5.31.2008

CRITICAL MASS: SMALL PRESS SPOTLIGHT: PRAISE THE CHAPBOOK

Lorna Dee Cervantes and I were given generous mentions in Rigo's post at the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors Blog. Rigo discusses the role of the chapbook in contemporary publishing. Thanks!

CRITICAL MASS: SMALL PRESS SPOTLIGHT: PRAISE THE CHAPBOOK

5.28.2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Boneheaded Plot



I'll start this review with two confessions:

1. For years, I have always conceded that my favorite film of all time was none other than Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it's true; I've loved it since I was a kid and well into adulthood; I think it's a near perfect film.

2. What I'm about to write pains me—pains me—for that reason.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a ridiculous film.



It's a ridiculous, stupid, waste of time film, for the most part. It has its high points, sure. There are, as you'd expect, some great action sequences and stunt sequences, some tense fighting and chases, some laughs, some drama, and some liberal use of the term "archaeology." It has Shia LaBoeuf (yay!). It has Karen Allen. (er, okay.)


Pretty much the best part of the movie right here.

Downsides: the plot. Since I don't want to give away any spoilers, let me just say the following: the plot is completely ridiculous, even by the series's standards. Last Crusade pushed it some, as did the magic stones from Temple of Doom, but wow. You won't even believe what Lucas, Spielberg, et al have cooked up this time. It was such a huge disappointment that I can barely even talk about it.

Let's talk about Karen Allen for a minute. I'm all about crazy people coming back from the edge to be productive members of society (I'm talking to you, Anne Heche and Mariah Carey). It's fine. Bygones, etc. But I don't think Karen Allen made it all the way home. She spends most of her time in the movie looking so delighted that there is a camera crew filming her, that she's in a real movie, that her lines get all chewed up. Her emotions are twofold: flustered and amourous. That is the range of her performance. It's heartbreaking to see as she was really one of the most compelling aspects of Raiders.


This is Karen Allen's expression through most of the film.

Overall, I think they should have waited for a better script. One of the last shots of the adventure sequence was so misguided and just WRONG...Wow. It was worse than the knight standing on the seal of the Grail Temple, holding up on tentative gauntleted hand to wave goodbye...as he is then crushed by falling boulders.

Don't waste your money seeing this unless you want to tell me I'm right when you get home.

5.24.2008

LOCUSPOINT: Madison

Thanks to the lovely Brent Goodman, LOCUSPOINT: Madison is on the launch pad and almost ready for take off....

Stay tuned!

5.20.2008

Speed Racer Rules!



Over the weekend I made it a priority to get to a movie theatre, away from the heat, to see Speed Racer.

I'll be honest. I was initially skeptical about this cartoon remake, thinking it was going to end up totally LAME despite the best efforts of a great cast and a pair of visionary directors. But even the previews couldn't have prepared me for the fun, unique, visually overwhelming ride that is Speed Racer.

First, it's full of beefcake, which is never a bad sign. Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, and the totally foxy Scott Porter (as the doomed Rex Racer) are all good to look at. Watching a shirtless Matthew Fox kick a little ninja ass was, I admit, worth the price of admission. Rounding out the beefcake are Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mr. and Mrs. Racer and Christina Ricci as Trixie, Speed's spunky and supportive gal pal.

But aside from the obvious, the film is also just amazing. The Wachowski Brothers, who innovated film in the last decade with the stop-motion camera angle adjustment that characterized the Matrix franchise, do themselves one better here, rendering a live action/computer animation environment that is both seamless and self-referential. As a child, Speed sits in his desk chair imagining himself in a child-drawn world of race cars and lane changes, the action is absolutely absorbing, drawing the viewer into the invented, imaginary world without destroying the suspension of disbelief.



Of course, this element (and the hyperstylized "real world" Speed Racer lives in) are both nods to the original Japanese cartoon's brand of animation. The Wachowski brothers layer in references to anime in humorous ways that draw our attention to the rest of the film—ultimately, isn't this whole film a live-action version of anime? Or witness Trixie's exasperated disbelief: "Oh my God, was that a ninja?" All of these elements actually increase audience participation in the invented world rather than distancing us from it. Even though the characters experience a degree of disbelief, we never do.

The production design on this film is out of control, almost obsessive-compulsive in the degree of detail and attention to which the sets, costumes, and props all come together to create a world that is simultaneously beautiful, familiar, strange, and implausible. Mid-century modern design nestles comfortably alongside invented technologies and—yes—even a domesticated monkey, who earns his keep in the film without resorting to lame explanatory tactics (in fact, we never do learn why there's a primate in the house...). The imagined landscapes, with their rich tones and vibrant colors are virtually unforgettable. But more than anything, this is a film about lighting. Every scene is meticulously lit, shadowing faces or spraying reflected lights across Speed's helmet. Even the obscene amount of green screened shots are lit in believable ways, rivaling Ugly Betty for the best renderings of physical space in contemporary filmmaking.



It's a film that's more than worth seeing; it's a revolution. Like the best works of art in our culture, Speed Racer draws from discrete and disparate traditions and pulls them all together into a seamless stream of consciousness that has a strong heart and a quick, unstoppable pulse.

5.19.2008

Dear Starbucks, We Need to Talk



I think I might have to break up with you, Starbucks.

It's been a difficult decision, but we've been having problems for a while. I know you've noticed. My coffees are made incorrectly, and your staff are indifferent and stressed out. Nobody's happy the way they used to be. And it seems like there are fewer baristas behind the counter than when we first got together. Starbucks, are you downsizing? Are you turning out good workers and replacing them with ineffectual lame-os who don't care if my coffee's right?

Starbucks, your coffee is delicious—I grant you that. Your drip coffee's quality is unparalleled, and you give me so many options to personalize my drink that no matter my mood, you promise to give me something I want. Lately, I've wanted a grande seven-pump sugar free vanilla soy iced coffee, and you give that to me—or at least, you try. But I'm tired of going home unsatisfied, Starbucks. I have my youth. I can't waste my best days waiting for you to wake up and—it hurts me to even say it—smell yourself.

My last five visits—FIVE—have been substandard. I thought at first it was just a bad day, a busy morning, someone called in sick. At first, you fixed my coffee before I even knew it was wrong, and I only had to wait a minute more. I'm a patient person. I can do that. But then, when I was back East for a few days, your staff messed up my coffee twice in a row. The second time, I had to shout at someone to get him to do it right, and even then he argued that it already had soy in it when it was clearly still black!

Unfortunately, this wasn't a right-coast issue. I'm afraid it's national. When I got back home, I kept having problems with you, Starbucks. It seemed like you weren't listening anymore. Yesterday, I asked for sugar-free vanilla and you wrote classic—and then didn't put either in the drink. Your barista was sullen, depressed. And today, my barista tried to swap out my order for a "iced latte nonfat soy," which, dear Starbucks, does not exist! Of everyone I know, I thought you would understand.

I know you're going through a difficult time, experiencing a rebranding and a global repositioning of your corporate strategy. But I'm here now, Starbucks, and I have needs. I need you to hear me. I need things to be the way they used to be, before, when we were happy, when my coffee was always made right and was delicious.

I'm sorry, Starbucks. I think we both knew this was coming.

5.09.2008

Coming Soon



Featuring

Kazim Ali
Vicky Allyón
Shamim Azad
Richard Barnes
Polina Barskova
Sandra Beasley
Lauren Berry
Trish Carney
Jon Cone
Bill Durgin
John W. Evans
Daryl Farmer
Hannah Gamble
Ming Holden
Lizzie Hutton
Ilya Kaminsky
Laura Kasischke
Elaine Mayes
Tessa Mellas
Michelle Mitchell-Foust
Caitlin Newcomer
Julie Platt
Doug Ramspeck
Elizabeth Searle
Stephanie Taylor
Stephen Tuttle
Urban Waite
Carolyne Wright

5.07.2008

East versus West

I think traveling to the East Coast from the West is the closest thing one can get to the "Drink Me" state of Alice in Wonderland.

Everything here is so tiny and close together! And sort of charming in that way.

The West, especially Phoenix, is such an expanse.

That physical distance creates emotional distance among people, I think.

5.06.2008

What We Mean When We Talk About "The Arts"

Again and again I feel disappointed in and embittered by the national and local dialogues about art these days.

CONTEXT
First, the bright side (whic is still pretty dim): when the NEA cut all of its fellowships to individual artists after the "culture wars" of the 1990s, the only two disciplines who continued to receive this prestigious funding were jazz musicians and writers. An interesting choice, when you think about it. The other disciplines were cut after artists like Robert Mapplethorpe photographed African American men in the nude, in various ways, some with fetish gear. The photographs are stunning and unapologetically sexual in nature. Then there was Piss Christ, the sculpture in which a crucifix was placed in a jar of urine, and the performance artist who, while HIV-positive, engaged in acts of cutting on a stage and then floated blood-soaked cloths out over the audience.

The NEA's decision to retain jazz and literature fellowships in this context seems to imply that the least controversial/most palatable artists work these disciplines.

I will return to this point shortly.

RECENTLY
I attended a grant panel discussion involving the disbursement of some tax funds to arts organizations in support of specific projects or performances. I had the good fortune to listen to the panel discuss ballet organizations, a society dedicated to the preservation of barbershop quartet music, and a local cutting-edge theatre group as well as a literary organization.

None of the arts groups were as criticized or reviled as the literary group. "I searched for these poets on the New York Review of Books website," one panelist said, "and I didn't get any results. They must not be well known." The artists in question included a Guggenheim/NEA fellow with 13 books. Another was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Another panelist doubted the choice of venues. "I've heard beautiful words spoken in a warehouse," she noted. "I don't know why they have to pay for a venue like this for just a reading." Finally, a panelist concluded, "I got out my calculator and realized that the investment here is $30 per person even though the event itself is free. That just seems really unreasonable for an event that only features a reading and a Q&A session."

These comments were only the tip of the iceberg. I have a whole slew of zingers tossed out by the panel, but I'll reserve them because they might reveal the identities of the granting organization and the applicant organization.

Contrast this with their discussion of the ballet, for example, where tickets cost individuals more then $30 and performances consist of—well, they just consist of performances, don't they? Without context for the art, discussions with the artists, etc. Or the fact that the barbershop quartet group was made up entirely of white senior citizen men—and, by extension, implied the artform was a tradition of white culture—sparked not a single comment at all.

CONCLUSIONS
I feel strongly that most Americans perceive literature as something created by dead people. That somehow, these little artifacts pop up in our bookstores and become classics. People don't believe important literature is still being written in their lifetime because for some reason, the assessment of literary merit, by the wider culture, is posthumous or, at the most optimistic, gray-haired.

That's why the NEA felt okay continuing to fund artists. Because we don't rock boats, we don't push boundaries. Both untrue. And books that do push boundaries? Easily banned by school boards, libraries, etc. We don't ban other arts as frequently as we ban books. Why is that?

Literature suffers from the same dichotomy that polarizes film audiences—that the majority of publications, like blockbusters, are published based on their ability to sell enormously. Since the most people have the greatest degree of contact with "popular" literature and cinema, it eclipses the rest of the products out there. Art film, like literary fiction and poetry, exists in shadows and alleyways, shunned by masses and harbored like persecuted fugitives by a small contingent of believers. (Please note that something popular can also be literary, although this is exceptional.)

I don't know how to correct this except by direct advocacy. I know that many writers out there are loathe to discuss their artistic life with strangers (often with good reason!), but isn't it critical we let the world know that writers are alive and well, publishing books and shaping new generations of writers? We need to get writers out of the office and into the community where people can interact with them, be enriched by them, and understand that literary art isn't historical by nature—it's ultimately one of the most contemporary forms of art there is, that it crosses lines between performance and object, that it can be both public and private, that it appeals broadly and narrowly.

Because no one will do it for us.

5.05.2008

The HIlls, but in a Nutshell



Tonight I watched The Hills for the first time. I'd just read a lengthy piece about it in Rolling Stone while I waited at the airport for my flight this morning and I have to admit, it piqued my curiosity, especially when the writer noted that many in the culture have likened it to the Neorealism filmmaking of Michaelangelo Antonioni.

I have to admit that, for a show where virtually nothing happens, even the slightest social nuances between the characters take on an oppressive, dramatic weight. When Lo snubs Audrina when Lo and Lauren visit the studio where Alkaline Trio are recording, the impact is virtually Ivory Merchant in its magnitude. And later, when Lo describes the puppy she and Lauren rescued from a shelter as "having two mommies," succinctly subtracting third roommate Audrina from the equation (in front of Audrina, no less), it resonates.

A lot of people contest whether or not the show is scripted or if it's just a new take on the reality genre. After watching a couple of eps, I'd hazard it's somewhere squarely in between--not scripted, but not completely at the mercy of chance, either. There's clearly enough manipulation of events that leads me to believe the show is ad libbed, that the actors are given certain information they have to convey in some way that feels natural, and then it's slickly produced and packaged for MTV's audience.

Here's the general structure of an episode:

LAUREN: I keep thinking about having a boyfriend.
AUDRINA: I think we should have a party.
LO: I think having a party is the dumbest idea ever.
LAUREN: How could we get boys to talk to us?
LO: I know! Let's throw a party and invite boys!
AUDRINA: [looks wounded]
LO: Also, the puppy totally hates Audrina. I think that means something.

HEIDI: I really need to focus on my life right now.
STEPHANIE: How come nobody lets me be friends with Lauren? It's in my contract.
SPENCER: God, Stephanie, I wish you were never born. Also, Mom drank while she was pregnant with you.
HEIDI: Spencer, stop controlling everyone's life.
SPENCER: I do not! Shut up, shut up, I'm not even listening.
HEIDI: I'm going to Vegas so I can flirt with yummy boys and ask them to shoot my music videos.
SPENCER: [sulks]
STEPHANIE: Spencer, if you don't get off my couch I'm going to have you arrested.

LAUREN: Do you know what I really like? Going on dates.
LO: But isn't Audrina a bitch?
LAUREN: I'm craving sushi.
LO: What do you think about other people who aren't in this scene? Like, isn't Heidi a total hobag?
LAUREN: I don't even say that name anymore. Unless I meet a boy named Heidi, then I'll think about it.

5.02.2008

Jealousy.

Some of you know that my secret goal in life is to cover amazing, tacky pop songs on acoustic guitar, thereby giving them a depth and gravity they would otherwise not possess.

Well, Marié Digby beat me to it:



I love her version.

And if you think that's not impressive, SHE KNOWS HOW TO PLAY THE SONG I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO PLAY FOR SIX MONTHS:

5.01.2008

It's a fashion face; a face full of fashion.

Yesterday's fashion discussion reminded me to share this great YouTube clip a friend introduced me to a while ago. It features former soap opera star Brenda Dickson as she talks about how to be fashionable, but it's been dubbed over with a great voiceover.

It's a little long, but it is a total hoot.