Monday, November 30, 2009

NaBloPoMo PostMortem

Well, with this post, I've accomplished it. A post a day for thirty days. So, let's finish up this blogging experiment with some thoughts on whether it succeeded and what I may have learned from it.

I can mentally divide my NaBloPoMo posts into three categories: those that I would have written anyway, those that I might not have written otherwise but were fun to work on or nicely expand the scope of my blog, and those that are ridiculous nonsense slapped up for the sake of fulfilling my goal. So the biggest conclusion I have drawn from the experience is that, while "writing every day generates excellence," writing something every day for public consumption is far too stressful. This month I came across an interview clip where Tony Kushner says, "The thing that all writers must say to themselves, to start writing, is, 'Nobody ever has to see this thing. I can throw it away, I'm alone with it, no one has to know what an idiot I really am. I can burn it! If it doesn't work, if it really sucks, I can just pretend that it never happened.' But directors can't do that."

How apt, I thought. Because, if directors can't do that, neither can bloggers. As Kushner implies, what makes blogging so weird is that it is the world's first instantaneously public kind of writing. Writing has always been lonely and hard; now, in addition to that, it offers an easy way of embarrassing yourself in public!

I never created a blog mission statement or anything, but I do have a sense of what are and are not topics for marissabidilla, and some general guidelines like "don't get too personal." I don't think I crossed any of my boundaries in the course of these thirty days, but I definitely felt that, if you're under such intense pressure to generate a post a day, it would be really easy to slip up, to reveal more of yourself than you'd want to reveal if you were thinking clearly.

And, like I said, daily blogging was not always fun. For instance, on Saturday 11/14, I was having an evening out (Playwrights' Pub Night) and knew I needed to post something before I left my house. But I seemed to have no good ideas, and almost panicked, and by the time I managed to put something up, that meant that I'd be late to Pub Night.

Or, on Sunday 11/8, I had several good ideas for long posts, but insufficient time to write them. I was finding it very hard to think of an idea for a short post, and I wanted to get the day's blogging over with quickly, so I could enjoy the Mad Men finale in peace. So when I overheard French Guys #1 and 2 going into their riff on "Barefoot in the Park," I said a silent prayer of thanks to the blog gods that this conversation--a perfect marissabidilla topic--had taken place and I could just transcribe it!

This monthlong experiment has given me newfound respect for people who can maintain a high-quality blog while posting every day. (Especially the people who can post every day and still find the time for other, non-blog, creative endeavors. How do they do it?) But it has made me realize that I, personally, need a slower blogging-rhythm, and that there is no shame in that. In that sense, though my playwriting has languished this month, I do believe that NaBloPoMo has been valuable for me, teaching me something about myself and my blogging philosophy. I've had this blog for almost 2 1/2 years and got into a bit of a rut in August/September, so maybe it made sense to swing the pendulum in the other direction for November. And I'd probably recommend an experiment like this to other people who've been blogging for about as long as I have or who need a bit of a kick-start.

But don't expect me to keep this up and don't expect me to do it again next year.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Wes Anderson Weekend

I just had a Wes Anderson weekend. Not in the sense of dealing with family dysfunction, listening to a lot of '60s pop music, or arranging my room so that it is perfectly symmetrical--but in the more literal sense of watching The Royal Tenenbaums last night and Fantastic Mr. Fox today.

I hadn't seen Tenenbaums since it came out, when I was fourteen. I really liked it at the time, for reasons that I could not quite articulate, and was curious whether it held up. Furthermore, in the past eight years, I have become more aware both of Wes Anderson's aesthetic and of the classic filmmakers who have influenced him. I know now to look out for Anderson's camera movements, his throwaway jokes, the things that happen at the edges of his carefully composed shots.

I guess that when I first saw Tenenbaums, I liked it because it was different from anything else I'd seen--2001, I think, is the year I became aware that movies could be art and not just entertainment. But now, as a semi-cinephile who watches movies very differently from the way I watched them when I was 14, I got more out of The Royal Tenenbaums, and I think I connected to it more deeply. I felt more in tune with the deadpan performances, and was more saddened by the moment when Ritchie tries to kill himself (though, at the same time, more aware of the sheer weirdness of the images: the sink filled with blood and hair-clippings). I also remember that my parents didn't like Tenenbaums because they were squicked out by the quasi-incest plotline, while at the time I accepted it with a fourteen-year-old's logical equanimity: "Margot is adopted... so who cares?" Now, I know that it's more complex than that; even though Margot and Ritchie aren't related by blood, they were raised together, and that does make things kind of weird.

As for Fantastic Mr. Fox, there's nothing sad or squicky about it--it's an absolute delight. I was hooked from the first sequence, where Mr. and Mrs. Fox sneak into a farmyard and, in a superb tracking shot, scurry around various obstacles to get to the chicken coop, while the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" plays.

These fantastic foxes are surprisingly expressive. Maybe it's because their angular, bony bodies are based on human proportions rather than vulpine ones. Or maybe it's because they're so wonderfully tactile, with their real rippling fur and bright porcelain eyes. In contrast, the characters of this year's other stop-motion animated film, Coraline, are smooth and hard, almost the way that computer animation is smooth and hard. And, while I admired Coraline as a technical achievement, it did not charm and captivate me in the way that Mr. Fox did.

Anderson invited George Clooney and Meryl Streep--who might be two of the coolest people in Hollywood--to voice the title character and his wife. Excellent choices. Mr. Fox, being a cocky and clever paterfamilias, reminds me of Clooney's character in O Brother Where Art Thou, which is probably my favorite Clooney role. And Streep's voice work makes you wonder how much of her success is due to her voice's gentle, fluting timbre.

While Tenenbaums is all about symmetrically composed shots and deadpan acting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is much more about the pleasures of kinetic movement. Several sequences seem designed just to push the technical limits of stop-motion animation. Whether it's dozens of squirrels helping the Foxes move into their new home, or Mr. Fox's heists and ambushes, or a tracking shot of all the animals cooking a feast, there is dazzling stuff here. All done with the utmost precision--but without preciousness.

I haven't read Roald Dahl's original novel, but I suspect he might have put more emphasis on the villains, three poultry farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Gleeful nastiness was one of Dahl's favorite themes, but it isn't one of Anderson's. He's much more fascinated by the opportunity to create a detailed world for the animals: their tailored clothes, their paintings and newspapers, their Quidditch-like game called "whack-bat." (The best thing he does with the villains is a visually clever sequence introducing the three of them.) And, though the Foxes aren't full-fledged Wes Anderson neurotics, they show some complexity and emotion. The story starts because Mr. Fox has a midlife crisis; his wife mingles love and exasperation; their son resents his popular cousin. And just when things threaten to get too heavy... bam! there's another phenomenal setpiece.

I was quite proud of myself for recognizing that some of the music in Fantastic Mr. Fox came from François Truffaut's Day for Night, one of my favorite movies. Day for Night is very precisely made, very controlled, very aware that it is a film--and yet it manages to be filled with such joy and vitality. The same description applies to Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sixty-Nine Essays and Two Authors

By now it should be obvious that I am completely obsessed with The New Yorker. Earlier in the year I suffered a form of New Yorker-related madness, where I thought that if I could just read every article that has been published in the magazine, I would possess "all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." (Oh, to become a cyborg and download the complete New Yorker archives into my brain!) So I began buying and reading collections of essays by New Yorker writers. Yes, despite the fact that the infamous Half-Read Pile of back issues is building up on my bedroom floor... and despite knowing that, as a subscriber, I can access the complete archives of The New Yorker for free on my computer.

(All the same, even though I could have read these essays for free rather than paying $15 or so for a paperback, I do think that books are more convenient... and also, to plunge too deeply into the New Yorker Digital Archive is dangerous...)

Anyway, I started off by reading essay collections by two female writers currently on staff at the magazine: Cleopatra's Nose by Judith Thurman and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella. Thurman's favorite topics include fashion designers, femininity and power, and anything French. (She reminds me a lot of a French teacher I had in college, whose area of study involved "reclaiming" for serious inquiry topics that men have historically dismissed as too frivolous and girly.) Acocella, the New Yorker dance critic, writes about choreographers and dancers, but also about books and authors, many of them European. In the introduction to her book, she notes that the essays are tied together by the theme of how her favorite artists overcame challenges and managed to keep going.

The heart of Thurman's book are her essays on the great fashion designers of the 20th century--Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, etc. These make wonderful introductions to some very important figures; it is otherwise difficult to find good information on fashion history without shelling out $60 for some coffee-table book from Rizzoli. (Magazines like Vogue aren't educational because they assume that their readers all grew up in Park Avenue apartments and learned about fashion design from playing dress-up in Mommy's Chanel suits.) I returned to Thurman's Yves Saint Laurent essay after seeing the YSL exhibit at the De Young and her Chanel essay after seeing Coco Before Chanel. Not only does she recount each designer's history in the impeccably fact-checked New Yorker way, she also makes some interesting observations: for instance, that because Elsa Schiaparelli grew up an Italian aristocrat, she had the freedom to make kooky and surreal clothes, but because Coco Chanel grew up poor in the French provinces, she knew that her designs had to be impeccably tasteful.

Other good things in Thurman's book include the opening essay, a jaw-dropping profile of the artist Vanessa Beecroft; her essay on Leni Riefenstahl, which provides a fascinating new perspective on the issue of whether Riefenstahl can be considered a great filmmaker; and her reviews of the now-classic novels Possession and Beloved. Still, there is a good deal of filler in Thurman's book too, with several essays that are reviews of Fashion Week collections, which are of limited interest several years after the fact.

Acocella's book is more of a piece--it's not padded with short, ephemeral dance-review pieces the way that Thurman's is padded with fashion reviews. Her thoughtful essays on dancers and choreographers seem to cover most major 20th-century dance-world personalities except for Balanchine (though Balanchine gets touched on in several essays, such as the one about Suzanne Farrell). Acocella's account of Martha Graham's long career and the fight over the intellectual property rights to her dances is absolutely riveting. Just as I didn't know much about fashion history before reading Cleopatra's Nose, I didn't know much about dance history before reading Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, and again appreciated the education. I also really enjoyed Acocella's essays on literature and authors; for example, her Dorothy Parker piece was one of the things that inspired me to pick up Parker's Complete Stories last month.

Sometimes The New Yorker gets accused of having a single "house style" for its authors, but Acocella's and Thurman's voices are different and distinctive. Thurman strikes me as more self-conscious than Acocella, more in love with hearing herself talk. Her style is dense and aphoristic; Acocella's is lucid and expository. Thurman has more individual sentences that you want to quote, but with Acocella you are more likely to remember the thrust of the argument.

I should also note that Acocella's book is more handsomely produced, with a black-and-white photo decorating every chapter and a thorough index in the back. Because Thurman's style is so dense with references to other artists, it is frustrating that her book lacks an index. (I even took a pen and annotated the table of contents so I'd remember what the subject of each essay was--and I hardly ever write in my books.)

So I guess that Acocella's book wins over Thurman, if you had to pick just one; but I have returned frequently to both of these essay collections since I read them circa last February/March, and know that I'll continue to do so in future. Both have introduced me to some wonderful artistic personalities and offered fresh insights on artists that I was already familiar with. I love these kinds of books! I love The New Yorker! Come on and fill up my brain!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Matilda, Ma-Ma-Matilda

Am thinking of going to see Fantastic Mr. Fox this weekend, more out of cinephilia/Wes Anderson fandom than out of childhood nostalgia, because I don't recall ever reading that book when I was little. I read a lot of other Roald Dahl books, though, and my all-time favorite is definitely Matilda. Its title character might just be the first member of my pantheon of smart-girl heroines--how could I not love it?

Matilda is a five-year-old child prodigy, born into an awful family (used-car-salesman dad, television-obsessed mom) and attending a school where the principal is the sadistic, power-mad Miss Trunchbull. The story is about how Matilda gets revenge, first with a series of clever pranks on her family and then, after discovering that she has telekinetic powers, by mentally moving objects to impersonate the ghost of Miss Trunchbull's dead brother. Revenge/comeuppance is a frequent theme in Roald Dahl and I think children find it very satisfying. When I was a kid, I loved stories of horrifically nasty people getting their just deserts--not only Matilda, but also, say, the way the evil headmistress in A Little Princess is finally punished.

Matilda's parents, meanwhile, are the sort of characters that make you realize that the Dursley family, of Harry Potter, is directly descended from Roald Dahl's villains. But J.K. Rowling softens things by saying "it's OK, the Dursleys aren't Harry's real family; he had wonderful parents who loved him, but unfortunately they're dead"--which plays into the childhood fantasy of thinking that your parents aren't really your parents, that you must be adopted, a long-lost prince or princess, etc. Dahl is having none of that. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are Matilda's real parents, and that's what makes them even worse than the Dursleys.

As for Matilda's telekinetic powers, they arise because she is not being challenged in school (the Trunchbull forbids her to skip a grade) and thus has a lot of excess mental energy built up, which she learns how to channel to make small objects move. After the Trunchbull's defeat, when Matilda moves to the appropriate grade level, her powers fade away.

Now, I first read Matilda when I was probably five years old, and knew that I wasn't being appropriately challenged in kindergarten (I ended up skipping first grade)... and I admit that I wondered whether I, too, might not have developed telekinetic powers! I definitely had a few afternoons of imitating Matilda by sitting on the end of my bed and trying to move the objects on my bureau using my mind.

And then when I skipped from kindergarten to second grade, I ended up with a teacher who looked as sweet as Miss Honey (Matilda's kindhearted kindergarten teacher) but was really a Trunchbull in disguise... but that's a story for another day.

By the way, early in the novel, Roald Dahl includes a list of the books that Matilda's friendly librarian gives her to read after she finishes reading all of the children's books at her local library. They are:
  • Great Expectations
  • Nicholas Nickleby
  • Oliver Twist
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  • Gone to Earth
  • Kim
  • The Invisible Man
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Good Companions
  • Brighton Rock
  • Animal Farm
  • The Red Pony
I've read five of them... how about you?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Casanova": Who Writes Your Screenplays?

I spent Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in the East Bay. After dinner (the basics like turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, plus a dish of creamed peas and pearl onions--a tres Midwestern contribution from my Minnesotan uncle) we watched the Casanova film that came out a few years ago, starring Heath Ledger. My aunt is very proud of our Italian heritage and loves any kind of costume drama with Venetian vistas; plus, knowing that we won't get any more Heath Ledger movies makes his whole filmography seem precious.

But I wasn't really crazy about Casanova. I guess I wanted Casanova to be like Don Giovanni--an unrepentant rake and lady-killer--but this film version removes his edginess and complexity. He is always likable, as chivalrous as a seducer can possibly be, and despite his reputation, we don't see him juggle many lovers. Instead, the movie says that Casanova just needed to find the one woman that was meant for him, and then he'd instantly go monogamous. Meanwhile, the woman (Francesca, played by Sienna Miller) is supposed to appeal to a modern-day audience because she pretends to be a dutiful daughter, but secretly she's feisty and fights in duels and writes proto-feminist pamphlets and disguises herself as a man. But all of this feels so calculated to appeal to us, and so anachronistic considering that the movie takes place in 1750, that it annoys me. Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean that I want every movie to contain a spunky feminist role model. Instead, I want female characters to be believable according to the setting of the film, and Francesca is not.

When I got home, I looked up the original New York Times review of Casanova. A.O. Scott liked it lots more than I did--but he also revealed something interesting: Tom Stoppard evidently did an uncredited rewrite of the Casanova script!

It's funny what learning something like that can do. I had thought that Casanova was a mediocre romp with nice costumes, suitable for watching in a Thanksgiving haze of triptophan and wine, but not deserving of any futher consideration. But now, knowing that one of my favorite playwrights had a hand in the script, I wished I'd paid it more attention. Could I have detected a "Stoppard touch" in any of the scenes? None of the dialogue struck me as that great on first hearing, but rereading it on the IMDB quotes page, could I hear a hint of Stoppard in some of the sillier jokes? And was Stoppard's contribution more about giving the dialogue a witty sheen, or did it extend to fixing problems of plot and character? Because despite his script-doctoring, Casanova still has one-dimensional characters and a contrived, mechanistic plot. The film even contains elementary screenwriting mistakes like naming one character "Victoria" and a completely unrelated character "Vittorio"--couldn't someone have changed one of those names?

There is a moment at the end of Casanova that I'd like to think is a Stoppard contribution--or maybe it's from Jeffrey Hatcher, another playwright who worked on the screenplay. Casanova and Francesca are rescued from the Inquisition's clutches by a troupe of traveling players, who express hope that the young lovers will join the acting company. Francesca gives the head of the troupe an appraising look and says "Who writes your plays?"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Things I Want to Arrive Now, Dammit

Because tomorrow may be devoted to gratitude but today one is still allowed to be greedy and impatient...
  • Movies: Broken Embraces, Me and Orson Welles. A.O. Scott has developed a bad habit of giving rave reviews to movies that aren't open in my city yet.
  • Newspapers/magazines/saviors of the printed word: McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama. So looking forward to this!
  • Abstract qualities: Inspiration, imagination, willpower, gumption, etc.
  • And most importantly: The end of the month, so that I no longer have to write a blog post every day! (Can you tell I'm frustrated?)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Theatre Links, November 24

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Mystery of the "Impact" Channel

I'm planning to sign up for Netflix, but for the past ten months or so, I've subsisted off of whatever movies Comcast offers free on-demand. And while I've seen some good things this way--classics like Tom Jones, indie films like Metropolitan--most of the free movies don't appeal to me at all. Many of them are offered under a channel called Impact, which seems designed to attract the "typical 18-to-34-year-old male" that advertisers always crave. A partnership between Comcast and MGM, Impact is "the first video-on-demand channel dedicated exclusively to action movies." And this means, frankly, that it shows a lot of schlock.

That's why it's so odd that twice in the last month, I have begun watching a free Comcast movie, only to see a "brought to you by Impact" logo. And neither one is an obvious candidate for an "action movies for dudes" channel--they're both campy '60s comedies, Viva Maria! and What's New Pussycat? There aren't even any action scenes in Pussycat, unless you count the farce/slapstick sequence where all the characters chase each other around a hotel and zoom away in go-karts.

Not that these movies are great cinema, but they star more talented actors than most of the schlocky action films that Impact shows, and were made by more interesting people. Pussycat was Woody Allen's first screenplay and it is fascinating to see his humor in embryonic form... but I don't think his gags about psychoanalysis would appeal to the crowd that Impact is aiming for. And though Viva Maria! is pure fluff, it was directed by the talented Louis Malle--it's a shame Comcast showed it in pan-and-scan format, because the widescreen cinematography looked interesting. Well, at least they didn't dub it; they left it in subtitled French. That surprised me, though, because doesn't the "typical 18-to-34-year-old male" hate subtitles?

The funniest part is how Impact tries to promote these movies to its target demographic. Before the movie starts, a screen lists the "action elements" you'll see in the upcoming film. But here, Impact really has to stretch the definition of "action element": the promo for What's New Pussycat? listed "Excessive Partying" and "Hot French Girls." This seems like a desperate attempt to make the movie sound exciting and scandalous--I mean, it probably was titillating in the '60s, but to a modern audience, it's practically wholesome family entertainment! Especially when the Comcast customer who's looking for sex or violence could so easily flip to one of the much trashier movies that Impact offers free.

Maybe I'm being unfair; maybe Impact's target audience likes campy '60s films. The Austin Powers movies made lots of money spoofing this kind of thing, right? All the same, I can't help feeling that I have an unnaturally high tolerance for '60s silliness and that it's an acquired taste. I'm happy to have seen these movies, but does Impact know that I couldn't care less about "action elements"--and that I'm a not-so-typical 18-to-34-year-old female?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Vertigo Era

San Francisco 1958 from Jeff Altman on Vimeo.

Old Super-8 home movies of San Francisco in 1958--the year that Vertigo came out. Beautiful and fascinating time capsule. Amazing to see the skyline sans Transamerica Pyramid and Embarcadero Tower buildings!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Tiny Kushner": Angels, Therapists, Politics & Hitler


Five short plays make up the Tiny Kushner program at Berkeley Rep, and I think I had read all of them, at various times, before seeing them last weekend. Two of the plays, "Flip Flop Fly" and "A Shrink in Paradise," were commissioned by the New York Times Magazine for their annual "The Lives They Lived" issue. They came out when I was in high school and I remember going nuts for them--or, more precisely, for what they represented. I thought it was awesome that these short plays stood alongside the nonfiction essays that filled the rest of the magazine! And they were Kushnerian plays too--crazy and imaginative and language-drunk.

But you know, these plays weren't written to be performed, and they suffer somewhat when put onstage. "Flip Flop Fly" dramatizes a meeting--on the moon, after death--between eccentric American singer Lucia Pamela and deposed queen Geraldine of Albania. These women both led fascinating lives, but too much of the play consists of having them shout their biographies at each other. That's fine in a magazine, but not in the theater. The point of the play is that Lucia symbolizes American gumption and optimism and Geraldine symbolizes tragic European decadence, which is clever enough, but not dramatic--if these characters are both symbols and both dead, how much real conflict can there be? Berkeley Rep's staging of this piece concluded with an amusing song-and-dance routine, Lucia moving like a loose-limbed hoofer and Geraldine as though goose-stepping.

"A Shrink in Paradise" is another after-death play, imagining Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, Richard Nixon's shrink, being counseled by Metatron the Recording Angel (who evidently moonlights as an analyst). It runs into the same problem as "Flip Flop Fly": these characters are not sufficiently dynamic and dramatic. Also, it feels like Kushner is repeating himself. There was already a play, earlier in the evening, that took place in a therapist's office, with the same actors playing therapist and patient. It's yet another Kushner play that involves angels and takes place in a metaphysical realm. The big dramatic payoff is a comparison of Nixon to Hitler, but the big payoff of Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day is a comparison of Reagan and Hitler, so at some point, you want to say "Lay off the Hitler comparisons, Tony!"

Thankfully, in the final play of the evening, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy"--the play where Laura Bush reads to the dead Iraqi children--Kushner resists the temptation to compare G.W. Bush to Hitler. All the same, it's another play with an angel in it, and another play that presents a basically static situation, intended to rouse our liberal guilt and protest the Iraq War... it's agitprop, not theater.

The other two plays of the evening aren't available online but you can find them in the collection of minor Kushner works called Death & Taxes. "Terminating," about a gay man who thinks he's in love with his lesbian analyst (and doesn't that sound like a bad Woody Allen joke?) has the characters say a lot of quotable Kushnerian things, but the language gets so dense that I don't know what the point of the play is.

So in the end, the only play that really came off well was "East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis"--in which Kushner writes à la Anna Deavere Smith, a series of short monologues spoken by diverse characters, all meant to be played by the same actor. Based on a true story, this play is about a bunch of NYC city employees who get in touch with a crazy right-winger to learn how to cheat the tax code and claim that paying income tax is illegal. While it deals with political themes, it's not a hit-you-over-the-head-and-make-you-feel-guilty play like "Only We Who Guard the Mystery." The monologues are engaging and fast-paced, and actor Jim Lichtscheidl transitions effortlessly between all of the characters he plays. And again, Kushner's prescience can stun an audience: this play was written in 2000 or earlier, but the address of the right-wing group's website is Teaparty.com. The city employees' scheme got discovered and duly punished, but it is disheartening to realize that this anti-tax ideology has only spread...

The bare-bones staging further prevented these plays from coming alive: despite Berkeley Rep's ample resources, scenery was minimal and the actors wore the same costumes throughout. (I was rather impressed with the dark-red satin pantsuit worn by Kate Eifrig: she plays Queen Geraldine, Esther the NYC psychoanalyst, Metatron, and Laura Bush, and somehow her costume works for all of those characters.) All stage directions are read aloud, rather than interpreted; sometimes these are useful, as in "East Coast Ode," but sometimes very obtrusive. In "Only We Who Guard the Mystery," when the Iraqi children open their mouths to talk, Kushner writes that the only sound we hear is "the bird-music from Messiaen's opera St. François d'Assise." Hearing this stage direction read aloud, the audience feels stupid for not knowing their Messiaen, whereas if the sound-op had simply played the music, we wouldn't feel stupid and we'd hear what Kushner had really desired. For, while Kushner intends to make us feel liberal-guilty, I don't think he intends to make us feel stupid.

Photo: Valeri Mudek as Lucia Pamela and Kate Eifrig as Queen Geraldine.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Madness & Absurdity


MARY: Elizabeth and Donald are too over the moon to hear me, so I can let you in on a secret. Elizabeth is not Elizabeth and Donald is not Donald. [...] In spite of the extraordinary coincidences which seem rock solid, Donald and Elizabeth, not being parents of the same child, are not Donald and Elizabeth. He can fancy he's Donald; she can fancy she's Elizabeth. He can fancy she's Elizabeth and she can fancy he's Donald, but both are sadly deluded. Then who is the real Donald, you ask? And who is the real Elizabeth? It beats me. I say we drop this whole affair and leave things as they are.
--Mary's monologue from The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco (trans. Tina Howe)

Photo: Mad Men, season 3. Donald "Don" Draper fancies he's Donald and his wife is Elizabeth; Elizabeth "Betty" Draper fancies she's Elizabeth and her husband is Donald; both are sadly deluded.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Bald Soprano": Comme C'est Absurde et Quelle Production


The Bald Soprano at Cutting Ball Theater (San Francisco's specialists in absurdism) has just been extended until mid-December! I saw the play tonight, and thought that I would have to blog about it in my typical "it's-great-but-it's-closing-sorry-I-didn't-see-it-sooner" fashion. But then I learned of the extension--so, congrats to Cutting Ball for a great start to their 10th anniversary season, and as for the rest of you--now's your chance to get tickets to the added performances before they sell out!

Being an absurdist play--lots of non sequitur dialogue, few stage directions--The Bald Soprano is very open to directorial interpretation. I've heard of productions that fill it with vaudeville-type gags or ones that turn it into a parody of English people and customs. It seemed that one of the goals of the Cutting Ball production was to strip away several of these "conceptual" layers and just let the text and the humor come through. I mean, of course the director, Rob Melrose, put his own ideas into it (he is also responsible for the new translation) but the stage was painted a flat yellow-orange, there weren't any props, there was no attempt to suggest "England."

It's funny: even though the text is so absurd and should offer no clues as to when the play takes place, it still seems a product of the 1950s--and it couldn't take place in the present day. In one scene, the Smiths' doorbell keeps ringing, but when someone gets up and answers the door, no one is there. It is interesting that Mr. Smith justs assumes that Mrs. Smith will answer the door, because she is a woman and the hostess--and he gets offended when Mrs. Smith suggests that he should do it himself. Perfect 1950s gender roles, in other words. It's weird how much of this kind of thing gets revealed in a text that is supposedly "meaningless." But then, The Bald Soprano was always meant to present a skewed version of our society and the language we use (as opposed to a fantasy of a completely different universe), so no wonder the mores of the time it was written show up in its subtext...

I liked how the actors found the subtext they needed, too, and how each of them created a distinct comic persona. Mrs. Smith the perky hostess, capable of saying any of Ionesco's dialogue with a straight face; Mr. Smith more voluble than his wife, jumping on furniture in frustrated bourgeois rage; Mrs. Martin the nervous younger woman, always uncertain of how to behave; and Mr. Martin placidly smiling, trying to calm his wife down.

I saw the show with a French friend, who said that she had never seen a production of the play, but that one of the oft-repeated lines from the show has passed into French parlance and tonight she finally learned where it was from. In the famous scene between Mr. and Mrs. Martin, they keep saying "Comme c'est curieux ! Comme c'est bizarre! et quelle coïncidence !" ("How curious it is, how bizarre, and what a coincidence!") as the realization slowly dawns on them that they are husband and wife. Evidently this is now a famous quote among French people.

(I just thought--is the Mr. and Mrs. Martin scene intended as a parody of all of those "recognition" scenes of classical Greek drama, where Electra recognizes Orestes by his birthmark, etc.?)

Tonight the theater was mostly filled with a crowd of high-school students from Marin. They were an encouragingly enthusiastic crowd, a few of them laughing to the point of having fits, and everyone going nuts (as high-schoolers do) when the maid and the fireman started making out. At the end of the show, Cutting Ball raffled off a bottle of wine and naturally, one of the teenagers won it. Which just goes to show that life does have its absurdities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Man Behind the King Tut Exhibit

The King Tut exhibit arrived at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park last summer, which means that for months I have been living a ten-minute walk away from one of the world's most priceless collections of Egyptian antiquities. But I still haven't been to see it. First, I didn't feel like dealing with the crowds; then, some of my friends said it wasn't very good. And now, after reading the New Yorker article on Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Council of Antiquities (subscribers only, sorry) I am not sure I want to support this exhibit with $32.50 of my money!

The article portrays Hawass as a megalomaniac, a relentless self-promoter who recklessly seeks blockbuster archaeological finds--digging the Valley of the Kings down to the bedrock in the hopes of unearthing a tomb. Ian Parker, the article's author, does try to give Hawass a fair shake--acknowledging that his egotism is rooted in a patriotic desire to promote Egyptian history and restore Egyptology to the Egyptians. But the rest of the article is written in such a snarky tone that the impression of Hawass as reckless blowhard is what predominates. I'm not used to seeing New Yorker profiles that so gleefully make fun of their subject--well, the critics will tear movies and plays apart, but the writers of feature articles don't tend to be so harsh on living people. Which implies that Hawass must have really pissed Parker off.

Choice quotes:
  • "[Hawass] often asks rhetorical questions along the lines of 'God gave me this talent for public speaking--what can I do?'" (N.B. this is the third sentence of the article. The snark starts early.)
  • "Hawass is so often found in the middle of an argument that one can usually assume the fuss is strategic. [...] He has no doubt that his fame is a vital national asset."
  • "His dominant conversational tone was rebuttal laced with invective and self-regard [...] Hawass speaks English fast, with a strong accent, and in a tone that, after a while, you come to realize doesn't denote outright fury."
  • "Hawass's tendency toward self-flattery obscures his past; when, reluctantly, he talks of his upbringing, his words have the texture of a Soviet-era account of Stalin's boyhood."
  • "He mentioned an excavation in 1990, when he opened the tomb of a dwarf named Perniankhu and found a basalt statue that he regards as a masterwork of the period. [...] When Hawass took the statue in his hands, he told me, 'it was one of the most beautiful moments in my life, as if I were holding my first son.' This moment occurred during a press conference."
  • "He told me that when he showed Obama around the Pyramids he grew to have a better understanding of him than all but the President's closest confidants. 'We became friends from the first minute,' he said. 'I told him George Lucas came here to find out how my hat became more famous than Harrison Ford's.'"
  • And, most damning, considering the exhibition that is in town and the money they're charging for it: "Hawass accepted a proposal from A.E.G., the sports-arena owner and events organizer, to take Tutankhamun back on the road, with an explicit ambition of making money. [...] Any museum that took the show would be given a share of the ticket proceeds, but it would have to stomach the loss of almost all curatorial control. In San Francisco, for example, the de Young museum was able to veto items in the exhibition's accompanying gift store, and it ruled out a tissue box whose papers exit through the nose in a Pharaoh's mask. Beyond that, the museum was the provider of floor space."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Consider the Wallace

To all the people who encouraged me to read David Foster Wallace--who assured me that his essays were unsurpassed examples of the form; who dragged me to the DFW shelf at Powell's and said "My goal in life is to be half as good a writer as him"; who sat in a corner of my living room last fall and confessed how torn up you were about his death...

You were right, all of you. I'm only sorry that it took me this long to follow your advice! After reading Consider the Lobster, I'm joining your ranks in the Wallace-cult. (I've noticed that, at least in San Francisco, it is impossible to find Wallace's books in used bookstores--suggesting that the people who buy his books fall in love and cannot be induced to part with them.)

"Authority and American Usage," in which Wallace ostensibly reviews a new usage dictionary but really summarizes the whole history of Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism (in linguistics) and makes a complex argument in favor of prescriptivism, is probably my favorite essay in the collection... one of my favorites of all time. I love that it is so shamelessly an essay, as opposed to an article or a piece of reportage--that is, it has a thesis and a clearly organized argument running through it, and continually refers to its own structure. Because of this, and because Wallace spends a lot of the essay discussing how rhetorical and argumentative strategies function, it is really a meta-essay, which is just terrific, and quite educational. Seriously, this should be required reading in college. If only for the way that Wallace rails against the shoddy and obfuscatory quality of most academic prose.

This collection doesn't include Wallace's famous "cruise-ship essay," but it does have other articles that rely on his powers of observation and eye for the absurd: "Big Red Son," about the porn industry's annual awards ceremony, and "Up, Simba" (qtd. here) about John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. These essays combine detailed "you are there" descriptions of the people and things that Wallace encounters, with thoughtful reflections on the significance of all of this crazy stuff--an extremely strong combination. The tone of the porn essay is incredulous, but not shocked: Wallace is not trying to create a moral panic, but simply to depict this subculture and the way it resonates in the culture at large.

As for the title essay, it seems like Gourmet magazine commissioned Wallace to go to another wacky corner of America (the Maine Lobster Festival) and describe the scene there. What they got, after some throat-clearing scene-setting, was a not-at-all-wacky, dead-earnest inquiry into whether it is ethical to boil lobsters alive and eat them. He doesn't come to any conclusions in this one, admitting that the issues are too much even for him. Still, it--and several of the other pieces--shows how concerned Wallace was with morality. His deepest desire is for people to approach life with "a democratic spirit" of fairness and sincerity.

Wallace was a great cultural commentator, and when people in the future want to know what life was like in millennial America, they should turn to these essays. Because America in the early 21st century is full of contradictions, and Wallace gets that, and writes about it, better than anyone. And these essays show that he, himself, was a contradiction. A sloppy-looking, bandanna-wearing dude who was also proudly nerdy and pedantic when it came to the English language. An acclaimed highbrow littérateur with a secret penchant for reading ghostwritten autobiographies of sports stars. A writer whose work was all about tracing his self-conscious and convoluted mental processes, but who could also be remarkably self-effacing (in several of these essays he never refers to himself as "I," but only as "your correspondent").

And I guess that's why his death hurts so much. It seemed that, in Wallace, we had someone who clearly understood the contradictions of American life, and could explain them to us, and despite being self-conscious and self-doubting so much of the time, had learned to live with these contradictions. But now, we think "If Wallace couldn't cope with the contradictions of life--what hope do the rest of us have?"

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dostoevsky for Beginners?

Fast realizing that blogging every day for a month is not all it's cracked up to be. Unwilling to admit defeat, but not feeling very inspired tonight.

Oh! I know! A number of factors have converged to convince me that I should read some Dostoevsky:
  • reading David Foster Wallace's pro-Dostoevsky essay in Consider the Lobster, last week
  • seeing Tiny Kushner last night, which includes a scene where Laura Bush reads her favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, to the dead children of Iraq
  • the hype for From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera, based on one of Dostoevsky's lesser-known novels
  • a promise I once made to a young man that I would read The Brothers Karamazov if he read Atonement. I doubt that this man kept up his end of the bargain, and indeed, he broke some promises about things that are far more important than Ian McEwan novels--so I shouldn't feel like I owe him anything, but nonetheless, I still feel guilty that I haven't read Dostoevsky.
So now I have a question for any Dostoevsky fans who read this blog: where should I begin? Karamazov? Crime and Punishment? Something else? (I wish Wallace had addressed this in his essay.) What novel will best give me the quintessential Dostoevsky flavor and make me fall in love with his work? Please don't hesitate to offer your suggestions.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"To Startle Words Back Into the Air"

It's just the words, reverse transcription. Thinking about it. Something I can't help doing. Writing began with the effort to record speech. All writing is an attempt to fix intangibles--thought, speech, what the eye observes--fixed on clay tablets, in stone, on paper. Writers capture. We playwrights on the other hand write or rather "wright" to set these free again. Not inscribing, not de-scribing but... ex-scribing (?)... "W-R-I-G-H-T," that archaism, because it's something earlier we do, cruder, something one does with one's mitts, one's paws. To claw words up...! To startle words back into the air again, to...evanesce. It is...unwriting, to do it is to die, yes, but. A lively form of doom.

from "Reverse Transcription: Six Playwrights Bury a Seventh," by Tony Kushner
Posted because I had a great time at Playwrights' Pub Night yesterday hanging out with other people who practice this strange métier... and because tonight I am going to see the Kushner one-acts at Berkeley Rep!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Audrey in Paree



Apropos of some recent postings here at my blog, a clip from the movie Funny Face:

Fred Astaire plays "Dick Avery," a character based on Richard Avedon (prev. post), photographing Audrey Hepburn in various locations around Paris.

(and it's true that although I am skeptical of the whole Carey Mulligan = The New Audrey Hepburn comparison, I couldn't help but recall this Funny Face montage during the Paris scenes of An Education!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Seek and Ye Shall Find

For a long time, I have desired a search engine that would limit itself to searching sites that I had bookmarked. I get frequent "must learn everything about this subject" obsessions, which always make me curious to discover what my favorite bloggers and media sources have written about that topic. But it's tedious to search my favorite websites, one by one, to see if they contain any relevant information--and a basic Google search always turns up a lot of irrelevant stuff, e.g. innumerable websites that want to sell me DVDs of the actor that I was researching, rather than sites with intelligent commentary on the actor's films.

I convinced myself that a search-only-of-my-bookmarks was logistically impossible to program, or, if it were possible, it would entail such an invasion of privacy (because the program would have to look at my hard drive to see the personal bookmarks stored therein) that it would be too frightening to use.

But it's almost the second decade of the 21st century, so why be so defeatist? Naturally, the magicians down in Mountain View have anticipated the desire for a specialized search feature, and created a tool for it. I am notoriously behind the curve when it comes to technology, so most likely you already know about this... but if you don't, I present to you Google Custom Search.

It's not quite as simple (but much less privacy-invasive) than a program that would automatically know, and search, the sites in my Bookmarks folder. Instead, you have to give Google Search a list of the sites that you want it to check. But of course the explanation of how to manage your custom search engine is easy to understand, and the searches are lickety-split.

I'm now tweaking my own custom search engine--called "Marissa's Arts & Culture Engine," or MACE for short. It might be a dangerous tool, when it comes to encouraging my information-hungry obsessions, but I am glad to have it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Links & Thoughts, November 12

Some suggestions of things to check out:
  • Movie recommendation: Metropolitan (written & directed by Whit Stillman). I watched it for the first time last night and loved it. The screenplay is amazing. Quotable, witty, and far more charming than it has any right to be, considering the subject matter: Upper East Side debutantes and their escorts going to Christmas parties in the late 1980s. At the start of the movie, you feel overwhelmed by all of the hyper-literate WASPy characters; by the end, you feel like you know every character intimately. (Therefore your experience watching the movie mirrors the experience of its protagonist, Tom, a "poor" Upper West Side boy who joins the debutante crowd almost by accident.) If you happen to have the same Comcast package that I do, it's free on demand until the 17th--otherwise, go out and rent it! It's a little gem.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

DFW on Leadership, Marketing and Cynicism

Excerpt from David Foster Wallace's essay "Up, Simba," which discusses John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and related issues:
The word 'leader' itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn't boring at all; in fact he's the opposite of boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn't just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with "inspire" being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own. It's a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it [...]

Probably the last real leader we had as US president was JFK, 40 years ago. It's not that Kennedy was a better human being than the seven presidents we've had since: we know he lied about his WWII record, and had spooky Mob ties, and screwed around more in the White House than poor old Clinton could ever dream of. But JFK had that special leader-type magic, and when he said things like "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" nobody rolled their eyes or saw it as just a clever line. Instead, a lot of them felt inspired. And the decade that followed, however fucked up it was in other ways, saw millions of Young Voters devote themselves to social and political causes that had nothing to do with getting a plum job or owning expensive stuff or finding the best parties; and the '60s were, by most accounts, a generally cleaner and happier time than now.

It is worth considering why. It's worth thinking hard about why, when John McCain says he wants to be president in order to inspire a generation of young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest (which means he's saying he wants to be a real leader), a great many of those young Americans will yawn or roll their eyes or make some ironic joke instead of feeling inspired the way they did with Kennedy. True, JFK's audience was in some ways more innocent than we are: Vietnam hadn't happened yet, or Watergate, or the S&L scandals, etc. But there's also something else. The science of sales and marketing was still in its drooling infancy in 1961 when Kennedy was saying "Ask not..." The young people he inspired had not been skillfully marketed to all their lives. They knew nothing of spin. They were not totally, terribly familiar with salesmen. [...]

If you're subjected to enough great salesmen and salespitches and marketing concepts for long enough — like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let's say — it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn't give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

Things I thought about after reading this today:

  • Mad Men! The '60s as the beginning of the era of spin and marketing. The Season One MM story about the Nixon/Kennedy election and the associated advertising campaigns. How, when we "lost our innocence" in the '60s, it wasn't only due to things like Vietnam and assassinations, but, much more sneakily, the encroaching consumerist advertising mentality... All the same, is Wallace right to say that things were cleaner and happier, in that decade?
  • How really tragic it is that Wallace didn't live to see Barack Obama elected--though he at least lived long enough to see how Obama energized the Young Voters that he spends so much of this essay being concerned about.
  • This essay is from 2000, when McCain was competing against Bush in the primaries and positioning himself as the "anti-candidate," "straight-talk express," etc. Wallace is truly impressed by how honest, human, and forthright McCain seems--and he wants to believe that McCain is genuinely like that, but he's so mistrustful after so many years of being marketed to that he wonders if it's not just another, really skillful and really insidious, marketing technique. Now, McCain also campaigned as a "maverick" in 2008, and he said that picking Sarah Palin as veep proved his maverick-y bona fides. But really, the Palin pick can be seen as McCain's most cynical, politically calculated decision of all--picking an underprepared candidate just because she was a woman and would get attention. It's the sort of thing that, I imagine, would have disheartened Wallace (and when he heard how Palin mangles the English language, he'd be positively apoplectic). The day that Wallace killed himself--September 12, 2008--was right after the Republican Convention, and McCain was up in the polls, and Palin wasn't yet a national joke. I've read the excellent New Yorker and Rolling Stone DFW postmortems, and I recognize that he was a deeply troubled man, who was in great pain for several months before his death. But I wonder--if the national political mood had been just a little more encouraging on September 12...if McCain hadn't betrayed Wallace's prior faith in him (tentative and cautious though that faith was)...?
Foolish, really, to speculate on what could have saved Wallace; and even crasser for me to be doing it, since I never read any of his work when he was alive (despite ample encouragement to do so). But let's face it: anyone who comes to his work now is going to know the conclusion, as it were--it's impossible to forget. And so now, if you discover and love his writing, there's nothing else you can do, at first, but be sad. Appreciative, too; but the sadness comes first.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "An Education"

Yes! Now that it's prestige-movie season, my occasional blog series from last year returns!

Title of movie: An Education

Reasons for anticipation: I love female coming-of-age stories and wish there were more of them, so I believe in supporting these kinds of movies with my money. Furthermore, An Education got great reviews, especially for newcomer lead actress Carey Mulligan, and I really liked the trailer.



The moment that clinched it for me comes at the end of the trailer, when Mulligan says, "I suppose you think I'm a ruined woman," and Emma Thompson retorts, "You're not a woman." I loved how Mulligan says her line with a sort of dreamy defiance--she seems almost to relish the idea of being a "ruined woman," because it sounds intriguing, like something out of a novel. And then I loved how Thompson's reply hits Mulligan's character exactly where it would hurt the most. Good writing and good acting--this looked promising!

Also, I've mentioned before that one of the novels closest to my heart is A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden, and An Education seemed like it had a lot in common with that book. Both works are based around the following scenario: "Post-WWII, pre-Beatles England. A precocious and ambitious teenage girl yearns to go to university, meet sophisticated people, and leave her middle-class life behind. But she is also desperate to lose her virginity to an older man." So, because I doubt anyone will ever make a movie of The Virgin in the Garden, An Education seemed like the next best thing.

My verdict: I was not disappointed by An Education, and I definitely recommend it. Aside from the way that it gets predictable and perfunctory in its last ten minutes, it's a very good movie about the kind of female character that the cinema could use more of.

Yes, I probably am predisposed to like a film about a smart girl, the only child of respectable and caring parents, who desires more out of life--a teenage Francophile who loves Ravel and having conversations with "people who know lots about lots." This character, named Jenny (Mulligan), thinks she's found her ticket to excitement and cultural experience in David (Peter Sarsgaard), a good-looking wheeler-dealer who gives her a lift during a rainstorm one day. David proceeds to charm the starry-eyed girl and her more skeptical parents. Jenny is drawn into his world, even as her teachers caution her to slow down and David's mysterious lifestyle throws up its own red flags.

An Education is my favorite kind of comedy--one where the laughs arise out of character and situation, instead of being caused by gags or wisecracks or people acting quirky for no reason. Alfred Molina has the funniest role, as Jenny's father, a man so complacent in his bourgeois prejudices that he's wrong about nearly everything--he misreads both Jenny and David, to catastrophic effect. Rosamund Pike plays a character named Helen (the girlfriend of David's pal Danny), doing a twist on the dumb-blonde stereotype--not a sweet and breathy Marilyn Monroe type, but a real woman who just happens to be incredibly dim. Special mention goes to Emma Thompson for toning down her natural likability and playing an unsympathetic role.

The 1961 setting looks stylish when it needs to (sad that Mad Men is over for the year? go see An Education) but the scenes at Jenny's house and school show why our heroine finds Britain so drab. One particularly breathtaking shot has Carey Mulligan's tear-stained face briefly illuminated by the headlights of a car as it drives away.

Now, about all those reviews that are calling Mulligan the next Audrey Hepburn. As a longtime Hepburnologist (Audrey division), I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this. Basically, I think it's a bit facile, and runs the risk of putting Mulligan in a box where she doesn't quite fit. For one thing, I doubt Mulligan will ever be a contender for the title of Most Beautiful Woman in the World. She's pretty, and convincingly glows with enthusiasm, but she's not in Audrey's realm of otherworldly beauty.

But being the Most Beautiful Woman in the World is a great responsibility; it means that audiences expect you to be endlessly charming and adorable. Therefore Mulligan's everyday kind of prettiness allows her to play characters who are a little more complex, even unlikable, than Audrey Hepburn's tended to be. Jenny has a dry sense of humor, a ruthless pragmatic streak (she's thrilled by David's attentions, but on some level, she knows he's a means to an end), and an aspirational pretentiousness. We understand why she's pretentious, and can sympathize with her attempts to look sophisticated; but we can also understand why her friends say "You cow" when she brags in French about her boyfriend. And Jenny's love of French existentialism is not just a pose: its jaded attitude suits her personality. Upon losing her virginity, the prototypical Audrey Hepburn character would, I imagine, snuggle close to her lover, rest her head on his chest and murmur words of bliss. She would not, as Jenny does, go to the window, light a cigarette, and proclaim "All that poetry and all those songs about something that hardly lasts for a moment."

It occurred to me recently that in Audrey Hepburn movies, Audrey rarely interacts with other women... particularly not with women her own age. But one of the nicest things about An Education is that it surrounds Jenny with so many female characters--Helen, her mother, her teachers, her schoolfriends. I read a review that pointed out that each of these women is a potential role model for Jenny, and her decisions about which woman to emulate are just as important as her decision to have an affair with David. I would never have guessed that Nick Hornby had it in him to write so many female roles so well.

There are plenty of movies about young women who seek love and acceptance; plenty of movies about poor women who strive to escape poverty; plenty of movies where the female character just wants to have sex with a hot guy. An Education (and The Virgin in the Garden) does something different. More than love, or sexual pleasure, or money, or status and respectability, its heroine seeks to experience new things, to cultivate aesthetic and intellectual tastes, and to carve out her own identity. We're not necessarily used to stories about women who want these things--in the movies, it's usually men who crave knowledge and experience. But An Education shows how Jenny's ability to get what she wants is both facilitated and complicated by the fact that she is pretty and female. And therefore, she won't just learn what she wants to know--she'll also learn what she needs.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"American Idiot": The Kids of War and Peace

It was announced today that American Idiot, the Green Day rock musical, is going to Broadway! All right, there's been speculation to that effect for weeks, and this press release is still quite vague. Nevertheless, I have been meaning to write about seeing this show at Berkeley Rep, so tonight's a good time to do it.


I actually saw American Idiot twice--first, with my friend Anushka, about four weeks ago (see her excellent comments on the show). We sat in the second row, which blasted our eardrums and allowed us to really admire the performers' drive and energy, but was almost too close, because there is so much going on at every moment of the show. After seeing it with Anushka, I realized that my friend Chanelle (a punk rock fan) had to see this musical too, and I wouldn't mind going again if I could sit further away, and Berkeley Rep has that wonderful half-price-tickets-for-young-people deal... so I ended up returning last week.

Seen from the balcony, American Idiot is still plenty loud, and you gain a better appreciation for the actors' blocking and the gigantic set (which includes a car hanging from the ceiling). At times, I didn't know where to look: there are about 30 video screens, and projections, and flashing LEDs, and traditional lighting effects, and a high-powered young cast who haven't had all their idiosyncrasies ironed out of them. In the true punk rock spirit, each person executes their dance steps in a slightly different way, even if they're all using the same movement vocabulary. This is not traditional Broadway, where every dancer kicks their leg at the same precise angle--instead, these performers dance according to their personalities and their instincts, meaning that everyone onstage is doing something unique.

It amazes me both that American Idiot is such a whiz-bang technological marvel (the first time I saw it, the hydraulic lift malfunctioned, requiring a 5-minute pause to fix it), and also that the cast, these flesh-and-blood human beings, have the stamina to go out and perform it every night!

The Green Day songs are catchy and some of them directly tap into the universal well of post-adolescent angst. When the cast performs the ballads "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends," it's a great communal moment as we acknowledge that we all feel the loneliness, alienation and pain described by the lyrics and set to these soaring choruses. But there are also plenty of punk-rock barnburners, such as "American Idiot" and "St. Jimmy."

The main character of American Idiot is Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia, played by John Gallagher, Jr. What energy that guy has! I saw him in Spring Awakening as the nerdy, twitchy, uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Moritz--and in American Idiot he was twitchy, too, but in a different way. He perfectly incarnated the snot-nosed, eye-rolling post-adolescent. Johnny is the only character with any spoken dialogue--just a few lines between some of the songs, to clarify the plot. This narration can be over-the-top, e.g. "I've got an axe to grind, and it's splittin' my head open!" But that also makes it a modern-day kind of street poetry--the bastard child of Clifford Odets.

Not that the plot of American Idiot is hard to understand: just the tale of a suburban kid who goes to the city with nothing but a backpack and a guitar, falls in love, gets hooked on drugs, ruins his life, gets clean, and returns to the 'burbs, a little wiser. There's only one thing that confused me, and it's more a problem of character than of plot. When Johnny first arrives in the city, he spots a beautiful girl (Whatsername, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones) leaning out of an upstairs window. Dressed in white, pure and angelic, she reminded me of Maria on the West Side Story fire escape. So I assumed "OK, this is going to be the old story of the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who must prove himself worthy of the love of the cool, upper-class city girl." But the next thing you know, Whatsername is dancing around in her underwear and enthusiastically shooting up drugs with Johnny. She's not Maria from West Side Story, she's Mimi from Rent--a sweet girl deep down, but also a wild child! And I feel that this should have been clearer when Whatsername first appeared.

Subplots deal with Johnny's friends' attempts to leave suburbia. Michael Esper plays the incredibly thankless role of Will, who can't go to the city with Johnny because his girlfriend is pregnant. He spends the entire show moping on a couch at stage right, unable to participate in much of the singing or dancing. My friend Anushka suggested that the show could be improved by adding "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" for Will to sing--the song fits his situation and, by singing one of Green Day's biggest hits, Esper could have a better moment in the spotlight.

Heather, Will's pregnant girlfriend, is played by Mary Faber, although the first time I saw American Idiot, it was with an understudy in the role. The understudy sang sweetly and earnestly, but Faber has more of a rock-n-roll edge to her voice, so I preferred her.

Johnny's other friend, Tunny, joins the Army and goes to Iraq. He is wounded, but finds love with a hospital nurse. The actors in these roles, Matt Caplan and Christina Sajous, have great chemistry--and they'd better, because they are performing a complex aerial ballet eight times a week! Their flying sequence, set to the song "Extraordinary Girl," is one of the show's highlights.

Anushka and I were both a little bothered, though, by the way that the gender roles in American Idiot are so reductive. They're reductive in the same way that the gender roles in Spring Awakening were--but Spring Awakening is based on a 100-year-old play, so it would be unreasonable to expect its female characters to conform to modern ideals. American Idiot, as a 21st-century musical, doesn't have that excuse. I don't mean to say that it's offensive or misogynistic... just that it doesn't allow the female characters the same complexity or subjectivity or range of experience as the men. They're all a little objectified. They're all angels. Maybe that's par for the course with punk rock?

The devil of the play, meanwhile, is St. Jimmy, the drug dealer--played by Tony Vincent, an amazing, androgynous presence. Upon reflection, it struck me as a little funny that so much money and talent has gone into a show whose moral could be described as "Hey Kids, Drugs Will Fuck You Up," as though it were a bad after-school special. But that's a little uncharitable: I don't believe American Idiot is a particularly deep show, but it is certainly a fast-paced and entertaining one, not a chore to sit through twice, and Green Day has a knack for writing songs that capture a mood.

They say that no one has ever gone broke underestimating the stupidity (idiocy?) of the American public. But I also think that no one has ever gone broke overestimating American adolescents' craving for works of art that tap into the angst of their generation. I predict that American Idiot becomes a big hit on Broadway.

Top photo: John Gallagher Jr. and Tony Vincent. Bottom photo: Gallagher.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nu-pieds au parc

Fragment of my conversation at dinner this evening.

FRENCH GUY #1: ...dessert in the park. (To me) Hey, wouldn't that be a good title for a play? Dessert in the Park?

ME: Hmm... I don't know... There's a play called Barefoot in the Park...

FRENCH GUY #1: Barefoot in the Park? What's that about? No, don't tell me. To me--to me, Barefoot in the Park--sounds like a guy who, he is barefoot in the park because his wife was about to discover him in the apartment of his mistress, and he had to run out of there as fast as he could, and he didn't have time to put on his shoes.

ME: (Laughing) That is so French... No offense, but that's like the classic French farce scenario, right? Feydeau--

FRENCH GUY #1: So that is not the play, Barefoot in the Park?

ME: No, what it's really about is this free-spirited girl who marries a kind of buttoned-up guy, so she's the one who goes barefoot in the park--

FRENCH GUY #1: Ah yes. The clash of cultures...

ME: Lifestyles...

FRENCH GUY #1: ...East Coast businessman and California hippie--

ME: Yeah. The play is from the '60s so, you know, the hippie thing was just starting out.

FRENCH GUY #2: I still think Dessert in the Park is a better title.

FRENCH GUY #1: Yes!

FRENCH GUY #2: Because Barefoot in the Park--"barefoot" is not a very pretty word, in English, is it?

FRENCH GUY #1: And Barefoot in the Park--that's too plain. There is no ambiguity.

FRENCH GUY #2: But Dessert in the Park, that makes you curious. It leaves you with questions. It could be food, right, the dessert they are having--

FRENCH GUY #1: "Dessert" is a good word--

FRENCH GUY #2: Or it could be sex.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Richard Avedon Retrospective: Celebrities and Models

Today, dressed in my best black-and-white outfit as a sign of homage, I visited the MOMA retrospective of Richard Avedon photographs. The works included in this, the largest exhibition devoted to the photographer since his death in 2004, can be divided into three basic categories: fashion photos, celebrity portraiture, and images from the big "American West" project that Avedon undertook in the early '80s.

It seems that everyone has been going just gaga about this exhibit, so is it wrong to say that I was slightly disappointed? The show felt small, for one thing: it advertises itself as "More than 200 Images," but about 75 of those images are 5-by-7 portraits of American political figures that Avedon snapped in 1976 for Rolling Stone, so unless you really like small photos of 1970s political figures, the ad is slightly misleading. There was almost nothing in the exhibition from the last 20 years of Avedon's career, and almost no fashion photography from after the '60s. But Avedon kept working up until the very end--I was moved to discover that one of the last photographs he took was a portrait of a young Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama.

So I felt that this exhibition showed a lot of the most "expected" Avedon images, ones that I had already seen on websites or in books, without offering much in the way of the unfamiliar-but-brilliant. I mean, I adore practically everything about this image--its composition, its style, its insouciance...

...but I can't say I got anything more out of it seeing it on a museum wall than I did when I first saw it online.

Furthermore, I couldn't help but wonder about the motivations for assembling an art show that is so full of images of famous people. Is this exhibit packing 'em in because we want to admire Avedon's artistry, or because we want to see pictures of celebrities? ("At least we know who these people are, and we can understand these photos," we think, "not like that weird abstract or conceptual stuff that's on the other floors of the MOMA.") When the curators chose which portraits to display, did they select them because of who posed for them, or because of how well they demonstrated Avedon's talent? One striking pair of photos shows Bob Dylan at two different points in time: in 1963 he is an earnest folkie in a flannel shirt, but in 1965 he has transformed into The Electric Dylan, skinny pants and wild hair and brooding attitude. The obvious question to ask is: how much of this is due to Avedon's skills (placing Dylan in the right settings, getting him to reveal his personality before the lens), and how much of it is due to the change that took place in Dylan between 1963 and 1965?

Bob Dylan juxtaposed (click to see it larger).

I guess these photos do get at Dylan's essence(s), though, as do other of Avedon's celebrity portraits. Another excellent juxtaposition hung a portrait of Katharine Hepburn next to one of Brigitte Bardot. Hepburn is all angles and bones and hardness (even the cartilage of her nose looks chiseled) while Bardot is all soft curves. Anatomy is destiny, Avedon seems to say--these actresses' bone structures accurately predict their onscreen personas.



And there is a photo of Dorothy Parker (see prev. post) in the '50s that fully captures the sad state to which she became reduced in her last years. She has worse bags under her eyes than anyone I have ever seen--and you know that she used to be a very cute young woman.

Detail shot of Parker's eyes (the actual portrait shows her whole face)

It's funny: the exhibition is set up so that it gives more weight to Avedon's celebrity portraiture than to his fashion shoots (the fashion photographs are all in the first, smallish, room, while there are four or five rooms of portraits). But because celebrity photography is such a sticky issue, I think it is easier to judge Avedon's artistry on the basis of his fashion work. When we admire his fashion photographs, at least we're saying "Ooh! Pretty!" rather than "Ooh! Famous!" Because they are pretty--and sometimes more than that, striking or strange or memorable. Think of the famous "Dovima with Elephants," or this other shot of Dovima, biting on a pearl necklace. You can see her moles and freckles and incipient crows'-feet. Her expression is extraordinary, indescribable. And there are very few fashion photographs that can compare to it nowadays, over fifty years after the fact.