Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Wise Children"--A Jolly Good Backstage Novel

When blurbing or reviewing Angela Carter's novel Wise Children, it seems the conventional thing to say is that it's "Shakespearean." The characters belong to a theatrical dynasty whose patriarch, Melchior Hazard, is Britain's most renowned classical actor, and the plot riffs off of Shakespearean themes. Ungrateful daughters, identical twins, mad young maidens distributing flowers, jealous spouses, near-miraculous reunions, etc., are all to be found here.

That's what the back cover of Wise Children told me to expect, at least. What I didn't expect was that it would also feel like a cross between One Hundred Years of Solitude and Noel Streatfeild's "Shoes" books. By which I mean, it's a magical-realist multi-generational saga, littered with twins and doublings; but British and humorous and stiff-upper-lip rather than Latin American and melancholic. (In what must be an intentional inversion, the taboo that leads to the downfall of the Buendía family is the salvation of the Hazard family.) Furthermore, like Streatfeild's books--which I read so eagerly as a theater-mad little girl--Wise Children is simply grimy with greasepaint and the atmosphere of the British theater entre les guerres. I wonder if it's intentional that both Wise Children and Ballet Shoes feature sisters who get their big breaks playing Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream? And while I do enjoy a good Shakespeare riff, the García Márquez/Streatfeild blend is what really makes this novel intriguing, daring and original.

Wise Children is obviously a great book for theater lovers. (If you understand just why it's so hilarious for an elderly dancing teacher to be named "Miss Worthington," you must read this novel at once.) But the very high quality of the writing means that it should appeal to anyone who likes a good yarn told by an engaging character. Dora Chance, the narrator of Wise Children, has one of the strongest and most distinctive voices of any literary character I've encountered in a long time. Dora is a 75-year-old woman who, in her youth, formed one-half of the song-and-dance team "The Lucky Chances" alongside her identical twin sister, Nora. The irony is that Dora and Nora haven't had the best luck in real life: they were born illegitimate and their father Melchior refuses to acknowledge them, their brief stay in Hollywood was a disaster, they witnessed the death of vaudeville. However, they're not ones to gripe or to pity themselves. Instead, Dora's narration is chatty, cheerful, Cockney-infused, and incredibly vivid.

I could literally hear Dora's voice and accent in my head as I read Wise Children. It made me realize that usually when I read British fiction, I don't hear it in a British accent--e.g. I think of Thomas Hardy's novel as "Tess of the Durr-burr-vils," not "Tess of the Duh-buh-vils." But after reading a couple of pages of Wise Children, Dora's voice so overpowered me that I felt tempted to drop my r's and to use quaint British expressions like "Sod it all." Or, to describe my feelings about Wise Children: "A smashing good read--the dog's bollocks!"

Image of vaudeville dance team "The Dolly Sisters" found here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Memoriam?

When I read today that John Updike had died, all I could think about was an afternoon two years ago where I quite possibly saw Mr. Updike, or else it was just another elderly gentleman who looked much like him.

It was a chill, rainy day in Paris in March, and I decided to warm myself up with the famous hot chocolate chez Angelina, the fancy Parisian tearoom. Their signature beverage is called chocolat chaud à l'africaine--a name that originated in the early part of last century and thus is probably racist--comes in a miniature pitcher and is the thickest, richest hot chocolate you've ever had in your life. I ordered it with a brioche, which might have raised the waiters' eyebrows because it is not customary, I believe, to eat brioche after lunchtime, but I needed some kind of food with it yet couldn't handle the sugar shock of trying one of Angelina's fancy desserts as well.

The tearoom is located along the Rue de Rivoli, across from the Tuileries; splendidly refined, it's the kind of place that in America would be called a "ladies-who-lunch restaurant." Cream-painted woodwork with gold highlights, high ceilings, marble-topped tables; it feels frozen in time in the Belle Epoque. I should have done more observing and people-watching, but I felt self-conscious being there all alone, and buried myself in a book I was reading for class; was it Salammbô?

Then, as I got up to leave, I turned around to put on my coat and, seated alone at the little table behind me, was the man I could've sworn was John Updike. He was white-haired, with what I believed to be Updike's same distinctive profile and eyes retreating into the folds of his skin. He was well-dressed in a forest-green sweater, which I decided was the kind of preppy East Coast garment that Updike would wear. So I felt the shock of recognition; but what could I do? I was by no means certain that this was Mr. Updike, and even if it were, what would I say to him? "Are you John Updike? Well, that's cool, but I've never actually read any of your books"? (You must remember that I pretty much constantly feel guilty that I haven't read all of the world's great works of literature or all of its most acclaimed authors, even though I am still so young! And thus, in this case, I felt guilty that at the age of 19, I hadn't read any Updike except perhaps a short-story like "A&P.")

Before I left the restaurant, I used the bathroom, which was located on the upstairs mezzanine level and gave me another opportunity to spy on the supposed Mr. Updike from a more distant perch, but again, I could come to no conclusions as to whether it was him or not, and simply left the restaurant.

Galignani, a famous English-language bookshop, is on Rue de Rivoli a few doors down from Angelina, so I ran to the fiction section there and hunted out John Updike's books, seeking an author photo to compare with my memory of the face I had just seen in the restaurant. Yes, there was definitely a strong resemblance, but nothing conclusive enough to alleviate my doubts. I wondered if perhaps the bookshop was hosting Updike for some event, a reading or lecture, but that didn't seem to be the case. I checked the French newspapers for mentions of his name over the next couple of days, but did not find it; and thus, I will never know for certain.

It's a strange little story and probably not worthy of the old man's memory, but as of today it's all that I have. Yes, two years have gone by and I've still never read an Updike novel, perhaps because there doesn't seem to be one novel of his that people single out as best. They just say "Read Updike" without suggesting where, in his lengthy oeuvre, one should start. Perhaps some of the obituaries will help clear that up, and highlight his best works. I did become more familiar with Updike's work as a book reviewer in The New Yorker, and in fact, at the moment am halfway through a book that Updike championed in 2004: The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer.

Rest in peace, Mr. Updike; and if it was you on that dank dreary day in Paris, I hope you enjoyed your hot chocolate.

Explanation of image: I believe I took this photo outside Angelina on the same damp day that I possibly saw Updike. It doesn't have anything to do with
him, per se.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The gloom of these period novels

I'm trying to read more classic novels this year--the novels that I should have read by now, if I want to keep pretending that I'm an overly-intellectual maven of culture. However, it's hard to blog about these books without either making the same observations that readers have made for over a hundred years ("geez, this is a good novel, ain't it?") or else writing a pedantic-academic disquisition. I'll do my best not to clutter up the blogosphere...

So I just finished Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I had read before but barely retained. I think I must've first read it when I was about 13, the time when I was just starting to acknowledge that "realistic fiction" could have its charms. (Prior to this, I basically read every fantasy book I could get my hands on, to the detriment of all else.) Still, Tess didn't do it for me. Not that I lacked the intelligence to understand it; I merely lacked the inclination, and found it dull. So I gave it another chance, now that I have fully gotten over my disdain for realistic fiction.

I don't know why I found it dull, since it really is a cracking melodrama. Yes, there are some moments where you know that Thomas Hardy is really stacking the deck against poor Tess--this girl has an absolute knack for running into the wrong people at the wrong time--but it works, and that's what matters.

As Steve Martin writes in Shopgirl, "[Mirabelle] does not read these [nineteenth-century novels] as a romantic lonelyhearts turning pages in the isolation of her room, not at all. She is instead an educated spirit with a sense of irony. She loves the gloom of these period novels, especially as kitsch, but beneath it all she finds that a part of her identifies with all that darkness." And that's how I feel about Tess of the D'Urbervilles. You can try to roll your eyes at Hardy's bleak and pessimistic view of life, or at the contrivances he uses to express this idea, but in the end, he's too persuasive.

Another thing I love about reading old novels is that details that went unremarked-upon at the time of the novel's publication can offer the most surprising insights. For instance, unlike Victorian audiences, modern readers don't find Tess's behavior shocking or believe she should be condemned--we fully sympathize with this ill-treated girl. However, what we now find shocking--and the Victorians accepted without a thought--is that the dairy where Tess works uses lead-lined pans! We're supposed to think that the dairy is the most idyllic and wholesome place in Tess's world--the fertile farm, the good fresh milk--but the realization that all the characters are going to die of lead poisoning puts a different spin (a Hardy-ish, pessimistic spin?) on things...

Or, you know the old stereotype that women are scared of mice, and will scream and stand on chairs whenever they see one? A short paragraph in Tess of the D'Urbervilles made me understand how this originated, and why it's not as misogynistic as I thought. Hardy writes:
[The rats] ran across the open ground in all directions, a loud shriek from the by this time half-tipsy Marian informing her companions that one of the rats had invaded her person--a terror which the rest of the women had guarded against by various schemes of skirt-tucking and self-elevation. The rat was at last dislodged...
So, for modern women who wear pants or short-ish skirts, it's illogical to fear mice. But for a woman wearing a floor-length skirt plus several petticoats, it's easy to imagine a mouse getting trapped between the layers of fabric, scurrying around under your dress--and that is a rather disgusting/creepy prospect.

Image: Engraving of the next-to-last scene of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which accompanied the novel when it was first serialized.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Odes for Obama

Like many other people, I didn't think much of the poem that Elizabeth Alexander wrote and delivered on Inauguration Day. The Guardian has a good take-down of it, echoing many of the criticisms that I had when I first encountered it.

I'll admit that it's hard for me to get into contemporary poetry, and I have very defined prejudices about what I like in a poem--my opinions are more rigid on this matter than they are regarding plays, movies, or novels. Basically, I think poems should have structure. This could be rhyme (and unfashionable though it is, I love a well-deployed rhyme) but it doesn't have to be. It could be a systematic patterning of images, a vigorous rhythm, and/or playful use of sounds. I also like conciseness: I prefer a series of strong, vivid impressions to long abstract musings about "poetic" topics like love or death. In terms of poetic diction, I hate the self-consciously lofty and discursive, and prefer startling but precise juxtapositions of words. So generally speaking, I guess I'm an Imagist.

And, like the King of the Imagists, "Uncle Ez" Pound, I'm ambivalent about Walt Whitman, the inventor of free verse and father of American poetry. Stuff like "Song of Myself" is undeniably powerful, and it has a sense of structure and a vigor--great, swingy rhythm!--that I love. But I think that Whitman eventually became a parody of himself. I was disgusted when I first read Whitman's "The Runner" in my high school poetry textbook--I thought it anticlimactic and needlessly wordy. This is the entire poem:
On a flat road runs the well-train'd runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais'd.
To me, this is flat and prosy--just like Ms. Alexander's Inauguration poem. E.g. "Built brick by brick the glittering edifices / they would then keep clean and work inside of" has two cliches ("brick by brick" and "glittering edifices"), plus a jarring example of ending a sentence with a preposition, all in two lines--argh! And there must be a more interesting way to express the sentiment "keep clean and work inside of," too.

So I asked myself what I'd have done in this situation, and thought about Obama, and the "O" logo so prominent in his campaign. I began playing around with that letter, its sound and its shape--patterning a poem around the "o" vowel and the idea of circles. As I've said before, I think constraints spur creativity, and I think here they helped me avoid cliches. (Indeed, my poem is almost a reverse-lipogram: only 13 of its words do not contain the letter "O.") While I realize that what I've written would never pass muster at an actual inauguration, because punning on the new President's name is too much like creating a personality cult, I'd like to share it with you. If nothing else, it's an attempt to express my idea that poetry should be concise, startling, playful, vigorous.
By Marissa S–

O for this bauble-blue globe, our home,
O oxygen flowing into lungs’ lobes!
O solar voltage, grown blossoms, o storms,
Ocean foam, open coasts;
O spiro, o spero.

O the rotunda and Capitol Dome!
O echoing forebears, o voices in stones!
O sound of groans, slave-holds choking close;
O loads borne, o holes torn,
O torrents of bullets.

O voyages over, beyond and below!
O circles, o cycles, coalescence in one!
O folding toward focus, no goal too remote...
Sole moment. Souls, only.
O sore, soaring hope.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Curtain up

Y'all probably saw this on Gawker already, but I love everything about this picture.

(And not just because of the framing and the red curtains.)

As my father quoted to me on Election Night, "The Great Work Begins."

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Way of the World

It seems I was unfortunately a bit rash in applauding the fact that Portland, Oregon is the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor. Sam Adams has been in office for just 19 days, and now he's been hit with a sex scandal: he lied about having an affair with a former intern, and Willamette Week has just found out the truth.

This article affords several jumping-off points for discussion, but I can't help latching onto the fact that the name of the intern in question is Beau Breedlove.

Seriously, doesn't that sound like something out of a Restoration comedy--those plays where all characters have names that match their temperaments? Lady Sneerwell, Sir Fopling Flutter, Mrs. Squeamish, Beau Breedlove.

I actually think it could be very amusing to adapt the story of a contemporary political sex scandal in the style of a Restoration comedy. With this one, you could even title it Beau's Stratagem.

Addendum 1/22/09: This has hit the national news now, accompanied by many jokes that "Beau Breedlove" is a total porn-star name. So, when other people think "porn," I think "Restoration Comedy." I don't know what this says about me...

Baghdad by the Bay: "The Arabian Nights" at Berkeley Rep

There's at least one big pitfall in adapting The Arabian Nights into a stage production: Scheherezade's stories must cast the same spell over the audience as they do over King Shahryar; we must feel that they are captivating enough to pique the interest and eventually melt the heart of the most implacable man in Arabia. Anything less than that amounts to failure, and will only result in a spate of snarky reviews that say things like "Shahryar had to listen to these stories for 1001 nights, but I couldn't even stand them for two hours."

And thus, consider it the highest and hardest-won compliment when I say that I could have gone on watching Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights forever.

This was my first time experiencing Zimmerman's work, and while I loved her aesthetic, more elements of it were familiar to me than I expected. It's the kind of storytelling-theater that I recognize from years of acting classes, full of movement work, playful use of props, actors switching fluidly between narration and impersonation. Even some improv, in a scene where two actors (who vary from performance to performance) are called upon to invent comic monologues listing what is in the "Wonderful Bag." In short, a great, teeming theatrical panoply. Even the prologue dazzled: the ensemble unrolled heaps of Oriental rugs, and elaborate lanterns dropped down from the flies, transforming the bare stage into an Arabian souk before you could believe your eyes. Beautifully designed and costumed, but otherwise low-tech theater, the kind where (as Tony Kushner says of Angels in America) the magic occurs because the strings are visible.

Zimmerman has selected lesser-known Arabian Nights stories for this play (no Aladdin, Sinbad, or Ali Baba), with an eye toward covering a wide range of moods. Act I ends with the most shamelessly extended fart joke since Blazing Saddles, while Act II ends with a moving parable about the importance of telling stories and passing knowledge along. In general, the first act is more comedic and the second is more dramatic--a time-honored, and therefore timeless, structure.

Everything feels of a piece, though, because life itself is vivid and varied, and because there's a great ensemble of actors working their hearts out to put it over. There was an understudy at the performance I saw, but I couldn't even discern which actor it was, since the whole group was so seamless. They're an attractive and truly multicultural ensemble who dance, sing, clown, play drums. And while Sofia Jean Gomez, who plays Scheherezade, may look like a conventional blonde ingenue, her attractively husky and authoritative voice makes her perfect for the role of the storyteller.

In an interview printed in the program, Zimmerman notes:
Before beginning rehearsals for the first Arabian Nights [presented by Lookingglass Theatre in 1992]...I was full of a great many theoretical and overtly political ideas for its staging that would call attention to its contemporary relevance... [But] the stories spoke more than loudly enough for themselves: their humanity, wisdom, humor, vulgarity, and poetry were manifest... Almost none of that original impulse toward overt commentary remains.
Indeed, and thankfully so. Politics and didacticism would be antithetical to the storytelling magic that The Arabian Nights must create. Though one episode of the play has a slight "Muslims! They're Just Like Us!" feeling to it (a wise girl named Sympathy the Learned offers advice on living a virtuous life and reminds us that Muslims consider Jesus a prophet), the rest of the work makes no trumpeting claims to contemporary relevance--it doesn't need to. There are a few jokes that rely on pop-culture allusions (and which jolted me out of the play, honestly) but the rest of the humor would work well in any culture and at any time period. And the occasional refrain of "Baghdad, city of peace and poets" is poignant without being heavy-handed.

Late in Act II there is a scene where all the ensemble members talk over one another, dividing into small groups and enacting multiple stories simultaneously. And I could have stayed in the theater until Mary Zimmerman had fully staged each of those stories in front of me, one by one. Or I could even have stayed listening to that overlapping dialogue, stories flowing into stories all night--a testament to the endless power of human imagination, and the desire to know what happens next, that great art provokes.

Note to any readers in Kansas City or Chicago: This was a sell-out hit at Berkeley Rep and I almost didn't get to see it. Book your tickets ASAP for when it comes to Kansas City Rep or Lookingglass Theater!

Top image: Evan Zes with the Ensemble. Bottom image: Sofia Jean Gomez and Alana Arenas (the actress I met on the train). Photos by Kevin Berne, © Berkeley Rep.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Notable Notoriety

Makes me happy: Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film Notorious has just been re-released on DVD! This masterpiece had been out of print for probably 5 years, much to my consternation, because I love it so much that I think everyone should see it. Before, that was a much more difficult proposition than it should have been. Now, you have no excuse!

I'll admit that in our everything-available-on-demand culture, there is something tantalizing about waiting for a favorite out-of-print movie to be screened at a local arthouse--it makes the experience more precious and valuable. And this felt especially appropriate for Notorious, a movie all about longing and yearning and thwarted sexual tension. Needless to say, it also looks gorgeous on a big screen. (Most beautiful movie-star pairing ever? Perhaps.)

The last time I saw it was at a Hitchcock film festival when I was in Paris; that's where I snapped the photo above. Though I had a brief, wicked urge to emulate the little boy in Day for Night who breaks into his local cinema and steals the lobby cards of Citizen Kane.** I mean, isn't this vintage poster incredible? The French title Les Enchaînés means The Chained Ones--a phrase that captures the film's mood of romantic fatalism.

All the same, I'm glad it's no longer a rarity, and last weekend I bought the DVD half-price at Virgin Megastore. (They are having something called the "Virgin Sacrifice Sale," a name I find hilarious, disturbing, and sad all at once.)

Makes me less happy: Yesterday a biopic about the Notorious B.I.G. was released--also titled Notorious. All right, it's a logical title to use, but I just wish that the filmmakers had thought twice before appropriating the name of an acknowledged Hollywood classic! Somehow it annoys me that for most people of my generation, this film will be what they think of when they hear "Notorious the movie"--not Hitchcock's film. I worry that the 1946 film will get superseded in the popular imagination, in a way that it wouldn't if the makers of the new movie had just used a different title.

Though this could also lead to some humorous situations: now, if people overhear me talk about how much I love Notorious, they'll start to look at me strangely, thinking "Hmm, I'd never have guessed that Marissa was a fan of gangsta rap!"

**And of course the little boy in Day for Night grows up to be François Truffaut. And Truffaut loved Hitchcock, especially Notorious--he called it "the very quintessence of Hitchcock." See, it's all linked. A chain. Les Enchaînés!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

No business (cards) like show business (cards)

Question for y'all, especially if you move in theatrical circles: Do playwrights have business cards? By which I mean, is it accepted practice to spend a bit of one's own money printing up cards that say "Playwright," and then to give them out to other theater professionals that one encounters? Or is this just weird/pretentious?

I ask this because I went to see The Arabian Nights at Berkeley Rep on Tuesday, and as I BART-ed back to the city, I found myself seated across from one of the performers, Alana Arenas. I congratulated her (it was an awesome production...longer post to come later) and we chatted for a bit. She was very sweet, and when I shyly told her that I am a playwright, she asked me my name and said she'd look out for my work.

At that moment, I wished that I could've handed her a business card that included my name, the title "Playwright," this blog address, etc. (Especially because my surname is very uncommon and hard to remember.) But do playwrights ever do this? What's the etiquette?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Delayed Thank-You

In the summers, I used to go to a day-camp at a local theater company. The day involved rotating between seven or eight teachers who each focused on a different theatrical skill. Improv. Juggling. Singing. Commedia.

We loved most of our teachers with genuine affection, but there was one whose class we dreaded, and that was Tony, the Comedy teacher. I know it's a stereotype that all comedians are depressed or mean or awful people in their day-to-day lives, but Tony was frankly sadistic. I didn't think he was all that funny, either: his class consisted of variations on two gags which he found endlessly, inexplicably hilarious. One was the word "D'oh!" said a la Homer Simpson (this was the mid-90s, after all), and the other was "Acting! Thank you!" from Jon Lovitz' tenure as the Master Thespian on SNL. (We were too young to know SNL, though, which explains why Tony and our parents found this amusing while we were merely bemused.)

The "Acting! Thank you!" bit involves intoning those words in an orotund manner, while sweeping your arm up in the air on "Acting!" and bringing it down to bow deeply on the "Thank you!" I suppose when you see a bunch of little kids doing it in unison, it's good for a laugh. But we never understood the importance that Tony placed on it.

And furthermore--this is what I mean about his sadistic side--most of the time, Tony was all "Acting" and no "Thank you." In other words, we would, as a group, shout "Acting!" while raising our right arms. But then, Tony wouldn't allow us to say "Thank you!" and finish the phrase. Instead, we had to stand there, our arms in the air in fourth position porte de bras...and stand, and stand, not moving a muscle, until Tony released us.

If you moved, Tony would yell at you, and if you squirmed too much, he'd make you do it for longer. Sometimes he'd turn it into a competition among us (not that there was any real prize). Your arm would ache until it felt like it would fall off, or else seem to grow heavier as though its weight could crush you to the ground. He could make us stand like statues with our arms raised for eight, nine, ten minutes.

We were eight, nine, ten years old.

Tony never explained the point of this exercise to us, which made me furious: "This is supposed to be comedy class! But it's not funny!" To this day I'm not sure what the point of it was, but at least now I can speculate. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," right? Comedians need to have utter control over their bodies and their minds. They need the patience to practice something endlessly since that is the only way it will appear to be effortless. Physical comedians need to be inured to the pain that comes from pratfalls. If Tony had explained this, would it have made it any better? Possibly. Still, we were just children and had no concept of devotion to Thalia the Muse.

But why am I thinking about Tony now, all these years later?

Because my new commute on the ever-crowded N-Judah involves standing pressed up against a crowd of people and grabbing the a bar above my head, hanging on for stability's sake for eight, nine, ten minutes. If I'm lucky, there's enough room in the car for me to switch arms occasionally, or even to hold a book in my other hand and try to read. But sometimes there isn't.

So, all right, Tony, I concede: your class, though I never would have believed it at the time, actually ended up teaching me a valuable skill.

But it still isn't funny.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Look, a beauty

After we watched the movie Shopgirl a couple of years ago, my mom remarked that I look like Claire Danes, who stars as "Mirabelle Buttersfield." And maybe there's something to that: though I doubt I'd be mistaken for Danes' twin, my hairstyle resembles her Shopgirl 'do, we both have strong facial features, and I love Mirabelle's vintage-y fashion sense. But also, it's a question of personality. Introverted, sensitive Mirabelle--with her artistic yearnings and her Penguin Classics and her way of quietly standing apart from the crowd--really is somebody that I can relate to.

Because of this, the film Shopgirl stuck with me longer than I initially thought it would, and so when I saw Steve Martin's original novella on sale last week, I decided to pick it up. For, although one of the main virtues of literature/cinema/drama is that it allows you access into the minds of people who differ greatly from you, I believe it is equally important to make time for art that illuminates your own psyche, to find characters that remind you of you.

Martin writes Shopgirl from an omniscient perspective, dissecting and explaining the personalities of his four main characters. So it's not Mirabelle's voice that I relate to, but Martin's precise description of how a girl like her (a girl like me?) behaves. For instance, in one sense, Mirabelle seems mature for her age. She's thoughtful, cultured, and kind of an "old soul." But Martin points out that despite this, her emotional intelligence lags behind her physical age: she is naive, self-deluding, awkward, uncertain, fragile. I often feel this same tension (am I overly-mature or overly-immature?) within me.

I wondered how I could relate so well to the shy, unassuming Mirabelle, when I also find myself identifying with characters like the spiky, competitive Frederica Potter. Then I realized that despite their different temperaments, both girls are loners. As is another of my treasured literary heroines, Jane Eyre. Female loners aren't as common in literature as you might expect. I think it's because people assume that women are more social and gregarious than men. A friendless man can be a Byronic hero, but a friendless woman is a freak.

So it almost feels weird--like an admission of weakness--to say that stories about loners are what speak to me. (Shopgirl, The Virgin in the Garden, Jane Eyre--seems I have a soft spot for books about smart loner girls who fall in love with older, emotionally distant men.) But then, since we loners are the people who most need sustenance and reassurance from the art we consume, we shouldn't feel ashamed of it. Instead, let's be glad that someone out there understands us...

One other Shopgirl observation: Mirabelle has a foil/rival in the form of Lisa, a cosmetics saleswoman who is in her early 30s but behaves like a high-school "mean girl." Now, I know that back in the day, Steve Martin used to date Bernadette Peters--and his description of Lisa's appearance is suspiciously similar to Peters' unique beauty. Both are shapely and buxom, with "skin that has never seen the sun" and "pale red ringlets." Coincidence, or Martin's oblique way of insulting his ex? I really hope it's not intentional, since I have always loved Bernadette Peters and don't want to have to think ill of her!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I remember sky, it was blue as ink

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the medieval book of hours crafted by the Limbourg Brothers, has probably the most famous, historically significant, and beautiful calendar illustrations in all of Western art. Those delicate details, surrounded by that pure lapis-lazuli blue!

So riddle me this: with 9000 calendars for sale on, why does not a single one of them feature the illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures?

I would've thought that, on the contrary, every modern calendar manufacturer would produce a Limbourg brothers calendar. And before you ask "but who would buy it?", I totally would! Specifically, I'd have bought it for my father for Christmas. Dad has a thing for paintings that feature striking skies, à la Maxfield Parrish...

or Albert Bierstadt...

so I wanted to acquaint him with the less dramatic, but equally sumptuous, skies of the Limbourg Brothers.

Images: "January" from Les Tres Riches Heures (high-res images of all 12 paintings available on Wikipedia); "Ecstasy" by Parrish; "The Oregon Trail" by Bierstadt.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Slumdog Salman

I spent a very low-key New Year's Eve at a movie theater watching Slumdog Millionaire, which had come highly recommended to me. Sadly, I think I may have gotten myself a little too excited to see it: while I did appreciate it as a colorful and propulsive cinematic achievement, I wasn't as emotionally affected by it as other people have been.

One of my new housemates (I mean, new-new--I just moved in yesterday) is Indian-American and I found myself discussing Slumdog Millionaire with her. "I just don't see why people say that this movie is inspiring when the happy ending is only because fortune randomly chose to favor this guy!" I said.

"Oh, but that's so India," said my housemate. She switched into an Apu-from-The-Simpsons voice (something that a lot of my Indian friends seem to relish doing in order to mock people from the old country): "Don't you see, Marissa, everything ees karma. Good theengs are coming to you eef you have thee good karma."

"I guess I'm more inspired by stories about people who get out and do things, rather than people who have good karma or luck or whatever." (I was thinking of Milk, specifically.)

"Yeah," said my housemate. "Trust me, I get sick of that whole karma thing too. But try telling that to my relatives."

I wrote a review for the IMDB in which I discuss this point at greater length, and you can read it if you like, but you know whose opinion of Slumdog Millionaire I would really like to hear? Salman Rushdie's!

So far as I know, Rushdie isn't in the habit of reviewing movies--but if I edited a magazine (and it wasn't bleeding money in this economy) I'd ask him to write an article about Slumdog Millionaire. I think it could be a very valuable pairing. Rushdie wrote one of the first Indian novels to hit it big in the West (Midnight's Children) and Slumdog Millionaire seems poised to do the same for Indian cinema.

Furthermore, Rushdie's books often feature magical realism and Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale. Both Midnight's Children and Slumdog Millionaire use some contrivances in order to make the protagonist's life match up with important historical events (in the case of Rushdie) or key trends and features of modern-day India (in the case of the movie). Indeed, both protagonists metaphorically represent India. Saleem Sinai was born at the moment of Indian independence, his nose is shaped like the Indian subcontinent, he is Hindu-born but Muslim-raised, etc. Jamal Malik, meanwhile, represents the way that contemporary Indians would like to see themselves: a good-hearted underdog whose street smarts and innate virtues, combined with Fortune's favor, will lead to success. The movie even takes care to point out that India's motto is "Truth alone triumphs," and that's exactly what happens in Jamal's story. Rushdie wrote his novel when India was at a low ebb, so Saleem goes from riches to rags; the opposite happens to Jamal.

Salman Rushdie is a very smart and witty man (and I speak from experience--he lectured at Vassar while I was there) who could provide a unique perspective on the movie that'll probably win Best Picture this year. So somebody get him to write about it, please! When publications like The New York Times Book Review hire famous authors to review the works of other authors, why is there nothing comparable for movie reviews?

Addendum: I just discovered that Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa jokingly call each other "The Three Musketeers." If you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, you know that this is just TOO apt. This convinces me: Salman, IT IS WRITTEN that you must review this film!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

IKEA for theater geeks

Ever see a production of Ibsen's classic Hedda Gabler and wish that Hedda and Eilert Løvborg, the ill-fated erstwhile lovers, didn't have to die at the end? Well, never fear: now they can be together--and in your bed--with the new "Hedda Löv" collection from IKEA.

Featuring an attractive botanical pattern inspired by the vine leaves that Hedda once pictured in Løvborg's hair, the Hedda Löv duvet will surely provoke everyone who walks into your bedroom to remark "Fancy, that Hedda!"

100% cotton and conveniently machine washable.*

*Bloodstains from shooting yourself with your father's old pistol probably will not wash out, however.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy (?) New Year

Outside, the shivering birds hop near;
Their wings are numb beneath the dark gray sky;
And New Year's Day, with all her foggy troop,
Dragging along the folds of her snowy gown,
Smiles through tears and, shivering, sings her song.
From "The Orphans' New Year" by Arthur Rimbaud (translation: Paul Schmidt)