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

31 December 2012

Best Actress 2012

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, these are my five favorite performances, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actresses who I think need the most votes are at the top.

DEANIE IP, A Simple Life

QUVENZHANÉ WALLIS, Beasts of the Southern Wild


RACHEL WEISZ, The Deep Blue Sea


Also loved:
Ann Dowd, Compliance
Nadezhda Markina, Elena
Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman
Naomi Watts, Lo Imposible (The Impossible)
Zhang Ziyi, Dangerous Liaisons

Apologies to Nina Hoss (Barbara), Isabelle Huppert (In Another Country), and Teresa Madruga (Tabu), whose films I plan to see, but have not yet.

My Best Actress Picks for 2011
My Best Actress Picks for 2010
My Best Actress Picks for 2009
My Best Actress Picks for 2008
My Best Actress Picks for 2007

30 December 2012

The Miserable Ones

This is not a review of Les Misérables; it is actually a famous excerpt from Lee Edelman's No Future. Still, because it is the first thing I think of when I think of Les Misérables, and because it is such a famous piece from queer theory, I will ask it to express at least a little of how I felt about Tom Hooper's total mess of a film:
Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.
And now, five things I actually liked about Les Mis:
1. Aaron Tveit! Finally someone who can sing is in the movie!
2. Little Daniel Huttlestone who plays Gavroche.
3. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried, both in good voice and both rather charming.
4. Because there are two people in the sequences with Thénardier and his wife, Tom Hooper can't shoot their scenes in the extreme-close-up style he uses in all of the other sequences. So: thanks, Thénardiers.
5. Russell Crowe, not for his voice (god help us), but because he is an excellent actor, and he understands that acting oughtn't to look like it is hard work.

I have complained before about the state of movie musicals since Chicago, so I won't go over all of that again. Suffice to say, that I think that what movie musicals need is singers, and until producers start feeling comfortable casting singers in movie musicals, we will continue to be forced to watch movies like Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, and Nine.

Best Actor 2012

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, these are my top five performances, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actors who I think need the most votes are at the top.

ANDERS DANIELSEN LIE, Oslo, 31. August (Oslo, August 31st)



BRADLEY COOPER, Silver Linings Playbook


Ineligible, but would be on my list if his film hadn't been nominated last year for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar:
MATTHIAS SCHOENARTS, Rundskop (Bullhead)

Also loved:
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour (Love)
Denzel Washington, Flight

My Best Actor Picks for 2011
My Best Actor Picks for 2010
My Best Actor Picks for 2009
My Best Actor Picks for 2008
My Best Actor Picks for 2007

29 December 2012

Best Supporting Actress 2012

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, these are my top five performances. I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actresses who I think need the most votes are at the top.

ANN MITCHELL, The Deep Blue Sea

GERALDINE CHAPLIN, Lo Imposible (The Impossible)




Also loved:
Amy Adams, The Master
Lorraine Toussaint, Middle of Nowhere

My Best Supporting Actress Picks for 2011
My Best Supporting Actress Picks for 2010
My Best Supporting Actress Picks for 2009
My Best Supporting Actress Picks for 2008
My Best Supporting Actress Picks for 2007

Best Supporting Actor 2012

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actors who I think need the most votes are at the top.

NATE PARKER, Arbitrage

MIKKEL BØE FOLSGAARD, En Kongelig Affære (A Royal Affair)

TOM HOLLAND, Lo Imposible (The Impossible)


DWIGHT HENRY, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Also loved:
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Domhnall Gleeson, Anna Karenina
Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained
Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi
Émilien Néron, Monsieur Lazhar 
Eddie Redmayne, Les Misérables
Aaron Tveit, Les Misérables

My Best Supporting Actor Picks for 2011
My Best Supporting Actor Picks for 2010
My Best Supporting Actor Picks for 2009
My Best Supporting Actor Picks for 2008
My Best Supporting Actor Picks for 2007

27 December 2012

Anna Karenina

I realize I haven't really posted about Joe Wright's insane adaptation of Anna Karenina. And I sort of want to be clear that I am not really recommending Anna Karenina to the majority of people. Nevertheless, I loved this movie. ... Which is not to say that I think it's a great movie or even a good movie, but I loved it, and it is definitely going to be near the top of my list at the end of the year.

(This should give an insight into how I formulate my end-of-year lists, by the way: I don't put "good" movies at the top of the list; I put movies I loved at the top of the list.)

This is why Wright's Anna is sort of insane: he's set the entire novel inside of a theatre. St. Petersburg, Moscow, train-stations, the race-track: they all take place inside of a theatre inside of the film. The poetics of this are rather obvious, of course. Anna and Vronsky's relationship is on display; people are always watching what's going on between them, and Russian society is also theatrical, made for display and rather phony when it all comes down to it.

This approach to filming the novel works for these thematic reasons and several others. Early in the film, Anna's brother-in-law Levin goes to find his brother in the less expensive area of town. He walks out of the main part of the theatre, into the wings, climbing up to the theatre's catwalk. As he walks, Wright's camera finds people working. They're theatre-workers, making the "magic" of the theatre possible via their backstage labor. What this did for me was remind me not only of the class differences in Imperial Russia – those were obviously existent – but also that the magic and the theatrics of the high society activities in the novel are only made possible by the labor of others. Every time we watch an "important" scene in the novel, the film makes clear that that melodramatic scene is supported by the work of other, poorer people. I loved this.

And then when the film actually leaves the theatre, as it does once or twice, the effect is extraordinary. From the hyper-produced world of the theatre to the "real" world (it's obviously still a film, which is why I'm giving you the ironic quotation marks), the change is bracing. Going back and forth between the "real" and the theatrical is, to my mind, a fascinating approach to telling this story, dependent as Tolstoy's novel is on the differences between city and country, real labor and paperwork, high society and honest, generous, human interaction.

Joe Wright's Anna Karenina doesn't always work, but I didn't care. By the time we were a half hour into the film, I loved Wright's movie rather fiercely. I felt committed to the approach and to just going with it, even when the film's logic didn't always jell.

The performances are very good. The ensemble includes Olivia Williams, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, and Emily Watson, and they are all very good. Jude Law is an excellent Karenin – a strange role for a leading man, but Law is capable and honest. Keira Knightley is a truly strange choice to play Anna – she's obviously much, much too young – but I love watching her, and Wright has a way of directing her that elevates her work wonderfully. Aaron Johnson is an odd Vronsky, as well. His casting struck me as wrong through and through, but Alicia Vikander as Kitty and Domhnall Gleeson as Levin are really wonderful. Gleeson (Brendan's son) gives my favorite performance in the movie (and, of course, their story is one of learning, nobleness, and the kind of life Tolstoy idealizes).

The last thing to say about the film is that it is beautiful. The art direction is superb, the cinematography (as usual for Wright's films) is clever and self-referential, and the costumes are, in a word, gorgeous. Look for Jacqueline Durran to win her first Oscar if Academy members are paying attention; it would be well deserved.

25 December 2012

Looking for the Silver Lining

A quick note about David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. I really, really liked it.

On one level, Silver Linings is a predictable romantic comedy, with charming lead performances and the typical schemes, twists, and turns that accompany one of these heterosexual love stories that we are all so very used to seeing. Silver Linings is also a clichéd sort of movie when it comes to plot. Suffice it to say that there are no surprises in the film; one always feels slightly ahead of the characters, and the audience is always better at making decisions than the film's bumbling, messed-up characters.

Silver Linings is also a very funny movie. For its subject matter, this is no small feat. The film is about a man who went a little nuts on his wife when he found her in the shower with her lover. This man has anger issues (and all sorts of other problems) and is trying to deal with those issues while living with his parents after getting out of the hospital. In other words, the subject matter of Silver Linings is not – on the face of it – very funny.

The thing is, Silver Linings works. It works beautifully, in fact. That a movie with this many clichés and that is this indebted to the two-thousand-year-old heterosexual love plot of standard domestic comedy is still very interesting and delightful to watch is damn near shocking. But Silver Linings is great: funny, heartfelt, honest, and very clever.

And Bradley Cooper? I loved him in this. Absolutely loved him. He messes up more than a lot of characters I've seen in movies, and yet he bounces back. This character is embarrassingly earnest, frequently pathetic, totally delusional, slightly unhinged, and completely charming. Cooper will definitely get an Oscar nomination for the role (Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro will get them, too), and he deserves it. The performance is brave and fun, and Cooper has no trouble navigating the sense of when things are funny and when they have to stop being funny. Cooper and Russell handle all of this so deftly that late in the film when De Niro grabbed his son and gave him a sound bit of advice, I found myself deeply moved by the quiet bit of wisdom the father shared with his son.

Worth seeing.

24 December 2012

An Unexpected Journey

Nerd alert: this is a conversation between two guys who probably know way too much about Tolkien's universe for our own good. I have tried to link to any terms that need explanation. Here's my conversation with my friend Caleb about The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey:


Me: So. What did you think of The Hobbit's first installment?

Caleb: I know in my head that it's not a good film, but I was always going to like it. I like Durin's Folk too much to not enjoy this. A lot of the plot was pulled from the appendices, which are clearly huge favorites of mine. But the dialogue and action sequences are terrible. And the story wanders a lot. Peter didn't really tighten it up either. But I'm happy with it being so blinded as I am in this area.

Me: See I think I went in expecting not to like it, and I mostly got what I expected (what I wanted?). But what was with all of the silly humor (which wasn't funny)? And the odd little songs? I won't gripe about the White Council not actually being held in Rivendell or Galadriel's total inability to become invisible and disappear – to complain about those things would be picking nits – but that entire Radagast section? What was it doing in the film? So strange!

Caleb: Yeah WTF on Radagast… I had blocked that whole rabbit sled shit from my memory. The humor was terrible. Most of the non-canonical dialog was poorly written and lacked tone.

Me: I want to say that I love the conceptual art. Rivendell and the Orc mines and Erebor all looked wonderful. And I loved Gollum – even though I wasn't expecting to.

Caleb: I did love Erebor. I never pictured it that way. And it made me think; for all their ingenuity, why did the dwarfs never prepare for the inevitability of a dragon attack? Sooner or later one will show up. Seems like there should be a better plan than guys with spears behind the main doors… giant ballistas or something.

Me: I was thinking that too. Thorin is yelling Dragon!!! but they literally have no preparation for it except shut the doors. I mean, it's not like no one has ever seen a fire-drake from the North. That seems like a pretty dumb group of people, although, we should note that Thror (was that his name?) had become complacent and arrogant – obscene wealth in Tolkien is always corrupting and ultimately blinding: think Denethor II or King Thingol or (for that matter) Fëanor. But tell me more about what you dug in the movie... as I say, I really liked Gollum in this film.

Caleb: I liked seeing Master Elrond in armor and on horseback. I feel like that's an aspect of his character lacking in the films. He is still youthful by human standards and hates raiding orcs after what happens to his wife. I wish we saw his sons. They are two of my favorites.

Me: Oh, I agree! I am totally with you about Elrond. It was nice to see him on the warpath. (Although calling him young is interesting, Caleb. He's lived through the entirety of the Second Age and the first three thousand years of the Third, no?) Also, I thought his armor was designed beautifully.

Aaron: "The hottest dwarf anyone's ever seen."
Caleb:  Yes, I know that Elrond isn't actually "young" – I suppose I mean that he still has a lot of vitality surpassing his more middle-aged appearance. I sort of feel like the casting directors pandered to human aging. Elrond and Galadriel are cast as about 40 years old while Legolas is cast as about 20. Elrond and Legolas are about the same age while Galadriel is probably twice as old, maybe more, depending on how long you count the Days Before Days.

I liked all the eating scenes in Bag End. I am a sucker for the simple Hobbit pleasures of comfort and food. I feel it's important in both Bilbo and Frodo's cases to show their love for the simple good life, since that is what powers them through their journeys. They are driven by their love of the comfort of the Shire.

Me: As you put it, the simple Hobbit pleasures of comfort and food sound lovely. You're right, of course, about Bilbo and Frodo, but the way that entire scene worked – with the dwarves basically as clowns? I just couldn't get behind all of that.

Caleb:  Typically, I would agree with you about all the dwarf silliness in Bag End but I think that Peter and the writers had a very tough job trying to reconcile the widely differing tone of The Hobbit from the rest of the canon. Something that Tolkien never really successfully did. The dwarfs of The Hobbit are more clowns than mighty warriors. Their names are comical and even a little lazy in their alliteration. I don't think the writers were by any means successful at uniting the two worlds. It feels more like they choose scenes from each. The battles are from the darker tone of the later works while the songs and Shire are from The Hobbit. But on top of that Jackson added 21st-century PG action-movie one-liners. It's an odd mix. Mostly I hate An Unexpected Journey's tone, but for those scenes in Bag End… I can get on board there.

I actually liked the Misty Mountains song. That was well integrated music in my opinion. I liked the implementation of Thorin's shield. I think that was practical and makes more sense than a branch as a club.
And I did like Gollum, as well. "He is too clever of a waterman." I liked that they gave him a boat. I only wish his cave had been deeper in the mountain. I always pictured it at the roots of the mountain. This felt close, just off the beaten track but not inaccessibly deep.

Me: I always imagined Gollum with a boat. But you are right: his cave should be much much deeper in the mountain. He has basically seen no light for most of an Age, right? And isn't he almost blind? I know I remember Bilbo groping around once he found Gollum. Actually, I didn't like that we saw Gollum lose the ring. In the book, Bilbo finds the ring but neither he nor we know whose ring it is, isn't that right? (I guess everyone has seen LotR at this point, so what I am saying is moot...)

Caleb: Yes, Gollum is almost blind. The fish that he eats are said to have no eyes. But I get that you can't have an almost entirely dark scene, or one lit only by Sting. Or you could, but that would be an art film.

Caleb: "It just should not have happened."
Me: I did like all of the different-looking orcs. They looked very different from each other (as they should) and of course they don't look like the Uruks from the other three movies. But that goblin king in the Misty Mountains... ugh.

I think I am mostly complaining here about Jackson's tone throughout. He frustrates me with his silly jokes and his easy aphorisms about "change" or "power" or "little people doing big things". He goes back and forth from making fun of the dwarves – think of that fat dwarf who only gets to be the butt of jokes – to talking about how they're displaced and miss their home, etc. So we're supposed to connect to their struggle of homelessness, but also supposed to laugh at them for being fat/ugly/having funny hairstyles. (Except Kili: who is obviously the hottest dwarf anyone's ever seen.)

Caleb: I'm not discussing the cameo that Jabba the Hutt's stepson made in the film. It just should not have happened.

17 December 2012

Family Rules

This conversation was about actual games: Oh Hell, Forty-two, Briscola – that sort of thing.

My sister: Listen, she doesn't necessarily have to go home, but we are not playing any games after six pm.
Me: Does she turn into a pumpkin after six pm?
My sister: She turns into a buffoon after six pm.

11 December 2012

When People Know Me Too Well

Fred Chappell: Well, I'd invite you to have lunch with us, but we're going to be talking about theatre, and...
Aaron: ...You know I don't like theatre.
Walt: We know how you feel about the theatre.
Aaron: Right. I have errands to run.

10 December 2012

The Man with the Iron Clichés

Can we talk about this? I mean, what happened? This was awful. Just awful.

I think we have to actually treat The Man with the Iron Fists seriously, because its director-star RZA clearly has treated it seriously, but TMwtIF is basically a kind of community theatre version of a movie. A film made by someone who doesn't make films. RZA has all of the elements right: a set of actors – Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune – good producers (Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino), beautiful costumes, expensive sets, but then the execution is laughably bad.

My friend and I sat watching the film and would just groan at the plot points and character names and, well, everything. Just as an example, there are a set of "clans" that are all named after animals. The Lion clan and the Wolf clan and the Hyena clan and the Rodent clan. And the Lion clan, whom we follow more extensively than the others, have three leaders: Gold Lion, Silver Lion, and Bronze Lion. There is also a pair of assassins called the Gemini twins (a ludicrous redundancy if ever I've heard one – and they weren't even twins).

The plot revolves around a shipment of gold that the "governor" was sending to his "armies in the North". As the gold passes through the small hamlet "Jungle Village", it is stolen from the Geminis, who have been hired to protect it, by the new head of the Lion clan (Silver Lion had Gold Lion murdered). But then Madame Blossom (who is actually a madam) attempts to steal the gold through subterfuge or some such business. She is thwarted, however, by Gold Lion's son (who doesn't have a Lion name), by RZA (who is a blacksmith), and by Russell Crowe (who plays this Jack Knife character who cuts people in half and is generally hilarious).

I'm just going to say this and move on. People don't ship gold to armies in the North. Armies don't actually need gold. There's nowhere for them to spend it.

Okay. I will be done talking about this in a second, but the level of how bad The Man with the Iron Fists is is quite extraordinary. Some positives: It's always good to see Rick Yune in things. Lucy Liu's costumes (designed by Thomas Chong) are absolutely gorgeous. And Russell Crowe is having the most fun of his career chewing scenery, slicing people in half, and having sex with four women at a time in a brothel. There is this fantastic sequence where he licks Lucy Liu's face: RZA directs it in the most irritatingly cartoonish way possible, but Crowe's performance remains delightful and hilarious.

09 December 2012

Summing up 2012

1. What did you do in 2012 that you'd never done before?
I got to see an Henri Rousseau in person. This was a huge moment in my life. 

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
2012's resolution was to have my doctor of philosophy degree in hand. That's done, thankfully. My resolutions for 2013 are to complete the Insanity program, to be much, much better at le français, and to write two more chapters of my book.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. My dear friend Jaime gave birth to the most charming little guy: Nathaniel. And my friend Brittney had a very cute boy named Theodore.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
My dear friends Danny and Ashley lost their beloved dog Benny. Thankfully no humans in my life passed away. There has been too much of this recently, and I still mourn my dear friend Andrew.

5. What countries did you visit?
I was in Amsterdam for a few days and visited the Rijksmuseum, the Torture Museum (don't ask), and the Stedelijk Museum. Amsterdam is a strange sort of place. Very pretty, and the downtown area (Centraal) is lovely. My friends John and Jaime (and their little guy Nathan) were living there for a few months for work. On my visit I also went to Paris for 7 days and fell in love with the city. I went to many museums – the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay (my favorite), the Palace at Versailles, the Arc de Triomphe – and also took a trip out to the beaches in Normandy where the Allied forces landed in WWII. Also visited the Mémorial de Caen – the Center for History and Peace, dedicated to the Second World War. I am in love with France and cannot wait to go back, especially because I will be able to speak the language better next time.

6. What would you like to have in 2013 that you lacked in 2012?
Last year I wrote a new job. I think this year I'd like to modify that to in a city in which I can feel at home.

7. What dates from 2012 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
October 19th was the day I defended my dissertation. The day was made really special by some of my Tallahassee friends (George, Walt, Jeanne, Jenny, Matt, Dayne, Jordan, Amy, Dan) most of whom attended my presentation and all of whom celebrated with me and spent a fun weekend with me in Tally. 

December 14-16th will be my graduation in Tallahassee and my graduation party in Los Angeles. I am so excited to see so many of my friends and former students in California. It's going to be a whirlwind couple of days.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
A good dissertation, they say, is a done dissertation. I have consistently downplayed the achievement of finishing this dissertation (and, therefore, my PhD), but in truth it was an enormous undertaking, and I finished very quickly and with flying colors. It was a big deal.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I wish I had been better at making a home for myself in New Hampshire. I will work on this in 2013. Also: budgeting.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I think I am going to have to go with the amazing no-iron shirt from Banana Republic. These things are genius. I can be pretty lazy about dressing up, and this makes dressing up so much easier!

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My former students Aaren & Andrew, who put up productions of their own plays just this month.
My other friends who produce their own performances: especially Michael and Ryan, both of who made excellent pieces this year.
My friends at Endstation with whom I love working every year.
Jordan, who wrote, directed and starred in a short film for one of his classes this year. Attending this screening was really exciting.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
As usual, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and the rest of the crew of people that want a nation only for themselves and other people like them.

14. Where did most of your money go?

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
My new job at Dartmouth College (there was a lot of screaming in the halls of the Meta Glass dorms when this happened). The revival of Einstein on the Beach. In an odd twist of fate: coming back to Tallahassee. Meeting Cherríe Moraga. Visiting my friend Mark in Boston.

16. What song will always remind you of 2012?
Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have a Kiki" and Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe", the choral version of which you really must watch.

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

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
The answer to this is always – in some form or another – spending time with my friends. I wish, in particular, that I had gotten to see my friends in California more this year. I wasn't able to visit over the Summer, and I really missed them.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Complaining. I am a generally positive guy, but though this year has been exceptionally difficult in many ways, I complained far too much about its difficulties. I also wish I had spent less time consoling dear friends on their lost loves – not because this time was misspent, but just because I would rather be talking to them under better, happier circumstances.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
In California! I have had a very long vacation this Winter because of Dartmouth's very odd schedule, and it has been lovely. Right now, Florida, and soon California with my family and friends.

21. Did you fall in love in 2012?
I didn't. Last year I was falling in love with this guy. And, well, to be honest, I am still not quite sure what happened to him. This year, love (and sex) took back seats to my career. I think I am fine with that.

22. How many one-night stands?

23. What was your favorite TV program?

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Yes. There is something about really loving your kids that translates into hating anyone who messes with them or hurts them. My four adopted kids bring me their hurts and I, in turn, dutifully hate those who hurt them.

25. What was the best book you read?
In fiction, Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. In nonfiction, Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence. 

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Clearly, Frank Ocean's Channel Orange was the best album of the year.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Einstein. On. The Beach. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, September 22nd.
The second-best piece of theatre I saw was called Hello... It's Been Great Letting You Get to Know Me, directed by Samantha Johns and George McConnell.

28. What did you want and get?
29. What did you want and not get?
I don't actually think I have answers for these. I have been very bad this year at articulating my own desires. I have gotten many things I wanted, of course, and many things about which I have been ambivalent. But what do I actually want? I usually blame my indecisiveness on being a Pisces, but indecision and ambivalence have come to feel really essential to who I am. I am rarely sure what it is that I desire, and I have almost no aptitude for articulating those desires.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
So far: Beasts of the Southern Wild. But there are more films to come! 

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I had a most bizarre dinner with a truly motley crew of people in attendance. So strange. But as usual, my friends in Tallahassee came through. It has been really great having this group of people in my life.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
I obviously need a partner. It is fine being alone, and I seem committed to it, but this is what my life is missing most clearly.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2012?
I have been the laziest about fashion, mostly due to economics. I am committed to turning this around in 2013. Let's call 2012 a learning year. I rediscovered the necktie and suit jacket. As it turns out, dressing up just makes me feel better. I'm turning over a new leaf.

34. What kept you sane?
My mother often is the person who makes the most sense in my life these days, though I don't talk to her very much. The person to whom I complained the most is Michael – he listened patiently and with understanding. The person I talked to the most is Dayne – probably once a day. That definitely kept me sane. My friends in Hanover: Irma, Yasser, Katie, and Viktor. My scholar-friends Patrick, Joe, and Cassidy, too.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
I found it hard to get excited about so-called political issues this year. The enormously expensive presidential election in the United States centered around the economics of the United States instead of issues like war, bloodshed, imprisonment, and human rights. Because the voices allowed to speak for the USAmerican people are consistently reduced to only two (Democrat and Republican) by mainstream newsmedia, I find it really depressing even to engage in this farce. I voted for Obama, because I still believe that society can improve, but I understand the main differences between him and his rival to be their stances on so-called social issues. Economically and militarily, I see very little difference, and I am constantly confused when others see such an extreme gulf between the two.

37. Whom did you miss?
This year was the year of missing everyone. I divided my time between Florida, Virginia, and New Hampshire, and traveled all over. So I missed my friends in Los Angeles, especially missed my family, missed my friends in New York, my friends in Seattle, my friends in Tallahassee, and my friends in Lynchburg.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Amy Rauchwerger, Jason Porrata, and la Kate Bredeson.
Photoshoot at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville TN.
 39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2012:
A few really important things.

1) The importance of gratitude. A year or so ago, I did a long series of posts about gratitude and how thankful I am for the people in my life. As I finished my dissertation this year, I was reminded, as I typed the acknowledgments page, just how many people contributed to my work, sent me news items, supported my intellectual labor, read drafts of my work and sent me comments. This project was way more than just me and my (fabulous and diverse) committee: it was also the contributions of my extraordinary support system.

2) I have missed being a parent. I love my many nieces and nephews (both blood-related and not), but I have also felt the need to fill the absence of children in my life. I have adopted (they're not mine, but they're mine) four adult children, and these adoptions have been truly rewarding – more for me than for my kids. It's been lovely feeling as though I have these people in my life for whom I would do almost anything.

3) Feeling comfortable is not always something one can control. Sometimes we do not have as much control over where we live and where we make a home, but an effort must be made to make that space into a home. Happiness is, I think, what we make of it. I don't think it's "settling" or "passivity" to decide to enjoy the hand one is dealt. I need to learn to love where I am so that I can make the time I spend in that place a happy time.

40. Share an important quote from 2012:
2012 Has been a year of Seneca for me. This is from On Anger.
Missiles rebound from a hard surface, and solid objects, when struck, cause pain to the one striking them; just so, injury cannot cause a great spirit to feel it, because it is more fragile than the thing it attacks. How much finer it is to rebuff all injuries and insults, as though impervious to any missile! To take vengeance is to acknowledge pain: a great spirit is not bowed down by a wrong. The one who has harmed you is either stronger or weaker than you: if he's weaker, give him a break; if he's stronger, give yourself a break.

07 December 2012

On Dramaturgy

Recently, a student of a friend and colleague of mine emailed me to ask me (in my role as a working dramaturge) some questions about dramaturgy. I know this will not be to all of my readers' tastes, but I thought her questions were interesting, and we all know how difficult it is to explain what exactly a dramaturge does. When ever anyone talks to me about dramaturgy, I find myself invariably asking but what is dramaturgy? Here are my answers. Take them for what you will.

1. I know that dramaturgs often help in script-selection, clarifying confusion amongst the cast, and sometimes even writing plays.  That said, when a production is in progress, what do you do from day to day? When sitting in on a rehearsal, what jobs are you expected to perform?

The answer to this question depends on what I am working on.

Answer A: when I'm working on a new play, I am constantly making suggestions about ways a scene would work better, different orders for scenes, and structural issues like that. I often am in constant communication with the playwright, telling her what I think a certain scene does for her play dramaturgically. It often happens that a playwright needs to cut time from a show; in those cases I can usually advise what can easily be cut or combined in order to trim the running time.

Answer B: when I'm working on a very old play like one from the 17th or 18th century, I often do just as much (and very similar) work, except that my primary communication is with the director instead of the playwright. Often a director has cut the text very heavily and so it is my job to make sure that the play still makes sense, to offer alternative cuts, sometimes rewrite entire scenes. I once did a production of She Stoops to Conquer where the director had cut the entire explanation for a character's arrival. We rehearsed this way for weeks and then a week before the show opened he decided it didn't make any sense. But he didn't want to add back in the entire sequence we needed. I took the original sequence, trimmed it so that included just enough lines to explain the character's entrance, and then tacked it on to a different scene. A dramaturge can be really useful for these kinds of things.

Answer C: When I am working on a relatively recent but not new show (say Rent or Big River) often I am only asked to do research as the cast or director or costumer need it. To me this work is really tedious and only rarely fun. I often have to work really hard to make these projects enjoyable for myself, but I usually do! Most of the time, I feel like these shows need very little work from a dramaturge. I usually don't visit rehearsals for these very often after the read-through. What they tend to need the most is pronunciation help or explaining particularly difficult lines or references. For Rent I made a long glossary of the words in the show. For Big River I re-read Huckleberry Finn so that I'd get all the references in the musical. I ended up being helpful on both shows, but much less helpful than I would be with a much older or much newer show.

2. Conversely, what sort of non-daily duties are you expected to complete? Do you create programs? Display cases? Little paper hats for the cast to wear at fancy dress parties?

With all of the shows I work on, I am generally designated as "the smart person in the room" about the show. This means that I write program notes, collaborate with marketing on advertising copy, go to public interviews about the show, proof-read the program, attend production meetings so that I can answer costume/prop questions, etc. If I ever had to make a display case I would probably ask why a designer wasn't doing it, since I have few design abilities. For me, though, all of this outside work is really fun. I love giving interviews or blogging. I see this as creating an atmosphere in which more people can understand and enjoy more things about the show. An example: here's a blog post that explains to audience members why a production of Macbeth on which I recently worked was so heavily adapted, and here's a kind of promotional item related to Big River. These kinds of things are designed simply to enhance the experience of the show for those who read this kind of stuff (more people than you'd think – mostly older audience members). They can give more access to more people about the nuances and fabulous hidden gems in a production.

3. I have read that sometimes there is contention between directors, designers, and dramaturgs, sometimes coming from resentment over the chain of command and people’s ideas being ignored because of it. Is this true? How do you handle it?

Any dramaturge who is having tension or feeling resentment is not doing her job correctly. There are not right ways of looking at a text or right ways of performing a text. Directors and designers are trying things and it is a dramaturge's job to make those attempts smarter, better, and clearer. But fundamentally a dramaturge is working for those people and their artistic (not academic) visions. I have never felt tension like this on a piece on which I've worked. The show is not the dramaturge's show. The dramaturge works for the company, primarily the director. It is not my job to be irritated that the director didn't take my suggestion (however intelligent they might be). My advice to anyone feeling annoyed or ignored is that a dramaturge ought to know her place. The hierarchy is set. This can be freeing and wonderful – at least it is for me.

4. I have also read that sometimes dramaturgs get into the field expecting to transition away from it at some point and move into directing or writing. Did you get into dramaturgy with the expectation of doing it for the rest of your life? Do you find it to be fulfilling?

Well, I am not primarily a dramaturge, although it is my primary artistic outlet at this point. I can't imagine that dramaturgy is anyone's primary work at this point in United States theatre history. Most dramaturges are academics or critics, as well, and many are directors and playwrights. I work mainly as an academic and do dramaturgy work as I want to – when projects arise in which I am interested or when playwrights ask me to work with them on a new production. One cannot really have a career in dramaturgy, though. Very few theatres are paying full-time dramaturges. You have to do other things, as well. (Most actors do other work in addition to their theatre work, too. As do directors, designers, and stage managers just beginning their careers.)

5. As part of my project, I am serving as dramaturg for my college’s production of Lysistrata. Unfortunately, I have not felt needed by the production team. Do you have any tips on what I can do to be useful?

I do have some tips. Go to rehearsals. Go to all of them. And listen carefully. See what the actors need help with. Many of them will not know specific Greek references. Look them up for them and pass them to them quietly. My advice is to try to help as quietly as possible, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible. Can you see that the director is struggling with interpreting a specific section? Find a different translation for him or her and see if that makes it any easier.
Often when I am not needed or don't feel needed I check out. This is okay too. But remember that often directors and designers don't know how to use a dramaturge. You have to demonstrate your own usefulness: not by telling them you are useful, but by being useful and getting them information that they need.

6. I am interested in studying dramaturgy in the future, but am planning on taking some time off before applying to graduate school. Do you have any tips on what types of programs I should apply to in this time? Any specific groups you want to name drop?

Others will disagree with me, but I say: do not get an MFA in dramaturgy. Don't do it. Instead, intern as a literary manager or a dramaturge in as many places as possible. I would also recommend choosing to get an MA in theatre instead of getting an MFA in dramaturgy. As I noted, there are no full-time dramaturgy jobs out there. They simply don't exist. So that means that schools that are producing MFAs in dramaturgy are producing people who actually cannot get jobs. Almost every MFA in dramaturgy I know has gone on to get a PhD, but if you're gonna do that, then an MFA in dramaturgy is not the best prep for a PhD: an MA is the best prep for a PhD. I hope this doesn't sound too dour, but instead of going to school, if you want to work in dramaturgy, start working for theatres.

7. A recurring theme that I come across in my research is that there seems to be some contention over what exactly a dramaturg does or what dramaturgy is. Dramaturgs working with different companies may perform different tasks and may have differing philosophies on the job. To you, what is dramaturgy?

First off, dramaturgy is a word I most commonly use to describe how a play works: the play's dramaturgy – its structure, its genre, its formal elements, etc. These are the way the play is made. I also use the word to describe how certain writers make plays: I might say Euripides's dramaturgy, for example, or Ibsen's dramaturgy. I note this because I think dramaturgy describes how people make plays. (The word dramaturge in French means playwright.) So when I think of what I do as a dramaturge, I think of myself as the person who understands how the play works. When I work on a show, I make sure that I know how the thing ticks. Many of my directors have described me as the "defender of the text", and I like this description, as well. If we think of dramaturgy in this fashion, it means something like the person who knows the most about the text of the play and can help it be as clear as possible. Often, of course, I change a lot of words. I did a production of Hamlet set in the American Civil War: we changed all sorts of words so that the play fit in our new setting. Truthfully, this is not defending the text, though, right? This is more like helping the director make the text make more sense for his vision.

When I work on a show I want to be the smartest person in the room so that I can be the most helpful to the largest number of people. This means that I want to know all the answers. The way I do this is by making sure I've asked all the questions. When I go through a play like Macbeth I highlight every line I don't understand and make sure I do understand it before we rehearse it. When I go through a play like Rent I try to imagine every single question an actor could possibly ask. (When was AZT on the market? What is Bustelo? How far is Santa Fe from the Lower East Side of Manhattan? What on earth is a yellow rental truck packed with fertilizer and fuel oil??)

When I work on a new play, I try to get into the playwright's head. What does his/her play have to say? What are the questions his/her play might provoke in an audience? What kinds of feelings does it provoke in me? Most importantly: what other plays does this new play remind me of?

8. Would you eat green eggs and ham?

As a treat, my dad often added food coloring to our scrambled eggs on Saturdays. Green was a favorite option of me and my siblings. Green eggs and ham are delicious!

02 December 2012

52163 over 16604

I think that the first thing to note about Life of Pi is that it is basically a kids' movie. It's rated PG (a fact I had apparently not noticed before buying my ticket). I had also forgotten that Life of Pi is in 3D. (The 3D works quite well and enhances the picture nicely, by the way; it isn't simply an unnecessary addition used to increase the price of your ticket.)

Ang Lee's film takes Yann Martel's survival novel (the book works like The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe) and makes a kind of fairytale out of it, something magical and filled with wonder. In fact – and how often does one get to say this? – the movie is better than the novel. Much better. Lee is able to use both CGI and 3D in ways that bring the story to life in a way Martel's prose never does. The film works more like 2001: a Space Odyssey or one of Jules Verne's great novels, where there are always new things to discover, and the world is a place of remarkable synchronicity and spectacle.

Lee and his screenwriter David Magee (the magical storyteller behind Finding Neverland) also manage to deal brilliantly with the book's incredibly problematic third section. The movie cannot escape its source material's insistence on the quote power of storytelling unquote (something I found clichéd in both the novel and the film), but it manages to deal with the pitfalls of this banal aphorism by using the medium of film itself – well, digital cinematography, anyway – to illustrate the power of cinematic storytelling. You'll see what I mean when you see the picture. The end of the film is never shown, only narrated, whereas we see the entire middle section of the film, we're in it. The second version of the tale feels less real – necessarily so – because we never actually see it. Gérard Depardieu does not eat Bo-Chieh Wang's leg.

The performances are lovely. Suraj Sharma, in his first film role, is great as the younger Pi, and Irrfan Khan (whom you know from Slumdog Millionaire and Mira Nair's films Salaam Bombay! and The Namesake) is just superb as the older, Canadian Pi. Irrfan Khan gives one of my favorite performances of the year, in fact. He is truly lovely in the film. Indian megastar Tabu is also great as Pi's mom. I want to say, too, that I loved Mychael Danna's music. It's absolutely beautiful, and can hold its own with any other of this year's scores.

I had been worried about the CGI in the movie, and the truth is that Life of Pi doesn't always look real. In fact, an overwhelming majority of it looks computer-generated. But Lee deals with this, as well. The realistic scenes with Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall, his interlocutor in Montréal in the present day, all have a similarly CGI-inflected feel. The effect of this is that the "real" feels artistic and computerized from the beginning, so that when a tiger jumps toward the camera (a lovely homage to Apocalypse Now) it struck me as just as "real" as the scenes at the adult Pi's kitchen table in Québec.

Like I said, though, Life of Pi is a kids' movie. Lee and Magee have softened the book's violence for the film. Violence always exists just out of the view of the camera; there is no blood at all (a shocking artistic choice, really); and one never truly feels that Pi is in any danger whatsoever. The cannibalism and murders in the book are completely excised for the film, allowing the movie to avoid the strange feeling I had when I finished the novel, that all of this fantasy and the cliché of "the power of storytelling" covered over something much more sinister. The film has none of these complications, making for a more straightforward tale, and to my mind a much less troubling one.

The religious element of the novel takes up a similar amount of space as it does in Martel's novel. I fail – as I did in the book – to understand how this section of the story makes any sense or has any relation to the rest of the tale. Sure, it's comical; Pi is a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, and apparently sees no contradiction in combining the three religions. The film makes him a sort of Kabbalist, as well. But gods have basically nothing to do with the story/stories of Life of Pi. This is a tale of a young man and a Bengal tiger. The addition of religion seems a digression (at least it did to me) in both the novel and the film. At the very least, the tale told by Pi – his total abandonment of religious dogma and, indeed, many moral principles, while at sea due to (obviously) hunger and its attendant madness – seems to demonstrate the deficiencies of dogma when confronted with true life-or-death struggles such as, oh, you know, being abandoned at sea for the better part of a calendar year.

The film of Life of Pi is less about gods and more about the universe. This movie is a kind of paean to the beauty of the world in which we live, the world we think we know, but which holds many wonders that we can see if only we pay attention: the ocean and its vastness, the many animals of the world, the stars and the solar system, the extraordinary fact of edible plant life, even evolution. Life of Pi asks us to be grateful for these gifts, and entreats us to look at them with new eyes, thanking the universe for what it has granted us, that it has allowed us to perceive even the small part of the splendor it allows us to access.

01 December 2012

One of Europe's Surprises

I spent a week in Paris and a couple of days in Amsterdam over the last two weeks. You know, if you know me well, that most of my interests run toward the academic; this means that I spent most of my time looking at art and architecture and visiting historically significant sites. I went to a whole bunch of museums: the Stedelijk Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Musée d'Orsay, the Musée du Louvre, and the Mémorial de Caen (the Cité de l'Histoire pour la Paix).

And I visited a whole bunch of historical sites, too. At places like Omaha Beach or the Pointe du Hoc or Notre-Dame de Paris and (for me especially) La Tour Eiffel and the Palace at Versailles, I felt like I could reach out and touch history. It isn't the air or the plant life that's thick with history, but the dirt and the walls and – even through metal fencing – the statuary and the paint.

As you probably know if you read my stuff a lot, I love the feeling I get when I understand myself as only a very very small part of a great vastness. I feel that when I go to a place like the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and I feel that in a totally different way when I am in places rich with history, where centuries of the countless dead are mere meters below my feet in the Conciergerie. I know it isn't fashionable to think about such things, but this is what comes to my mind when I am in such places.

More importantly however, there was wine and cheese and beer. And the discoveries that are most important to share with you are:
  1. First of all, wine is cheap in both Paris and Amsterdam. In cafés it's cheaper than coca-cola or coffee. Why have a coke when you can have a vin rouge?
  2. USAmerican beer is so much better than European beer. Beer, like here, is in all of the grocery stores, but invariably it is Belgian beer or Belgian-style beer. I say U.S. beer is better because I hate Belgian-style beer. If I could help it I would drink nothing but India Pale Ales for the rest of my life. These are impossible to find in grocery stores, in pubs, in restaurants. As far as I can tell this is true for Amsterdam and Paris both.
  3. But that's okay, because Heineken is delicious!

Now, I know you're thinking but Aaron, it always tastes skunky, and all you drink is IPAs, how can it possibly be delicious? I have no idea. But it tastes totally different in Europe – this is true of both Paris and Amsterdam – and it tastes great. It is on tap everywhere and it's really good. I was shocked. This must be a serious quality-control problem for the company. I mean, why does it taste so bad in the U.S. and so good in Europe? But whatever the problem with the beer in the U.S. is, if you find yourself in Europe and at a bar or a café or basically at any table at any time – we drank beer and wine every time we had lunch (why wouldn't you?) – don't be scared about ordering a Heineken. I promise you, it's not what you think.

27 November 2012

Dans Paris

In Paris, the film I see advertised the most is Populaire. I have seen the ad so many times that I am starting to want to see the movie. Also, I love Romain Duris. I have no idea what this movie is about, but the poster makes it look charming.

Another film advertised in Paris right now is Une Nouvelle Chance (A New Chance/Opportunity/Possibility), which doesn't even attempt to translate the USAmerican title Trouble with the Curve. One assumes there is no real translation for the curveball metaphor we have in American English.

There's also L'Odyssée de Pi, probably a slightly better title than its English counterpart Life of Pi (which is a title that pops but doesn't quite make sense). I have to be honest: the more I see this movie advertised, the less I want to see it. The book (which I recently finished) left me sort of cold. It isn't only that I didn't care for the (much discussed) ending section of the book, but the entire way through it just reminded me of those old epics Robinson Crusoe and (especially) The Swiss Family Robinson. It was nice to be reminded of those books – I liked them when I was a kid – but Life of Pi finally reads like a kids' book, actually, and though it purports to be about religion or spirituality in some kind of way, I didn't really get it. Life of Pi has this theory that Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism are all essentially the same thing, but once the boy is sharing a boat with an enormous Bengal Tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the book stops being about religion completely. The movie looks like it's going to be a CGI-fest: not necessarily bad in and of itself, but part of the plot of the novel is about whether or not the young man's story is believable. Do we believe him or do we not? If we do not believe the images on the screen, it seems to me the decision is probably already made for us. I'll stop talking about the film now, because I haven't seen it, and my analysis is, therefore, obviously precipitate.

Après Mai, a new film by Olivier Assayas looks hipster-ish and depressing, but it's Olivier Assayas, so I want to see it anyway. Even if that boy's hair clearly needs a trim.

Even more exciting to me is Mads Mikkelsen in Thomas Vinterberg's La Chasse or The Hunt. I loved Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair and that and The Hunt will both be out at the same time in Paris – not sure when either is coming to the U.S.

This is not all I have to say about Paris, obviously. I love it here. And I don't speak enough French to actually go to the movies, but I can stare at the posters and grin, anyway...

19 November 2012

This Should Not Remind Anyone of John Mayer

As usual, my friend Gregory Sherl is busy writing good poems. This has been out on the internet for a couple of months, but I am revisiting it today. Queer poetry from my (mostly) heterosexual friend. I love this poem.


The lock goes on the outside. The window doesn’t exist.
Boys are some motherfuckers. Teach her the subtleness
of never leaving the house, the necessity of cats.
How do we tell her that boys don’t purr
without a pointing cock without saying Boys don’t purr
without a pointing cock
? Pick out every boy worth fucking
& tell her what pulses inside them. Open a broken oven,
say This this this is what pulses inside them.
Plug the oven in & have her watch it still not work.
If she falls in love with a girl, throw a party. All of our hairs
can be short,
our heritages secured in ourselves.
If I’m not around when she gets that look, make sure hers
isn’t for one who breathes over the page instead of into the bed.

What a waste. Tell her that jellyfish are everywhere & that whales
have legs. It’s okay that sometimes only sleeping makes sense.
She should know that sharks never think about us.
Tell her every John Cusack movie is based on a true story.

Highlight the lips of those who said I was the bravest man scared
of the dark. Tell her how I kept my masculinity
in a crowded basement.

18 November 2012


Speaking of Tony Kushner, the school that currently employs me as a visiting lecturer recently did a production of Kushner's epic Pulitzer prize-winning 1992 play Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Part 1 - Millennium Approaches. This was a couple of weeks ago and I've been trying to think for a while about how to talk about my experience while watching this production.

The production was beautifully designed, but (to be frank about things) it didn't work. I was watching these lovely kids up there laboring with difficulty to make the play make sense, but... it was clear that they didn't get it.

And the director probably didn't either.

It was also really clear just how straight the audience was when I found myself the only one laughing as Prior said Come back, little Sheba!

But I had an even stronger reaction to this as the play continued. This isn't theirs, I thought. There is something actually wrong about watching these kids do this play. They don't understand it because it isn't for them, or rather, it isn't about them. This is not theirs.

The implication here is, of course, that Angels in America is somehow mine, and that I have more entrée into the play than undergraduates who will be taking their degrees between 2013 and 2016. And the more I think about it, the more true I think that is – as laughable as that sounds.

It is because these kids aren't gay. They're up there on the stage playing gay characters, which is (I am sure they think) very admirable and brave and all, but the more I watched the more wrong the whole thing felt. A friend of mine said to me after the show that she imagined it must've been like watching actors in brownface or blackface, and I think she's right. It did feel like that.

The thing is, this happens all of the time on television and in the movies. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play gay and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays gay and I don't give it a second thought. But most of the films and television programs where gay characters are played by straight actors are written by straight writers and helmed by straight directors. These representations don't feel as though they belong to my culture in any serious way. (Brokeback Mountain isn't a gay film in my mind. It's a film for straight people made by straight people. I would call Noah's Arc or Gayby or Elephant or Weekend gay cultural productions: representations made by gay people for gay people.) And so it doesn't usually offend me to see a straight actor playing a gay character on Will & Grace or The Wire or whatever. We have our own images; it doesn't matter much if they also want to create images of us. (Transamerica is a notable, offensive, exception.)

But Angels in America is different. This was the great gay epic of the early 1990s. The play's characters are gay, their humor is gay – even the straight female character's humor is campily queer – and it is about the actual history of gay men, including legendary homophobe and homophile Roy Marcus Cohn. And I understand this is an androcentric post; it is so necessarily. And I am sure that I am not taking many other important things into consideration here. I am equally sure that I have no interest in articulating a program for some kind of "correct" representation of gay men.

All I am saying is that watching these straight boys up on stage going through their gay paces felt sacrilegious to me. I've never felt this way before, but I expect that this will not be the last time.

Fifty Shades of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, as you probably know, is the second Abraham Lincoln movie to come out in 2012, and while I suspect that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will garner a lot less awards-buzz this season, it remains in my heart. I want to note in passing, as well, that there were some truly awesome things in AL:VH.
  1. Harriet Tubman is in the movie for no apparent reason, but it got a huge laugh in the theatre when I saw it.
  2. Zombies and vampires are apparently interchangeable for Timur Bekmambetov.
  3. The USAmerican Civil War was a fight between the living and the undead where the entire Confederate Army was made up of legions of vampires.
  4. My main problem with AL:VH was that the vampires were so gross and awful. The truth is, that for me (and given the widespread Twilight obsession I suspect I am not alone) vampires are kind of fabulous. They live forever; they kill people in the most intimate and erotic of ways; they're creatures of the night; and they're usually dressed very well. So why would you want someone (even Abraham Lincoln) out there hunting them
  5. Dominic Cooper is still really really hot.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can talk about Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's new movie Lincoln. I suspect you have probably already seen it. And unlike their last collaboration, I really loved Lincoln. It's just really well done. Great acting – the juicy roles are played by Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field: look for them all at Awards time. But the smaller roles are beautifully played as well. It's an excellent company including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill (how I love that man), Gloria Rueben, Lee Pace, David Costabile, S. Epatha Merkerson, Adam Driver, Julie White, and so many more.

The standout here, however, is Kushner himself. The writing is just gorgeous. The film is filled with exquisite turns of phrase and superb verbal flourishes. It captures the time period beautifully, while feeling familiar and intimate, treading the fine line of ironic hindsight while allowing us the pleasure of re-living a drama the filmmakers know that we all probably know very well. As beautiful as the performances are, it is Kushner's writing that made me love this movie. And (unlike other filmmakers with recent films about USAmerican history *cough* J. Edgar *cough*) Kushner's writing doesn't feel bloated or stagey; the script never grandstands.

I have my gripes, of course: mostly with Spielberg. Lincoln has three endings; Spielberg can't handle ending a film only once. He has to end it repeatedly. When Lincoln said "It seems it's time to go, though I'd much rather stay" (or something like that) and walked down that hallway in one of Janusz Kaminski's rich shots, I thought (as I inevitably always do in a Spielberg movie) end it here; end it here. But I knew he wouldn't. I knew that was only Ending #1. The man is good at endings, I admit, but we really don't need them all. The first ending is almost always the best ending.

In truth, the whole film is a kind of exercise in Spielbergian dramaturgy. I mean, we know from the get-go that the Thirteenth Amendment is going to pass and that the Civil War is going to end (Rebecca Schneider's book notwithstanding). And so the entirety of Lincoln – if we remain on the level of plot – is a kind of buildup to something terrible that ends up being benign after all, just like Embeth Davitz's shower in Schindler's List that really was water after all.

But this is a film about politics and not a film about surprises or cliffhangers. Spielberg can do this, too, of course, and indeed his considerable skill at suspense makes a film about passing a piece of legislation into a true nail-biter, even though we already know it is going to pass. In a way, what I am talking about is truly genius-level filmmaking.

Of course, a part of what Kushner & Spielberg are doing here is making another film about Lincoln within a cinematic history of Lincoln. On the Colbert Report this week Kushner said that the last important film about Lincoln was John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda. That is clearly false (I'm not actually sure why he would say such a thing) because John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois starring Raymond Massey (who is absolutely amazing as Lincoln) was released some 8 months after Ford's film.

I am not trying to chart a history of representations of Abe Lincoln in cinema, but I think it is significant that each of these films attempts to do a different thing with Lincoln. For starters, each of these films chooses a specific plotline to follow: a small section of Lincoln's life. Only Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter attempts to tell the whole story of Abraham Lincoln; the others choose a small aspect of the Lincoln story and focus in on it. Young Mr. Lincoln follows a court case in which Lincoln is basically a kind of down-home criminal lawyer, solving a case in order to free two young men falsely charge of murder. Fonda plays Lincoln like a young Matlock, solving crimes and reminiscing about his mother in down-home drawl. Abe Lincoln in Illinois follows Lincoln's love affair (and tempestuous rows) with Mary Todd, as well as his rise to power in the United States government and his election as president. Abe is a film about Lincoln's anti-slavery politics.

All of these films – including the one about the vampires – are hagiographic.

I want to say a bit more about politics, because to me Lincoln is a movie about Barack Obama. Here Dr. Schneider's book again deserves mention because although Lincoln's Abraham Lincoln is clearly not Obama, he's not not Obama.

2012's Lincoln focuses on Lincoln the politician – as he tries to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed through the U.S. House of Representatives. But instead of working to establish Lincoln as a saint, Kushner and Spielberg take his sainthood for granted, expecting his sainthood to confer its good will onto the political process itself. There is an entire section of the film in which Lincoln attempts to convince Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens to be less radical, to rein it in in order to get this legislation passed. The film argues that we need to be concerned about the present just a bit more than we ought to be concerned for our idealistic principles. In other words, politics – which is, for Kushner, the way we get (good) things done in this world – are infinitely more important than being right about what it is that we believe.

In the old saying "He'd rather be right than president", Kushner (I think correctly) thinks it is better to be president. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, but Lincoln read to me like an apology for the conservatism of Barack Obama's first four years as the U.S. President. Lincoln says that in order to get things done, blood must be shed. Lincoln doesn't really believe in revolution but rather in slow progress, gradual inevitable change made possible by great men and women who sacrifice their own lives (literally) in order to open up spaces for such change. And Lincoln believes in this change with all of its heart. It is a film filled with hope, filled with the articulation of such possibilities. Lincoln is an excellent film because – like all of Kushner's texts – it is profoundly ambivalent about the principles in which it believes. Further (and thankfully), Lincoln is not particularly interested in convincing me that its own point of view is the correct one, but it is interested rather in asking me to imagine the same possibilities imagined by its protagonists.

Lincoln is, after all, a film about having faith in democracy and in the people themselves. It is a profoundly hopeful film that wants to believe that giving people the freedom to make decisions about their own lives is the best and only ethical way to govern.

13 November 2012

Flying High

Robert Zemeckis's new film is an unapologetic star vehicle for the great Denzel Washington. Zemeckis excels at star vehicles, as we all know, and Flight is no exception.

Flight is a film about a drunk, but it isn't a film about alcoholism for its first half. In fact, the movie is split between a truly exciting action/disaster movie in its first act and a second and third act that are about a man coming to terms with his addiction to alcohol.

The movie's first act is its best part, and Zemeckis deftly handles these tense moments, building suspense beautifully as the plane crash – which we all know is going to happen – is avoided and then avoided again as the protagonist gets control of the aircraft. This entire first section of the film is exciting and nerve-wracking. I was on the edge of my seat.

The film's second section slows down considerably, but maintains the suspense of not quite knowing what will happen. Washington plays his character as someone who might do anything at any point. I wanted this character to succeed badly, and I even made excuses at various points for his drinking. The movie, too, takes pleasure in drug use and heavy drinking, including a boozing, cocaine-loving John Goodman for three scenes filled with humor and vicarious substance-enjoying pleasure. (Flight's humor is odd. In addition to Goodman's character, there is also a very strange and sickeningly funny sequence in a hospital room where two young crazy people keep talking about Jesus and his plan for everyone's life. It is played for laughs and I laughed, but I also felt a little gross.)

For all of the pleasure it takes in drinking and cocaine-use, however, sobriety (and sentimentality) win out after all in Zemeckis's movie. Flight's protagonist and its audience are supposed to learn that we ought to have some principles, even if we don't care about our own lives. And we are also supposed to believe that there is a god and that it does indeed have a plan for our lives, even if the first sequence that states this explicitly is directed in a spirit of ridicule.

Flight, in the end, truly is about acts of god, and this is a movie in which everyone is given a second and third chance to straighten up and, you will pardon the expression, fly right.

Oscar postscript: It looks to me like Denzel Washington is pretty much a lock for a Best Actor nomination. He is a huge star and the performance is absolutely superb. It is difficult to be a huge star and give a great performance, of course: our stars carry lots of baggage with them. But, like I said, this is a star vehicle, and the film seems veritably designed to get Washington a well-deserved sixth Oscar nomination. As for John Goodman or Don Cheadle's Oscar chances, don't listen to the hype. I don't see either role as quite big enough to merit notice at year's end. This film only has eyes for Mr. Washington himself. Bruce Greenwood, I should note, once again does excellent work on a film's sidelines. His role is neither flashy nor conspicuous, but as usual, Mr. Greenwood delivers. He is a dependable and reassuring presence in a film, and I am always happy to see him onscreen.