Sunday, August 12, 2012

Top 10 Cultural Experiences - July 2012

Trying something a little different here with my blog (After 5 years, can't I mix it up a bit?). I want to keep writing about the things I am seeing and doing that inspire, entertain and stimulate me, but I don't feel up to the challenge of cranking out thousand-word essays multiple times a week, the way I used to do. So I'm thinking that each month, I'll post a round-up of my top 10 cultural experiences, with a short explanation of why I enjoyed each one.

The list will be eclectic and draw from a variety of genres. A brilliant episode of a new TV show could be sandwiched between an old movie I just saw for the first time and a particularly thought-provoking Internet essay.  The only rule is that I have to have read/seen/experienced this thing during the designated month, and I have to have enjoyed it.

So here goes: Top 10 Cultural Experiences - July 2012

1. "Black Box" by Jennifer Egan (short fiction). When is the last time I got so excited about a New Yorker short story? Oh yeah -- "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders, December 2010. Clearly I have a thing for futuristic sci-fi stories about people with things implanted in their brains -- not what most people think of when they hear the phrase "New Yorker story."

Indeed, in its structure and its voice, "Black Box" is like no story I've ever read before. It is masterfully controlled, a distanced and elliptical way of narrating a thrilling spy-adventure plot. Somehow, this only serves to ratchet up the tension even more. I started reading it on my lunch hour and didn't have time to finish -- I was in agony for the rest of the afternoon!

Though the story was published in June and I didn't read it until July, I'd somehow managed to avoid hearing that the unnamed narrator is a grown-up version of Lulu from A Visit from the Goon Squad. Reading the story, I was very proud of myself for figuring out that connection on my own. And the themes of "Black Box" dovetail with those of Lulu's Goon Squad chapter in interesting ways -- I wonder if Egan would ever consider adding this story as an addendum to Goon Squad, that novel's praise and Pulitzer notwithstanding? Because this story deserves to be read by as many people as possible.

2. Pint-Sized Plays at San Francisco Theater Pub (theater). Is it OK to put your own show on a list like this? Oh well, I'm doing it anyway, because the Pint-Sized Plays were a big part of my month. They represented the longest run ever of one of my plays: 7 performances, including a special presentation last Saturday at the Red Poppy Art House. And, because I didn't attend every performance, it's also the first time my work has been performed without me present. The five performances I did attend, however, caused a surprising range of reactions in the audience, which taught me a lot (I hope to do a longer post on this later).

Moreover, I was honored to be included among so many other funny, idiosyncratic plays. Highlights included Megan Cohen's BEEEEAR, starring Allison Page as a dancing bear who gets "growling-tipsy after the day's grueling toil," and Tim Bauer's Play It Again, Friend, a character study of a douchebaggy businessman (played by Cooper Carlson) who nonetheless claims "I see the good and then reflect it back -- I'm a mirror with eyes!" Special mentions also to Neil Higgins' hard work directing one play (Bill Bivins' Celia Shits) and acting in three others; and Matt Gunnison and Kirsten Broadbear's performances as the title characters in Sunil Patel's witty Man vs. Beer.

3. Olympics Opening Ceremony (TV/theater). I had a ridiculous amount of fun watching the Olympics ceremony while lying on my couch, drinking Cabernet, and live-tweeting it with some friends. Danny Boyle certainly knows how to put on a show! (I wasn't too fond of the screenplay or acting in Slumdog Millionaire, but thought that that movie gained whatever merit it had from Boyle's kinetic direction.) And I do consider this a piece of theater that just happened to be televised, with many astounding moments of stagecraft. Although it paid tribute to the expected, beloved icons of British culture, it managed to seem offbeat and loopy and idiosyncratic rather than corporate. I especially loved how uncontroversial its liberal political slant (with tributes to suffragettes and the NHS) turned out to be. And the Parade of Nations moved quickly while allowing me to indulge my Geography Nerd, French Nerd, and Fashion Nerd tendencies all at once.

4. The Scottsboro Boys, at ACT (musical). It's difficult to say that you "enjoyed" this show without sounding like you are making light of a very dark moment in our nation's history, so maybe "admired" is a better word. Kander and Ebb can still deliver biting but catchy songs, although as a whole the musical does feel like a bit of a throwback to their '70s "concept musical" heyday. Susan Stroman's minimalist staging was lively and brilliant, and Clifton Duncan gave a powerful performance in the leading role. Due to the subject matter and the casting and staging demands, I doubt that this musical will get many future productions after this tour is over, and I feel grateful to have seen it.

5. The Song is You, by Arthur Phillips (novel). I really love Arthur Phillips' writing: above all, when you read his novels, you can tell that he had fun writing them, devising plots and characters and set-pieces and opportunities to deploy puns and other curlicues of language. Yet his worldview also contains a sense of melancholy and loss. I am a total sucker for playful-but-melancholy art, because it chimes with my own worldview, so Phillips' novels really speak to me. And as it happens, the theme of The Song is You is about how it feels to find art (music) that speaks to you and changes your life. The main character is an emotionally numb middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with an up-and-coming rock singer and turns into a kind of anonymous Svengali for her. While the plot is a bit preposterous, Phillips gets a lot of other things right about our contemporary culture. I liked how he portrays the singer, Cait, as a hardworking young artist rather than just an object of desire; and how what she wants (or thinks she wants) more than anything is someone to mentor her and call her on her bullshit. And the novel wraps up in the way that I was rooting for, too.

6. The Canadian, at the SF Silent Film Festival (movie). On my birthday, I won a pair of free tickets to the screening of this obscure silent movie. I invited a Canadian-born friend of mine along to the screening, which packed the Castro Theater on a Saturday afternoon. We enjoyed it, with no need for any caveats like "it was really good for a silent movie." (Although the live musical accompaniment on piano and accordion was terrific!) The leading actress had a neat trick of looking out from under half-closed eyelids, which she used to great effect to look haughty and supercilious (in the first part of the movie); and stricken and pained (in the second part of the movie). Also, the weekend we saw this, that whole controversy about Daniel Tosh telling a rape joke had just blown up, and in the movie, the main character rapes his wife. (They've entered into a marriage of convenience where she locks herself in the bedroom and makes him sleep on a bench -- but it's the kind of movie where once you see that bedroom door close, you know it's going to get broken down.) After this startling scene, there's an intertitle: "The next morning wasn't just any day." And because of the hilarious understatement of this -- of course the day after you get raped is not going to be just any day -- everyone in the theater laughed. "Now that is how you make a rape joke," I said afterwards.

7. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter (novel). Angela Carter is another author I really like. I began reading Nights at the Circus in London -- appropriate, as its larger-than-life heroine is a proud Cockney -- but finished it back in the U.S. This book has all the magical realism, stories-within-stories, theatricality, glorious excess, and love of life that you expect from Carter -- just a terrifically good yarn, full of vivid detail. The opulence, intricacy and fantasy of a Faberge egg -- an object which actually ends up playing a role in the story. Oh, I just know that I'm reiterating everything that has ever been written about Carter, but it's all true, even if her books are fantastical.

8. Cling to Me Like Ivy, by Samantha Ellis (play script). A few days after I met my blog-friend Samantha in person for the first time, I bought a copy of her play Cling to Me Like Ivy at the National Theatre bookshop. It's the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman in crisis just before her wedding day -- a fairly intimate tale of family and friendships, though there's a stunningly theatrical climax at the end of Act Two. The heroine is believably caught between her respect for her cultural traditions and the temptations of modern-day London culture (represented by her best friend, who was born in India but is now thoroughly assimilated). Also, you know the old adage "To write a play, put a man up a tree at the end of Act One, throw stones at him in Act Two, and get him down in Act Three"? Well, Ellis does exactly that in this play, only with a woman instead of a man -- can't help but think this is a clever playwriting in-joke.

9. Brave (Pixar film). I saw Brave toward the end of July, so was not able to read or participate in all of the discussion earlier in the month about The Feminist Implications of Pixar's First Female-Driven Story. Which might be just as well, because that seems almost like too much freight for one movie to bear. (Pun on "bear" not intended.) Brave is not my favorite Pixar, I think because its script and story are more predictable, less dazzlingly constructed, than their best films. As someone who read a lot of fantasy stories about Rebellious Tomboy Princesses when I was a girl, I felt like Merida's struggle was somewhat familiar, even if I found her sympathetic and wanted to cheer when she stepped up at the archery contest to defend her right to remain unmarried. But the movie was gorgeous to look at and I liked the complexity that they gave to the character of the mother, positing that "feminine" skills like diplomacy are as valuable as "masculine" skills like fighting. More than anything, I hope the movie's box-office success will allow more female-driven movies to be made, till we get to the point where they are no longer remarkable or anomalous.

10. Salomania, at the Aurora Theater (play). Mark Jackson's latest play takes the #10 slot on my list, partly due to residual affection from how much I loved his play God's Plot earlier this year. Also because it allows me to note that I am having a surprisingly Salome-ish 2012: the "Cult of Beauty" exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor featured Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations for Salome, and I attended the premiere of Al Pacino's Wilde Salome at the Castro Theater in March. (Both the exhibition and the film would have appeared on earlier editions of my "Top 10 Cultural Experiences" list had I been doing it back then.) I found Salomania a weaker play than God's Plot -- it didn't hang together as well -- but I like Jackson's approach to complex historical dramas that show how life and art influence one another.

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