Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 December 2007

Another December Day in Los Angeles; Another Great Movie

Today I saw There Will Be Blood, the new Paul Thomas Anderson film. PTA is the director of four very good films to date (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-drunk Love), but There Will Be Blood is a huge departure for Anderson, who has used most of the same actors and musicians in the last four films. Blood is a Western, and a strange, intense, fucked-up Western at that.

Daniel Day-Lewis is a fiercely competitive oil magnate, who is also almost psychotically misanthropic. The role fits Day-Lewis to a tee, but its Anderson's style (in both writing and directing) that really make There Will Be Blood the bizarre masterpiece that it is. I actually don't want to say too much about the film. It's an intensely weird experience, and it may not be everyone's cup of tea. It certainly isn't as irreverent or sad as Anderson's other movies, and it doesn't hook you emotionally in his usual ways. Instead, Blood is creepy, suspenseful, chilling.

It reminded me, more than anything else, of Jean-Pierre Melville. If the opening ten minutes of There Will Be Blood is like the opening ten minutes of any other film I would say it is like Melville's Le Samouraï, and it isn't just because it lacks dialogue for so long. Blood begins with a bizarre, confusing sound, which I can only imagine is intended to jar its audience, much like the out-of-focus opening of Le Samouraï.

I don't want to say anything more about There Will Be Blood. I need to see it again. And probably a third time.

27 December 2007

"This World" by Mary Oliver

One of the few gifts I received for Christmas (for my family doesn't do gifts anymore) is Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. I am reading it as slowly as I can, but I am still already over halfway through. Anyway, I thought I would share one of the poems. This one is called "This World" and it's on p. 27:
I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it
nothing fancy.
But it seems impossible.
Whatever the subject, the morning sun
glimmers it.
The tulip feels the heat and flaps its petals open
and becomes a star.
The ants bore into the peony bud and there is the dark pinprick well of sweetness.
As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.
So I tried with my eyes shut, but of course the birds were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and beautiul silence
as comes to all of us, in little earfuls, if we're not too hurried to hear it.
As for spiders, how the dew hangs in their webs even if they say nothing, or seem to say nothing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe they sing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing too, and the ants, and the peonies, and the warm stones,
so happy to be where they are, on the beach, instead of being locked up in gold.

26 December 2007

Demon Barbers and Little Liars

Brittney and Wahima and I went, the other day, to see Tim Burton's film of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It's a good Tim Burton film, too, but I don't think much of it as a production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim's play. See, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, good actors though they are, just cannot sing the roles for which they are cast.
The result of this lack of singing ability is that the film never really gets off the ground. The really emotional songs seem flat or American Idol-esque in style. The funny songs seem far too serious, and the stuff that's truly insane seems explainable. My favorite song "Epiphany" is almost completely lacking in power.
It's an odd mix. Burton's technique is excellent and his ways of making the play more cinematic sometimes work well. At other times, though, he can't quite imagine directing a musical, and the film gets stuck in that barber shop. Burton has, for instance, cut all of the crowd sequences: "More Hot Pies," the crowd sequence with Pirelli, and my personal favorite, the madhouse stuff where all the inmates sing "rats in the streets" or whatever that song is. I can imagine a couple of very clever ways of doing each of those sequences that film would facilitate rather than hinder, but Burton has decided to cut them out completely. Because of this, the film (paradoxically) seems smaller than stage show, as though London were a city inhabited by only ten or twelve people.
A couple of things work very well, though. Tobias has been recast as a younger boy, about twelve or thirteen, and this choice is great. The young man is instantly loveable and it allows a real relationship to develop between him and Mrs. Lovett. I also really liked the second "Johanna" number, which is one of my favorite songs in the show. The camera follows Antony as he searches for Johanna in the streets, and then cuts back and forth between Sweeney in the barbershop and the beggar woman below. I liked the film alright, I guess, but I would never listen to the soundtrack. Thankfully I can listen to Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury when I get back home.

Today I saw Joe Wright's Atonement and I'm moving it to the top of my list. It's epic, romantic, and powerful. I think it's a good film about the ravages of war, but the romantic plot is an incredibly moving saga. I cannot tell you how many times I cried watching this film, and I know when I see it again I'll probably cry even more. Wright's Pride & Prejudice was a great movie, and it was in my top ten a couple years ago, but Atonement is superb. His skill as a filmmaker should, by now, be evident to everyone. Atonement is subtle, slick and builds slowly and comically, with a sweet, romantic tension. And then the movie shifts and becomes a powerful epic about trying to make a life together amid tragedy. I loved it. Go see it. Bring a handkerchief.

22 December 2007

Northern Lights

It's what I get, I suppose, for reading Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass before seeing Chris Weitz's film version. After telling everyone I've seen in the last week how absolutely great the book is, how it is a must-read for anyone who likes fantasy books, after how happy the book made me, I was bound to be disappointed in the movie.
And, surprise, surprise, The Golden Compass just did not measure up. I think, though, that this is not a case of the novel simply being too rich or detailed or interior for film, but just bad storytelling. Instead of working at creating powerful moments or important relationships, The Golden Compass is too busy making sure we understand the terms of the world the movie lives in. The book is almost all exposition, too, so I don't understand why the movie decided it needed to work in another way. The book, in fact, starts with us knowing absolutely nothing, and then learning what we learn about the world of the novel as we go along. Things are explained when they need to be explained and never before. The entire book, actually, is more an unfolding of things we don't know than a series of events. It's action-packed, of course, but the narrative works because we figure things out as we go along. The movie of The Golden Compass, however, turns out to be a lot like the film of another book I love, A Home at the End of the World: just a series of plot points strung together. So the movie hits all of the points in the plot, sure, but none of the events really has any power because we don't really care about any of the characters.
Sam Elliott was cool in the movie, and watching the polar bears fight was fun, but the movie didn't really get off the ground until we met Iorek Byrnison and by that time I had already checked out.

20 December 2007

Oh that Jason Reitman

I really liked Thank You for Smoking, but Jason Reitman's new movie Juno is easily one of the best of the year. The screenplay is absolutely superb, of course, and Diablo Cody, Juno's now-famous scribe deserves all the accolades she's getting, but Reitman's cinematic sensibility is really something to talk about, I think. He has a way with scathing satire that gets under your skin and makes you really care about the characters he wants to skewer.
His blend of comedy and drama is, to my mind, a unique one. Exceedingly clever, dark humor with moments of genuine beauty.
Easily one of my favorite films of the year. Juno is a really great movie, with a central, acerbic performance from actress Ellen Page that is impossible not to love. The supporting cast is great too, with Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Alison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, J.K. Simmons and Jennifer Garner. I absolutely loved it. It's quirky, fun, moving without being sentimental, and has the wittiest dialogue you'll hear in a movie this year.

17 December 2007

Happy Holidays

Ok, so these are not all holiday movies, but I am in Los Angeles now and in the seasonal spirit. It's colder here (than in Florida; I guess that isn't saying much) and the leaves are all multi-colored and covering the ground. It's quite lovely, actually. The movie-watching has begun. I have been spending time doing things for pleasure instead of work since Tuesday night and only this morning did I pick up a book I'm reading for my thesis. On the plane ride over, in fact, I didn't even look at Violence and Its Causes or Reading Rape or Sweet Violence, all of which I need to be read-up on before I go back to Tally. Instead, I read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass which is easily the most fun I've had reading a book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows... maybe even a little more fun because I know there are two more books in the series. The Golden Compass is a must-read: fun, imaginative, action-packed, beautifully written and very, very smart.

The first movie I've seen since school got out is Kevin Lima's Enchanted, which I liked but didn't love. It has a lot of very funny moments, but at times it's cloyingly sweet and sometimes the princess played by Amy Adams seemed a little too much like Forrest Gump for my comfort. Enchanted works best when it is committed to being a musical. The central park number "How Does She Know?" is by far the best set piece in the show. James Marsden is absolutely brilliant, too. He should be getting tons and tons of work. He was a hit in Hairspray, too, I thought. The guy obviously has talent to spare.

I also caught Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, and the best way I can describe it is to say how smart it is. Baumbach understands families incredibly well and his portraits of deeply neurotic people and their equally neurotic dependencies on their families are scathingly intelligent. The thing is, I'm not sure that this kind of precise, clever storytelling makes for a very enjoyable moviegoing experience. I felt this way about The Squid and the Whale, too. I respect both of these films enormously and I find them engaging and well-crafted, but I don't really like any of the characters, and so I don't really like the movies as much as I think they are good. I need to mention here, though, that Nicole Kidman is perfect in this role. And she gives a knockout performance. She's a smart actress, so it makes sense that she would flourish in Baumbach's world, but I think this is Kidman's best performance in years. Truly great. I don't think she's picking up much awards traction for this little movie (the writing is really what the movie showcases, and most likely what will grab the Academy's attention), and I think that's rather a shame. She's doing excellent work here.

...and for a little Christmas cheer, my sister and cousin and I watched Holiday Inn (1942) with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It's a bizarre little film that, I guess, most people have seen before. I hadn't. It's also the movie that gave us the song "White Christmas," but I have to say I like the film White Christmas much, much better than Holiday Inn, which has an inane (and slightly sexist) plot. Most of the songs are forgettable, too. There is one song that is completely unforgettable, though, and that is the song that Bing and Marjorie Reynolds sing for Lincoln's Birthday... in blackface. It's called "Abraham" and aside from being totally catchy, it's also jarringly dated. Watching Reynolds as a pickaninny, that old racist stereotype of black children, is jawdropping. I was aghast. The Independence Day number is also rather jawdropping. It's a blatant piece of war propaganda shoved into the middle of a film that is ostensibly a musical comedy. Bizarre. But every time Fred Astaire hits the dance floor, I forget about the rest of it. Astaire's character is a total heel in the movie, but his dancing is impeccable and at times almost transcendent. There is a fabulous number called "Easy to Dance With" that comes early in the film, but the highlight is easily Fred's drunk number. He performs this with Marjorie Reynolds all the while dancing as though he is almost dead drunk. It's exhilarating to watch.

I'm in Los Angeles, now, so more movie reviews to come.
P.S. I'm here for three weeks, so let's hang out if you're in the city.

11 December 2007

The Oscar Race

So now that I have a little time, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the critics awards that have been released over the last couple of days. Everything will change very visibly with the Golden Globe nominations on Thursday, but here is what everyone's talking about right now.

American Gangster
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Bucket List
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Into the Wild
The Kite Runner
Lars and the Real Girl
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood

It seems very likely that no other film will emerge as a frontrunner for awards, and that the five Best Picture nominees will come from this list. It's a huge list, so that shouldn't be too shocking. Most frequently mentioned here are No Country for Old Men, of course, and The Diving Bell and Butterfly, which is getting mentioned as most critics' Best Foreign Language selection. It is ineligible for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, but it could emerge with a Best Picture nomination. If it's lucky. This seems unlikely.

Paul Thomas Anderson (L.A.)
Tim Burton (Nat'l Board of Review)
The Coen Brothers (N.Y., San Francisco)
Julian Schnabel (Boston, L.A.)

The additional directors mentioned by the BFCA are: Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), Sean Penn (Into the Wild) and Joe Wright (Atonement). The top four here are Anderson, the Coens and Schnabel. I expect Lumet to get an Oscar nomination too. Not sure about slot five.

George Clooney (NBR, San Fran)
Daniel Day-Lewis (L.A., N.Y.)
Emile Hirsch (NBR)
Frank Langella (Boston, L.A.)

The BFCA also includes Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises). Viggo Mortensen's performance is one of the best of year--no question. Not sure if he can score a nomination, though. I think Hirsch's chances are iffy, too. He is very young for a Best Actor nomination. Could James McAvoy (Atonement) place?

Julie Christie (NBR, L.A., N.Y., San Fran)
Marion Cotillard (Boston)
Anamaria Marinca (L.A.)
Ellen Page (NBR)

THE BFCA adds to this Amy Adams (Enchanted), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: the Golden Age) and Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart). They aren't included here, but I think Laura Linney (The Savages) and Keira Knightley (Atonement) could also place.

Casey Affleck (NBR, San Fran)
Javier Bardem (Boston, N.Y.)
Hal Holbrook (L.A.)
Vlad Ivanov (L.A.)

The BFCA adds Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson's War) and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton). The field is not completely wide open here, but only Bardem is really set in stone here. And everyone was talking about Max Von Sydow (The Diving Bell and Butterfly) last week...

Amy Ryan (NBR, Boston, L.A., N.Y., San Fran)
Cate Blanchett (L.A.)

The only name anyone is mentioning is Amy Ryan and this is stupid. Not because she's bad in the movie (although I wasn't particularly over the moon about her performance), but because the critics have a chance to influence the discourse. The only actress anyone wants to talk about is Amy Ryan, and they could be choosing instead to promote some other cool performances. The BFCA adds Catherine Keener (Into the Wild), Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement) and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). But what about Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men), Charlotte Gainsbourg (I'm Not There.) or Leslie Mann (Knocked Up). I can think of another three or four actresses whose supporting work impressed me. It is a little ridiculous that no critics organizations can think of any.

Summing Up 2007

1. What did you do in 2007 that you'd never done before? I had a one-night stand. Went to New Orleans.

2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year? My New Years' resolution last year was to have a one-night stand. I am happy to report that I did it. Let me get philosophical for a moment: We put so much value on long-term relationships, and I certainly want one, but short term relationships can be fulfilling to. Having my first one-night stand was one of the best decisions I ever made. Not because it made me feel liberated or powerful—though it did make me feel those things—but because sex has the ability to be really fulfilling in and of itself. It doesn't always need true love to do that.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes. My dear friend Madison had a baby girl named Savannah Belle. One of my professors just adopted a baby, too.

4. Did anyone close to you die? An acquaintance of mine named Judy Arnold died a couple of weeks ago of a heart attack. I worked with Judy when we both worked for the Centre in Vancouver.

5. What countries did you visit? None. I stayed in Tallahassee most of the year.

6. What would you like to have in 2008 that you lacked in 2007? A better car would be nice. But I'd actually rather have a better wardrobe. I kind of hate everything I own right now.

7. What dates from 2007 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? 8/25/07 My brother and his wife got married. The wedding was a total blast and the ceremony was beautiful.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? I am proud of a lot of stuff this year. I directed a show called The New Musical Project which my friend Gretchen produced. My thesis is on its way, by which I mean that I have some really strong and exciting ideas and I've started actually writing them down. I'm also really happy with a paper I just finished writing called "Othello and the Pornographic Imagination" and I got my Caroline, or Change paper accepted to a conference. I'm feeling pretty good.

9. What was your biggest failure? This year, I think I have been particularly impatient. I often lack the ability to sympathize with other people's difficulties. I am trying to be warmer and more understanding.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? I don't think so. It's been a healthy year. I've been doing a lot more yoga.

11. What was the best thing you bought? Vosges.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration? My friend Jaime, who graduated from college this year. My friend Derek who constantly amazes me. My friend Marcos, who came out to Tallahassee to visit me! My roommate, who is really smart. Ron Paul.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Alberto Gonzalez, as usual. George W. Bush, as usual. Larry Craig.

14. Where did most of your money go? My mortgage. Grr.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Visiting California (all three times). Seeing my friends. The Oscar nominations (as usual). The Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference.

16. What song will always remind you of 2007? Sufjan Stevens' album "Come on Feel the Illinoise" (I know, I'm behind) and the song "Sailing" from A New Brain (also way behind).

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder?
b) thinner or fatter? Fatter (ugh)
c) richer or poorer? Poorer

18. What do you wish you'd done more of? Drinking gin, directing, eating fabulous meals, cooking, watching movies (didn't get to do that enough this year), making out.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of? Sweating my ass off in Tallahassee, working on The Tamer Tamed, reading passages from Bernard Dukore, that shit puts me to sleep.

20. How will you be spending Christmas? With my family and many of my friends in California.

21. Did you fall in love in 2007? No sir, I did not.

22. How many one-night stands? This makes me smile. Two.

23. What was your favorite TV program? Planet Earth. It's the only show I watched, and I watched every episode. Genius.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year? I don't think so. I guess I have become slightly more generous this year. (I'm probably lying. I just can't think of anyone in particular.)

25. What was the best book you read? Elizabeth Grosz: Space, Time, and Perversion; Michel Foucalt: The History of Sexuality; Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway; J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; David Edgar: Pentecost; Mark Ravenhill: Some Explicit Polaroids; plus I read six or so plays by the brilliant David Rudkin this year.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery? Sufjan Stevens. The Real Group. Kate Walsh. I've also spent the year becoming even more obsessed with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Philip Glass and Alexandre Desplat.

27. What did you want and get? The Sarasota boy. :-)

28. What did you want and not get? To direct more. An extra visit to California.

29. What was your favorite film of this year? So far No Country for Old Men, Sunshine, The Lives of Others, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but I expect the list to change a little when I visit Los Angeles next week.

30. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? I turned 26. We didn't celebrate in Tallahassee, although Julie did buy me Godiva!

31.What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? I'm doing pretty well. Making money would make the whole thing feel like my work was useful, but I still feel like I am producing a lot of work.

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2007? I'm a total mess. I never go shopping any more and my wardrobe is aging badly, I'm afraid.

33. What kept you sane? Jaime. Gin. The Fug Girls. The Coffee Pub.

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Neil Patrick Harris, Adam Brody, James Mardsen, Emile Hirsch.

35. What political issue stirred you the most? American policy in Iraq. Torture policies in this country.

36. Who did you miss? My awesome friends in California. Ryan and Alison in Sarasota. My parents and my brother and sister.

37. Who was the best new person you met? Joe Fabal, Trent, Anne, Joel, Candace, Kevin, Greg, Michael Stablein Jr., John, David Ian Rabey. Lots of people this year.

38. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2007: Don't be in such a hurry. You will get there; there's no need to make it go faster.

39. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year: "I want a little sugar in my bowl"

08 December 2007

American Musical Theater

I just got a notice from a conference I sent an abstract to at the end of August. Check it out!
Dear Mr. Thomas,
We’re pleased to accept your paper for the conference, American Musical Theater, at the CUNY Graduate Center in April 2008. The conference will begin on Wednesday, April. 2 and continue through Saturday, April 5. We’ve scheduled papers to last no more than 20 minutes, with 10 minutes of discussion to follow.

We will be posting the program on the web in early January – first with just the titles of sessions and papers, later with abstracts, program details, and brief biographies of the presenters. So we’ll need your final title by January 3 and the final version of your abstract and biography by February 15. We will send you the web address as soon as the website is up and running.

We look forward to seeing you in April.

The Program Committee
John Graziano
bruce mcclung
David Savran
Stacy Wolf
The paper I sent them is called "The Legacy and Reclamation of the Mammy in Caroline, or Change." Here's the abstract:
Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's 2004 musical Caroline, or Change has been hailed as a triumph of musical theatre as well as a shrewd social commentary. Critically ignored, however, has been a crucial component of the musical's subject matter: an exploration of the legacy of black women working as domestic servants to Southern white families. This paper explores Kushner's musical in the context of its place in a history of devastatingly harmful representations of black women on the American stage. The value of this historicity, finds Kushner's heroine to be a fully-formed portrait of black woman; she exhibits the characteristics of the traditional mammy, but emerges as a complicated, multi-dimensional character. Kushner re-imagines the stereotype of the black American mammy and finds new and vibrant life in her story both as a mother figure to the white children she raises and as a profound force for change in her own household.
Fun, huh?

01 December 2007

Semester Over?

With the kind of program I'm in, there is no such thing as being done. My last class day is on December 6th. I have a presentation on The Tamer Tamed that night, a Spanish translation test on December 8th, and then I present my final paper for history (It's titled "Othello and the Pornographic Imagination") on December 11th. That's my last official assignment for the semester. I am leaving Tallahassee on December 12th in the early afternoon, but as for taking a real break... doing that is not actually going to be possible.

See, I need to defend my thesis in front of my committee at some point in mid-March, which is, if I'm counting correctly, three and a half months away. That's three and a half months to write four chapters for my thesis and make sure they pass muster. I have four committee members, but the scary one is my advisor/major professor. (I chose her, of course, so it is my own fault.) I think I need a little hand-holding right now, and she isn't really willing to give me any.

At any rate, all of this means that I need to get a good jump on thesis chapter one before I leave Tallahassee (in other words, I should be doing that right now instead of blogging), and that I'm going to need to spend some of my supposed break working on thesis chapters.

Bluefield Breakdown: Poem for Today

"Bluefield Breakdown" (From Toward Any Darkness, Word Press, 2007)
By Rick Mulkey

Where are you Clyde Moody, and you Elmer Bird,
"Banjo Man from Turkey Creek," and you Ed Haley,
and Dixie Lee singing in that high lonesome way?
I feel the shadow now upon me...
Come you angels and play those dusty strings.
You ain't gonna work that sawmill Brother Carter,
nor sleep in that Buchanon County mine. Clawhammer
some of that Cripple Creek song. Fiddle me a line
of "Chinquapin Hunting." Shout little Lulie, shout, shout.
I need to hear music as lonesome as I am,
I need to hear voices sing words I've forgotten.
This valley's much too dark now.
Sunset right beside us, sunrise too far away.
I haven't heard a tipple creak all day,
and everyone I loved left
on the last Norfolk & Southern train.