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Fringe 2011 Review: 74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater

1h 15m
VENUE #18: The Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ 5:15
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 7 Tue 23 @ 8:45 Thu 25 @ 7 Sat 27 @ 5 Sun 28 @ 2
http://www.stereoradiotheater.com/

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

If you want 74 minutes of pristine hilarity, you could hardly do better than to seek out “74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theatre.”

This two-person show consists of eight hilarious vignettes: a game of desert island (pick one book, CD, food, person) that goes horribly wrong and right; a chance encounter on the street of two friends who decide to have a doomed love affair; a delusional tribal chieftan and his loyal and infinitely wiser advisor; a nervous new patient and her psychiatrist as they explore the voices of a large Jewish family in her head; a taping of a TV chef and her passive-aggressive mother; a bachelor showing an amorous young woman his collection of macaroni & cheese; a challenging job interview for a coveted position of gong ringer; and two teenagers who work in a trendy clothing chain store.

The last was expendable (and the gong ringer would have been a great—pardon the word—note to end on) but the first seven were thoroughly charming—in some cases surprisingly so. When the lights arose on the tribal chieftan I was sure I would hate the tired stereotype, yet it might have been my favorite segment. I teach my writing students that you need to exorcise clichés, except for the occasions when you turn them inside out, making them fresh again.

Or my favorite might have been the game of desert island—a textbook example for my students of building a scene with rising beats. The piece depends entirely on the timing of the machine-gun animus-laden repartee, a challenge the multitalented Maureen Fitzgerald (who also wrote the show) and Andrew Shulman (who directed it) met with surpassing ease.

Or my favorite might have been the gong ringer—a classically simple absurdist idea brilliantly executed, in which a ridiculously wealthy and eccentric mansion-owner more than meets his match in an revisionist scholar and exponent of a preposterous art form.

Shulman makes the most of his considerable acting abilities to turn another absurdist character—owner of the world’s largest collection of macaroni & cheese—into a sympathetic—albeit pathetic—potential boyfriend. It would be hard to pin Fitzgerald down to the vignette I liked most for her acting, and likewise for her writing—there’s just too much to choose from.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Eternal Husband

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Eternal Husband

1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ 2:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 3:45 Sun 21 @ 6 Fri 26 @ 9
http://www.eternalhusband.info/

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

The conceit of author and director Nat Cassidy’s loose adaptation of the novella of the same name is that Dostoevsky was the Raymond Chandler of his day. While I can’t speak to the fealty of the adaptation, the detective at the center of “The Eternal Husband” is indeed close kin to Philip Marlowe.

The detective, Younger Man, well played by Arthur Aulisi, is haunted by his past and by an unfamiliar older man who he thinks is following him. Older Man turns out to be the husband of a woman Younger Man had an affair with nine years earlier.

All the roles are well played, especially, I thought, that of Claudia (Karen Sternberg), a friend and former lover to Younger Man. Elyse Mitro’s adulterous and castrating Natalya is eminently believable as the sort of woman an eternal husband is drawn to, as a moth to the flame. Charles Gerber, a terrific actor, seemed less prepared for the role of Older Man than the other three, though the contrast between the meandering early scenes between the two men on the one hand and the crisp banter of Sternberg’s scenes with Aulisi on the other surely had more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity of rehearsal time.

I can’t say whether noir is a particularly strong undercurrent in this year’s Fringe, or if the perception that it is merely reflects the selection biases of this reviewer, but certainly, as our society becomes ever more pragmatic and job oriented, conventional and utilitarian—more math-and-reading, yet with ever-less history and literature to calculate and read—our artists will, as they have in every age, ask the counterintuitive and countercultural questions. In this age, that means the existential ones.

For after all, Cassidy’s conceit, which is (his program notes notwithstanding) by no means uniquely his, is well founded. Good noir, like existentialism, blurs the bounds between reality and imagination, and it is surely no coincidence that not only were Dostoevsky and Nietzsche writing their seminal works contemporaneously, so were Sartre and Chandler, Camus and Cain. That would make The Eternal Husband noir to the nth.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Mountain Song

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song

1h 0m
VENUE #12: 4th Street Theatre
Performance seen:Sat 13 @ 7:30
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 6:30 Mon 22 @ 7:15 Thu 25 @ 10 Fri 26 @ 3:45 Sat 27 @ 12*
http://pigpentheatre.com/

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song” was already going to be a hot ticket on the strength of the company’s general excellence award at last year’s Fringe (for “PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story”). Now it’s going to be a hot ticket for word of mouth. Before, it was “if it’s anything as good as last year… .” Now, it’s “it’s even better than last year.”

The Mountain Song has a lyrical and narrative cohesion that seems deceptively simple to achieve. Through song and prose, the story is told of an carpenter searching for his mute daughter’s wedding. Along the way, he scales a mountain three times, is launched into flight by a waterfall, meets a giant and builds for him a pair of shoes the size of a boat, and is carried to the ocean by a man who uses his suitcase as a horse.

The voice of this thoroughly original story is that of a tradition of tall tales that’s distinctly American—no Swiftian sarcasm here—and the language is authentically that of the Appalachian hollers—perhaps those of West Virginia, a stone’s throw (at least, a giant’s stone’s throw) from Carnegie Mellon University, from which the troupe of seven graduated this past May.

The style is an emerging form that we might call theatrical collage.

The Pigpenners use a hand-held length of fabric to represent the mountain, a child’s dress for the daughter, a papier-mâché head and hand for the giant, a pair of fingers for the man climbing the fabric mountain, a shadow-stencil for a village, a shipping pallet for a raft, more shadow stencils, and more objects d’puppetry. That no two are of the same scale, even in the same scene, only adds to the charm.

Last year’s Fringe saw at least two such shows; besides Mountain Song’s Pigpen predecessor, there was the astonishingly incoherent and delightful “Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!” (imagine if, instead of making “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” Woody Allen had spent four years at CMU with the Pigpen boys).

There’s nothing incoherent about “Mountain Song” though. The story moves clearly and inexorably toward a bittersweet ending that’s fully foretold in an opening speech, and the speechifying throughout is as charming as the bluegrass music, the shadow and other puppetry, and the life-sized acting.

The whole thing made me want to rent a couple of grandkids and go back to the next performance. The only thing better than seeing “Mountain Song” through adult eyes or those of a child would be seeing it through both at once.

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Bardy Bunch

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady

1h 40m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ NOON
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 9 (sold out!) Sun 21 @ 8:45 Wed 24 @ 2

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When I say I thoroughly enjoyed “The Bardy Bunch” you have to take into account that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the Brady Bunch (nor the movie); I was not a fan of the Partridge Family; and I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare.

“The Bardy Bunch” is a telling of Romeo and Juliet where the rivaling families are the Bradys and the Partridges and there are two forbidden loves, not one: Marcia–Keith, and Greg–Laurie.

But the Shakespearean references only start there. Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, Tempest, and most especially Macbeth and Hamlet—I can’t tell you all the plays quoted from and referenced (the playbill claims a dozen), because they come fast and furiously and, as I say, I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare, confusing the various gender-bending ones, for example. Sorting out the Hamlet from the Macbeth was particularly tricky until I realized that the same ghost was doing double-duty: For the Bradys, he’s Duncan, for the Partridges he’s Hamlet’s father.

It’s a clever idea, and that kind of cleverness pervades the show—notably in the mixing of Shakespearean plots, without losing itself in fealty to any one of them, but also in the use of music, especially the way “Woke Up in Love” and “I Can feel Your Heartbeat” hurtle the conflicts toward their inevitable tragic and hilarious conclusion.

The huge cast is entirely outstanding—it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Marcia (Cali Elizabeth Moore) and Greg (A.J. Shively) are particularly aptly cast, Erik Keiser’s singing channels Keith’s voice perfectly and is terrific in its own right, and speaking of voices, Craig Wichman gets Reuben’s so right it’s eerie. It’s probably not possible for the Alice part not to be a crowd pleaser, but Joan Lunoe does a terrific job of milking the small role for all it’s worth.

I have only two small complaints about this show—the name, and the fact that in an early scene Marcie and Jan make an explicit reference to Romeo and Juliet. It’s unnecessary, and undermines the show’s greatest charm—that the subtext to a story grounded in the most ephemeral of 1970s pop culture is rooted in the 16th century writer who created the most enduring cultural monuments we have. Indeed, the number of Fringe shows that reference the Bard is literally and figuratively uncountable, but I can’t remember enjoying it this much.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: COBU

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

COBU

VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
0h 45m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 9:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 7:30 Fri 19 @ 5:15 Wed 24 @ 2:30 Thu 25 @ 5:15

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Our favorite of our three-show opening night of this year’s Fringe was COBU, which describes itself as an “explosive fusion of Japanese Taiko drumming and funk tap dance … created and directed by STOMP veteran Yako Miyamoto. COBU is a dance/percussion troupe with the motto ‘Dance like Drumming, Drum like Dancing’.”

The first piece uses five drums, three upstage, and two down, each with a woman wearing a unique outfit that in one way or another—whether its pink hot pants with black fishnets, or a yellow tank top, yellow shorts, and loose yellow leg warmers, or just an orange golf hat worn backwards—bespoke hip-hop. The woman at the center drum, who I came to quickly think of as the queen drummer, wore olive drab baggie cargo pants and a sort of long sleeveless black hoodie robe.

The entire effect was both sexy and extremely powerful, and got only more powerful as the show progressed.

Three dancers appeared between the two rows of drums, at least, at first they seemed to be just dancers, but they held drumming sticks and soon alternated the choreography with drumming on the floor itself.

There were about nine distinguishable pieces—the boundaries were unclear, except when the costumes changed, which happened several times—and perhaps my favorite was the third, in which the queen drummer led off with a lengthy tap dance that included using the side of her square-heeled tap shoe for added volume and, for a moment, rising en pointe. After the dance, she sat cross-legged downstage, facing away from the audience and toward two drummers who came out and played the rhythms she had tapped out. In a later number, she would sit in the same place and do a call-and-response with the entire troupe, with her banging only the floor.

Every time it seemed we’d seen everything the troupe had to offer, something new was added. In the fourth number, drums lying sideways were struck on both sides by two different women, several of whom, standing between two drums, alternated between them. The eighth piece was mostly dance, with the queen drummer holding the beat—mostly dancing, that is, until it evolved into a beautiful chanting song.

I can’t easily describe the finale except as a tour de athletic force of rhythm and choreography that included cartwheels, dancers jumping over one another, and the queen mother wielding a six-foot-long stick with which to strike the sticks of others and be struck by them.

A powerful pas de quatre in which dancers circled four drums and with perfect precision struck their own and those of the others, first with little ronde de jambs over them, then with swooping, drumming 360 turns beside them, was the dramatic highlight of the piece and an altogether pleasing show.

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Fringe 2011 Review: Rachel Calof

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Rachel Calof

VENUE #2: CSV Flamboyan
1h 30m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 5
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sat 20 @ 9 Sat 27 @ 2:15
http://www.rachelcalof.net

Rating: 4
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

A picture bride survives an unbearable childhood in Russia and a brutally harsh North Dakota family of in-laws and winter before things become better.

If this logline strikes you as surprisingly inactive for a dramatic story, you’ve identified the central problem in the one-person play “Rachel Calof.”

Teachers of narratives—whether it’s a play, movie, short story, novel, or even a memoir or nonfiction narrative destined for a magazine—all agree: If your story has a protagonist, the protagonist has to actively resolve the plot’s complications (or fail trying). Jack Hart, in his excellent book “Storycraft” says, “when you’re looking for a protagonist, search for the person who makes things happen.” Rachel Calof, it turns out, is no protagonist.

The play is based on a book, “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains” (Indiana University Press, 2009) that in turn is based on a hand-written memoir Calof’s family found after she died, augmented by “scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background,” according to IUP press materials.

In childhood, Calof, whose mother died when she was four, is bounced like a pinball between a thoughtless and cruel father, a thoughtfully cruel step-mother, and an imperious and uncaring great-uncle who, as Calof approaches marrying age, wrenches her from a growing friendship and love with a village butcher boy by sending her to America to marry a total stranger to the family.

In America, Calof is an impeccably passive fiancee and then wife and daughter-in-law. Her mother-in-law, by turns superstitious and just stupid, but always domineering, would make one long for the violently cruel step-mother.

Writer Ken LaZebnik shows almost no awareness of the need to make Rachel Calof at least somewhat the mistress of her own fate. It’s left to the music and lyrics (by Leslie Steinweiss) to show us a Rachel acting on her own initiative, pathetically fashioning a lamp out of mud and butter as the fuel. To be sure, in on lone, belated scene LaZebnik has Rachel saying no to the ridiculous demands of her husband, himself laughably submissive to his mother. It’s not enough. Every good thing that happens to Rachel—the visit by a neighbor to Rachel and her six-week old baby, left alone in a tiny shack; the declaration by the shochet that the ailing post-partem Rachel is allowed to eat unkosher ox meat; the children she is allowed by her husband to have—happens to her.

The narrative is bookended by Rachel’s desire, and eventually resolve, to visit her daughter in Seattle. Stepping across the threshold without her husband’s permission is apparently LaZebnik’s idea of the decisive act of an active protagonist. It’s not enough, and not just because all we see is a resolve; it comes 85 minutes and 30 years too late in the story. Worse, with a flat inactive protagonist, “Rachel Calof” almost inevitably has no other interesting characters either. Everyone, especially the husband and his mother, are flatly cruel and stupid, albeit hardworking.

There’s much to enjoy in Rachel Calof—the hardships of homesteading are novel and engrossing to a modern audience, and Kate Fuglei’s acting is inspired, her Russian-Jewish accent letter-perfect, and her singing voice is stunningly clear. In the words of IUP, “her narrative [is] both unique and a representative western tale.”

It’s not possible to rewrite a show from the audience, nor is it a critic’s place to do do, but it’s impossible not to note that the protatonist-confrontation-resolution structure is not the only one available to the author, nor is Rachel the only protagonist available.

The story as it actually seems to exist on the page’s of Calof’s memoir is one of a family with almost insurmountable challenges of culture, abject poverty, pride, and jealousy, finally and reluctantly uniting to defeat the greater enemy of North Dakota’s unrelentingly grim and nearly fatally harsh winters. In that story the husband’s admirable qualities of hard work and fealty to family would at least briefly shine, and the mother-in-law, enduring 40-below winters at the end of her life and, like Moses, given only a view of the promised land, might at least evoke our sympathy.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Chagrin

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Chagrin

1h 0m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 7:15
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 10 Thu 18 @ 4 Sat 20 @ 12
http://michaelrossalbert.com/plays/full-length-plays/chagrin/

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)


Four friends who used to star in a kid’s quiz show have drifted apart until they return to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for a TV reunion and the near-suicide of the smartest one of them.

The structure of “Chagrin”—a single scene outside a hospital—requires that the power of the show consist entirely of the successive, ongoing reveal. That requires impeccably coordinating the twin faucets of mystery and information.

Here, unfortunately, the story goes cold, as the early minutes become bogged down with unimportant information that didn’t carry us far enough toward answering the bigger questions in the backstory, while the final minutes persisted beyond their being answered, to the extent the play answers them at all.

The only action in such a story is a character’s decision to confess something or lie. It’s not enough. At some point, the audience craves action in the present.

The lack of any real action means as well that there are no opportunities for the characters to change, and with only the four friends on stage, the story becomes, over time, claustrophobic.

By contrast, had, say, the TV producers come downstairs from their vulture-like perch at the one friend’s bedside (which we know about only second-hand), they could have forced the four to make choices and reveal character through actions instead of empty words.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Non Company Mentis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2011

The Company Men
109 minutes
Written and directed by John Wells

The dictionary defines “non compos mentis” as “not of sound mind.” How else do you explain the release a movie that’s missing the last twenty minutes of the story?

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about, well, the movie, so, fair warning: spoilers ahead.

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From the trailer, the story line is clear: Ben Affleck is laid off from his white-collar job, others (Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones) are as well, they band together and start a new company of their own.

And, indeed, that’s what happens. It’s a little disconcerting that Chris Cooper doesn’t lose his position until a second round of layoffs, roughly at the movie’s midpoint. When are they going to get around to starting this new company? Tommy Lee Jones is still with the old company until plot point #2. Actually, I’m not sure there is a plot point #2. But we’re at the 90 minute mark or so. The new company doesn’t get started until the last 10 minutes or so. And then Tommy Lee Jones hires Ben Affleck. And then the movie ends.

Huh?

In other words, we never see Ben Affleck stealing away his old company’s big account, or, stealing away that new contract the greedy CEO-antagonist was counting on, or, well, do anything. So there’s no satisfying feeling of revenge. And there’s no real success—yes, his character’s fundamental desire is met: he has a job again now, and it’s not just hanging sheetrock for his brother-in-law the housebuilder. But does he have great success, or just a job that pays better than carpentry? Doe he have a job he loves?

More importantly, the movie violates perhaps the single most fundamental rule of movies (and all fiction, and in fact, all drama): the protagonist has to do the thing that achieves the movie’s outcome. Ben Affleck’s character does nothing—he passively accepts the job that Tommy Lee Jones’s character offers him.

There’s no question what the shape of this movie should be. The inciting incident is getting laid off—this should happen within the first ten minutes, ideally the first five. Chris Cooper should get laid off between minutes 30 and 40, Tommy Lee Jones would be laid off (or, for my money, quits) at the midpoint. The new company is started soon thereafter, and cannot survive unless Ben Affleck gets a big account, a task that will take us to the climax.

Yes, this would make for a very conventional three-act, two-plot-point Hollywood structure, but after all, this already is a conventional Hollywood movie. The trailer promises us one, and the movie is otherwise constructed as one. They just dragged out some of the middle parts, and forgot the third act. It’s pretty astonishing, the number of people of people who had to not notice there’s a quarter of a movie missing here—the screenwriter, the director (oh, wait, they’re the same person), the producer, and the studio. I don’t think the audience won’t notice though. Despite a great cast, the movie scores a mere 59% at Rotten Tomatoes. (Inexplicably, 71% from the critics. Maybe some of them are non compos mentis as well.)

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2010 Movie favorites to date

Posted by metaphorical on 16 January 2011

Without picking winners or trying to predict how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will pick ’em, here are some favorites, out of the movies I’ve seen to date. Interestingly, two of my favorite performances were by teenagers.

Picture:
Inception, The King’s Speech

Screenwriting:
Inception, The King’s Speech, The Town

Performances:
Christian Bale in The Fighter
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone
Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right
James Franco in Howl (I haven’t seen 127 Hours yet)
Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
Colin Firth in The King’s Speech

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Golden Globe nominations

Posted by metaphorical on 13 January 2011

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t award separate Golden Globes for adapted and original screenplays. Of the 2011 nominees two are adaptations, 127 Hours and The Social Network.

According to a November article in the UK Telegraph about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s writing process,

he decided to write the script after reading a 14-page proposal submitted to publishers by Ben Mezrich, whose subsequent book, The Accidental Billionaires, became a bestseller.

Though Sorkin was undoubtedly inspired by what he had read – he knew by page three that he wanted to bring the story to the big screen – his script and Mezrich’s book were written simultaneously and independently of each other. If Sorkin has produced an adaptation rather than an original screenplay, it’s an adaptation of an idea (albeit highly developed) rather than a finished work.

In an article in the Jan/Feb issue of Script magazine, which doesn’t seem to be online yet, screenwriter Charles Randolph said his screenplay for Love and Other Drugs bears a similarly loose relationship to the book it’s nominally based upon, Jamie Reidy’s 2005 nonfiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.

As his script came into focus, he confesses, “I didn’t really use much of the book.” Reidy’s anecdotal tales quickly became “more of a background resource than story points. It’s not really an adaptation in that sense.”

The original work was similarly disregarded when it came to David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of Rabbit Hole. Here, though, the original work being disregarded was a play and a the original author being disregarded was himself. Again from Script magazine:

I had to re-imagine the play fairly entirely to turn it into a movie. When I decided to turn it into a screenplay, I put the play aside and thought, “Okay, if this never existed as a play, how would I tell this story as a movie?”

Lastly, what’s also interesting about the Golden Globe nomination list is the many movies with acting or other award nominations that are not on the Script magazine list of potential screenwriting Oscar nominees. I may have to expand the also-worth-seeing list. Here’s the list of major Golden Globe nominations for film.

Best Motion Picture, Drama

    The Fighter
    Inception
    The King’s Speech
    The Social Network

Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical

    Alice in Wonderland
    Burlesque
    The Kids Are All Right
    Red
    The Tourist

Best Director – Motion Picture

    Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
    David Fincher, The Social Network
    Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
    Christopher Nolan, Inception
    David O. Russell, The Fighter

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama

    Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
    Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
    James Franco, 127 Hours
    Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
    Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama

    Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice
    Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
    Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
    Natalie Portman, Black Swan
    Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy

    Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland
    Johnny Depp, The Tourist
    Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version
    Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs
    Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy

    Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs
    Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
    Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
    Emma Stone, Easy A
    Angelina Jolie, The Tourist

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture

    Christian Bale, The Fighter
    Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
    Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
    Jeremy Renner, The Town
    Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

    Amy Adams, The Fighter
    Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
    Mila Kunis, Black Swan
    Melissa Leo, The Fighter
    Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture

    127 Hours
    The Kids Are All Right
    The King’s Speech
    The Social Network
    Inception

Best Animated Feature Film

    Despicable Me
    How to Train Your Dragon
    The Illusionist
    Toy Story 3
    Tangled

Best Foreign Language Film

    Biutiful
    The Concert
    The Edge
    I Am Love

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The Ghost Writer—2.5 of 5 stars, and that’s being generous

Posted by metaphorical on 8 January 2011

The Ghost Writer (IMDb, Netflix)

Written by Robert Harris & Roman Polanski, based on the novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris

It’s astonishing that this mediocre movie makes Script magazine’s list of potential Oscar nominees for best adapted screenplay—its mediocrity is deeply rooted in screenplay’s weaknesses.

The fundamental problem is that the movie violates the standard Hollywood understanding of a movie’s story. Drew Yanno, in his book The 3rd Act,, puts it this way:

Somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds.

The only thing the protagonist wants at the start of The Ghost Writer is to make a lot of money doing a quick rewrite of a former UK Prime Minister’s memoir. Later, he stumbles upon a secret and tries to unravel it. To be sure, doing so imperils his life, but it serves no interest of his beyond idle curiosity. It also puts at risk the only thing we him wanting.

A post at the blog Complications Ensue says much the same thing at far greater length and disgust, and includes a detailed spoiler-laden summary of the movie’s plot.

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Screenplays, 2010

Posted by metaphorical on 8 January 2011

The current issue of Script magazine handicaps the Oscar races for best screenplays. Some of their picks are still in theatres here, some are available on Netflix, the rest we’ll have to rent from iTunes or Amazon. Those with loglines I’ve seen.

Original Screenplays

1. Another Year (Lincoln Plaza, Angelika)
Written by Mike Leigh
  The happiness of her older friend from work eludes a middle-aged woman struggling through another year alone.

2. Get Low (available for Amazon online purchase 2/22/11)
Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell (screenplay), and Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke (story)
  A hermit hires a funeral home to gather the entire community to tell, Tom Sawyer-like, stories about himself before he dies, but really, it’s for him to tell his a story from his own dark past.

3. Hereafter(available on DVD 3/15/11)
Written by Peter Morgan

4. Inception (Netflix DVD)
Written by Christopher Nolan
  Haunted by his own dreams of his wife, Dom Cobb assembles a team of dream-stealers for one last act of corporate espionage—to plant an idea in the subconscious mind of a rival of his industrialist client.

5. The Kids Are All Right
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
  When a lesbian couple’s children contact their biological father, the couple’s relationship begins to fracture.

6. The King’s Speech
Written by David Seidler
  King George V’s younger son can keep his stutter hidden from the world until a number of events thrust him in the limelight: his father’s death, his older brother’s abdication, the inception of WWII, and the new importance of radio. Can eccentric self-trained speech therapist Lionel Logue cure the newly crowned George VI in time for him to rally a complacent nation?

7. Somewhere (Clearview 1st & 62nd, Lincoln Square, Angelika)
Written by Sofia Coppola
  A Hollywood star is surprised by how much meaning his 11-year old daughter brings to his aimless existence when she comes to stay with him for a couple of weeks.

Adaptations

1. The Ghost Writer (Netflix DVD)
Written by Robert Harris & Roman Polanski, based on the novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris
  A ghostwriter, hired to complete the memoir of a former UK Prime Minister when the first writer dies suspiciously, pursues a secret despite putting his own life in peril.   (I didn’t think much of this movie, and briefly explain why here.)

2. Love & Other Drugs (AMC 84th St, Regal 42nd St, AMC 19th St, AMC Village 7)
Written by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy
  Jake is a happy-go-lucky born salesman—now in pharmacuticals; Maggie, a talented and gorgeous artist suffering from Parkinson’s, refuses to commit to a relationship because drugs can only hold off her symptoms somewhat and only for so long. They’re perfect for one another, until they fall in love.

3. Never Let Me Go
Written by Alex Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (available on DVD 2/1/11)
  A love triangle at a boarding school where cloned children are being raised for their body parts raises the question: will we understand life better – and will we live it better – if we know when we’re going to die?

4. 127 Hours (Landmark Sunshine)
Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  It takes a hiker 127 hours to bring himself to a point where he can save his life by sawing off his arm with a dull knife.

5. Rabbit Hole (Clearview 1st & 62nd, Landmark Sunshine)
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire
  After the death of their 4-year-old son, a couple can’t get on track with their lives—nor with each other.

6. Shutter Island (Netflix Instant)
Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
  A U.S. Marshall’s investigation of the disappearance of a murderer-patient at an island hospital for the criminally insane is too zealous for the hospital’s director.

7. The Social Network (AMC 25, AMC 19th St, Quad)
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Ben Mezrich
  The youngest billionaire in history is bound to have made some enemies along the way—and rightfully so. But then, some of them were assholes too.

8. The Town (Netflix)
Written by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
  A young, handsome, master bank robber has trouble leaving the life, and trouble staying. For one thing, he’s fallen in love with the only person who can identify his gang, and his best friend wants her dead.

9. Toy Story 3 (DVD)
Written by Michael Arndt (screenplay), John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich (story)
  Andy is headed for college, and the toys have to figure out how best to move on—a matter they have almost no control over.

Other movies that seem worth seeing

Black Swan
Written by Mark Heyman (screenplay), John J. McLaughlin (screenplay) and Andres Heinz (screenplay and story)
  A shy, young ballerina on the cusp of greatness has to embrace her dark side or lose her first starring role.

The Fighter
Written by Scott Silver (screenplay) and Paul Tamasy (story and screenplay) & Eric Johnson (story and screenplay) & Keith Dorrington (story)
  A Lowell, Mass., boxer with one more shot at the top is torn between professional management and his current manager (his overbearing mother) and trainer (his screw-up exfighter older brother).

Howl
Written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
  Out-of-the-closet beat poet Alan Ginsberg is liberated by the publication of Howl, while his publisher—poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti—stands trial for the poem’s obscenity.

True Grit
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
  A 14-year old girl seeking justice for her murdered father hires an alcoholic U.S. Marshall (because she’s told he has “true grit”) to hunt down the killer in Indian territory—forcing him to take her along.

Winter’s Bone
Written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell
  In the Ozark foothills, a 17-year-old girl, already responsible for her 12- and 6-year-old siblings, now has to find her crank-dealing father, dead or alive, before the law takes away their house.

Blue Valentine
Written by Derek Cianfrance & Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis.
  As a marriage breaks up, you wonder what they ever saw in each other, but as they remember, though flashbacks, the relationship’s early days, you wonder how it could go so horribly wrong.

Posted in language, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Books about writing—a baker’s dozen

Posted by metaphorical on 5 November 2010

I’m teaching creative writing this term at The College of New Rochelle. It’s a monster 6-credit course, 18 sessions, 4 hours each. And I’m loving it. I’m an experienced enough teacher to know, even though this is my first time for creative writing, that this is a once-in-a-lifetime great group of students. But that aside, the course is helping me put together a whole bunch of thoughts about writing, some of which have appeared on this blog, in a more coherent (dare I say, systematic?) way.

So, naturally, in my obsessive way, I’ve been angling to teach more creative writing, and this week learned the fruits of those labors. Next term I’ll be teaching Creative Writing 101, a 6-week course at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, and Creative Writing 220 at The College of New Rochelle, a 3-credit scaled-down version of the class I’m currently giving.

In anticipation of the two new classes, I’ve put together a short (at least, as short as possible!) list of books about writing. This is about as far from being a definitive list as Sarah Palin is from the presidency, but I can certify this as a list of excellent books that I’ve found exceptionally helpful.

One disclaimer: I took classes from both Francine Prose and Susan Bell for my M.F.A., which was in creative nonfiction (at The New School, 2005-2007). Prose had just published her book and was constantly flying back from in from her book tour, which she hated, for our classes; Bell was still working on her book, and, reading the book I later came to realize, we were her guinea pigs for several of the more ambitious ideas of the book. It’s to her I owe the Berg and Ondaatje choices as well. By the way, Lopate also teaches at the New School, but only in the spring, so I had one chance to take his class and didn’t, more’s the pity.

Bell, Susan. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. Norton; 2008.

Berg, Scott. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Riverhead; 1997.

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Longman; 2010.

Flaherty, Francis. The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing. Harper; 2009.

Franklin, Jon. Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. Plume; 1994.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 2nd. ed. Shambhala; 2010.

Hall, Oakley. How Fiction Works: Proven Secrets to Writing Successful Stories That Hook Readers and Sell. Story Press/F+W Publications; 2001.

(added) Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Pantheon, 1994.

Lopate, Philip (ed). The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor; 1995.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. It; 1997.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Knopf; 2004.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Harper; 2007.

Snyder, Blake. Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese; 2005.

Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style (Illustrated). Penguin; 2005.

Posted in Lang, language, screenwriting, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Throw down your thesis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2009

In my beginning writing classes, the one idea I spend the most time on is something that’s often called the thesis statement. It isn’t enough that a college essay—or any essay, or any piece of writing, or film, or play, for that matter—have a topic. It has to have a specific thesis within that topic. The thesis statement is like chess or go—it takes a few minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.

It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it does have to be a specific assertion. “My summer vacation” is a topic. “My trip to Disneyworld last summer was the best vacation of my life” is a thesis. (“My summer vacation, the first my husband and I took in our twelve-year marriage, saved our relationship” is an even better one, but we don’t always have as much drama in our lives as a writing class would like!) One sign of a bad thesis, or no thesis, is boredom in the face of crisp prose and strong action—when readers don’t know where the story is going, it’s impossible to keep their interest.

Once you have a thesis, you know just what to write—what to include, and, equally importantly, what to exclude. Unfortunately, a thesis doesn’t always come to us tightly wound, whole, and perfect, like a new ball of soft colorful yarn. And so sometimes we start in, thinking we’re writing about one thing, and it turns out we’re really writing about another. I once heard the writer Liz Braverman say, writing is a product of the struggle “between the words in your head and the words that come off the page.” The path to a thesis sometimes looks like the ball of yarn after the cats have played with it all afternoon.

I tell my students that often you don’t know what an essay is about until the first draft is done. When you read the draft over, think about what the thesis of the actual essay—the essay as it exists on the page—is. Then reread the essay with an eye to what comports with the new thesis and what does not. Every section, every paragraph—and eventually, after the final polishing, every sentence and every word—ought to advance the thesis in some way, so add and subtract accordingly.

Which brings us to Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary film about a trip the musician Béla Fleck made to Africa. It opens today, but I saw it back in November at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2008 Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival.

First, let me say that it was a wonderful evening and a wonderful show to watch. And the film is destined to be popular, and well-liked by anyone who likes Fleck’s kind of music, or just the wonderful sounds that can result when one culture’s symbols are made to clash with another’s. The movie gets an astonishing 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb, though only 15 people have voted, and I notice it won an audience award last month at SXSW, among others listed on the film’s website.

How could one not love a film named for a story that when men from Africa’s interior were brought to a certain coastal port in Tanzania, from which they would be shipped overseas, never to see their families again, they were advised to “throw down their hearts.”

That said, Throw Down Your Heart fails as a film. It fails for the same reason many of my students’ essays fail—the failure to rethink and rewrite the work, after the true thesis emerges from the first draft.

The film’s original idea was apparently to take the instrument Fleck is most closely associated with, the banjo, back to Africa. It was described that way in the promotional material that drew me to the AMNH. It’s described that way in the IMDb blurb: “A film crew follows the well-known banjo player Béla Fleck on his travels to Africa, where he learns about the instrument’s origins.” This thesis is still expressed in the movie’s trailer: “Where the banjo has come from” “A lot of people associate it with white southern music,” “There’s an instrument [in Africa] that may be the original banjo,” etc., and it’s expressed in the first few minutes of the film.

And indeed, throughout, the movie contains vestiges of that thesis, including the intinerary that forms the backbone of the narrative, taking Fleck and the crew through four candidate countries for the origins of the banjo (Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali).

In looking for the precursors to today’s banjo, some of which are instruments that are still played in Africa, Fleck encountered extraordinary musicians, some famous, some known only within a single village but of world-class caliber. It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the movie would devolve into a celebration of those musicians, and Fleck’s interactions with them, including a couple of terrific duets and other performances in which Fleck not only plays the banjo with them, but some of the precursor instruments as well. And that’s fine. But that’s a very different movie.

Worse still, there was a third thesis available to director Sascha Paladino, hinted at in the movie, and it is in fact the movie he should have made. The AMNH viewing ended with a Q & A with some of the film’s crew. In the course of describing how hard Fleck worked, we were told that he stayed up far into the night trying to learn new forms of music and getting the hang of those African instruments. Fleck didn’t allow those late-night moments to be shown.

It’s understandable that an eight-time Grammy winner wouldn’t want to be seen making bad music late at night with unfamiliar instruments he had only just been given. But the story of one of the world’s great musicians struggling to master new instruments and new musical forms would have turned a enjoyable music travelogue into an unforgettable musical odyssey.

The New York Post put up a short review of the movie yesterday that unwittingly gets it exactly right. “The movie is at least 20 minutes too long,” the Post wrote—an extraordinary thing for a review of a 97-minute musical film in which the music is called “infectious.” (Karina Longworth, in a generally very favorable review at Spout.com, agreed, calling it “somewhat overlong.”) Boredom is the inevitable consequence of a defective thesis.

The anonymous NY Post reviewer also wrote, “Fleck fails to provide any personal charisma.” Exactly. By withholding Fleck’s failings, the movie withholds its central character. Béla, if only you had thrown down your heart.

Posted in language, pop culture, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens

By SAM DILLON

Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

Posted in education, journalism, pop culture, religion, the arts, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Modest Proposal: The Netflix Jury

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

I blog at work, and it can be a close call whether to post something here or there. So from time to time, I’ll be providing a note and link to ones that end up there.


I received a questionnaire for jury duty yesterday in the mail. It wasn’t a summons, though surely it will lead to that. I don’t mind. Serving on a jury is one of our few civic duties, a cornerstone of free and fair trials, which itself is a cornerstone of democracy.

The notice says that my name was culled at random from voter registration, driver registration, unemployment, or other social service records. I have no problem with that. But it did make me stop and think. That’s not a bad way to come up with a jury of my peers – I do, after all, vote, drive, and rely on the social safety net from time to time. But to really come up with a jury of my peers, how about getting records from Netflix?

more

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No award for old men?

Posted by metaphorical on 24 February 2008

In the run up to the Academy Awards, Knowledge News has a nice article, “Oscar’s Biggest Snubs” (thanks Claire, for the link), describing how some of Hollywood’s best films didn’t even win best-picture in the year they were released.

Citizen Kane, often cited as the greatest movie of all time, tops the list, and two of my favorite movies ever are there as well, Chinatown, and Double Indemnity. Singin’ in the Rain, not one of my favorite movies, but surely touched by greatness, and Some Like It Hot, round out the list. There’s also an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, surely the most underawarded director in Academy history.

Singin’ in the Rain apparently lost out to The Greatest Show on Earth. Now that’s a movie that I could watch over and over again, but it’s hard to see it as better than one of a few score movies that people will remember for the next fifty years.

Hollywood has always confused entertainment with greatness, and it’s always fun to see that tension play out as the Academy votes each year. Oddly, they struggled in reverse with Hitchcock—voters obviously thought of movies like Rear Window and Psycho as throw-away entertainment, when in fact we now see their lasting value and Hitchcock as one of the great auteurs of all time.

Which brings us to this year. Of the five nominees, there’s no obvious winner, though a couple will be memorable for a long time and none of them is really disposable entertainment. (The official list is here, but you have to like ImdB’s for its linkability.)

Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

We can cross There Will Be Blood off the list right away. It’s a mess of a movie, structurally unsound, poorly plotted, and with absolutely no likeable characters. It’s hard to even see how it even got nominated, except for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance.

Michael Clayton is a terrific movie, but not the kind that normally emerges as Best Picture. For one thing, it has no actual point, other than revenge is sweet and, at least in Hollywood, the smartest guy sometimes wins. It puts wit and charm in an action movie, but, frankly, that was true of Sneakers and The Italian Job, and no one ever nominated them for Oscars.

No Country for Old Men is a strong contender, because it captures a lot of mind-share as possibly the best-ever for its genre, which is that of Gruesome Thoughtful-Action Movie, a specialty of the Coen brothers. Unforgiven was in that genre, and did well its year, as did Fargo. The comparisons are limited, in that each of those movies had characters more likeable than Tommy Lee Jones’s. On the other hand, there’s a growing recognition of the auteur quality to the Coen oeuvre.

Juno is the kind of small picture that can, in these post-Little-Miss-Sunshine days, easily get nominated, but perhaps never win. It does have the merits of actual themes, a plot, a point of view, and funky believable characters, the central one of which has just the sort of change that a leading lady, even one of 16, is supposed to undergo. In other words, it’s a classic movie, and those are in somewhat short supply this year.

Even more interestingly, the central character in Atonement is likewise transformed and then, as the characters who inspired it die off, reverts to her earlier self. That’s a remarkably difficult message for Hollywood to deliver, and Atonement succeeds against all odds. Combine that with the luminous development of two characters we give our hearts to in the first part of the movie, and the radically different cinematography in the front and back halves, either of which probably deserves an award in that category, and I would have to pick this as my favorite movie of the year, and the one I’d like to see win the Best Picture award.

Some other quick picks:

Best Actor – I only saw two of the nominated performances, so I don’t get a vote. If anyone beats Daniel Day-Lewis, though, I will have to run out and see that movie.

Best Actress – I only saw one performance here. Normally that wouldn’t matter, because it was Ellen Page’s, and you ask yourself, is anyone good enough to beat that? Unfortunately, when the category includes Cate Blanchett and Julie Christie, the answer is yes.

Best Supporting Actor – the three performances I saw, Javier Bardem, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Wilkinson, were pretty amazing. Even more astonishing, though, is that Casey Affleck is nominated for something that’s presumably even better than he was in Gone Baby Gone. Personally, I hope Javier Bardem wins, because we’ll see Philip Seymour Hoffman get nominated a bunch more times, while this was Bardem’s role of a lifetime.

Best Supporting Actress – I saw four of the performances. Ruby Dee might get it, for sentimental reasons. I hope not, because it just wasn’t that memorable a role, certainly not compared to Saoirse Ronan’s, or Amy Ryan’s. Again, the missing performance is Cate Blanchett, so anything could happen here. I’m rooting for the kid.

Adapted Screenplay – I missed two of these films, unfortunately. I just hope and trust that There Will Be Blood doesn’t win, because most of its problems as a movie, not the least of which is an ending that’s both totally inevitable and completely unsatisfying, could have been fixed at the screenplay level.

Original Screenplay – I only saw two nominees, but I hope Juno gets it. It is, truly, original, in its story and its characters, in all the best ways. As a budding screenwriter, I am in awe of the writing in movies like Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno.

Update:

Well, most of the awards I cared most about fell where I wanted them to. In many cases, I didn’t see the winner’s work, so I can’t judge how smartly the Academy vote.

One exception to that was Tilda Swinton, who won best supporting actress; it was a great little part, played with greatness, sure, but it was a little part, and surely any number of actresses would have done just as well. I thought none of that was true of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.

We actually have the DVD of “La Vie en Rose” in the house, I’m eager to see Marion Cotillard’s performance. She looked and sounded pretty damned good.

I’m disappointed that Atonement didn’t win Best Picture, but I’m happy that the Coen brothers won for directing. Similarly that There Will Be Blood won for cinematography; whatever that’s pictures flaws were, there were none at the level of images on the screen.

On the plus side, Javier Bardem won his gold, and gave a great speech.

Best of all, Juno won for original screenplay.

Posted in pop culture, screenwriting, the arts, writing | Tagged: , , | 30 Comments »

“Best Sidekicks Ever”? Sending Wired back to the silver screening room

Posted by metaphorical on 23 February 2008

No, I don’t exactly know why I still subscribe to Wired, except that it’s only $12, which, per-issue, meets my going price for never saying no to something ($1). And there’s always one article that’s worth breaking into the plastic bag it comes in. Wired is no longer a technology publication, if it ever was, it’s a tech-oriented lifestyle magazine. Not surprising, since it’s published by Conde Nast—GQ and Self, for example, are, lifestyle magazines as well, the one fashion-oriented, the other fitness-related.

So it’s useless to ask, why would Wired run an article, “The 9 Best Sidekicks Ever.” This is just the kind of pop-culture pap that it now excels at. The March issue isn’t online yet, so I can’t point to it. I’ll just name them:

Sam from Lord of the Rings
Mr. Spock
Robin
Chewbacca
Dana Scully
Smithers
K.I.T.T.
Willow
Breakey

Some of these are hard to disagree with (Scully, Smithers, Spock); others are bizarre—I thought Michael Knight was the sidekick, for example, and if Willow was Buffy’s sidekick in the first season, she wasn’t one by the last one. And I don’t even know who Beakey is (the picture looks Sesame Street-related).

But, whatever. Rational people can disagree about these things. What I find objectionable is that that none goes back to before 1966 and hardly any are pre-1980. (Admittedly, the Sam and Robin characters predate their televison and film instantiations, but as there are no pure book or comic book entries in the Wired list, I’m supposing that some form of video life is a prerequisite.)

I’ve taken it upon myself, then, to come up with another list—not necessarily the “Best Ever,” just a list of great black-and-white sidekicks that, by being at least as good as Wired’s “best ever,” refute their list.

By the way, even sticking to the modern era, the list is not hard to refute: From TV, its two greatest buddy-roles: Bill Cosby (I’m not even going to mention the character’s name… okay, it turns out to be Alexander Scott) in I, Spy, and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. From film, the two greatest buddies are surely Bob Hope’s sidekick roles to Bing Crosby in the Road movies, and Jerry Lewis to Dean Martin.

And I’ll just mention in passing two other glaring omissions: Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Hobson (John Gielgud) in Arthur. Oh, and let me just put in a good word for Bruno Kirby, an exceptional sidekick to Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (and again in City Slickers) and to Matthew Broderick in the highly underrated The Freshman.

Without further ado, my black-and-white sidekick list.

Muggsy (William Demarest) in The Lady Eve

A movie so terrific, it has two sidekicks – Gerald (Melville Cooper), is Charles Coburn’s, and the dueling between them makes this the best sidekick movie ever.

Eddie (Walter Brennan), in To Have and Have Not

Was you ever stung by a dead bee?

walter-brennan-right-in-to-have-and-have-not.jpgmyrna-loy-in-the-thin-man.jpg

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man

Dick Powell is a bit miscast as Nick, but Myrna Loy will forever be the perfect Nora.

Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton) in Shall We Dance

Horton was the perfect sidekick in dozens of films; this might be his biggest role, so it’s my choice to represent him.

Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) in Singin’ In The Rain

Over in rec.climbing, someone once said, “Mount Meeker would be a really impressive mountain if God had not decided to place it right next to Long’s Peak.” Donald O’Connor might have been Hollywood’s greatest dancer if Fred Astaire had never lived. He was certainly a better dancer than Gene Kelly, and hiding that fact in Singin’ In The Rain makes him the best dance sidekick ever.

Alma (Thelma Ritter), Doris Day’s inebriated sidekick in Pillow Talk

Ritter’s most memorable role might be The Misfits, where she was Marilyn Monroe’s sidekick, but Pillow Talk was probably the most sidekick-y of her 6 Oscar nominations.

Top Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) in Rio Grande and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

John Wayne always brings out the best in supporting actors, and many of them are sidekicks. The Quincannon role is simply the best of the best, the classic one-dimensional heart-of-gold supporting character who will take a bullet for the star, has a not-very-well-hidden unrequited crush for his wife, and loves their children more than life itself. McLaglen, like Brennan, Demerest, and Horton, did it his entire career.

Posted in pop culture, technology, the arts | 6 Comments »

How low can high schools go?

Posted by metaphorical on 2 February 2008

Have you seen “Dumbing Us Down, The American Tragedy”? It’s a YouTube video that seems to be just going around now, even though it goes back to at least November 2006, when it was posted. It seems to have hit Digg just a couple of days ago.

There are a lot of links to it, but not much information. It was made by Brandon Telg, Jarred McKinney, Austin Woodall, three Gainesville (Fla.) high school students, at least at the time.

Their film takes a quick look at the declining state of education in the U.S. They call it a documentary, but at 13 minutes, its more of an outline of one. Still, they have a very nice mix of anecdote and statistic, and the video is pretty well made, a few easily excused typos and other glitches aside.

Their impetus seems to be a conversation with a history teacher who noticed, by accident at first, that almost none of his students — two of 32, in fact — knew who Gerald Ford was. The teacher later learned that only two of his students knew the name Mahatma Gandhi.

That led Telg, et al., to wonder how extensive the ignorance of their fellow students was. So they asked around to see what people knew of Gandhi. The depressing but predictable answer was, not much. Many didn’t know the name at all, while others misplaced it, such as the kid who thought Gandhi was a Mongol conqueror.

So the three videographers drew up two lists, one of famous names from history — Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Dick Cheney — the other pop culture stars — Eminem, Paris Hilton, Jack Black, and so on.

It’s hard to fathom the depths of student ignorance on display in the video. Edison was variously thought to be a former president and located in the 18th century by one student who mumbled, “kite, electricity, light bulb” — as if the light bulb were invented in the 18th century. Even Cheney was not universally known, though Eminem was.

They descry standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. They invoke John Dewey, Horace Mann, and Cotton Mathers, and find, in their words, “This generation is witnessing first-hand the disintegration of the original intent of the American public education system.”

As I said, there’s not much information about the video and it’s more cited than discussed in the blogverse. But 24-year-old Daniel H. had some comments I found interesting.

For example, all I knew about Calvin Coolidge was that he was a president… that was pretty much it. I did know about Gandhi and Edison, but only a couple sentences’ worth. Now, I consider myself an intelligent person, but that doesn’t really help much for what would be considered “book learning”. You see, with the current state of our education system, students are learning less and less. I think it started around the time I was coming up through elementary school, and I’m only 24 years old.

In elementary school, I was given a calculator from day 1 and was told to use it when multiplying and dividing. Did we learn our “times tables” ? Yeah.. but we only went over it for a few days before we had a calculator stuffed in our hand. Talking to people even just a few years older than me makes me realize what all I never had in school.

Previous generations had to memory their multiplication table backwards and forwards- I never really did. They learned the presidents in order with facts about each- we barely went over the list once, and certainly didn’t have to memorize it. We never had to learn where all 50 states are in the US and the capital of each (I had friends in high school who thought Alaska was down by Mexico because of concatenated maps)… there are plenty more instances like that.

Daniel certainly overestimates the older generation. I went to some pretty good schools growing up, including the top high school in New York and maybe the country. While we were required to know our times tables up to 12, we never memorized state capitals or presidents. I have a self-selected group of very smart friends online, but of the people I know day-to-day in ordinary life, I might be the only one who can locate all 50 states geographically, another thing I wasn’t required to know growing up.

Anyway, it’s hard for me not to connect the video up with another youth-culture documentarian who this week floated through one of the mailing lists I’m on: Virgil, creator of Booksthatmakeyoudumb.

Basically, this guy looked at college students’ favorite-book lists on Facebook, then correlated them with the average SATs of the schools’ student bodies, to rank the most popular books in terms of the scores. Hence, Books That Make You Dumb. (“Yes, I’m aware correlation ≠ causation. The results are hilarity incarnate regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”)

Here’s the methodology in a little more detail.

Ever read a book (required or otherwise) and upon finishing it thought to yourself, “Wow. That was terrible. I totally feel dumber after reading that.”? I know I have. Well, like any good scientist, I decided to see how well my personal experience matches reality. How might one do this?

Well, here’s one idea.

1. Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most frequent “favorite books” at every college (manually — as not to violate Facebook’s ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.

2. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college.

3. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Books ~ Colleges ~ Average SAT Scores

4. Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average.

5. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

He takes at face value Facebook’s book names (“The Bible” and “The Holy Bible” are different, for example), and he categorizes the books by simply taking what shows up most for them on LibraryThing. And the methodology itself is probably specious, but the list is pretty interesting. The data itself is fascinating. While I think it’s mostly in accord with expectations, it’s good to see in living color.

It’s pleasing to see how popular 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby are, and that East of Eden, Lolita, Running With Scissors, and 100 Years of Solitude show up at all — heck, I’m even glad that Atlas Shrugged and Anthem show up; as bad as Rand is, you can’t read them mindlessly. (It’s disappointing that The Republic isn’t at least as popular, though.)

As crazy as this project is, it’s worth a look. And given that the Facebook crowd is probably just a few years older than that of Gainesville High School, maybe there’s some cause for hope. At least a few college students have favorite books, and some pretty damned good ones at that.

Posted in education, language, pop culture, the arts, writing | 3 Comments »

Entertainment ecosystems, part 2: The Broadway Channel

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2008

… we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
“Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”

    — Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

I argued in an earlier post that the music industry was killing off its ecosystem. Well, theatre has never had much of one, and it’s killing off what little it has.

Back in December, Carroll Senior High School, in Dallas, Tx., mounted a production of “The Phantom Of The Opera.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. As the local NBC station reported,

R&H Theatricals, a division of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, has selected Carroll Senior High School as one of six pilot productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s acclaimed musical in anticipation of its eventual release into the community, regional and school theatrical market.

“While there are no plans at this time to release Phantom to the stock and amateur market, we want to be fully prepared for when that great day arrives,” said Charlie Scatamacchia, Vice President for R&H Theatricals. “What we learn from the production at Carroll Senior High School and five other sites we’ve chosen will help us with the process of bringing the longest running musical in Broadway history to theaters across the country.”

Working from the very same script and score that is currently being enacted every night on Broadway, in London’s West End, and on U.S. National Tour, the production here at Carroll Senior High School along with the five other pilot productions will provide R&H Theatricals with the roadmap for future local stagings of “Phantom” across America.

Phantom is a very carefully managed theatrical property. And it’s wealthy beyond belief. It’s the exception. It opened in London in 1986 and is still playing in the same theatre there. It opened in New York in 1988, and is still playing at the Majestic Theater, 20 years later, the longest run in Broadway history, and the only current show to run permanently in other cities as well.

“’The Phantom Of The Opera” has been produced in hundreds of cities in more than 20 countries around the world, and seen by an estimated worldwide audience of 80 million people to date. It has received more than 50 major theatre awards, among them seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Phantom spun off a movie in 2004. Of course, the play is loosely based on the classic 1925 movie, itself adapted from a classic 19th century novel. Phantom is a phenomenon. It’s also the exception.

Playbill calls it the “the most successful stage musical of all time.”

The Phantom of the Opera has worldwide ticket sales exceeding $3.2 billion (surpassing the highest grossing film of all time, “Titanic,” which has grossed $1.9 billion worldwide) and has been seen by over 100 million people. The winner of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the New York production has been seen by over 10 million people and grossed over $550 million.

A top play on Broadway will break $1 million in ticket sales, and a great week on Broadway would be $20 million across 30 shows. A single movie will routinely break $20 million in its first week.

A studio spends $10 or $110 million making a movie and then an equal amount to promote it. In only a few weeks we go from having never heard of a movie to knowing quite a bit about it — for values of “we” that go as high as 300 million people. Oceans 12, a truly awful movie, cost $110 million and grossed $125 million.

What a studio is doing in those few weeks is creating a brand. And it pays off. The initial marketing creates reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations, blog comments — in general, mindshare. And the brand, in turn, generates ticket sales, foreign ticket sales, DVD sales and rentals, and, at least occasionally, a bidding war among television stations to air it, McDonalds give-aways, toys, and, last but not by any means least, sequels, remakes, and television shows (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and In the Heat of the Night). It’s fair to say that “Titanic,” “Mission Impossible,” and the James Bond series are all multi-billion-dollar enterprises.

And it’s not just the top movies. Here’s a really unscientific comparison to describe what I mean. Search for “God Grew Tired of Us,” which won a jury prize at the 2006 Sundance festival, and you get 145,000 hits. Of course they may not all be about the movie, but a spot check suggests at least the first 800 are. By contrast, “I Was Tom Cruise,” which was an Outstanding Play winner at the 2006 Fringe NYC festival has a mere 9830 hits.

What theatre does, by and large, is create brands that it then just wastes. Phantom has not. It is the exception.

Yet look again at Phantom’s stats. Its New York ticket sales of half a billion dollars, over the course of 20 years, are far less than Titanic achieved in a matter of months.

And its rights-holders are only now getting ready to “release Phantom to the stock and amateur market,” as Scatamacchia put it. What that means is that for 22 years, high schools and amateur and regional theatre companies have not been able to mount productions of it. They can’t even get the scripts, or sheet music, or information about building the sets. In fact, they have no clue what the show even looks like without traveling at least to Las Vegas to see one of the few licensed live productions of it.

And that’s true for most Broadway shows (except the Vegas part). It’s why “The Wizard of Oz” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” are performed so often by high schools, and “Rent” and “Phantom,” enormously popular among teenagers, aren’t. It’s easy to secure the rights, scripts, and music for the one, and literally impossible to get them for the other.

Theatre survives and even thrives in New York and London because it attracts money from around the world. The most coveted orchestra seats can sell for hundreds of dollars now because rich tourists and sheiks are willing to pay for them. But in the same way that major league baseball needs the minor leagues and pro football needs the NCAA, theatre cannot flourish as a key element of our culture if it is fat and healthy only in two cities on on the planet.

Without a farm system of schools and summer camps, amateur groups and regional companies, without off-off Broadway and off-Broadway, where will future actors and directors and stage managers come from? Without a farm system, where will new scripts come from, and who will stage them?

Theatre has cut itself off from any possible ecosystem. It needs high school students turned on by theatre, learning its language and history, its great designs and performances. Any budding 15-year-old with a videocamera can rent “Citizen Kane” for $2.99 and see Welles’s groundbreaking ideas about cinematography. But if that kid wants take up her sketchpad after listening to the soundtrack to Phantom, where does she go to see its legendary set designs?

Does anyone at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization really think that a high school production of Phantom will do anything but whet a Texan’s appetite for the real thing? To be sure, it’s possible that a really bad production would turn people off. But not only would those people probably not have ever gone to see Phantom in Las Vegas or New York or London, but we can extend the question. Does anyone at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization really think that a videotape of a New York performance would do anything but whet a viewer’s appetite for the real thing?

And so I propose The Broadway Channel.

Broadway — and live theatrical performance in general — needs its own cable network. Take two cameras, one wide-angled and fixed, and the other one closeup on the singers, and film every show on Broadway, and every off-Broadway show as well. Show them on The Broadway Channel. Make it a vehicle for selling scripts, sheet music, and set designs. Put clips up on YouTube.

Broadcast the NYC Fringe Festival, and the Edinburgh one as well. Cabarets and nightclub acts come and go — lift them from the depths of ephemera by recording them for posterity. The ones that have a strong viewership on The Broadway Channel have a strong case for being reprised.

Run a contest for best high school productions of a drama and a musical, with prestigious judges from Broadway, the winning tape to be shown on The Broadway Channel. Create Broadway Idol, an American Idol limited to show tunes and with judges who know and care when someone is off-pitch.

Be creative. And create an ecosystem.

Posted in pop culture, the arts | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »