To New Graduates, Especially the Artists

[Warning: Bad Words, but hey, we’re talking to artists, aren’t we?]

Most graduation speeches are optimistic, painfully so, because graduation is terrifying. You are moving into another stage of your life. The next, precarious stage. That one that doesn’t end until you have kids. And a house. And life insurance. And cable. The order is up to you. I’d go with cable though. You’re going to need a distraction.

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The Outsider’s Guide to Action Movies: Wanted

A Note About Spoilers and Outsider’s Guides: I have tried to avoid them at all costs but honestly, this movie is three years old. If you think finding out what weapons they use is going to ruin it for you, you’ve missed the point. If you’re jumping on now, feel free to check out the first Outsider’s Guide to understand the mission here.

So he wanted to see Wanted and you were all “You just want to see Angelina Jolie roll around on top of a car.” Boy were you wrong.

Wanted was advertised by focusing on the gifted and gorgeous Ms. Jolie, who can still can out action star pretty much everyone, but the film’s real focus is the journey of James McAvoy’s Wesley, an office drone even more impotent that Edward Norton’s Narrator from Fight Club. Dressed in ill-fitting shirts and chugging anti-anxiety medication, Wesley feels pretty worthless until a mysterious woman comes up to him in a grocery store and the next thing he knows, everyone is shooting. After being told that he’s important by Morgan Freeman (DON’T YOU WISH MORGAN FREEMAN THOUGHT YOU WERE IMPORTANT?), he is asked to join the secret Fraternity of Assassins. There are lots of plot twists and turns, many of which are genuinely surprising, so I will not discuss them here. Suffice it to say, this is not a rewarmed Fight Club remake, or a Harry Potter-style very special boy finds out he’s very special story. Sure it’s got lots of those obligatory training sequences and Jolie writhing in slow motion, but when Wesley flips a car in order to kill a mobster who’s listening to “Time to Say Goodbye,” flying over the man in slow motion, saying “I’m sorry” as he fires, or when rat bombs (as in bombs attached to rats) are a major plot device, how can you not crack a smile?

It’s McAvoy who really shines here, playing a neurotic American to the nines, avoiding the usual Brit monotone that comes with the change in dialect in favor of a willowy, wavering tremor that is both endearing and appropriately grating. (We have to want Wesley to change in order to buy into the bildungsroman, Wesley’s journey to find out who he is, to come into himself.) There’s eye candy for everyone here, and twists and turns for all. This is one movie that won’t break your relationship.

How To Fake Having Seen It: “Gorgeous fights, but so f*cking nihilist. And genuinely complex. How’re we supposed to feel about fate at the end?”

Line That Sums The Film Up: “Six weeks ago I was ordinary and pathetic. Just like you.”

Verdict: See It

Bonus Round: Ever want to hear Morgan Freeman drop the f bomb? Your wish is director Timur Bekmambetov’s command.

The Outsider’s Guide to Action Movies: Die Hard

Hey Lemoners, time to introduce you to a new feature I’m going to call “The Outsider’s Guide to Action Movies.” This is to fill a genuine need that I didn’t realize was actually an issue for a long time. We all knew that comedy and action films are a pretty conventionally male arena. Most action stars are men, and when women take the lead they are often fetishized for their “Super Girl” status. (Think Buffy, Ripley, etc.) The truth is, it’s hard to get into action movies when you’re not a member of their target demographic, but if you don’t watch them, you’re missing out on a whole chunk of pop culture. Not knowing that chunk of culture makes you an outsider, like a person who doesn’t know sports feels left out in an environment where success is indicated by being told you’re a “slam dunk” or that you landed that “Hail Mary Pass.” But guess what? Unlike sports, which can be an acquired taste, there are so many different action movies, and I promise there’s one out there for you. So let go, and get ready to find out why everyone keeps saying “Yippee-ki-yay mother–” That’s right. It’s Die Hard. Continue reading

The Mad Menifesto

[Note: So many Mad Men spoilers.]

Last month, a friend sent me this open letter to men from Christina Hendricks. I’ve written about Ms. Hendricks before but I have to admit I’m endlessly fascinated by her and our cultures reactions to her and the show she now stars in, AMC’s retroporn Emmy winner Mad Men.

The first thing Hendricks offers us in this open letter is this little gem:

We love your body. If we’re in love with you, we love your body. Your potbelly, everything. Even if you’re insecure about something, we love your body. You feel like you’re not this or that? We love your body. We embrace everything. Because it’s you.

If that’s not real love, I don’t know what is. And let me be clear: I’m not discounting Dan Savage’s “you have the right to demand body maintenance.” mantra. But I do believe that when you’re with the right person, it’s their mind and personality that also turns you on, so that helps you love everything about them. Even what they don’t love about themselves. It’s also refreshing to hear a sex icon address male body issues so directly.

It’s funny, but there’s begun to be a backlash against Mad Men in papers like The New York Times and sites like Salon. The Times article justified the show’s success by the new Puritan and yuppie-ism of the upper class which distances the über rich from the messiness glamorized on Mad Men, a place they’d like to get back to. Salon explained that Mad Men was bad for women because “the women not only suffer but also do so with the clear message that the fault lies not in society, but in themselves.”

The argument of whether the men in Mad Men are acting as a result of societal pressures or personal flaws is a complex one, and you could really argue it both ways. But I must make the point that Mad Men‘s complicated feminism is actually a great guide for third and neo-second wavers because it illustrates a few complex but important maxims.

Maxim #1: Very few of us get to “have it all.” But you have the right to try. Continue reading

How to Destroy Superman: The Doctor, Batman, Senility, and the Pandorica

[Note: This post contains spoilers for the DC Comics’ The Death of Superman storyline, and The Dark Knight Returns (among others), and Doctor Who Series 4 and Series 5 including the episode “The Pandorica Opens.” It has not yet aired in the United States. You have been warned.]

I am going to tell you right now that Batman is the greatest superhero of all time, precisely because his only superpowers are a bank account and psychological trauma. He is the superhero that is closest to the reader, even more so than Stan Lee’s everyboy Spiderman, who fulfills all of our empowerment fantasies, but always shows us the best in ourselves. Batman is a triumph of the human will to fight back in the face of unbearable pain in order to inflict that pain on others. He is our darkest fantasies brought to life.

The Ninth Doctor bears a strong resemblance to the pre-Frank Miller era Batman, a man who has found new purpose as a result of losing almost everyone he loves, and he slowly creeps toward the darkness and thirst for vengeance that belongs to both the Tenth Doctor and The Dark Knight we see in The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, and The Dark Knight Returns.

Dark Knight Returns is an interesting topic to bring up, because it shares so many connections with the Doctor’s current [Eleventh] incarnation. The Dark Knight Returns is set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world where a formerly retired, middle-aged Batman dons the cowl once again to bring down Two-Face after the treatment Bruce Wayne funded fails to cure him of his psychopathic tendencies. But the Gotham police force is a little less grateful than usual. They’re not sure Batman’s vigilantism has a place in this world anymore. He’s become outdated. (Remember Eleven’s “I’m stupid.” statement? How often has he been missing things lately, making the wrong calls?)

Batman’s reappearance also pulls the Joker out of a catatonic state in Arkham, suggesting that the hero attracts, even rebuilds his villains unintentionally. (iDaleks anyone?)

“You’re like iPods. One in every color.”

(Dark Knight Returns also sports a female Robin who rivals Amy Pond in terms of quips and needing to be rescued.)

The interesting thing about the Doctor is that he is both Batman and Superman. As of the 2005 revival, he has a dark trauma in his past that gives him the purpose and drive to save the universe again and again (because he failed to save his own people.) Like Superman, he is an orphan of a dead culture, and grew into the individual we know and love as a result of his “adoption” by humans. (I know it’s hard to think of William Hartnell as a baby Clark Kent, but just go with me on this one.) The Doctor’s companions softened him from a persnickety old man to a formidable clown whose cartoonishly long scarf or piece of celery in his lapel hid a dangerous brand of competence. (We are going to ignore Colin Baker’s silly costume.)

Pay no attention to the man in the tacky outfit. 

This paradox of the Doctor as both Batman and Superman was brought to a head with the most recent episode of Moffat’s new series. Continue reading

Sometimes You Have to Shoot the Storyteller in the Neck: A Staging Principle

As I prep for Alcestis, one refrain keeps appearing in my mind from all the shows I’ve seen as part of the Tepper program.

Sometimes you have to take the initiative                                                              Sometimes your whole family dies of cholera                                              Sometimes you have to make your own story                                              Sometimes you have to shoot the storyteller in the neck!

This profound (I’m saying that with no irony. Just wait.) bit of lyrics is part of a song called “Life Sucks (Reprise)” from the “emo-rock” musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (You can listen to the song and three others, here.) This irreverent show comes from the relatively new and very awesome company Les Freres Corbusier, the creators of A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant, which is as awesome and hilarious as it sounds and Heddatron, the story of a woman who is kidnapped by robots and forced to perform Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler over and over again. Strindberg and Ibsen himself show up too.

Bloody Bloody highlights the nature of the early 19th century American character by telling the story of our seventh president, Andrew Jackson. The reason for the emo-rock? The American character just happens to be a very sensitive, rebellious teenager, manifested by Jackson himself, played by the very talented Benjamin Walker, a.k.a. Meryl Streep’s son-in-law, a.k.a. rock and roll sex on a stick.

Was I saying something? No. You go ahead, Mr. Walker....Tight. Pants. Oh dear.

In all seriousness, the machismo rock star image of Jackson is a big part of the show, because it hides a devastating vulnerability and childlike naiveté. Continue reading

Feminist Director Crisis of Faith: Elia Kazan

So I’m at home in Scranton for a little more than two weeks before returning to the city to direct Alcestis. Before I left I picked up a book at the Strand (another very famous New York landmark) called Kazan on Directing. Published just this year, it’s a collection of Elia Kazan‘s notes and journals. Kazan is one of the first American auteurs, in terms of both film and stage. He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and was an instrumental force in our nation’s two attempts at forming a national theater. (It wasn’t his fault they failed, America’s just pretty bad at funding the arts in general, and it didn’t help that a lot of America’s best theatre artists had Communist ties, sending certain American congressmen into hissy fits.)

Kazan also directed one of my favorite films of all time, East of Eden, the first film James Dean starred in. Dean is amazing in it, and the storytelling is just breathtaking. (Steinbeck and Kazan add up to a very twisted kind of Biblical Americana.)

Expressionism + Method Acting + Steinbeck = Awesome

After seeing East of Eden, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire, the film adaptation of Kazan’s acclaimed stage production (written by a troubled Southern gentleman named Tennessee Williams). I’ve talked about the ineffable charisma of this film before, but I will reiterate that it’s one of the most interesting studies in gender relations and cultural studies on celluloid. It both mourns and indicts genteel and blue collar Southern culture, setting up the two representations of these cultures (Blanche and Stanley, respectively) on a path to destruction.

Cultures collide. In the most disturbing and sexy way possible.

At least that’s what I saw in the film. I saw two equal forces fighting for the love of one woman: Stella. A woman who started out like Blanche, delicate, unprepared for the real world, and fell in with Stanley, a man she happily compares to an animal, because he gives her permission to be an animal sometimes too, to like sex, to be a sexual being. The battle for Stella is the fight between primitivism and ingrained chauvinism. Blanche found a way to empower herself through the chauvinism of the culture she grew up by cultivating a personality that needed to be taken care of, that made men feel secure in her dependence on them. Stanley and Stella have a troubled relationship but it is much more equal than any relationship Blanche wants to have.

Okay, that said, now this is what Kazan himself said about the piece:

Blanche is an outdated creature, approaching extinction, like the dinosaur. She is about to be pushed off the edge of the world. On the other hand, she is a heightened version, an artistic intensification, of all women. That is what makes the play universal. Blanche’s special relation to all women is that she is at that critical point where the one thing above all else that she is dependent on–her physical attractiveness, what men find appealing about her–is beginning to fade. Blanche is like all women, dependent on a man, looking for someone to hang on to: only more so! [Bold stands in for Kazan’s italics.]

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A (Pansexual) Love Letter to Kurt Hummel

On Tuesday night’s Glee, “Laryngitis,” (It’s less cutely titled than usual, thank God) Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt, became quite possibly the most interesting LGBT character on a predominantly straight show.

(I will admit I am not as familiar with shows that are predominantly LGBT  as I’d like to be. I watched The L Word, Queer as Folk, and like pretty much everyone in America, I watched Will and Grace until things got all weird and Grace was pregnant and it was strange. I’m certainly taking recommendations if anyone has more things for me to watch.)

Why is he interesting?

Well there’s the whole football “Single Ladies” thing.

He also almost out sopranos Lea “Spring Awakening and Ragtime when I was a baby” Michele when they both compete to sing “Defying Gravity.”

Above all, Chris Colfer lets Kurt keep his dignity, which is the character works in the first place. There are plenty of stereotypical gay men in the media. (Thank you Will and Grace and Ugly Betty.)

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The Fifth Stage of Mourning Ten(nant)

Just a little update for everyone on the mourning Ten front. After “The Beast Below,” I think I’ve finally reached acceptance. The episode was remarkably well written, funny, and poignant, and Amy and Eleven are starting to develop a relationship that is different from anything we’ve seen before. (Somehow Amy manages to create more sexual tension than Rose while maintaining the can-do, take no prisoners attitude of Donna. I think I might be in love with her.) Matt Smith’s Eleven ain’t too shabby either. He is at once an old man and a child and manages to pull of the condescending tone we’re used to from Doctors like One and still be unbelievably lovable.

But what really helped me heal was this interview from the AV Club. In it, Matt Smith shows this amazing sensitivity and charm (plus he reveals he was a soccer player, another plus for me). He is humbled by the role, and just intimidated enough to do a good job.

AVC: Based on “The Eleventh Hour,” it seems like if anything is starting to set you apart, it’s that you use a lot more physical movement to your performance as The Doctor. Is it tough to be physical in tweed?

MS: [Laughs.] I don’t know, man. I think tweed lends itself to being physical, because it looks just a bit odd. I do hope he’s quite a physical Doctor, because I think that’s quite an interesting way to play the comedy of it, actually. I’ve always been interested in physical actors like Peter Sellers. I’ve always been interested in the body. There’s a French [performer and acting instructor] called Jacques Lecoq who’s always interested me, his theories and stuff. So I hope I continue to explore his mad physical side, because it’s this alien inhabiting a human body. It’s quite an odd concept.

AVC: You were an athlete before you were an actor, right?

MS: Yeah, I was a footballer.

AVC: Do you draw on that at all?

MS: Yeah, definitely. I think there are definite parallels between sport and art. There’s a real sense of sacrifice. There’s a real sense of dedication that is needed in sport that I think you can attribute to art. I think so much of it is about bravery and courage, being an actor. I think similarly, these things can be applied in artistic roles. It’s about having the courage to follow your instincts, and also having the discipline and dedication to sacrifice the things in your life that you need to sacrifice to get the best out of yourself artistically. So I learned a lot of valuable lessons as a sportsman.

AVC: The series can be any genre from week to week. Have you found, at this early stage, a preference for a certain type of episode?

MS: No. I guess one of the great liberations as an actor is that the show can go anywhere and do anything and be anyone. It’s ever-changing, and the worlds are completely ever-changing. There’s never any world that you can’t inhabit. I like the fact that it’s always changing. Once every 12 days, you’re in the future, then in the past. We filmed an episode called “Vampires In Venice.” We filmed it in Croatia, and that was rather wonderful. But then, of course, we went way into the future, and the sets are just mad.

AVC: Doctor Who has always been more of a cult sensation here in the U.S. than in Britain. How would you describe the series to someone here who has never seen it before? What would you say it’s like?

MS: I’d say it’s about a 900-year-old alien who travels around time and space in a blue police box, which is called the TARDIS, having adventures, saving the world, and defeating evil. It’s not bound by space or time or logic or genre, and therefore creatively it can go anywhere and do anything. You can be in the past with dinosaurs one week and in the future the next week, as the world is about to explode. I think it’s full of heart and humor and wit and invention. I think Doctor Who improves your life. And I mean that. It’s not just, like, my mission statement. I do, as a man who’s come to it late on, as well. It’s never too late to get into it. I think we’ve got a new team and a new show, and I think now is the time to start watching.

I totally agree, Matt. I totally agree.

………………………

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts a little. I still tear up when I watch this,

but I’m getting more used to our new Time Lord.

I mean, how could you say no to that devilish glint in his eye?

Censorship, Lyra, and the Scoundrel Christ: A Love Letter to Philip Pullman

A long time ago in a land we once called high school, a movie came out that I was sure was going to exceed the meaning of the word awesome. I had already seen and fallen in love with the film adaptations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, my second favorite fantasy story (and third favorite Medieval Studies curiosity story, after Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Avi’s Midnight Magic.) I had become so obsessed with the LotR films (as they are affectionately called) that I spent my days watching videos like this:

If the Lord of the Rings adaptation could work, then my favorite series, His Dark Materials, might have a ghost of a chance. And with Sir Ian “Gandalf, Richard III, general BAMF” McKellan as Iorek Byrnison and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, how could it go wrong?

How much would I have paid to see him and Nicole Kidman do Asriel and Marisa’s final scene in The Amber Spyglass? ANYTHING. ANYTHING!

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