Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fade-outs: Bergman, Antonioni, and Mühe

Beautiful, mysterious women: Monica Vitti (L'Avventura) and Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann (Persona)

The film world got hit with a one-two punch yesterday: the deaths of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Even people who I didn't expect to be upset about it, are. My dad--who's got an eclectic knowledge of film but is by no means your typical art-house snob--got torn up, passionately announcing "Bergman died," at dinner last night. Evidently, seeing The Seventh Seal in a film club during high school made a lifelong impression on him. I also discussed it with a co-worker today, who'd recently made a list of his ten favorite movies and put The Seventh Seal on it without any further deliberation.

I don't belong to the classic art-house generation, so I probably don't feel these deaths as much as some. I haven't even seen any Antonioni, though recently, things in my life seem to be nudging me toward his films. L'Avventura is Blue's dad's favorite movie in Calamity Physics, and I just read a scene in a play where the characters discuss Red Desert. As for Bergman, I've seen Persona and The Magic Flute (links are to my reviews). Persona left me intrigued, frequently impressed but often annoyed--and the parts that I disliked, the "meta" moments where the film seems to melt or you see the cameramen, are what brought the movie its greatest acclaim. As for The Magic Flute, for all I know it is the best film of an opera ever made, and it looked lovely and I enjoyed it...but it's not typical Bergman. Oh, but I am wholeheartedly grateful to him for making the source for Sondheim's delightful A Little Night Music, Smiles of a Summer Night--which I really ought to see!

I believe that these men's deaths should be an occasion to celebrate and remember their work...but at the same time, I can't quite understand the impulse to grieve. They both lived long, full lives, were acclaimed as cinematic masters for at least 45 years, got to make the movies they wanted to make (even if Antonioni became hobbled by a stroke in 1985)--Bergman even became a successful theater director. We should be glad for the work they have left us, not saddened that their souls have departed this earth after 89 or 94 years. Grieve for Robert Altman, if you like, who had a much harder time securing financing for his movies or Hollywood acceptance. Grieve for Orson Welles!

I said something like this to my Seventh Seal-loving co-worker (not nearly as stridently), and he replied that he isn't necessarily grieving Bergman the man, but the kinds of films that Bergman represented. Though I feel lucky to live in a time when DVDs of all kinds of movies are available online, and foreign directors and films seem to be gaining recognition (and they're now from all over the world, not just Western Europe), my friend sees it differently. He told me, "The Washington Post obituary said it best: Bergman was making The Seventh Seal when mainstream Hollywood was obsessed with Smell-O-Vision. And now I think we're back to where we were before Bergman came along...I mean, Transformers..."

I understand what he means. And sometimes I wonder if I'm not willfully deluding myself...but I refuse to believe that all of the world's best films were made decades ago, and that cinema these days does not have a place for beautiful, smart, philosophical, or otherwise "art-house" films. Maybe they require some digging to find, maybe there are fewer people with whom I can discuss today's Bergman or Antonioni, or even yesterday's. (I was very annoyed when someone I met in France didn't know who Truffaut was...but that's another story.) But I have to believe that they're out there.

And if I am going to grieve, it'll be for someone like Ulrich Mühe, the German actor who died last week at the age of 54. I've only seen Mühe in one movie, but that was the wonderful The Lives of Others, and he was amazing in it as Wiesler, the cold Stasi agent who finds his humanity again. Now that he'd gained international recognition, I was wondering what other movies he'd make (and whether they'd be released in the US), and what other roles he'd take on. What an awful time to go--just when all his hard work as an actor was getting noticed and rewarded. Damn it. As if it wasn't hard enough already to watch The Lives of Others without crying...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Kander & Ebb, Alpha & Omega

Two youtube discoveries:

A 19-year-old, fiercely determined Liza Minnelli belts out "All I Need is One Good Break" and "Sing Happy" from Kander & Ebb's first Broadway show, Flora the Red Menace. I love how her voice almost breaks when she sings "one good break."

Jason Danieley sings "I Miss the Music" from Kander and Ebb's last musical, Curtains, completed after Ebb died. Kander wrote the lyrics to this himself and they obviously mean a lot to him--a tribute to his longtime writing partner. Ebb would've liked the internal rhyme of "choose" and "music" too.

"Coincidence? I think not!"

In my flight-versus-invisibility post below, I was about to write a paragraph about the original concept coming from This American Life, and the invisible Violet of The Incredibles being voiced by This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell, and finish it up with a big ol' "Coincidence? I think not!" But that would be very annoying--especially because I don't know where the phrase comes from. Is it a movie or TV show? Or just a hipster way of being ironic? IMDB's quote search is no help. But if you know the origins of "Coincidence? I think not!", please post in the comments!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Flight or Invisibility?

Would you rather fly like Mr. Incredible or be invisible like his daughter, Violet? Images from allposters.com

There's a famous "This American Life" episode where John Hodgman puts the choice "Your superpower: flight or invisibility?" to people, and analyzes what their response says about them. Evidently, men and extroverts choose flight, and women and introverts choose invisibility. Is that because our culture encourages strong, active men and passive, quiet women? Still, this doesn't square with the fact that most people who choose invisibility say they'd use it "to spy on naked women." Somehow I feel that men want to spy on naked women more than women want to spy on naked men.

Besides, I always felt like an exception to these patterns: I'm a female introvert, but my instinctive choice was Flight. I liked the idea of soaring carefree--very "I Can't Be Bothered Now":
I'm up above the stars
On earthly things I frown
I'm throwing off the bars
That held me down
Flying also offers a convenient way to get out of my suburban neighborhood, going as-the-crow-flies rather than following the twisty streets. Invisibility, I decided, was for dishonest, sneaky people who find strength (surreptitiously spying and gathering information) in weakness (not being noticed). Flight has no such moral ambiguity.

But today, as I slipped by one of those ubiquitous signature-gatherers in the Pearl District, silently praying he wouldn't turn around and try to engage me in conversation, I was reminded again of flight vs. invisibility. I realized I'd probably use invisibility a lot more, if I had it. I'd sneak past all those friendly young people who exhort me to donate to Save the Children. Or those poor (homeless?) guys who hang out on Burnside, try to talk to me, and when I walk away without responding , say "That's a hard-headed woman." Rather than being morally ambiguous, invisibility would save me the ethical angst of not knowing what to do in these situations situations: these people are human beings and deserve my respect and attention, don't they? But I am usually in a hurry and Can't Be Bothered Now!

And, if I were invisible, I could sneak into any Broadway play, movie premiere, or exclusive event that I chose. I'd certainly learn a lot more from invisibility than from flight. I mean, don't you sometime wish to hear what people say about you when you're not around?

The main reason to fly is to be free, to soar untethered, to see beautiful vistas and marvel at them. I wanted the exhilaration of it. But I know that a lot of people get that feeling from athletics--the runner's high--and I hate running. Flying is the jock option, isn't it? Then again, I could also use flight in many situations where I planned to use invisibility--to escape attention when I'm trying to go somewhere in a hurry. But I still feel like I wouldn't actually use it.

As "This American Life" says, accepting invisibility means accepting your guile or deviousness or antisocial sides. No, it's not as simple as introverts versus extroverts, men versus women. It's thinkers versus doers, figureheads versus powers behind the throne, those who accept their dark sides versus those who wish to suppress them.

I just caught sight of Book Six of Harry Potter, which I am currently rereading. Harry has both flight (via broomstick, etc.) and invisibility (via cloak)--which helps him most? Invisibility gives him access to crucial information, but often the information is misleading or confusing. And in the grand climaxes, flight plays more of a role than invisibility. But since I have more use for gathering information than battling nasty wizards, this proves, again, that I might not use flight if I had it. Invisibility it is! At least for the moment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Summer Reading: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Blue Van Meer's "self-portrait"--she's the "apologetically owl-like" girl with glasses. Image: USA Today

If not for the fact that the only books I read in hardcover are Harry Potter, I would have devoured Special Topics in Calamity Physics as soon as it came out last summer. My mom, after reading the back cover and the blurbs, said "This is the book you should have written," and I see what she meant (though I have no interest in writing novels). Calamity Physics got promoted as a brainy, erudite, mystery/coming-of-age novel narrated by a verbally dexterous teenage girl, and there are few things I like better than that. As I read the novel this month, I got a kick out of coincidental parallels between its heroine, Blue Van Meer, and myself. Blue's birthday, 6/18/87, is less than a month away from mine. And she, precocious thing, is 16 years old throughout her senior year of high school, just as I was. It's weird--it even makes me feel a little old--to read a book where the main character is from my generation, born the same year as me, her life overlapping mine in a way. (Then again, it also makes me feel old to realize I'm six years older than Juliet, two years older than Jane Eyre, and the same age as Elizabeth Bennet.) Also, author Marisha Pessl's first name is just one letter away from mine--and "Marissa" (or "Marisha"?) comes from Latin for "of the sea," and "Van Meer" means "of the sea" in German. Coincidence? I think not.

Most importantly, Blue is a girl after my own heart. As the sexy Latino gardener Andreo Verduga might say behind Blue's back, she is one hell of a marisabidilla. A sixteen-year-old who's read the whole Western Canon, plus innumerable detective novels, self-help books, and Hollywood memoirs, she has a citation for every situation and a simile for every smile. She's an outsider, more an observer than a participant (like all great detective characters), her little-brown-mouse social awkwardness mixed with a feeling of superiority toward most of the people she encounters. I'll admit that her voice can get tiresome--too keen to show off her smarts, and too scornful of the everyday middle-Americans she meets traveling around the country with her brilliant Dad. Sentences like "The restaurant with its shines and clinks, its fanned napkins and resplendent forks (in which you could identify microscopic things lodged in your teeth), its dowager duchess hanging there, desperate to be let down to go dance a quadrille with an eligible man of society-it all felt indifferent and damned, hopeless as a Hemingway short story teeming with mean conversations, hopes lost between their bullet point words, voices voluptuous as rulers" (183) are a little dense, don't you agree?

Indeed, Special Topics in Calamity Physics takes a bit long to get going, as Blue tells how she got inducted into the exclusive clique the Bluebloods--five high school seniors and their charismatic Film teacher, Hannah Schneider. This is standard prep-school stuff, even if vividly described, and the Bluebloods' characterizations are not deepened enough. Fortunately, Weird Stuff starts happening a bit later. Page 1 offers the instant hook that Blue discovered Hannah dead, hanged by an electrical cord deep in the woods. There's also a mysterious drowning, Hannah's bizarre one-night stands, etc. A Gothic tone takes hold, and after Hannah's death, the book becomes a real page-turner. I actually dreamed about it last night because it excited me so much--that never happens to me! Its most delightful surprise is that beneath the incredibly clever, verbose language lies an incredibly clever, well-formed plot.

Marisha Pessl has stated in interviews that her favorite author is Nabokov, and reviews have compared Calamity Physics to Lolita or Ada, but I think that's a little hyped up. Lolita (the only Nabokov novel I've read) is full of wordplay and allusion, but less showoffy, less interrupted by its own cleverness. I also wouldn't count Calamity Physics as a book that truly, deeply reveals the joy of reading and learning--Pessl's allusions act as a kind of shorthand, rather than offering new insights into her sources. It's not like Arcadia or Possession, where two characters can have a brilliant literary/intellectual discussion that also is loaded with subtextual emotions. No, for me Calamity Physics is more like The Shadow of the Wind--another classy, page-turning mystery novel that gets promoted as more intellectual than it is.

Am I quibbling too much? Really, I genuinely loved most of Calamity Physics, enjoying the similes and literary references that weren't too far-fetched, as well as Blue's attempts to fit in and her amateur sleuthing. And the twist is so good that it virtually requires a re-reading! If you're wondering whether to read this book, check out pages 56 and 57, which is what completely won me over: a scene where Hannah introduces herself to Blue and her dad by announcing, "Humphrey Bogart wore platform shoes throughout the filming of Casablanca." If this appeals at all to your sense of humor and style, buy it!

I'll admit, I love detective and mystery novels--thanks to a course at my own eccentric private high school. (Our schools are another similarity between me and Blue. At mine, after sophomore year, English classes were not general survey courses, but focused "electives," like in college. One topic was even Film--the same class that Hannah Schneider teaches. I've never heard of Film being taught at any other high school.) Before I took "The Detective in Literature," I had a snobbery toward detective novels, "genre" fiction. But this class turned me on to the prose stylings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Inspired me to read Borges. Made me laugh, then made me think, about the thesis that Oedipus Rex is just a detective story. Most importantly, I was taught that I could be a snob about detective fiction as well--by touting "metaphysical" detective stories over "epistemological" ones. Basically, an epistemological detective story = a whodunit, animated by the question of who committed a crime, and why. Think Conan Doyle, Christie, the noir detectives--you're never in doubt that a crime has taken place and that the detective will solve it by the end. The metaphysical detective story twists this formula, leaves the plot open-ended, pokes fun at the idea that life ties up neatly and all mysteries get solved. Maybe the detective completely misreads the evidence (The Name of the Rose). Maybe a crime wasn't actually committed (In the Lake of the Woods). The theme becomes we can never really know anyone or anything.

And Calamity Physics is a metaphysical detective novel par excellence. For me, it was most reminiscent of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, which I read in my high school class. *SPOILERS* Both novels feature a woman finding more and more evidence for a huge, shadowy conspiracy, but in the end, not knowing whether her conclusions are true, whether someone is playing an elaborate joke on her, or whether she's imagined the whole thing. (And stylistically, both novels employ lots of extended metaphors that can be exhausting to decipher.) Special Topics in Calamity Physics derives its literary excellence not from its incessant allusion-making, but from its plot that simultaneously ties everything up, pulls the rug out from under you, and leaves everything open. That's the thing about a marisabidilla. She can think she knows it all, then learn that she doesn't know a thing. Or, she can really know the truth, but not be able to tell or convince anyone of it. Either way, it's a lonely world.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

beaux rêves

As part of my work for Marie Antoinette (see post below) I had to translate a lullaby, which had formerly been translated from French into English, back into French. And make it rhyme. Here is what I came up with. I worked from a poetic English translation found at kididdles, where you can also find the tune. Because Louis sang it to Marie, the adjectives are in feminine form.
Un rêve joli t’attend
Quand le sommeil t’en prend
Beaux rêves
Venez à ma petite
Beaux rêves
Venez à ma petite

La nuit approche, le jour finit
Endors-toi, petite chérie
Beaux rêves, etc.

Tes jeux t’ont fatigué
T’as couru toute la journée
Beaux rêves, etc.

Endors-toi, car c’est la nuit
Calmes-toi, chérie, pas de bruit
Beaux rêves, etc.

Grande et forte tu deviendras
Si tu dors tout de suite cette fois
Beaux rêves, etc.
And the literal meaning:
A pretty dream awaits you
When sleep takes you
Beautiful dreams
Come to my little one
Beautiful dreams
Come to my little one

Night approaches, day ends
Go to sleep, little darling
Beautiful dreams, etc.

Your games tired you out
You ran all day
Beautiful dreams, etc.

Go to sleep, for it is night
Calm down, darling, make no noise
Beautiful dreams, etc.

You'll become big and strong
If you sleep immediately this time
Beautiful dreams, etc.
Image: Le berceau (The Cradle) by Berthe Morisot

We Played Rough

Another year, another JAW: A Playwrights Festival at Portland Center Stage. After missing half of it last year, I was so glad to be a part of the whole festival again! The four main staged readings were:
  • Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi--Quirky, tragi-comic version of Marie's life. Mixture of elevated and Valley Girl dialogue. A talking sheep. Windmills. Focuses on Marie's psychology, makes you wish history was wrong.
  • Bruise Easy by Dan LeFranc--Brutal, wrenching. Long, poetic, impossible stage directions. SoCal suburban wasteland. A pregnant woman. Her slacker brother. A Greek chorus of Nasty Neighborhood Kids.
  • A Story about a Girl by Jacquelyn Reingold--Bittersweet. Story-theater form. Narration and retelling. A girl who has trouble learning how to talk, and her experiences with life and love.
  • Box Americana: A Dream of Wal-Mart by Jason Grote--Sam Walton as diabolus ex machina. Six people, male and female, black and white, caught in our late-capitalist system. Funny but eye-opening.
Mostly I worked on Marie Antoinette, helping the cast and crew with matters of French pronunciation and language. It was good to use the language again and know that it has some practical purpose! The wonderful NY stage actress Marin Ireland played Marie. It's a very difficult role (at times ditzy, at times imperious, at times lonely, desperate, half-crazed) and I loved watching her during every scene; she also has a pretty good French accent! I also had to help actor Darius Pierce, who played Louis XVI, learn how to sing a lullaby in French. Darius is great--he's like a cross between Paul Giamatti and Wallace Shawn, so he's not going to play a lot of kings during his career, but he was perfect as the ineffectual, immature King Louis. And he ended up singing beautifully--not only was his pronunciation good, his acting was spot-on and moving.

I'm not really going to comment on what I thought of the plays--whether I liked them or didn't, whether they work or not--because they are still being workshopped and, after all, I'm involved with the Festival. But there were some interesting parallels and connections that I noted, which are probably fine to share.

All of the plays this year had a theme of "the responsibility that parents owe to their children." Bruise Easy is ALL about that--the main characters are children of divorce, the mom is missing, the daughter is pregnant, the Nasty Neighborhood Kids seem nasty only because they're crying out for their parents' love. In A Story about a Girl, Jessica's parents don't know how to deal with having a daughter who can't talk, and she ultimately runs away. Danae, in Box Americana, gets the job at Wal-Mart to provide for her daughter Janelle, but gets fired when she asks for time off to care for a sick Janelle. Marie Antoinette depicts Marie and her son the Dauphin, and also suggests that part of Marie's problem is that her mother neglected her and she never had a childhood--shipped off to marry Louis at the age of 14.

Three of the plays (not so much A Story about a Girl) were, self-consciously, new twists on old forms. Marie Antoinette uses contemporary language and a talking sheep, but it's not otherwise anachronistic and is true to history--a twist on the bio-play. You think "For all I know, it could have happened that way." Strip away the pop-culture references and the shocking, contemporary-seeming brutality from Bruise Easy, and you're left with something like a Greek tragedy--Dan LeFranc actually based it on Electra. (The brother and sister are Alec and Tess, not Electra and Orestes.) It is actually a very moral, ethical play, dealing with the question of how to live a good life for oneself and one's children. As a play about injustice in the workplace, Box Americana makes you think of a 1930s labor drama (Clifford Odets), until you realize that Jason Grote is avoiding simple propaganda. It reminded David Adjmi of "those '80s plays like Top Girls where you realize that everyone is caught in the system, that the system is to blame."

These same 3 plays also make use of symbolic, message-bearing characters--the revolutionary sheep in Marie Antoinette, the wise-beyond-their-years skate-punks in Bruise Easy, the spirit of Sam Walton in Box Americana. Perhaps this all comes down to Tony Kushner's influence? I think he is a really big role model for this generation of playwrights. Jason Grote's subtitle is even Kushnerian... Box Americana: A Dream of Wal-Mart versus Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Hopefully, you will see reviews of these four plays in The New York Times sometime, or better yet, at a theatre near you!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

If I Were A Book...

Which literature classic are you?

Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray. You are a horror novel from the world of dandies, rich pretty boys, art and aesthetics, and intellectual debates between ethical people and decadent pleasure-seekers. You value beauty and pleasure but realize their dangers, as well.
Take this quiz!
I don't want to indulge in this personality-quiz stuff too often on my blog... but I loved the result I got here. Four years ago I was trying to write a musical (!) of
Dorian Gray... I still think it would be great source material, but for someone else!

It really is a fantastic book--as the quiz result suggests, it "has its cake and eats it too" with regard to ethics. You get to wallow in deliciously described decadence along with Dorian--then cheer when he gets his comeuppance at the end. I remember studying it and having a big class debate about what Oscar Wilde meant in his preface by "All art is quite useless." So there's a tension and complexity there. Also wit (how could there not be?), swooning rhapsodies, and an archetypal horror plot.

In fact, I knew the plot of
Dorian Gray long before I read the actual novel... having read a plot summary in The Great American Bathroom Book (how embarrassing!) at the age of 9 or so. It scared the bejesus out of me! When all the other kids were getting goosebumps from Goosebumps, I was getting them from Dorian Gray. In sixth grade, standing in line for the haunted house at my school's Halloween Carnival, I told the story of Dorian Gray to the girl ahead of me--it was the scariest story I knew. And two years ago, when my godfather's kids (including little P.) were swapping ghost stories, I told it again. It got a good response. And all the adults in the other room fell quiet to listen.

I feel this might be one of those books that'll stick with me for my whole life, and pop up when I least expect it.

The other results in this quiz are equally fantastic works of literature--so go find out what book you are!

Anton Chekhov, Ladies' Man

I discovered the following anecdote while flipping through a pile of old theatre programs/directors' notes for work. I wish I could find an actual corroborated source for it, because it's almost too good to be true--nasty, clever, and hilarious.

Evidently women were always falling madly in love with Anton Chekhov. Which I guess I understand. He was cute, and tubercular, and worked as a doctor, and wrote little gem-like short stories. Kind of like a real-life Doctor Zhivago, now that I think about it. Very tragically attractive in that melancholy, Russian way. But, he also had a wicked sense of humor...

In his first major play The Seagull, the young and innocent Nina falls in love with Trigorin, a famous writer who is summering nearby. The day he goes back to the city, she gives him a medallion engraved with the title of his book, plus a page and line number: "Days and Nights, page 121, lines 11 and 12." They direct Trigorin to the line "If ever you have need of my life, come and take it."

Now, supposedly, Chekhov based this on an episode from his own life. Lydia Avilova, an unhappily married aspiring author, was one of the many women who threw themselves at Anton. Indeed, she gave him a medallion engraved with a book title, page, and line number, referring to a line Chekhov had once written: "If ever you have need of my life, come and take it."

But it gets better. Chekhov ignored Lydia's gift. He never replied. (Men!) But some months later, he ran into her at a party--a masquerade ball.

"What happened, Antosha? Didn't you like it?" begged Lydia.

"The medallion? What?--oh yes--sorry I never got back to you," said Chekhov hastily. "But, actually, I've got this new play opening in a couple of weeks--it's called The Seagull--and you must come see it. Opening night, I insist. I know I haven't treated you right--but come see The Seagull and All Will Be Revealed."

So Lydia showed up in the opening-night audience. The performance was a disaster. This was before Chekhov partnered with Stanislavski; people had a hard time understanding his plays. (They still do!) Lydia strained to make out the actors' words above the jeering of the audience, so she could hear Chekhov's answer to her. And in Act III, when Nina gives Trigorin the medallion, Lydia felt absolutely humiliated. Betrayed.

But not so humiliated that she didn't notice a fine detail: the line and page numbers (page 121, lines 11 and 12) on the medallion in The Seagull were different from the ones on the medallion that Lydia had actually given to Chekhov. She memorized the new numbers and rushed home immediately after the performance was over. Perhaps this was Chekhov's real answer! She pulled his book of stories off the shelf and paged through it. But lines 11 and 12 of page 121 were nonsensical, irrelevant.

Then she realized that Chekhov might have been directing her to her own recently published book of stories. She took it from her desk--flipped through it with trembling fingers--found page 121, counted down 11 lines, and discovered this sentence:

"It is not proper for young ladies to attend masked balls."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Recess" (With Apologies to Amy Winehouse)

"Rehab" must be the catchiest song I've heard in a long time. Trouble is, I can't just go around singing it, since I've never exactly been a candidate for rehab. My version would have to go more like this--the theme song to my elementary school years:

They tried to make me go to recess
I said no, no, no
Yes, I'm a geek
But when I join a clique
You’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if the library suits me fine
Just try to make me go to recess
I won’t go, go, go

I’d rather be inside today
I ain’t got no urge to play
There’s nothing, nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Ernest Hemingway

Us'lly get a lot in class
But I know my next test’s hard to pass

They tried to make me go to recess
I said no, no, no
Yes, I'm a geek
But when I join a clique
You’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if the library suits me fine
Just try to make me go to recess
I won’t go, go, go

Teacher said, “What are you doing here?”
I said “You know the idea:
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my grade point
So I always keep a textbook near."

She said "I think you're a bit obsessed,
Listen, the world won't end if you fail a test"

They tried to make me go to recess
I said no, no, no
Yes, I'm a geek
But when I join a clique
You’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if the library suits me fine
Just try to make me go to recess
I won’t go, go, go

I don't wanna get teased again
I just, ooh, just need a friend
I'm not gonna play kickball
When everyone will kick my rear end

It's not just my pride
It's just so my grades won't slide

They tried to make me go to recess
I said no, no, no
Yes, I'm a geek
But when I join a clique
You'll know, know, know
I ain't got the time
And if the library suits me fine
Just try to make me go to recess
I won't go, go, go

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Side note on "Happy Feet"

It pained me a little to link to that image of Happy Feet in the post below, since I have an unreasonable prejudice against that movie.

I haven't seen it. I don't even want to, it makes me so annoyed. See, ever since I heard the premise of the story--young penguin can't sing like all the other penguins, so he tap-dances instead--I KNEW they ripped it off from one of my all-time favorite children's books, The Trumpet of the Swan. In which a young swan who can't sing like all the other swans (or even talk) learns to play the trumpet like Louis Armstrong instead. "Why is no one complaining about this?" I said to myself. "Stupid people don't know about E.B. White...."

This similarity (aka rip-off) now rates a mention on Happy Feet's wikipedia page, but I'm still dissatisfied. I grind my teeth to think that somewhere, at this very moment, there is a kid reading The Trumpet of the Swan for the first time and dismissing it as "Oh, this is just like Happy Feet."

I got obsessed with Trumpet of the Swan at the same time I was obsessed with ballet and Swan Lake, which started me on a collection of china and glass swans that now gathers dust on our living-room mantelpiece. It also gave me my first stirrings of ecological awareness, with the theme that the mighty Trumpeter Swan is endangered and needs protection. What's more, it's hilarious, in a way that doesn't just appeal to kids. I still enjoy rereading it.

Oh, and also? I'm so attached to my old copy of Trumpet of the Swan that I am ALSO unreasonably annoyed that they commissioned new illustrations for it a few years ago. What was wrong with the originals, which the author presumably approved?!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My 8-Year-Old Cousin Should Really Have His Own Blog

But since I doubt he does, he'll just have to make a guest appearance on mine.

P. is my godfather's youngest child. Actually, he is the youngest son of a youngest son of a youngest son. Maybe that's what makes him so magical?

He is eight years old and just discovering that life is unfair. We all have to realize this at some point, and he's doing it younger than most. (I think I was in junior high before I realized this. But that's what junior high will do to ya.) He's realized that the first two months of school are always "a waste, cause you're just going over what you did last year" and that learning cursive handwriting is also a waste. He rails against the practice of pricing an item $10.99 instead of $11. "They're tryin' to make you think it's cheaper so they can just get all your money! But it's not ten-ninety-nine, it's eleven, and everyone knows it's a trick! I know only one person who would fall for that--a BABY! Because they don't know any better!"

He hates the long lines at the amusement park, how you can give the carnie your ticket and he'll still make you wait for a few cycles of the Ferris wheel to go around. It's like, he has just realized that as an 8-year-old kid, he really is powerless, subject to the whims and rules of every adult. Even worse, most ADULTS are powerless at times, in the face of queues, bureaucracy, marketing gimmicks, etc... and he's not taking this lightly.

His philosophy: "I wish life was like a buffet. Or a soda machine. Cause you put in your money, and then you choose. Put in the money, and then choose. That way you can figure out what you want and you don't get choiced too early. But no, it's not like that. Life is never like a buffet." (I love the way he talks. "Get choiced"--maybe you've never heard it before but you know exactly what it means.)

Here on this earth, we have to make our choices blindly and then pay the price. And P. has just figured this out.

But yet, he is not cynical, he is not being pessimistic on purpose, and he is certainly not having spoiled, angry tantrums about the world's unfairness. He just sees things clearly and tells 'em like he sees 'em. Sometimes I think he has more integrity than most of the adults I know.

Other favorite comments:

"Nuns are kinda like vampires. With the black capes."

"Peach rings are my major weakness. If I left my peach rings out on my balcony overnight the birds would eat them and get high on the sugar and start tap-dancing."

This kid knows his movies! He talks with great authority about the plots of Transformers, Ratatouille, and Harry Potter 5 before he'd even seen them. He can analyze a movie preview like a very astute 21st-century kid. And then analyze life like an uncorrupted prophet. "He's been here before," says my dad to my uncle. I don't know if I believe in that stuff. But I'm certainly glad he's here now.

Monday, July 9, 2007

German Culture, Part Zwei

I'm still thinking about German culture and how we view it in the United States...specifically, why we think this way about it. My first post just listed artistic works made by Germans or taking place in Germany that I have enjoyed. Now I'm trying to dig a little deeper.

I asked a cellist friend of mine if there's a reason a disproportionate amount of great composers came from Germany. After all, Germany's level of industrialization, education, etc. was always relatively similar to that of England or France, but those countries produced mostly second-rate composers, not the constant stream of first-raters from Germany. Unfortunately, my friend doesn't have an answer to this.

I wonder, though, if it relates to how Germany became unified a lot later than England or France. I've always been fascinated by this aspect of German history: a crazy patchwork of principalities, nominally controlled by the Holy Roman Empire but nothing like a modern nation-state. Maybe each city-state's ruling prince sought to attract the best musicians and artists? Maybe this spurred them on to creativity?

The play Bach at Leipzig uses the idea of warring city-states in early 1700s Germany for farce. All the characters come from different territories and think differently about music and religion, which foments competition. And at the climax, Bach's transcendent music is the only thing that stops a violent fight. I think this is a funny exchange, between two organists from warring states:
KAUFMANN. Think! That is what unites us! Our art! Our theatre! Our music! Culture, Steindorff! That is, in the end, all that distinguishes us--
STEINDORFF. (Wearily) From the animals, yes.
KAUFMANN. No! From the English!
KAUFMANN. From the Italians! From the rest of Europe!
STEINDORFF. (Beat) German culture is all that distinguishes us from non-Germans.
KAUFMANN. Yes! And I propose a renewed commitment to our common Germanity!
This idea of city-state competition also reminds me of that wonderful speech from The Third Man:
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Neither Germany nor Italy united till the mid-1800s. And Italy, in my book, is #2 for classical music next to Germany (I'm an Italian opera fan). Could their tumultuous, fragmented histories explain it?

Obviously, the elephant in the room is World War II and what happened afterwards...the Nazi/Communist legacy. It destroyed the world's faith in Germany and perhaps the Germans' faith in themselves. We don't want to believe that a people that provoked such atrocities is also capable of the deep humanity of Beethoven's Ninth. After sixty years in which Germany has behaved like a "good citizen," and nearly twenty years since the two halves of Germany reunited, we have accorded them a limited sort of forgiveness. But we still shy away from describing these great composers, writers, etc. as specifically German, perhaps for fear of provoking the Nazi/Aryan/"Germans are superior" thing again.

My cellist friend told me about a scene in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg where Marlene Dietrich's character, seeking to prove that not all Germans are evil, takes one of the judges to a concert of German classical music. For my friend, this was a revelation too: he had always thought of these composers as just part of "Western heritage," but now he realized that they are German, and the pride that Germans take in them.

He also told me about a composer he's recently discovered: Robert Kahn, a talented student of Brahms' who was very successful in the early 1900s. When Hitler rose to power, Kahn fled to England, and the Nazis destroyed most of his "degenerate Jewish" music.

Indeed, sadly, Germany and Austria were once the countries where Jews were most fully integrated into society. Kahn was composing at the same time Freud was psychoanalyzing and Einstein was theorizing and Walter Benjamin was philosophizing and Hugo Preuss was writing the Weimar Republic constitution... and then this community was scattered or killed. Perhaps the most fascinating and tragic German Jew was chemist Fritz Haber, who during WWI invented various poison gases for Germany and was hailed as a patriotic hero. His wife, opposed to his inventing chemical warfare, killed herself. Haber thought that Germany would always honor him, but with the rise of Nazism in 1933, he was forced to flee. He died a year later, probably from stress. Some of his Jewish relatives were gassed with the same chemicals he had helped invent...

A tumultuous history indeed--and maybe that tumult provoked greatness, as a reaction of the human spirit in extremity. But nowadays we don't like to mention that greatness--we are too afraid of causing tumult once again.

le cinéma parisien

Last week I saw two movies on two consecutive nights. Both were set (largely) in Paris and aimed for that Gallic romance. One was about France's most iconic chanteuse, who lived a life of tragedy and pain. The other was about a rat who wants to be a chef.

Guess which one I liked better?

Reviews up now at IMDB: La Vie en Rose and Ratatouille.

(I'm hoping to make this a trifecta: Paris, je t'aime is still on my list of movies to go see!)

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

"Orson's Shadow" at ART

Saw this play a week ago at Artists Repertory Theatre. It's closed now, but I still thought I'd write it up.

Photo of Alexander Korda, Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh from if charlie parker was a gunslinger....

Austin Pendleton's hit play Orson's Shadow is a backstage comedy-drama about what comes after fame, success, and celebrity. It takes place in 1960--about 2 decades after Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, Vivien Leigh made Gone with the Wind, and "Larry" Olivier made Rebecca. The trendy theatre critic Ken Tynan brings Orson, Larry, and Larry's new flame Joan Plowright together to stage Ionesco's Rhinoceros, whereupon all hell breaks loose. Larry is a preening diva, Orson has been a failure for over a decade, Ken is nervous and sickly, and Vivien is manic-depressive. Only Joan is really presented in a positive light, as a smart and hardworking young actress who has great sympathy for her rival, Vivien. I wonder if Pendleton had to do this because Joan Plowright is the only one of these figures still alive.

Kudos to Pendleton for discovering such a rich dramatic situtation and cast of characters. For instance, Orson, Ken, and Larry all hate Rhinoceros, but the play convincingly explains why they each decide to produce it. Orson hates Larry for "ruining me in Hollywood in 1948" but loves Ken and Vivien. Ken, the famously waspish critic who slammed Vivien's Cleopatra (she still hasn't forgiven him), idolizes both Larry and Orson like an awestruck fan. Here is a man who loves "not wisely but too well." Actually, that goes for all of the characters. And they hate too well, also. Their relationships are complex and well-explored, full of interesting parallels and contrasts.

Pendleton has a harder time beginning and ending his play. The story requires a lot of exposition in order to make sense and Pendleton, not wanting to use the time-honored device of staging a conversation between two characters that reveals all the relevant information, instead makes a joke out of it. It looks like such a conversation will begin between Ken and a young stagehand, until Ken turns to the audience and says "I wouldn't want to make that nice young man a vehicle for exposition," and does a monologue explaining the situation. This postmodern cutesiness annoyed me. The end of the play is similar: just when the passions and and tensions boil over, the action stops and Joan delivers a monologue explaining what happened to all of the characters in the future. It's too quiet an ending for a play so full of wit and conflict.

Todd Van Voris did a great job as Orson Welles, capturing the physique, the rich baritone voice, and the emotions of a man who once had it all, lost it, blames other people for his problems, knows deep down it's really his fault, but is determined to stick with his art. Followspot said it better than I could: "a brooding, wounded giant with a voice that can wake the dead." Susan Maginn was a very vulnerable and sympathetic Vivien Leigh--the way she alternated between self-aware acceptance of her mental illness, and complete irrationality, was skillful and sad. Michael Mendelson captured all of Ken Tynan's tics and neuroses, including a great emphysema attack in Act II.