Wednesday, March 20, 2013

John Green: Critical Essay

"How John Green Won the Internet" was a really interesting article for me to read while researching my final project. Anna Minard does a really great job of giving equal weight to John Green's online persona and his reputation as a writer. It's a interesting hybrid of book review and celebrity profile and helped me to think about how Green functions on multiple levels that need not be mutually exclusive. I also love the last line because I think John Green really represents a contemporary idea of what an author can and should be: someone people can get excited about. 

Process Writing

      Anything having to do with popular culture is like crack to me. When I say I’m watching the news, I mean I’m watching Jason Kennedy and Giuliana Rancic on E!. When I receive a newspaper, I completely ignore the front page stories and go right for the Arts Section. I may not be able to name all the Presidents of the United States, but I can name almost all of the Best Actor and Actress winners for the Academy Awards. To say I’m a fan of popular culture is putting it mildly. With such enthusiasm for the subject matter, I came into Arts Journalism hoping I could transition from fan to critic. I feared that, much like anything else, overanalyzing something I loved might ruin it for me but just the opposite occurred. I came out of this course not only with a deeper appreciation for the art forms themselves, but the professionals who write about them.
      Entertainment Weekly is my gospel and so I’ve read a countless number of film, television, book, and theater reviews which provided me with a solid grounding for my own attempts at critique. While some may have struggled with unfamiliarity with the various subjects and mediums we reviewed, the difficulty I faced had more to do with putting distance between myself and the work. These reviews were supposed to be our opinions, but I was unsure how to balance visceral responses with objective evaluations, especially if I was already intimately acquainted with the work, such as The Hobbit (I have an unhealthy Tolkien obsession) or the Oscars (which I watch religiously each year). So I began approaching my reviews with opposite, but not necessarily opposing, frames of thought.
     I simultaneously tried to look at things from the perspective of a fan and the perspective of someone who was an “outsider” to the artist, form, or franchise. Because what a book, movie, television program or live performance has to offer can vary from person to person based on their background and previous knowledge. Once I began considering the different facets of audience reaction, I was better able to write reviews that examined the work as its own entity as well as my own relationship with it.
     The most difficult review for me to write was for “The Submission.” As an English major, I love to read and have been trained to critically analyze texts. But reviewing required me to exercise a different portion of that same muscle. Critical analyses for English classes are meant to zero in on a focused aspect of the text and can go on for pages. But in this case, I had to attempt to encapsulate this book and its various components in 400 words. I felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a pair of jeans three sizes too small. Writing that review really taught me how to select the most important and necessary details—how to “trim the fat,” so to speak.
     Arts Journalism was my favorite class this quarter. I never thought I’d be able to find an outlet for my crazy entertainment obsession outside of online forums or fan fiction (yikes!). This class gave me the opportunity to explore unfamiliar territory (journalism) within a familiar space (popular culture). Before I was just a fan, but now I’m working towards being a critic: a fan with something worth saying.   

Green and Read All Over

Screams and cheers exploded when he and his brother took the stage at Carnegie Hall, one of the stops on their “world tour.” One would expect to see a pre-teen pop star gyrating onstage for all energy and excitement in the performance hall. But it wasn’t a rock star that has these fans in a raucous twit, but rather an author, and not even one whose books have anything to do with heroic wizards or harlequin vampires.
John Green is the author of highly-praised young adult novels, notably Looking for Alaska, winner of the Printz Prize for Excellence in Young Adult Novels. A gangly 35 year-old whose look reminds one of a sexy (male) librarian—wire-rimmed glasses, blazers, a full head of hair—he resides in Indianapolis with his wife and son. His most recent book, The Fault in our Stars, appeared as one of the best books of the past year on numerous lists, taking TIME Magazine’s number one spot. The film adaptation is currently in pre-production.
In many ways, Green is just as much of a commodity as any of his books. A silhouette of his face adorns limited edition Barnes and Noble gift cards where there is also a special display of his work encouraging customers they should “Resolve to read more John Green.” Furthermore, his name is given almost as much space on the cover of The Fault in Our Stars as the title. Never before has an author sold themselves as well, if not more so, than their work.
Yet many of John Green’s fans haven’t even read his work. While Green made his money through his writing, he arguably made his name through video-blogging. Along with his brother Hank, he runs a variety of YouTube channels, most notably “Vlogbrothers” which has over a million subscribers (Oprah Winfrey’s YouTube channel only has about 68,000.) Even in today’s obsessive celebrity culture, an author with a following based more around them as a person than their imagined characters is a rare beast.
The brothers Green have created an identity for themselves and their followers as “Nerdfighters,” complete with their own slogan –DFTBA, “don’t forget to be awesome”—and Vulcan-esque greeting. The videos range in topic from the Syrian revolution and relationship advice to travel logs and the “Top 5 Zombie Apocalypses of All Time.” Their popularity comes from a unique ability to express meaningful sentiments without talking down to their viewers. NPR’s book review of The Fault in Our Stars described how Green “writes for youth, rather than to them,” and the same can be said for his videos.
Book authors can feel the least accessible of any type of “entertainer.” Often they are no more than a name on a book cover or an unchanging thumbnail on the back flap. But John Green has broken the fourth wall and has made himself not only recognizable but relatable. Perhaps the most distinctive quality of John Green as a celebrity is his willingness to share so much of his personal life with his fans. His videos literally take audiences inside his home, have introduced them to his now three-year-old son Henry from the time he was in the womb, and share stories embarrassing, heartbreaking, and humorous.
But what does this mean for the level of publicity or recognition expected from authors? While such exposure does not necessitate success –just look at Hunger Games author, Suzanne Collins, an exceptionally private person, or even classic literary recluses like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger—but in Green’s case, it sure didn’t hurt.  
While John and Hank Green began vlogging in 2007, only in the past couple of years have the brothers become a mainstream phenomenon. Without a doubt, their increased online popularity has had an impact of John’s popularity as a writer. Looking for Alaska found its way onto the New York Times Bestseller list for the first time in July of 2012, seven years after it was first published.
He even caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who allowed Green to interview him in January during a livestream broadcast. In the interview, Green announced to President Obama that he and his wife Sarah (an art curator Nerdfighters refer to as the “Yeti”) were expecting their second child. The news sent fans into a social media spiral of unbridled excitement, as if he had announced the impending arrival of a new book rather than a new baby.
John Green spoke to this level of passion so often ascribed to “nerds,” defending the particular label in one of his online videos: “Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff…Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.’” Nerd enthusiasts can even buy a print of this quote at (wow, a living author with his words branded on merchandise).
But the fandom that surrounds Green has certain critics questioning the quality of his written work, unconvinced that readers can distinguish between their love of the author and their love of the book. After all, there is no publicity without backlash as some online commentators accuse Green of being self-indulgent, overrated, and thematically repetitive in his books.
However, many critics believe that Green adds a semblance of legitimacy to the genre of young-adult fiction so often dismissed as trite. The New York Times book review for The Fault in Our Stars, praised his “harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type…These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving.”
A line from Green’s book, Paper Towns, reads “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” But what a wonderful thing to believe an author can be more than an author…maybe even a rock star. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wrestling with "The Submission"

     Amy Waldman said at a special lecture at Kalamazoo College that she is interested in “fiction wrestling with the times we live in.” In her debut novel, The Submission, Waldman wrestles with the xenophobia heightened in the aftermath of 9/11. 
     The story revolves around the selection of memorial to be designed for the victims of the terrorist attacks. But when the architect of the anonymous submission turns out to be a Muslim man, latent prejudices rise to the surface. An emblem intended to unify a broken nation serves as a catalyst that instead deepens personal and political wounds.

     Waldman interweaves the stories and perspectives of different characters including the architect Mohammed Khan, the reporter who broke the story, and family members of different victims of the attacks. Setting up these various threads takes up nearly half of the book, and makes for a sluggish start. Not until the narratives begin to overlap does the reader decide to fully invest in the characters and their stories.
     However, investment should be used as a loose term; curiosity more so than genuine emotional interest in the characters’ fates propels the reader forward. This is primarily due to Waldman’s style of disaffected prose. A former correspondent for the New York Times, Waldman proves she is a good journalist, but not necessarily an effective novelist. She reports their personal histories and comments on her characters’ feelings, offering readers more of a profile than a person to relate to.
     The conclusion of the novel would have done well to occur before the epilogue, which seems to diminish any resonance gleamed from the resolution of the conflict. The added material tidied up the mess that made the book at all interesting in the first place. Waldman already broke decorum writing about religion and politics, but seemed afraid of complicating these notions with a more ambiguous ending.  
     Writing about any sort of large-scale tragedy is a daunting task and requires an acute balance of emotion and reverence. Waldman, it seems, tipped to the side of the ladder, forgetting that when it comes to “wrestling with the times we live in,” it’s the blood, sweat, and tears that make it a fight worth fighting…or at least a book worth reading.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


John Green, is the author of "Looking for Alaska" and the wildly popular "Fault In Our Stars," which is soon to be made into a movie. But perhaps his largest group of fans come from his YouTube channel, "Vlogbrothers" which he runs with his brother Hank. They have created a cult of fans who hail from "Nerdfightaria" and live by the mantra, "DFTBA" (Don't Forget To Be Awesome). 
He and Hank have been touring, "performing" at Carnegie Hall in New York City as well as abroad. What interests me is how this idea of celebrity can be applied to authors. Though JK Rowling has quite a following,  fans come to see the creator of "Harry Potter," whereas fans come to see John Green in order to see John Green. Authors using a multi-media platform to promote their work, as well as themselves is a recent development and I think John Green is perhaps the most prominent example of that. However, I wonder if the quality of his work, gets lost amidst the online community he has helped to create. 
Who: John Green
What: His online/authorial persona
Where: Online
When: The recent social media boom
Why: Because authors don't often fall into the realm of celebrity; so what sets John Green apart or how do we treat authors and fame differently. 

Research: I plan to watch his videos, read the reviews of his most recent tour (including the NY Times review of his night at Carnegie Hall) refer to reviews of his books, and also read comments made by fans of his online community. I also need to search for more negative perceptions of John Green and of celebrity and celebrity authors in general.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Any person, in possession of an internet connection, must be in want of entertainment

As technology expands, so do the various mediums available to produce new forms of entertainment. But something that I rarely seen reviewed are web series/shorts. "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" is a scripted web series on YouTube produced by Hank Green of Vlogbrothers' fame. The series is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice told through the video blogs of Jane Austen's heroine, Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements). Various spin-off videos serve as parallel narratives, including "The Lydia Bennet"  and "Maria of Lu."  

There are currently ninety-one episodes and the story is close to coming to an end (at least to the point where Austen's book ends). Sometimes waiting for major plot points and sitting through various filler episodes can grow tedious, but ranging anywhere from two to eight minutes it's easy to just keep clicking next. The acting is well-done, especially for a series on YouTube and the writers have come up with exceptionally clever ways to transverse Austen's 19th century world of balls and betrothals and our techno-savvy world where talking to an audience of thousands through blogs and social media is easier than personal contact. The series is great fun for fans of Austen, but really anyone can pick it up and enjoy the characters and follow along with the story.    

But I suppose things like "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" makes me wonder where mini web series fit into the canon of arts and entertainment. Do we treat them like television shows or do we have to account for their online platform and production values? 

Hollywood's Biggest Night Comes Off Sounding Hollow

The three-and-a-half hour long Academy Awards proved as long and as dull as many of its motion picture nominees. Hosted by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, the “Music in Movies” themed ceremony disappointed Oscar-lovers and bored all.   

MacFarlane possessed the energy and ego necessary for a successful Oscar host but his variety of sexist/racist/ageist quips earned little to no laughter from the front rows. He essentially avoided an opening monologue, relying on gimmicks such as sock puppets, song-and-dance numbers, and a painfully long gag with a saggy William Shatner as Captain Kirk.   

The winners produced few surprises save Christoph Waltz’s win over Tommy Lee Jones, though the shock value only lasted about as long as Jones’ ability to hold a smile. Anne Hathaway and Daniel Day-Lewis surprised no one with their respective wins for Best Supporting Actress in Les Miserables and Best Lead Actor in Lincoln.

I don't know what's going on either, Jack.
Hathaway, who received a lot of unwarranted criticism for her awards season overexposure, gave a breathy acceptance speech thanking her cast mates and new husband while Jennifer Lawrence further endeared herself to the world when she tripped on her way up to accept her award for Best Leading Actress. Her clumsiness was met with a standing ovation to which she responded saying, "You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that's really embarrassing but thank you."

Ang Lee’s directing win for Life of Pi proved a hollow victory in a category that failed to recognize Ben Affleck or Kathryn Bigelow for their directorial achievements. It’s not that Lee didn’t necessarily deserve his prize, but his win felt like less of an accomplishment without his fiercest competitors in the race.

The political controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture seemed to have done its damage as Bigelow’s film was completely shut out, save for an unexpected tie with Skyfall for Best Sound Editing. But Argo earned Affleck his overlooked recognition when he accepted the Academy’s top honor for Best Picture.

Perhaps “Mediocrity and Meandering” should have been the night’s theme. The montage tribute to James Bond was poorly edited and uneven sound levels diminished Adele’s stellar Best Song performance; jokes were Amour-level funny while the directing seemed lazy. But who knows? Maybe it was all part of the Academy’s master plan: showing audiences that putting together a good production isn’t as easy as it looks.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Critics Gone Wilde

The section of "The Critic as Artist" that most struck me dealt with this idea as the critic as a creator of their own work of art. I love this especially as it pertains to my background in creative writing and because there is a freedom to see what you will within the piece but also beyond it (as with literary analysis). 

When attempting journalism, I've always felt uncomfortable with the distance I'm supposed to put between myself and the subject matter which is why I love reviews and critiques. As an overly-sensitive person who over-thinks everything, just giving the facts and none of myself is something I doubt I'll ever master. But this idea of "filling a void," of commenting on "beauty" itself is this great way for me to think critically (obviously). But it is also a way to put my own ideas forth and create something new and fresh, as if the work in review is a launch pad into this wide open terrain. 

Creating something means pouring your heart and soul into that work and producing something for one's self even if that means writing about someone else's work. I love the line about "the one thing not worth looking at is the obvious." Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist" gave me this curious permission to allow for more imagination and creativity to enter my work, something that has been a struggle for me both internally and on the page. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nielsen, Networks, and Netflix

As much as I love television, there are moments when I really hate it. I don't necessarily mean the actual programming (though Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is furthering my loss of faith in humanity) but rather the numbers side of things.  Most of my favorite shows are critical darlings but if you went by the numbers, you'd think these shows had the same quality as an episode of Cop Rock. The problem here isn't that no one is watching the show, but rather that those who are aren't being recorded. The Nielsen Ratings system fails to account for online viewing, illegal viewing (the bread and butter of college students), delayed DVR playback, and other viewing habits. And don't even get me started on the whole "Nielsen Family" system of recording. 

Obviously, Nielsen isn't keeping up with the times. With literally EVERYTHING online, it seems ridiculous that those numbers aren't necessarily being taken into account when networks are pondering the fate of a show. All this makes Netflix fascinating to me. Netflix has breathed new life into old television shows and gives audiences the chance to marathon seasons of shows and bring themselves up-to-date on the most recent episodes. But another way Netflix is pulling a television game-changer (and similarly, sites like Hulu+) is through the creation of original programming. House of Cards, a remake of a BBC show and starring Kevin Spacey, is currently the most-watched show in the Netflix library. And for many like myself, Netflix is the glorious savior that will resurrect Arrested Development in May for at least thirteen episodes. That show went off the air in 2006 due to low-rating but experienced a rekindled popularity when the entire series was put on --yep, you guessed it-- Netflix. 

So how does the system account for shows that refuse to even be a part of the system? These shows can't be quantified through traditional means and they obviously don't care to be. Can you imagine a world where there was more programming done online than on-air? If that's where so many people are viewing their entertainment, it makes sense for audiences to go right to the source when they're looking for a new show. The Nielsen system has recording viewing habits since the 1950s and it seems like they're perpetually stuck there. For years, I've been frustrated that my favorite shows weren't getting the same treatment just because skewed statistics weren't giving them a fair chance. I've been waiting for the day when Nielsen and friends would change the way the game was played. Turns out it's more satisfying to just break the rules and create a whole new game instead.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Critic as Kael

A critic who refers to Meryl Streep as “replicant—all shtick” or says “Jaws is a terrific movie—I laughed all the way through it” can’t be accused of wanting boldness. And if the collective reviews of film critic Pauline Kael were anything, they were bold.

Pauline Kael left a strong, if not contentious, impression on readers, movie-goers, and other critics during her twenty-three years at The New Yorker. Gaining as much of a cult following as the art-house films she considered “self-indulgent,” Kael wielded substantial influence in the very industry she wrote about.

Her judgments often collided with the majority opinion; whether she was panning beloved classics like The Sound of Music and West Side Story or galvanizing critical flops like Lolita and Last Tango in Paris, Kael didn't cater to anyone’s viewpoint except her own, something rare in most critics. Even more radical was the idea that people listened to and anticipated what a critic had to say.     

But Kael had critics of her own. Renata Adler accused Kael of prizing snark over substance and famously referred to her work as “worthless.” She claimed Kael “reveled” in tearing down films, actors, and directors. To some extent, she’s right. Kael’s writing never sugar-coated things, whether it was to the amusement or offense of her readers and subjects. But any critic who can sit through a casual viewing of Galaxy Quest and remark upon its “sweetness” can’t have it out for all films.  

Looking at her reviews for the types of films easily dismissed by critics, it is evident Kael understood how movies should function within their respective genres. An action flick seems like a prime target for a critic at the intellectual New Yorker. But Kael’s biggest disappointment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was Spielberg’s attempt to imbue the film with too much meaning, which “softens and sentimentalizes the action.” In her review of Say Anything, Kael calls the movie “slight,” but offers it as a compliment. After all, a romantic comedy where John Cusack holds a boom box over his head would fail if it took itself too seriously.    

William Zinsser wrote that “criticism at its best [is] allusive, stylish, disturbing. It disturbs us—as criticism often should—because it jogs a set of beliefs and forces us to reexamine them.” So is Jaws funny? Perhaps at parts. Is Meryl Streep a talented but distant performer? Depends on the film. Is Steven Spielberg getting more heavy-handed with age? Now that you mention it, yes. Whatever people’s opinions of her, Kael got people to talk about movies in ways that weren't pre-approved by the public discourse.  

But more importantly, Pauline Kael got people talking about critics. She offered bold claims that could only be challenged by bolder ones, prompting audiences to really consider why they loved or hated a movie. And perhaps moving audiences to think for themselves is the boldest move a critic can make.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sherlock in Review

Both reviews for "Sherlock Holmes" the final adventure offered positive, though not perfect, examples for a review. In my opinion, the Western Herald piece gave the reader too much plot summary, detailing insignificant events that didn't warrant mention, such as Sherlock standing witness at Irene's wedding. The Kalamazoo Gazette on the other hand, gave a more general overview then provided more of the questions the play presents which seems a more effective way to convince a reader to see the play. 

Mark Wedel's voice is strong and humorous in the Gazette review, whereas John Campbell's voice feels more generic and void of personality. However, I will give Campbell credit for reviewing more than just the actors and plot as Wedel did. When I saw the play, I was struck by the quality of the sets and I was glad that Campbell made note of it. 

Perhaps the biggest difference I saw between the two reviews was that the Gazette gave a more broad overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the play. While both were positive reviews, the Gazette leaned slightly more towards mixed and seem to offer the reader more agency in deciding for themselves whether or not Sherlock was worth investigating. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Black and White and Seen All Over: Ansel Adams Exhibit Comes to Kalamazoo

In a culture diluted by cover photos, profile “pics” and uploaded images, seeing the efforts of a real photographer is a refreshing reprieve. Kalamazoo recently welcomed the work of Ansel Adams to the city, one of America’s most well-known photographers. The exhibition, “Sightand Feeling: Photographs by Ansel Adams,” which opened January 26th, runs through May 19th at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA).

The museum features twenty-three of Adams’ landscapes from places in the American southwest, Colorado, California, and Alaska. His striking photographs demonstrate a talent for tonal delicacy in black and white pictures. Pieces like “Clearing the Storm,” “The Black Sun,” and “Dunes” in particular highlight the sharp focus and play between light and shadow characteristic of Adams.
"Clearing the Storm"

An antique accordion camera, similar to the one Adams used, is also on display and might be of particular interest to younger art-goers. Living in the digital age, it is impressive to see such crisp high-quality images not composed of pixels or stored on a memory card.

The KIA also offers patrons engaging insights into Adams’ biography and technique with the various placards throughout the exhibit. For example, one learns how Adams is positioned in the modernist aesthetic movement with his involvement in “Group f/64”: seven San Franciscan photographers committed to artistic realism. Another note details Adams use of filters to create more dramatic contrast; including the same image with and without the filter shows what a difference the filter makes and illustrates Adams’ skill at effective composition.

For such a high-profile artist like Adams, one assumes a prominent display of his work. However, the exhibit is relegated to the lower-floor of the museum along a narrow hallway. The stark white walls in combination with the white matting of each photograph seem to diminish the images.

The biggest detriment, though, is the glass-case filled with artifacts unrelated to Adams’ work. This separate display divides the area of the exhibit. The photographs must be viewed from such an angle as to avoid the reflection of a gold plate or clay idol in the Canyon de Chelly or the Yosemite Valley. The bright showcase lighting presents a similar problem, distracting the viewer from the actual image.     

Nevertheless, this exhibition represents an appreciation for the mastery of one’s craft. Hopefully visitors will come away from it realizing that art is not produced through a simple ‘click’ of the camera.     

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles."

Reviewing a play feels a bit different to me than reviewing a film. Part of it has to do with being in the same room with the people you're critiquing. When reviewing a film, I don't think twice about writing that Kristen Stewart's lip-biting was a little lackluster this time around or that Nicolas Cage was a little over the top in his twenty-sixth movie of 2013. But in a play, the reality that these are people and not just performers comes into play (no pun intended). All the components of a performance are more present in live theater --the costumes, the sets, the actor's movements and thereby the directing, the lighting, the sounds, etc.-- because it's all in front of you. Ironically, it seems that while audiences believe in the reality of a film, even if it includes aliens or giant robots, a play seems somehow less real because everything is so tangible. 

However, I think that just as one does with a film or television show, one must look at how all the components of the show work together. "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure" had an impressive set and the actors offered successful performances to varying degrees with Sherlock and Irene as the apexes of the cast. The script perhaps could have benefited from an acceleration in its pacing and action. The blocking might have utilized the stage more or offered more for the actors to do. But overall, it was a positive experience, especially for a local performance, which should be taken into consideration.   

Sherlock Holmes is interesting to consider as a play in itself since the character has been reincarnated so many times in other mediums recently (such as the films starring Robert Downey Jr. and the PBS show "Sherlock" with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman*) all of which put a modern spin or twist on the classic detective. So putting him in a medium that can be less visually enhanced or manipulated might feel too traditional by the standards of our Sherlock-saturated culture. 

*The frequency at which Martin Freeman is mentioned on this blog is purely (happy) happenstance. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Saved Money, Wasted Time

I’ve always heard, “You get what you pay for.” So I suppose if you don’t pay anything, you shouldn’t expect much. Not “much” was exactly what audiences got from their free admission to the Third Annual Kalamazoo New Play Festival.

The festival premiered Friday January 25th at the Epic Center located in the Kalamazoo Mall with two one-act plays: “Cherries n’Cream” by Jason Lenz and “Poet’s Departure” by Darrell Kellogg. The two plays could not have been more different in tone or theatricality yet both possessed the talent to make me squirm in my seat for forty-five minutes.

“Cherries n’ Cream,” a one-act aiming for Beckett-esque absurdity (and woefully missing), dropped the audience into the apartment of two neurotic roommates: Dan, a former psychologist with a Creamsicle obsession, and Ben, who kidnaps and carves up ladies purses.The staging of “Cherries” felt clumsy and perpetually confined to stage left with the exception of confusing time jumps stage right.

Theatre Kalamazoo New Play FestivalOf course, each of the men has an appropriately traumatic experience in their past motivating their behaviors but their neuroses are so tiresome that the audience feels as if they have gone mad for choosing to devote their Friday night to this.

After a brief intermission, the lights went up on “Poet’s Departure” which follows a sixty-something lothario referred to only as “Poet.” The event in this “The Day Something Happened Play” is his imminent death. This plot point is revealed too early, a mistake of the playwright who thus forfeits any sense of suspense or forward.

The play was filled with so many clich├ęs, stock characters, and cheesy one-liners I was hoping someone would put me out of my misery before Poet had a chance to be put out of his.

If there was a saving grace in either performance, it was the commitment of the actors trying to make the most out of what they were given. In an effort to encourage the playwrights to make revisions up to the last minute for, the actors performed on-script. Knowing approximately how many pages were left in each play felt akin to watching minutes tick by, slowly and painfully.

While showcasing local writers and artists is important, the material they produce must be notable for its content and not just its place of origin and as my sacrificial Friday night proved, everything comes at a cost even when the price of admission is free.        

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

To Geek or Critique, That is the Question...

Recently, someone approached me about my review of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." This person was surprised and put-off by my critique for using words such as "tedious" and "unnecessary" to describe the movie. But not because I simply criticized something they admitted to enjoying, but something I myself had. 
After seeing "The Hobbit" opening weekend, this person and I "geeked out" over how great it was, dismissing the critics who dared make snarky comments about a world they didn't fully understand or appreciate. We were the real fans and those critics could go shove their opinions into a Oliphant's exterior.

I would proudly shout my love of all things "Lords of the Rings" from atop the Misty Mountain. After all, I'm the person who, at thirteen, dressed up for Halloween with her best friend as Sam and Frodo (plastic hairy feet included); the person who owns "Lord of the Rings" Monopoly, a day-planner, book marks that fold out into maps of Middle-Earth, a puzzle, a Sam action figure, a pewter jewelry box featuring Arwen and Aragorn kissing after his coronation, and a giant "Return of the King" poster hanging over my bed at home (right to the left of my "Harry Potter" poster, of course). Yep, I admit to all of that with unironic pride.  

So why didn't my review reflect that level of unabashed enthusiasm that I felt the first (and second) time I saw "The Hobbit"? There are a lot of excuses I can give to my fellow LOTR enthusiasts who felt like I just stabbed them in the back with Morgul-blade: that the 400 word limit didn't give me enough room to offer all my (OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE) feelings, that I was attempting to view the film through the eyes of someone not familiar with Tolkien, that I was hyper-sensitive to how my Hobbit obsession might be clouding my judgement, that I was trying to be objective in examining how it "worked as a film."

But honestly, when it comes down to it, it was my own desire to be a "good" reviewer that caused me to fall into the critic's den of lions. I've read enough reviews in print and online to know how they work at the most basic level. The way I absorb "Entertainment Weekly" is akin to osmosis. In fact, the idea of being able to write about movies, television, and books, to channel my over-the-top, at times sociological obsessions into a career is almost too much for me to comprehend. And when I wrote my review of "The Hobbit," I knew what I was supposed to write, what I should write, in order for my review to be considered decent, even if it's not necessarily what I wanted to write.

Though I do feel that a lot of what I said in my review was accurate from a critic's standpoint. But what about a fan's standpoint? Especially in regards to this movie where fans are the target audience, those desperately waiting for reviews to either ardently affirm or deny the space into which they channel their energy. And I, first and foremost, am a fan.  And as a intense fan about a number of different franchises, I hate reading anything that tries to undermine my enthusiasm.

So in this particular case, how do I stay true to my visceral reaction of "THAT WAS INCREDIBLE, I COULD HAVE SAT THERE FOR FOUR MORE HOURS!!! BIL-BO, BIL-BO, BIL-BO!" while also learning to emotionally detach myself and maintain some sense of objectivity?  How do I write as both fan and critic? Because it's impossible for those to be mutually exclusive in every case. I'm not entirely sure but it's something that I'd like to explore more in this class.

Maybe, however, the answer has to do with my eternal search for my voice, both as a writer and human being. Perhaps it's about being able to throw reservation to the wind and say and do the things I want and feel without fear of others looking down upon me.

I love the things I love. I love to talk about those things, I love to write about those things. I just love to love things. And even if I'm forced to recognize that not everything I love is perfect, it doesn't make me love it any less. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Long Live the "Queen"

David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline, 30 years his junior
A botox-laced former beauty queen with adjustable cleavage and enough money to build the biggest house in America isn't your typical heroine. But director Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, “The Queen of Versailles” takes audiences beyond preconceptions and surface level complexities and into a world both fascinating and tragic.
The film follows real-estate mogul David Siegel and his (trophy) wife Jacqueline’s quest to build their dream home –a humble 90,000 square foot mansion replete with a bowling alley, sushi bar, baseball field, and all other necessities for comfortable living. But construction on this modern-day palace comes to a screeching halt when the Siegel’s time-share venture, Westgate Resorts, falls prey to economic downturn.
Introducing the Siegels and their exorbitant wealth makes for an amusing start. It’s easy for audiences to laugh and groan at this caricature of the one-percent who give their children tigers for their birthday and cover their walls with ridiculous portraits of themselves. But not until some money is lost rather than flaunted does the movie truly take off.
Greenfield and her editors weave an impressively cohesive and structured narrative. David’s financial failings paralleled by Jackie’s apparent ignorance of them create a rich source of tension even before the stress of it all begins to chip away at the veneer of their marriage. Interspersed shots of the Siegel’s half-finished Xanadu remind audience members that a dream-home, not just house, may be at stake.
Admittedly, Greenfield got lucky with the Siegel’s misfortune; if things hadn’t taken a turn for the worse, the film may not have proved as affective if its initial purpose was served instead. But despite what some may choose to deny, peering into this Fortune Five-Hundred world does evoke a fascination that makes it just as easy to envy as it is to criticize.
This past week, Greenfield won a defamation lawsuit brought against her by Siegel who claimed the documentary damaged his company’s reputation (not to mention his own). Indeed, David comes across as a Hugh Hefner/Ebenezer Scrooge hybrid, villainous enough to make Jackie “the hero” by default.
During one interview, Jackie states that all she ever wanted was to be adored. While “adore” may be a strong word, her audience undoubtedly feels at least one thing for Jackie: pity. And provoking pity—if not sympathy—for someone who appears more fabricated that flesh is an achievement in itself.   

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An Ode to "Fringe"

This past Friday, I said goodbye to a group of people who I love deeply. People I encountered while on study abroad and with whom I quickly became fast friends. People who I came to rely on more so than my closest friends and family. They also just happened to be people who didn't actually exist. Except maybe in a parallel universe.
A scene from the series finale "Liberty/An Enemy of Fate"
 The 2 hour finale/100th episode  of the sci-fi drama "Fringe" aired Friday. While critically acclaimed low-rated shows are my preferential cup of tea, "Fringe" was truly a rare specimen with a exceptionally small but loyal following. Lots of sci-fi shows like "Firefly," "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer," "Lost," and "Battlestar Galactica" are considered classics and are known through name recognition if not through actual viewing. For some reason, I feel like "Fringe" has flown even further under the radar, and maybe people will rediscover it in ten years, or maybe not. But honestly, as much as I love sharing television shows with other people, theorizing and obsessing, "Fringe" is a show I'm just happy to have found, whether or not I have someone to talk about it with.
I can't quite explain why I love it so much. Although man-candy, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop (perhaps a man superior even to Pacey Witter, his character on "Dawson's Creek") definitely is part of it. Anna Torv as protagonist Olivia Dunham is a powerful woman, something I love/search out in television (the prevalence of strong women in sci-fi is a whole other post waiting to be written). And dammit if John Noble hasn't been robbed, ROBBED!, of recognition for his role as Walter Bishop.
"Fringe's" iconic white tulip
But maybe the real reason, besides all the crazy-awesome plots about parallel universes, time travel, and human experimentation, is best summed up in a line from "Parks and Recreation" where nerdy lover-boy Ben is defending "Game of Thrones, "They're telling human stories in a fantasy world." All the characters in "Fringe" feel very real. They develop and grow, harbor anger and resentment about their pasts. But above all, these characters function as a family.
Since this is the basis for a portion of my SIP, I won't go into detail except to say that this show served as a type of emotional catharsis. I escaped to the weird world of "Fringe" not because it made me forget about certain things, but because I suppressed certain demons using the characters as proxies (this entire post might be evidence that I'm in major need of some therapy). 
Someone once told me that my passion for television and film comes from a desire to see things work out the way they should. Now during the finale, I cried. A lot. I was upset about certain events, but knew that it was the way things had to be and I left the episode feeling more satisfied than usual with a series finale. Things worked out maybe not the way I wanted them to, but they way they should have. 
Executive Producer Joel Wyman said, "“I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, and to be able to tell this story about a family—a family that, through everything, fought together for survival—has been the highlight of my career.”  To say it's been a highlight for me too is an understatement.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Coming Back to "The Hobbit": Revised Review

In an early scene of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf rumbles good-naturedly that “All good stories deserve embellishing.” Director Peter Jackson takes this insight too much to heart with his latest venture into J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

The 166 minute prequel follows the basic formula of its predecessors: A reluctant hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), leaves his hole in the ground to join a band of misfits on an adventure. This time, it’s a group of Seussian-named dwarves led by dwarf-prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) seeking to reclaim their kingdom from a gold-hoarding dragon named Smaug. 

The dwarves are amusing, but they’re indistinguishable and individually don’t garner audience affection. Put another way: If one gets shot with an arrow, you still have twelve left. And while the story gets off to a delightful start with their invasion of Bilbo’s home, it grows tiresome as it relentlessly cycles through different monsters for our journeyers to battle or elude. 

Yet the greatest disservice to the film is Bilbo’s relegation to the sidelines for much of the second act. Playing Bilbo as an English gentleman with childish curiosity and wonder, Freeman’s performance is wonderfully charming. His and the franchise’s quasi-mascot Gollum’s game of riddles is the most devilishly fun sequence in the film as Gollum vacillates between Jekyll and Hyde personas; it’s also the most technically masterful.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Andy Serkis (Gollum) are the
highlights of "The Hobbit"
The light dancing in Gollum’s eyes alone demonstrates the immense advancement made in motion-capture technology since his last appearance on-screen. Andy Serkis, who portrays Gollum, is as emotive and nuanced as any actor sans CGI-makeover and easily steals the show from his live action counterparts.   
Jackson cleverly frames the story to allow for memorable characters to return in his new trilogy and desperately wants to create a film with as much emotional resonance as Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, his source material just doesn’t offer the same level of complexity. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s fable, prompting Jackson to supplement his more mature film using the appendices of Return of the King.  

And perhaps this is the film’s central weakness: the nostalgia it evokes for the films that came before The Hobbit or rather the stories that come after. What Bilbo describes as “butter scraped over too much bread,” is Jackson’s attempt to stretch a fairy tale into an epic that leaves audiences longing for a little something more. 

NYT Defense: "Ripper Street"

Mike Hale presents a successful mixed review of “Ripper Street,” weaving back and forth between its high and low points. Since the show is produced in Britain, he offers reference points—“Law & Order” and “The Walking Dead”—for an American audience reading the review. He also acknowledges this audience at the end when, after critiquing the less original points of the show relative to other British and Canadian television, he writes that it has a more unique feel for Americans.

Hale leads in with two themes of the show: violence and sex. The sensationalism draws the reader in and also serves to summarize the show. He examines performance and chemistry between actors, simultaneously giving small details about the series content.

While he talks about the negative points, he also offers up positives, allowing readers to weigh the pros and cons of tuning in. The way he bounces back and forth does not push them in one direction or the other. It pulls readers through the review, keeping them engaged as they learn about the show. This is a unique review since it presents a British show to American audiences. It is helpful to look at when considering how to critique foreign material.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Drunk Oscars: The Golden Globes

To say I look forward to the Golden Globes each year is an understatement. My anticipation is palpable to everyone around me in the week preceding the awards show as I develop a nervous spasm where, at any moment, I might shout, "THE GLOBES!" I don't necessarily know why this is since there a lot of things about the Golden Globes that I don't agree with, like how they clump musicals and comedies into one category (Les Miz versus Silver Linings Playbook?) or even what they define as a musical (2011's My Week With Marilyn?). Or more specific to this year, I cannot fathom how NBC's Smash could be nominated over the network's other shows like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, or Community or over FX's Louie in the award for best television comedy or musical (I mean, at least Louie is on cable). So what is it about The Golden Globes that I enjoy so much? At the most basic level, I think it can be summed up in the nickname I've lovingly assigned to the ceremony: Drunk Oscars.

Celebrities sit around tables, get jammed into corners of booths and are forced to interact with one another. I could sit and watch three hours of pre-recorded schmoozing just for the satisfaction of seeing Clooney talking to Jack Black or Jon Hamm talking to Nicole Kidman or Quentin Tarantino talking to himself. Now I love watching the Oscars, but you just don't get that same alcohol fueled energy you do with the Globes. People's speeches tend to be a little zanier and presenters seem less nervous or flustered. Plus, the constant barrage of champagne makes it harder for the losers to conceal their hard-feelings during reaction shots (unless of course you're Taylor Swift and you don't even try to look gracious when someone with actual talent beats you. Adele, I love you).

So to honor the night presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, here are my favorite moments from the 2013 Golden Globes

1. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's opening monologue. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler burning James Cameron, James Franco, Taylor Swift, and Lena Dunham. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's wardrobe. Tine Fey and Amy Poehler. Period.

2. The only thing better than Adele's singing voice is her speaking voice. I could listen to her cackle and say things like "ahoy" and "we're getting pissed" all night long.

3. Glen Close (pretending?) to be drunk. That should be shown in her memorial reel.

4. Kristin Wiig (doing her SNL Taylor Swift impression) and Will Ferrell presenting the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Tommy Lee Jones was not amused so you know it was good.

5. Amy Poehler sitting on George Clooney's lap. Thinks Will Arnett to himself: "I've made a terrible mistake."

6. Ben Affleck winning Best Director. After getting snubbed by the Academy, I was sincerely glad he got his moment in the spotlight (without standing next to Matt Damon). Argo was one of my favorite films this year and Affleck deserves the recognition.

7. Argo winning Best Picture- Drama. Really, I would have been fine with any of the nominees, but I took pleasure in Argo's win because it felt like a legitimate surprise (something rare during awards season). Also because Chris Messina is in it and his chiseled jaw occupies my thoughts when I'm washing dishes.

The Hobbit: Back to the Future

In an early scene of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf rumbles good-naturedly that “All good stories deserve embellishing.” Yet it seems director Peter Jackson took this insight too much to heart with his latest venture into J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Property of New Line Cinema
The 166 minute prequel to the Lord of the Rings, the first in an (excessive) trilogy, follows the basic formula of its predecessors: A reluctant hobbit leaves his hole in the ground to join a band of misfits on an adventure. The titular furry-footed hobbit in question is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). His solitary life of books and crocheted doilies is disrupted when the wizard Gandalf and a group of dwarves invade his home. The company, led by dwarf-prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), seeks to reclaim the kingdom Erebor, guarded by the gold-hoarding dragon, Smaug; Bilbo is to be their burglar.  

Freeman is wonderfully charming as Bilbo, playing him as an English gentleman with a child’s curiosity and wonder. Yet his character goes silent for much of the second act, which proves a great disservice to the film. For around this same time, the action grows tedious as it relentlessly cycles through trolls, orcs, goblins, and more even orcs for our journeyers to battle or elude.

However, the story redeems itself later with the reappearance the franchise’s quasi-mascot, Gollum. His and Bilbo’s game of riddles is not only the most devilishly fun sequence in the film, with Gollum vacillating between his Jekyll and Hyde personas, it’s also the most technically masterful. The light dancing in Gollum’s eyes alone demonstrates the immense advancement made in motion-capture technology since his last appearance on-screen. Andy Serkis, who portrays Gollum, is just as emotive and nuanced as any actor sans CGI makeover and easily steals the show from his live action counterparts.       
Fans of the Lord of the Rings will delight in seeing other familiar faces like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Cate Blanchett’s ethereal Galadriel and Jackson cleverly frames the story to allow even more memorable characters to return in subsequent films. But perhaps this is part of the film’s weakness: the nostalgia it evokes for the films that came before The Hobbit or rather the stories that come after. Jackson found cinematic magic once before, but unfortunately it seems that getting there once doesn't always mean you can go back again.