Saturday, December 20, 2008

Making it new

I always enjoyed the Narnia books when I was a kid and still like to pick them up now; even though I know they're not by any stretch of the imagination Literature with a capital L like you can claim for Tolkien, they have a lot of great description and imaginative characters and places.

I finally got to see Prince Caspian, which I missed in the movie theaters. Fun, though definitely could have used some editing. An entire battle was added, and the themes of teenage frustration with not growing up fast enough were pretty heavily emphasized. Makes sense; I never thought too much about how jarring it would be for these kids to travel back and forth from WWII and post-WWII England to a lovely fantasy world at the drop of a hat. For the religious parable audience, the frustration with a seemingly uncaring and unhearing deity was also a key theme.

As I may have said somewhere before, clearly the children of England all were inspired to take up drama training after Harry Potter and just in time for the Narnia films, because any one of these four could out-act the whole Harry Potter trio at, well, the drop of a hat. The youngest actress (Lucy), who was so delightful and natural in the first film, was straining a bit hard here, but still quite good; ditto for Peter, but Susan and Edmund made the most of their rather un-emphasized characters.

I still want to know what's going to happen if they go on and make this whole franchise, because Narnia's enemies in two time periods are, essentially, Arabs. They're called "Calormenes," but they wear turbans, they're dark, they talk like the Arabian Nights about gardens of delights and so forth, they trade in slaves, they're courteous but cruel, they're treacherous, their women are veiled... you get the idea. They appear briefly in the film under production now, so their appearance or lack thereof might give us a hint as to how it'll be done. I sincerely hope it'll be superior to Peter Jackson's handling of the enemies in Lord of the Rings, who might as well have been bearing flashing signs saying "Dangerous Eastern Peoples."

And finally, what will happen to Susan? Bowing to modern sensibilities and the demand for Girl Power, Susan takes heavy part in the battles here, and Lucy is of course more active in the next film. But in the books, Susan, out of the four, turns her back on Narnia for silk stockings and parties and lipsticks. Will it be blamed on her anger at being shoved around and taken away from her incipient romance with Prince Caspian (in the film, not the books)? Or will they bow to happy endings and include her in the last film? I don't even know what I would like best -- perhaps leaving her out but showing her repenting and thinking of Narnia in England as a closing scene. Lewis was not exactly comfortable with women in his own life, certainly not femininity as such, and it shows badly. I hope it can be improved.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The old dilemma

Art vs. money, or as JRR Tolkien phrased it, cash or kudos. Charles Isherwood has written a great critique of Billy Elliot the musical, now on Broadway. If you don't know, this has music by Elton John, was/is a smash hit in London and now ditto in NYC. But Isherwood beautifully sums up the inevitable artistic flaws of a Big Broadway Piece that simply can't resist giving the audience what it expects. If I ever get to teach on Broadway musicals, as I would very much like to, this will be required reading.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Late-night no more

You all know that I love my late-night TV. What better way to wind down the work day than with the six million internet errands and emails I have to take care of while (hopefully) interesting people talk and play music? Being in Central Time, late-night TV starts at 10pm with Jon Stewart. Imagine my surprise, then, to see that NBC is going to retain Jay Leno by giving him an hourlong weeknight show at 10pm (EST).

I always thought that NBC was nuts for retaining Conan by promising him the Tonight Show without OKing it with Jay. I simply couldn't see what they were going to do with him. This is seen as a cost-saving measure, since his show will cost so much less than an hourlong drama and fill up five days to boot. The exact format will be worked out in the three months that he will take to format the new show, incidentally retaining his studio, though not the Tonight Show name. Sorry, Conan, there goes part of your historical cachet. (God only knows what Conan, who is characterized as fiercely competitive, thinks of all this -- I remember reading that he hit the roof when Stewart was raking up the Emmys a few years ago, considering the hours that he fills up while Stewart does a half-hour show fewer days per week, fewer weeks per year. Can't imagine he's delighted to have someone crashing his party).

I'm also shocked at Leno's workaholicness. Any other person might want to take some time to travel, or at least I personally would have bargained for Fridays off like Stewart/Colbert, and less weeks of work (46 weeks, according to the heavily leaked bargain). I guess he really does love what he does.

This is probably the only way a show like this can break into prime-time: an established name with the connections to bring in other established names (assuming that he continues to interview) and the heft to lean on NBC brass to keep going if the show doesn't take off like a rocket in the first few weeks. All I can say is, if Jimmy Fallon was hoping for any real buzz around his Conan replacement debut, I think it's just officially been killed.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Jay Leno loves it!

And so will you. Frost/Nixon is out, everybody! Look for it at a theater near you. Seriously, run, don't walk.

I wrote about this film when it was in the works, after watching it twice on Broadway, and I've been eagerly awaiting its advent. Unkind as I was to Ron Howard previously, I will say that if he does as good a job as he did in Apollo 13, it'll be a fantastic movie. On the other hand, I then read the NY Times review of the movie, and Manola Dargis, who seems to have liked the film, said this:

Mr. Howard, a competent craftsman who tends to dim the lights in his movies even while brightening their themes (“A Beautiful Mind”), has neither the skill nor the will to draw out a dangerous performance from Mr. Langella, something to make your skin crawl or heart leap.

I fear that she's right about Howard's competency. On the other hand, I don't know that I would blame this entirely on Howard; Nixon's irrepressibly comic in the play, and apparently was just an insanely weird figure in real life. I don't know that he is a skin-crawling character if he's done true to the record. That doesn't take away from the fact that Morgan and Langella's Nixon is a titanically flawed figure, tragic in his machinations and his self-awareness. Poor doomed-to-be-overshadowed Michael Sheen is equally an amazing David Frost, living life on the surface but well aware of the depths that await him if he can't blend journalism and entertainment.

Can't wait, can't wait, can't wait. I will no doubt go on at length about key differences between the play and film when I see it. There were some very interesting staging techniques that can't possibly be reproduced on film, so I'll be interested to see what they did instead.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Oz"

I did, I did as I promised and went to see Australia in the theater. And in spite of its beautiful landscapes, its Baz Luhrmann zany bits that didn't work so well, its racial politics with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, an impossibly evil villain, a darling, earnest child actor, an impossibly slender and frozen-faced Nicole Kidman, and an impossibly hot Hugh Jackman, I think I've already forgotten it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Watch Jimmy Stewart suffer, faithfully

I also got around to Vertigo; I've seen enough Hitchcock, early and late, that I just never really felt compelled to rent it, although I like Jimmy Stewart and I had only seen him in one Hitchcock (Rear Window, of course). I can faithfully report that Vertigo is quite good, though some of the more fanciful "hallucinatory" effects are extremely dated. I also wish that Hitchcock could have refrained from explaining the entire mystery two-thirds of the way through the film. It could have been done in a more subtle way that would make the ending -- which I won't completely spoil -- far more satisfying. And the scenery, as always, is beautiful.

Speaking of the ending, the DVD extras included an ending shot for European audiences, the lack of which had puzzled me mightily. Hitchcock does love his closing shots of patient (or not so patient) faithful blond women receiving their wayward men (see The Paradine Case for the most blatant example, but even Rear Window falls in this category). I was a little surprised that the faithful old friend didn't make a reappearance in the latter half of the movie, but there she was in the European version, faithfully pouring Scotch.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Watch Jeremy Irons suffer

One of the benefits of being sick is that you do things like watch movies you have been meaning to get to for a while (that is, if you're not so sick that you end up watching marathons of America's Next Top Model, as I once did and then prayed for death rather than such suffering).

So I finally got around to Michael Radford's lush period film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, and Al Pacino as Shylock. An interesting film. Too lush and rather erratically paced and clunky in parts, with very different acting all around. Fiennes brings the kind of crazily intense emotional register that made him famous in Shakespeare in Love; Irons brings his understated suffering that my brother mocks so much, a really fine performance; Pacino is great to watch, and yet his speech patterns do jar a little bit sometimes, a little bit "on this, the day of my daughter's wedding." For me, Lynn Collins was a real discovery. A very fine actress, very classical and subtle, with beautiful diction (she's an American putting on a British accent here). The famous courtroom scene with Pacino was extremely interesting. I never really thought enough about just how polar these two characters are, and this is the first time that they meet in spite of the fact that the whole play turns on them both.

This film was mostly talked about for The Kiss, a rather quick peck between Bassanio (Fiennes) and Antonio (Irons). Radford motivated the whole sacrificial loan bit and the final test with Portia's ring, in which Bassanio gives away the ring he swore to her that he'd keep forever to the man (he thinks) who saved Antonio's life, with a love triangle. Antonio and Bassanio have such a deep love between them -- in this version, sexual as well -- that Portia quickly identifies it as a threat to her own future relationship with her husband. By scaring and forgiving her husband, she ensures that he will prioritize her in the future, leaving poor Antonio rather out in the cold in spite of having saved his life. Incidentally, Radford mentioned in the director's commentary that he had to cut The Kiss for American TV, as well as the Veronese frescoes in the background that show some nudity. Ashcroft and his purple velvet drapes, anybody?

Pacino did a fine job with the most famous speech, "Hath not a Jew eyes?" He's quite sympathetic, helped along by some judicious cuts, but there is no getting away from the ultimate ruthlessness of the character. What I found interesting was the portrayal of his daughter Jessica, who in the play is also rather ruthless, robbing her father and running off with a Venetian gentleman. She trades her father's ring that was given to him by her dead mother for a monkey, producing one of Shylock's most sympathetic moments. But the film actually ends with Jessica staring across the water (presumably towards Venice, where her father is now an outcast) and fingering that very ring. Her melancholy and guilt are probably the most drastic modifications to this play's controversial anti-Semitism that could possibly be made. I found it a very interesting film version.

For comparison, try the '70s-ish version with Laurence Olivier as Shylock. Heretical though it may be, I really found more food for thought in this one.

Btw, Lynn Collins will next be seen onscreen as Silver Fox in Wolverine. Seriously.

Friday, November 14, 2008

New toy

I've finally taken the 10 seconds necessary to Google and select a website that tracks Supreme Court news (cases on the docket, cases decided). I'm looking forward to upcoming case District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, mostly because it proposes the issue of plaintiffs' access to the state's biological evidence in order to test the DNA. Why, on the face of it, would the state oppose such access? In this case, we're talking about a convicted felon who wants to test the condom and hairs found at the scene of the crime.

Supposing that the DNA evidence could exonerate him, why would the state actively want to keep an innocent man in jail? I am supposing that the state is concerned about inconclusive results of some kind (though how exactly, I don't know -- insufficient biological material, perhaps). There's also the specter of financial burden and judicial chaos as felons rush to get access to just about anything to test for possible skin cells left on surfaces, etc. Fortunately, I think this will be less of a factor as the years go on. But I have to go look at how this is done. I would hope that the material is sent to an independent testing firm who sends results to both sides, but I suppose that all this still leaves everything open to bloody-glove police conspiracies. It's a tangle.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Garden State

A long-delayed trip to the Camden Aquarium resulted in several firsts:

1) I saw hippos. Amazingly graceful trotting around underwater, letting their inertia carry them along.

2) I petted sharks. One in particular which was clearly enduring the small children and praying for death. I gave it some nice gentle strokes and it wiggled its fins in what I choose to believe was pleasure.

3) I petted a sea cucumber.

4) " a moon jellyfish.

5) " an anemone.

I had petted starfish before at the New England Aquarium, but I definitely tried varieties this time that I had not before.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today, life is good (Obamapalooza, II)

I was at the rally last night in Grant Park to watch history be made -- very quickly, as it felt. We were settled in for the long haul (and just as well, because even if you were ticketed, if you didn't come early or on time, you probably didn't get in in time for the big stuff). Ohio's call provoked a huge cheer, then Virginia, then CNN (which was on the big screen in the park, with commercials blacked out) called it for Obama and it was almost stunning. I also didn't expect McCain to concede with such celerity, nor Obama to come out and give his speech so swiftly thereafter; I guess they decided to let everyone go to bed, especially on the east coast.

A huge, fairly well-behaved crowd, ethnically mixed as you'd expect in a big city but not more so, so to speak, with a bewildering array of t-shirts, ranging from "got hope?" to "Al Franken 2008." Obligatory boos for states called for McCain, gracious clapping during his speech. Not the best choice of music, Obama staffers: one of the commercial breaks featured Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten," and I thought to myself, I'm leaving.

You may not have seen everything we did at the Park; for that matter, I didn't see anything that happened on TV after Virginia was called, because they switched coverage first to McCain and then to park coverage. First we had an invocation by an African American bishop, then a few words and the Pledge of Allegiance by a white man, then the national anthem by an African American woman who was not great. The crowd around me started singing to drown her out. Afterwards, a few songs were played to fill in the gap: "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," some Brooks & Dunn, etc. And then the First Family was announced and... you saw the rest!

A few photos for you:

The crowd at Congress Plaza, waiting to start getting into the park. This was about 7:30pm.


Another crowd shot, in the park.



And finally...

Those beams of light behind the jumbotron are not actually fairy lights being emitted for Obama, as Jon Stewart might joke; they're security searchlights.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I'd expect no less

A photo sent to me by some friends who recently visited Traverse City, Michigan. The VP debate was broadcast in the theater that Michael Moore renovated. It needs no other caption.

The Promised Land (Obamapalooza, I)


East o' the moon, west o' the sun, or the other way around... Who knew that the promised land was south of Balbo and north of Roosevelt? Preparations are massively underway at Grant Park for the Obama rally on Election Night. Streets are already blocked off (including the aforementioned Balbo), as well as the sidewalks all around, to prevent you from either scoping out or sabotaging the grounds, I assume. In order to get around the grounds, my friend and I had to cross over Lakeshore Drive (hence the across-the-street shot here) and walk down to Museum Campus and cross back to Michigan on Roosevelt. Quite a detour. Yet not big enough to fit the million and more who are expected, I don't think, so I don't know what they will do; plans are probably hampered by Buckingham Fountain's renovation, which means that a huge section of the park is already closed.

As you can see, other than the fencing all around, white tents and pavilions are going up, as well as huge towers with massive klieg lights, and no doubt some wind machines to blow the fairy dust all around. We also spotted rows and rows of port-o-potties, and a parking lot next to the grounds was almost full, though I don't know where all those people were -- we couldn't really see through the trees. Security is already ramped up; in addition to the blocked off streets and policewomen standing at corners to redirect, we spotted a Homeland Security truck turning into the parking lot and a federal police car circling the area.

Very little has been announced about the rally, except that I do know I'm not one of the 8,000 who got tickets and will be in the inner circle. I hope they communicate it well at some point, but anyone who tries to drive through downtown on Tuesday night is a born fool.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Unhappily ever after

Earlier this week, the famous writer David Mura came to speak at Northwestern. He's probably best known for his memoirs about Japanese American identity and masculinity, especially the aptly named Turning Japanese. He has just published his first novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a really fantastically written novel about a very underwritten problem; after the Japanese American internment, what happened to the next generation? And what happened in the long term to the no-no boys, those people who refused to bear arms for or take a 'loyalty oath' to the government that was imprisoning them without benefit of trial? Ben Ohara, adjunct historian, was decidedly not a model minority child; his parents' social ostracism erupts in his juvenile obesity and delinquency, and in his brilliantly weird brother Tommy's drug abuse and disappearance.

What makes the novel so engaging is not only an articulate, self-deprecating central character (also the key to Mura's memoirs) but its placement amid the swirls of very large social movements: post-internment resettlement, of course, but also rainbow coalition, city gentrification (though Mura professed his ignorance of what's happened lately to Chicago's Uptown), white flight retirement to Arizona, and even the always slightly pathetic currents of academia and its trend towards part-timers. Its success in gesturing lightly towards these issues is somewhat reminiscent of Junot Díaz, who Mura thanks for his reading, though with only one major footnote as opposed to Díaz's Foster-Wallace-like revelry in them.

Though the novel sags slightly at the end, probably the unfortunate effect of suddenly needing to speak in voices other than Ben's to answer some of the questions he's asking, it ends with an open but not annoyingly vague conclusion. I really enjoyed this very much, and I think its mixture of hapless child and hapless grownups will appeal in a self-identificatory fashion to a number of readers (though I have a feeling it's not exactly going to be in the YA section).

Mura, who was delightful to speak with about his work and the arts scene/historical work of the Asian American community, gave a great performance of some of his poetry and short stories, including a new short story about a Chinese-Filipino skateboarder in Minneapolis (he had me the second he mentioned Lupe Fiasco, of course) who falls for a Somali girl he sees being harassed by two black American girls on the train one day. Mura's so well known for his memoir work that it was important to see his ability to address other experiences so incisively. I say this with some guilt, because I must say (and I think that this is fair) that as a younger child, not even a teenager yet, when I first started reading AA fiction with an eye towards forming some kind of identity for myself, Mura's memoirs did nothing for me. As memoirs are wont to do, if they are not about a suitably apposite subject. A young sansei dating a white woman and going to Japan? What in god's name could I possibly get out of that?

At that age, not much. As a scholar, I now see just how important his work was; he addressed a lot of issues and anxieties that people really didn't want to hear about. As a reader, I certainly look forward to more of his fiction. As an audience member, well, I'm nowhere near him, but if you're in Minneapolis, try to catch him sometime at Theater Mu, one of the major Asian American theater companies.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Barackometric pressure

Just a clever title. (Not that clever.)

What I was really thinking of was the academic job search (MY search, of course) as a barometer of the economy as a whole, like anything else. Watching searches slowly get axed is about as disheartening a thing as you can imagine; talk about things being totally out of your hands.

But Barack's upcoming infomercial made its way into my consciousness and my title. I'm seriously worried about backlash; it's a show of excess wealth at a time when I think a lot of people are going to bristle at the slightest show of excess. If you have read any of the comment strings on articles about the planned Grant Park rally, you'll know what I mean.

Not Latinaface

Good news, actually; an Argentinean actress has been cast as Maria in the upcoming Broadway West Side Story revival. (Good luck with that, given the economy -- though revivals might do better than new shows, at least.) When I was in NYC in August, the rumor among the theatrical types I talked to was that Lea Michele from Spring Awakening was going to play her, and one girl in particular expressed her very strong feelings that this was just wrong when there are so many wonderful Latina performers. It's interesting that they're choosing to import, rather than casting an American of the required ethnicity; same thing was done for Miss Saigon, excuse being that there just wasn't one of the right caliber. I find these things hard to believe. It's easier and perhaps creates more buzz to identify the top guns elsewhere (this Argentinean actress is of some note on their B'way scene, so it wasn't a talent search like Saigon's) and import them with some fanfare. On the other hand, new stars like Lea Michele are found all the time, so why not look around close to home and save yourself the visa paperwork? I'm just musing, but I'd be curious to know how these things work.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What hath oil dependency wrought?

One seriously annoying commercial, that's what. Anyone else been assaulted with these stupid Volkswagen commercials starring Brooke Shields claiming that women are having babies just so they can buy the SUV? Interesting way to dance around the issue of ridiculously bad gas mileage and pitch SUVs as absolute necessities/luxuries. Completely offensive, of course, to anybody who's ever known anybody dealing with infertility or other baby issues.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mortally afraid

Somewhere in this harried weekend, I managed to devour a fantasy novel (first in a while) by famed writer Tanith Lee called Mortal Suns, set in a vaguely ancient Greek kind of world ruled by polygamous kings. It's unbelievably eerie and has some gorgeous descriptive writing; you can understand both these attributes when I say that the main character is an otherwise beautiful princess who is born without feet and is sent away by her mother to the Temple of Death; said mother then almost dies of supernatural feet kicking about in her womb.

Creepy as it is (and that's the tip of the iceberg), the writing does at least carry it along for the first half of the novel, but after that, when the romance gets going, phrasing takes over for any kind of characterization and the whole thing falls apart, character, plot, even imagery, and all. It's a pity, really.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A voice in the wilderness

Le blogue Bérubé is back, boys and girls. That's right, one of the 100 most dangerous liberals in America is blogging again to see us through these woeful times. Link is my slowly growing blogroll below and to the right.

Pre-Happy Days

Last night I finally got around to George Lucas' American Graffiti, which various people had been telling me to watch. If I had any nostalgia for the golden days of the sixties and a bunch of horny, self-obsessed teenagers, no doubt I would have enjoyed myself immensely. As it was, it was the '60s evacuated of almost everything that makes the the decade interesting to me, and instead was just white high schoolers riding around for a night. Will I go to college? Should we break up? Where's that hot chick? I love Steven! I hate Steven!

The most enjoyable part was probably marveling at Richard Dreyfuss -- was he ever that young, really? He at least brought a tiny bit of depth to his character. All in all, if you want to watch a movie with roller-skating waitresses bringing food to drive-through diners, there are more interesting films, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. There are only the tiniest mentions in this one of things like race relations or Vietnam -- the "where are they now" sentences that end the film tell us that the geeky guy was reported MIA in Vietnam. And incidentally, in a final act of sexism, the "where are they now" only mentions the main four boys. Nothing about the girls. If I hadn't been mildly annoyed by the film already, that would have done it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Feed the rich

It drives me stark raving insane to see people complaining about increased taxes on the wealthy and calling it 'socialist' (because it was unwisely framed as spreading the wealth, or sharing the wealth, or whatever). Again, I have never been an ardent Obama supporter, but this issue has always bothered me.

Don't people think?

Consider it as an exchange for services rendered. For example, I, in my unwealthiness but (to be Bourdieuvian for a moment) being possessed of much social capital, fly numerous times a year to numerous destinations, two of them international last year. This means, just off the top of my head, that I require the FAA, TSA, passport services, international customs, a reasonable amount of intelligence devoted to ensuring that nothing national security related happens to me in the air, regulations ensuring that Boeing made my plane without child labor, environmental regulations ensuring that said plane emits only its fair share of pollutants, foreign consulates in case I get arrested or get ill, some type of economic negotiations ensuring that my $2 will get me one British pound rather than a sixpence... I also use the oil that will be pumped out of Iraq by Bush's cronies after this multi-xillion war, or already is, since the Iraqis are having a terrible time building their own oil business without the cooperation of the multinationals.

Now, on the other hand, I do not own a yacht. I do not go on boat trips of any kind, and I but rarely make it to the beach. The Coast Guard and I are only distant friends.

I have no car. I am not on highways that often. The DMV and I are only occasional acquaintances. Pave the interstates, by all means, I still need them occasionally. Police presence, sure. Regulate car manufactures, work with labor unions, inspect mines from which metal is drawn to make sure they're safe; I need all that, too.

Everything takes maintenance, and if you live the high life using and abusing the structure, you pay your fair share. Now, I agree with Josh (I think it was) on the West Wing, who said that as we ask rich people to pay for so much, we should at least not hate them for it. Fine by me. But I think they need to consider what they're paying for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's great to be alive!

This post is to reassure you, faithful readers, that I still am. However, Esther in The Bell Jar didn't think it was so great.

Yes, took some time to read this weekend after checking in with myself and realizing that the lack of new reading was why I was not feeling quite human. So I read Roots and The Bell Jar on Saturday (raiding that pile of books I own but still have not read, not a huge one). Sylvia Plath is such an icon that I don't know how I didn't read The Bell Jar, but I think that, like Slaughterhouse Five or Catch-22, it was one of those books that a certain group of très cool, world-weary teenagers would carry around and rave about. 'Nuff said.

I was astonished at how extremely pertinent Esther's neurosis and mental breakdown still is, though; ambitious but purposeless girl in big city, returns to small town, sexual hangups, academic confusion, mental institution. Except for the shock treatments, it's dreadfully realistic and depressing. As a matter of fact, so much so that I couldn't quite appreciate the beautiful Plathian descriptive writing and very tightly told story. Nobody talks much about the craftsmanship of the novel, and I can see why, as you spend a lot of time thinking, "Oh dear lord, this sad girl." But it is very well told. At the same time, there were some episodes out of the story arc, particularly Esther's first major sexual experience, that were clearly meant to reflect her mental state and that I didn't feel were entirely successful -- didn't manage to be quite unclear enough to be dreamlike or extra frightening, didn't fill any function in telling us more about Esther. They might as well have been told in a straightforward narrative fashion.

I was very glad to read it at last, and found it well worth reading. Two pop culture notes: confounding author's biography (in this case near hagiography) with novel, I was under the strong impression that the narrator dies at the end. Not so. Also, a couple of years back, Julia Stiles was announced to star in a new film version of the novel. Haven't heard anything on it since.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Golden oldies

The frequent discussion over the out-of-touch Nobel committee usually centers on literature, less often on peace. But I was reminded this year of not how out-of-touch but rather how out-of-step these prizes are by their very nature, not to mention how exclusive a club they form. This year's prize for chemistry went to three scientists who worked on GFP, a glowing protein that has been used as a wonderful marker in many studies. As a matter of fact, it's so wonderful and has been used so many times that it's been a tool for quite a while, one that I feel like I practically grew up with. By all means they should have gotten the prize (they and a host of others; how about a list of up to ten "Nobel citations" to go along with the winners, reflecting today's global network of collaborations?), but I wish that the media blitz could be applied to current discoveries as well, like Doug Melton's recent work on reprogramming adult cells into stem cells. Of course, that particular discovery bears the possible downside of making the conservative wing say, "Great, we don't need to fund those stem cells you sickos want to use to make important medical discoveries." Maybe it's best that it goes relatively under the radar for now.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

And a featherbed

I saw Christopher Marlowe's Edward II staged for the first time the other night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their upstairs theater, which is like an extra-fancy black box. This is a 75-minute version, Marlowe Notes, quite fast-paced but well cut. The most intriguing thing about it was the staging; seats were available in a balcony all around the black box, but about 30 people, maybe, were standing on the floor of the box where the action mostly took place (there was some walking about the balcony or entering down the stairs to the floor). There were benches available, but they were also used for the actors to sit and stand as they moved around, especially to exit in and out the main doors.

This resulted in some careful shepherding by one stage manager, who was on the floor specially to tap people on the shoulder and move them ahead of time. Sometimes it was done by the extras or minor characters, and sometimes by the main characters themselves. There was one particularly hilarious moment when Edward is collapsing onto a bench and had no time but to do a regal sort of flick with his hands, which sent the audience members (neither of whom were young and agile) leaping sideways.

The actors must be incredibly focused. I got caught in the spotlight once when the people behind me wouldn't back up, so Isabella and Mortimer had to yell at each other with a silent third party looking on in complete terror. Isabella was wearing fake eyelashes, by the way.

That all being said, it was clearly a very creative staging, not as minimal as a black box normally implies. Kind of a modern bohemian twist on the whole play, with the executions taking place in a rusty, disused bathroom set up on the side, most soliloquies happening on a junkyard heap, and Gaveston glorying in his position in a white fur jacket and tiara. The unabashed, Paris Hilton-like flouncing about of Gaveston and Edward (who kiss quite a lot) creates some problems dramatically. If Gaveston really is that annoying, it's hard to blame the nobles for hating him, but of course, you hate them too in the end, and the play becomes a nihilist spiral downwards saved only by a very minor character, the prince, who rights the monarchical ship at the end. Ultimately, it's dramatically unsatisfying.

But fun. Marlowe's always fun and always has beautiful language. The actors handled it all extremely well, with only a few modern interspersions: "A featherbed." "Weird." I would certainly recommend it. But brace yourself for Edward's death. There were clearly some people who didn't know the play, and when that red-hot poker comes out, I saw some hands over mouths.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Identify this

Has it come to this? Has the Invisible Man of Ralph Ellison's great construction become yet one more archetype we can project onto the 'blank screen' that Barack Obama or any politician -- though this archetype might demand one of color -- offers us during a long and increasingly defensive campaign?

What follows here you may all discount as the ravings of a sulky young academic who doesn't even have an academic job yet, but who comes home from the gym and reads the five (online) pages in the New Republic written by David Samuels on Barack Obama and a novel she has spent the last several years of her life thinking about on and off. I expect it's the way young Shakespeare scholars felt watching Stephen Greenblatt on Colbert. Personally, I begrudge Stephen nothing. It would be patently idiotic. But since I owe Samuels nothing, I'm bringing it.

It's not that Samuels is completely off in his analysis. Obama is a transformation of the invisible man (or Invisible, as Arnold Rampersad dubbed him, or IM, as I cheekily called him in my first dissertation draft) in certain ways that are too compelling to ignore: a young ambitious man thrown in front of a crowd, who finds that they love him for his oratory, and then gets steered astray by political advisors he can't ignore. On the other hand, Samuels wanders way off track when complaining about how Obama can't talk about his "carefully constructed" identity, which he equates with his foreign family, enough and therefore has sacrificed (or invisibilized) that part of his autobiography for the sake of the electorate. He ends not with a bang but a whimper, saying that all the talk about race is really just self-indulgent nonsense, and Barack Obama needs to grow a pair (or borrow Hillary's) and focus on fixing the Things That Matter, like the economy, Iran, and public education.

This flies directly in the face of his previous five pages, in which he, like I, praises Dreams from my Father highly for its literary qualities and the limited yet stunning candor of its accounts. What would Ellison have done with some of Obama's strange adventures, Samuels admiringly asks? Well, I think we already know, if we go back to look at Invisible Man. Community organizing gone wrong, authority figures turned menacing, it's all there. Race matters. Cornel West said so, and he was in one of the Matrix movies, so he must be right.

What is irritating Samuels, I think, is the way that Obama, despite the justly famous "A More Perfect Union" speech, does not fit into U.S. molds of race, and the fact that he's not able to use that to blow the mold itself wide open. How he would do this without making himself unelectable is certainly difficult to tell. That he does not do so makes him, in Samuels' plaint, invisible. We might also justly say that it makes the American public illiterate. (On an empirical note, after the 80th time I heard my father complain during primary season that we knew nothing about Obama's family, I threatened to buy the book and ship it to him. I then recited Obama's family tree as far as I could.)

It is, again, not an unreasonable charge. Still, there are so many rebuttals to this, beginning with the one Samuels wisely foregrounds: 'doesn't everybody?' I seem to recall a young Arkansas governor whose campaign blathered on and on about Hope. Hope, Arkansas, that is, the most felicitously named birthplace in the history of American politics. A more reasonable rebuttal is, for god's sake, let us have invisibility as a weapon. Let Obama cloak himself with whatever he can to fend off the darker possibilities that can be projected onto his blank screen with a planetarium-sized "overhead projector." Remember Sybil in Invisible Man, who gets Invisible to 'rape' her and fulfill her fantasies about black men? She gets only an oblique mention by Samuels.

But let's also turn and look at Ellison's novel, which has a problematic relationship with foreignness, back-to-Africa, Afrodiaspora, or whatever anachronistic term you would like to apply to this. There's no palling around with Ras the Destroyer, who rides through Harlem like a horseman of the racial apocalypse. Coming from South to North is culture shock enough. There's no blame to be assigned here; it's simply a fact that Invisible, and perhaps Ellison himself, can't embrace Africa as a source of power and pride as Ras asks him to. Can't or won't? Samuels says that it doesn't matter in the end; either way you're invisible. Can or will? Either way, you're foreign. The funny name doesn't help.

And we're back to nationalism. For all the academic talk of globalism, globalization, transnationalism, and diaspora, there's no good place for it in a political campaign, and a faint unease about it in American politics as a whole. If Barack Obama were Deval Patrick (governor of Massachusetts from the South Side of Chicago), there'd be none of this quiet current of 'he's not really black, so he doesn't deserve the special treatment he's getting.' Obama has to avoid being cast as the crazy, violent, foreign Ras whose story goes nowhere in favor of being the invisible man who... oh wait, as Samuels also points out, ends up writing in a basement.

But the chief difference? Samuels talks about it, but fails to emphasize its importance: Obama's already written it all, and it was in a law office, not a basement. His is not an identity in progress like Invisible's. He's come to some kind of useful terms with his Ras-like father (as much as anyone ever comes to terms with a distant father, I'd say) and his own foreign experiences. He knows how to be the young frontman of the Democratic party. And casting himself as a blank screen may deny him some rhetorical freedom, high energy and an extra ping of the teeth, but I highly doubt that it's chipping away at his identity. In the end, the only ones who are denied anything are the audience members. It's not Obama who has to focus on the facts and issues; it's us. To paraphrase Michael Douglas speaking Aaron Sorkin, we're drinking the sand because we don't know the difference.

We could go pick up the book.

Abuses of power

Ben Brantley served up a much more measured review this time of the great Frank Langella in A Man for All Seasons at the Roundabout Theatre in Manhattan. I saw the posters for this in August, and I knew it would be a staple of the theater scene for Langella's sake alone. I was never wildly fond of the play when reading it, but the film version with the late Paul Scofield was a great, if somewhat dusty, political costume drama.

Dustiness seems to have been the issue here as well in Brantley's view; it's not a play with any great dramatic tension. However, Langella seems to be making quite a statement lately by starring in plays that are specifically aimed at the Bush administration and its abuses of executive power. This one, for example, which is all about Henry VIII and his murder of a righteous man who won't go along with him in his grasp after power, or a son, or Anne Boleyn's knickers, whichever version you like. Frost/Nixon, about which I've raved endlessly in this blog, depicts the aftermath of a president run amok, though subtler in its dual portrayal of a man who equally loves the power and limelight that come with celebrity. Langella's film turn is already generating quiet Oscar buzz, and as I have blogged before, Peter Morgan deeply wanted the film to come out before the Bush administration left office. It'll just make it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Stephen in the World

How could I forget to post the vid of my old prof, Stephen Greenblatt (famed Shakespeare scholar and author of the best-selling bio Will in the World), on the Colbert Report? The dueling Stephens traded quips, quotes, and political analysis in a really fantastic segment that ended with Colbert saying to Greenblatt, "Don't f___ with me, man." Awesome.



Saturday, October 4, 2008

Molasses T'Rum

Yes, yes, it's Tale of Two Cities yet again, or rather its star, James Barbour, whose concert CD I bought online just to have some recording of that great voice. One online review promised that "Molasses T'Rum" makes the whole CD worth it, and indeed it does. It's a great song about the triangle trade (sugar, slaves, rum) from 1776, and it suits Barbour's baritone to a tee.

The CD itself is a little mixed. Since it's a live concert recording, all the tracks come with Barbour's spoken introductions, which are clearly scripted and not all that well scripted, with a wealth of cliché in plot and rhetoric, and most of the songs themselves are old familiar standbys. Same with his accompanist/co-concertizer Hershey Felder. Also, since he's singing with piano rather than orchestra, and selling it on a stage with no props, I think he's oversinging just a tad; he certainly loves the dramatic volume shifts. It's hard to tell, since the recording itself is not a miracle of perfection. Still, very enjoyable, especially once I loaded it into iTunes so I could skip through the spoken parts more easily. If I ever have the energy, I'll split the tracks in an editing program.

I did wish, as long as he was chewing his way through big ol' ballads, that "If Ever I Would Leave You" had been in the concert, because he played Lancelot in the national tour of Camelot a few years ago and, judging from this horrible recording on YouTube, was like a massage for the inner ear. (Take that, clichés!)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Heavy baggage

I haven't been particularly impressed by Obama's words during this economic crisis, and yet he seems to be gaining some ground as voters worry more and more about it. In the end, I guess it's hard for McCain, who after all was one of the Keating Five, to give any signs of a fresh approach to anything involving banking.

Oh yes! Remember them? In the midst of a little savings and loan crisis? McCain and Glenn: American heroes, American politicians.

How is this not being mentioned at all? It's that miraculous political tactic that Clinton also exerted quite well: it's old, it's been talked about, therefore we don't need to rehash the past.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What is Thor?

So Kenneth Branagh's going to direct some comic book film, something about a hero named Thor, and people think it will work because it's a very costume-heavy period-film-like comic. OK. Sure. I am a little surprised that he's taking on this new kind of challenge, just because he seemed very uninterested in large-scale Hollywood films a few years ago when he was in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (and just a delight in that as a ridiculously vain professor, by the way). There was a lot of speculation at that time as to whether he would like to direct one of the HP films, and he expressed disinterest in the special effects, etc. Of course, a stand-alone is different from a huge franchise like HP, so I wish him luck with it. And I await what I always think of as his trademark shot, the camera on a round track circling a small group of characters. Occasionally makes me dizzy.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Keeping informed

Before I go to bed to rest for yet another busy day, let me make a pitch for everyone to read or keep reading Robert Reich's blog, which has had a lot of concise, smart commentary on the economic crisis at hand. The former treasury secretary is an especially interesting person to listen to at the moment that we may literally be handing our fortunes over to the current treasury secretary as a kind of financial czar. The link in my list of Blogs I Read below and to the right. As I write this, news sources are announcing that a tentative bailout deal has been reached, but no details are available yet. I'm waiting to read what I can and then get Reich's commentary, and make up my own mind.

And I am telling you...

I hope to find time to write something on Paul Newman soon, because I was genuinely sad when I saw the announcement of his death this morning. He was really a great actor, and did a lot of wonderful philanthropic work. He's been embedded in my consciousness all my life, it seems, from the tiny little movie glutton that I was as a child.

Tonight, just a quick note that I heard Jennifer Hudson perform a song from her album on Leno last night, and it was distinctly unimpressive. Sorry. I like her, though I (unlike the rest of humanity) did think that her big anthem, "And I Am Telling You," in Dreamgirls was oversung and overshot; on the other hand, "Love You I Do," a lighter number that she sings to Jamie Foxx's character earlier in the film, was absolutely perfect. This song was light, boppy, catchy, but nothing to it to show off her voice or to distinguish the music from so much other canned studio-made pop out there these days. Maybe the rest of the album is better. I am also sure that her acting will continue to be worth watching. Next up is The Secret Life of Bees.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Whistle while you work

You can tell I'm busy; the posts are getting shorter and further apart.

I must say that music really helps when you have to buckle down. Favorite albums to work to at the moment? The Killers' Hot Fuss, Queen's Night at the Opera, Guys and Dolls (I don't even know if it's the original Broadway cast; I don't have time to read the album cover!), Dreamgirls (the movie soundtrack, sorry purists), Hairspray (Broadway recording with one track from the movie), and Aerosmith's Get a Grip. Green Day is coming out next. I have Dookie and I'm not afraid to use it.

Absolute failures: Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, Cavalleria Rusticana, and a couple of showtunes concert medleys. Hip hop does not work. I have concluded that I need to be able to either sing along loudly or bang my head to whatever I'm listening to.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Reviews

A Tale of Two Cities (the musical) had its opening last night. I was very curious to read the reviews, and the NY Times' Ben Brantley did not so much review it as take a hatchet to it... and the cast. Not a single thing of significant value did he find. The Post, on the other hand, gave it a more reasonable review, saying the music was like Les Miz plus dishwater (I'm willing to go along with that, though I don't think it's all true) but giving Barbour a rave and kudos to the rest of the cast, though I was surprised to see Natalie Toro go unmentioned. Brantley called Barbour 'grotesque.' I mean, that's just unreasonable. I would have understood if he had called him hammy, overacting, or pompous; I did notice the second time I went to see it that all the cast (including Barbour) had started to make their acting larger, which is not always better. But grotesque? That's a hell of an adjective to apply to any half-decent acting job, let alone a show-carrying performance. In any case, I would have forgiven grotesque for the sake of that voice.

It's not the first time I've disagreed massively with a Times review this month. Christopher Isherwood reviewed the new Spring Awakening cast and seemed so enamored with them and their dewy young complexions that I snorted. I think this is a case of the critic sitting in a good seat -- or at least not in the back row. Maybe I'm wrong; I'd love to know where he did sit. Personally, I recognize that the actors' youth and good looks suited the roles to a tee. However, sitting in the last row in the mezzanine, one naturally cares more whether the acting and singing have a great impact. Subjective, of course, since the teenagers in the row below us were delighted no end. No doubt that the cast are all lovely and talented, but the review was just... peculiar.

Ah, critics.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tone poem

I quite enjoyed this arts feature in the NY Times on Julian Schnabel painting Placido Domingo's portrait. As the author said, a lot of ego in one room!

Of course, I also enjoyed the SNL intro. Fit in your bits of media whenever you have time, say I.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Oh, no!

Just read that the author David Foster Wallace has killed himself. Poor man -- and his family and friends, too.

His novel writing was not everyone's style, but he won a lot of fans in the tennis world with a NY Times piece on "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." It's really a tragedy.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"One of the worst movies I have ever seen"

The TIME reviewer, on the new film The Women (starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, etc.).

Whoa.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Literary contest

Booker Prize shortlist is out. I usually view these as useful guides to books I missed. I did forget to read Netherland, so that's a useful reminder. This article was interesting in one sense; I had no idea that Rushdie's new novel, which I really enjoyed, had not been reviewed well in America. I can understand that. People might find it weird, fantastic, florid, self-indulgent; I liked it for the reasons I mentioned.

My House

Arrived home last night to find that it is already fall in Chicago, and also to find my newly arrived DVD of season two of House, M.D. I love Hugh Laurie, whose pinnacles of ridiculousness in Blackadder you'll never find surpassed anywhere. Season two has some really great episodes I want to rewatch, including "Humpty Dumpty," in which the hospital chief Cuddy's Latino construction worker falls off her roof but then has a more serious problem -- why are his hands gangrening? My favorite from this season is probably "Failure to Communicate," which features House working his way back into his ex-girlfriend's affections while diagnosing an aphasia-stricken journalist over the telephone. Seriously. No sophomore slump here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Frank Wedekind < Frankie Valli

I just had to add what my friend overheard as we walked out of Spring Awakening:

"Jersey Boys
was way better than this."

I know I didn't give Spring Awakening a rave, but my god, comparing it to the Four Seasons; that's like comparing apples and... parakeets.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's about what?!

If you saw Spring Awakening on the Tonys, you saw all the good bits. If you missed it, watch it here. I wouldn't positively tell you not to go see it, by I was by no means wowed.

Part of this, my friend authoritatively tells me, is due to the fact that the cast is all new, and not particularly strong (with one or two exceptions). They have nice voices, but the change in intensity from the Tonys performance is obvious even if you only view the latter on YouTube. Still, it didn't stop many people in the relatively young audience from oohing and aahing over it during the intermission and afterwards.

The book is based on Frank Wedekind's story of sexual awakening in turn of the century Germany, not your typical musical fare. Male and female students, educated separately, are all struggling to learn the facts of life. Innocent Wendla encounters childhood friend Melchior, a young nihilist hidden behind the facade of the perfect student; struggling Moritz, the worst student and Melchior's best friend, encounters runaway childhood friend Ilse, now living in an artists' colony, too late to save himself. It all ends in death of various kinds and lots of mournful ballads that all sound the same.

The high-energy thumping numbers that open the show gave promise of a Rent for a new generation, which is pretty much what it is regardless of my opinion. I just don't think it has Rent's energy or colorful personalities, or for that matter its now nostalgic NYC setting. There's one more in the second act, "I'm Fucked," which gets the show going again, but it ends with a "Seasons of Love" type number about "Purple Summer." I know I'm drawing all of these comparisons after eschewing the Les Mis comparisons for Two Cities, but hey, it was in my mind.

The blocking is very dynamic, with the cast mostly running back and forth from sitting in old-fashioned school chairs on the sides (where audience members can also buy tickets), and a good use of the stage space -- poor Melchior has to go sit on a naughty chair twelve feet up in the air, vault a fence, etc. Platforms raise and sink, lights on the back of the stage and sides of the theater flash on and off -- it's a high energy staging. The adult characters are all played by one man and woman, which as my friend observed has the benefit of being economically responsible and symbolic of the older generation's ineffective conservatism, regardless of their attitudes. Actually, I've talked myself into it: I would recommend it. But more for interest than the wow.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cute and clever

I also read some David Sedaris, finally, while in NYC (seemed vaguely appropriate, and my friends had it on their bookshelf). Me Talk Pretty One Day is the one with the child-like writing on a chalkboard for a cover. You probably saw it in bookstores on the display or recommended shelves for months on end. I never knew what it was, or really what Sedaris was all about, until I saw him on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. For those similarly impaired, he's a humorist of a peculiar kind and the brother of Amy Sedaris (also a humorist of a peculiar kind). MTPOD deals half with life in America, including his weird family, half with living in France and trying to learn French; that's where the title comes from, his inept grammar and terrible classroom experiences.

I won't say I wasn't amused, because I was, but it wasn't very anything to me; it wasn't really very laugh-out-loud or very memorable or very shocking or very original or very clever or very biting or... you get the idea. This might be my own fault, since I was hoping for a modern-day Thurber of sorts. I get the sense that he is that to some. I suppose the way I'd summarize it in a quick conversation is, "Yeah, it was OK. I guess I'd recommend it. Didn't rush out to read anything else of his, though."

Monday, September 1, 2008

The other NYC

I didn't stop reading (or working) while I was in NYC, though it may have seemed like it from my theatercentric blog posts (more to come, by the way, on the last show I saw before I left town). I finally got around to Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, 2006 Booker Prize winner. It's a long novel that revels in the depressing details of ordinary life, which may or may not be surmountable by love and imagination--the ending isn't so uplifting that the author comes down on one side or the other. A retired English-educated Indian judge, living in a tumble-down house in the foothills of the Himalayas with his teenage granddaughter, and their cook's son illegally working and squatting in NYC, ponder their miserable existences and strangely mirror each others' multinational lives across a huge class divide as well as half the globe.

Very well written, with some good descriptive writing, and overall a good read. The sections in NYC were particularly good; there aren't as many novels written about the underbelly of New York in that way, though the squalor of London is fairly well explored in Indian diasporic writing (see Brick Lane). I didn't find the sections on the granddaughter as interesting, though one could certainly sympathize with her position: parents dead in Russia, suddenly thrown into the hills with nobody her own age but her tutor, who turns into a radical. Desai is wonderful at imagining situation, though I'm curious to read her other earlier novel and see how long she is on plot in that one. Overall, a very good read, though not one of my rare big wows.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tale of Two Cities, part xvdci

Or so it feels, but I'm really fascinated with the process of cutting down and changing a Broadway show. Frankly, I'm amazed how much they're still doing after months of previews in Sarasota.

My previous experience with such matters is limited to the Lowell House Opera's premiere of an opera by a Harvard prof, which I produced. It was nothing but cut after cut after cut, as the opera was four hours long, the orchestration was being done literally at the last moment, and nobody could learn the music in time. In retrospect, it was a freaking nightmare.

In nine days, significant changes were made in this musical. Most importantly, one comic relief number was cut. And just as well; it was a scene in a graveyard and dealt with Jerry Cruncher's sideline as a graverobber, and it featured Cruncher and three supporting characters almost never seen again. No plot development except one very tiny point, no character development, not musically memorable, and not very funny. I feel bad for those supporting actors, but it's a fantastic cut and trims the first act considerably.

They're having a terrible time with the opening, though. When I first saw it, Dr. Manette sang his past history, and then little Lucie goes to England and big Lucie pops out to learn that her father has been found. Cue fanfare and the title card thrown up on a scrim, applause. This time, Dr. Manette's song was gone in favor of a tableau. The problem with this is that it leaves big Lucie as the introductory singer, and while she has a sweet voice that she uses well, she's simply not the strongest. If they could chop and change this to get Madame Defarge to sing something about the oppression of the common people, it would be ideal. Natalie Toro is amazing and (I think) the highlight of the show other than Barbour.

They've also added more business, more emoting, and more instrumental cues. Lucie's big number in the second act was pulled earlier so that the ending can flow better. It's coming together.

I'd like to see more cuts still, frankly. The closing number of the first act is not terribly good, and I'd like them to stop earlier with a really strong number, "Out of Sight," that gets a reprise in the second act. Or as I put it to my friend at intermission, "Here's what I would do if I were god," to the great amusement of the people behind us.

It was interesting to get my friend's perspective, because generally you only hear people enthusing; those who are quietly snarking are very hard to eavesdrop on. She thought the first act was way too much like Les Mis; she also thought that Barbour was the best by far and so much the best that it made it uneven. I think that's a bit harsh on the rest of the cast, but they were also clearly playing with sound levels again, and hearing him from further back this time through the speakers, he did sound different. But still unbelievable. I'm convinced that Sydney's big song, "I Can't Recall," is going to become a Broadway standard.

Who knows what else they'll change? I probably won't ever see it after it's 'frozen,' but they definitely have the makings of a fairly good show, and a showcase for some amazing talent.

Stage-door jane

For the first time ever, I stood outside a stage door tonight and waited for autographs. I have eschewed the chance to wait for Roger Federer, Simon Russell Beale, and countless other people whose work I really do follow. But I'm so enjoying watching this Tale of Two Cities go through its growing pains that I decided to go for it.

It's actually a painless, well set up process. Had I known, I might have tried sooner. I did sort of picture screaming teenagers and insane groupies, which I frankly admitted to the happy high school student standing next to me. People in the line were very amused. Maybe that used to happen for Rent, but it wasn't the case tonight; everyone was very nice and pretty mellow, though there were a couple of people determined to make their opinions heard in great detail.

The cast filtered out in what felt like well-staggered timing, most even equipped with Sharpies; I got just about everyone's autograph and had a nice chat with Gregg Edelman, who plays Dr. Manette. I expressed my sympathy that his opening number had been cut --though I think it's a good cut-- and after the "oh, you've seen it before?" etc., he told me that they're madly resetting and reblocking that opening every day, and his number could well be back in tomorrow. They're still putting in 12-hour days fixing things. I can't imagine the exhaustion. And the sitting around. I had a similar chat with Brandi Burkhardt, who plays Lucie; she remarked that a lot has changed since I saw it, including one big number being cut. I assured her it was a good cut, though we both agreed that we're very sorry for those people.

All in all, the cast was surprisingly happy to chat, and really seemed to enjoy it. Only a couple of actors skipped the line. The crowd is not so big it's a huge burden, and these people don't often get recognized, I'm guessing. So they enjoy the genuine enthusiasm and praise of the crowd while they're still on your stage high, people get autographs, it's all good. They're also weirdly intent on eye contact. Whether that's a technique to make the fan feel special, or something they're genuinely interested in (what does our faceless mass of an audience look like?), I couldn't say.

Last out was James Barbour, charming his way down the line. I told him I was enjoying his blog, and he said, slightly taken aback, "Oh." That made me feel rather stalker-y, so I couldn't open my mouth to tell him that I had commented. I also wish I had talked to Aaron Lazar (Darnay), who seemed very nice. The little kid stars and their parents were standing around chatting happily to people, as well. It ended quickly and quietly, as Barbour was whisked away in a car. That in itself bemused me. I suppose the big star gets car service, but everyone else was trotting off with their backpacks. They could have been heading for the 1/2 for all I know.

More on the show itself tomorrow. In agonizing detail, no doubt. But this was a unique experience. I'm glad I did it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What to do?

Two unusually personal posts tonight -- but it's been on my mind what will become of this blog for a while, and it was crystallized when I just left a rather odd and hopefully funny comment on James Barbour's blog about how embarrassing it feels to comment on a stranger's blog. The academic job market starts soon, and conventional wisdom is that when you go on the market, everything comes down: blog, facebook page, etc. etc. (Come to think of it, I may still be on friendster for all I know.) It's just a matter of controlling what job committees look at, and since candidates have so little control in the process, it seems like a good idea. Considering that things like where you went to college -- a decision made at the age of 17 -- factor into the hire, the last thing you want is some friend's drunken post on your Wall to reach their eyes. (By the way, this is as good a time as any to say that I appreciate all posted comments, drunken or not, and all the comments that you shy friends email me.)

However, this blog is reasonably benign, and it's not linked off anything professional, like my listings on department webpages, etc. I can't think how job committees would stumble across it. I do get random hits and even comments, but the odds of them being from a professor on a search committee are astronomically low.

But what's going to happen less than a year from now when, job market willing, I turn from hapless grad student to outwardly dignified and inwardly overworked (junior) professor? Michael Berube, bless his overtalented heart, set an example of academic blogging, but from the lofty heights of crossover fame. He also put sick amounts of time into it and has said that blogging is a kind of public service from academics, not something that should be included professionally. Still, if I were to keep this blog as un-anonymous as it is now, or even link it to myself professionally, I don't think I'd feel free to just spill out on whatever I'm reading, seeing, or listening to.

And I'd have to worry more about grammar.

Thoughts?

Packing it in

Very sunburned but very happy after two nights (including my old classmate James Blake last night, and tonight, Roger Federer!) and one afternoon at the US Open. It'll have to continue without me though, since friends and theater are going to fill up the rest of the time I have in NYC. I talked to some theater folks at the Open who recommended Xanadu for a good time. I inquired seriously whether I could take my mother to see it. She's actually pretty unflappable, but I don't think that the 'tits and ass' number in Chorus Line was her favorite thing. Maybe it was, compared to the number about gonorrhea... I think I'll stick to Tale of Two Cities.

Tip for all you potential Broadwaygoers: if eligible, join tdf and get discounted tickets on there. You have to keep a very sharp eye out and be able to buy in advance, so it's much easier if you actually [groan] live in NYC. I made the mistake of not checking last night when I got back from the Open at 2:30am, and by this morning, the Tale tickets for Saturday that went up after I left home at 6pm were gone.

Someday, academic job market willing...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Is it about Boeing?"

People kept asking me this when I said I was going to see Boeing Boeing. I couldn't answer, since I was only going because I knew it was a comedy and that Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Mark Rylance, and Mary McCormack were in it.

It turns out that it wasn't really; it's about a bachelor in Paris (Whitford) who is juggling three very different stewardess fiancees, helped by his dour Parisian housekeeper (Baranski) and his hapless old schoolmate (Rylance). It ought to have been called Boeing Boeing Boeing. Each stewardess is a wildly over-the-top stereotype: an airheaded bigmouth American, a passionate Italian, and a strapping dictatorial German (McCormack was completely unrecognizable). It's a silly, sexy farce with candy-colored sets and costumes to help it along.

Brilliant acting, especially from Rylance as a stammering, shy Wisconsin man who eventually takes full advantage of his friend's harem situation. Rylance might be best known for directing the Globe Theatre in London for ten productive years, and he recently appeared in The Other Boleyn Girl as the girls' father, Thomas Boleyn. As I said to a friend, how many Shakespeare plays has he been in? how many Shakespearean kings has he played? and I get to see him live on stage riding Bradley Whitford.

I did enjoy the performances very much, but I dearly wish it had been faster paced, especially in the second act. there comes a point at which, when the comedy is all coming from the women popping in and out of doors at (in)opportune times, it gets too predictable. But it ended with a charming conga line from all the stars, which ramped my energy back up.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Two Cities: the network

I've always said that the theater community is amazingly networked online and technologically savvy; YouTube proves this, as does the bootleg recording market, the innumerable personal websites and blogs, and great show sites.

Still, I was surprised to find comments on my posts about A Tale of Two Cities from two such site-keepers. The first one, Reflections on an Epic in the Making, is by a theatre student who has been following the development of the show for five long years. I admire his/her devotion. I've been known to track the progress of film adaptations I'm interested in (Man in the Iron Mask being my most enduring disappointment), and of course the most famous such site for film is theonering.net, but this is a very complete and fascinating site. It gives a lot of insight into the process. The blog also links to other blogs, like James Barbour's, which I've already mentioned, but it turns out that Aaron Lazar, who plays Charles Darnay, also has a blog, though he hasn't been updating as often.

And then I found another post from a person involved with the development of a different Tale of Two Cities musical. I must say that unless this one flops bigtime, and my gut tells me it won't, they're not getting to Broadway anytime soon. It's so unfortunate. Far worse than two similar movies, like the two Capote movies in the same year.

Finally, a last comment on the musical itself: it's really stayed with me, which is a sign of a keeper. I think the cast is what sold me. You can find workshop snippets on YouTube, like this one of the Defarges (Natalie Toro manages to be both sympathetic and frightening as Madame Defarge, with passionate acting and an amazing voice. Might be a Tony there). There's also one of Barbour singing a number from late in the show which, again disproving my point about excessively short songs, is about two minutes long.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A happy aside

I don't usually blog about sports on here, but I do have to say that I got to attend and participate in the US Open draw ceremony today. Details here. I am cherishing the specially struck coin that I pulled out of the trophy to place Marin Cilic, #30 seed, into the draw.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In the pleasantly warm light of day

It occurs to me that some of the choppiness I felt in the musical last night might have to do with my seat, because
1) The orchestra was under my nose, and therefore quite loud. A bit jarring to get the speaker in your right ear and the real sound in your left.
2) I could always see everything and everyone moving in the opposite wing, which is a bit distracting and makes you think that nothing ever stops for long enough to have a scene.
3) I often couldn't see people's feet and legs, since I was looking UP at the stage. This sounds stupid, but I think it's true that if you can't really appreciate the blocking, you miss a lot of the continuity and creation of dramatic movement that can help link scenes/numbers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities!

Just kidding actually, it is just A Tale of Two Cities, though I don't doubt that everyone concerned would like to catch the same lightning in a bottle that hit Oliver! It is a musical, it is based on the Charles Dickens novel, and it just started previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theater on 45th. I watched it from what is surely the worst seat I have ever sat in (first row, last seat on the right), in a fairly distinguished history of bad rush seats. It's not just because I'm getting older that I don't feel like rushing anymore.

So that with my partial view and wildly craned neck, when I tell you that the show firmly held my attention (I won't say enthralled, but quite reasonably close) for its entire 2h45min, you know it means something. Really good music and really good orchestration, wonderful cast, gorgeous costumes, you know the drill. It's Broadway, after all; what show, especially a risky new one, is going to have an awful cast? Music, on the other hand, with a new show, not always a given. I was impressed by the book; it's really quite well adapted, with a couple of plot holes showing where they made changes and then never fixed continuity. The lyrics are not all memorable. But I think it's going to play.

It's not going to escape the comparisons to Les Miserables. Bad enough that it's set largely in Paris during a revolution (this one the real French Revolution), both feature love triangles centered on curly-haired blondes and an ex-con father figure. Throw in the fact that the show uses Cockney accents (for Englishmen at least, not the Thenardiers) and that the musical numbers heavily rely on big, belting ensembles, and you're pretty much doomed. They might as well have thrown in a rotating stage while they were at it.

But they didn't. Tony Walton instead provided two-story scaffolds that get wheeled on and off and combined in creative ways. No glitches there, and they're not loud when moved, either. They work beautifully for creating small spaces within the Hirschfeld's pretty sizable stage and for scattering the ensemble for the big company numbers, like Darnay's trials. Those trials, by the way, are some of the longer numbers in the show, which often feels like a lot of very short songs pasted together. If it's Les Mis, it's Les Mis without "Castle on a Cloud" and "On My Own" and all those other torch songs. Oh yes, "Stars," "I Dreamed a Dream," oh god, it's all coming back.

Really, though, you want a big torch song when you have a male lead as compelling as James Barbour, whose charisma pretty much shone out from his first entrance being wheeled on in a drunken haze behind a desk. It's a good thing, too, since Sydney Carton, the dissolute antihero, is the heart of the novel and here even more critically so with the sentimental pandering to the audience by having him kiss Lucie and have a cutesy prayer scene with little Lucie, etc. (Look, it's a musical.) I freely confess I am not familiar with his work, but he was very funny when he needed to be, and he has a really beautiful voice, best shown off in "I Can't Recall." Two of his other big songs end with falsettos (like Jean Valjean, if you're going there), which is a vague dislike of mine. The other two of the love triangle also have beautiful voices, with a former Miss New York, Brandi Burkhardt, making her Broadway debut as Lucie. I have a feeling it will be a long-running one. Go help them out.


ETA: Forgot to add that Barbour is blogging the preview process. That's interesting in and of itself. It did show tonight -- big lighting miscue, several sound level issues, and most sadly for me, a fallen hat right in my face for the last scene, though that can happen anytime.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I hardly knew ye

The Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan is closed. All right, those of you in the know will say; that's hardly news. Well, it's news to me. The shock waves of its closing, liquidation auction, etc. in 2007 did not reach me in my cozy Chicago home. while the aura of its storied past and, especially, that famous photo of about thirty famous authors posing there which I encountered numerous times while working on the Gore Vidal papers at Harvard, kept it alive in my heart. Last August, I tried to take my uncle there on a broiling hot day, and a little sign on the door merely said that it was closed for inventory. Some inventory--like counting the bones on a corpse. Well, I guess I can go to the Strand if I have to.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Record-setting

Not Michael Phelps, but Laurence Fishburne. I went to see him in the Broadway one-man show Thurgood on Wednesday night, and it was possibly the fastest standing ovation I've ever seen. People didn't even wait for him to walk out.

As you might have guessed, the show is about Thurgood Marshall, who narrates as if giving a lecture on his life and career, from childhood to retirement, at Howard University. It was written by George Stevens, Jr., who also wrote the miniseries about Marshall that I saw when I was very young. It's not an exaggeration to say that that miniseries changed my life. It gave words to a lot of issues, not only about race, that I probably couldn't have articulated myself at this point.

Fishburne is completely convincing as Marshall, salty, scrappy, passionate, and powerful, having fun with plenty of hilarious lines mixed in with the gravity of the landmark cases he tried. The staging was fine; the backdrop, an all-white embossed American flag, serves as a transparency screen. Projection switches from photographs relevant to what he's talking about to the Supreme Court building facade and interior, and there are sometimes even relevant sounds played. The only other speaker, however, is Earl Warren reading the decision in Brown v. Board.

I greatly enjoyed it, much more than the frankly rather over-artful Year of Magical Thinking last year, which was also a one-woman show (Vanessa Redgrave) at the same theater and similar staging. If you're in NYC, get thee to see it before it closes, which is very soon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

TDS live!

I went to a taping of the Daily Show today! Long story on how I got the ticket, but I did, and it was a "VIP" ticket, which means that you are on a separate line and get seated first. Of course, this doesn't matter a ton in the long run, because you are put in seats by the interns, and have about as good a chance of getting a front row seat by chance if you're on the long line. The first section is closer to Stewart himself; the others probably have better views. I'd say the audience size is around 400, maybe less.

After waiting on line outside forever (you're supposed to be on line by 4:10pm), you go through security (metal detector; guard digs thoroughly around in your purse) and get penned up in a tiny lobby, which is probably great if the weather's bad. There you wait even longer, till we actually got let into the studio well after 5:30pm. Then, of course, you wait for everyone else to be seated, which takes a while because once the lobby is clear, they have to let people through security and then into the studio. A producer comes out to warm you up, which sounds idiotic but the cheering really does get louder as he exhorts the crowd. Then Jon Stewart came out and took a very few questions before taping started.

These questions ranged from the dumb (What's your favorite diner in NJ?) to the weirdly funny. One woman asked about Berlin's longitude on the wall, which reads W rather than E. She thought maybe it was on purpose. Stewart grumbled, "I hate it when the audience is smarter than me," and then deadpanned, "Yeah, it was on purpose. It's a really funny joke we put in for... cartographers."

Great show today, but you can see that just from watching it on TV (Rob Riggle's last Beijing report, Ben Stiller). What you can't see is that before the check-in with the Colbert Report, Jon and Stephen kind of screw around over the satellite link. Today's conversation was mostly about Stephen's little boy, who is coming back from his first summer camp. It's one of those fancy camps where they can look at photos of the kids online, but no cell phones. They are allowed to write home, though "apparently he hasn't," Colbert observed.

Last highlight: one older lady shouted at the end, after the show, "Just elect Obama!" Stewart looked at her and said, "Ma'am, I don't elect people. How would that work? 'I elect you,'" and mimed a magic wand or knighting ceremony gesture.

Taping was very quick, not quite real-time but almost. We were out before 7pm, after Stewart thanked us sincerely for standing outside for "like eleven hours. Really, we should just beat you with clubs when you come in here. Wouldn't that be great?"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lots of steel rods

I'm in NYC and enjoying the Olympics on TV. Even if you're quite immune to Olympics fever, the stadium and "water cube" (aquatics center) are more than worth checking out from an architectural point of view. The NY Times had pretty good articles on them here and here. Definitely some of the most interesting Olympic (or other) architecture I've seen in a while. The stadium might be the bigger achievement, but the water cube has my heart. But that might just be because I love swimming.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Not the Hendrix song

Though it does use the Hendrix song, and mentions him by name.

I went to see a play last night by a scrappy startup theater workshop, A-Squared, which is a brand-new Asian American group in Chicago. A welcome addition, though I get copious emails from the East-West theater company all the time. A-Squared's production of The Wind Cries Mary runs through Aug. 24, and I highly recommend it if you're in the area. The A-Squared link will give you info; it's in City Lit Theatre's space in the Edgewater Presbyterian church on Bryn Mawr (a small actual theater on the second floor of the church's massive building). You can get discounted tickets on Goldstar Events, too.

Philip Kan Gotanda is a pretty well-known Asian American playwright whose work I'm totally unfamiliar with, but I'm quite curious about him now. The Wind Cries Mary takes place all in a home in San Francisco or somewhere close (originally San Jose) in 1968 or so, and dramatizes what is happening outside the home: sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, the rapidly changing ethnic activism of the time, the Vietnam War, and all the unrest that it brings to campus. Strongwilled, stifled Eiko (a Hedda Gabler type) has just married a bland white academic, Raymond Penberthy, and in comes trouble in the shape of the smarmy Dr. Nakata, a business professor and her father's nemesis, and the trippin', brilliant, erratic Miles Katayama, who could take Raymond's promised teaching post away from him. It has a somewhat predictable plot arc, especially if you've read Hedda Gabler! but some excellent dialogue (and some cringeworthy lines, I'm not going to lie), and great use of music (which might be scripted or original to this production, I couldn't be sure).

This production is really impressive for a small workshop. Pretty solid acting all around, with the standout performances from Joe Yau (who teaches at Second City) as Nakata and Allen Sermonia as Miles. Those are perhaps the flashiest parts, since Nakata's suppressed anger stemming from his internment in WWII and Miles' crazy hippie mannerisms give them a lot to build on. A very nicely dressed little set -- I loved all the late sixties touches. Don't sit in the front row, by the way, because they work pretty close to the edge of the floor. No doubt it'll get smoother as the run goes on, since this was only the second night, but it went quite well, with only a couple of sound hiccups or misspoken words. Definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

See to believe

I just read Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov, more than partly because Kenneth Branagh will be playing the title role at the Donmar Warehouse this fall (and then directing Jude Law as Hamlet later in the season; I can hear the critics sharpening their knives now, though they mostly respect Branagh's theatrical skills). I... couldn't get into it. Or out of it. A very odd play about a rather despicable central character with an ailing Jewish wife and failing estate he ignores, and an over-earnest doctor and other characters of varying degrees of virtue, trying to make him wake up again. At the end, after his wife dies and a year passes between acts 3 and 4, it's his wedding day as he is going to marry the neighbor's beautiful young daughter. And he apparently can't bring himself to wreck her life when his is so obviously a wreck already, so he shoots himself. Curtain.

I was driven to read the preface of the edition I was reading, and the author suggests the obvious, that Ivanov, for all his awfulness, is the hero, and the doctor, Lvov, the one whose steps to hell are paved with good intentions. Such an anti-hero is perfect for Branagh, who seems drawn to those lately; he had quite a triumph onstage a few years ago as Edmond in David Mamet's play of the same name. Rumor was that he was working up to Macbeth, but financing has fallen through (and given the level of success of As You Like It, I'm not surprised).

Chekhov is one of those 'great' playwrights who I just can't get into on the very talky page. I really need to see something of his staged sometime, or at least rent a video. Never had this problem with Shakespeare, but it does happen sometimes with plays. Pinter's not that easy to read. Some of Stoppard just looks insane--and it's not that it doesn't also sound insane when you see it, but that the staging can draw it together in interesting ways.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Love the '80s

YouTube has everything. I don't know if I could sit through all of Music & Lyrics again, but the hilarious faux-'80s video starring Hugh Grant as half of a group called Pop! (a not so subtle takeoff on Wham!) is available here and does not fail to please me.

Hugh Grant said on Leno that he was, in some ways, the proudest of this movie of out all his movies, and I think I can see why, because it must have taken a fair amount of work for him to do all the singing and choreography. Aside from that, it is an intermittently charming film about a forgotten pop star trying to put his life back together. I actually think it could have been quite good if it had focused on Grant's character and kept the female character supporting; it would have been another About a Boy. Unfortunately, Drew Barrymore's character was insipid and had a somewhat contrived self-loathing plotline about having had an affair with a professor who wrote it up in a bestselling novel. But the supporting character, a teenage pop star named Cora, was a great mishmash of Britney-Jessica-Christina, so it was really a fun musical parody film.

I was thinking about this recently because I also youtubed George Michael singing "Somebody to Love" with Queen at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, which I think is one of his best performances ever. I remember when it was on the Top 40 countdown with Kasey Kasem, and I recorded it off the radio onto a cassette tape and listened to it over and over, as preteens do.

Kasem, according to Wikipedia, refused to say "I Want Your Sex" when that particular hit of Michael's made the charts, and would only refer to it as "the new single by George Michael." I don't remember this, but I believe it. How nice for DJs that Nas solved that little problem by not giving the album the name he wanted to. The only way to refer to it IS as "the new album by Nas."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brass band fun

Been busy here, but last weekend took some time to watch the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar (Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra) close the Ethnic Arts Festival here. They also opened the Pitchfork festival earlier in the day. This might make you think that they're indie rock, but not even close -- it's a Serbian brass band that plays gypsy music. I don't know if they're assimilated Roma, or ethnic Serbians who play gypsy music, or some combo of the two, but a tremendously fun bunch. Boban and his son Marko both play the trumpet, and Boban also sings quite a lot, backed by four other brass players, a snare drummer, and another drummer who was obviously a local stand-in and had, as my friend put it, Keith Moon aspirations that did not chime with gypsy music so well. I wanted to take one of his cymbals away. The Reader had called the group "acrobatic," and maybe they'd have moved around more on a larger stage, but plenty of fun was provided by Serbian audience members who got up and started dancing. Good times.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Is that an island made of cantaloupe, or...

Listening to the Best of Herbie Hancock right now, and mildly bemused at how familiar some of these big hits are to me. So familiar that I never really thought about who must have originated them: Watermelon Man, Cantaloupe Island. Pretty mellow stuff, but I can see how he experimented and changed over the years. It was a big surprise, I remember, when he won the Grammy for Best Album last year. Now I'm kind of curious to listen to it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dom

Another blast from the trip: I went to Cologne after the seminar in Dortmund, and the most famous tourist attraction (justly) is Cologne's huge cathedral, the Dom. It was damaged in the WWII bombing, but the Allies supposedly avoided targeting it directly (the bridge leading to it was broken, however).

The Dom is immense, and with all its heavy carving and decoration around the base, as well as the tapered spires and the blackened surfaces, looks heavy and imposing. A totally different effect from Chartres, say, or Notre Dame, which is also because the Dom is not that easy to see except right from the plaza surrounding it. You just can't stand back and get a good look at it. Not that easy to get a good picture, either.

Of course, we climbed the 500+ steps to the top, or rather I did while my friend succumbed to vertigo when the tiny spiral staircase inside the tower widens out and changes to an openwork metal staircase for the last 100 steps. However, the view from the top, while good, isn't that enjoyable. You walk around inside the tower, peering out through narrow window after narrow window. Beautiful, but not like walking around a more or less open balcony, even if it's covered with a wire cage.

We also stopped to see the huge set of bells on the way down, which are suitably imposing. The descent was quick but you have to squeeze past other tourists on their panting way up the tower, which makes for some rather hazardous navigation.

Inside, the cathedral is rather plain, with very diverse stained glass and very ornate chapels all around. One woman was vacuuming a carved wooden triptych with a little paintbrush and the hose attachment. When I went back the next day, she was there again and had barely moved.
The cathedral also houses the golden reliquary of the Three Wise Men. What exactly is supposed to be in there, I don't know. Nothing I read specified (bones, clothing, possessions?
Probably bones). Down in the treasury are huge quantities of other treasures, medieval croziers and the like. All in all, you can spend a lot of time around the Dom, fueled by the nearest Doner Kebap.