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.