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 clichés, 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.