Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Images

Christmas Eve:  Here is dawn coming up over Eliott Bay, outside my apartment window, with the Christmas tree reflected in the glass.  If I didn't wake up so effing early, I wouldn't see dawn.
 Cosette, hoping for sugar plums, or the doggie equivalent:
Ted Kosmatka at our Christmas party, playing charades while Vonda McIntyre wonders what on Earth he could be trying to act out.  Although this was not as funny as the other Ted, Chiang, trying to anatomically convey "Philip K. Dick."  Best guess: "Testicles?"
Jack is pleased with his Christmas present, a fancy new phone, which he received early because we needed to spend time--a lot of time--trying to choose plans at the T-Mobile store:
 Jane  Austen also gets to celebrate Christmas:

Happy Holidays to all of you out there. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thrilled at the Movies

Some movies succeed, at least partially, because of their script; some because of their casting; some from their overall look; some for no reason that I can discern.  But it's rare to find a movie that succeeds on all levels.  LINCOLN is that.
Much has already been writing about Daniel-Day Lewis's preparation for the role of Lincoln.  He had nothing to give him Lincoln's voice, but old letters and news articles mentioned its light timbre, as well as Lincoln's habitual gestures, gait, and mannerisms. Day-Lewis uses all such information to create a Lincoln less deep-voiced than the movies have given us in the past: more tentative, sadness present even during his wry and funny stories.  The actor seems to disappear entirely--especially if you've seen him in much different roles in MY LEFT FOOT or THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS-- and to become the sixteenth president.  

Nor is this Lincoln the always-virtuous "Honest Abe" of sentiment.  Here he has a job to do, and it's not winning the war--by the time the movie opens, in January of 1865, the war is pretty much won.  The movie focuses on four months, January to April, during which Lincoln schemes to get passed the thirteenth amendment, outlawing slavery.  To this end, he schemes, delays, intimidates, bribes, and outright lies.  Lincoln as wheeler-dealer could rival Lyndon Johnson.  He is ably aided by Tommy Lee Jones as a wonderful Thaddeus Stevens, who is such a strong character that the movie could equally well be called STEVENS.  

The two face a terrible choice: Ending the war as soon as possible will save lives but will also bring Southern states back as voting members of Congress, in which case the amendment will never be passed.  Refusing the South's offer of peace buys time to garner Congressional votes but prolongs the bloodshed.  That this horrific dilemma is made visceral and tense--even though of course the audience already knows the outcome-- is a tribute to Tony Kushner's script.

If you see only one movie this holiday season, it should be this one.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Summer of '26

In 1926 the future silent-screen actress Louise Brooks, then fifteen and living with her family in Wichita, won a summer scholarship to the prestigious Denishawn Dance Company in New York.  A fifteen-year-old girl could not live in New York alone.  Her mother had younger children and could not accompany her.  A chaperone was arranged, a middle-aged woman of social standing and propriety named Cora Carlisle.  Such is the premise of Laura Moriarty's new novel THE CHAPERONE.  

The book unfolds two stories: Louise's and Cora's.  Louise's sticks closely to fact, but is mainly used as background for Laura's.  [SPOILER ALERT]  The chaperone is a woman hiding many secrets: a sordid childhood, a gay husband, and eventually a working-class lover.  This sounds like soap opera, but Moriarty is interested not in sensationalism but in the capacity of characters to change.  Laura, who begins with hopeless resignation to her situation, grows into a woman not only able to bring about happiness for herself but also able to accept it in forms she once despised, including her husband's long-term relationship with his lover.  To do this, everybody involved ends up living public lies but private truths, and this dichotomy gives the book its tension.

Some reviewers faulted the book for covering such a long span of time--Laura's whole life--that decades sometimes flash by.  I can't agree.  It takes an entire lifetime to come to the emotional place that Laura eventually reaches.  I found it refreshing to read a modern novel with the social sweep of the Victorians'.  

As for Louise--well, her story is already known.  Beautiful, intelligent, narcissistic, and self-destructive, she ended poor and alcoholic.  And yet she, too, is a fascinating character.  I recommend this novel.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cranky At the Movies

ANNA KARENINA is one of my favorite novels. The first time I read it, decades ago, I was amazed at how completely Tolstoy captured a woman's feelings about passion, motherhood, the desire to both belong and rebel.  I still marvel at the skill and authenticity and scope of the novel.  Unfortunately, the new movie made from this masterpiece is an unholy mess.
The story is intact, more or less.  But everything that makes the novel great is missing.  Without Anna's interior complexity, without Levin's spiritual searching, without Tolstoy's ambivalent feelings for his own heroine (he wanted at first to make her completely unsympathetic and shallow, a Russian Emma Bovary, but was "led" as he wrote into greater understanding of his own creation), what's left is a pretentious soap opera.

I hated the staging, although I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this.  The interior scenes are all shot on a stage, in the wings of a theater, on the catwalks, in the dressing rooms.  The outdoor scenes are shot in a realistic way, outdoors on the steppes or in train stations (lots of train stations).  This is supposed to convey the artificial posing of Czarist society versus the honest openness of the country life.  Instead, it seems forced and tedious.

The second, and larger, problem is the casting.  Keira Knightley was fine as Elizabeth Bennet in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, capturing Elizabeth's playfulness.  She has the same mannerisms here, but Anna is not playful.  Knightley swings from one mood to the next but cannot show us the connective tissue that make Anna complicated but believable.  Even worse is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky.  He looks about fifteen, and comes across as a spoiled, whiny Mama's boy, not a man willing to throw away the world for love.  There is no chemistry between them.  In fact, Vronsky is so flat and unappealing that my movie companion whispered to me, "She should have the affair with her brother--he's about ten times as interesting!"

Matthew Macfadyen is indeed good as Stepan Oblonsky, but the real star here is Jude Law as Karenin.  Not a particularly sympathetic figure in the novel, here Anna's cuckolded husband projects real anguish and complex doubt.  Two people I talked to later, who had never read the novel, thought that he was supposed to be the hero.

The other stand-out is the dresses.  The costumer should win an Oscar for Anna's gorgeous outfits.  If you go to the movies for dresses, then see this.  Otherwise, just read (or re-read) the book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Teaching on a Cruise Ship

 I enjoy teaching writing--well, most of the time, anyway.  But no teaching gig has ever been as much fun as teaching aboard the Norwegian Sky as it cruised through the Caribbean.  True, the cruise had its down moments: Here I am collapsed on a beach after an hour and a half of vomiting over the side of a small boat from which I was supposed to be snorkeling:

In general, however, this was a lovely time.  Here we are getting underway from Miami:

 Jack on a pristine white-sand beach, the water impossibly blue:
 Jack again, at a Nassau cafe from which we watched the funeral procession of the first Bahamian runner to win Olympic gold.  There were two bands, several dozen soldiers as an honor guard, and the prime minister walking behind the coffin.
 Sailing along the shoreline of expensive homes in Freeport:
 This odd-looking creation, made of towels, is one of many that turned up in our cabin every time the maids made up the bed:

Oh, and yes--we taught.  The students were interesting people, and some of the best times were just talking to them over the ship's large and frequent meals.  Now--until next year, when the entire teaching cruise happens again!