends, that he directed and acted in with an all-star cast: Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Alphonsia Emmanuel. It's been described as a British Big Chill, but never having seen BC I can't pronounce. Six grown-up friends, whose lives have gone all haywire since college (or uni, excuse me). I thought it was odd that Netflix didn't carry it, so I checked amazon. When the DVD came up as Los amigos de Peter, I knew I was in trouble. Luckily, the Northwestern library has a copy, and let me tell you, it is a cute early '90s time-capsule gem. If your video store has a VHS, rent it. Now.

I also wanted to show my students the BBC special of Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia, starring a much-younger Naveen Andrews. Just came out, only Region 2.

Hm, one of my profs is right. I do use too many parentheses.

On another Branagh note, I think In the Bleak Midwinter is not on DVD at all, or maybe also only Region 2. Either way, for now I've had to settle for reading the screenplay. Another adorable gem, but this one probably more oriented towards theatre connoisseurs; lots of in-jokes about actors and Hamlet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Unromantic Beach Vacation

You want a good laugh? Do a youtube search for Hugh Jackman hosting the Tonys. I nearly busted a gut.

You want a painful laugh? Read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, which was shortlisted for this year's Booker. (Quick trivia, which I put together for my class: McEwan is one of the most frequently shortlisted authors for the Booker (four times, including a win). Also, 'Booker' is a corporate sponsor's name, as is 'Man,' so the full name, the Man Booker Prize, is like the Chase Goldman Prize. Just pretty subdued names, luckily for its prestige.)

On Chesil Beach, a very short novel or long novella, is about a young couple, Edward and Florence, who get married in 1962 before the age of free love. Florence is a sensitive violinist; Edward is neither. But they are a nice young couple--so nice that they really have no idea what they are doing in bed, and Edward's eagerness collides with Florence's frigidity and nervousness to create a disastrous honeymoon night that ends their marriage.

Plausibility entirely aside, it will be entirely up to you whether you find the characters and the graphic description of their abortive intercourse cringeworthy in the good, sympathetic sense or the "oh god I can't believe the man who wrote Atonement came up with this load of crap" sense, which is the one the Times reviewer went for. Personally, I found it quite a good story until the couple split up. It's not meant to be plausible; the point is that it could have happened in that weird time period! Unfortunately, after the split, McEwan only follows Edward, giving us no insight into Florence's thoughts or feelings, when really it was much more interesting to know why she was so repulsed by sex. Edward's perfectly comprehensible, and the brevity of his trajectory afterwards doesn't allow for much elaboration of his character.

So, Florence. Was it education? something in past experience? closet lesbianism? Maybe McEwan thought he was doing an interesting thing by leaving her enigmatic, letting us decide the cause. But it really just leaves her looking a bit crazy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

G-rated night

Two random points:

1) The BBC is remaking Ballet Shoes! For those of you who are not, well, girls, Noel Streatfeild's {sic} Ballet Shoes is a great little book about three little orphans in London in... I just realized I don't know when. I think post-WWI, because the second little girl, Petrova, is obsessed with cars and planes. They grow up under the care of a devoted young woman and her own old governess and all become stage children to help out with money; they sing and dance and act Shakespeare and worry about their clothes and eat biscuits. It's sickeningly cute and charming, and I have loved it since I was a wee tiny thing. A version was made in the '70s, but I've never seen it. This version, which should come out around Christmas, stars Hermione as the oldest girl. I haven't seen the latest Harry Potter, but found her acting quite bad in Movie #4, so I don't hold out a ton of hope. But I am excited that a whole new generation of little girls (I am sorry, but it is just so excessively girlie) will get to know this book. Well, a whole new generation of British girls. But maybe the crazy American Harry Potter fans will get their hands on it eventually.

I just remembered that the grown-up girls are background characters in another book of his, which takes place during a war, but I don't know which one. Still, cars and planes? More likely post-WWI.

OK, it was bugging me, so I went and checked my copy. Original text copyright 1937, so unless Noel was a lot smarter than Chamberlain, post-WWI.

2) Saw standup comic Jeff Caldwell on Letterman the other night. I've seen him on Craig Ferguson a couple of times and actually watched and liked him, which is quite rare for me -- generally the comics come on and I start wondering if maybe Oprah is talking about a new vitamin I should know about. (Central Time, people, Oprah is on at 11pm here.) I looked him up, and his press makes a big deal about him being a 'clean' comic. Upon careful recollection, this is true, but it was not annoyingly obvious; he doesn't joke about Jesus and small furry kittens. His website is, and he has a myspace page. Watch his clips. The student loan set will send sympathetic chills right down your spine.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Thanks for all the email abuse about the pink background. Much appreciated.

Here's a nonfiction thought. Barack Obama (remember him? he used to be a contender for the Democratic nomination, until suddenly everyone started crowning Hillary a couple of weeks ago) wrote a book, The Audacity of Hope, that was a big seller, got him on all the talk shows, was hailed as a great new political tome, etc. So I read it, just because I barely knew anything about Obama and it seemed that he might be a major player quite soon.

It was exactly like every other political biography I've ever read, which is to say that it alternated between anecdote and policy stance with dreary regularity. I went to church as a child; here are my thoughts on the separation of church and state. I went to college; here are my thoughts on public education. I got married; here's what I think of gay marriage. As a matter of fact, it was uncannily like the last political biography I had read before Obama's, which was Jim McGreevey's The Confession. If you don't remember McGreevey, he is the ex-heterosexual ex-governor of New Jersey. He gave his gay Israeli lover a hefty state job and then lost his own, coming out and stepping down in one fell speech. He and his ex-wife have (separately) been on Oprah.

So we have two books that couldn't be more opposed in a way, one being riddled with Catholic guilt from a politician of no great national stature who fell from power because of corruption and sex, the other a happy book of family values from a politician already a national figure and likely to be a bigger one before he's done. McGreevey is, though Catholic, as white as the driven snow, if not as pure; Obama's book glosses over his extranational ties and stresses the good life in Hyde Park.

On the other hand, they really are exactly alike, because they're both out for the same thing: to convince you, the reader, that they are Good People with smarts and morals who deserve your trust. McGreevey wants some semblance of a career, though he'll probably never hold elected office again, and Obama wants more than a semblance. In the end, they're both out to create that bland aura of likeability that will get them political support.

No wonder they're hardly the exciting reads of the year. At least McGreevey's book left me with a question: exactly which rest stops on the Garden State Parkway are these hotspots of gay cruising?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

As You Like It

You may barely have heard about Kenneth Branagh's new Shakespeare film, since HBO Films decided to skip theatrical release, debuted it a couple of times on TV in August, and sent it straight to DVD. Herewith follows my disappointed little Amazon review:

'Beautiful' seems to be the word of praise most used for this movie, and visually gorgeous it certainly is. It is probably worth watching for that alone. But this comedy, usually hailed as the most witty and sparkling of Shakespeare's comedies, turns into a sort of fest of overblown emotions without the wit to leaven them. It's not helped by its leading lady, Bryce Dallas Howard, who is a gorgeous and well-spoken Rosalind without a lot of range or irony. Only in the epilogue does she really show much spark. Simply speaking, you wish that the characters were taking themselves a little less seriously.

Branagh is, as always, a superb director, but it's the adaptation that's lacking slightly here. The much-debated Japanese setting is not terribly illuminating in any way, unlike his Hamlet transposition which skilfully used the 1848 pan-European setting to provoke reflection on the political and philosophical volatility of the time period and of the text -- a true feat. Here, a few title cards are thrown up with some vague historical background which is then forgotten; the film could just as well have taken place in a quasi-Japanese fairytale world (the equivalent of, oh, let's see, the English Forest of Arden!) without any feeble explanation. It's just pretty. [To elaborate here, it would have been a hell of a lot less unsavory to have a bunch of white people romping around quasi-Japan than Japan. I can think of ways it could have worked really interestingly, so that the Europeans living in their little enclave learned from venturing outside it, etc., but... it did not.]

Romola Garai is a hilarious Celia, so much so that I found myself wishing she had played Rosalind. The other standout was Adrian Lester, who managed to convey a believably villainous but then instantly sympathetic Oliver. Branagh fans were hoping wildly for him to play Jaques or Touchstone; you'll be wishing that afterwards, too, as Kevin Kline was a good but rather monochromatic Jaques (if Branagh had cut the monologue before 'All the world's a stage,' it might have helped), and Molina's Touchstone was not often funny. (Really, that's what I keep coming back to--I ought to have been laughing my head off, and barely ever cracked a smile.)

The DVD is set at low volume, so be prepared to jack it up. Sadly, no director commentary, as I would have loved to hear Branagh talk about his creative shot choices and movement in detail. Instead, there's a crap 5-minute featurette that tells you nothing much about his creative process, but at least provides some behind-the-scenes shots of the genius at work to keep his fans satisfied.

The bottom line: a must-see, of course, for Shakespeare and Branagh fans, who will enjoy critiquing it and/or adoring it. Will probably do well for period-film-lovers based on its visual beauty.

I should warn you all that regardless of my disappointment with this film, I have been on a big Branagh kick lately, so expect more of him.

Post One

My friend Jenny found the review I wrote on Amazon of As You Like It and told me I should start a blog -- something I've been thinking about for a while. So here's a start. I'm not sure how much time and effort I want to put into this, especially since I'm planning on blogging more about (obviously) what I read and watch than my personal life.

The blog name refers not only to my political tendencies but to my rather expansive reading tastes. Trips to the library are usually performed on the way to the gym, to get something to read on the elliptical, and are either exceedingly brief and efficient or exceedingly tedious.
Last night's trip resulted in a biography of Laurence Olivier, A Thousand Splendid Suns (yes, I read Kite Runner, yes, I enjoyed it, yes, I think it'll make a politically volatile movie), a book by Elizabeth Berg the title of which escapes me at the moment, and a collection of E. T. A. Hoffman short stories, which I grabbed because I walked past them and I like the Offenbach opera Les Contes d'Hoffman.

So far, the Olivier bio is pretty good, though since I'm more interested in his work, I'm skimming over an awful lot of Vivien Leigh.