Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The man behind the typewriter (Final Piece)

            Lemony Snicket does not exist. Children who show up to his book tours hoping to hear from the alleged author of works like A Series of Unfortunate Events or “Who Could That Be At This Hour?” will instead meet his representative — and actual author of the novels — Daniel Handler.
Handler is a slightly graying man in his early 40s. He plays the accordion and he adores San Francisco, where he currently lives with his wife, an illustrator, and his elementary school-aged son.
The theatrics are an effort, however transparent, to keep the mystery of books alive. Handler told John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley of Lightspeed Magazine that he came up with the act after watching another children’s author present at a book event.
“I thought she was terrible. And she told me later that what she liked to do was to dispel the mystery behind writing,” Handler said in the interview. He decided this was an awful idea.
“The actual writing is someone sitting at a desk writing, which is very boring,” he said. “I thought, ‘What can I do to increase the mystery of writing rather than decrease it?’”
Handler’s love of mystery permeates his novels. The 13 books in A Series of Unfortunate Events draw from the gothic genre, telling the story of three orphans who find themselves involved in a secret organization and frequently confront misfortune.
“Who Could That Be At This Hour,” the first book in a new four-part series called All The Wrong Questions, plays on the noir genre, following a young Snicket as he solves the mystery of a missing object. Handler alludes to the Maltese Falcon and Duke Ellington with plot devices and character names.
Beneath all of this mystery lies Handler’s unique way of dealing with the world of childhood. Today’s kids face news like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, but fiction books often gloss over the grittier parts of life.
Handler likes to confront them head on, leaving situations unsettled and morally ambiguous. It’s a fine line to walk — Count Olaf’s threats to the Baudelaire children, including capturing their friends and locking them in the basement of an apartment building, are sometimes terrifying. But these same situations can make rough patches in children’s lives seem manageable.
In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Handler said his Jewish upbringing affects his writing. His father escaped from Hitler’s Germany as a young child, and dinnertime stories often involved tales of “daring escapes and lucky rescues.” But his family also told stories about who wasn’t able to get out.
“I think that also had a huge effect on Series of Unfortunate Events, just that notion that terrible things can happen for any reason and they’re not punishment for bad behavior,” Handler said. “[The series] reminds you that a terrible thing can happen at any moment and that it is up to you to persevere through it.”
This is what Handler thinks kids need. In a piece he wrote for the New York Times the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Handler said he fielded a lot of questions from reporters about whether his stories were appropriate for children in that environment.
“My young readers are not only finding a diversion in the melodrama of the Baudelaires’ lives, but they are also finding ways of contemplating our current troubles through stories,” he wrote. “When children write to me asking if Count Olaf is a terrorist, if the Baudelaires were anywhere near the World Trade Center… it is clear they are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us.”
The All The Wrong Questions series seems, from its first book, to take a lighter tone than A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are no villains hanging infants out of windows in birdcages or threatening children with knives — all of which happen in the first and arguably scariest book of the older series.
But Handler still confronts childhood in his trademark way. The story has foolish adults who give children unhelpful information. Young Snicket participates in activities that would make most parents cringe, like dropping from a hawser into a tree or riding around in a car driven by two small children, one who works the pedals and one who steers.
In an early scene, Snicket narrowly avoids drinking tea laced with a sedative given to him by two adults who may or may not be his parents.
When Gross asked him if this might deter people shopping for children’s books, Handler answered with his usual dry sense of humor.
“As a parent… I think if anything, ‘Who Could That Be At This Hour?’ makes a powerful case for not drugging children,” he told her. “Other children’s authors have expressed no opinion on this. Where’s Beverly Cleary on this issue, I wonder?”
Humor is what makes the books less scary, which is a valuable lesson for youngsters.  It’s frightening that people in the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the setting for “Who Could That Be At This Hour” have to wear masks sometimes to protect themselves from salt lung. But it’s funny that the masks look like underwater equipment even though the sea around the town dried up years ago.
Handler hopes his books, after all, ultimately reassure children. He told Gross that he had his own fears as a child, specifically of being kidnapped. His mother told him the family didn’t have enough money to be targets for that.
At book events, he makes small talk with children by asking them if they have ever been kidnapped and about how much money their parents would pay for their safe return
“It’s under the guise of whether I’m calculating it enough, so if it seems like enough money for me to kidnap them,” he said. “But I hope it’s also reassuring when they realize they probably won’t be kidnapped.”
Childhood involves various types of frightening events. Handler’s unique way of dealing with them is a pleasant reminder that everything will be all right.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final project pitch

Lemony Snicket is not a real person, but Daniel Handler is. Handler wrote the 13-book A Series of Unfortunate Events, the last installment of which was released on Friday the 13th of October, 2006. More recently, hereleased the first book of a new series. All The Wrong Questions is about young Lemony Snicket's efforts to solve a mystery in a seaside town no longer by the sea. "Who Could That Be At This Hour?," the first of four books, addresses the first incorrect question that he asks during the process.

Handler has an important place in children's literature. He addresses sinister topics, particularly in A Series of Unfortunate Events. He uses high literary allusions in his pieces (the Baudelaire orphans and Esme Squalor are some of his character names). A lot of these are more present in A Series of Unfortunate Events, but All The Wrong Questions is still a vocabulary lesson with mentions of other literary works.

Handler has written about his thoughts on talking to children about serious topics (here, for example). I will use this source as well as interviews with him to profile his motivations for writing about these topics and about what that means for children. I'd love to actually talk to him, but I'm assuming his publisher will shut me down on that one (probably going to call and try though...)

Monday, February 25, 2013

An evening of off-color comments

The theme of the 2013 Academy Awards was music at the movies, and the show appropriately began with host Seth MacFarlane performing a musical number of his own.
Less appropriate was the title of his performance: “We Saw Your Boobs.”  MacFarlane proceeded to list off the names of actresses who have showed their breasts in on-screen roles.
And not in a casual sense, mind you — the nudity in Brokeback Mountain is hardly something to mock Anne Hathaway for doing.
This was the lightest of many misogynistic moments during the ceremony. During the same (lengthy) opening, MacFarlane took jabs at eating disorders and domestic violence.
He made a crack at women who “got the flu” prior to the event so they could fit into their dresses.
He drew parallels between “Django Unchained” and an abusive relationship: “Django is a movie where a woman is subjected to violence, or as we call it, a Chris Brown and Rihanna date movie,” he said. He seemed a little uncomfortable afterward, telling the audience that it was the rudest joke he had for the evening.
Later MacFarlane joked about Selma Hayek’s accent, saying it was okay that the audience wouldn’t understand her because she is pretty.
To be fair, this crack extended to Javier Bardem, although abandoning gender for race seems hardly seems like an improvement in the entertainment department.
The offensive humor sometimes overshadowed the high points of the show. Musical numbers included Catherine Zeta-Jones performing “All That Jazz” and Jennifer Hudson doing a song from Dreamgirls.
Women dominated these interludes, proving that MacFarlane’s disparaging comments had little basis in reality.
The ceremony dragged, running over three hours. Best actress went to Jennifer Lawrence for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. She stumbled over her wide skirt while walking up the stairs but laughed it off once onstage.
Daniel Day-Lewis won best actor for his role in Lincoln, an award so expected that Meryl Streep didn’t bother to pause for suspense when she announced it.
And Argo took home the best picture award. It was a justified nod of recognition for Ben Affleck, who was left out of the best director nominations.
MacFarlane closed the show with Kristen Chenoweth, singing a song dedicated to the night’s losers. It took a direct shot at Quvenzhan√© Wallace who, at age nine, probably didn’t need to be mocked. It was a classless end to a classless evening.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Critic as Artist

"For it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms."

I find Oscar Wilde's argument compelling, but I'm a little resistant to the idea that criticism is responsible for inventing new forms. Or rather, I'm resistant to this justifying arts criticism as a branch of journalism. I think that every artist has to be a critic in their field, otherwise progress doesn't happen. So in that sense I agree with Wilde's sentiment. When I do arts work I'm highly critical of what I'm doing and always think about my next project. But does this mean that we need critics publishing their thoughts in the media to advance art?

I'd argue that we don't. I think, as someone mentioned in class the other day, that artists compete with each other more than they strive to please critics. I guess part of that stems from needing to be noticed by critics and by the public. But I just don't know if I'd credit arts critics as the ones advancing the movement. It seems a little drastic. I think it undermines the autonomy of the artist and their ability to assess their own work and avoid re-creating the same pieces over and over. Also, some well-known people do that despite critics. It happens all the time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"West of Memphis" and the judicial system

I haven't seen "West of Memphis," but I recently read this piece from The Atlantic about the film. The documentary is about the wrongful conviction of three young men who were wrongly tried as murderers in the 1990s. But the film also presents another person as the potential murderer, something that was never examined in court and has no official proof.

It got me thinking about the role of documentary film. After taking Intro to Doc last quarter, I got more comfortable with the idea that documentarians can put their own spin on a piece instead of reporting, but is this too much spin? I definitely think this is overstepping the line in terms of what a film should do, especially since one of the pardoned men helped produce it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pauline Kael was the ultimate audience

Maggie Kane

Pauline Kael was a well-versed movie critic, and she let her readers know it. Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that she was “probably the most influential film critic of her time,” in an obituary that ran in the New York Times in 2001. Francis Davis credits her with “establish[ing] the movie review as a form of literature with the potential for social commentary.”
Kael was born in California in 1919. She saw movies go from black and white to color to 3D. In her critiques, which she wrote starting in 1953, she wove in history about the industry, showing a movie’s place in the broader scheme of the industry.
“There’s hardly a star in American movies today, and if we’ve got so used to the absence of stars that we no longer think about it much, we’ve also lost one of the great pleasures of moviegoing,” she wrote in a review of Funny Girl. Barbara Streisand remedied this, she thought. Her observation about the overall state of stardom legitimized her opinion on Streisand.
William Zinsser writes that a critic should love the medium they review. Kael expressed opinions that were uniquely her own and that did not try to fit in with what other reviewers thought, demonstrating her love for movies and what they can do for an audience.
She panned “Hiroshima Mon Amour” despite its status as a highly praised film, complaining about its repetition and lengthy discussions on emotion. Art house film did not pull her in, so she resisted talking it up in an effort to appear intellectual
Kael was secure in her knowledge of film, but in making that clear she tended to sound preachy. She could hardly fathom the idea that certain viewers might genuinely enjoy a film she disliked.  
“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films… [as] easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism,” she wrote about “Hiroshima.”
In a review of “Dancing with Wolves,” she accused the audience of being stupid.
“Crowds of moviegoers love the movie, though—maybe partly because the issues have been made so simple,” she writes right after accusing the film, under “bland” direction, of having simpleminded characters.  
Kael tends to use “you” or “we” to directly address potential viewers, sometimes including herself as part of the audience.
This tactic may have contributed to the cult following she gathered during her career. Kael worked at McCalls, The New Republic and The New Yorker, contributing to other publications on the side. She inspired a group of critics known as “Paulettes” who hung on her every word.
Kael left her mark on the critic world. Her unapologetic way of critiquing film has influenced readers and writers both, even if it simultaneously attacks any way of thinking that strays from her standards.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The game is afoot!

Okay, could neither the Herald nor MLive think of any better way to start a Sherlock Holmes review than with lines from the play? Too much, too much. I preferred MLive's review to the Herald's in terms of both style and content. I liked that it put reaction to the play up front before adding in overview closer to the bottom. Since I saw the play already, this flowed nicely for me (although I'm aware that most readers would be looking at the review prior to seeing the performance). 

MLive gave a more negative review than the Herald, although both reviews concluded that it's a worthwhile play to see. The Herald praised most of the play's elements and used a lot of non-specific words like "great" and "fantastic." It gave the piece more of a conversational tone than I like to see and also didn't give me a great sense of what specifically made the play good.

I appreciate that MLive mentioned their connection to the play. When I first saw Marin's name with no nod to it I was worried, but they put a disclaimer further down. I thought that was an important thing for them to do for transparency.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sherlock Holmes "review"

It's hard for me to start approaching this play because I'm not very familiar with Sherlock Holmes in other contexts. I think I saw the movie that came out a couple of years ago, but I could not tell you anything about it. If I were to approach a review of the play, I would focus on the quality of the staging and refrain from comparing it to movies or TV. In general I think that's how I would approach any staging because if you're going to the theater looking for something rivaling TV and movies for effects or subtlety, you're probably going to be hugely disappointed anyway. The stage is a wonderful medium, but it has different techniques and strengths.

What I struggle with most in this case, I think, is knowing to what standards I should hold the production quality. I've been to a lot of plays over the years, but not really to community theater productions in this sense. The smaller theaters at home are all pretty high profile. I'm kind of a theater snob is what I'm saying/admitting.

I would probably focus on the costuming and sets for this particular staging, which I thought were really well done, especially for a small theater. I think it could have been useful to change up a tie or vest or something on the men's clothing to clarify when the play was supposed to move forward a day, but overall the costumes were great. They were intricate and well-made. The sets captured the aesthetic of the time period and the darker lighting gave it all a mysterious glow. It was a creative use of a small space, especially with the way the lower part of the set switched to different settings.

On the other side of things, my most negative response was toward the accents. Only a couple actors could hold theirs (good work, Marin!) and it really distracted me from the action. So I suppose my question there is whether or not it's important for the reviewer to note that this is a small, volunteer-run theater without professional acting and accent coaches. I'm not sure if this should change my overall feeling that the play should have been done without attempting accents.

I think another thing about reviewing community theater, especially in a small town, is that everyone's so much closer than when a reviewer covers a Hollywood movie. The actors are going to read the review and then the reviewer could very well run into them while out to dinner or walking around the city. That can definitely be a good thing, in that it would push me to be very deliberate about my wording and to avoid cattiness on the negative side of things. On the other hand, it also might push me to give a more positive review than I otherwise would have.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A night of intensity, sprinkled with humor

I reviewed a dance performance at Beloit College, so the New York Times would be an inappropriate target publication. I wrote this aiming for something more like the Beloit Daily News, the town's paper.

Maggie Kane

It opens with a group of women staring at a single dancer near the front of the stage. They tap their hands and feet with a sense of urgency, shoving each other when they get too close. The dancers’ faces dramatically express judgment and apprehension as they fight for attention.

The theme of competition knits together the dances at “Chelonia,” Beloit College’s annual spring semester dance program. Though the pieces are choreographed by different students, faculty members and guests, they flow seamlessly into one another.

The standout moments, though, come during two pieces that depart from this theme. A duet by senior Mia Alcorn portrays a relationship gone wrong in an a capella piece that is so synchronized it is hard to notice the lack of music.

Senior dancers Nora Anderson and Michael Kreiser have perfect chemistry. He seems to dance through her while she follows him around with wide eyes, begging silently for attention. Their everyday attire — a sundress, and a dress shirt and pants — grounds the act in reality while red lighting suggests otherworldly intimacy.

The emotion in Anderson’s voice at the end as she cries out, “Please, listen to me,” cues dark blue lighting, sadness. Their bodies flop, defeated.

A solo by junior Santiago Quintana choreographed by faculty member Gina T’ai is equally outstanding, although lighter. Quintana pushes himself across the width of the stage on a pile of gym mats, never stepping on the floor. He wears a frilly white skirt, which is as much a part of the dance as is his body.

Quintana seems like a six year old playing dress up in his room. A spotlight trained on him hints at visions of grandeur; it cuts out only once when the screen at the back of the stage turns teal and his silhouette is accentuated. In this moment, he does exaggerated shadow puppets with his hands.

It is a humorous moment in a lineup that has a lot of intensity. Group dances with four to nine people dominate the show. The dancers are well trained and highly skilled, giving professionalism to a student performance.

The show ends on an unexpected note, with a large group number set to a mix of Chopin and top-40 hip-hop music. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the program, but it is a fun way to remind the audience that this is, indeed, a college show.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Queen of Versailles" shows human side of the one percent

Maggie Kane

“I’m not a stupid person,” says Jackie Siegel, the so-called “Queen of Versailles,” at the end of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of the same name.

A former Miss America winner, Jackie married a wealthy man almost 30 years her senior. She has dyed blond hair and breasts that seem to increase in size as the film progresses. When the documentary starts, she and her husband are in the process of building the biggest house in America.

Jackie is easy to stereotype, but Greenfield makes sure to stay away from this trope: the shallow golddigger concerned with appearances and not much else.

When Greenfield started her documentary, it was about the couple and their house. Luckily for her, the financial crisis hit partway through and the story became much richer.

Suddenly Jackie struggles with letting most of the housekeeping staff go, pulling the children out of private school and doing her own cooking.

But while Greenfield shows Jackie in these seemingly ridiculous moments, she weaves them in perfectly with less expected information.

Jackie worries about construction halting on the 90,000 square-foot, Versailles-themed home of her dreams. She also lends $5,000 to a high school friend in an attempt to help save this woman’s home.

She struggles to keep her husband, David’s, attention as he falls deeper into an economic pit. He seems to be more interested in flirting with young women than talking to his wife. Jackie seems delusional about their relationship.

Then we learn that she divorced her first husband, who was abusive.

Greenfield achieves a difficult goal: she makes viewers feel empathy toward a one-percenter downscaling to wealth that still exceeds what most of us can comprehend.

She portrays Jackie as a human being instead of a wealthy caricature. Sometimes her focus on the human side of the story detracts from the overall narrative—it was hard to follow the ins and outs of how the family arrived at financial destruction.

But maybe that is an intentional choice. After all, Jackie doesn’t know either. She only learns that the unfinished dream house is in foreclosure after overhearing her husband mention it while doing an interview.

Jackie embodies excess and careless wealth. But when she admits, at the end, that she doesn’t know the details of what’s going on with the family finances, it’s hard not to pity her. Greenfield sees to it that Jackie is not the villain.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hobbit Satire

While watching SNL this weekend, I was particularly amused by this sketch about "The Hobbit." It reminded of me of my main complaint about the film.

And another piece here.

The last and only thing I've posted on my blog before this was also an article from "The Onion." I really like satire as a form of critique. It's snarky, but I think comedy is a more lighthearted way to point out errors than writing a full on pan.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Does Bilbo have a lightsaber? [Final draft]

Maggie Kane

            After a fast-paced opening scene filled with low-quality explosions, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” comes to a grinding halt. The dwarves’ home has been taken over by a dragon and now, years later, the quest to take it back happens very, very slowly.

The meat of the film starts in the home of Bilbo Baggins, the film’s friendly hobbit protagonist. Martin Freeman’s accents his representation of the character with subtle tics, like hand wringing and nervous glances, which beautifully portray the character’s shyness and discomfort in the face of an adventure.

The character does not offer much depth, although this can be blamed on J.R.R. Tolkien as much as on Jackson. Baggins agrees to join in the adventure only after Gandalf boosts his ego for what seems like hours, until our hobbit finally feels he might be ready for more tangible excitement than what he can read in a book. He sprints off to join the group.

This is the fastest action that happens for the next third of the movie. Baggins and the dwarves slowly begin to battle the roadblocks between themselves and home.

Or rather, they battle myriad bands of identical beige monsters. Are they trolls? Orcs? Goblins? Are these species interchangeable? The jury is still out.

The graphics that supplement these confrontations leave something to be desired. Most of the cityscapes and action sequences look like they were designed in the early 2000s.

The one exception happens at the turning point of the movie, when Baggins discovers he possesses a sort of medieval lightsaber that leads the group into an underground lair.

It’s aesthetically part Tim Burton, part Hayao Miyazaki. Ominous, bulbous creatures shuffle around on dimly lit ledges connected by ziplines. The wide shots offer dizzying views of the cavern while close ups reveal artistic detail.

The scuffles that happen afterward come in rapid-fire succession. It’s hard to keep track of who is fighting who and why. Finally the adventurers spy their homeland in the distance. But they do not make it there at the end of the film.

No, no—they aren’t deterred by danger. They simply do not make it there. Jackson plans to stretch out the rest of the story into two additional films. If he succeeds, it will be as improbable as a band of dwarves defeating dangers far larger than themselves and reclaiming their castle.

NYT Defense [Maggie & Brittany]

Mike Hale presents a successful mixed review of “Ripper Street,” weaving back and forth between its high and low points. Since the show is produced in Britain, he offers a reference point—“Law & Order”—for an American audience reading the review. He also acknowledges this audience at the end when, after critiquing the less original points of the show relative to other British and Canadian television, he writes that it has a more unique feel for Americans.

Hale leads in with two themes of the show: violence and sex. The sensationalism draws the reader in and also serves to summarize the show. He examines performance and chemistry between actors, simultaneously giving small details about the series content.

While he talks about the negative points, he also offers up positives, allowing readers to weigh the pros and cons of tuning in. The way he bounces back and forth does not push them in one direction or the other. It pulls readers through the review, keeping them engaged as they learn about the show. This is a unique review since it presents a British show to American audiences. It is helpful to look at when considering how to critique foreign material. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Onion rips on the Golden Globes

My favorite post-Globes coverage by far is this satirical piece by The Onion. I watched the Globes, but to be honest I was multitasking and paying a lot more attention to my computer screen than the TV. I'm a cynic when it comes to celebrity "news" coverage, and this slideshow perfectly captures what I find ridiculous about it. Good work, Onion!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is that a lightsaber?

A Lord of the Rings novice watches The Hobbit.

Maggie Kane

A pale, balding creature stares through the screen with blue saucer eyes. He is trying to answer a riddle told by Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit attempting to escape an underground maze with a battle of wits. It’s the emotional high point of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” as this violent but somehow endearing character eventually realizes that Baggins stole his precious ring. He flies into a panicked rage, beating himself up emotionally and threatening the hobbit.
Unfortunately this captivating character is not the protagonist of the film. He does not appear until late in the movie, barely rousing me after nearly two hours of slow storytelling. I read “The Hobbit” as a young child, but remember little. Looking for a light film with rolling country scenery, I decided to journey into the shire once more and check out the movie.
Baggins, a shy homebody who decides to go on an adventure after an elderly wizard boosts his ego, is the story's main character. Martin Freeman plays him well, using subtle tics like wringing his hands to physically express discomfort and nerves.
Baggins joins a band of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home. On the way, they battle myriad roadblocks, or rather, myriad bands of identical beige monsters. Are they trolls? Orcs? Goblins? Are these species interchangeable? The jury is still out.
The plot gets interesting late in the game, when Baggins discovers he has acquired a sort of medieval lightsaber. It directs the group of adventurers into a cavern that is aesthetically part Tim Burton, part Hayao Miyazaki. Ominous, bulbous creatures shuffle around on dimly lit ledges connected by ziplines. It’s visually impeccable.
At this point, Baggins accidentally splits from the group and finds himself alone with the ring-guarding creature. Eventually triumphant at mind games, he escapes and rejoins the dwarves.
After another scuffle or two—it’s hard to keep count of the rapid-fire action scenes packed into the last third of the movie as if to make up for its lackluster start—Baggins and the dwarves spy home in the distance. Apparently it will take them two more movies to get there.  If I were better versed in Middle Earth, I might eagerly await the resolution to the story. Instead I wish Jackson luck with stretching the journey out for another six hours.