Tag Archives: Opinion

Radio Free Bay Ridge is live!

I’m doing a podcast. About politics. Surprised, right? 😉

www.radiofreebayridge.org

Enjoy.

Theater Review: “The Collector” at 59E59

You know that logline for “The Wizard of Oz” that circulates Facebook from time to time, about Dorothy killing a woman and then banding together with friends to kill again? Frederick Clegg (Matt de Rogatis) opens The Collector by pleading for the reverse shift in perspective for his narrative: self-pitying rich man in a position of ultimate power begs us to feel bad for him and blames everything but himself for his circumstances for 2½ hours, while we in turn watch him kidnap, torture and kill a young woman. Who he supposedly loves.

The source material, John Fowles’ novel of the same name, is thick with symbolism. It it would be easy to spend this entire review digging into the parallels between the butterflies Clegg collects and Miranda (Jillian Geurts), who he has kidnapped. But given that the book has been around since 1963 and the play was staged in Edinburgh around 20 years ago, I’ll set aside my desire to dig in on that side of things, and just talk about this production.

De Rogatis and Geurts achieve a deeply disturbing connection on behalf of their characters, one that develops and deepens over the course of the film. Of course, the question is always whether or not Miranda’s feelings are genuine – and Geurts’ accomplishment here is that there are times when Miranda’s attempts to escape shock even the audience – despite the fact that she has been straightforward with both her captor and with us: she will make the attempt every time she gets a chance.

While his accent initially seems unspecific, over time that becomes less distracting and de Rogatis’ real talent shows through: his ability to draw the audience into complicity through connections with individual audience members – some of whom I observed nodding and smiling as de Rogatis delivered a line to them here or there. What initially seemed like an awkward presentation became artfully intentional as the play progressed, transmuting the voyeuristic qualities of the audience into moral support for the monster at the center of the play.

Attempted, but flawed in its execution, is the horrific naturalism of novel and script. 59E59’s Theatre C is small, but the layout of the set and the script’s specific instructions regarding how to achieve its intentions mean that the weight of the set and action often felt imbalanced. Without enough space to really separate each level either physically or with laser-focused lighting changes, there were times when the sharply defined limits of Miranda’s world were blurred, lessening the transfer of her claustrophobic surroundings to the audience and intensifying the effect Geurts needed to have to keep the audience feeling that level of tension. While she more than made up for this loss of energy with one intense exchange with de Rogatis after another (and certainly it was helpful that in many of these exchanges de Rogatis was able to contribute physically to a claustrophobic atmosphere), the play requires the audience to watch a young woman’s terror and pain and take it in as entertainment. The script demands our complicity in its violence, with its treatment of Miranda as a character who wants to break out of the limitations and definitions imposed on her by others, but who is never able to transcend the boundaries and demands placed on her (as the damsel-who-can’t-quite-get-herself-out-of-distress) to achieve true personhood. We’re allowed glimpses into her life – she has a loving upper middle class family, a sister, some friends, a lover/teacher – but we have a far more specific picture of Clegg’s pathetic existence. Which is probably exactly as it should be, given that – again, requiring our cooperation in the narrative – we’re listening to Clegg’s side of the story.

As audience members, we are the reason for the theatrical snuff film that unfolds over the production’s two and a half hours (which, it’s important to note, doesn’t feel overlong at all). In any theater, after the play concludes and the lights come up, we reflect on what we’ve just been a party to. In the case of a production like The Collector, those reflections will be vast and sometimes disturbing.

The Collector plays at 59E59 in New York City, through November 13, 2016, and is presented by Nine Theatricals & Roebuck Theatrical.

The Revenant Recap/Review: Someone Give Leo His Oscar Already

revenant

“GIVE ME MY OSCAR ALREADY!” — the dialogue that goes along with this image, in my head

Just got back from seeing The Revenant, and the last thing I’ve seen that was that brutal might have been…well, I don’t even know. Mild spoilers below. You’ve been warned.

I spent most of the movie thinking it took place in Alaska, either because I didn’t read anything about it beforehand or because I associate Alaska with the man-versus-nature conflict. (Thanks, Jack London.) But it doesn’t – it takes place in South Dakota and Montana. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in films before but holy crap talk about natural beauty. No doubt assisted by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (though I did see some lens flare there for a second, let’s not go all JJ, now), the setting is most definitely a character in this one. A brutal, unforgiving character. 

Most of the characters in The Revenant are brutal (not the last time you’ll see this word in here, sorrynotsorry) and unforgiving, though, and those who aren’t don’t come out of things too well…or sometimes at all.

As the film opens, we get some smoky memories/images of Leo — sorry, Glass — and his Native American wife, and their young son, and the camp/community they’re living in. Then we see a lot of burning structures and hear a whispering voice recite the theme of the film – while you still have breath, keep fighting to survive. (Not a direct quote.) Next, we flash ahead to Glass and a group of fur trappers. He, his son (Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck) and another member of the group (possibly Will Poulter’s Bridger, though honestly I have a hard time remembering faces the first time I see them so it might have been another member of the expedition) are hunting, trudging through ankle-deep watery swampland. They kill an animal and we head back to the fur trapper’s camp. We quickly meet our supporting cast: the captain, a bit naive and idealistic, with a father who apparently bought him his commission; Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who is a bastard (we know this because he cares more about money than people, makes a bunch of racist comments about Hawk’s parentage, and eventually leaves Glass in the middle of the woods to die.

They’re attacked by a band of Pawnee, and the entire sequence was chilling and ghastly and bloody. We don’t know it as the attack unfolds, but the leader of the group is seeking his missing daughter, Powaqa (later played by Melaw Nakehk’o), and has decided that she must be with the Americans – only ten of whom (out of forty) manage to escape with their lives. Glass, Hawk, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and Fitzgerald are among them, as is Bridger, as well as a half dozen other men of varying importance. Henry and Glass quickly decide that they have to abandon the few furs they’ve salvaged, leaving them behind for later retrieval, and that they need to ditch their boat as well. (They escaped on the boat, but staying on the river will leave them open to the Pawnee group.) Fitzgerald and a few others are upset by the thought of leaving a fortune in furs behind, and when a few of the men are assigned to set the boat adrift, they instead stay on it and float off down the river. Not sure we ever found out what happened to them. Given the rest of the film, I somehow doubt it was anything positive, unless by “positive” you mean “a quick and relatively painless death.”

The men who stay behind – Hawk, Bridger, Glass, Henry and a few others – stash most of their furs and set out back to their fort*. As their scout, Glass goes ahead to make sure their path is clear. Just as we, the audience, are getting past the opening slaughter…Glass gets between a mother bear and her cubs.

In a three-stage attack that left me covering my eyes with one hand and my mouth with the other, Mama Bear rips up Glass’ back, then rips up his front, then nips him in the neck, then for a minute it looked like maybe she was going to use her teeth to sever his spine, she dislocates his ankle…it’s ten or fifteen solid minutes of watching one of nature’s most frightening predators do her thing. Every time she starts to move off, Glass tries to breathe through the pain and finish her off, but this just provokes her to come back and keep tearing chunks off him. Finally, he stabs her repeatedly with a knife, then they both end up sliding down a hill into a valley, where the fight finally ends.

When the other men find Glass, they tend to his wounds and try to make him more comfortable, but ultimately the prospect of carrying him all the way home on a stretcher proves impractical. A few of the men say they ought to put Glass out of his misery, but the captain prevails and offers a reward to anyone willing to stay with him. Presumably, it will only take a day or two for him to die, then they can bury him and be on their way to the fort as well. Finally, Hawk and Bridger both offer to give up their shares of the reward money if Fitzgerald will stay behind. I was a confused as to why the captain would put the guy who just wanted to shoot Glass like a wounded horse in charge of the rescue mission, or why he’d trust the man’s word, but I’m hoping there was some other reason for that and maybe I just didn’t catch it. Clearly the captain shouldn’t have trusted Fitzgerald, because by the time another twenty minutes go by, Hawk is dead, Bridger is cowed, and Glass is resting half-covered and not actually dead in a shallow grave.

I could go through a play by play – the deceitful French trappers/rapists, Glass’ arduous experience in the wilderness, a number of encounters with other Pawnee, how everything pans out – but what’s more interesting to me is the way this film portrays an ordeal of superhuman determination and vengeance. We’ve been seeing a lot of “lighter Leo” the last few years – The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby – and the heaviness of this story stands in strong contrast to those roles. There’s very little (if any) humor to be found here (not that the script calls for it), but between the story and the characters and the acting, the film is still riveting.

From avalanches to mountains to frozen wastelands and eerie forests, every single setting is shot with an exquisite eye. From one moment to the next, you’re either rapt in wonder at its beauty or else you’re overcome by the idea that this man is trying to survive in this wilderness, sustained only by his desire for revenge. More than once, I thought, Damn. I don’t think I could do this. I’d lie down in the snow and be done by now. And yet Glass kept going. And kept going. And kept going.

One of the turning points in the film comes after we and Glass watch a pack of wolves bring down one Buffalo out of thousands. As Glass stares at the scene unfolding before him we can almost see him salivating. At the same time, with no real weapons, he has to hold himself back from surging forward – and the tension is palpable as this takes place. He sleeps, and when he meets a Pawnee whose village has been massacred by Sioux; the man takes pity on Glass and carries him, treating him when his infection rises and building him a shelter and fire where he can heal. Almost as mysteriously as he appears, the man is gone, leaving only a few words of wisdom behind: “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands” (in the hands of the creator? Not sure.). It’s a message Glass takes to heart, as we learn later. Abandoned by his savior, Glass wanders smack into the village of French trappers. He goes to steal a horse, but stops when he sees that the Frenchmen have a Pawnee woman captive and have been repeatedly raping her since her capture. He goes into action, first taking the Frenchman by surprise then allying with the woman – who we assume, then later confirm, is Powaqa. They both escape, though separately.

As he’s riding away from the French, the Pawnee warriors attack again, and this time Glass and his horse try to outrun them and end up running off a cliff. You know how it felt when Buffy killed off Ms. Calendar? Like nobody was safe anymore? Well, when your hero is mauled by a bear in the first act, you can be pretty sure that’s not the worst thing that’s going to happen to him. Time and again, Glass overcomes the odds. He keeps fighting to survive.

After the massacre of the French camp, as Glass lies inside his horse like Luke in a Tauntaun (sidenote: Google Docs appears to recognize Tauntaun as a word, whoa), one of the Frenchmen turns up at the fort – which we now learn is only about 13 miles from Glass…and said Frenchman is carrying a water flask that Bridger had left on Glass’ chest with a weak apology, earlier in the film. Assuming that the flask was dropped by Hawk, the Captain offers ten dollars to any man willing to head out with him on a search. They find Glass. Fitzgerald catches wind of it, and knowing his lies are falling apart, he takes off. The captain and Glass head out to find him, there are confrontations, and then another brutal battle where both Fitzgerald and Glass leave blood-covered chunks of the other in the snow. With Fitzgerald almost dead and taunting him about how he hopes revenge is enough, as it won’t bring Glass’ son back, Glass looks up and sees the Pawnees on the other side of the river. Remembering the words of the man who saved him, he pushes Fitzgerald into the river, where the current carries him to the Pawnee leader. Who kills him. As the band of Pawnee walk by on their horses, we see Powaqa, which is presumably the reason Glass is allowed to live.

Glass, left bleeding and weak by the side of the river, turns to look directly into the camera. Without a word, the screen fades to black.

There are a few things I want to look into: first, the film fails the Bechdel test with spectacular aplomb, so I’m curious as to whether there were women who worked as fur trappers (kind of like I’d never heard of lady pirates until a former roommate revealed her slight obsession with them). I want to know what Native American groups think of the portrayals of both the Pawnee and the Sioux. I want to read a bit more about the time period when the story takes place in general, to have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the entire unfortunate event. I appreciated that the film makes mention of things like “company store” contracts, and that it relies so heavily on imagery over dialogue (a good portion of which is subtitled). I’m curious as to other work by the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who wrote the piece with Mark L. Smith). And I might even want to read the book, if I get through my current “to read” pile any time soon.

Mostly, though, I want Leo to finally get his Oscar. He does a riveting job of bringing Glass to life, of showing the man’s depth of feeling and the range of emotions that shut down, one after another, as his desire for revenge overtakes everything else – and how letting that happen to him allows Glass to survive long enough to avenge his son’s death.

I’m not usually one for Westerns, so I’m not well-versed in the contrivances of the genre, but one thing that stands out to me as particularly smart was how Inarritu and Smith turned the convention of the kidnapped woman on its head. In something like The Searchers, and throughout Western (genre) literature, the idea of “the Indians” capturing the innocent white girl is pervasive; here, and perhaps in a more historically appropriate setup/synechdoce, it’s the white man who have kidnapped and brutalized a Native American woman. I don’t adore that the one named female character was basically there as motivation for the opening brutality, nor that she’s being repeatedly raped – that one hits a little close to truth, given national statistics about sexual violence against Native American women – but in terms of genre convention it was certainly a twist. 

Much like how I’m not a fan of car chases yet thought Mad Max: Fury Road was freakin’ amazing (another Tom Hardy flick, funnily enough), I highly recommend seeing The Revenant on the big screen in order to appreciate just how stunning the scenery really is – and to give you the best view of Leo’s raw emotive power during this two-and-a-half hour experience.

The Revenant is currently in theaters.

THEATER REVIEW: Midsummer [a play with songs] by David Greig at the Clurman Theater, NYC

David Greig’s protagonists sit on a park bench in his play Midsummer [a play with words], drinking and aligning themselves with a ragtag group of teenage Goths. It’s an example of how this play captures the strange, free-forming social constellations I will always associate with Edinburgh in the summer.

Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon), who started their association as participants in a raucous one-night stand, are now spending a wad of cash that’s fallen into their laps – a recurring theme, in Scottish drama, now that I think of it (Danny Boyle’s Millions and Trainspotting come immediately to mind). As their bender progresses, the audience is brought into the experience of the festival city’s summertime discombobulation, always maintaining sight of the wider beauty and spirit Edinburgh offers both residents and visitors when the weather is warm.

Midsummer premiered in 2007 – coincidentally, my last summer in the city where it takes place – and is therefore dislocated from its context in three ways during its current NYC run: in time, in distance and in theatrical context. To see a breathtaking production during the Edinburgh Fringe’s unceasing barrage of plays is a singular experience, particularly if one has already seen dozens of shows. Measures of quality warp over the course of three weeks spent viewing productions back-to-back, and to see a show that found success there performed outside of the Fringe is more like tasting whisky after cleansing your palate than not.

Midsummer is an example of modern Scottish theater in many ways. In its opening, Greig’s language is rich and rhythmic, poetic and intense. This eases somewhat as the production continues, and it’s missed, but perhaps appropriate that as we learn the characters of Helena and Bob, they and Greig rely less on words and more on the knowledge we’ve gained throughout the production.

Under Greig’s direction, Bissett and Pidgeon’s depiction of the physical nature of the production and the visceral emotion of connecting with someone else blend into one. The set – resembling a bed, though at times Georgia McGuiness’ design seems more of a jungle gym (Japanese rope bondage!) – features panels and flip-out sections that enrich the specifics of each of the play’s settings; since the set itself is featured throughout the production it’s no small feat to transport the audience with each of its iterations.

As a “play with songs,” Midsummer features interwoven verses and small choruses that lift the audience from the immediate action and into a space that contemplates the individual experiences of the two characters, as well as the nostalgia it brings to anybody who’s resided there through an Edinburgh summer. While the play may not offer deep social commentary or revolutionize theater, it’s a fair representation of professional Scottish theatre – and a high-quality one, to boot. It may not be Black Watch, but Midsummer highlights a far less flashy tradition of Scottish storytelling in a way that’s accessible to audiences in both Scotland and abroad.

“Midsummer [a play with songs]” can be seen at the Clurman Theatre, New York, NY, from January 9-26, 2013.

Writing Spaghetti

Right now my “writing plate” feels like it’s full of a dense, stodgy pile of concept-rich spaghetti. Everything is tangled up with everything else, and once I get through this plate of stuff I know it’s going to take a long time to digest.

I try to do three entries a week here, and after the pointed focus of the recent vaginathon, it’s been tricky to find a topic that doesn’t feel self-indulgent and limp by comparison. It’s because of where my various projects are at, I know: that frustrating time between initial brainvom and settling-in.

I have two short stories that need to be worked on; in putting together a collection for this fall, I’ve wound up with little screaming chunks of fiction waving their arms and running around my mental writing desk. I’m trying to keep them in a drawer and only take them out one at a time. Working on one becomes a distraction from the other, then working on the other takes some of the tension out of working on the first.

One, I have to go back through and re-thread a point, because of something I took for granted that turned out to be false. It reminds me of the maps they make of the London Underground – disproportionate, based on connections. I can choose a different point – something that fits the descriptions and scenes I’ve already written (in which case the tapestry of the story still needs to be reviewed in full, to make sure the patch doesn’t show) or I restitch the scenes from the ground-up. Either option will work. I’m just not sure, yet, which choice will result in the stronger story.

The other has a distinct theme in my mind that isn’t coming out yet in the text. The full text of the second story has not been written yet. So this is okay, if gelatinous.

A friend’s novel needs proofread. I should go to the gym. I should be out in the city, enjoying today’s gorgeous weather, doing something instead of home and hunched over the computer, particularly given the abatement of the heat wave of the last few days.

At the very least, I should take a shower.

I’ll start with the shower.

HE GOT MY EYEBALLS! Effective Targeted Marketing Online

This morning, I re-downloaded RedditIsFun for my latest replacement phone.

After installing and activating it, a message popped up: the developer, “just one guy,” had built in a pop-up that offered the user a choice of whether to allow a single ad per post at the top of each screen. In the pop-up, the user is also informed that the ad option can be toggled on and off at any point in time.

This came hot on the heels of a conversation about how Twitter has started pushing ads from streams its users don’t follow into their twitter streams. On Twitter, my response is to block the twitter account of the corporation that’s paid Twitter to impinge on my eyespace.

With RedditIsFun, I clicked “okay.”

I don’t normally subject myself to ads, because the average American already sees thousands per day – and living in Manhattan, I’d guess my daily average is compensating for the other tail on the bell curve – but here, I agreed. If the ads are obnoxious, I’ll turn them off. If not – if the developer of RedditIsFun is selling his adspace smartly – then I’ve now agreed to see what he’s schilling as a way to help subsidize my use of his program.

So rather than being met with annoyance, his advertisers might actually find themselves making sales to an interested member of their target market.

Smart sale of adspace means I don’t want:

– Ads that demean women.

– Ads that condescend to their viewers.

– The same ad over and over again. (Yes, Hulu, I’m talking to you.)

I do want:

– Ads for products and services that actually interest me

When an advertiser hits the sweet spot and finds their targeted marketing, their ad dollars can be incredibly productive. Last week, I attended the Barefoot Wine Beach Rescue at Rockaway Beach off the back of my Klout score; I connected with like-minded individuals, did some good for the environment, drank free (and tasty) Barefoot Cuvee, and both tweeted and blogged about the event. Win-win-win-win-win. So I’ll buy into a targeted ad scheme that results in advertisers subsidizing an app that gives access to one of the most useful websites currently out there.

So there you go, indie developer. You got my eyeballs. What are you going to do with them?

 

Conflicting Emotobooks?

Somebody get me an emotobook, stat. I need to figure these things out.

There’s been a steady background buzz/chatter, via the usual social network suspects, regarding emotobooks for about a week now. I looked into them about a minute ago.

Near as I can tell, an emotobook is a book created for consumption on digital platforms, with a text injected with pieces of abstract visual art. That art is meant to evoke a certain mood or feeling being experienced by the characters, thereby bringing a new level of emotional involvement to its readers.

Color me socked in the stomach. Is this a new evolution of the book, a new bridge in the gap between unillustrated texts and graphic novels? Is the writing/illustration a collaborative effort? What is the quality of the writing and is it possible for writers to create a piece that doesn’t wind up leaning on the ability of painting/artwork to provoke emotions? What does this mean for the commercial future of painting as an art form? Is using abstract art to evoke emotion in the service of the written word a new thing, or is this just an updating of the classical idea of illustration? Knowing how some authors have had negative reactions to having their works illustrated, what is the level of interaction between author and artist, here, and what will it become if emotobooks take hold as more than as passing fad? If an editor feels a writer needs “help” pulling an emotional reaction from their audience, will the decision be to make the writing more resilient and communicative, or to throw in a graphic that “nudges” the reader in the right direction?

Anticipating the answer to that last question makes me a little nervous, particularly in light of my feelings on the quality of writing in some recent bestsellers. At the same time…it’s an exciting idea, if executed well, and potentially opens reading up to much larger audiences. While my gut frets, “What about the ghettoization of unillustrated fiction?!” my mind replies, “Don’t be an idiot, art is not a zero-sum game.” So for now, I’m going to tell my gut to shut its big mouth, and see where emotobooks take us.

On the reader’s side, I’ve only heard good things about the experience of reading in this form, and I’m glad of that. Mostly, people are talking about the emotobooks making it possible for them to connect with what they’re reading to a degree they hadn’t quite understood before. A new way to open up the classics? I’m in.

Think about it: haven’t you ever had the experience of watching a movie, and that making it easier to get through a classic work of literature? I wouldn’t have been able to make my way through Jane Austen (who I grew to adore) if I hadn’t had the six-part BBC miniseries to help me learn how to read them to hand. But some writers don’t lend themselves (in my experience) to quite the same kind of graphic dissection. I’ve got about a hundred pounds’ worth of books by Russian writers, and as many times as I try, I can’t get into them.

Maybe I’m reading crap translations. But maybe having some emotionally evocative visual art inserted into “Crime and Punishment” would help me – and other readers – follow along.