Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Books

Here it is, my annual list of books I read this year (previous editions: 2008, 2007). I decided to start including plays, something I've never done before, which is one reason that this list has 10 more books on it than last year's does. (I counted plays according to how they're bound when published: therefore No Exit and Three Other Plays counts as one book, not four.) 2009 was my first full year out of school, so if I was going to change the listing procedure, this was obviously the year to do it.

Links go to previous blog posts, if I've already written about the book; I provide brief comments if I haven't.

1. Shopgirl, by Steve Martin (novella). Recommended.

2. Wise Children, by Angela Carter (novel). Recommended, particularly for theater types.

3. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (novel, 2nd read). Recommended.

4. The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer (novel). Mixed feelings: while the premise is interesting (if the same one as Benjamin Button), the execution felt belabored... not a success, though not dreadful.

5. A Dead Man’s Memoir, by Mikhail Bulgakov (unfinished novel). Mixed feelings.

6. Cleopatra’s Nose, by Judith Thurman (essays). Recommended.

7. A Night at the Opera, by Sir Denis Forman (opera reference). Mixed feelings--yes I know that my previous blog post reads more like a "Recommended" but now I am more annoyed than charmed by the cutesy opera summaries. What can I say, my aesthetic tastes are in flux. Forman's writing about the actual music of the operas, though, is still valuable.

8. Mating, by Norman Rush (novel). Recommended. It features a lot of the elements I love most in fiction: an interesting setting (postcolonial Botswana); a wry, self-aware narrator; a story about a smart loner woman falling in love with an unattainable man; astute writing about group behavior/psychology; words that I have to look up in the dictionary. Original and thought-provoking.

9. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, by Joan Acocella (essays). Highly recommended.

10. No Exit and Three Other Plays, by Jean-Paul Sartre (plays). Recommended. Of this collection, I was most intrigued by Dirty Hands, which is probably too long and talky to stage effectively, but makes for great reading. And No Exit is a classic. The other two plays in this volume are pretty tedious though.

11. Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia and Other Plays, by Tony Kushner (plays). Mixed feelings: this is minor Kushner, so while I'm a fan, and might suggest that fellow playwrights should take a look at this collection, it probably doesn't have much to offer the general reader.

12. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (novel). Mildly recommended: I picked it up because I'm an opera fan and it's a bestseller--and while it's solid, well-written fiction, it didn't amaze me, for whatever reason. I enjoyed it while reading it; but the best novels feel like they have deeper secrets to reveal, and this one doesn't.

13. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (novel, 2nd read). Highly recommended. So glad that I gave this book a second chance, and finally realized how heartwrenching it is. Perhaps it helped that I read it at a time when I was feeling hemmed in by Society, or at least by my job--because it is a very great book about compromises made and romantic ideals thwarted.

14. The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton (novel). Mixed feelings: while well-written and providing an interesting look at society and manners in the Gilded Age, it was a bit of a letdown after The Age of Innocence--episodic, and hard to care about the protagonist. Unusually for a novel by a female author, all the men come off better than the women.

15. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie (novel, 4th read?). Highly recommended: reading it as an adult, it's still inventive and delightful, but now the morals stand out a lot more. (this is the first fiction Rushdie published after the fatwa was declared). I bet this is the only children’s fantasy-adventure novel that features an attempted suicide bombing and a paragraph about the banality of evil!

16. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, by Cathy Davidson (memoir). Mixed feelings.

17. Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier (novel). Recommended: I basically agree with what Adam Gopnik writes in the intro to my Penguin Classics edition, that this is a young man's book and not all of it stands up to adult scrutiny, but its best parts are surprisingly beautiful, evocative and powerful.

18. Possession, by A.S. Byatt (novel, 2nd read). Highly recommended.

19. Le dieu du carnage, by Yasmina Reza (play). Recommended: though some people have dismissed this as a slick comedy, I actually got a chill when I read the last page and realized that I had seen human beings turn into animals before my eyes. Good writing there.

20. Timebends, by Arthur Miller (memoir). Mixed feelings.

21. Complete Short Fiction, by Oscar Wilde (short stories). Recommended. I tend to prefer the funny stories (see my post on "The Remarkable Rocket") but the sentimental ones serve to remind us that Wilde wasn't just a creator of aphorisms--he was more complex than that.

22. Nobody’s Perfect, by Anthony Lane (movie reviews and essays). Highly recommended.

23. N.P., by Banana Yoshimoto (novella). To be avoided.

24. Back Back Back, Celebrity Row, & Outrage, by Itamar Moses (plays). Very mixed feelings: Back Back Back is solid, Outrage is messy but fascinating, and Celebrity Row... Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I helped workshop an earlier draft of this play at JAW/West 2005, and I really prefer the earlier version.

25. Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb (novella). Recommended: a wry, witty, autobiographically inspired story of being a Westerner working for a big Japanese corporation. A quick read, fun.

26. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami (novel). Recommended. I don't know if I "got" the ending, or maybe its 600 pages are a little less than meets the eye. But it is a real page-turner, nearly made me faint on MUNI, and redeemed Japanese fiction for me after N.P., so I am left with a favorable impression overall.

27. Waiting for Lefty & Other Plays, by Clifford Odets (plays). Recommended, particularly Awake and Sing!

28. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (psychology/self-help). Recommended: an easy book to read and to agree with its ideas about what brings true happiness--the hard part is putting it into practice!

29. Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia (literary criticism). Recommended: this book is sui generis and sometimes totally off-the-wall, but that's what makes it engaging and thought-provoking. I didn't always enjoy it, much less agree with it, but I know that I'll return to it.

30. The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth (novel in verse). Recommended.

31. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (novel in letters). Mixed feelings. I read this because the complete review made it sound like the best thing ever; and while it is undoubtedly clever, it's also a little cutesy, and didn't nourish me the way that good fiction ought to.

32. Complete Stories, by Dorothy Parker (short fiction). Highly recommended.

33. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Stories, by Truman Capote (novellas). Recommended. (Here are my posts on the stories "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "A Diamond Guitar," but I also want to mention "A Christmas Memory," which is gorgeous.)

34. Dracula, by Bram Stoker (novel). Mixed feelings: this is one of those novels that you read more for its historical importance than for its inherent literary qualities. The epistolary structure meant that I liked it better than Frankenstein, though.

35. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace (essays). Highly recommended.

36. Sights and Spectacles, by Mary McCarthy (theater criticism). Mixed feelings: McCarthy proves that even in a theatrical golden age like mid-century America, there were lousy plays and contrarian theater critics, but she isn't very fun to read. And maybe she didn't know how to watch a play: her review of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't even mention Marlon Brando, and how is that possible?

37. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (novella). Recommended.

38. The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht (play with songs). Recommended: cynical, snide, and highly influential theater. I'm going to go see this in January!

39. Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (novella). Recommended, at least if you're a francophile and are fascinated by precocious youth (Sagan was 18 when this was published). This book feels like part of the same sensibility that produced Brigitte Bardot and the Nouvelle Vague.

40. The Meaning of Sunglasses, by Hadley Freeman (humorous fashion advice). Mixed feelings: the trouble with "humorous" books is that they're never as funny as they're billed. Freeman thinks she's being kooky and opinionated, but beneath the fun turns of phrase, most of her fashion advice just comes down to common sense.

41. Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht (play). Highly recommended. Perhaps Brecht's least "Brechtian" play, it is one of his easiest to feel real affection for (not just intellectual appreciation) and to be moved by. I plan to blog more about it next week.

42. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (novel). Recommended. Most surprising is how well Ishiguro writes about female adolescence and friendship. And how the book turns out to be an allegory for the human condition: hoping that art and love will save us, but knowing we cannot stave off the inevitable...

Even though I ended the year reading a bleak novel, I can't end this blog post on such a bleak note, so forgive me for also wanting to pat myself on the back for having read forty-odd issues of The New Yorker in addition to these forty-two books! Yes, I finally think I've figured out a method for keeping up with that magazine while also reading drama, literature, and non-fiction.

And I just bought way too many books at Powell's and in Vancouver over the holidays, so I look forward to reading them in 2010!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Northwest Passage

Quick note--tomorrow I am flying back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to spend about a week with my family. We are also planning to take a road trip to Vancouver BC for part of that time--my first visit there since I was five years old, so I am looking forward to it!

I don't know how much I'll be blogging--as you can tell, I'm a bit short of ideas these days, plus travel can always interfere. But at the very least, I'll try to post my annual run-down of all the books I read this year!

Happy holidays to you and yours.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Next Daniel Day-Lewis?

In 1986, Daniel Day-Lewis shot to Americans' attention when two of his early films, A Room With a View and My Beautiful Launderette, opened here on the same day. Critics and moviegoers marveled at his skill in playing two very different characters, a priggish Edwardian gentleman and a gay working-class punk.

And now I think I've just experienced something similar to what people felt when they discovered Daniel Day-Lewis. This week I caught up with two films that came out earlier this year, Inglourious Basterds and Hunger, which both feature a 32-year-old German-Irish actor named Michael Fassbender. And together they impressively showcase his talent.

In Basterds, Fassbender has a supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox, an Englishman who, in civilian life, was a film critic. Thanks to his knowledge of German language and cinema, Hicox is selected for the special mission of infiltrating a Nazi film premiere. Hicox's first scene is a very funny parody of every war movie that features stiff-upper-lip, dryly amused British officers who say things like "jolly good, old chap"--so it requires the actors to do a kind of stylized comedy. Fassbender speaks with a wonderful lazy, aristocratic drawl--Quentin Tarantino asked him to model his characterization on the young George Sanders.

Then comes an audacious Tarantino set-piece. Hicox has traveled to France, disguised himself as an SS officer, and gone to a basement tavern to meet with a contact. But he didn't anticipate that the tavern would be full of genuine Nazis--which sets up a half-hour-long scene revolving around the question "Will Hicox be found out?" The whole sequence is tense, involving, and smartly written. Hicox is fluent in German and an excellent bluffer, but the Nazis think his accent sounds suspicious...

Though I don't speak German, I tried listening for what was the matter with Hicox/Fassbender's pronunciation. And it sounded as though the lazy, drawling vowels of his English accent carried over to his German! If I heard right, then Fassbender has impressive accent skills.

There are a lot of memorable characters and performances in Inglourious Basterds (Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent) but Fassbender holds his own. It's analogous to Day-Lewis' work in A Room With a View--a good supporting role that shows he can play an upper-class character in a period film, be funny, and stand out in an ensemble cast.

Fassbender's work in Hunger, meanwhile, shows that he can do raw, serious, intensely Method acting--the kind of thing that people associate with, yep, Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie is about the 1981 hunger strike in a Belfast prison among imprisoned IRA fighters, led by Bobby Sands (Fassbender). We first see Sands being dragged from his cell and forcibly given a haircut and hose-down. He lashes out at the guards, kicking and slamming into them--like an animal trying to avoid the slaughterhouse. None of Lt. Hicox's suave manners here.

The first part of Hunger is a grim, nearly wordless evocation of prison life. But then there's a long scene where Sands tells his priest that he intends to lead the hunger strike. If you thought the long conversations in Inglourious Basterds were bold, this one is even bolder: it has barely any cuts! There's a 16.5-minute-long take of Sands and the priest arguing as they face each other across a table, then about a 5-minute-long close-up of Sands, delivering a monologue about an incident in his youth.

We take for granted that theater actors will have the skills to perform long scenes, but it always surprises us when movie actors do. Hunger was scripted by playwright Enda Walsh, and this scene, particularly the monologue, is very theatrical--it sounds like an Irish play, not like a movie. As an additional hurdle, the 16-minute shot is backlit, meaning you can barely see the actors' faces. They must communicate everything with their voices, gestures and posture.

Fassbender plays Sands with an Irish accent that I found a little hard to understand at first (his natural accent is Irish too, but much lighter), and emphasizes his character's single-minded determination. Toward the end of the scene, though, I found myself wondering "If he's so determined, why does he need to talk to the priest?" The priest's objective in this scene is clear--to persuade Sands not to starve himself--but what does Sands want? Then I realized that Sands wants a blessing, but he's too proud to ask for it. And just then, the conversation ended; the priest gets up from the table, saying simply, "Goodbye Bobby, I don't think I'll be seeing you again." "No, I guess you won't," says Sands. The camera lingers on him for a few more beats and, for the first time, a hint of doubt and vulnerability enters his eyes. Heartbreaking.

The last part of Hunger returns to near-wordlessness--Sands has no more dialogue, but it's still riveting, because now the movie is about the effects of a two-month-long hunger strike on the human body, and Fassbender starved himself down to about 130 lbs for these scenes. Like I said: intense commitment to the role. I don't think actors should win prizes just for gaining or losing weight, which is why in this writeup I focused on Fassbender's acting in other scenes, but it's undeniably compelling and frightening. I mean, it can't have been pleasant for him to lose the weight, but he was under medical supervision and never at risk of death--yet watching Hunger, you're sure you're seeing a man on death's doorstep.

So, after this, I have vowed to keep Michael Fassbender on my radar screen. It doesn't hurt that he is a handsome guy with a great smile (that didn't hurt Daniel Day-Lewis, either) but he's also got an incredible range.

Incidentally, the Toronto Film Critics' Association just announced that Hunger and Basterds tied for their Best Picture prize. If you couldn't tell, I highly recommend both movies. Both are unconventionally paced and structured. Both are full of moments and images that will stay with me for a long time. Quentin Tarantino has a showman's instincts and Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger, has an artist's eye. Tarantino leaves you exhilarated and drunk on movie love; McQueen leaves you shaken, stunned, and wrung-out (the only movie I can possibly compare with Hunger is The Passion of Joan of Arc). So I guess these movies represent two opposing ideas of what cinema can do--or maybe just two different flavors of art.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Boom," The Most-Produced Play in America

I'm being a lazy blogger, so you get another way-after-the-fact write-up of a play that is now closed. BUT! The play in question is boom, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, which just happens to be the most-produced play this year at American regional theaters--so it is obviously worthy of your attention, and if you live somewhere other than the Bay Area, there's a chance it might be coming soon to a theatre near you!

I was pretty impressed to learn that boom is 2009-10's most-produced play. Usually that honor goes to a recent Broadway hit that can be done with a small cast and limited budget--with extra credit if the play won the Pulitzer: Doubt, Proof, I Am My Own Wife. boom had a small New York production at Ars Nova in 2008, but that doesn't seem to have set the American theater world afire. Yet somehow, productions of it are springing up around the country.

I saw boom at Marin Theater Company--which added an extra layer to this feel-good story of the little play that could, because Nachtrieb* is a local writer who grew up in Marin County.

Nachtrieb admitted in the playbill that practical concerns obviously have a bearing on boom's popularity: it needs just three actors and one set. The nice thing about boom, however, is that its premise perfectly justifies the small cast and single location. These days there are a lot of "small-cast, one-set plays" that require all of the actors to play multiple roles and require the set to be a nondescript heap of platforms that can stand in for a dozen different locations. This is certainly a valid way of making theater, but it sometimes suggests that the playwright's vision has outstripped his limited budget and he has had to compromise in order to make his play "produceable." boom makes no such compromises.

At its most basic level, it's a variant on the old "two incompatible people trapped in a room together" situation. The characters are Jules, a scientist convinced that a giant comet is about to slam into Earth and annihilate the human species, and Jo, a college student, whom Jules lured into his reinforced bunker under false pretenses so that she can survive and help repopulate the earth. The problems? Jules is socially awkward, gay, and a virgin; Jo is sarcastic, hates babies, and has a mysterious medical condition. And then the comet does slam into Earth. And the real problems start.

That's also about the time that the structure gets more complex and the third character enters the play: Barbara, a middle-aged woman who periodically interrupts Jules and Jo's story to talk to the audience, treating us as though we are watching a presentation in a science museum. No longer is it just a "two people trapped in a room" play. There's a great twist at the end, which also affords directors and designers some intriguing possibilities for staging the play (i.e. how much do they want to telegraph the twist?). Most productions of a play like Doubt are going to look very similar to each other, but I could imagine two equally valid productions of boom that took very different approaches to the material.

With a set-up like this, boom is a very funny play (another reason that theater companies like it). But what I admire most about it is that it manages to go beyond being funny, or even being clever, and make a statement. Lots of people could write ninety minutes' worth of funny scenes between Jules and Jo, trapped in their science lab/bunker--it's a solid premise and the characters have a lot to argue about. But fewer writers would dare to do as Nachtrieb does, and end the play with a monologue that gently but sincerely states the theme. The monologue doesn't just wrap up the play--it expands the play and makes you realize that it is much more than a three-character drama. It makes you feel good, even a little awed, about being human and alive on this planet and the product of evolution. Sometimes I think writers these days are afraid of sincerity, afraid that people will make fun of them if they dare to suggest a moral to their story. So the ending of boom feels like a risk--and Nachtrieb pulls it off.

I went to see boom with a writer friend of mine who was trying to put together an entry for the STAGE Competition for plays about science and technology (the deadline was today--I hope he made it!). Afterward, we agreed that boom is an excellent example of a play about science and a good one to take as inspiration. And actually, I am in the middle of reading Brecht's Life of Galileo, perhaps the granddaddy of plays about science, and it is affecting me similarly to the way that boom did--making me grateful to live on this planet, and to be gifted with reason, curiosity, and confidence in science.

That boom's success has given me increased confidence in the programming choices of American regional theaters, however, is even better.

*I know people who know this guy. I sat two seats away from him at a show I went to earlier this fall and chatted with his brother. I'll probably meet him one of these days. So I feel weird referring to him as "Nachtrieb." But I'd also feel weird referring to him as "Peter." Oh, what to do? Should I get all initialey, like people do for David Foster Wallace, and start referring to him as PSN?

Photo from Marin Theater: Jules (Nicholas Pelczar) tells Jo (Blythe Foster) about his new theory.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nigerian Night

In the evenings I like to cook and eat dinner while watching the reruns of the previous night's Daily Show and Colbert Report. Last night, for the first time, Colbert featured a performance from a Broadway show: the cast of Fela!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fela! - Zombie
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Fela! is a musical about Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti. And as fate would have it, as I watched the Fela! performance today, I was cooking the only West African-style dish in my repertoire: the Minimalist's Peanut Soup with Chicken and Yams.

I very much recommend the recipe and it would certainly be good fuel for a night of shaking your hips to Afrobeat! And I think I'm going to call it "Fela Soup" from now on, because I'm a fan of giving recipes catchy/unique names, rather than ones that are just lists of ingredients.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"On Chesil Beach": Caught in a Bad Romance

Three years ago, The New Yorker's Winter Fiction issue printed a lengthy except from Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, which was about to be published. I eagerly looked forward to it; at the time, McEwan's Atonement was my favorite novel in the entire world.

Among the many virtues of Atonement is that it is one of the great love stories of modern literature, with one of the few sex scenes that doesn't seem like a candidate for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. As a bookish but secretly romantic teenager, I found the scene between Robbie and Celia in the library to be extremely seductive. It's not gratuitous, either--it has to be genuinely sexy in order for the novel to work.

So when The New Yorker advertised their Chesil Beach excerpt with some titillating tagline like "Ian McEwan narrates a 1960s wedding night," I secretly hoped for another Atonement-quality sex scene. Well, the joke was on me. As the very first sentence of On Chesil Beach proves, this is a story about bad sex, told in painstaking detail--an anti-erotic tale.

Last week I finally read On Chesil Beach in its entirety--it's a short work, 39 thousand words--and I can't help but feel that McEwan is deliberately repudiating his earlier novel. It would be a very typical thing for him to do--as Atonement proves, he's a master of pulling the rug out from underneath the reader. There are enough parallels between the lovers in Atonement and the lovers in Chesil Beach for me to think that McEwan expects the reader's memories of Atonement to provide a subtext for the events of Chesil. Both works are set in the past and teddibly English. In both cases, the characters having sex are just out of university. The girl is extremely virginal, the boy slightly (but only slightly) more experienced. The girl is from a cultivated upper-middle-class family; the boy is a working-class striver whose intelligence is his ticket to higher social status.

In a way, therefore, On Chesil Beach is McEwan performing an act of literary criticism on himself. "You were turned on by my sex scene in Atonement?" he seems to say. "Don't you realize that that was fiction and fantasy? Here's how it really would have happened."

Anyway, On Chesil Beach is a well-crafted anti-erotic narrative about the wedding night of Florence and Edward in an English seaside hotel. The central problem is that while Florence loves Edward, she is repelled by anything sexual (even French-kissing), and knows she is powerless to articulate her fear and disgust. Edward is aware that his bride hasn't liked physical affection, but he assumes it will all change now that they are married, and is eager to lose his own virginity. On that night, however, everything goes wrong in the worst possible way; from the start, the atmosphere in the chilly and antiseptic hotel room is one of unease.

McEwan fills out the novella with some flashbacks about how Florence and Edward first met, their respective upbringings, etc. I was not as fond of these parts--they are straight narration (the omniscient McEwan telling us "Edward's mother was like this" or "Florence's string quartet was like that") with little action or dialogue to enliven them. In these passages, the characters feel artificial, constructed to represent ideas about sexual attitudes and class divides in 1962. But Florence and Edward come to life whenever McEwan is describing their thoughts, feelings, and actions on that fateful wedding night. (Similarly, I tend to think that the best parts of Mad Men are when the writers explore and deepen the characters' relationships, not when they go "Oh my god, the '60s!") Their conversation on the beach toward the end of the novella, in which almost every line of dialogue has either Florence or Edward saying the worst possible thing they could say at that moment, is especially well done. Atonement is about one big, horrible lie that ruins a life; On Chesil Beach is about how lives can also be ruined by an accumulation of little mistakes.

At first there seems to be no explanation for Florence's sexual unresponsiveness, but eventually the narrator hints that Florence's father abused her when she was younger. (I wasn't just imagining this, either: according to a recent New Yorker profile of McEwan, this was even more blatant in earlier drafts.) Not sure I agree with this choice; it seems so pat, like a diagnosis. I think I'd be more interested in reading about a woman whose fear and abhorrence of sex wasn't linked to childhood trauma--at any rate, that would be more original. This also means that the narrator is unreliable or disingenuous: the first line of On Chesil Beach says "they were both virgins," but maybe Florence isn't a virgin, right? And if we can't trust the first sentence, can we trust anything else the omniscient narrator says--though he seems so perfectly candid?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Requiem for the 4-Sutter

MUNI, San Francisco's transit agency, has just had to make some very severe cutbacks and today it eliminated several bus routes. So I thought I would take a moment to say some words in honor of one of the dearly departed buses, my favorite bus in the whole city: the 4-Sutter.

I don't ride the 4 anymore; living in the Inner Sunset, my lifeline is the train, the N-Judah. But during my first four months in San Francisco, I lived on Sutter Street, and quickly discovered how the #4 could take me downtown in comfort and style.

Everyone knows about the California Street bus (three blocks north of Sutter); everyone knows about the Geary Street bus (two blocks south of Sutter); but the buses that run along Sutter itself seem to be the city's best-kept secret. Though part of their route goes through the Tenderloin, they are the cleanest, least smelly buses in town, and I can't once remember encountering loud or weird people on the #4.

So the 4-Sutter and its companion bus, the 2-Clement, felt like my little secret. Imagine, I had only just moved to San Francisco and I already had discovered one of its hidden gems! My delight only grew when, after a month, I got hired at an office downtown and discovered that the terminus of the 4-Sutter was right outside of my office building! After work, the 4 could take me all the way out to Green Apple Books for some browsing, and then back to my apartment on Sutter Street--the three most important places in my life, all on one bus line and for the price of a monthly MUNI pass. This was urban living at its finest.

(The 2-Clement, I should note, lives on, but it's not as good as the 4 because its route is longer, and therefore it gets more crowded. Also, some of the buses that run along it are the horrible newfangled kind with the uneven floors. It will take you to where the 4-Sutter went--which is the reason that MUNI has no remorse about eliminating the 4--but it won't be the same.)

San Francisco is a compact and not particularly scary city--if I had moved to New York I would have had some moments where I felt that the city was going to eat me alive, but I've never felt that way about S.F. All the same, it's never easy to move to a new city and learn to make your way around it, especially if you have led a largely suburban existence prior to that.

So, rest in peace, 4-Sutter Bus. You made life a little easier for a young woman just starting off in this glorious city, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Films of 2001

I wrote the other day, "I think 2001 is the year I became aware that movies could be art and not just entertainment." And specifically, I think three films that came out that year are what did the trick.

The first, and most important, was Moulin Rouge, which came out in June. (I was almost fourteen--the perfect age to go completely nuts for it.) I already loved musicals, but I had never seen one like this. I thought it was brilliant, dazzling, enthralling... in fact, it was so important to me that I am having a hard time blogging about it. Suffice it to say that I may have seen it more times than any other movie, because it's the first DVD I ever owned-- i.e., it's the movie that spurred my parents to buy a DVD player the following Christmas. I love it in a way that surpasses explanation, and you'll just have to believe that this movie is part of me.

Last week, I rewatched Moulin Rouge for probably the fifteenth time. Then a few days later, I rewatched The Royal Tenenbaums for the first time since it came out at Christmas of 2001--and that's what got me thinking along these lines in the first place. As I wrote a few days ago, I loved Tenenbaums when I saw it in the theater, though I couldn't really explain why at the time. But now, I think it's because (like Moulin Rouge) it was so original, and so clearly an aesthetic experience.

The third of these movies, also released at Christmas of 2001, was Amélie. I've seen that one an intermediate number of times--maybe three or four. It's actually the first French movie I ever saw. A bit of a cliché, I know... and indeed, Amélie has been criticized for pandering to cliché notions of "Frenchness" instead of providing a more complex, less nostalgic view of Paris. But, just like Baz Luhrmann's Montmartre and Wes Anderson's New York, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Paris is a fantasy world.

So in the span of a few weeks at the end of 2001, I was watching Moulin Rouge repeatedly on my new DVD player (I loved all the special features!) and seeing The Royal Tenenbaums and Amélie. While I didn't make note of it at the time, that had to have had an impact on me.

These three movies all fall into different genres, have different thematic concerns, etc., but at the same time, something seems to link them. They are all obsessively made, and obsessively stamped with their director's personality. All three directors pay great attention to the formal and aesthetic elements of their films: controlling the costumes, sets, cinematography, even the color palette! They create their own worlds: you can say "Anderson" or "Luhrmann" or "Jeunet" and picture exactly the kinds of movies that each man makes. These films are the work of fanatics.

Did I love these movies because they spoke to something that was already in my soul, or did they mold me into the person I am today? That's perhaps the most important question, but I can't answer it. However, if the only thing you knew about me is that, at the age of fourteen, I loved Moulin Rouge, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Amélie, you'd probably be able to paint an accurate portrait of my personality now, eight years later. From my love of these movies, you could predict that I am a romantic. An aesthete. A lover of beauty. An auteurist. A francophile. An idealist, a fantasist, an escapist. An admirer of cleverness and audacity, but only when combined with a sentimental heart. You might even predict that I'd become a writer myself (note that both Moulin Rouge and Tenenbaums feature characters who are playwrights!).

And also, because these three movies taught me that artists could become known for their voice and style, they might have contributed to my becoming a writer. In 2001, I enjoyed writing, but I worried about my lack of ability to come up with interesting and unique stories. That's what I thought writers did: construct plots. I was reading a lot of fantasy literature at the time, and thought I liked it because it always had an exciting and fast-paced plot.

But these three movies are distinguished by their style, not their story. Moulin Rouge has a clichéd plot, and knows it, and therefore it puts it onstage and strings it with sequins and makes it sing and dance. The Royal Tenenbaums is a dysfunctional-family dramedy--a well-worn genre. But, love it or hate it, it's a lot more memorable than dozens of other dysfunctional-family dramedies, because of its unique style. Amélie is a series of anecdotes and character sketches that hangs together only because everyone is so charming and so darn French. So these movies might have made me subconsciously begin to realize that plot isn't the most important thing. (I also began to understand that I loved fantasy novels not for their plots, but for the worlds they created.) Voice, mood, style, soul is what I look for in art.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NaBloPoMo PostMortem

Well, with this post, I've accomplished it. A post a day for thirty days. So, let's finish up this blogging experiment with some thoughts on whether it succeeded and what I may have learned from it.

I can mentally divide my NaBloPoMo posts into three categories: those that I would have written anyway, those that I might not have written otherwise but were fun to work on or nicely expand the scope of my blog, and those that are ridiculous nonsense slapped up for the sake of fulfilling my goal. So the biggest conclusion I have drawn from the experience is that, while "writing every day generates excellence," writing something every day for public consumption is far too stressful. This month I came across an interview clip where Tony Kushner says, "The thing that all writers must say to themselves, to start writing, is, 'Nobody ever has to see this thing. I can throw it away, I'm alone with it, no one has to know what an idiot I really am. I can burn it! If it doesn't work, if it really sucks, I can just pretend that it never happened.' But directors can't do that."

How apt, I thought. Because, if directors can't do that, neither can bloggers. As Kushner implies, what makes blogging so weird is that it is the world's first instantaneously public kind of writing. Writing has always been lonely and hard; now, in addition to that, it offers an easy way of embarrassing yourself in public!

I never created a blog mission statement or anything, but I do have a sense of what are and are not topics for marissabidilla, and some general guidelines like "don't get too personal." I don't think I crossed any of my boundaries in the course of these thirty days, but I definitely felt that, if you're under such intense pressure to generate a post a day, it would be really easy to slip up, to reveal more of yourself than you'd want to reveal if you were thinking clearly.

And, like I said, daily blogging was not always fun. For instance, on Saturday 11/14, I was having an evening out (Playwrights' Pub Night) and knew I needed to post something before I left my house. But I seemed to have no good ideas, and almost panicked, and by the time I managed to put something up, that meant that I'd be late to Pub Night.

Or, on Sunday 11/8, I had several good ideas for long posts, but insufficient time to write them. I was finding it very hard to think of an idea for a short post, and I wanted to get the day's blogging over with quickly, so I could enjoy the Mad Men finale in peace. So when I overheard French Guys #1 and 2 going into their riff on "Barefoot in the Park," I said a silent prayer of thanks to the blog gods that this conversation--a perfect marissabidilla topic--had taken place and I could just transcribe it!

This monthlong experiment has given me newfound respect for people who can maintain a high-quality blog while posting every day. (Especially the people who can post every day and still find the time for other, non-blog, creative endeavors. How do they do it?) But it has made me realize that I, personally, need a slower blogging-rhythm, and that there is no shame in that. In that sense, though my playwriting has languished this month, I do believe that NaBloPoMo has been valuable for me, teaching me something about myself and my blogging philosophy. I've had this blog for almost 2 1/2 years and got into a bit of a rut in August/September, so maybe it made sense to swing the pendulum in the other direction for November. And I'd probably recommend an experiment like this to other people who've been blogging for about as long as I have or who need a bit of a kick-start.

But don't expect me to keep this up and don't expect me to do it again next year.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Wes Anderson Weekend

I just had a Wes Anderson weekend. Not in the sense of dealing with family dysfunction, listening to a lot of '60s pop music, or arranging my room so that it is perfectly symmetrical--but in the more literal sense of watching The Royal Tenenbaums last night and Fantastic Mr. Fox today.

I hadn't seen Tenenbaums since it came out, when I was fourteen. I really liked it at the time, for reasons that I could not quite articulate, and was curious whether it held up. Furthermore, in the past eight years, I have become more aware both of Wes Anderson's aesthetic and of the classic filmmakers who have influenced him. I know now to look out for Anderson's camera movements, his throwaway jokes, the things that happen at the edges of his carefully composed shots.

I guess that when I first saw Tenenbaums, I liked it because it was different from anything else I'd seen--2001, I think, is the year I became aware that movies could be art and not just entertainment. But now, as a semi-cinephile who watches movies very differently from the way I watched them when I was 14, I got more out of The Royal Tenenbaums, and I think I connected to it more deeply. I felt more in tune with the deadpan performances, and was more saddened by the moment when Ritchie tries to kill himself (though, at the same time, more aware of the sheer weirdness of the images: the sink filled with blood and hair-clippings). I also remember that my parents didn't like Tenenbaums because they were squicked out by the quasi-incest plotline, while at the time I accepted it with a fourteen-year-old's logical equanimity: "Margot is adopted... so who cares?" Now, I know that it's more complex than that; even though Margot and Ritchie aren't related by blood, they were raised together, and that does make things kind of weird.

As for Fantastic Mr. Fox, there's nothing sad or squicky about it--it's an absolute delight. I was hooked from the first sequence, where Mr. and Mrs. Fox sneak into a farmyard and, in a superb tracking shot, scurry around various obstacles to get to the chicken coop, while the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" plays.

These fantastic foxes are surprisingly expressive. Maybe it's because their angular, bony bodies are based on human proportions rather than vulpine ones. Or maybe it's because they're so wonderfully tactile, with their real rippling fur and bright porcelain eyes. In contrast, the characters of this year's other stop-motion animated film, Coraline, are smooth and hard, almost the way that computer animation is smooth and hard. And, while I admired Coraline as a technical achievement, it did not charm and captivate me in the way that Mr. Fox did.

Anderson invited George Clooney and Meryl Streep--who might be two of the coolest people in Hollywood--to voice the title character and his wife. Excellent choices. Mr. Fox, being a cocky and clever paterfamilias, reminds me of Clooney's character in O Brother Where Art Thou, which is probably my favorite Clooney role. And Streep's voice work makes you wonder how much of her success is due to her voice's gentle, fluting timbre.

While Tenenbaums is all about symmetrically composed shots and deadpan acting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is much more about the pleasures of kinetic movement. Several sequences seem designed just to push the technical limits of stop-motion animation. Whether it's dozens of squirrels helping the Foxes move into their new home, or Mr. Fox's heists and ambushes, or a tracking shot of all the animals cooking a feast, there is dazzling stuff here. All done with the utmost precision--but without preciousness.

I haven't read Roald Dahl's original novel, but I suspect he might have put more emphasis on the villains, three poultry farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Gleeful nastiness was one of Dahl's favorite themes, but it isn't one of Anderson's. He's much more fascinated by the opportunity to create a detailed world for the animals: their tailored clothes, their paintings and newspapers, their Quidditch-like game called "whack-bat." (The best thing he does with the villains is a visually clever sequence introducing the three of them.) And, though the Foxes aren't full-fledged Wes Anderson neurotics, they show some complexity and emotion. The story starts because Mr. Fox has a midlife crisis; his wife mingles love and exasperation; their son resents his popular cousin. And just when things threaten to get too heavy... bam! there's another phenomenal setpiece.

I was quite proud of myself for recognizing that some of the music in Fantastic Mr. Fox came from François Truffaut's Day for Night, one of my favorite movies. Day for Night is very precisely made, very controlled, very aware that it is a film--and yet it manages to be filled with such joy and vitality. The same description applies to Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sixty-Nine Essays and Two Authors

By now it should be obvious that I am completely obsessed with The New Yorker. Earlier in the year I suffered a form of New Yorker-related madness, where I thought that if I could just read every article that has been published in the magazine, I would possess "all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." (Oh, to become a cyborg and download the complete New Yorker archives into my brain!) So I began buying and reading collections of essays by New Yorker writers. Yes, despite the fact that the infamous Half-Read Pile of back issues is building up on my bedroom floor... and despite knowing that, as a subscriber, I can access the complete archives of The New Yorker for free on my computer.

(All the same, even though I could have read these essays for free rather than paying $15 or so for a paperback, I do think that books are more convenient... and also, to plunge too deeply into the New Yorker Digital Archive is dangerous...)

Anyway, I started off by reading essay collections by two female writers currently on staff at the magazine: Cleopatra's Nose by Judith Thurman and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella. Thurman's favorite topics include fashion designers, femininity and power, and anything French. (She reminds me a lot of a French teacher I had in college, whose area of study involved "reclaiming" for serious inquiry topics that men have historically dismissed as too frivolous and girly.) Acocella, the New Yorker dance critic, writes about choreographers and dancers, but also about books and authors, many of them European. In the introduction to her book, she notes that the essays are tied together by the theme of how her favorite artists overcame challenges and managed to keep going.

The heart of Thurman's book are her essays on the great fashion designers of the 20th century--Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, etc. These make wonderful introductions to some very important figures; it is otherwise difficult to find good information on fashion history without shelling out $60 for some coffee-table book from Rizzoli. (Magazines like Vogue aren't educational because they assume that their readers all grew up in Park Avenue apartments and learned about fashion design from playing dress-up in Mommy's Chanel suits.) I returned to Thurman's Yves Saint Laurent essay after seeing the YSL exhibit at the De Young and her Chanel essay after seeing Coco Before Chanel. Not only does she recount each designer's history in the impeccably fact-checked New Yorker way, she also makes some interesting observations: for instance, that because Elsa Schiaparelli grew up an Italian aristocrat, she had the freedom to make kooky and surreal clothes, but because Coco Chanel grew up poor in the French provinces, she knew that her designs had to be impeccably tasteful.

Other good things in Thurman's book include the opening essay, a jaw-dropping profile of the artist Vanessa Beecroft; her essay on Leni Riefenstahl, which provides a fascinating new perspective on the issue of whether Riefenstahl can be considered a great filmmaker; and her reviews of the now-classic novels Possession and Beloved. Still, there is a good deal of filler in Thurman's book too, with several essays that are reviews of Fashion Week collections, which are of limited interest several years after the fact.

Acocella's book is more of a piece--it's not padded with short, ephemeral dance-review pieces the way that Thurman's is padded with fashion reviews. Her thoughtful essays on dancers and choreographers seem to cover most major 20th-century dance-world personalities except for Balanchine (though Balanchine gets touched on in several essays, such as the one about Suzanne Farrell). Acocella's account of Martha Graham's long career and the fight over the intellectual property rights to her dances is absolutely riveting. Just as I didn't know much about fashion history before reading Cleopatra's Nose, I didn't know much about dance history before reading Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, and again appreciated the education. I also really enjoyed Acocella's essays on literature and authors; for example, her Dorothy Parker piece was one of the things that inspired me to pick up Parker's Complete Stories last month.

Sometimes The New Yorker gets accused of having a single "house style" for its authors, but Acocella's and Thurman's voices are different and distinctive. Thurman strikes me as more self-conscious than Acocella, more in love with hearing herself talk. Her style is dense and aphoristic; Acocella's is lucid and expository. Thurman has more individual sentences that you want to quote, but with Acocella you are more likely to remember the thrust of the argument.

I should also note that Acocella's book is more handsomely produced, with a black-and-white photo decorating every chapter and a thorough index in the back. Because Thurman's style is so dense with references to other artists, it is frustrating that her book lacks an index. (I even took a pen and annotated the table of contents so I'd remember what the subject of each essay was--and I hardly ever write in my books.)

So I guess that Acocella's book wins over Thurman, if you had to pick just one; but I have returned frequently to both of these essay collections since I read them circa last February/March, and know that I'll continue to do so in future. Both have introduced me to some wonderful artistic personalities and offered fresh insights on artists that I was already familiar with. I love these kinds of books! I love The New Yorker! Come on and fill up my brain!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Matilda, Ma-Ma-Matilda

Am thinking of going to see Fantastic Mr. Fox this weekend, more out of cinephilia/Wes Anderson fandom than out of childhood nostalgia, because I don't recall ever reading that book when I was little. I read a lot of other Roald Dahl books, though, and my all-time favorite is definitely Matilda. Its title character might just be the first member of my pantheon of smart-girl heroines--how could I not love it?

Matilda is a five-year-old child prodigy, born into an awful family (used-car-salesman dad, television-obsessed mom) and attending a school where the principal is the sadistic, power-mad Miss Trunchbull. The story is about how Matilda gets revenge, first with a series of clever pranks on her family and then, after discovering that she has telekinetic powers, by mentally moving objects to impersonate the ghost of Miss Trunchbull's dead brother. Revenge/comeuppance is a frequent theme in Roald Dahl and I think children find it very satisfying. When I was a kid, I loved stories of horrifically nasty people getting their just deserts--not only Matilda, but also, say, the way the evil headmistress in A Little Princess is finally punished.

Matilda's parents, meanwhile, are the sort of characters that make you realize that the Dursley family, of Harry Potter, is directly descended from Roald Dahl's villains. But J.K. Rowling softens things by saying "it's OK, the Dursleys aren't Harry's real family; he had wonderful parents who loved him, but unfortunately they're dead"--which plays into the childhood fantasy of thinking that your parents aren't really your parents, that you must be adopted, a long-lost prince or princess, etc. Dahl is having none of that. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are Matilda's real parents, and that's what makes them even worse than the Dursleys.

As for Matilda's telekinetic powers, they arise because she is not being challenged in school (the Trunchbull forbids her to skip a grade) and thus has a lot of excess mental energy built up, which she learns how to channel to make small objects move. After the Trunchbull's defeat, when Matilda moves to the appropriate grade level, her powers fade away.

Now, I first read Matilda when I was probably five years old, and knew that I wasn't being appropriately challenged in kindergarten (I ended up skipping first grade)... and I admit that I wondered whether I, too, might not have developed telekinetic powers! I definitely had a few afternoons of imitating Matilda by sitting on the end of my bed and trying to move the objects on my bureau using my mind.

And then when I skipped from kindergarten to second grade, I ended up with a teacher who looked as sweet as Miss Honey (Matilda's kindhearted kindergarten teacher) but was really a Trunchbull in disguise... but that's a story for another day.

By the way, early in the novel, Roald Dahl includes a list of the books that Matilda's friendly librarian gives her to read after she finishes reading all of the children's books at her local library. They are:
  • Great Expectations
  • Nicholas Nickleby
  • Oliver Twist
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  • Gone to Earth
  • Kim
  • The Invisible Man
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Good Companions
  • Brighton Rock
  • Animal Farm
  • The Red Pony
I've read five of them... how about you?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Casanova": Who Writes Your Screenplays?

I spent Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in the East Bay. After dinner (the basics like turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, plus a dish of creamed peas and pearl onions--a tres Midwestern contribution from my Minnesotan uncle) we watched the Casanova film that came out a few years ago, starring Heath Ledger. My aunt is very proud of our Italian heritage and loves any kind of costume drama with Venetian vistas; plus, knowing that we won't get any more Heath Ledger movies makes his whole filmography seem precious.

But I wasn't really crazy about Casanova. I guess I wanted Casanova to be like Don Giovanni--an unrepentant rake and lady-killer--but this film version removes his edginess and complexity. He is always likable, as chivalrous as a seducer can possibly be, and despite his reputation, we don't see him juggle many lovers. Instead, the movie says that Casanova just needed to find the one woman that was meant for him, and then he'd instantly go monogamous. Meanwhile, the woman (Francesca, played by Sienna Miller) is supposed to appeal to a modern-day audience because she pretends to be a dutiful daughter, but secretly she's feisty and fights in duels and writes proto-feminist pamphlets and disguises herself as a man. But all of this feels so calculated to appeal to us, and so anachronistic considering that the movie takes place in 1750, that it annoys me. Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean that I want every movie to contain a spunky feminist role model. Instead, I want female characters to be believable according to the setting of the film, and Francesca is not.

When I got home, I looked up the original New York Times review of Casanova. A.O. Scott liked it lots more than I did--but he also revealed something interesting: Tom Stoppard evidently did an uncredited rewrite of the Casanova script!

It's funny what learning something like that can do. I had thought that Casanova was a mediocre romp with nice costumes, suitable for watching in a Thanksgiving haze of triptophan and wine, but not deserving of any futher consideration. But now, knowing that one of my favorite playwrights had a hand in the script, I wished I'd paid it more attention. Could I have detected a "Stoppard touch" in any of the scenes? None of the dialogue struck me as that great on first hearing, but rereading it on the IMDB quotes page, could I hear a hint of Stoppard in some of the sillier jokes? And was Stoppard's contribution more about giving the dialogue a witty sheen, or did it extend to fixing problems of plot and character? Because despite his script-doctoring, Casanova still has one-dimensional characters and a contrived, mechanistic plot. The film even contains elementary screenwriting mistakes like naming one character "Victoria" and a completely unrelated character "Vittorio"--couldn't someone have changed one of those names?

There is a moment at the end of Casanova that I'd like to think is a Stoppard contribution--or maybe it's from Jeffrey Hatcher, another playwright who worked on the screenplay. Casanova and Francesca are rescued from the Inquisition's clutches by a troupe of traveling players, who express hope that the young lovers will join the acting company. Francesca gives the head of the troupe an appraising look and says "Who writes your plays?"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Things I Want to Arrive Now, Dammit

Because tomorrow may be devoted to gratitude but today one is still allowed to be greedy and impatient...
  • Movies: Broken Embraces, Me and Orson Welles. A.O. Scott has developed a bad habit of giving rave reviews to movies that aren't open in my city yet.
  • Newspapers/magazines/saviors of the printed word: McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama. So looking forward to this!
  • Abstract qualities: Inspiration, imagination, willpower, gumption, etc.
  • And most importantly: The end of the month, so that I no longer have to write a blog post every day! (Can you tell I'm frustrated?)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Theatre Links, November 24

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Mystery of the "Impact" Channel

I'm planning to sign up for Netflix, but for the past ten months or so, I've subsisted off of whatever movies Comcast offers free on-demand. And while I've seen some good things this way--classics like Tom Jones, indie films like Metropolitan--most of the free movies don't appeal to me at all. Many of them are offered under a channel called Impact, which seems designed to attract the "typical 18-to-34-year-old male" that advertisers always crave. A partnership between Comcast and MGM, Impact is "the first video-on-demand channel dedicated exclusively to action movies." And this means, frankly, that it shows a lot of schlock.

That's why it's so odd that twice in the last month, I have begun watching a free Comcast movie, only to see a "brought to you by Impact" logo. And neither one is an obvious candidate for an "action movies for dudes" channel--they're both campy '60s comedies, Viva Maria! and What's New Pussycat? There aren't even any action scenes in Pussycat, unless you count the farce/slapstick sequence where all the characters chase each other around a hotel and zoom away in go-karts.

Not that these movies are great cinema, but they star more talented actors than most of the schlocky action films that Impact shows, and were made by more interesting people. Pussycat was Woody Allen's first screenplay and it is fascinating to see his humor in embryonic form... but I don't think his gags about psychoanalysis would appeal to the crowd that Impact is aiming for. And though Viva Maria! is pure fluff, it was directed by the talented Louis Malle--it's a shame Comcast showed it in pan-and-scan format, because the widescreen cinematography looked interesting. Well, at least they didn't dub it; they left it in subtitled French. That surprised me, though, because doesn't the "typical 18-to-34-year-old male" hate subtitles?

The funniest part is how Impact tries to promote these movies to its target demographic. Before the movie starts, a screen lists the "action elements" you'll see in the upcoming film. But here, Impact really has to stretch the definition of "action element": the promo for What's New Pussycat? listed "Excessive Partying" and "Hot French Girls." This seems like a desperate attempt to make the movie sound exciting and scandalous--I mean, it probably was titillating in the '60s, but to a modern audience, it's practically wholesome family entertainment! Especially when the Comcast customer who's looking for sex or violence could so easily flip to one of the much trashier movies that Impact offers free.

Maybe I'm being unfair; maybe Impact's target audience likes campy '60s films. The Austin Powers movies made lots of money spoofing this kind of thing, right? All the same, I can't help feeling that I have an unnaturally high tolerance for '60s silliness and that it's an acquired taste. I'm happy to have seen these movies, but does Impact know that I couldn't care less about "action elements"--and that I'm a not-so-typical 18-to-34-year-old female?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Vertigo Era

San Francisco 1958 from Jeff Altman on Vimeo.

Old Super-8 home movies of San Francisco in 1958--the year that Vertigo came out. Beautiful and fascinating time capsule. Amazing to see the skyline sans Transamerica Pyramid and Embarcadero Tower buildings!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Tiny Kushner": Angels, Therapists, Politics & Hitler

Five short plays make up the Tiny Kushner program at Berkeley Rep, and I think I had read all of them, at various times, before seeing them last weekend. Two of the plays, "Flip Flop Fly" and "A Shrink in Paradise," were commissioned by the New York Times Magazine for their annual "The Lives They Lived" issue. They came out when I was in high school and I remember going nuts for them--or, more precisely, for what they represented. I thought it was awesome that these short plays stood alongside the nonfiction essays that filled the rest of the magazine! And they were Kushnerian plays too--crazy and imaginative and language-drunk.

But you know, these plays weren't written to be performed, and they suffer somewhat when put onstage. "Flip Flop Fly" dramatizes a meeting--on the moon, after death--between eccentric American singer Lucia Pamela and deposed queen Geraldine of Albania. These women both led fascinating lives, but too much of the play consists of having them shout their biographies at each other. That's fine in a magazine, but not in the theater. The point of the play is that Lucia symbolizes American gumption and optimism and Geraldine symbolizes tragic European decadence, which is clever enough, but not dramatic--if these characters are both symbols and both dead, how much real conflict can there be? Berkeley Rep's staging of this piece concluded with an amusing song-and-dance routine, Lucia moving like a loose-limbed hoofer and Geraldine as though goose-stepping.

"A Shrink in Paradise" is another after-death play, imagining Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, Richard Nixon's shrink, being counseled by Metatron the Recording Angel (who evidently moonlights as an analyst). It runs into the same problem as "Flip Flop Fly": these characters are not sufficiently dynamic and dramatic. Also, it feels like Kushner is repeating himself. There was already a play, earlier in the evening, that took place in a therapist's office, with the same actors playing therapist and patient. It's yet another Kushner play that involves angels and takes place in a metaphysical realm. The big dramatic payoff is a comparison of Nixon to Hitler, but the big payoff of Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day is a comparison of Reagan and Hitler, so at some point, you want to say "Lay off the Hitler comparisons, Tony!"

Thankfully, in the final play of the evening, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy"--the play where Laura Bush reads to the dead Iraqi children--Kushner resists the temptation to compare G.W. Bush to Hitler. All the same, it's another play with an angel in it, and another play that presents a basically static situation, intended to rouse our liberal guilt and protest the Iraq War... it's agitprop, not theater.

The other two plays of the evening aren't available online but you can find them in the collection of minor Kushner works called Death & Taxes. "Terminating," about a gay man who thinks he's in love with his lesbian analyst (and doesn't that sound like a bad Woody Allen joke?) has the characters say a lot of quotable Kushnerian things, but the language gets so dense that I don't know what the point of the play is.

So in the end, the only play that really came off well was "East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis"--in which Kushner writes à la Anna Deavere Smith, a series of short monologues spoken by diverse characters, all meant to be played by the same actor. Based on a true story, this play is about a bunch of NYC city employees who get in touch with a crazy right-winger to learn how to cheat the tax code and claim that paying income tax is illegal. While it deals with political themes, it's not a hit-you-over-the-head-and-make-you-feel-guilty play like "Only We Who Guard the Mystery." The monologues are engaging and fast-paced, and actor Jim Lichtscheidl transitions effortlessly between all of the characters he plays. And again, Kushner's prescience can stun an audience: this play was written in 2000 or earlier, but the address of the right-wing group's website is The city employees' scheme got discovered and duly punished, but it is disheartening to realize that this anti-tax ideology has only spread...

The bare-bones staging further prevented these plays from coming alive: despite Berkeley Rep's ample resources, scenery was minimal and the actors wore the same costumes throughout. (I was rather impressed with the dark-red satin pantsuit worn by Kate Eifrig: she plays Queen Geraldine, Esther the NYC psychoanalyst, Metatron, and Laura Bush, and somehow her costume works for all of those characters.) All stage directions are read aloud, rather than interpreted; sometimes these are useful, as in "East Coast Ode," but sometimes very obtrusive. In "Only We Who Guard the Mystery," when the Iraqi children open their mouths to talk, Kushner writes that the only sound we hear is "the bird-music from Messiaen's opera St. François d'Assise." Hearing this stage direction read aloud, the audience feels stupid for not knowing their Messiaen, whereas if the sound-op had simply played the music, we wouldn't feel stupid and we'd hear what Kushner had really desired. For, while Kushner intends to make us feel liberal-guilty, I don't think he intends to make us feel stupid.

Photo: Valeri Mudek as Lucia Pamela and Kate Eifrig as Queen Geraldine.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Madness & Absurdity

MARY: Elizabeth and Donald are too over the moon to hear me, so I can let you in on a secret. Elizabeth is not Elizabeth and Donald is not Donald. [...] In spite of the extraordinary coincidences which seem rock solid, Donald and Elizabeth, not being parents of the same child, are not Donald and Elizabeth. He can fancy he's Donald; she can fancy she's Elizabeth. He can fancy she's Elizabeth and she can fancy he's Donald, but both are sadly deluded. Then who is the real Donald, you ask? And who is the real Elizabeth? It beats me. I say we drop this whole affair and leave things as they are.
--Mary's monologue from The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco (trans. Tina Howe)

Photo: Mad Men, season 3. Donald "Don" Draper fancies he's Donald and his wife is Elizabeth; Elizabeth "Betty" Draper fancies she's Elizabeth and her husband is Donald; both are sadly deluded.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Bald Soprano": Comme C'est Absurde et Quelle Production

The Bald Soprano at Cutting Ball Theater (San Francisco's specialists in absurdism) has just been extended until mid-December! I saw the play tonight, and thought that I would have to blog about it in my typical "it's-great-but-it's-closing-sorry-I-didn't-see-it-sooner" fashion. But then I learned of the extension--so, congrats to Cutting Ball for a great start to their 10th anniversary season, and as for the rest of you--now's your chance to get tickets to the added performances before they sell out!

Being an absurdist play--lots of non sequitur dialogue, few stage directions--The Bald Soprano is very open to directorial interpretation. I've heard of productions that fill it with vaudeville-type gags or ones that turn it into a parody of English people and customs. It seemed that one of the goals of the Cutting Ball production was to strip away several of these "conceptual" layers and just let the text and the humor come through. I mean, of course the director, Rob Melrose, put his own ideas into it (he is also responsible for the new translation) but the stage was painted a flat yellow-orange, there weren't any props, there was no attempt to suggest "England."

It's funny: even though the text is so absurd and should offer no clues as to when the play takes place, it still seems a product of the 1950s--and it couldn't take place in the present day. In one scene, the Smiths' doorbell keeps ringing, but when someone gets up and answers the door, no one is there. It is interesting that Mr. Smith justs assumes that Mrs. Smith will answer the door, because she is a woman and the hostess--and he gets offended when Mrs. Smith suggests that he should do it himself. Perfect 1950s gender roles, in other words. It's weird how much of this kind of thing gets revealed in a text that is supposedly "meaningless." But then, The Bald Soprano was always meant to present a skewed version of our society and the language we use (as opposed to a fantasy of a completely different universe), so no wonder the mores of the time it was written show up in its subtext...

I liked how the actors found the subtext they needed, too, and how each of them created a distinct comic persona. Mrs. Smith the perky hostess, capable of saying any of Ionesco's dialogue with a straight face; Mr. Smith more voluble than his wife, jumping on furniture in frustrated bourgeois rage; Mrs. Martin the nervous younger woman, always uncertain of how to behave; and Mr. Martin placidly smiling, trying to calm his wife down.

I saw the show with a French friend, who said that she had never seen a production of the play, but that one of the oft-repeated lines from the show has passed into French parlance and tonight she finally learned where it was from. In the famous scene between Mr. and Mrs. Martin, they keep saying "Comme c'est curieux ! Comme c'est bizarre! et quelle coïncidence !" ("How curious it is, how bizarre, and what a coincidence!") as the realization slowly dawns on them that they are husband and wife. Evidently this is now a famous quote among French people.

(I just thought--is the Mr. and Mrs. Martin scene intended as a parody of all of those "recognition" scenes of classical Greek drama, where Electra recognizes Orestes by his birthmark, etc.?)

Tonight the theater was mostly filled with a crowd of high-school students from Marin. They were an encouragingly enthusiastic crowd, a few of them laughing to the point of having fits, and everyone going nuts (as high-schoolers do) when the maid and the fireman started making out. At the end of the show, Cutting Ball raffled off a bottle of wine and naturally, one of the teenagers won it. Which just goes to show that life does have its absurdities.