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.