Saturday, December 31, 2011

What I Liked and What I Didn't about Martin Scorsese's "Hugo"

  • The opening shot took my breath away and the first scene is the best example of over-the-top cinematic Francophilia since Moulin Rouge. I wasn't even paying attention to the plot or characters at first -- I was just luxuriating in the art direction and the 1930s atmosphere. That train station! That café!
  • As far as I could tell, every bit of printed text in the movie (signs, books, posters) was in French. Amazing attention to detail and I appreciate that they resisted the temptation to make things easier for an English-speaking audience.
  • Two of my favorite time periods, in terms of art and aesthetics (and I think this is true for a lot of people) are the Art Nouveau fin-de-siècle and the Art Deco 1920s-30s. Hugo has a plot that accommodates both periods, and is set in Paris, the epicenter of both of these movements, to boot.
  • Hugo is the second 3-D movie I've ever seen (Avatar was the first) and IMO it used the medium very, very well. By the end of Avatar, I was kind of over the 3-D, but Hugo kept surprising me with innovative ways of employing it. At the same time, it knew when to hold back and revert to a flatter picture plane, e.g. for the more intimate scenes in Papa Georges' house.
  • Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as two late-middle-aged folks striking up a tentative romance in the train station. This plot has no purpose other than to be charming and delightful, and it delivers. It's even more charming if you saw and admired these talented character actors in The History Boys -- I was so happy to see them working together again.
  • My friend Stuart saw Hugo last week and posted on Facebook that it made him "think a lot about Marissa Skudlarek as there is essentially a character who is her (tall, big vocabulary, wears a beret)."  Ha!  He was referring to Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl who befriends Hugo. She's a type of character we've seen in other movies -- spunky, bookish, romantic, precocious. In the scene in the bookshop she reminded me so much of Disney's Belle And when Hugo asks Isabelle why she's helping him, I could predict Isabelle's response before she said it: "Because this is an adventure!"  So she's not the most original character, but she's an archetype that I enjoy. And even if she is a 13-year-old girl, she's one of Scorsese's few female characters that it's OK to be compared with. I may have just found my Halloween costume for next year (and if I do dress up as Isabelle, I will carry the vintage 1930s edition of Les Miserables that Stuart gave me for Christmas).
  • Early on, I was convinced that I caught a glimpse of someone costumed and made up to look like James Joyce. Sure enough, "James Joyce" is listed in the credits. So is "Salvador Dalí" but I guess I missed him. (It could not have been as memorable as Adrien Brody's portrayal of Dalí in Midnight in Paris!)
  • I also enjoyed playing "spot the cinema reference" throughout the movie. E.g., I'm pretty sure that an allusion to Vertigo was intended during the final scene with Hugo in the clock tower.  Making Hugo the second 2011 film that owes a debt to Vertigo, after The Artist swiped Bernard Herrmann's music for the climactic sequence.
  • Another similarity to The Artist: the fake-out dream sequence in Hugo is very well done.
  • Innuendo that would only be mildly amusing in an adult movie is somehow made funnier by being in a kids' movie, where you know it will go over the heads of the children in the audience.
  • Throughout the whole movie, I was convinced that Olivia Williams was playing Mama Jeanne, Georges' wife. Turns out that the role is played by Helen McCrory, an actress I was not familiar with before. She gives a lovely performance.
  • I had a teenage crush on Jude Law and he is still an incredibly good-looking man. (He appears in a flashback as Hugo's father.)  Hey, this movie is all about cinephilia, and one reason we love the movies is that they let us stare into the faces of beautiful people whom we would never have met otherwise.
  • I'm not sure it was a good idea to have the character of the Station Inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, function both as the movie's principal villain (chasing Hugo through the station and threatening to send him to an orphanage) and as its principal comic relief (in his amusingly awkward flirtation with a pretty florist played by Emily Mortimer). While I appreciate the desire to depict the Inspector as a real person with some complexity and some heart, as opposed to an incarnation of evil, we can't take the Inspector seriously as a threat to Hugo if he is also a harmless buffoon.
  • The first part of the movie hinges on an Idiot Plot. When Papa Georges discovers Hugo's notebook, accuses him of stealing it, and demands to know who drew the pictures in the notebook, why does Hugo remain silent instead of saying "My father did those sketches"? I know that Hugo is a cautious, scared little boy who is still mourning his father, but he never promised to keep the notebook secret, and would it have hurt anyone if he admitted that it was his father's?
  • Much is made of how Hugo likes to "fix things" and how his repairing the broken automaton parallels his healing the broken and depressed Papa Georges. Yet I never got a sense that Hugo genuinely loves fixing things and playing with clockwork and gizmos. He repairs the automaton because it is his last connection to his dead father, he fixes the train station clocks because he sees it as his duty... but I never felt that he took sheer delight in mechanical things for their own sake. The character of Isabelle is on hand to supply plenty of wide-eyed wonder, but I could have used some of that from Hugo as well.
  • When Hugo uses the word "panache," the script missed an opportunity for Isabelle to respond "Panache! Just like Cyrano de Bergerac!"  I may have been the only person in the theater who would have appreciated this joke, but I would have loved it SO MUCH.
  • The little boy next to me was very bored by the movie and began sucking noisily on the dregs of his soda until I had to tell him to knock it off. In fairness, his parents shouldn't have taken him to the 8:30 show and they shouldn't have bought him the industrial-size Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, if this is a "family film," it should not bore children. Even I thought that the movie moved too slowly in parts and contained a few too many scenes of Hugo being chased through the train station and Hugo fiddling with clockwork.
  • Now is the time to mention that the international terminal at the San Francisco airport currently has an exhibit of vintage French automata on display (was it timed to the release of this movie?) and if you're there you should check it out. I stumbled upon it last week on my way to Portland and even got to talk with the exhibition's "registrar" (its caretaker) who happened to be unlocking the glass cases and inspecting the automata at the time.  It was super cool, but it also made me realize that the automaton depicted in Hugo is a bit of an exaggeration.  The automata in the museum display can do nifty things, but nothing nearly as elaborate or complex as the automaton in Hugo. And, all right, it's a movie, we can't expect it to be 100% accurate, but it annoys me that the filmmakers felt that the automaton had to be even better than it would be in real life, when real automata are plenty amazing on their own. In fact, the same goes for the portrayal of silent cinema in Hugo -- Scorsese makes it look even more exciting than it actually was by using brief snippets, concentrating on Meliès' special effects, showing several films that were hand-tinted rather than black-and-white, and 3-D converting some of the Meliès films. Will a child who wants to see a silent movie after watching Hugo be bored by the real thing?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Vaclav Havel's Ethical Politics

In the wee hours of December 18, 2003, I was finishing up a research paper on Vaclav Havel for my high-school English class. Eight years later, in the wee hours of December 18, 2011, I came home from an evening of theater- and party-going to read the breaking news headline that Mr. Havel had passed away. For obvious reasons, Havel was one of my heroes, and I am working on a new blog post in response to his death. In the meantime, though, I'm posting my old research paper. I went back and reread it this week and, considering that I wrote it as a teenager, I still think it's a pretty good piece of work. The last paragraph, especially, stands as a fitting memorial to Havel's legacy. But because it's long and because it's from my high school days, I've put most of it after the jump.

Differing Reactions To Václav Havel’s Ethical Politics 
by Marissa Skudlarek, 2003
In addition to his role as the first post-Communist president of both Czechoslovakia (from 1989-1992) and the Czech Republic (1993-2003), Václav Havel has been an award-winning absurdist playwright, a dissident activist, a political prisoner, and an instrumental figure in Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution.”  Indeed, his help in winning Czechoslovakia’s independence from the Soviet satellite system launched him to the presidency.  A further factor was that he had become much admired—by both his compatriots and the Western intellectual community—for the many essays he had written summarizing his thoughts on the ideal role of politics. Seeing the post-totalitarian Communist government as full of lies and lacking legitimacy, he encouraged the Czechoslovak people to “live in the truth,” performing morally obligated acts of civil disobedience.  This ethical perspective on politics led the Czechoslovaks to believe that Havel would be their ideal first president.  Yet while leading Western figures continued to admire Havel’s morally-based policies, these same principles caused him to lose popularity in his native land.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

OMPF on New Play TV

I'm about to head over to Potrero Hill to see my play in the One-Minute Play Festival.

This is just a quick note to say that there may still be a few tickets available for tomorrow, or, if you prefer to watch these plays from the comfort of your own home, tomorrow's 2 PM matinee will be streaming on New Play TV!

That's 2 PM Pacific / 5 PM Eastern. It's pretty cool to be a theater-maker in the 21st century, n'est-ce pas?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rapunzel's Existential Crisis

I know I have been blogging infrequently. I've been busy. I've also been confused -- undergoing some of that "I'm three and a half years out of college; now what?" angst. In some ways I feel remarkably tied down: I have a job that keeps me busy, plenty of extracurricular stuff going on, there's always something hanging over my head. But in other ways, I feel "the unbearable lightness of being": I am single and childless, I am not really beholden to anyone, if I chose to abandon some of my responsibilities and do something else (or even do nothing), would it really matter?  I suppose that this truly is an "existential crisis"-- in the sense that existentialism is a philosophy that starts from the idea "I'm free; now what?"

In such moments, I convince myself that maybe I'd be happier if I gave up some of my freedom and followed "the rules." Not that rules exist these days the way they did fifty or a hundred years ago (especially in an anything-goes town like San Francisco), but if I went looking for rules and order, I'm sure I could find them. Settle down. Marry a nice man. Build your character. Stop whining so much. Volunteer to help the unfortunate. Stop wasting time on the Internet. Listen to classical music. Read great literature. Stand up straight. Make your bed. Stop questioning things, stop brooding. Stop insisting on freedom; it's only making you unhappy. You spoiled, selfish Millennial girl, who are you to think that you can live so heedlessly?

So I feel confused a lot, and guilty a lot, in that existential way.

I feel guilty that I haven't written about Ladies in Waiting, the latest No Nude Men show, which is closing this weekend -- as many of my friends are involved in it and I really do have things to say about it.
Ladies in Waiting is an evening of three short plays by women: "Woman Come Down" by Claire Rice, "Night in Jail" by Alison Luterman, and "Oily Replies" by Hilde Susan Jaegtnes. Specifically, I wanted to talk about "Woman Come Down," which really gets at all the issues I was discussing above: the existential terror of freedom; the tension between wanting to play by the rules and wanting to break them; the need for every young woman to negotiate her own way of being in the world.

All that, in the form of a fractured fairy tale.

In Claire's play, Little Red Riding Hood, rather than being a child, is a somewhat aimless young woman. She's dating the woodsman, Henry, but feels ambivalent about the relationship; she may not want to settle down and get married, but she finds it hard to articulate what she actually wants. Then, as in the original tale, Red goes to visit her grandmother, encounters a wolf (here portrayed as a rather sleazy traveling salesman with secrets of his own), and ends up taking a different path from the one she planned. Specifically, the wolf tells her about a nearby tower which imprisons a beautiful maiden -- Rapunzel!

Rapunzel has been indoctrinated to hate and fear anyone who isn't her "mother," the witch. She has never questioned her imprisonment. So it takes Red a while to break through to Rapunzel, but eventually the two women have what amounts to a philosophical debate about security and freedom, imprisonment and choice. And Red helps free Rapunzel. And later, at Grandmother's house, Rapunzel helps free Red.

It is a beautiful play, telling me what, deep down, I know to be true: I don't want to follow rules I don't believe in just for the sake of an easier life. "Down is complicated," says Rapunzel, but isn't it better than being isolated in a tower? The play acknowledges that imprisonment can be seductive and that achieving freedom can require pain and sacrifice. (Rapunzel has to cut off all her hair -- her most salient feature -- in order to make the rope ladder to free herself.) But doing only what society tells you to do, and not what you know you must do, is a recipe for a life of quiet desperation. While I must develop a set of rules for living in this world (because I do not want my present state of confusion to last forever!), I need not conform to some externally imposed list of rules.

"Woman Come Down" is directed by Stuart Bousel, with Kirsten Broadbear as the hip, bike-riding Red and Theresa Miller as the daffy, stubborn Rapunzel.

As for the other Ladies in Waiting plays, "Night in Jail" features a flamboyant performance by Broadbear as Marie Antoinette, but this character tends to overshadow the other two characters in the piece: a modern-day "celebutante" who has been arrested for drunk-driving, and the prison guard assigned to her cell. "Oily Replies" is an experimental play, a twisted ontological detective story that takes place on an oil rig. (I find it hilarious that Jaegtnes, who is Norwegian, wrote a play about an oil rig.) Fortunately, it's an experimental play that has a sense of humor about it, including a narrator who keeps losing control of the story, body parts that mysteriously go missing, and three virgins who may or may not have dandruff. Special mention to Karen Offereins for enacting a drowning-by-proxy on dry land (this will make more sense, albeit not total sense, if you see the show).

But mostly, it's "Woman Come Down," and its feminist interpretation of Red and Rapunzel, that will stick with me. It's funny, speaking of revisionist fairy tales, I love Sondheim's Into the Woods. But that show has a conservative, community-oriented message: "No one is alone."  "Woman Come Down," on the other hand, proposes that everyone is alone, individual, free -- so now what?

Ladies in Waiting plays through tomorrow night (December 17) at the Exit Theater, San Francisco. Photo of Red (Broadbear) and Rapunzel (Miller) by Claire Rice.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Creative Cancerian

Free Will Astrology is a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine. Always erudite, positive and well-written, and sometimes uncannily accurate. Of course, that could all just be confirmation bias. Nonetheless, when I read this as my horoscope the week that I begin writing a play that takes place in the WWII era, I can't help but take it as a good sign:

CANCER: "Dear Rob: Is there any way to access your horoscope archives going back to 1943? I'm writing a novel about World War II and need to see your astrological writings from back then. - Creative Cancerian." Dear Creative: To be honest, I wasn't writing horoscopes back in 1943, since I wasn't anywhere near being born yet. On the other hand, I give you permission to make stuff up for your novel and say I wrote it back in 1943. Most of you Cancerians have good imaginations about the past, and you're currently going through a phase when that talent is amplified. While you're tinkering with my history, have fun with yours, too. This is an excellent time for members of your tribe to breathe new life and fresh spin into a whole slew of your own personal memories.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bonjour "Adieu"

A while back I posted a music video from French-Canadian singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate, whose album of piano-driven chansons quickly became one of my favorites. I just learned that she has a new album out, Blonde. Here is the the first single, "Adieu":

Judging by this, it sounds like her sound on the new album is a little less folk and a little more '60s pop -- and who doesn't love '60s pop?  And the music video casts her as a sassy, tattooed version of Samantha from Bewitched.

Even better, the actor who plays her cheating boyfriend in the music video also plays the cute guy at the center of the love triangle in Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats), which I think is my favorite movie I've seen in a theater all year. (Not that I've ended up seeing a lot of movies this year, but still.) I keep meaning to blog about Les Amours Imaginaires. Maybe all it does is prove that Québecois hipsters aren't much different from American hipsters, but the film has really stuck with me.

According to her website, Coeur de Pirate also sings on a new Christmas album, Noël! Noël!! Noël!!!, from legendary French composer Michel Legrand. Looks like her track is only available on the French edition of the album, though; the English edition has Rufus Wainwright singing "White Christmas" instead of Coeur de Pirate singing "Noël blanc". Other than that, the album seems to have the potential to become a Christmas kitsch classic, what with the lush orchestral arrangements, the First Lady of France crooning about Christmas trees, and Iggy Pop singing "The Little Drummer Boy." If there are any campy Francophones on your Christmas list, get them this album and a DVD of Les Amours Imaginaires and they will love you forever.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Announcing Aphrodite

Guess what's happening exactly one year from tonight?

The San Francisco Olympians Festival will present a staged reading of a new one-act play about the goddess Aphrodite... written by me!

The theme for the 2012 Festival is Titans vs. Olympians. Each evening will pair two one-acts (45-60 minutes), one based on an Olympian god and the other based on a thematically related Titan. At the end of the evening, the audience will vote on its favorite play. Aphrodite will be paired with Phoebe and Theia, by my friend Amy Clare Tasker.

It's a great lineup of writers next year, a good mix of fresh faces and Olympians favorites, and we're already getting into the competitive spirit -- there's been a lot of incredibly geeky trash-talking between Team Titans and Team Olympians.

I don't want to give too much away, but the general idea for this yet-to-be-written play (working title: The Love Goddess) is that it will depict Aphrodite as a 1940s Hollywood starlet and retell the story of the Aphrodite-Ares-Hephaestus love triangle.

Yes, it's another "historical" play for me. As you know, my research often spills onto my blog (there were lots of posts about the 1930s while I was writing The Rose of Youth and about the 1960s-70s when I was writing Pleiades), so I expect there will be some blog posts about the 1940s in the coming months. I'm already putting together a list of movies I need to see (Rita Hayworth figures heavily) and books to read.

And I find it appropriate that the staged reading will take place on December 7, since that date is indelibly associated with the 1940s.

Mark your calendars, and wish me luck as I begin this new play!

Image: The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez, one of my favorite paintings of Venus/Aphrodite.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

One-Minute Plays for the Holidays

Can you believe it's December already?  Three weeks to Christmas... and two weeks to the San Francisco One-Minute Plays Festival!

I will have two plays in the festival (to be directed by Evren Odcikin and Christine Young), and several of my playwright friends are also participating, including Tim Bauer, Megan Cohen, Bennett Fisher, Marisela Treviño Orta and Ignacio Zulueta.

I love the mix of writers that are involved this year and it is an honor to be in the same festival as some much better-known Bay Area playwrights like Eugenie Chan and Philip Kan Gotanda.

Saturday December 17 at 8 PM and Sunday December 18 at 2 PM and 7 PM, at the Thick House on Potrero Hill.  Tickets here. As Ignacio pointed out, it's a 99-seat house and only 3 performances, so get your tickets now!

That's really all the information you need -- I can't tell you what my plays are about, because it's really easy to spoil a one-minute play!

Also check out the One-Minute Play Blog.