Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final Project Proposal: The Oscars Revisted

When I wrote my original review of the Oscars on Monday morning, I evaluated the ceremony in terms of entertainment value. I considered the show a successful spectacle, complete with dynamite performances from the likes of Adele, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Jennifer Hudson, as well as heartfelt speeches, and a fabulous light show, all of which took place among host Seth MacFarlane's uncomfortable and inappropriate jokes.

But after an in-class conversation in my Sex and Sexualities class on Monday afternoon, I've decided that the entertainment value is not the most important issue at hand. The ceremony needs to be evaluated for its sexist content and for the way it celebrated and reinforced patriarchal values to a billion viewers worldwide. From McFarlane's tasteless "We  Saw Your Boobs" opening number to his final disgusting jab at nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, both the host and the Academy proved that the feminist cause still has so, so far to go.

For my final project, I propose to write a critical essay in which I consider the Academy Awards ceremony through a feminist lens. Specifically I want to look at the moments in the ceremony in which women were devalued, degraded, mocked, humiliated, categorized, labeled, and objectified. I want to revisit MacFarlane's opening number which, in four instances, glorified the breasts shown in rape scenes, as well as made the viewer of these scenes resolutely male. 

I want to look at how MacFarlane's comments about Rhianna and Chris Brown's relationship only perpetuate violence against women. As Amy Davidson from the New Yorker points out, relationships are complicated and if any woman who goes back to an abusive relationship is told she has forfeited sympathy and is now an object of mockery, we're going to end up with more dead women.

I want to consider how the female body is an object for men to control, discuss, and criticize. I want to bring up issues of weight, eating disorders, and body image. I want to look at why a black female child was pushed to the forefront of MacFarlane's jokes. (Was Dakota Fanning ever mocked like this?)  

I want to pair all of these moments with women's actual performances during the Oscars which, to me, prove that women work harder and are a hell of a lot smarter than MacFarlane could ever hope to be. (Adele showed Hugh Jackman up, Jennifer Lawrence waved off male assistance when she fell, Meryl Streep didn't even need an introduction.) 

It's important and necessary to point out that what many women strive to do in the entertainment industry is seriously under-valued and over-criticized. That's precisely what I aim to do in this final project.

By re-watching the Oscars, using my course material from Sex and Sexualities, and reading up on other publications' takes on the ceremony, I will be able to craft a well-informed and well-argued piece.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Night at the Oscars

There were tears, wipeouts, and whole lot of jokes that just didn’t land at the 85th annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, Calif. Yet Sunday night’s show was still an entertaining spectacle, complete with a few surprises.

Ben Affleck was snubbed for a Best Director nod this year, but his passion project Argo took home several awards, including Best Motion Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Achievement in Film Editing. Affleck used his podium time to deliver a heartfelt and teary-eyed speech in which he thanked his wife, Jennifer Garner, their children, and reminisced about his first Oscar win for Good Will Hunting when he was "just a kid."

Jennifer Lawrence, too, was a bit choked up when she accepted her first ever Academy Award for Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Silver Linings Playbook. Having just fallen up the stage steps in front of hundreds of Hollywood A-Listers and a billion television viewers worldwide, a little emotion is normal.

Host Seth MacFarlane’s fumbles were more offensive and deliberate. The Family Guy and Ted creator opened the evening with an uncomfortable number titled, “We Saw Your Boobs,” in which he name-checked various actresses who had bared their breasts in films. His anti-Semitic jokes and plug for John Wilkes Booth were also classless.

Adele, however, sparkled with a performance of the 007 song, “Skyfall,” which she sang with pizzazz and showbiz bravura amid a fabulous light show. The Bond film went on to win Original Song and, for the third time ever in Oscar history, faced a tie with Zero Dark Thirty for Achievement in Sound Editing.

Catherine Zeta-Jones rocked the stage with her rendition of “All That Jazz,” from the 2002 film, Chicago. 10 years later, Zeta-Jones’ performance was every bit as stunning and sexy as her original.  Jennifer Hudson followed in suit by belting out the Dreamgirls hit, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” with gusto.

Anne Hathaway’s Best Actress acceptance speech was a little weird—she whispered, “It came true,” to the statue in her hand—Sandra Bullock had an awkward envelope-opening moment, and Michelle Obama surprised everyone by showing up at the end to announce Best Motion Picture.

Despite the various faux pas, the evening was upbeat, lively, and well received. With a room full of Hollywood’s best, little else is expected.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hasn't it All Been Said Before?

Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay, The Critic as Artist, "We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song."

This quote reflects my experience as a writer. I've often thought that the words I want to write and the critiques I want to give, have already been said before (and said better). I struggle with the ideas of innovation and originality, and making my writing fresh or my own. If only I'd been born earlier, I sometimes think. Or, if only I'd thought of an idea first.

Yet, Wilde also condones impersonation. "The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces," he wrote. And impersonate, I do. I try to model my writing after the works of my professors at "K," after writers I admire, such as Jon Franklin, Gabrielle Hamilton, or Sam Sifton, and after my peers.

But at the end of the day, I am left wondering, Is my work authentic? Is my work my own? Is it my voice? How can I even identify my voice, when I'm not entirely sure what it sounds like?

How do great writers emerge if every great writer impersonates? When does the replication become the original? The Critic as the Artist raises more questions than answers for me.

Monday, February 18, 2013

In Defense of Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael rarely saw a movie twice. She disliked American icon Charlie Chaplin, deemed award-winning director Steven Spielberg a waste of potential, and once scoffed that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music was “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies.”

Yet The New Yorker’s former chief film critic had unabashed voice, taste, and dedication to her medium and to her readers, which shone through in her work during her 23 years on the magazine’s staff (1968 – 1991). Her love for movies meant she asked a lot from them and held screenwriters, producers, actors, and viewers alike up to high standards. Through unapologetic reviews and a willingness to speak her mind, Kael redefined film criticism of the 20th century and set the bar for the modern-day industry.

One of Kael’s most distinctive and controversial features in her reviews was her voice. Snarky and urgent, unrestrained and authoritative, Kael had the power to make or break opening weekend box office sales. She was adept at writing both conversationally and critically about films, similar to the way people really talk about them upon leaving the theater, writer Francis Davis explains in his book, Afterglow. Kael never forgot that her readers were real people and real movie lovers who wanted to know if a film was worth their time and money.

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes,” she wrote in 1977 of the film. “It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus.” Kael was a collected voice of reason among the excited screams of fans calling Star Wars the film of the year.

Her linguistic mannerisms, quirks, and devices earned her credibility and a reputation among her readers. Kael’s frequent use of about nine favorite words—which included mild variations of “whorey,” “mythic,” and “trashy,” points out Renata Adler in her essay “House Critic”— made for easy comparisons between reviews. Readers moved fluidly from one piece to the next, toting Kael’s vivid vocabulary in tow. 

Yet Kael’s professional successes do not escape critique. Adler is keen to point out the critic’s flops, including Kael’s refusal to acknowledge her factually false representation of the outdoor sequence in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Her affinity for particularly gory and violent films, as well as for movies with hot sex or bizarre alien scenes has also been a topic of disfavor.

Kael is not afraid of being wrong or of addressing issues that make readers uncomfortable, however. As writer Ken Tucker says in his essay, "A Gift for Effrontery," this sort of critical independence is increasingly rare, and is really what makes Pauline Kael sound like Pauline Kael.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New York Times Critical Defense: As Not Seen on TV

Our defense examines New York Times food critic Pete Wells' recent review of celebrity chef Guy Fieri's new Times Square restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen and Bar.  We hope to explore the scope of arts criticism and the question, Is food considered art?  In addition, we'd like to discuss the intersection of television celebrities and pop-dining.

Our presentation will address these major issues:

1. What is considered an art review? How does medium influence reviewer approach and reader expectations? What external factors impact reviews across media?

2. Is this review "successful?" How can we gauge success, particularly when it comes to commercial and culinary success? Is this review a justifiable pan? Is Wells' voice too critical or is this type of critique merited?

3. How does a piece full of interrogatives alter the reader’s experience? How does it alter the diner’s experience at the restaurant after reading the review?

4. How can we connect Pete Wells' review to Pauline Kael's reverence for the popular?  How can we relate this discussion of pop to highbrow and lowbrow culture? Is this an appropriate piece for The New York Times dining section?

Our stance: By infusing his piece with interrogatives, his review mimics the disjointed nature of the menu, atmosphere, and experience. While this is an nontraditional format, nevertheless this is a successful art review.

You can read the Pete Wells' piece here.

For additional reading, check out another review here.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Live Performance Review: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised]

On Saturday afternoon the Novi High School Theater Department attempted an unprecedented feat. Eight actors performed the complete works of William Shakespeare —that’s 37 plays— in less than 45 minutes as part of the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association’s One Act Traveling Plays series.

The result was an entertaining performance that was both creative and funny, yet also somewhat rushed and, well, high schoolish.

Based on an original script written and performed by the British theater troupe, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] infuses century-old plays with new life and present-day humor.

Novi’s eight actors rotated roles, costumes, and severed body parts with gusto and wit, all while wearing Chuck Taylors and making regular pop culture references. The ideal audience is one that is familiar with Shakespeare’s works, though anyone who can appreciate a cross-dressing Friar or a series of overdramatic deaths is in for a laugh.

Senior Sarah Campbell, who played Juliet and Ophelia (among other tragic heroines), and senior Hannah Patterson, who held a robust Scottish accent, both commanded the stage. The two young women energized scenes such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth with their clever antics and prompted their fellow actors to follow in suit.

Yet that energy fizzled when the actors began breaking the fourth wall and asking for audience participation. When an audience member’s reaction deviated from the supposed rehearsed responses, the actors were unprepared to improv.

Moments such as these spoke to the performers’ inexperience, as did some basic vocal projection problems and the frequent rushing of lines— though when performing the entire canon of the Bard in under an hour, a little rushing is expected.

The lights, costumes, and props were surprisingly well done for a traveling high school production. In the scene Titus Andronicus, red lights sprayed across the stage like blood as a throat was cut. The effect was simple but spot on.  The awful wigs and retractable combat swords, too, were modest yet effective and provided just enough context and comedy.      

Even the programs were creative. They took the form of stage notes, complete with intentional typos and an individualized message written by a member of the cast or crew.

So sure, Novi’s rendition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] was a bit amateur, but for 45 minutes and a high school budget, it was well done. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

These Incredible Sketches Look Like Digital Photos

27-year-old Kelvin Okafor uses a pencil and charcoal to produce an impressive series of celebrity portraits. Yet a recent article in The Guardian posed the question, is Okafor's work really art?

Though the definition of "art" has expanded considerably in recent years, I believe there's something refreshing and humbling about an artist whose primary tools are a sharp eye and a sharp pencil. For me, these portraits should absolutely be considered art. Okafor's work instills value on the skills of looking, thinking, and really seeing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Hypothetical Review: Sherlock Holmes, The Final Adventure

If I were reviewing "Sherlock Holmes, The Final Adventure," I would have researched more about the play before the viewing.

I would have liked to know more about the characters and their relationships with one another. I had a hard time understanding the history between Holmes and his arch-nemesis Dr. Moriarty, for example. The reason why I was supposed to hate the doctor and root for Holmes was lost on me. When reviewing a show that's part of a larger series, it's always good to be familiar with the previous installments.

Knowing more about the Kalamazoo Civic, too, would be helpful in constructing my review. It's important to factor in things like budget, actor experience, director experience, rehearsal time, etc... when reviewing a performance. Knowing the limits and constraints of a production, I think, would help me make a more fair evaluation.

With so many adaptations of Sherlocks Holmes (and across so many mediums), it would be hard to compare The Civic's productions to the other versions that are out there. Knowing relevant context about the theater company itself and the larger Sherlock Holmes story would have been beneficial to a review.

For me, reviewing theater can be less challenging than reviewing a movie. I've been deeply involved in theater- high school, community, and professional- since I was eight years old and have a solid background in the medium. I think this is an advantage for reviewing plays and musicals, since I may pick up on aspects of the show that others would not.

In the context of Sherlock Holmes, for example, I noticed several things that perhaps my peers did not. For starters, the actors did not stand far enough off in the wings before their entrances. I was sitting on House Left and could see the toes and hands of actors off stage. For an audience member, this kills the magic. It distracts from what's happening on stage and shows the actor outside of his or her character. Secondly, some of the actors had trouble cheating out and turned too far upstage when delivering lines.

I also recognize the limits of community theater. For a low budget shows comprised mostly of volunteers, I thought the costumes and sets were well done. Finding a local actor who can convincingly plays Holmes is also quite a feat.  Overall, the play was mostly what I would expect from community theater.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Live Performance Review: Les Misérables

The stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, performed as part of the PNC Broadway in West Michigan series at Miller Audition, is luminous and bewitching. The 60-member cast and crew work together seamlessly to create a well-oiled and evocative production.

Peter Lockyer plays Jean Valjean, the dependable protagonist, who, per the request of the dying Fantine, rescues Little Cosette from the clutches of a despicable innkeeper and his wife. Lockyer’s vocals and stage presence are as sturdy as his character. He leads the cast with ease and grace in numbers such as “The Bargain” and “In My Life.” 

Natalie Beck, who plays the innkeeper’s wife and Andrew Varela, who plays Inspector Javert, are also a delight to watch. Though minor characters, both actors command attention when on stage. In the number “Master of the House,” Beck’s use of body language and props, including a French baguette, are outrageously funny (and crude). Varela’s soliloquy in Act I, titled “Stars,” is one of the sweetest, richest vocal numbers of the production.

The children, too, hold their own in the show. The voice of 9-year-old Erin Clearlock as Little Cosette is harrowing and raw. Her rendition of “Castle on a Cloud” evokes a seismic emotional reaction that sends chills up the spine. Joshua Colley, who plays the mischievous Gavroche, delivers cheeky one-liners in a squeaky voice to gruff men twice his height and three times his age. Colley helps lighten the mood of the somber story and dark musical accompaniment.    

Gloomy as it may sound, the live orchestra, conducted by Lawrence Goldberg, infuses life into all aspects of the production. Ryu Cipris’ flute solo in the number “On My Own,” for example, is even more haunting than the words the heartbroken Éponine sings. The orchestra also makes set changes nearly undetectable.

Standing at least 20 feet tall and often jutting far across the stage, the sets are incorporated effortlessly into the actors’ spheres. The multi-layered barricade in Act II creates new spaces for the performers to explore and gives breadth and depth to the stage.

The combat scenes, choreographed by Ben Gunderson and Heather Chockley, also deserve accolade. While far from complex, the stage fights are fluid and believable. It is clear the actors trust their bodies and fellow performers.

Heart wrenchingly tragic, but not over-the-top, the Broadway in West Michigan rendition of Les Misérables leaves little to be desired.