Wednesday, February 24, 2010

And I'm Spent.

I've got a month to direct two short plays (one of them my own) and help put the rest of the show they're attached to together, so I am suddenly very busy. Just a warning that posts are likely to become sporadic all over again.

My Oscar List

I'm a Basterd. What can I say?

Best Picture – Inglourious Basterds. Hurt Locker is good, and I would love to see Bigelow slay the Avatar behemoth, but it ended up being a movie that I respect more than I enjoy. I don't know. Maybe the critical hype inflated my expectations. This kind of movie is what this award should be about instead of being a popularity contest.

Basterds, on the other hand, is a delight, for its mix of maturity and fantastical irresponsibility, complexity of storytelling (the importance of language to key twists of the plot), its tension, impeccable music selection, Christoph Waltz, Bonjourno, and an audacious finale that had me yelling in delight and then reconsidering it after the fact. Eli Roth notwithstanding, the movie is just stunning top to bottom.

Best Director – Quentin Tarantino. The first fifteen minutes of the movie. The Morricone-scored build-up to the Nazi soldier’s death by Bear Jew and the way it fucks with our sympathies. The reunion of Hans Landa and Shoshanna. King Kong. “Cat People.” The face of Jewish revenge. So many perfect moments.

Best Actor - Jeff Bridges. Haven’t seen Crazy Heart, but it sounds like he delivers the goods. And after watching his photo gallery video on the Big Lebowski DVD, Bridges seems like one of the coolest guys in the world. After thinking it over and realizing how great Jeremy Renner is in The Hurt Locker, and how stupid it would be to favor a performance I haven't seen, I'm rooting for Renner.

Best Actress - Gabourey Sidibe, because she doesn’t really care.

Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz, because his Landa is endlessly fascinating.

Best Supporting Actress - Mo'Nique. I was hoping for one of the Basterdettes to be nominated, so in their absence I will demur to popular opinion.

Best Original Screenplay – A Serious Man. Since Basterds has gotten so much attention already, and in my perfect universe it would be getting best picture, I’d like this brilliant Coen Brothers oddity to get more attention than it has, the better for others to “Embrace the mystery.”

Best Adapted Screenplay –In the Loop. I’m hoping to watch it in the next few days, which technically means I shouldn’t be judging it, but…. Yeah. I have no excuse.

Best Animated Feature – Coraline. Up affected me in ways movies rarely do, but Henry Sellick’s work here is uncanny and deserves more attention than it got in theaters, having been forced off 3D screens by the fucking Jonas Brothers.

Best Original Score - Up. Try to imagine the wordless montage at the beginning without the delicately shifting moods of the score. Try it.

Best Film Editing – Basterds. Again, I’m a Tarantino partisan. That first scene is paced immaculately, and the editing plays a huge role in winding up the tension in the subsequent chapters.

I have no problem with awarding Avatar the other technical awards I think it will win. The only reason to see it, in 3D, is the immersive experience it gives you, and so on that front it deserves all the plaudits it will get.

Likely Oscar Winners

Alrighty. Narratives are key to the pseudoscience of predicting the Oscars, I considered three possible Oscar narratives: an Avatar sweep, a Bigelow upset, and a Basterds left-fielder, listed in order of likelihood and reverse order of preference. I’ll explain below and in my personal picks in the next post.

Best Picture - Avatar. Four years ago the Academy snubbed the frontrunner, a love story, in favor of the feel-good issue movie. There followed a backlash which factored into last year's awards. Three years ago was Martin Scorsese's coronation. Two years ago the Academy awarded a film the mainstream public had barely heard of and probably would have hated by the end, which--along with a painfully boring awards show--probably turned off audiences. Last year they sidestepped the issue movie and awarded the (underdog) favorite, a feel-good love story. Lessons learned? Audience favorites, love stories, feel-good flicks, manifest destiny. Avatar's a box office colossus, features CG cat-people sex, and ends with the whole rabble holding hands and swaying, grooving with the planet; oh, and James Cameron is king of the world.

Avatar's box office momentum makes it un-fucking-stoppable, and as Christopher Orr points out, with the expanded field of nominees, the opposition is split too much to mount an upset. My mistake last year was in betting on the political angle of the Academy's cynicism. The fact of the matter is they want to maintain relevance with the public whose ratings they crave, and they're not going to do that by awarding Best Picture to the movie people were too busy seeing Transformers 2 to see.

Best Director - James Cameron, because they'll want to be consistent in their Best Picture selection.
Best Actor - Jeff Bridges. He's the favorite.
Best Actress - Gabourey Sidibe an unlikely favorite, but favorite all the same. Sandra Bullock's getting some serious attention, and some would like Meryl Streep to take another statue home, but Precious is said to basically hinge on Sidibe's performance. She's an underdog, and the Academy loves them plenty.
Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz, because people have been calling for it since Cannes.
Best Supporting Actress - Mo'Nique. Favorite once again.
Best Original Screenplay - Basterds. Not enough have heard of A Serious Man.
Best Adapted Screenplay - Up in the Air, because everyone's been talking about it, and it's gotta win something.
Best Animated Feature - Up, because Pixar always wins.
Best Foreign Language Film - The White Ribbon, because it's the only one of the nominees I've heard of, giving it a high profile.

Best Documentary Feature - Burma VJ – Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller. Because I read about it on the film-blogging site I read, and because Burma's (rightfully) a chic activist cause right now.
Best Documentary Short - China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. Because everyone's scared about China.
Best Live Action Short - The New Tenants. Crapshoot.
Best Animated Short - A Matter of Loaf and Death. Because Nick Park always delivers the goods.
Best Original Score - Up. They're not going to give it to James Horner, are they? Even I’m not cynical enough to bet on that.
Best Original Song - "Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart. Favorite.
Best Sound Editing – Avatar, because 99% of its credits were computer programmers, and accordingly it’s going to sweep the technical awards.
Best Sound Mixing - Avatar
Best Art Direction - Avatar
Best Cinematography – Avatar
Best Makeup - Star Trek, because it makes us think of a time when William Shatner wasn’t price line negotiating.
Best Costume Design – Nine. With all that Golden Globe attention, it’s gotta win something.
Best Film Editing - The Hurt Locker. I think they’ll grant the importance of editing to establishing the movie’s sense of life out of balance.
Best Visual Effects – Avatar. Does this really require an explanation?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance, Anyone?

Glenn Beck received applause from the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) crowd with the the line, "The law will set you free." (Around 1:50) From the same crowd that was ecstatic at the surprise appearance of extralegal torture architect Dick Cheney. I don't think anything more needs to be said.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Problem of Pitiless Indifference

Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to the plight of Ruthie Leming, who is right now in a critical stage battling cancer. Leming is the sister of Rod Dreher, a conservative Catholic blogger who writes on issues of faith and politics. This post about praying for her is one of the most painful I have ever read, and insomuch as one is able to relate to a total stranger—which, perhaps even more than its capacity to capture the moment, is the blogging medium’s greatest virtue—the man and his family have my sympathies, for what that’s worth. The post is remarkable not only for its emotional rawness, but for what looks a lot like the strain under which his faith is being put:

All the praying, the begging, the anguishing, the fasting -- and there has been no miracle. She's still very sick indeed. I realized tonight that in my frenzy to call the attention of God to my sister's plight and to convince him to heal her, I've been playing a kind of saints roulette, trying to hit on the right saint to ask prayers of, as if somehow my placing a bet on the right saint's name would make an electric connection with heaven, and divine energy would course right down to my sister's hospital room and save her, bam, just like that.

I know it doesn't work that way. Believe me, I do.

But I don't know what else to say to God, or the saints, on my sister's behalf. I know this isn't like a courtroom, in which I need to come up with the cleverest argument to convince the judge that my sister's life is worth saving. I know that magical thinking is a fallacy. I know that the communion of saints is not like a cocktail party in which I'm the wild-eyed stranger who's walked in off the street and is annoying partygoers by interrupting their conversations to see who can spare the time to come out and help me get my car unstuck from the snowbank on the curb.

But I don't know what else to do. And it's not working.

I don’t want to score cheap points in theological debates that will never be settled. But Sullivan feels fit to take Leming’s daughter’s serenity as evidence of God, and brings up his own faith in sustaining him during his HIV crisis. He has done this before, in an actual debate, and it was largely unconvincing due to it essentially coming down to, “It made me feel good.” Which is fine on an individual basis; I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anybody their means of getting through the unimaginable. But as an argument it’s weak, worse than anecdotal because it only has meaning to the person who experienced it.

It also requires a very narrow vision. For if the child’s smile is a sign of God, what to make of the adult’s anguish? Dreher will not lose his faith. He nearly did years ago, during the Catholic child rape scandal, but he eventually adapted, if I may use such a word, by converting to Orthodox Christianity. Here, too, his faith will likely adapt.

But in the meantime, what to make of the desperation in this post? He’s not naïve enough to think praying will make everything better, but he’s obviously expecting something. He knows “magical thinking is a fallacy,” but he is still hoping for a miracle. And I hope he gets one. (I’m using the term miracle loosely, ‘an unexpected turn of great fortune,’ as opposed to the literal ‘impossible-made-possible,’ because that’s what medical ‘miracles’ are.) There’s nothing wrong with hoping, for it is but the expression for a desired outcome, with no assumption that the expression itself will change anything. But the terrible odds are there will be no eleventh-hour recovery.

The Problem of Evil has vexed believers for millennia, but if anything situations like this are more troublesome, because there is no human agent to blame. The secular outlook accepts, harsh as it is, that these matters often come down to the luck of the draw. The faithful will say “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” But what comfort is it to ‘know’ the pain one is experiencing was entirely preventable by the man in the sky? And that He still refuses to intervene? Dreher’s sister’s response to her spreading cancer, as well as her family’s, and the communities, has been heroic and should not be undervalued. But grace under pressure is not the province of the faithful alone, and it does not resolve the problem of cosmic injustice; if anything, making the most of catastrophe is an argument in favor of humanism more than against. Like the cancer, God has nothing to do with it, which makes the good that has come of this all the more remarkable.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tarantino, Sugar Daddy

Quentin Tarantino has been for a while, and is now more than ever, the primary backer of The New Beverly, a movie theater in L.A. that shows cheap double features of often obscure movies. He saved it from ruin, and now his financial support is what keeps an unprofitable but culturally valuable institution afloat.

Is this a sign of things to come in other arts ventures? For Theatre? The Internet continues to demolish the old cinema business models, forcing movie studios to rely on 3D gimmickry to entice viewers. Major theatre companies already rely on corporate sponsorship to turn a profit and keep prices remotely affordable, resulting in an often bland homogeneity. The less mainstream, more experimental theatre groups are on even less stable ground, because corporate donors don't want to invest in artistic risk. The Tarantino-New Beverly example should serve as a model: seek out wealthy individuals who share the same artistic ideals and would want to support such organizations.

(This sounds incredibly, perhaps condescendingly, obvious, but bear in mind I say this from a great geographical distance from the cultural centers where these issues are playing out.)

On Joe the Bomber

The Austin airplane suicide bomb attack is certainly terrorism. The temptation is to blame this on the teabaggers, but that's a mistake: the bomber's suicide note is an angry screed against the IRS, corporate greed, the airline industry, the government in general.

The unifying thread is hatred of elites who are screwing the everyman: "[T]he justice department is all on the take and doesn’t give a fuck about serving anyone or anything but themselves and their rich buddies." "The sleazy government." "Nothing changes unless there is a body count (unless it is in the interest of the wealthy sows at the government trough). In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws."

Its classic populism, which neither the left nor right holds a monopoly on. The current conservative moment, of course, is built on a ressentiment of "cultural elites" who, they think, hold the common man in contempt. The leftist version seeks to punish rich bankers and businessmen who wrecked the economy and have made off like bandits. There is a much common ground between them, enough that liberal activist Jane Hamsher argued for an alliance with the Tea Partiers when the Senate passed their Health Care bill.

A formal merger of the two groups is impossible, of course: there are far too many fundamental philosophical differences. More likely are events like this, where individuals decide to take matters into their own hands to violently strike out at the bigwigs they blame for their current problems. Those problems are ultimately what it comes down to: Joe Stack, it seems, had ongoing financial difficulties and claims he never got the help he needed. Put in a desperate situation, he resorted to desperate measures. At a time when unemployment is still hovering at 10%, banks are continuing to throw obscene bonuses at their CEOs. This will piss anybody off, no matter their political persuasion, and the longer this goes on, the greater the chance of more Joe Stacks turning to violent means to vent their frustration.

Frank Rich has been sounding the alarm on this realignment for several months now:

“Wall Street owns our government,” Beck declared in one rant this July. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.” He drew a chart to dramatize the revolving door between Washington and Goldman Sachs in both the Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner Treasury departments. A couple of weeks later, Beck mockingly replaced the stars on the American flag with the logos of corporate giants like G.E., General Motors, Wal-Mart and Citigroup (as well as the right’s usual nemesis, the Service Employees International Union). Little of it would be out of place in a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone. Or, we can assume, in Michael Moore’s coming film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which reportedly takes on Goldman and the Obama economic team along with conservative targets.

This development gets to the heart of the problem of growing economic inequality and wealth concentration in the United States. Conservatives refuse any notion of "redistribution" as a matter of principle, that the rich are rich and the poor poor because they deserve to be so. There are plenty of problems with this argument--again, after the near-destruction of our economy, who thinks these bankers deserve their million-dollar bonuses?--but until now the debate has mostly been one on fairness. Wealth may be more concentrated than ever, the argument went, but as long as it's only the lower classes' problem, who cares? Now, of course, the threat of violence makes it the rich peoples' problem too.

None of this is a defense of Joe Stack's behavior, but simply an objective observation. Increasing economic polarization, to say nothing of fairness, guarantees social instability. It is in everybody's best interest to return us to some semblance of equilibrium. The question is whether Wall Street and the political establishment (I'll go ahead and finger the Republicans, since they are the ones trying to strip the Senate finance reform bill of the Consumer Protection Agency) will put the long-term health of the Republic ahead of short-term gain; the answer, given recent history, is too bleak to contemplate.

Friday, February 19, 2010

I've Been to the Zoo, Part 1

The other night I had an educational experience, one that almost certainly could not be had at school (and probably would not be desirable if it was--the coincidence and spontanaity adds to its appeal). I attended a professional production of a play I directed at my local community theater just a few months ago. I directed Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, but incidentally, that's not what I saw the other night. Not exactly. The reasons for that will make up the rest of this first post of a short series about what this particular experience has to tell me about interpreting a play.

The Zoo Story begins with a well-to-do man, Peter, reading on a bench in Central Park, who is approached by the dishevelled Jerry, who proceeds to tell him increasingly troubling things about his life and eventually bringing Peter down to his level. Written in 1958, The Zoo Story was Albee's first play. As of right now, it is also his most recent play. Sorta. What happened is Albee went back and wrote a prequel act, Homelife, involving Peter's interactions with his wife Ann before he decides to go read at the park. Along the way he made some slight modifications to The Zoo Story, the second act of this new work, At Home at the Zoo: some lines were altered (a "colored queen" is now a "black queen"), Peter's income is adjusted for inflation, and Jerry's final speech is reduced to a few lines. According to Wikipedia, and implied by a New York Times interview, professional companies must produce At Home at the Zoo in its entirety. Non-profit groups can still produce The Zoo Story as a standalone, which is what I opted to do last Fall. I hadn't read Homelife, and felt The Zoo Story was fine on its own. (I also didn't want to tackle a full-length show for my first directorial outing, but that's beside the point.) Going into At Home at the Zoo, my sense was that the new act had to justify its existence, as any part of any story must.

Unfortunately, it didn't. The writing itself is fine--though Albee seems to be in love with a dependent clause construction (that) eliminates the word 'that,' as I just did; seriously, it comes up four or five times and, while gramattically correct, feels artificial--I had some good laughs and cringes. But it's inconsequential. The particulars we learn about Peter and his wife are only making explicit that which was already implied in the original play: they're a comfortable but bored middle-class couple, and Peter is somewhat submissive to her and daughters' wishes, in order to keep everyone happy. There's never much at stake, because the very identity of this half-new play dictates that the real meat is coming after the intermission. The Zoo Story was never intended to have more than its very effective single act, and so all of its firepower is, naturally, spent there. Additionally, great many people have seen or read The Zoo Story already and know what's coming, and the events of Homelife are far too chronologically close to it to hold any real surprises. Had Albee substantially revised The Zoo Story to balance the two acts out and shake things up--and made it the first act, to announce that all bets are off--the new act would have more to do than kill time before Jerry comes on the scene.

Albee is, of course, free to do what he will with his play and his characters, but what he has done is still baffling. Jerry is a commanding presence, but that's because the play is fundamentally about him; Peter exists in The Zoo Story as an audience surrogate and an example of bland, bourgeois success that his exposure to Jerry contaminates. My sense was, and still is, that The Zoo Story is complete story, a powerful one made so by its compactness. It suffers in At Home At The Zoo by the dead weight of the first act. Albee has objected in the past to play development conferences, that:

"It is to de-ball the plays; to castrate them; to smooth down all the rough edges so they can't cut, can't hurt. It's to make them commercially tolerable to a smug audience. It's not to make plays any better. Most playwrights who write a good play write it from the beginning."

At Home At The Zoo proves him mostly right, in the worst possible ways, and he didn't even need a conference.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Gay" Marriage

A lesbian couple went to a courthouse in Buffalo, New York to get married and were denied. Then one of them asked for a male to get married to her. A gay man, Ed, stepped up and the tied the knot right there.

I actually read a piece in some Salt Lake City rag years ago about how gay people can get married, just not to each other, and they're asking for the creation for a new right, special rights, blah blah blah. So much goddamn hair-splitting. This here is, indeed, the perfect illustration of how ridiculous our marriage laws are. So is (straight man?) Brian Feldmen's plan to wed a stranger.

What if gays and lesbians started doing dual marriages of this sort? One gay man would marry a lesbian, and then the two partners would marry each other, so then they were all married? Granted a whole host of rights would be missing--anything having to do with, you know, their actual significant other--but their legal marital status would at least reflect their aspirations. That's something, right? Right?

I would love for straight people to have to entertain such lunacy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Palm Reading

Sarah Palin used crib notes for her post-speech Q&A at the Tea Party Convention last weekend. This is stupid because people generally stop resorting to them after high school. It's absurd because it was for a Q&A, which is supposed to be unscripted and off-the-cuff, albeit in an entirely different fashion. It's hypocritical because Palin had just criticized Obama for using a teleprompter, which is elitist because she pretends she can't afford one, or something. It's horrific because this stupid, absurd, hypocritical woman wants to be President of the United States of America and millions think the same and apparently see nothing wrong with this picture.

Many people got a laugh at her expense. The best, naturally, were Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

They're comedians, we expect that of them, and they do it very well. We don't expect it of MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell:

Certainly not from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

I might expect this sort of thing from Rachel Maddow, but only because she's made a name for herself in obnoxious snark. I'm not a viewer and so I can't name a particular instance, but this Ben Hyman NPR piece highlights what I'm trying to say:

Maddow’s journalism is of the fact-checked, responsible variety, and her interviews are sharp and engaging. If she wanted to play it straight, she probably could. But she almost always starts her pieces by smirking her way through a snarky gem of an introduction, as if to say, “Really? Can you believe this nonsense?” Her style is grounded in a skepticism that all too often turns out to be deserved. When Maddow uses snark, she is mapping the uncharted space in journalism between Walter Cronkite and The Daily Show.

Hyman doesn't see anything wrong with this. But why are we mapping the gulf between Walter Cronkite and The Daily Show? TDS is already the comfortable medium between Cronkite and Conan, with the baggage attending such journalistic limbo, do we really need a journalist of all people muddying the waters further? We go to these people for information, not half-baked zingers, and given the limited time television affords each night, any time spent on the latter and not the former is time wasted. It looks petty. Maddow's smugness is symptomatic of MSNBC generally, which itself is caught between the hyper-nationalist Republican zealotry of Fox News and the middling uselessness of CNN. It's turned a fire-breathing liberal like me off from the network, and to see that attitude making its way into the mouthpiece for Obama (who has always been the adult in the room) is extremely dismaying.

I have little doubt that Obama's people have some very colorful opinions about Palin and the opposition. MSNBC's staff leaves no doubt whatsoever. But there are places for such views to be aired. Private conversation; blogs (especially the free ones that almost nobody reads); and The Daily Show and Colbert Report. There, at least, the jokes are actually funny.

Perhaps the saddest part is that Palin herself got in on the joke; at a Sunday speech she had, "Hi Mom!" written on her palm. The circle is complete. Perhaps this is will become routine: Palin does something grossly unbecoming of the office she seeks, people who know better laugh at the stupidity of her actions, and she rebounds, joining in the laughter, without ever having to address how inappropriate she was in the first place and using the incident as red meat to whip up her base about condescending fake Americans. And so we continue on, all the while amusing ourselves to death.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Does the Pope Shit in the Woods?

"Is Quentin Tarantino a Great Director?" Salon asks. The piece that bears that title is a reposting of an article entitled, "Oscar Duel: Has Quentin Tarantino Produced a Legacy of Greatness?" The question wrestled with in the exchange is slightly different, and is the one to which my title responds: is Tarantino an auteur? I've always understood the word to mean a director with an identifiable style with any film he makes. To ask such a question of a director so ubiquitous that Slate included him in what-if features about Watchmen and the Super Bowl is simply ridiculous.

Anne Thomson and Jack Matthews' idea of auteurship, however, includes a message conveyed in the artist's work, based off Tarantino's self-declared auteurship whose "vision" Inglourious Basterds now clarifies. Thus the debate. It's been obvious since the beginning that anyone looking for a moral lesson in Tarantino's films would be destined for disappointment. The only constant thematic through-line in his work, besides women's feet being the sexiest part of their body, is how absolutelygoddammawesome movies are. The reason Basterds solidifies this, as he claims, is because the entire damn movie hinges on the power of cinema. Those who hated it because of its violence or makes the Jews as bad as the Nazis (which is an undercurrent in nearly all revenge literature--the problem of becoming evil in order to repay it--and which the movie's climax addresses so slyly that you don't even notice until you think about it afterward) are wasting their time: why criticize it for what it was never trying to be in the first place?

Matthews thinks there needs to be more to Tarantino's output than mere entertainment for him to have longstanding auteur status, but he's ignoring an important precedent: Hitchcock. Do we go to Psycho for what it tells us about the human condition? Rear Window? What political insights does North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much bring us? Hitchcock was of a rare breed whose tremendous ability to tell a story and manipulate an audience--'twas not for nothing he was known as the Master of Suspense--was enough to build a legacy on. And, tellingly, Basterds draws from the Hitchcockian tension well quite often.

Does this then signal a new (actual) direction for Tarantino, away from "Isn't this cool?" detachment towards drama and emotional investment in a character's predicament? Maybe, hopefully, but probably not. Jackie Brown already proved he could lower the volume on the pastiche in order to let the characters speak for themselves, which is to say it was just another part of Tarantino doing whatever the hell he wants because he can. Boy can he, and even if his future films won't all rope us in as effectively as Basterds' opening battle of wits between Hans Landa and the French dairy farmer, I'll be glad to revel in his pure cinema anyway. There's nothing else like it, and that's the real standard for an auteur.

Why is He Still In?

Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but the fact that the judge presiding over the case to overturn Proposition 8 is himself gay would seem to have potential to invalidate any ruling he makes. He has a personal stake in the outcome; he could get married if Prop 8 is stricken down. If we are to complain when the former CEO of Halliburton awards the company no-bid contracts to rebuild the nation he just leveled, what to make of a gay judge legalizing gay marriage, regardless of the worthiness of the endeavor and the manifest awfulness of the pro-discrimination side?

This isn't even an evaluation of his character, just a plea for standard jurisprudence: the arbiter should be an unbiased party. It would revive all the anguish of November 2008 to see what looks to be an airtight case be dismissed on an avoidable technicality.

EDIT: Furthermore, having a straight judge would have strengthened the hand for the pro-marriage-equality side: that a heterosexual would have nothing to personally gain or lose in this fight would implicitly vindicate the position that gay marriage would have no impact on heteros.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Meanwhile, Across the Pond

It's worth noting as well the differences in public attitudes towards gay people between America and Britain. As just noted, in American sports homosexuality is still a major taboo, which should be dealt with as aggressively as possible. In the U.K., on the other hand, Wales' greatest rugby player recently came out of the closet, while straight English rugby player Ben Cohen has cultivated a gay fanbase by being an outspoken advocate and releasing a steamy calendar.

Remember, the terrorists hate us for our freedoms.

Because Queer Still Means Not Normal

Frank Rich's column this week is off-base. Certainly, Don't Ask, Don't Tell has lost favor in every segment of the American population, even amongst conservatives. But to take this as a signal of broader acceptance of gay rights is mistaken. Lest we forget, California voters passed Proposition 8 over a year ago, Maine passed anti-marriage-equality initiative just a few months ago.

More alarmingly, anti-gay attitudes have become more comfortably nestled in today's culture. Witness CBS' rejecting an ad for gay dating site, while allowing Focus on the Family to encourage women to ignore their doctors' advice on the off chance that their endangered baby might survive, not kill them in the process, and become a professional athlete.

This, after having already communicated that if two guys kiss, they need to quickly reassert their manliness because...well, just because.

I haven't heard any larger outrage about it beyond the usual political players, which would suggest it's business as usual for contemporary America.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Recession and the Arts, Ctd.

It occurs to me that I'm probably being much to snobby in my dismissal of popular plays like Doubt, Proof, etc., although The Rabbit Hole managed to irritate me quite a bit). I will instead redirect my objection away from these kinds of plays (which I might call Pulitzer-bait, but nevermind), and not even the plays themselves, but to the theaters staging them. For these plays are by far some of the most produced in the country, and I could have guessed this just by personal experience. I was in a community college production of The Laramie Project; my high school put it on the following year; my community college did Proof the same year we went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and saw The Rabbit Hole; and last year Boise Contemporary Theater did a reading of Doubt.

The fact of the matter is there is far more to the theater world than the ten or so plays on the WSJ's list and on Broadway's marquees. Not even taking into account the neglect of new works (there was a recent study published on how financial solubility is becoming more impossible for contemporary writers, but for the life of me I can't find it), there are plenty of under-appreciated gems of old that don't try so hard to wrap themselves up in respectability. But respectability is the name of the game, as theaters are chasing what they think audiences want. Middle-class domestic melodrama.

I'm plenty cynical about it all, but I would like to think audiences are savvier than we give them credit for. Granted, the success of middle-of-the-road approaches would suggest they don't want to be pushed out of their comfort zone, but might it be that we haven't tried enough to know? I would bet audiences are willing and curious enough to take anything on, provided it's done well, and the reason they eat up the popular Tonybait plays is that we don't give them any alternatives.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Shelby's a Dick, Alright

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby is holding up 70 of Obama's appointees in order to extract a couple pork projects for his state. This from the party that screams endlessly about earmarks (which make up a pittance of our overall spending anyway). In a more ideal world (for in a completely ideal world this kind of shit wouldn't be allowed to happen in the first place) the Democrats would shout from the rooftops how Republicans are using procedural trickery to grind governance to a standstill*, but given their track record I expect them instead to curl up in the corner and cry "Stop!"

*This may sound like whining, but it's all a matter of how it's approached. Americans are supposedly pissed off about health care reform being passed through obscure, sneaky tactics, so what's wrong with pointing out that Republican chicanery is what makes this maneuvering necessary in the first place?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Worn-Out Welcomes

There's not much surprising in this interview with Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, ostensibly the first since 1989. Watterson made his intentions clear in the 10th Anniversary Collection that he wanted his creation to maintain its integrity, which would have been hard to do if it had been licensed onto every manner of stuffed animal, cartoon, lunchbox, etc. etc. (He didn't name names, but it's patently obvious that he had the odious Garfield in mind.) For that same reason he decided to quit while he was ahead:

This isn't as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of 10 years, I'd said pretty much everything I had come there to say.

It's always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now "grieving" for "Calvin and Hobbes" would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them.

I think some of the reason "Calvin and Hobbes" still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.

I've never regretted stopping when I did.

Those who wish Watterson had kept going would be well-advised to compare the last ten years' output of The Simpsons to their mid-1990s heyday. Are we really glad it's still around?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Self-Referential Vapour

Spinning off an examination of Republican doublespeak, Jonathan Chait notes that "This is Not a Pipe" was one of Foucault's favorite paintings. Step four in its "process:"

To allow similitudes, on the other to multiply of themselves, to be born from their own vapour and to rise endlessly into an ether where they refer to nothing more than themselves.

"Born from their own vapour and to rise endlessly into an ether where they refer to nothing more than themselves." I don't think I've ever before heard a better summation of obfuscatory postmodern philosophers. Leave it to Foucault...

The Recession and the Arts

The New Republic has been burnishing their culture credentials lately, with great success. The Book is a fantastic compendium of essays and literary writing, including some gems from decades past, and on the arts front Jed Perl now has a biweekly column on the arts. His inaugural post asks how much arts institutions should take fiscal considerations into account in the midst of the Great Recession, noting that MoMa spent $2 million on a new building during the Depression, when it would have looked positively suicidal. "When culture is at stake, financial considerations cannot be allowed to rule. Cultural institutions must be fiscally responsible. They must also be artistically responsible," he concludes.

This is a lofty outlook, but not necessarily reflective of the way things are. This may be my cultural philistinism talking, but museums that shell out millions for diamond-crusted skulls, sharks preserved in formaldehyde, and beds covered in tampons seem to have neither fiscal restraint nor good taste in mind. I really don't have much ground to stand on, though, as I don't follow fine arts world.

For the broader arts, namely theatre, I'm not much more optimistic. Judging as a somewhat-outsider hoping to eventually make his way in, the fact of the theatre world is that garish Broadway musicals continue proliferate because they sell. They cost a lot, too, and how much of that actually has to do with the extra staff needed and how much is pure waste (whatever that is), I couldn't tell you. For regional theaters, they seem to be perfectly happy to be regurgitating the same plays (Proof, The Rabbit Hole, and Doubt come immediately to mind) because they have the prestige of a Pulitzer Prize, a small cast, and an easy translation to film, so literal-minded do we seem to think our audiences.

Personally, I'm less concerned with creating new structures and programs than finding ways to compensate the artists we have.

(I've to go to work for a little while now. Might pick this up later.)

Toil and Trouble

Scottland, PA was honestly disappointing. It wasn’t bad, the performances were strong, and I chuckled through it, but the material never really took off, and for a concept like “Macbeth transplanted to fast food” it was a real letdown. Part of it was the setting, the 1970s, which I wasn’t expecting and took awhile to catch onto. That’s my own fault, but it’s also something of a problem in itself in that it takes a very familiar story from the 17th century, brings it into the 1970s, but looks and sounds like the late 90s, making it (especially in the beginning) feel artificial and hard to get into. A much larger problem is the direction, which was just… flat. The rock songs on the soundtrack were more distracting than enhancing (except for a slow motion track on the McBeths that doesn’t last nearly long enough for its rude interruption to be fully effective), the general cinematography is television bland (forgivable, I suppose, since it’s an indie), and the lighting—in particular the soft red/orange that the Mcbeths were constantly covered in—was obnoxious. There were a few nice moments that worked, like Mcbeth catching sight of the “Witches” and knocking Duncan into the deep fryer was, and the previously mentioned slomo shot, even if it was cut short. There’s some real potential, and I’ll keep my ears open for what the director does next. But the product we have never rises to hysterical levels. The weirdness of the Weird ‘Sisters’ feels forced, even with Andy Dick on board, and character traits like McDuff’s vegetarianism or Donald being gay are just…there. Maybe this is one of those things that’s just not for me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Nominees Are In

The Best Picture nominees are...

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

I guessed seven of them correctly, six if you leave out A Serious Man, which I thought might be tossed in to spice things up but wasn't big enough for surefire inclusion. I don't know anything about The Blind Side or An Education, but District 9 is an honest surprise. It doesn't have a chance in hell, but it was an excellent science fiction pic--a rarity these days--that did very well for itself, well enough that its name recognition was able to overcome what would normally be its off-putting sci-fi-ness (for an example of a similar, and from what I hear similarly good, sci-fi film that didn't have the box office mojo to get it out of the genre ghetto, see Moon). The omission of Clint Eastwood's Mandela biopic is pretty surprising, Nine a bit less so; I included it mostly out of cynicism about this whole enterprise. Crazy Heart is supposed to be pretty damned excellent, and so it's disappointing not to see it on this list.

Of course, quality is secondary when it comes to this list. We would do well to heed Manohla Dargis' wisdom:

Let's acknowledge that the Oscars are bullshit and we hate them. But they are important commercially... I've learned to never underestimate the academy's bad taste. Crash as best picture? What the fuck.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Addendum: Original Sin of Omission, and My Picks

On the Curveball list, I neglected to mention Lars von Trier's Antichrist. It's the longest shot possible, since the Academy resolutely wants to avoid the psycho-sexual controversy baggage this film carries with it, but it's not entirely beyond imagination.

As for what I think should be recognized: I don't get to see terribly many movies in the theater to begin with, and even on DVD I'm hopelessly behind. I therefore don't have much to recommend, in the same way I don't have much to not recommend But I did get to see more movies than usual this year (largely because I no longer have a courseload breathing down my neck, a situation that will hopefully remain true for only eight more months), and since I go based on reputation (life is short), most of these were already on the list. But anyway:

Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man

are all most excellent, though Coraline's third act is awfully video-gamey. I'm gunning for Inglourious Basterds, for the sheer range of emotions it elicited and often subverted (Brad Pitt's character, for instance, is funny the first go-around, but is much more obviously monstrous when you're not caught up in the novelty of his goofiness); its audacity; and the love of film it engenders and represents.

Too bad it's almost certain to lose to Avatar.

Best Picture Nomination Predictions

How's this for navel gazing? The real list is supposed to come out tomorrow. Big news this year is they expanded the list up to ten in order to drum up interest and competition (ha!), and, ideally, to give exposure to more obscure films that don't get the attention they deserve (HA!). Perusing the list of movies that came out in 09, and based on reputation and visibility I predict:

Obvious Nominees

Up in the Air
Inglourious Basterds
The Hurt Locker
Crazy Heart

Movies I Had Forgotten About But Are Likely

The Messenger
Nine (even though everybody seems to have hated it; call it this year's Benjamin Button)

These are all no-brainers, but there's always the chance the Academy will throw in a few curveballs to spice things up. These are still decidedly mainstream, as I don't think they have any interest in the indies.


A Serious Man
Fantastic Mr. Fox
A Single Man

That said, I think the main ten are pretty likely. If they really wanted to scramble things they would leave out Avatar, but Titanic's domination of 1997's Oscars and Avatar's grossly inappropriate Golden Globe win makes its selection, if not its coronation, a near certainty. But we'll find out tomorrow, won't we?