Thursday, June 26, 2008

"god lives in my hometown"

I recently read the novel Seven Hill City, written by internet essayist B. Thompson Stroud. Having been a frequent visitor to B's website, Progressive Boink, and a fan of his writing since 2004, I realized that reading his novel was an activity long past due. Being familiar with his articles on P-Boi, which rely heavily on references to pop culture to contextualize his experiences as a young man finding his way into adulthood and a sense of self (including the self as it relates to alluring members of the fairer sex), I felt I had a sense of what to expect from his fiction. (Because there is almost always a little bit of the author in every character ever written.)

Seven Hill City deals with much broader issues than the appeal of wrestling and video games, though both play major roles in the characters' lives. The theme of death is at the forefront of what may seem like a simple tale of the protagonist's unrequited love for a beautiful girl spanning his adolescence. Said beautiful girl is the ethereal Aranea Cavatica, who mysteriously shows up in the life of Brooks White when he needs her the most - at the funerals of friends and relatives, and in the hallways of high school. As their friendship develops, Aranea's secret is slowly revealed to Brooks, and revealed to be part of a larger system in the world around him.

The world that Brooks lives in is Lynchburg, VA, a city notably at the heart of the vocal Christian segment of the American population. Stroud is a lifelong resident of Lynchburg, and his familiarity with the culture there provides a solid backdrop for the story. It might be difficult for readers without a similar level of exposure to evangelical Christians to understand the kind of things that Brooks has had to think about his entire life. Most people raised with religion as a strong presence in their young lives have faced the questions that come with maturity, and these are particularly prescient for Brooks.

As a reader with a strong interest in religion and its impact on our personal lives and identities, I was able to get a better sense of Brooks through his perception of religion. There are a lot of aspects of his life that I couldn't relate to, but this was one way in which he struck a chord with me. I felt that the final act of the novel became a bit too disjointed for my taste, but was brought together in a bittersweet ending that satisfied. I was generally more interested in secondary characters like Auburn and Solomon than the leads, throughout, but the novel's resolution was a satisfactory ending to a book that asked a lot of interesting questions.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

singular, indeed

Last Wednesday I got to see a wonderful performance of A Chorus Line at the Ahmanson Theatre, which was definitely a culturally enlightening experience for me. A Chorus Line ended up being one of those things which is packed full of things that have been referenced in pop culture, and finally seeing it allowed me to contextualize all of those references.

As a dancer, and someone who (like most of us) entertained a few stage fantasies as a child, I very much enjoyed the portrait of the young wannabes in search of a chance to share the spotlight. At first, knowing that no intermission was going to come to break up the narrative, I was unsure about what story would unfold over the course of the show. It seems simple enough of a setup: some of the dancers will get a part, and some won't. But as the musical numbers unfold, it becomes an exploration of the personality traits which unite dancers across talent levels and backgrounds.

"At the Ballet" and "Hello 12, Hello 13, Hello Love," in particular, were the two songs which I felt really dug into the passionate emptiness of the dancers. That isn't to say that I feel that all dancers are beset with body image problems and daddy issues, but that most dancers have experienced the healing qualities of dancing and performing. What unfurls as a real-time representation of a crowded Broadway tryout is packed with the thoughts and feelings of the dancers, sometimes masked by their on-stage personae, as they vacillate between opening up to the choreographer about themselves and expressing their inner monologues to the audience.

There were some numbers which definitely felt dated in the mid-1970s style of the original, which has definitely been a conscious choice made by the directors of every iteration of the musical since then, and by the second hour, the lack of an intermission was certainly having an impact on audience attention span. Though Cassie and Paul are both very interesting characters, their soliloquies contributed to a slump in the second half. Spreading out the highly energetic medleys and very amusing numbers like "Dance Ten, Looks Three," would have kept the feel of the musical more even, I think. However, by the glittering finale of "One (Reprise)," there is so much onstage to look at and be impressed by that I left the theatre with a definite spring in my step.

A Chorus Line will be at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through July 6.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

what if your worst fear...

...was M. Night Shyamalan!

So, I'm catching up a bit with posting now, but I have had a lot of time to think about one of the latest movies I've seen. Despite all the naysaying leading up to opening day of The Happening, I was pretty excited to see it. I even avoided internet spoilers so that I could finally have an unspoiled Shyamalan experience. Violence, gore, Marky Mark's third nipple (which even though it's always covered, it's a comfort to know it's there, right?), Zooey's watery dinnerplate eyes - all of these things made me want to see a horror movie in theaters on Friday the 13th. I'm mostly ambivalent towards suspense movies, and haven't seen a scary movie in theaters since 28 Days Later (Land of the Dead doesn't count since it wasn't scary, and I Am Legend doesn't count because I was bored). So The Happening was working for me riiiight up until the trailers beforehand indicated what kind of a movie-going experience I was about to embark on.

You know how the tone of the trailers shown before a film give a hint about the distribution company and target audience? Well, before The Happening, there was a trailer for Mirrors, which basically took every horror movie trope that everyone got tired of 4 Japan-remakes ago, and jumbled them together into a movie with no villain. Creepy little boy? Check. Frightened mom? Check. Slowly revealing the distorted image of the expected? Check. Oh but guess what the premise is that your reflection is what kills you. The following paraphrased conversation brought to you by my friend Evan and I:
Evan: What if your worst fear...
Me (in scared mom voice): Why are you going upstairs, Billy?
Evan (as creepy Billy): But they told me to, mommy!
Me: Who? Who told you, Billy?
Seriously, anything could kill you in a movie that stupid. What if your worst fear was...your own hat! a doorknob! the existence of Disaster Movie! Okay, that last one is actually pretty scary... But I digress...

So anyway, The Happening was pure shit pretty much from moment one. I mean, some of the deaths were pretty cool, and I am definitely susceptible to the music and slow pans of suspense building, but just like in The Village or Signs, there was rarely any payoff. In the days since I watched it, I've been trying to decide if it was just bad, or if it veered over to "so bad it's good" territory, and I think I'm leaning towards the latter. Some of the cool deaths are gooey and entertaining (jumping off buildings, headbutting a house), and some are stupidly funny (feeding oneself to lions one limb at a time, throwing oneself in front of a lawnmower?). There are also a lot of unintentionally hilariously delivered lines that are very quotable ("Don't take her hand unless you mean it!" "Hot dogs get a bad rap. They have a fun shape, and they're full of protein!" "Why're you eyein' my lemon drink?!")

But for every nugget of comedy gold, there was a plodding twenty minutes worth of horrible directing. I will not fault Mark "Rock Star" Wahlberg, Zooey "The Happening" Deschanel, or even John "The Pest" Leguizamo for their wooden performances when I'm pretty much convinced that Shyamalan just demands the worst out of his actors. The story unfurled in the first third of the action, by which point everyone in the audience I saw it with had long since stopped caring. The relationship between the leads was unnaturally and unnecessarily tense, and primarily hinged on the color of Marky's clammy mood ring. When the two of them walked into the onslaught of neurotoxin dust that they were sure was going to kill them, I was convinced that they were going to start making out and then suicidally eating each other's faces off. Alas, this did not happen.

In the cheapest system of deus ex machina in practice these days, all explanation about the premise was revealed through news broadcasts, which is just such a coward's way out. *coughSIGNScough* As soon as the credits rolled, there was a lot of loud booing in the theater, so that should be a pretty good indicator that audience opinions were in line with mine, and all those reflected on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Don't see The Happening. Or, get drunk with a huge group of friends and then sneak in to The Happening. That would probably be a fun evening. Drink every time the trees/plants/wind move menacingly. Drink every time the mood ring is mentioned/present. Drink every time you laugh nervously or earnestly at the movie. Get dialysis. Repeat.

i vaaahnt to suuuck your blooohd!

So, in "literary" news, I finished reading Stephenie Meyer's debut novel Twilight a couple of weeks ago. Published in 2005, it's the first in her series of books about teenager Isabella Swan, who is hopelessly in love with her classmate Edward Cullen. But oops guess what Edward is a vampire. Here's the twist: the book is almost impossible to read without one's eyes rolling so far out of one's head that they literally fall to the ground and roll away.

I may be reacting too harshly towards this novel. It is aimed towards young adults, and it was Meyer's first novel, but the writing style was just so laced with the aphrodisiac quality of teenage pheremones that I found it impossible to believe anything that was happening to the characters. I appreciate the high school setting of the classic vampire love story: he loves her, but can't get too close because he might hurt her; she loves him, and is afraid of being a mortal in love with an immortal. That said, the writing style was just so difficult to get through that I could hardly enjoy the story.

As someone who spent nine lonely years in all girls' school pining away for some boy to show any interest in me, I am very familiar with the genre of internet fan fiction. Very. Trust me. So believe me when I say that I have encountered Stephenie Meyer's style before, on message boards and web compendiums of fanfic written about every possible sort of thing that could ever be considered arousing. "And then Aragorn lightly traced his fingertips across Boromir's arrow-pierced chest. As a single tear slowly rolled down his chiseled face, Legolas chased it away with his smooth pink lips..." Oy. Twilight was not much better.

I couldn't help rolling my eyes each time Edward Cullen made Bella lose control of her senses, because their love was almost never explained. All of a sudden, after lusting after each other for five seconds, it is just evident that they should and will be 2gether 4eva. Now, I know this has been done before, famously, but even at all girls' school I didn't buy that Juliet wasn't just Romeo's Rosalind II. At least Shakespeare could write beautifully enough to make you not care about the stupid Tristan & Iseult rehash. And I know this was probably the point, but Edward seemed to love her only enough that he didn't try to kill her all the time. Every time he tried to explain his affection, it sounded like a dog professing his love for a steak. Edward was moody and boring and Bella was both petulant and impetuous, and none of those characteristics are appealing.

And finally, I must put forth my biggest problem with this whole thing. Sorry if it bothers you, but we're talking vampires here. Meyer establishes that a single drop of human blood from a papercut is enough to drive the vampires into a ravenous hunt, unable to control themselves. They are even driven wild by the smell of a human heartbeat. What the hell happens when women are on their period? I mean, really, Meyer has to have asked herself that. I know it's not the most appealing teen-novel fodder, but it's a valid question. If someone has an answer for me about how vampire fiction has dealt with this, if ever, I'd greatly appreciate it.

Anyway, here's the movie's teaser trailer, which looks slightly more entertaining than the book. Whatever. (Feck; I still can't embed videos for some reason! Bah!)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Today's fire at Universal Studios backlot

Early this morning, a fire broke out in the New York section of the Universal Studios backlot. It has since been contained by the hundreds of firefighters who were at the scene, but areas of the studio lot have been destroyed. Thankfully, only three firefighters suffered minor injuries, and no one else has been hurt. Though authorities do not know what specifically caused the fire, it erupted during the filming of a commercial. More details about the blaze can be found here, here, and here.

This section of the lot has been affected by fire before, eighteen years ago. Some areas that were destroyed are quite familiar to the public, such as the King Kong segment of the theme park's studio tour. The tram tour also takes guests through the New York streets, where scenes from CBS' Ghost Whisperer are filmed, and which are now completely destroyed. Of the facades that were ruined, perhaps the most upsetting to me is the courthouse and courtyard square, which are indelibly set in my mind as the Hill Valley courthouse and clocktower from the Back to the Future franchise.

As a huge fan of the Back to the Future movies, it has been a great source of joy for me to visit this section of Hill Valley ever since I started working on the Universal Studios lot in January. I've taken my sack lunch to New York street more than a couple of times, enjoying the bizarre experience of sitting on a fake sidewalk in a fake city, eating a real bagel. When my friend and fellow intern took an hour to run around taking photos of each other on the backlot one day, we'd hoped to take one at the courthouse, but never got around to it. It's a shame that I never went back to visit it now that it's gone. I know this isn't really a tragedy, and mercifully there were no serious injuries, but still -- the area of the lot that was destroyed was indeed iconic.

The film vault, protected by steel and concrete, was not harmed, protecting irreplaceable negatives. There were tens of thousands of other videos and reels that were lost to the fire, however, though thankfully they are backed up in another location at the NBC studios in Burbank. It will be interesting to see how this setback will affect the company's plans to consolidate all Los Angeles NBC and Universal offices onto the lot at Universal City. It is a momentous change and occasion for the company, and may be pushed back by the damages.