Saturday, February 28, 2009

FILM: Two Lovers

This evening we subjected ourselves to the torturous romantic drama Two Lovers. Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow both gave great performances as wrecking balls of disfunctionality that ruin each other and those around them. But do I really want to watch that? If this film has a lesson to offer, it is that when someone says "I love you because I feel like I really know you", they don't really know you at all, and you should run the other way. When Leonard (Phoenix) and Michelle (Paltrow) first realize that their windows are opposite each other, it's a cute romantic New York moment. But before long, Leonard's watching her from his window verges into psycho-stalker creepy. Operatic arias haunt the film, mostly from Cavalleria Rusticana (appropriate enough for the broken love triangles, or rather, quadrilaterals), giving an operatic gravitas to these messed-up souls and their psycho-drama, but the writers should have consulted Marta Domingo for an alternate ending in the style of La Rondine. What happened instead was really rather incredible and appalling.

Monday, February 23, 2009

BOOKS: The Expected One

For the last couple weeks, I've been enjoying reading The Expected One by Kathleen McGowan, an intriguing cross between Dan Brown and Elaine Pagels. McGowan's story has obvious similarities to The Da Vinci Code, dealing with the mysteries of a secret society dedicated to protecting the suppressed knowledge that Mary Magdalene was really the wife of Jesus Christ, and that there are blood line descendants even today. Like the Da Vinci Code, there are many secrets hidden in famous European works of art. If you enjoyed the Da Vinci Code, particularly if you enjoyed the exposition of how potentially explosive secrets have been hidden through history, then you should enjoy this book too. But while another Da Vinci Code would be fun, what really distinguishes The Expected One is the book within the book. I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that the "holy grail" in McGowan's story is not just the existence of the blood line, but the discovery of a whole new gospel, written by Mary Magdalene herself. While this new gospel doesn't explicitly contradict anything in the traditional gospels, it shines a whole new light on various aspects of Biblical characters and events, and very creatively fills in much of the untold back story. McGowan's reimagining of the machinations that could well have occurred between the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Nazarenes, as well as King Herod and Pontius Pilate, leading up the crucifixion, were fascinating and thought-provoking. While her narrative does not challenge any core Christian beliefs, it will certainly challenge many people's conventional understanding of specific events, such as Pilate's fateful decision, and the role of Judas, as well as suggest a surprising back story involving the Marys, Pilate's wife, and Salome. (She even explains the vexing mystery of why nearly every named woman in Jesus's life is named Mary.) And in places where this new gospel parallels the existing ones, it sheds some intriguing new light. One point gives a great example of how the translation of a particular word can have huge implications. This gospel also adds some great Christian examples of faith and forgiveness worthy of a gospel. The outer modern story was engaging, and expounded some fascinating little-known history about a group called the Cathars in the middle ages, but it's the inner story that really makes this book worth reading.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

STAGE: Pippin

I'd never seen Pippin before, although I've always liked some of the famous tunes from the show, so when I heard that the Mark Taper was mounting a production, I was eager to check it out. When I heard that it was a co-production with Deaf West Theatre, I was even more intrigued. I was quite taken with their last collaboration, Big River, a few years ago, and knew how extraordinarily creative that combination could be. On the surface of it, a musical put on by a theatre company dedicated to the deaf, and featuring a mixed cast of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing actors, sounds like a dubious proposition. But a bilingual (English and American Sign Language) staging can add a whole artistic dimension to the show. If you've seen a good signing of lyrics (the Gay Men's Chorus of LA concerts are always great for that), then you'll know how artfully expressive the signing can be. If done right, incorporating signing into a production is a significant addition, not a distraction. And this production really does it right. Several of the characters are played by deaf actors who have off-stage actors providing their voices, and Pippin is played by two on-stage actors, a primary deaf one and a vocal shadow (the notion of a sign-language interpreter turned upside-down), a technique used to great dramatic advantage. Pippin is given his voice by the magician in the beginning through a magic trick, smartly exploiting the magic theme to introduce the concept of two side-by-side actors playing one character. At times, the vocal double fades into the background as we watch the deaf primary actor while hearing the voice. Other times, the vocal double adds expression of his own physically as well as vocally. And on occasion, they talk to each other, embodying conflicting emotions within the character they both play. (In a way, it was reminiscent of the "daemon" concept in the Golden Compass novels I recently read.) The device was no mere device, but was made an integral part of the story, and it worked brilliantly.

The other aspect of this production that was totally inspired was a visual conceit of disembodied body parts running throughout the production. This appears in the very first number just as an eye-popping choreographic visual when two pairs of arms, tightly spot-lit, thrust up through an invisible seam in the stage floor and start signing to the music. These detached arms appear at various points throughout the show. During a bloody battle number, detached arms and legs are dropped onto the stage, and at the end of the battle, Pippin has a unique conversation with a severed head lying on the ground, and its nearby detached arm (which signs as the head speaks). Later, during Pippin's episode of hedonism, there's a racy boudoir scene where Pippin (both of them) is ravished by a fluid series of arms and torsoes popping out of and submerging back into the bed sheets. Even the canopy of the bed is comprised of beaux-arts nymph-like women's bodies. The whole visual was worthy of Jean Cocteau. This extended theme of detached body parts was marvelous on a pure visual level, while on a symbolic level beautifully underscoring Pippin's sense of incompleteness and the unfulfilling dreams he chases.

There were other lovely visuals as well. "Love Song" was made particularly memorable with the two falling-in-lovers uplit so that they threw large shadows as they faced each other and signed, at one point even spelling out L-O-V-E in ephemeral hand shadows. And the saucy cabaret choreography of "No Time At All" was great fun.

This top notch cast, in this inspired production, is working magic at the Mark Taper Forum.

Monday, February 09, 2009

I Admire Michael Phelps Even More

So Michael Phelps tried marijuana. Big deal. Millions of respectable Americans have smoked marijuana, including our President (who is undoubtedly not the first President to have inhaled, but is the first one to have honestly admitted it). Personally, I think it's a sign of intellectual curiosity. Michael Phelps is still a phenomenal athlete, with a well-earned triumphant Olympic performance, and by most accounts a nice guy to boot, so there's no reason we should stop regarding him with admiration. Moreover, he was admirable in the way he handled the situation, with a forthright honest admission (when many other people in the same situation might have tried to deny it) and an apology for his lapse of judgment. In my opinion, trying marijuana in itself was no lapse of judgment, but doing so while under contract as a role model probably was, since his actions included the risk of putting his sponsors in an awkward position. On the other hand, I think even role models should have some zone of privacy, and the ganef who sold that photo deserves to be sued for invasion of privacy. Kudos to Visa, Speedo, Omega, as well as the IOC, for standing by Phelps. Omega said it was "strongly committed" to its relationship with Phelps, calling his Beijing accomplishments "among the defining sporting achievements in the history of sport... The current story in the press involves Michael Phelps' private life and is, as far as Omega is concerned, a nonissue," the company said. That's exactly the right attitude. In shameful contrast, the sanctimonious santions from Kellogg (who dropped his sponsorship) and the USA Swimming team (who suspended him for three months) reflect poorly on them, not on Phelps. And that blowhard South Carolina sheriff who's making noises about pressing charges: what an ass.

FILM: He's Just Not That Into You

I enjoyed the "anti-rom-com" He's Just Not That Into You, a cute funny film illustrating Dan Savage's dictum that "every relationship you ever have will fail, until you find one that doesn't". The tangentially interwoven tales of women seeking romance humorously poke fun at all the stories we like to tell ourselves to survive the ordeal of dating, agonizing over "does he really like me?" and "when is he going to call?". The film purports itself to be an "anti-rom-com", and it does have its fun puncturing romantic notions, but in the end it's a rom-com after all. The film features a great ensemble cast of big stars and up-and-comers. Ginnifer Goodwin is charming as Gigi, the perennially-hopeful-despite-being-repeatedly-dumped girl, and Justin Long is equally charming as Alex, the cynical guy who keeps telling her how to tell when a guy is "just not that into you". We begin with Gigi falling hard for Conor (Kevin Connolly), who's just not that into her, because he really wants Scarlett Johanssen, who's blowing him off because she felt a spark in a grocery line with Bradley Cooper, who's married to Jennifer Connelly, who is office girlfriends with Gigi and Jennifer Anniston, who has everything but a ring with Ben Affleck, meanwhile Drew Barrymore convinces Conor (a realtor) to advertise in the gay weekly and pick up the business Baltimore's gentrifying gays. Needless to say, amusing comedy ensues. Nothing profound here (one can't expect profound films in January), but some good laugh-out loud moments.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

BOOKS: Eat, Pray, Love

I recently finished Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. (I know, everybody was reading that last year, and I'm late to the party.) It turned out to be a terrific and enjoyable book, a unique travelog and spiritual journey bound up with a "chick-flick" plot of "oh, how will I ever get over this nasty divorce and subsequent messy break-up". I have to say, I was a bit wary at first, worried that it was going to be some hippie-dippie new-agey thing, and I was not reassured in the introduction when the author promised that her journey wasn't going to be some soft amorphous new-agey quest. (Such reassurances tend to have the opposite effect, like the line "this isn't a sales call", which is only ever spoken by telemarketers.) But I stayed with it, and eventually my hackles came down, and I really enjoyed the story as I got to know and trust the author better. On the audio version, the author reads her own book, and does a great job. When she slides into her more cynical side, she turns up her New York accent, which is somehow reassuring, an audible sign of her not taking herself too seriously. She also has a great ear for dialect, and does a good job of reproducing the speech patterns and accents of the various people she meets in Italy, India, and Indonesia. (The one chapter in which she recalls the patter of an old Italian man carrying on at a soccer game is a hoot, as is another chapter in which she captures her scattered trains of thought in her early attempts to meditate in an ashram.) And just as she found her sojourn in Italy, indulging in the simple pleasures of food and language, to be a necessary preparation for her more spiritual explorations in India, I found her stories of Italy, in which I got to know her and her situation, to be a good preparation for her accounts of the more spiritual part of her journey. Her time in the ashram was surprisingly down to earth at the same time as she was finding heaven. (It reminds me of hearing the Dalai Lama speak, and being impressed at how down to earth and pragmatic he was, constantly disappointing those who were expecting him to say more surreal things.) In all the places that she went, she met and befriended a variety of interesting characters, and captured them well in her prose, which is deliciously written. Her metaphors, whether describing the pain of a break-up, or the delight of the perfect pizza, are creative and vivid. It was truly a delight to read this book, and I was almost sorry when it ended. What a wonderfully creative and fulfilling way to get over a bad break-up!

Friday, February 06, 2009

World Postcard Quiz

I've run this fun world postcard quiz with friends at work and friends on Facebook. If you'd like to try it, you can view the postcards on Flickr. Can you identify these 25 places around the world? Try to do it without consulting any references (no Google, no Wikipedia, no Flickr browsing). For each, identify the subject of the photo and its location (city/country). Extra credit for any factoids you can add about the subject. You can email me privately with your answers, and I'll give you a score, or if you just want to see the answers yourself, click here and they will be revealed below. (I gave 2 points for identifying the subject, 1 point for the city, 1 point for the country, and 1 extra point for any decent factoid.

High scorers from my Facebook friends included:
* Mom and Dad (107, but they've been everywhere)
* Katy (who's been almost everywhere)
* Patrick (80 with lots of architectural extra credit)
* Bernie (74 who also named all the architects)
* Jo (71)
* George (69)
* Jason (67)

Here are the answers!

01 Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge in the background. Sydney, Australia.
02 Temples at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt.
03 Golden Pavilion Temple, Kyoto, Japan.
04 Acropolis, Athens, Greece.
05 Trafalgar Square, London, England.
06 Angkor Wat, Angkor, Cambodia.
07 Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
08 Ayers Rock or Uluru, south of Alice Springs, Australia.
09 Forbidden City, Beijing, China.
10 Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain.
11 Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey.
12 Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, Paris, France.
13 Tikal, Guatemala.
14 Winter Palace / Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
15 Iguazu Falls, border Brazil and Argentina.
16 Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel.
17 Petra, Jordan.
18 Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
19 Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain.
20 St. Peter's Basilica in St. Peter's Square, The Vatican (enclave in Rome, Italy).
21 Table Mountain, Capetown, South Africa.
22 Ghats on the river Ganges, Varanasi, India.
23 Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden.
24 Bridge of Sighs, Venice, Italy.
25 Victoria Falls, Zambezi River, border Zambia and Zimbabwe.