Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in Books

Time for my annual list of books I read over the past year (my 2007 edition is here). First, the statistics:
  • 32 books read.
  • 5 British, 21 American (1 Russian-American), 2 French (1 translated, 1 not), 1 Danish (written in English), 1 Mexican (written in English), 1 Indian (written in English), 1 Sri Lankan-Canadian
  • 22 books by 19 different male authors, 9 books by 9 different female authors; 1 anthology.
  • 13 non-fiction/memoir/advice, 19 fiction/poetry/humor.
  • 28 read for pleasure, 4 for school.
  • 30 new reads, 2 re-reads.
Weirdest connections between three books I read this year:
  • The Memoir Trifecta (written about here)
  • I read 2 Jewish-themed alternate history-novels: The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policemen's Union. And The Plot Against America takes place during the exact same years, in the same region of the country, and among the same ethnic group as does Michael Chabon's earlier novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Now for the list. I link to my blog postings if I've written about the books already, and provide brief notes/comments if I haven't posted about the book.
  • The Dangerous Book for Boys. Highly recommended. Yes, really! I think that the best books create and evoke a whole world in the reader's imagination, and this one certainly does: a fantasy of Edwardian boyhood.
  • Letters to a Young Artist. Mixed feelings. As I read this book, I thought that Anna Deavere Smith had a lot of good things to say...but one year on, I can barely remember any of them. I don't do well with books that consist only of abstract musings and advice on "being an artist."
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Highly recommended.
  • The Dud Avocado. Recommended.
  • The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Recommended. Some aspects of it, like the gangster subplot, are not successful, but since I'm the same age as the characters--and they are memorable characters--it was a good read.
  • Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. Recommended. Fin-de-siecle Vienna is one of the places I would go to if I had a time machine, and this is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of essays on some of its major figures.
  • Introducing Kafka. Highly recommended. A weird, but great little mini-biography of Kafka in graphic-novel form, with illustrations by R. Crumb.
  • Monsieur Vénus. Mixed feelings. In general, "scandalous and decadent" French novels never appeal to me as much as I think they will. This book has some interesting things to say about gender roles, which is why we read it for class--but was it fun to read? No.
  • Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914. Highly recommended. One of the most exciting history books I've ever read: it reads like a novel, and makes the atmosphere of late-Habsburg Vienna come alive.
  • Hons and Rebels. Highly recommended.
  • Entertainers and the Entertained. Not recommended. John Houseman led a very interesting life and some of that makes it into this collection; but it would probably be better just to read his autobiography, as there is a lot of filler in this book.
  • My Life in France. Recommended. I love Julia Child's no-nonsense voice. She makes her love for France clear, while avoiding gushy sentimentality.
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Highly recommended.
  • Seven Gothic Tales. Recommended.
  • Attack of the Theater People. Mixed feelings. I thought that How I Paid for College hung together better...and I worry that Edward's misadventures are going to get steadily less charming the older he gets.
  • Wonder Boys. Recommended. Kind of a "shaggy professor story," in that I don't know if it says anything meaningful about life, but it's a very fun read. I like the movie version, too, which wisely eliminates the weakest section of the novel--Grady's Passover seder with his estranged wife's family.
  • Wicked. Mixed feelings.
  • The Four Agreements. To be avoided.
  • The God of Small Things. Mixed feelings. Friends had told me that it would make me cry, and it didn't, so I suppose it was inevitable that I felt disappointed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (re-read). Recommended.
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (re-read). Highly recommended.
  • Divisadero. To be avoided.
  • The Blue Flower. Recommended.
  • Oh the Glory of It All. Highly recommended.
  • Tales of the City. Highly recommended for San Franciscans; good, but not as essential, for everyone else.
  • The Man Who Ate Everything. Recommended. I read Jeffrey Steingarten's other book, It Must've Been Something I Ate, last year, and enjoyed it...this is more of the same, which is what I wanted.
  • Frankenstein. Recommended. It's a classic, and a quick read at that...what's not to like?
  • Fierce Pajamas: Humor Writing from The New Yorker. Recommended, as long as you like "New Yorker humor." A good book to keep on your nightstand and read a few pieces a day. Some great parodies, classic short stories, light verse.
  • Pnin. Highly recommended.
  • The Plot Against America. Recommended. This is the first Philip Roth I've read, and while I wasn't blown away, I liked his characterization and general style. I just feel that this book didn't quite hang together, in the way that Roth tries to combine the genres of "simple family drama" and "alternate-history political thriller."
  • The Rest Is Noise. Highly recommended.
  • Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works. Mixed feelings. Of course I'm glad to have familiarized myself with Rimbaud. But I don't know whether I needed to read his complete works--the poems, with their highly abstract language, all blended into one another after a while. I should've read fewer poems, and read them in French.
I fulfilled one of my goals of getting more comfortable reading nonfiction, though I read even fewer books in translation than I did in 2007, and I still have a lot of plays sitting unread on my shelf. I'm not going to set reading goals for the year ahead, but I am curious whether my 2009 statistics will be different from those of years past. 2009, after all, will be my first full year out of school, free from homework and able to read books entirely of my own choosing.

See ya on the flipside (of the calendar, that is).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

20th-Century Music, 21st-Century Reading Experience

The day before I do my annual list-of-books-I-read-this-year post, I want to write about one of my new favorites: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross (music critic for The New Yorker). This long, dense, but rarely dull history of 20th-century classical music has been snapping up accolades since its publication last year, and I feel they are deserved. Though I'm not even that familiar with 20th-century classical music (having grown up in a house where "atonal," said by my mother with an inimitable sneer, is a dirty word) I may become an enthusiast after reading this book!

First, I liked that The Rest is Noise cleared up some misconceptions I had about musical history. I knew that Schoenberg was the first atonal composer and became famous circa 1910. I also knew that for much of the 20th century, critics and academics scorned tonal music; and I assumed that Schoenberg was the one who started that attitude. In reality, Schoenberg had his acolytes in the early 20th century, but he wasn't militant about atonality; the guy who really began that was Pierre Boulez, circa 1950.

I got the sense that if Boulez wasn't still alive, Ross would've come right out and said that the young Boulez behaved like a real jerk. Though Ross admires the music he writes about, he sometimes adopts a skeptical tone when discussing certain avant-garde excesses or composers' personal foibles. I like how his voice is not just that of an impersonal scholar: he makes room in the book for quirky tangents on his personal obsessions like trombone glissandos and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.

Ross writes in a way that made me want to hear the pieces of music he describes, and, in the rare instances that I was familiar with the music he discusses, I'd hum it to myself in order to hear in it what he hears. For instance, this is what he writes about "Mack the Knife" (and by the way, if you haven't ever listened to Lotte Lenya's version, you totally should):
"Insidiously hummable... A simple tune circles around and around, coming to rest repeatedly on an added-sixth chord--a C-major triad plus the note A, which was a favorite device of Debussy. That "sweetened" harmony would become a standard device in jazz, but there is something desperate and bedraggled about Weill's use of it here. In the first verse, the main chord is wheezed out on a solo harmonium; thumping bass notes give the melody heavy feet; and throughout, the almost obsessive stress on the note A tends to darken rather than lighten the mood, nudging the music toward the minor mode. "Mack the Knife" is a song chained to one chord. It's a pop tune with no exit."
What's even more cool about The Rest is Noise is that Ross is a longtime blogger who has thoughtfully compiled an online "audio guide" to his book, featuring many of the key pieces of music that he talks about. It's a real 21st-century reading experience! Not only did this immeasurably enhance my appreciation of the book, I expanded my musical tastes. I never guessed I'd be so taken with John Cage's Sonata V for Prepared Piano! (Go here and scroll down to hear it.)

Now I know that as I continue to explore 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise will be my primer and guidebook. I'm already disappointed that in the wake of the financial crisis, San Francisco Opera has canceled the production of Peter Grimes that they were planning for next season, because Ross adores Peter Grimes and spends 10 pages analyzing it. However, SFO will produce Porgy and Bess this summer, and Ross does a 4-page analysis of that opera, which I will surely reread right before I go see it.

The strongest parts of The Rest is Noise are the ones where Ross can most fully explore his thesis of how composers' work intersected with larger trends--artistic, political, and social--in the culture where they lived. Really a great idea to have the middle three chapters be "The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin's Russia," "Music For All: Music in FDR's America," and "Death Fugue: Music in Hitler's Germany." The final chapters are a little weaker simply because classical music has become more disconnected from the mainstream culture in recent decades, and so the end of the book focuses more on musical criticism than broad cultural analysis. Still, Ross remains an optimist about the state of classical music and a cheerleader for new composers. Indeed, he's caused me to ask: "Why do I know who the hot young playwrights and novelists are, but not the hot young composers?"

Photo of Alex Ross and his book from The Guardian.

It's a sham of a mockery of a parody!

I've got a problem: I think that half of the movie previews I see look so asinine that they must be SNL-style parodies... until the movie actually opens and I realize that it's not a joke at all.

I'm not even talking about previews for movies that are blatantly commercial, superficial, and trend-driven. We all know that Hollywood is money-grubbing and will always use the proven formula rather than deriving something new. Thus, for instance, every romantic comedy these days seems to be a parody of the last one that opened (27 Dresses, Made of Honor, Bride Wars--it's the new "the more weddings, the better" school of filmmaking). I suppose you can laugh at previews for these movies. But they are almost too banal to be awful.

No, what's worse is when I see a preview for a movie that is meant to be an earnest drama, but it only makes me want to burst out laughing. Recent examples include the preview of The Boy in Striped Pajamas--which I felt sure was a parody of Oscar-baiting, British-accented, cute-kids-suffer-under-the-Holocaust movies. And the preview for Flash of Genius--which had to be a parody of inspirational biopics about "little men with big dreams," because who would ever go see a serious movie about the guy who invented windshield wipers?

Obviously I am not the only person who has this problem. I watched Tropic Thunder last night, and the three parody trailers that begin that movie might just be the funniest thing about it. As if to prove my point, the least amusing of the three trailers belongs to the crass commercial movie (five Jack Blacks, in fat suits, farting at each other) and the most hilarious trailer is for the earnest drama (Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire as gay medieval monks). People who take themselves too seriously are always funnier than people who know they're half-ridiculous to begin with. Which is why Robert Downey's whole performance in Tropic Thunder is so good, and so funny. But I digress.

I know older people say that people of my generation love irony too much, that we want to mock everything that society once held dear. Well, maybe that's so. But dang it, it's only because so many of today's movies and celebrities and goings-on seem like sitting ducks!

P.S. It may seem like my blog has been all about movies lately. That's because I go in cycles, like the moon: I have a Movies Phase for a few months, then a Theater Phase, say, or an Opera Phase... It's just the way I am.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Milk"

Third in an occasional series. Note: title of series usually implies "movies I've been anticipating for a long time" not "I sense that you, the reader of my blog, will be in agony until you read my thoughts on this movie," although I know that in this case, at least one of you has been anticipating my Milk review...

Movie title: Milk

Reasons for anticipation: I am a San Franciscan now! Harvey Milk is a bona fide San Francisco hero, and I had the amazing opportunity to see a movie about his life at the Castro Theater, the gorgeous old movie house that is the centerpiece of the neighborhood where Milk made his name. Additionally, I always feel like I ought to go to Gus Van Sant's movies--he's from Portland and went to my high school--even if I haven't actually seen very much of his filmography.

My verdict: You don't have to be a San Franciscan to think that this is a really good movie, but that makes it even better.

Elaboration: OK, I've been in San Francisco for four months, but I hadn't actually set foot in the Castro until I went to see Milk. One of the things I love about this city is how tightly the neighborhoods are packed together without losing their individual character, and the Castro is no exception. Where else will you find people passing out flyers for a "Repeal Prop 8" vigil taking place that night in Union Square, while chatting about a part of the male anatomy that sounds like "Balzac" but isn't? Or bars/cafes that, at midday on a sunny Saturday, have absolutely no women inside at all? (Indeed, I was a little disappointed that there was a line for the ladies' room at the Castro Theater...)

There was also a line to get into Milk--the Castro is a big movie theater, but still, I have never seen that many people so excited to see a movie, when it's not even opening weekend! Though Harvey Milk died thirty years ago, he still lives in the city's memory. When I volunteered for the Obama campaign I met a retired gentleman named Alec who used to work in San Francisco city planning. In the course of his job, Alec had met and done business with Harvey Milk and the rest of the Board of Supervisors. "I liked Harvey," said Alec. "He tended to support our side."

Like many San Franciscans, Alec grieved the assassinations; still, he was careful to tell me and the other young volunteers that he feels ambivalent about Harvey Milk's death. Or perhaps, ambivalent about people who want to characterize Milk as a gay martyr. Homophobia played a role in Milk's death, but Dan White wasn't merely an anti-gay zealot. Instead, he was mad that Milk had convinced Mayor George Moscone not to give White back his seat on the Board of Supervisors after he resigned. So at the same time as Alec deplores the killings, he also admits that Moscone and Milk could have tried to handle this sensitive political situation with more tact.

The screening of Milk began with an unexpected treat: a concert on the vintage movie-theater organ, featuring movie-diva songs like "New York New York" and "Over the Rainbow," plus a Christmas medley. (Bad pun alert:) The organist pulled out all the stops! Seriously though, he took full advantage of all of the different voices that the organ can provide--sheer bliss for a girl who grew up associating the organ with that generic Catholic-Mass sound and wondered why her church organ had so many stops if the organist never used most of them.

The movie got an amazing response from the crowd--I don't think I have ever before been at a play or movie where people hiss the villain at his/her entrance, but that's literally what happened when Anita Bryant, the sugary-voiced anti-gay pop singer, first appeared on screen. Credit must go to Gus Van Sant's smart use of documentary footage, which makes everything seem more immediate for people who remember the era. He doesn't want us to be distracted by seeing a Hollywood star impersonate Bryant, nor does he want us to think that her words come from a screenwriter's artifice. No, he presents Bryant exactly as she was, and that is damning enough.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the "You gotta give 'em hope" speech Milk delivers in the movie is something that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black invented after witnessing the rise of Barack Obama, but it, too, is the authentic words of the real Harvey Milk. Still, it is really startling how much the movie seems to mirror the issues raised by the 2008 election. As Isaac of Parabasis wrote, "It is remarkably well-timed to have a movie about a political organizer who learns that the key to effective organizing is to provide "HOPE" while fighting an anti-gay ballot proposition in California. It may, in other words, have stumbled into being the Movie of the Year. Not necessarily the "best" movie of the year, mind you, but the movie that best encapsulates our year."

Milk is unapologetic about its characters' homosexuality and Harvey Milk's status as an outsider, so that it made me reflect on what has been both gained and lost over the last 30 years. Now that gay people have more rights and are more accepted by American society, we expect our gay politicians to be "upstanding citizens," and if there's any whiff of scandal from them, it's worse than it is for a straight politician. Yet Milk shows Harvey dating Jack Lira, a cute Mexican guy who is much younger and obviously mentally unstable--something that I think would cause a scandal nowadays, even in San Francisco, but did not do so 30 years ago.

If I have one criticism of Milk, it's that things get a little heavy-handed toward the end--Harvey achieves a kind of closure with his ex-boyfriend the night before he dies, which makes his death seem more bittersweet than the shocking and brutal act it was in reality. Still, I must hand it to the filmmakers for taking advantage of San Francisco's geography to determine the last thing that Harvey Milk saw before he died, and using it to craft a supremely moving climax. The location shooting and art direction is excellent: it's always nice to see our beautiful City Hall onscreen, and Harvey's apartment has many architectural details that scream "San Francisco."

Until those final minutes, Milk is the rare inspirational biopic made with a light touch and several good jokes. The filmmakers recognize the way that members of underdog groups--gays, Jews--have always used self-deprecating humor as a defense mechanism, and this sensibility permeates the screenplay. There are also some lines guaranteed to bring down the house in San Francisco, though I don't know how well they'll play elsewhere. At one point, Milk asks his political staff "What is the biggest problem in this city?" Cleve Jones, a young aide, responds, "The way it always smells like piss in the Tenderloin?"

Sean Penn's performance is really as amazing as everybody says it is; though he's known for playing intense and brooding characters, he excels as Harvey Milk, who is a true extrovert--someone who thrives around other people and genuinely wants to help them. Again, because of the movie's use of documentary footage, all of the actors have to feel "super-authentic" so that they don't jar when placed next to the 1970s footage, and I think they succeed admirably. Josh Brolin, as Dan White, is creepy because he resists the temptation to "act creepy"--to see a soft-spoken, square-jawed dad-next-door shooting his colleagues is even scarier, I think, than to see an obvious "deranged psycho killer" type do it.

Back in October I visited City Hall for the first time and saw two gay men getting married on the steps of the beautiful Rotunda. And in just a few days, my old hometown of Portland will become the largest-ever American city with an openly gay mayor (Sam Adams). And so, rest in peace, Harvey Milk.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Meals of the Year

I've always had trouble deciding what my all-time favorite food is. They say that when I was a little kid, my grandmother asked me "Marissa, what is your favorite meal?" and I responded "All three!"

Now that I am living in San Francisco, a city with so much good ethnic food on offer, it's even harder to determine my favorite. However, I recently realized that my three top candidates all fall under the same rubric: "Seasoned Roast Pork in Some Kind of Bread Product."

This unwieldy description covers my three favorite foods of 2008: banh mi sandwiches; char siu bao (Chinese pork buns); and carnitas burritos.

Banh mi: I will always associate this sandwich with San Francisco, despite its hybrid French-Vietnamese origins, because it's what I had for lunch the day after I moved to the city. I was wandering around Chinatown and environs, stumbled into a tiny Vietnamese coffee shop, and decided to try a banh mi for the first time. As soon as I bit into it, I wondered why I'd never had one before: anything that involves roast pork, a French baguette, and lots of cilantro is bound to appeal to my palate! (Though I do pick out the cucumbers--I don't like cucumbers.) This is probably the cheapest, healthiest, best lunch you can get in downtown San Francisco. My top food discovery of 2008.

Char siu bao: These steamed pork buns, especially from Yank Sing, are like biting into heavenly clouds. The lightest, sweetest, fluffiest white dough surrounds a dollop of sweet-sauced barbecued pork; truly, one of the greatest food combinations ever invented. My office is right near one of Yank Sing's outposts, and sometimes at lunch I get their take-out meal consisting of a tangle of chow mein, a potsticker, a springroll, and one precious bao. I always end up eating way too much of the chow mein and feeling sluggish all afternoon. But it's worth it for the bao.

Carnitas Burritos: Unlike banh mi and bao, I knew about carnitas burritos before coming to San Francisco, but the plethora of great taquerias in this city have provided me with more authentic and better-quality burritos than I've had before. Besides, it's not just a food: it's an experience. In this case I must give a shout-out to my neighborhood burrito joint, Ocean Taqueria, on Divisadero Street.

Ocean Taqueria is a very long, narrow space, which feels a little weird, but it's staffed by the nicest guys you could ever meet. I can come in with dirty hair, and speak my horrible Spanish to them (I have to pause after every three words to make sure I don't slip into French), and they will still smile at me and call me amiga or corazon.

They gave me free tortilla chips when I came in in mid-afternoon in September and said "no estoy empleada," they served me and my housemates efficiently on Election Night (I was eating an Ocean Taqueria burrito while watching Obama's acceptance speech), and on Christmas Eve, they made me probably the best carnitas burrito of my life, and wished me "feliz Navidad."

My God, I'm going to miss them when I move to the Inner Sunset next week.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

merry merry happy happy

I know Christmas is almost over, but I can't go to bed without posting this video of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," as sung by Theo, a friend of mine from high school.

The mood of the video sort of captures how my Christmas turned out. Relaxed. Lo-fi. Not a lot of crowds and excitement and forced holiday cheer. But warm and heartfelt.

I hope yours was the same.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Focus Features rocks my socks

Just got back from seeing Milk at the Castro Theater. I'll write more about that experience later on, but for now, can I just say how much I love Focus Features? Seriously, it is almost absurd how frequently a Focus Features release turns out to be my favorite movie of a given year. Sometimes when I see their logo appear before a movie or a trailer, I even get giddy with anticipation.

For a run of 3 or 4 years earlier this decade, Focus Features held utter sway over my heart and the hearts of other cinephiles. I can never settle on what my favorite movie of 2002 is, but Focus' Far From Heaven is definitely up there. (The other contenders are The Hours and Adaptation. Great year for Streep and Moore!) And my favorite pictures of 2003, 2004 and 2005 are all Focus releases: Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Brokeback Mountain.

After that, Focus lost their way a little bit. 2006 was the first year that none of their movies got any Oscar nominations; and in 2007, Atonement was certainly a well-made and acclaimed movie, but in some subtle way, it doesn't feel "Focus-y"... it's the kind of prestige drama that any studio could have released. Besides, I think I love the book Atonement too much to ever consider naming a film version of it, no matter how good, as my favorite film of the year.

But this year, Focus is back in form and I am loving it. My two favorite new movies of 2008 are In Bruges and Milk--both of them Focus Features productions. Like I said, this is getting ridiculous... but I don't want it to end!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Law of Timespans

As I blogged earlier this month, I think that both Australia and Synecdoche, New York are interesting but flawed movies, and in both cases, I liked the first part of the movie better than the second half. That's the thing: both movies divide easily into halves, with a big jump in time separating the two parts.

The first part of Australia, the cattle drove, takes place over a matter of weeks, then there's a jump of several years, then new complications in the form of the Japanese invasion. These later scenes are comparatively weaker, and unnecessary; at the end of the first part, Nullah even says "Everyone got what they want," which is usually a signal that it's time to wrap things up. Synecdoche, New York is trickier because it plays with time throughout: still, in the first half of the film, the jumps in time are not large. But after Caden wins the MacArthur grant, the next thing you know, seventeen years have gone by and the movie's tone becomes increasingly "meta" and stifling.

And that brings me to an artistic axiom I devised, the Law of Timespans: There tends to be an inverse relationship between the amount of time a movie covers and the quality of the movie. In other words, a movie that takes place over a short period of time is more likely to be good than a movie that takes place over a long period of time.

I came up with this theory a couple of years ago after my first viewings of The Godfather, Part II and Chinatown. I became annoyed that Godfather II had won Best Picture in 1974 when I felt that Chinatown was clearly a better movie. But what made it superior? Its perfectly constructed, inexorable plot where nothing is out of place. The way it covers just a few days' time yet takes Jake Gittes from cocksure private eye to tragic hero. Whereas Godfather II is actually kind of messy, toggling between Michael's life as mob boss and Vito's early days in New York City. Despite its decades-long timespan and 3+ hour running time, it doesn't hit me like Chinatown does.

When I first came up with the Law of Timespans I thought it was profound; now, I realize it is more common-sense than ingenious. After all, a shorter timespan = fewer available moments to dramatize = fewer opportunities to make the wrong choice. With less potential story material, it's easier to get a handle on what you do have, and shape it accordingly. In general, I don't believe in Unfettered Art. I believe in form, structure, working within a set of constraints to spur creativity... all of which are aided by a short timespan.

Indeed, my Law of Timespans might be just another way to describe Aristotle's "Unity of Time and Action." It's funny, you read Aristotle's Poetics so many times in drama classes that it becomes a cliche... and you grow to despise the Unities when you read too many classical plays that follow the Unities to an absurd degree, taking place all on one day in some palace antechamber... and then you see a few flawed movies that don't respect the unity of time and action, and you realize how necessary the unities are!

I guess because Homer and other epic poems are fundamental texts of Western civilization, there's a perception that epic works are inherently better or more worthy. Maybe that's true for literature, but it seems like the opposite is true for drama and film. It's become a cliche to say that epic movies are "Shakesperean in scope," but if you think about it, Shakespeare's most acclaimed plays do not take place over long periods of time. He compressed time in his history plays; his comedies (as comedies must be) are madcap and quick; Hamlet is the most famously indecisive character in literature and yet his eponymous play takes place over only about a month's time. Meanwhile, The Winter's Tale is notoriously hard to direct because of its big shift in time, tone, and action halfway through!

Or, alternatively, what made Hitchcock such a great filmmaker? Lots of things... but might one of them be that none of his movies cover much more than a year's time, and many of his best movies cover even shorter timespans?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Synecdoche, New York"

Second in an occasional series. Note: "highly-anticipated" in this context means "movies I've anticipated for a long time," not "I believe you, the reader of my blog, have been waiting with bated breath for me to write about this film."

Title of movie: Synecdoche, New York

Reasons for anticipation
: I seem like the sort of person who would like Charlie Kaufman movies, right? Indeed, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was my favorite movie of 2004--and four and a half years is a long time to wait for a follow-up! And learning that Synecdoche, New York centered on a playwright/director sent my anticipation up to a fever pitch.
My verdict:
It definitely feels like a Charlie Kaufman movie. And yet: I want the old Charlie Kaufman back.

Explanation: Synecdoche, New York feels like the work of a man gripped by fear, grief, and a sense that time is running out--as if Charlie Kaufman had actually had a twin brother named Donald who died in a freak accident, and this death triggered in Charlie a sadness and a paranoia that spilled over into the script he was writing. The most ambitious of Kaufman's movies by a long shot, it is also the bleakest.

Kaufman's work has always had a sense of comic miserablism to it--I mean, Adaptation begins with Charlie's voice-over about being a fat, bald, incompetent loser. But at the same time, the movies were so wacky and original that they couldn't be anything other than life-affirming: watching such a creative mind at work, you felt invigorated, and thrilled that Hollywood could still surprise you. The movies were always delightful, and Eternal Sunshine was more than that--it was profound.

Synecdoche, New York certainly aspires to profundity, but it's lost the sense of delight. It follows its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard, for about forty years of "one bad thing after another." The only good thing that happens to him--he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant--turns out to be a curse in disguise, as he feels he must prove himself worthy of the grant, and spends the rest of his life conceiving and rehearsing a massive theater piece that never opens. Rather than engaging with life, he becomes lost in the simulacrum/synecdoche world that he has created--building an exact replica of New York City inside a New York warehouse. The last part of the movie is a blur of deaths and funerals both real and re-enacted.

Where the earlier movies had John Cusack or Nicolas Cage making themselves look schlubby to play Kaufman's heroes, Synecdoche casts Philip Seymour Hoffman, probably the schlubbiest actor working today, as Caden. He gives a fearless performance, but he's maybe too passive in the role--not displaying enough of the mad-genius ambition that propels Caden to create such a massive work of art. Catherine Keener, who was so sparky and vibrant in Being John Malkovich, plays Caden's first wife as a glum-faced shrew with awful hair.

Brightening things up a bit is Samantha Morton, giving a very charming performance as the guileless box-office girl Hazel. And in a brilliant bit of doubling, Emily Watson plays the actress who plays Hazel in the play-within-the-movie. Hope Davis, in a small role as Caden's therapist, seems to have come from another, less dour Kaufman movie--she'd fit in with the mad scientists of Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine.

For me, the scene that encapsulates Synecdoche, New York (it's even on the movie poster above) shows Caden, late at night, working on his magnum opus. He has hired thousands of actors and now needs to tell them what their roles are, so he writes short scenarios on pieces of paper and distributes them to his cast the next morning. As the camera pans over the slips of paper, which cover the floor of the warehouse as far as the eye can see, we note that every scenario is sad and depressing: "You were raped last night." "You just lost your job." Thousands of papers, and not a happy one in the bunch.

If the movie took a skeptical attitude toward Caden's seeming belief that only unhappy situations can make for great art, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But because the movie, instead, reinforces the idea that depression = genius and genius = depression, my entire belief system rebels against it. People have called Synecdoche, New York a profound commentary on what it means to be an artist--but my God, if being an artist was always like that, who would ever choose to become one?

One could see parallels between Kaufman's life and his protagonist's: like Caden, Kaufman has been awarded a coveted honor, and his first work of art after he won the prize is deliberately big and ambitious--perhaps an attempt to prove himself worthy. So let me just say: Charlie, don't be so insecure; you richly deserved that Oscar for Eternal Sunshine. But you won't deserve any more Oscars if you spend the rest of your life self-consciously trying to make Great Art, at the expense of the light and witty touch that is the reason we came to love you in the first place.

Other observations:
  • I may actually end up cheering for Charlie at the Oscars again this year--not for the Synecdoche script, but for its song "Little Person"--lyrics by Kaufman and haunting piano-ballad music by Jon Brion. I hope it gets nominated, since it's definitely one of the better movie-songs recently. Go listen to it on the movie's Facebook page.
  • As I mentioned, this movie has few laughs for a Kaufman film, and even fewer if you are not familiar with the theater. When I went to see it with a theatrical friend, we were the only ones in the cinema laughing at lines like "My play has 567 lighting cues--of course we're not ready!"
  • I remarked to my friend upon exiting the cinema that "this may just be the first absurdist movie I have ever seen." I mean this both in the sense of philosophical absurdism, and Theater of the Absurd. Kaufman plays around with time and identity and existence in an absurdist way--even the first scene seems to take place on just one morning, but if you pay attention to the clues, three months go by during it. At any rate, there's plenty of fodder here for philosophizing, theorizing, and writing essays; and first-time director Kaufman handles the dreamlike time-is-passing-by-too-fast thing very skillfully. I just feel like the movie is trying so hard to be fodder for philosophy (Roger Ebert even asserts that Caden's life is a true representation of every human life, which might be the gloomiest thing I have ever heard) that you can see the strain, and it's not pretty.

Friday, December 12, 2008

All I Want for Christmas is a New Holiday Song

Ever since Love Actually came out, Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" has been hard to avoid during the holiday season--making it exponentially more popular than any other Christmas song from the last 20 years.

It's a bouncy tune, and Mariah really sells it, but all the same, I wondered whether it had the staying power to become a holiday classic. It feels so commercial and the title is so obvious; also, I didn't know whether people liked it for the song itself or for Mariah's performance of it.

Well, yesterday I witnessed a major milestone in the unstoppable march of "All I Want For Christmas Is You" toward holiday ubiquity. On the street corner outside my office, at lunchtime, a brass band--probably fifteen people total--oompahed their way through "All I Want For Christmas Is You." Instrumental. No singing.

So this proves that the tune has become popular, and recognizable, and evocative of holiday cheer, even when it's divorced from the lyrics. And so I'm afraid we'll be hearing it even more in years to come. What do you want to bet that Mannheim Steamroller's next Christmas album will feature "All I Want For Christmas Is You" orchestrated with lute, recorder, and 80s-style synths? When that happens, we'll know the song is really here to stay.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Australia"

First in an occasional series. Note: "highly-anticipated" in this context means "movies that I've been anticipating for a long time," not "I believe that you, the reader of my blog, have been highly anticipating my thoughts on this movie."

Movie title: Australia

Reasons for anticipation: Moulin Rouge was my favorite movie of 2001, the movie I was obsessed with in high school, the first DVD I owned, etc. Seven and a half years (that's a third of my life!) is a long time to wait for Baz Luhrmann's follow-up!

Actors in major roles: Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, uptight English aristo left on her own in Australia
Hugh Jackman as the Drover, Outback cowboy, so rugged that he doesn't need to have a real name
Brandon Walters as Nullah, a little half-white half-Aborigine boy, persecuted by the authorities because of this

The verdict: Kind of awesome and kind of a mess

Elaboration: Rarely have I enjoyed so many moments of a movie while acknowledging that it doesn't work as a whole. There are patches of really astounding filmmaking in Australia, times when I gleefully thought "This is the Greatest Thing Ever!" (OK, I exaggerate: the Greatest Thing Ever [not to be confused with The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn] is still the "Roxanne Tango" from Moulin Rouge.) It helps that I have a high tolerance for stylization, corny jokes, old-fashioned movie moments, and the rest of Luhrmann's bag of tricks. All the same, he's trying to juggle too many disparate elements, and the genre pastiche doesn't hold together.

I loved Luhrmann's chutzpah in blatantly copying the shot that plays during the intermission of Gone with the Wind--you know, with the red sunset and the big tree on the left side of the frame--for the opening shot of Australia. Later in the movie there is a scene that is basically a gender-reversed version of the scene where Rhett dances at the ball with Scarlett even though she is a social pariah. (And Kidman wears another great red dress. And she and Jackman dance to "Begin the Beguine." Be still my heart!) Australia begins in 1939, so its allusions to Gone with the Wind and to The Wizard of Oz pay tribute to the two most famous movies of an incredibly rich film year, and I found this delightful.

(Also, how did I never before notice that in one of those movies, Scarlett's old way of life is "gone with the wind," and in the other, Dorothy gets carried off by a literal wind?)

Unsurprisingly, Australia is a great-looking movie. So was Moulin Rouge, but that one moves so fast that you don't necessarily notice the beauty of individual shots and compositions, as you do in Australia. There are obvious showpieces, like the initial Gone with the Wind homage, or the soaring landscape shots, or Hugh Jackman's entrance clean-shaven in a white dinner jacket (audible gasps in the theater). But smaller moments also show great attention to aesthetics, e.g. a shot where Kidman lays her milky-pale hand on Jackman's chest, then he grasps it with his tanned weatherbeaten hand, then Walters runs in and puts his caramel-skinned hand atop theirs. Beautiful! And it's fun to see Luhrmann make a movie that takes place almost entirely out-of-doors, after the studio-bound Moulin Rouge.

The original New York Times review of Moulin Rouge said "You get the feeling [Kidman] would set herself aflame if Mr. Luhrmann asked her," which is a wonderfully apt description of her performance in that movie, and applies just as well to Australia. She is willing to go along with all of Luhrmann's tonal shifts--first playing Lady Sarah's snooty repression for laughs, then throwing herself into the melodrama of the latter part of the film. (How can a woman who has so little vanity when it comes to her acting have so much vanity when it comes to the smoothness of her forehead?) Meanwhile, what's interesting about Jackman's performance is that even though he's playing a brawling, riding, hyper-masculine hero, he is the one who must allow his beauty to be objectified, deliver an affecting monologue about his past, and cry on cue. Usually those things are the woman's responsibility.

Kidman and Jackman are accomplished actors who know that Australia requires them to play archetypes, not real human beings. Brandon Walters, however, is too young to realize how stylized and schematic the movie is, and that he is supposed to embody the archetypal Cute and Spunky Orphan. Therefore, he plays Nullah with absolute sincerity, and Nullah is the only character here that you believe could have ever existed in the real world, not merely in silver-screen imagination.

So now I'm getting to why Australia is a mess. For one, this clash of acting styles reveals that Luhrmann's love of movie archetypes and over-the-top scenarios conflicts with his desire to treat the discrimination faced by Aboriginal Australians with the seriousness it deserves.

Now, people accuse Moulin Rouge of being a mess too, and even if I disagree with that, Australia is undoubtedly messier. For all its excess, Moulin Rouge is a backstage story based around two simple questions: will the show be a hit, and will the lovers end up together? When those questions are answered, the movie ends. Australia, however, switches between several questions, and introduces new questions more than halfway through, and the characters' motivations have to change in rather arbitrary ways in order to keep up. Plus, we never get a real sense of what Lady Sarah was like back in England, which leaves her under-characterized for the whole movie. What does she want?

So, while Australia tries to juggle too many questions and is thus too long, parts of it also feel rushed, or too short, or under-motivated. For instance, on the cattle drive, the Drover tells Sarah that they'll need to wake up at midnight and sing to the cattle in order to keep them calm. Now, this sounds like a perfect opportunity to develop the love story: at this point, the characters have gotten over their initial dislike but are unwilling to admit their attraction. What would they say to each other, when they're the only people awake under that vast Outback sky? I anticipated a charming scene of Hugh and Nicole singing, flirting awkwardly, and getting mooed at by cattle. But it doesn't exist. And so there's not enough sexual tension built up before they have their first kiss.

There are a few other times in Australia when I thought scenes were "missing"--I won't bore you with specifics, but let's just say that I'll need to see whether the DVD has any deleted scenes, and usually I don't care about that.

There are many parallels, too, between Australia and Out of Africa--a movie that gets a lot of flak these days, I guess for being middlebrow, but it hangs together much better than Australia does. Meryl Streep gives a detailed portrayal of how it would feel to be an aristocrat falling reluctantly in love with a free-spirited adventurer, while the overstuffed script of Australia requires Kidman to do that in shorthand. Though as I said, she's up for anything, it's hard to find a through-line between her scenes.

Australia has a really exciting first half, centered around the set-piece of a cattle drove and stampede, and maybe the movie should've limited itself to the drove and its immediate aftermath. But then it skips forward 3 years to the Japanese attack on Darwin, Australia (glossing over in about 10 minutes what Out of Africa took an hour to do), and everything just becomes too much, excessively resorting to the old children-in-peril trick to manipulate the audience. Still, if Luhrmann had told only the story of the drove, his movie would have been basically a Western--very entertaining and beautifully shot, but probably not ambitious enough for him. He's trying to create a mythic, epic Australia, and for that, nothing less than a switch halfway through to World War II drama will do.

Other observations:
  • Do you know how happy it made me to see that the Narcoleptic Argentinian has a role in this movie too?
  • In America, if you want a PG-13 rating, you can only use the F-word once, so it'd better be good. Titanic got this wrong. Australia gets it right.
  • The credits say that the "Drover's Theme" is by Elton John, but the music that plays whenever Jackman appears is really Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." At first I thought that this was clever--the music director has orchestrated and permutated this simple melody to fit all kinds of situations, like the Marseillaise in Casablanca--but after a while it just got on my nerves. The movie's not about sheep--it's about cattle!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dressing with a Degree of Difficulty

I don't know if I'd call myself a "fashionista," but one thing I really like doing is coming up with outfits inspired by where I'm going or what I'm doing that day. (I rock costume parties, if I do say so myself.) It amuses me, and in an odd way it makes life easier: having some parameters eliminates the "paradox of choice," you know.

But I just found out that my office's holiday party is going to be held at a tiki dive bar, and for once, I'm at a loss to come up with the perfect outfit.

Let's parse the situation:
  • The party is at a dive bar, meaning that it would be wrong to look too fancy, dressy, or "done." So I need to look studiously nonchalant--which is hard.
  • It's also a tiki bar, which requires a certain sense of whimsy and lightness. Bright, summery floral prints sound more appropriate than wintry sweaters.
  • But at the same time, it is a holiday party, which means that it would be wrong to look too summery, as though I'd forgotten that it's December outside.
  • This is an office party, and I'm the new girl, so I don't want to look too outrageous, or like a floozy. I have to work with these people every day, after all.
  • But at the same time, because I work with these people every day, I want to wear something that they haven't seen me wear before--something I probably wouldn't wear to the office.
So you understand the quandary I'm in: wanting an outfit that is tropical but Christmasy, distinctive but not wacky, fun but not immodest, relaxed but not staid. If choosing outfits got scored for degree of difficulty, like Olympic gymnasts, this one would be a 10.

And we haven't even touched on the other challenges of my first-ever office party (and first-ever time in a tiki bar), foremost among which will be refraining from singing "Mele Kalikimaka" when I get a little tipsy.

Image of tiki bar stolen from Mead Hunter's blog.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Timofey the Emigré

I spent the past several months slowly working my way through an anthology called Fierce Pajamas: Humor Writing from The New Yorker. Among all the parodies and comic sketches (many of which are very funny, indeed), one story stood out as richer and stranger and more poignant than the rest. It also contained the best literary description of a panic attack that I could ever hope to read.

That story was "Pnin," by Vladimir Nabokov. With minor revisions, it became the first chapter of his novel of the same title – a novel I immediately bought and read.

Pnin, which Nabokov originally composed as seven New Yorker short stories in order to earn money and amuse himself while working on Lolita, has been criticized for its loose structure, but this didn't bother me. It recently occurred to me that many of my favorite childhood "novels," such as Mary Poppins, are really just collections of short stories, so I think it's a perfectly valid form. Besides, this is Nabokov we're talking about – a.k.a. The Tsar of Ultra-Clever Literary Gamesmanship – so the further you read, the more you notice repeating motifs, brief allusions to characters who then get fleshed out in later chapters, flashbacks and recursions, and (no surprise) an unreliable narrator who gives everything a final twist. Thus, though there's no overarching plot, it still seems very much of a piece.

And Prof. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin – the linchpin holding it all together – has quickly become one of my favorite literary characters. At one point we learn that Pnin dislikes Charlie Chaplin movies, which is funny, because he himself is lovable in a similar way to the Little Tramp. Pnin is the eternal underdog – a divorced Russian emigré with a hilariously shaky command of English and a talent for botching what he sets out to do – yet he never loses his dignity and never stops striving. His continuing in his Pninian ways despite the fact that his colleagues make fun of him behind his back is almost heroic.

So buried underneath all the dazzling Nabokovisms is a thoughtful exploration of the way that we perceive, judge, and underestimate each other. Because of the language and temperamental barrier separating Pnin from his colleagues at a small 1950s college, they consider him a buffoon. But he has led a harder life than most, he remains good-hearted and optimistic, and despite his inability to master English, is a real egghead. When trying to talk sports with a 14-year-old boy, Pnin can only mention the fascinating (to him) fact that Anna Karenina contains the first mention of tennis in Russian literature. There is exquisite comedy in this – funny but oh so human.

So I know that this sounds like the kind of sentimental and "uplifting" conclusion that Nabokov would scorn, but one of the things I take from Pnin is a resolve to treat the real-life Pnins of the world (the awkward, the eccentric, the people whose visible flaws frighten me because they recall my own secret flaws) with the care and respect that they deserve.