Saturday, March 9, 2013

NYT Defense

We will be defending Ben Brantley's review of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella. Brantley is the chief theatre critic at the New York Times. He is a well-trusted source who even has his own website to showcase his review.

We will look at his on-the-fence tone, as well as his argument comparing the classical Cinderella with his politically correct progressive version.

We will talk about how he uses the history of past productions of Cinderella as well as pop culture references to support his argument as well as advance his tone. He uses this context to capture and engage the reader.

We will analyze the structure of the review, specifically looking at how he does a good job establishing and supporting his argument, but how his ending is confusing and falls flat. His "but" statement comes early on and addresses the idea of the pretty Cinderella against a more revolutionary Cinderella.

Overall, the review is well-written, informative, and engaging; Brantley clearly has done his research and addresses many important aspects of the production.

The review can be found here:

Aliera & Nicole

9/11: A Date All Americans Instantly Recognize

" 'Offensive to all Muslims or just to those radicals whose aim is to destroy America and the West.' This is a distinction without a difference." (Comment on BreitBart).

Even today, attacks of violence, vandalism, and arson against people believed to be Muslim in the US continue. Over a decade later, 9/11 still shakes us, angers us. Some hate Islam as a whole, still striving to place the blame for the 3,000 lives lost. Others hate the bigots who blindly hate Islam because of their ignorance to the complexity of the situation.

Amy Waldman’s novel, “The Submission,” honestly portrays many sides of the issue, humanizing everyone. She gives everyone a story, the hated and the haters, revealing extreme religious intolerance in the US and honestly examining our country’s reaction—both an understandable and repulsive one—to the terrorist attack.

Waldman creates no main character in her novel. “The Submission” opens with a jury elected to choose a design for a 9/11 memorial. It begins through Claire Burwell’s eyes, widowed by the attack, but quickly cycles through various other characters. The architect of jury’s chosen design, a beautiful garden, is Mohammad Khan, a Muslim-American, sparking extreme controversy throughout the novel. Rooted in a fear of Islam from 9/11, Khan’s refusal to withdraw or change his submission, causes even more racism, hatred, and resentment.

Waldman channels the hatred and misunderstanding of Islam into her novel and dissects it, giving a voice to all sides: a white widow confused about what to think, an Islamophobic white man whose brother died, the Muslim-American architect, and a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh whose husband also died when the towers fell.

Waldman’s language reflects her journalistic background; it’s simple and direct, every word matters. Despite the swift changes between narrators and the direct language, however, each narrator has an astounding depth. Their inner-thoughts are almost a confession to the reader, each section almost journalism in their minds, which creates an ability to see and better understand each character’s perspective.

In the novel, when Burwell says the hatred and resentment “isn’t about you. It’s about the religion,” Khan’s response is:

“How would you feel if I justified what happened to your husband by saying is wasn’t about him but about his nationality—his country’s policies—damn shame he got caught up in, that’s all—but you know, he got what he deserved because he paid taxes to the American government. I get what I deserve because I happen to share a religion with a bunch of crazies?”

Burwell only hears “damn shame” and “what he deserved” and angrily concludes Kahn believes her husband was just “collateral damage…and bore responsibility and guilt simply because he was American.” But this is exactly what Kahn argues against. She simply doesn’t listen.

That is the point the novel makes. That is why it’s important to read. It makes us reflect on our reactions, misconceptions, and prejudices and realize we need to open to other people’s stories. We need to listen.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Life is a prayer in the gospel of Tree Bark..."

I kept going back to this song this past month. The Gospel of Tree Bark, by singer, songwriter, and cellist, Anna Fritz (who is based in the beautiful Portland, Oregon)--what does that title and line of the song even mean? It sounds like a passionate environmentalist slogan mixed with a tacky religious greeting card. And the weirdness of the music video doesn't help. But somehow the song enchants you.

The song is strange, mystical, almost childlike. The music video includes odd masks, a forest, and a really long string of bright red yarn. When I listen to the song, however, is resonates with me. It captures a feeling of loss. The sadness, the confusion, the helplessness. The desire to just blindly walk with no idea where you are going. The sense that something is off in the world--something is out of place, upside-down, disturbing. 

The song is creepy and unsettling while also being uplifting and hopeful. With the creepiness, sad, and disturbing feeling in the song, there is also a fairy-tale quality. You become focused on the surreal women in masks. You are engrossed with the red yarn and where it is leading the woman. Where is it taking her. You witness a transformation from a woman following yarn to into a fairy-tale creature playing the cello in a forest. And then at the end she is being led again, the yarn tugging her finger, perhaps implying it is not where the yarn leads you that matters. The yarn doesn't lead anywhere. It eventually just ends. But it is about the journey of following the yarn. That's what the "gospel of Tree Bark" means. 

It is about what you do, where you go, when the yarn runs out: "Life has gone on and will go one forever, and you're just a droplet, a small bean of light... " Realize that, and still go on. Realize you are no longer lead, and lead yourself. Realize you are lost in the woods, and dance. 

"Life is a prayer in the gospel of Tree Bark," so pray, live--and see what happens. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Final Project Abstract: Really, Who is Patriotic?

I plan to look at how patriotism has evolved in the past decade through television. I want to study how television reflects the existence and perceptions of patriotism. I’ll look specifically at the late 90’s political epic The West Wing and the newly-released Netflix remake of BBC’s House of Cards, which follows a ruthless congressman connivingly struggling for power. Both shows, released a little over a decade apart, give an inside-look at the White House and the politics surrounding the White House. In one, the president is the moral leader to look to for advice. In the other, the president is the man to slyly screw over for betraying our complicated protagonist. Each show has a different style and tone and its individual perception on what it means to be patriotic.

As someone who generally isn’t very patriotic and who doesn’t tend to have faith in the power and justice of our country, it is odd to watch a show so focused on making great America greater. I must admit, however, there are beautiful moments where even I allow myself to buy into the hopeful image of the United States and American Dream The West Wing fights for. It can be inspirational. At the same time, however, it is refreshing to see the honesty of the cruel, power-hungry, ambitious, intelligent characters in House of Cards.

I’ll also look online—blogs, articles, comments—to find information about how people feel about patriotism, about the White House, about the US as a superpower. I want to look at what people think of the American Dream today. Does it still exist as the core hope or dream for future America? The terrorist attack on 9/11 occurred roughly in the middle of this time-frame, and I’m interested in what role it played in television. I will use television to study how—and perhaps why—patriotism has changed and the evolving perception of America’s future.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscars 2013: Did He Really Just Say That?

It’s bad when the host laughs at his joke before the audience does. It’s even worse when those jokes are plainly tasteless and offensive. 

Something is wrong with this year’s Oscars when they bring William Shatner in his Star Trek garb and use Captain Kirk’s moral compass to justify host Seth MacFarlane’s jokes, such as his comparison of Django Unchained with Chris Brown and Rihanna’s abusive relationship.

To complete the pattern of degrading women, Macfarlane serenaded various actresses, beginning with 2004 Life Achievement Award Winner Meryl Streep, with a song that starts with “We saw your boobs. In the movie that we saw, we saw your boobs” and proceeding to name about fifteen other well-respected women for on-screen nudity.

The editor did a splendid job capturing Nicole Kidman— jaw dropped in astonished disgust— and Charlize Theron—head in hand as she looked down in uncomfortable outrage—when they heard their names. The editor did not, however, focus on Denzel Washington’s face when Macfarlane showed his insensitive re-make of Flight using sock-puppets, followed by a joke that, as a white guy in 2013, MacFarlane can’t wear “black-hand.”

The award-winners’ honesty and eloquence during their speeches were a relief from Macfarlane’s demeaning attempts at humor.

When Anne Hathaway won Best Supporting Actress for Les Misèrables, she accepted her award and breathlessly said to herself, “It came true” before diving into her speech.

Ang Lee began his speech upon winning the Achievement in Directing award for Life of Pi with a disbelieving, grateful bow and by thanking both the audience and the “movie god.” 

Jennifer Lawrence’s surprised and joyous expression alone when she won Best Leading Actress for Silver Linings Playbook was enough to win over the audience, not to mention her self-effacement for having tripped her way up the stairs.

When Argo won Best Picture, Ben Affleck spoke tearfully, commending the eight other spectacular nominated films, and ending his “thank you’s” with touching words to his wife, Jennifer Garner.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Leading Actor winner for Lincoln, and Michael Haneke, director of Best Foreign Language Film Amour, both gave speeches full of eloquence, humility, and humor. When Day-Lewis joked with Meryl Streep, “it’s a strange thing, because three years ago…I had actually been committed to play Margaret Thatcher, and Meryl was Steven’s first choice for Lincoln,” it was actually funny—unlike Ted the bear’s joke about finding the Oscar orgy.

One thing MacFarlane did well was introduce the theme of this year’s Oscars: celebrating music in film. Jennifer Hudson sang a soulful “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls that brought the audience to its feet. The cast of Les Miserables performed a “One Day More” that filled the entire room and gave goose-bumps.

MacFarlane did not continue the theme well, however, with the highly-secretive, highly-anticipated song he performed at the end with Kristen Chenoweth. It was not quite as surprising and hilarious as advertised: a song dedicated to “the losers” was not rewarding after a long night of derogatory, condescending humor.

Perhaps the best part of the night was watching 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, Leading Actress nominee for Beasts of the Southern Wild, raise her arms in proud excitement, when she was announced: no façade or agenda, no harassing or forced joke, she was simply a happy little girl showing her big muscles, thrilled to be at the Oscars.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Art vs. Art

The title itself illustrates Oscar Wilde's goal in his essay, The Critic as Artist. He wants to promote the critic as an artist; he wants to show that criticism is an art. This point is valid and he argues it well. He goes further, however, than "the critic as artist": Wilde asserts that criticism is in fact the "highest art" and that, "It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it."

Wilde argues that art is more difficult to write about than to create. Writing about a painting is much more difficult than actually painting it; writing about poetry is more difficult than writing the poem; writing about music is more difficult that mastering the instrument. Wilde goes beyond criticism as an art and compares it with other art forms, asserting it is the highest art, and though he argues well with thought-out opinions and strong evidence, it is here that his argument fails.

Wilde has various sections that supports his point well. He talks about how art becomes immortal not by the talent of the artist but rather by the talent of the critic: the way the critic reacts to and writes about it. He argues that art is not beautiful because of the hand of the artist, but rather the eyes of the beholder: it is how people talk about a piece of art, how they perceive it, that makes it beautiful. And it is the critic that nudges the beholder about how to feel. The critic "treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new creation" and "the highest Criticism, then, is more creative than the creation..."

Wilde also argues that the symbols and meaning behind art is prescribed completely by the critic and beholder, not the artist. This argument also has merit. The deep symbolism we give the road, the changing environment, bugs, farming in Grapes of Wrath  is probably much more detailed than Steinbeck's thought-process as he was writing it. The Mona Lisa has become a symbol of eternity; she has watched history with the wise eyes of someone who never dies or is always dead, all with a small smile, as if she knows what is to come. But how likely is it that Leonardo da Vinci had all of this in mind when painting? In this way, it is the critic that gives a piece of art meaning--that makes it beautiful and and immortal--and that in itself is an art.

The assertion that criticism is the highest art, however, is flawed. Wilde's title portrays he main argument, his most important point: the Critic as Artist. He wants to show how criticism is an art, and he does so. But with that argument you cannot then argue that it is a better art, a more difficult art, a higher art. We cannot argue that one form of art is better than another. Paintings are not better than music; music is not better than poetry; poetry is not better than photography; photography is not better than criticism; criticism is not better than painting. It is impossible to place one art form above another because art is subjective.

Art is all about what each individual prefers; what speaks to each of us. Criticism is an art. So is painting and poetry and music. All art forms influence each other, make each other better, make each other grow, each from their own platform. They cannot compete with one other. Instead, they complement one another, making art better, more interesting, more controversial, more beautiful.

True, painting as art would not exist without criticism. But Mr. Wilde, criticism would not exist without painting.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Like the Dancers Among Us

be ALIVE. That's Jordan Matter's tag line for his photo series called Dancers Among Us, and that's exactly what they do. They "be alive."

In this photo series, Matter photographed dancers in everyday settings: outside a coffee shop, at the beach, on the subway, in the rain, crossing the street. His photos create magical moments where the dancer is levitating horizontally over the water or vertically beside a building; the dancer is leaping over train tracks, hanging off a sky-scraper, draping herself over a tombstone. Every photo has a story we do not know, each dancer hears music that we cannot hear, and we are left to imagine that story, create that music. Matter's  photos capture an energy that make them come alive: he flies a little higher, she reaches slightly farther, their light embrace becomes more kinetic.

In his artist's statement, Matter explains his inspiration for the photo series. He talks about how the idea first came to him while watching his son, Hudson, play with his toy truck. Matter says all he saw was a yellow plastic truck, but his son experienced a fantasy only he could see. Matter marvels at how immersed Hudson was in the imaginary, how was completely present in it:

"What happens to this enthusiasm, this ability to be wholly present in the moment? Why are these pure moments of passion so often replaced with cynicism, boredom, and indifference? As I played with my son, I thought about creating photographs that would show the world as if through his eyes. The people in the images would be alive and in the moment, celebrating all aspects and emotions of everyday life."

The dancers create a character that is completely in the moment. They physically embody a specific emotion, a reaction to life that we cannot express. The peace of a sunrise, grief from a death, the dedication to succeed, frustration from daily routine, the longing for freedom, the joy of watching it snow, the desire to dream.

Each photo magnifies an emotion, a passion to encourage us to imagine it. To understand that emotion. To feel that passion. React to that specific moment. To allow ourselves to experience the dreams and the failures, the beauty and the suffering. To be ALIVE.

To find more of Jordan Matter's work, click here:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pauline Kael's Superpower

When Pauline Kael wrote, people read. Her reviews were controversial, often criticized and even hated, but people read them. Kael wrote and her audience was smitten with, engrossed in her prose of highly-developed opinion and independence. In her review of Silkwood, Kael criticizes Meryl Streep, asserting that “in her starring performances [Streep] has been giving us artificial creations.” Honestly, how could anyone criticize Meryl Streep, let alone say that her performances are artificial? But Kael does, and by the end of her review even a serious Streep fan must admit that Kael’s reasoning is fair and logical. This was Kael’s superpower. She could build an opinion based not off what others believed and advertised, but rather on how she felt and reacted; she could then convince her audience that her opinion, however controversial, was valid—and she did it all through energetic and engaging artful prose.

Kael was attracted to and embodied an energy that filled her writing. In Francis Davis’ Afterglow, a final interview with Kael, they talk about pop-culture and Kael says she loves “the energy of pop.” She thought “pop has a bite to it—a life to it” and she surrounded herself with that life. She enjoyed Tom Waits and Duke Ellington. She watched Sex in the City. Kael was interested in new things. She didn’t like repeats of what was already done. When writing about Disney’s The Little Mermaid, she stated, “I expected to see something more than a bland reworking of old Disney fairy tales, featuring a teen-age tootsie in a flirty sea-shell bra.” Kael wanted something new but received the typical Disney story, and made her point through energetic and confrontational language.

Because of her desire for the new, she took issue with movies made after the seventies. Kael believed movies stopped changing—that after the seventies, for the most part, movies were just re-made in different ways. By the end of her career, Kael didn’t enjoy reviewing films because there were no longer films she enjoyed. She was unafraid to say the movie industry is in decay and getting worse, because that is what she believed.

Kael’s idiosyncrasies reflect her values and opinions. Kael hated repetition: she hated watching a movie twice because she “got it” the first time. In her review on Hiroshima Mon Amour, she describes her reaction to lyrical repetition in a script: “I lost patience…Ok, I got it the first time, let’s get on with it.” She wanted something new and didn’t allow artful tricks to cloud her opinion.

In the age of the typewriter and rising computer, she refused to type; she always wrote long-hand, despite the inconvenience or anyone’s judgment, because it worked for her. She never allowed anyone’s judgment to dissuade her in anything. In a society where people praise the deep, meaningful, heavy-handed films, Kael argued for the charming, light-hearted, pleasurable films because that is what she enjoyed. Kael fought for her opinions, stated what she believed, and never let the conclusions of others, of the masses, dissuade her when writing, but more importantly she did so in life as well. This 5-foot-tall, stubborn, spunky woman simply stuck with what she believed. And that is something to be respected. Something to admire.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


It's interesting look at one song across the ages. I found a more recent cover of this song this week (the Bjork version) and I loved how weird it was. When I looked it up I found that it was actually a cover of American songwriter Betty Hutton's song, which she released in 1951. I then found, however, that Hutton's version is also a cover--a cover of the German song "Und Jetzt ist es still" performed by Horst Winter in 1948. It is a song I had never heard before, but thought it was so interesting to see how it developed and changed, yet also remained the same, over half a century. Each version is different. Each version has its unique qualities that make the song different and special. But each version has a common characteristic that keeps the song alive.

Winter's version, apart from being in German, is different because it is suave. I imagine a man in a suit with a soft face serenading an audience. Perhaps he is wearing tap shoes--though I don't know how German that is. He sort of sways back ans forth as he sings with a coy smile on his face. He tips his hat. Though Hutton's song seems smooth and charming to me, there is a bit of weirdness. You can already feel the strange tone of the song that grows throughout the years.

Hutton's version is different. It's already a bit more strange. But it is also the classic, beautiful, 50's blond woman singing. Her voice reminds me of classic black-and-white movies and even the Dick Van Dyke show. It's sweet and classic--but it is odd. She does have bursts of volume in the song, where she screeches and yells and then abruptly gets quiet. She moves gracefully and surprisingly between the pretty classic damsel into a more harsh and carefree woman.

Then there is Bjork's 1995 music video and cover of the song. Her's is simply weird. The parts of Winter and Hutton's versions that are suave and pretty are almost childish in Bjork's version. It's as if a little girl is pleading, tempting you to shhhhhhhhhh. But Bjork is not a young girl, so it gives this section almost a Lolita feel as this woman seems like a child who is trying to be seductive but doesn't know how. Sort of an awkward seduction. And then she breaks into song and everyone around her dances in unison, she brings out the tap shoes. It's almost an old Broadway feel, as if she's tipping her hat to the earlier versions of the song, trying to include the pretty classic woman and suave man, but with her own weird 90's twist.

Monday, February 11, 2013

“Communicating Doors”: A Thrilling Sci-fi Comedy

Dim blue lights slowly light up the room. A tall man stands facing away from the audience; in the blue light only his imposing silhouette is visible. The eerie, foreboding moment is quickly broken when the lights come up and the doorbell rings—a doorbell that is a suave mechanical voice announcing, “The female you requested has arrived.” The man opens the door to a woman with classy, pink hair, bare legs, and a black exotic jacket that reaches her mid-thigh swinging a leather whip and dancing in place.

These first two minutes of “Communicating Doors” juxtaposes eerie evil with comedy, setting the tone for the rest of the show: it is a show that deals with evil acts and serious situations, but using comedy makes them hilarious and lighthearted; it is a show that makes murder, attempted murder, and death entertaining through wit and slapstick comedy without dehumanizing the characters.

The play follows of three women across time—the pink-haired, whip-bearing, 2033 zany dominatrix, Phoebe (Talia Grzelewski), the 1993 regal Ruella (Alexandria Pelletier), and the cute Jessica of 1973—who are all connected to the rich businessman Reece (Robert Clemence) and his conniving business partner and lifelong friend, Julian Goodman (David Lew Cooper). Together the women solve a mystery and face death, all the while making sly, witty, jokes and being hilarious.

The acting is stellar. Each character has a distinct, almost stereotypical personality and could easily be played as irritating and two-dimensional. Every actor, however, makes their character relatable and interesting. Grzelewski makes an outgoing and crude Phoebe hilarious and lovable. Pelletier makes the posh, buttoned-up Ruella intelligent and caring. Parsons makes the spoiled, dim Jessica entertaining and endearing. Each actor brings life to the two-dimensional characters by exaggerating their slightly stereotypical characteristics.

The set is well-made and elegant. The half-doors provide distinct rooms for the actors to maneuver within the set without blocking view for the audience. The simple furniture—a black leather couch, a coffee table—creates a timeless atmosphere that allow the characters to believably move through time. The colors on the set—mostly black and white—contrast each other in the same way comedy contrasts and complements serious situations of the story.

The characters make death lighthearted, almost mockable, yet still suspenseful. When the three women struggle for life toward the end, Jessica stops to worry about her nails, before getting back to her literal life struggle. This combination of the seriousness of death and wacky humor that can overshadow imminent danger are what make this show spectacular. It simultaneously keeps the audience on their toes as a sci-fi thriller when the imposing villain is about to attack and has them relaxing in their chair and chuckling at Ruella’s very British gasp of shock or Phoebe’s fearful pelvic-thrust.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Where there is love there is life" --Mahatma Gandhi

This song and poem stood out to me this week. They mean something different to me today than they would have just a few days ago.
I hope they can mean something to you.

Beggar's Prayer-- by Emiliana Torini

--by Gerald Stern

This time there was no beak,
no little bloody head, no bony
claw, no loose wing--only a small
pile of feathers without substance or center.

Our cats dig through the leaves, they
stare at each other in surprise,
they look carefully over their shoulders,
they touch the same feathers over and over.

They have been totally cheated of the body.
The body with its veins and its fat
and its red bones has escaped them.
Like weak giants
they try to turn elsewhere.
Like Americans on the Ganges,
their long legs twisted in embarassment,
their knees scraping the stones,
they begin crawling after the spirit.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Nice Combination Makes a Balanced Sherlock

If I were to write a review about the Civic’s production of Sherlock: The Last Adventure I would write about the simplicity of the script itself compared with the elaborate tone of the other aspects of the show, such as the set, costumes, and acting. The writing and story was not very intricate and at times hard to follow.  Other aspects of the show, however, were elaborate and almost over-the-top. This combination created a distinct classic detective, who-dun-it story.

The set was extravagant. Each room had a very different feel, from Sherlock’s regal yet cozy office full of deep reds, to a warehouse with cold concrete walls and an industrial table, and the threat of suffocation from gas, to a nighttime bridge looking down into a chilled lake or vast waterfall. There was obviously a lot of effort put into each room, each scene’s environment, and they all had clean transitions—apart from a few instances of tech crew members visibly scampering onstage to begin their complicated scene-change—and were distinct from one another.

Costumes were also unique to each character. There was Sherlock’s velvety-red robe, his goofy undercover-priest garb, and his classic coat and cap. There was Watson’s simple vested suit. There were Irene Adler’s illustrious dresses full of color and intense shoulders. There was the King of Bulgaria’s out-of-place, exotic-looking princely outfit, finished with big boots and a cape.  Each character had an obvious persona that their specific costumes helped to embody.

Acting was at times over-the-top, but it fit into the rest of the show. Sometimes certain accents were over-exaggerated, but it added to the over-exaggerated tone. It created a world that resembled black-and-white detective stories I remember from my childhood—you have the heroic yet flawed detective and his trusty sidekick, the beautiful and fiery love-interest, and the evil mastermind with his goofy and slightly stupid henchmen. The extravagant set and costumes and large acting combined with the straightforward, familiar story to create a classic who-dun-it journey for the audience.

As someone whose only experience with Sherlock Holmes has been with the BBC Television series Sherlock, this show was extremely different from my view of his stories. Sherlock is extremely detail-focused; every moment and camera shot is thought-out and almost minimalistic, creating a witty, artful, and cinematographically elegant and clever television series. A theatrical adaptation of Sherlock Holmes cannot have the same focus as a television series and therefore must have a very different tone. If I were to write a review on this show, I would have to become more familiar with more traditional adaptations of the stories so that I could compare that tone with that of the theatrical adaptation.

Though parts of the show felt over-acted, I would also note that the actors’ body language was spectacular. The actors held themselves in very specific and meaningful ways, which balanced out the dramatic gestures and speech. The show was balanced: balanced between the drama and simplicity, the scenes full of color and the darker scenes with greys; the good challenging the evil.

Portland, Oregon Loving Christmas Tradition

Portland’s Singing Christmas Tree: 50th Anniversary. After overcoming the first question—what on earth is a singing Christmas tree?—the second question arises: who would pay to see a singing Christmas tree? On further contemplation, however, the answer presents itself: well, it’s a singing Christmas tree; who wouldn't want to see that?
The Christmas tree is a tall structure almost touching the roof of the auditorium. It’s cone-shaped, like  Christmas trees are, has places for singers to stand layered across the contraption, and colorful, controlled lights creating different Christmas illusions—deep green pine needles, yellow-gold candlelight. Choir members cover the entire tree and stand on bleachers, in this 300-voice-choir, live-orchestra production.

For the next hour and a half, the audience is dazzled, bombarded, with countless Christmas songs, flashing lights, Santa, an elf dressed in green, and giant camel-puppets. It is an and all-important and spectacular  extravaganza to those who are enchanted by massive Christmas spirit and religious connotations, but in reality it is a lot of people spending a lot of time and a lot of money to sing a lot of Christmas songs and spread the story of Jesus Christ.

The first Singing Christmas Tree appeared in 1962—when gas was thirty-one cents a gallon and the average house cost $15,000—when a group in a local church decided they wanted to bring something new to Portland. And what better to bring than a singing Christmas tree! With a small budget, the group of volunteers began a fifty-year tradition.

The first half of the show focuses on the secular side of Christmas, flaunting their pudgy Santa and zany elf, and singing common songs, like an intricate version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Then the show moves into the longer, second half with songs like Hark the Harold Angels Sing and Away in a Manger and a reenactment of the nativity scene: beautiful animal puppets, a manger for the baby, and dancers flitting down the aisles with white sheer fabric attached to their fingertips flowing gracefully behind them, angels flying down from heaven.

By the end, the air is thick with religious excitement, as grandparents smile in knowing satisfaction, parents look meaningfully at their children, ensuring appreciation of the significance of what they just experienced, and those who are not enchanted by Christmas spirituality rush out exhausted from trying not to laugh when Mary and Joseph embrace their baby and the woman sitting beside them wipes a tear off her cheek. It is a fun, extravagant production many find exceptional, but that is really a musical movement from secular to religious Christmas. To those involved and enthralled, it’s the center of the world. But take a step back, and it’s a bunch of people singing Christmas songs on a giant contraption made to look like a tree.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Queen of Versailles: Finding Humans Beneath the Money

A photo-shoot: David Siegel, seventy-four, lounges comfortably on an ornate throne with gold naked baby angels and ornate swirls and scrolls. Jackie Siegel, his busty forty-three-year-old wife, perches on his lap, his hand holding her forearm, her fingers lightly gripping his thigh, her bare foot rubbing against his sleek dress shoes. The scene ends with Jackie’s premonitory words: “My husband, when I got married to him, all I wanted was love from him, and he always said, ‘Trust me,’ and I put my trust into him. So if, so…we’ll see what happens.” Yes, we sure will.

This introductory scene to director Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” sets up the conflicting emotions that arise throughout the film. It first associates self-prescribed royalty to the Siegel family, while Jackie’s final comment warns how billionaire time-share mogul David Siegel eventually fails. The soft, enchanting piano music playing throughout the posh scene adds a feeling of monarchal power.

People enjoy watching powerful people fail. Just as we had a strange fascination when Brittney Spears broke down and shaved her head, seeing David’s company fall apart after the 2008 recession and watching the cocky, self-aggrandizing man struggle brings a strange joy and satisfaction.

Instead of feeling solely satisfaction at the gradual demise, however, Greenfield also creates pity for the dysfunctional family. Greenfield juxtaposes certain images and scenes to create doubt over what is right and what constitutes normal. One scene, for example, shows the family seated around the dinner table for their father’s birthday, David on his cell and disconnected. Immediately after however, you see David’s 90,000 square-foot dream-house falling apart and desolate, and you pity him as he watches his dream crumble.

By the end of the film you can’t decide what to feel. You are sick of the children because of their lack of respect and responsibility, yet you pity them because they must deal with a disconnected and ungrateful father. You hate narcissistic David for disrespecting his family, yet you pity him for watching helplessly as his lifelong work and dreams fail. You are infuriated with Jackie because of her vanity and inability to stand up to David, yet you pity her because she loves a husband who doesn't love her back.

Greenfield tells the story she wants to tell. She builds the family’s sense of royalty and excessive materialism through camera angles and sound to make the Siegel's failure even more enjoyable. She juxtaposes scenes and images in order to draw attention to humanistic aspects of a ridiculous rich family most would never even consider.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stop and Stare

Alexa Meade's art is a new form of body paint. It is an illusion. She combines reality with creativity to create something in between: the real world with specks of the unexplained creeping through.

Instead of painting directly on a canvas, she paints on objects, changing the object from something in the real world to a piece of art. Instead of painting fruit on canvas she will literally paint fruit. Instead of painting a two-dimensional woman, she will actually paint a woman--Meade takes the brush to the woman's skin and paints.

When her work is photographed, everything she painted looks real, and often stands in stark contrast to the photographed people and places surrounding the subject. Meade captures the struggle of everyday life and draws attention to it. She ensures that you notice the lines of exhaustion on an old man's face as he stands on a subway, the sadness in a young woman's eyes from the way her eyebrows form on her face, another woman's despair as she sits, half-naked in an art gallery, head bowed and staring at her hands.

Through her art, Meade forces you to stop and look at what you try to ignore, what you attempt to pass by without a glance: struggle, truth, despair. She doesn't allow you to ignore it. She does this by using the magic of paint, of her hand, of her imagination. Meade applies art and creativity to the real world, creating the illusion that a man from a painting came to life, climbed out of his canvas, and now explores the streets.

 Meade doesn't allow you to ignore the pain and struggle because she creates something that causes you to look twice; you can't simply walk by without a glance because curiosity and enchantment with the unexplained, the unknown, the magic draws you in and makes you stop and stare.

To see more of Meade's art, go here:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One Moment

Satoki Nagata's photographs capture a moment. Yes, technically all photographs do, but Nagata's photos do so differently. His photos are a snapshot into someone's routine--one second, one glance, one movement. He captures his subject's attention in a moment of utter boredom, frustration, desperation, hope. His photos provide a glimpse into other people's lives--a single moment in the life of men, women, and children that communicates the reality of their circumstances.

You see sadness in a woman's downcast gaze. You see exhaustion in a young man's parted lips and squinted eyes. You see boredom in an unknown woman's tapping fingers. You see longing in the young girl gripping the shades peering outside, light shining on her disappointed features.

In an interview posted on "The Leica Camera Blog" Nagata explains his photos:

"My goal as an artist is finding and showing the various connections forming the reality in which the city and its people exist. The camera captures the moment in a fraction of a second, and I have found that images that succeed show the multi-dimensional relationship of the world through symbolic and abstract forms. By searching for the elements that represent the reality I see around me, I can capture them through the photographic medium. I am always trying to create intimate bonds with my subjects while photographing them, and I believe this is the only way to show their reality and their relationships to the world. Through these images I hope you will discover these subtle but substantial links, and feel a connection to the world I document."

He succeeds. His photos provide a brief connection and relationship with his subjects. For a moment, you know them. You understand that woman's sadness. You feel that man's exhaustion, as if it pulsed through your own body. You know that unknown woman's boredom. For a moment, you are that young girl longing to venture outside into the fresh and open air, knowing you must stay trapped inside. For one moment, you forget your own life, and experience the reality of someone else's.

Here is a link to more of Nagata's photos:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life of Pi: Life of a Man or a Boy?

A castaway kneels on his raft, unable to sleep from the soft blue luminescence in the black ocean. It illuminates his smiling face as he swirls his arm in the water, trying to touch the mystical glow: it’s a whale that leaps from the water and soars through the sky. For a moment, it’s suspended in air and the boy is minuscule in comparison, gazing up in awe. The moment ends and the whale smashes the raft, sending the young man, swimming for his life, into the water. He loses his only food, and the majestic whale glides away.

This scene occurs soon after Life of Pi’s hero, Pi (Suraj Sharma), becomes stranded in the Pacific Ocean with only the company of a Bengal tiger. Reason and logic of adulthood conflict with the curious and unbiased perspective of the child, beginning with the disagreement between Pi and his father (Adil Hussain) about religion and faith. The whale scene juxtaposes reality and magic by placing the beauty of the majestic luminescent whale beside the drive for survival when the whale nearly kills Pi. It’s the curiosity and idealism of a boy combined with the wisdom of a man that allow Pi to survive. The balance between magic and reality appears throughout the film, enticing the question of which is more important.

Director Ang Lee creates a visually stunning film, with cinematography requiring vastness and diversity, and including digital images sewn together in post-production, as described by “The Independent”. The imagery is spectacular, from the desolate ocean to a brilliant sunrise over the water.

Sharma splendidly portrays prolonged loneliness. He playfully lounges on the raft to stay sane. Sharma creates the relationship between Pi and the tiger, making the evolution from extreme fear to asserting dominance over the tiger seem natural, even though he primarily interacts with a blue screen rather than a tiger (“The Independent”). Sharma gives an engaging performance despite the limitations of the circumstances.

The story reflects the importance of reason with the need for imagination—being old with being young.  It combines wise caution with the child’s desire to befriend, to accept. Though many images seem bizarre and ridiculous, such as an island of thousands of barking meerkats, acceptance and suspension of disbelief allow the true meaning to emerge—they allow and compel you to wonder whether magic doesn't exist solely because we refuse to believe in it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Life of Pi: Becoming an Adult or Staying Young?

It’s easy to describe the plot of “Life of Pi”: a young man, Pi (Suraj Sharma), survives on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with only the company of a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The film can be easily mocked because most of it takes place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there are surreal sequences of glowing blue lights reflecting in the water, there is a carnivorous island that has no inhabitants other than thousands of meerkats. Though easily mocked, it is these mystical characteristics that make the film powerful. It is a story of beautiful images and dreamlike visions. It is a story full of things we've never seen before. It is a story that examines spirituality while exploring the magic of childhood trust and dreams. From the beginning, the reason and logic of adulthood conflicts with the curious and unbiased perspective of the child through the relationship between Pi and his father (Adil Hussain) and their disagreements about religion and faith.

Pi is alone for most of the film—his only interaction being with a tiger—as he tries to survive as a castaway, but Sharma does a splendid job portraying what it would like to be alone for so long.  Though there is nearly no human interaction for about the last hour and a half of the film, Sharma combines wise survival instincts with boyish hope and innocence to create a character that can keep you captivated and engaged with solely the way he holds himself, the way he clings to the rail of the boat, the way he lounges on his makeshift raft, the way he stares at the regal and terrifying tiger. Sharma can portray a boy’s will to survive, a boy’s capacity for love and trust —and it’s this ability to constantly remind us that Pi is a boy that allow the film to be truly captivating.

This is a story that combines reason and faith. It combines being old with being young.  It combines wise, instinctual caution with the child’s desire to befriend, to accept. It is a story that will make you question what is real and what is magic and whether the two can be one. It asks whether the truth is the story that happened, or the story that is plausible. It makes you wonder whether magic doesn't exist solely because we refuse to believe in it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Something Beautiful

It’s easy to get caught up in the routine, to become preoccupied with the responsibilities that come with growing up. Leave the childhood dreams of exploration and adventure and forget the world you used to believe in—the beautiful world of enchanting magic, wondrous possibility, and frightening beauty. To enter the world of success, of strived-for luxury. There’s no longer time to have a picnic, get lost, watch the silhouette of a flock of birds as they cross a mountain at dusk. We can’t put our feet up on the dash because we won’t be in the car long enough for it to be worth it. 

There’s no time for this because there’s work to do, people to see, essays to write, problems to solve, paintings to paint, children to sing to sleep. There’s a path to success we follow, preparing ourselves for the life of stability and comfort and hard work and joy. A life full of responsibility but also full of satisfaction and magnificent moments. This is the life most of us strive for. It is a good life. It is an important life. But we forget the mystery of childhood dreams. We forget what it’s like to have nothing instead of seek everything.

There’s something beautiful about driving with nowhere to go. About stopping to buy a powdered donut simply because you feel like it. Running through dry grass, jumping over crooked streams, playing the banjo. There’s something beautiful about swimming in the lake because you can, staring into a campfire until your eyes burn, sleeping in a tent under the stars in the middle of nowhere. There’s something beautiful about being able to sit still long enough for a bird to land on your out-stretched hand. It’s something beautiful, something brave, something strange to live without a planned future. To live for today and fall into tomorrow.

It’s not something responsible. It’s not something stable. It’s not something to do for forever.

But it is something beautiful.