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.