Joho the Blog » culture

June 28, 2014

Julie Taymor’s Midsummer film

I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.

Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.

Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…

…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.

There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?

So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.

Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.

During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.

Ms. Taymor, you know about Creative Commons, right?

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June 26, 2014

“Oradell at Sea”

To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.

What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.

Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.

This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.

Until July 31, you can get the e-version of Oradell for free. (It’s $2.99 at Smashwords without the secret code in the previous link.)

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May 30, 2014

Manifest Netiny

That title is supposed to be a very bad play on “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th century American assumption that of course European-Americans will master the entire stretch of the country, transforming it according to their cultural norms. What, we’d stop in Sheboygan? Pshaw!

We have the same narrative now with the Net. Of course the Net will continue until every region is hooked up. Of course it will go beyond humans until every conceivable device is chattering over the Net. Of course! What, we’d stop with the affluent or with the human? Pshaw!

I’m not say that this narrative is wrong, just as Manifest Destiny triumphed. I’m just pointing out that it’s a narrative, and not actually a destiny.

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May 10, 2014

Woman still receiving Civil War benefits

The Wall Streeet Journal has an amazing story, by Michael M. Phillips, but I take a different point from it. Here’s the lead:

WILKESBORO, N.C.—Each month, Irene Triplett collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father’s military service—in the Civil War.

… Pvt. Mose Triplett joined the rebels, deserted on the road to Gettysburg, defected to the Union and married so late in life to a woman so young that their daughter Irene is today 84 years old—and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls.

That is mind-blowing. But perhaps because it’s the Wall Street Journal, its mind is blown by the financial side of the story:

Ms. Triplett’s pension, small as it is, stands as a reminder that war’s bills don’t stop coming when the guns fall silent. The VA is still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War.

For most of us, I’m going to guess the thing that causes our brains to twirl is that there’s a living daughter of someone who fought in the Civil War.

And if there is a daughter of a man who fought in the Civil War, then there could also be a daughter of slave still among us. (There is controversy over when the last American slave died.)

Michael Phillips, the author, does an excellent job recounting the life of the father, and notes that in 1938, 1,800 veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg showed up for a 75th anniversary commemoration. That means that some good percentage of them lived to open a newspaper one day and read about the first use of the atomic bomb.

It’s like their lives were time machines.

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May 6, 2014

Why the meaning of life is 42

Stephen Fry claims that Douglas Adams told him why he picked 42 as “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Fry says that the answer is “fascinating, extraordinary, and when you think hard about it, completely obvious.” He also said that he’ll never tell.

This spawned a Reddit thread yesterday. But I think the answer is not fascinating, sort of plebeian, and you don’t have to think hard about it. Here goes:

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is four two…which is to say, that it’s for two. It’s all about the love!

I have no reason to think that that’s what Adams intended, and it’s the sort of sentimental answer he would mock, so I’m guessing I’m wrong. Still: The meaning of life is for two.

Or possibly it’s for tea, too. I’ll get back to you on that.

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April 20, 2014

Minor Beatles

This video was over at the NY Times Crossword blog (where I discovered that I’d missed the really clever part of the theme):

I know I’m old, children, but keep in mind that that’s a minor Beatles song. And yet there is so much right about it. More or less perfect. And not nearly the best of what they gave us.

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April 3, 2014

Hackathon love

Last weekend I was a judge at the Toronto Startup Weekend – Library Edition and was reminded again not ony how much I love hackathons, but how unexpected they are.

Toronto Startup Weekend for Libraries

The Toronto event wasn’t strictly speaking a hackathon. A hundred people met, many pitched ideas, and then people formed teams. They had to come up with a business idea and pitch it to five judges, explaining their idea, perhaps including a demo, showing their research (including user surveys if appropriate), and making the case for it as a sustainable business enterprise. (Non-profits welcome.) It was a fantastic event.

But to keep things simple, consider a classic hackathon: developers get together for a day or a weekend and are challenged to write working code, usually constrained to a particular genre (e.g., games) or using an open data set (e.g., the DPLA hackathon or the Open Syllabus Project hackathon). And the amazing thing is that they do it.

Just think about all that had to happen to make a hackathon possible and not a cruel joke.

We need browsers and HTTP and the ability to request data through them.

We need well-documented, standard ways of requesting that data.

We need open sources of data.

We need Open Source software to let us build on work done by others.

We need frameworks that let us do easy things incredibly easily.

We need libraries so we can do complex things incredibly easily, such as visualizing data.

We need an Internet to connect programs to data, software to users, and everyone to everyone.

We need an ethos that encourages sharing, experimenting, and prototyping — finding what’s right in a project not all that’s gone wrong or has been left unfinished.

I love hackathons.

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March 21, 2014

Reading Emily Dickinson’s metadata

There’s a terrific article by Helen Vendler in the March 24, 2014 New Republic about what can learn about Emily Dickinson by exploring her handwritten drafts. Helen is a Dickinson scholar of serious repute, and she finds revelatory significance in the words that were crossed out, replaced, or listed as alternatives, in the physical arrangement of the words on the page, etc. For example, Prof. Vendler points to the change of the line in “The Spirit” : “What customs hath the Air?” became “What function hath the Air?” She says that this change points to a more “abstract, unrevealing, even algebraic” understanding of “the future habitation of the spirit.”

Prof. Vendler’s source for many of the poems she points to is Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, the book she is reviewing. But she also points to the new online Dickinson collection from Amherst and Harvard. (The site was developed by the Berkman Center’s Geek Cave.)


Unfortunately, the New Republic article is not available online. I very much hope that it will be since it provides such a useful way of reading the materials in the online Dickinson collection which are themselves available under a CreativeCommons license that enables
non-commercial use without asking permission.

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March 11, 2014

WWPD: What Would Putin Do?

Putin  reacts to a man who kisses his hand

We could attribute this to surprise or even to a democratic instinct except for the adorable “I’m gonna punch you so hard” fist Putin starts to make at the very end.

 


And on a lighter note, here’s Pres. Obama on Between Two Ferns.

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March 8, 2014

I enjoy isometric projection. You all know the isometric cube from video games:

qbert

An isometric cube’s lines are all the same length and shows all three sides equally. It is thus unnatural, assuming that seeing things from a particular perspective is natural.

This makes isometric cubes similar to Egyptian paintings, at least as E.H. Gombrich explains them.

ancient egyptian painting

Paintings in the Egyptian style — face in profile, torso turned out towards us, legs apart and in profile — are unrealistic: people don’t stand that way, just as cubes seen from a human perspective don’t show themselves the isometric way.

Gombrich talks about Egyptian paintings to make a point: our idea about what’s realistic is more infected with cultural norms than we usually think. The Egyptian stance seemed to them to be realistic because it shows the parts of the human form in the view that conveys the most information, or at least what the Egyptians considered to be the most distinctive view.

And the same is true of isometric cubes.

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