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.