Sunday, March 31, 2013

A modern novel of compassion and contradiction - (Books - A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki)

A Hello Kitty lunchbox, a ziplock bag containing what first appears to be a volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, some letters written in Japanese, more writing in French,and an unusual wristwatch wash up on the shores of a small coastal town in British Columbia. Ruth, a writer, finds this treasure trove while on a walk on the beach and assumes them to be the detritus of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Proust volume turns out to be a diary written in English by a Japanese teenager named Nao.  Her father loses his job and Nao enters a new school where she is brutally bullied and they both contemplate ending their lives.  Meanwhile, Ruth is trying to finish writing a book about her mother, whom she cared for during her last years with dementia. As sometimes happens when you get stuck in writing, the diary ends up looking much more interesting than the subject she meant to be writing about, and Ruth gets pulled into Nao's world which becomes more real to her than her own. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (Viking, 2013) plays with a few elements - narrative, time, and buddhism - yet it is a complex and rangy work.  I appreciate the copy sent to me by Viking/Penguin.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Film - Our Man in Havana (1959)

Noel Coward, Alec Guinness, and Burl Ives in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.  Political satire on Cold War spying, it was released just as Castro was seizing power.  It manages to be critical without being jaded because of its whimsy.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Film - Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

A guy places an ad because he wants a companion for time travel.  A magazine picks up on it and sends a team to write a story on him.  Safety Not Guaranteed (dir Colin Trevorrow) is an indie, totally-play-it-straight, completely un-jaded little surprise of a movie.  Dee-lightful, and it will keep you guessing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A revolution without a cause (Theatre - Neva by Guillermo Calderon)

Neva, by Chilean writer and director Guillermo Calderon, is about making drama in the context of revolution.  It is set in 1905, when the Czar's troops murdered civilians for demonstrating, an event that likely helped sow the seeds of the 1917 revolution. The great playwright Anton Chekhov has just died of tuberculosis.  His wife comes to St. Petersberg, still mourning him, to rehearse his Cherry Orchard.  What is the meaning of their drama made of personal loss and love when there is real drama, with life and death stakes, taking place in the street outside?  The actors demand scenes of each other, they concoct emotions from fantasy in order to escape the pain of their lives.  Then they just a quickly knock their fantasies down, criticize each other, and turn to gossip.  The turn-on-a-dime rollercoaster ride demanded of the cast would provide for tour-de-force peformances, but the cast is a little long on effort and a little short on real feeling.  The question of the uses of drama is a provocative one to ask in a theatre, with your play as the means of asking it, but I imagine it would have been very different to ask it in Chile. Because here one has no revolutions in the street. People make fortunes to live in Brooklyn, stress about their carbon footprints, and dress like they play for a grunge band.  The disjointed Occupy Wall Street movement lasted, what - five minutes - and disappeared in time for the election. Caldeon's demand of emotional acrobatics and effects like cold, rapid-fire delivery, and mock over-dramatization would have been useful foils in actors and for a public who are already charged with political emotion.  But here, where most people come to escape fighting for their ideals so that they can earn a living, and where artists mostly romanticize being political, what you end up seeing is the strain of these artists to be filled with meaning. Calderon would have needed to alter this production for our political and social context but was evidently not able to.  As a result, I could see what he wrote, but don't think this production gave us his play at all. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Film - My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Simon Curtis's My Week With Marilyn (2011) starring Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh is a failed exercise based on the memoir of the third assistant director on the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl.  It is a shame that the historical legacy of this film's characters burden rather than inspire the creative team.  The actors and particularly the writer are as starstruck as the poor assistant director. The screenplay is only capable of tying the end of one cliche to the beginning of the next. Why is it that British films based on history (this was also the case with Iron Lady) are obliged to tell their stories via a parade of montages?  Isn't anyone capable of writing a scenes that lasts more than 30 seconds?  The point of telling this story, it would seem to me, is revealing the distance between the image of the star of legend and the person we now know they were.  This superficial approach they took hamstrung even actors of the caliber of Simon Russell Beale and Judy Dench because they didn't have the time to behave as real people.  God, what a bore. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Theatre - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennesse Williams 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof still plays as strong and relevant in the current Broadway revival with Scarlett Johansson, Ciaran Hinds, and Benjamin Walker (dir. Rob Ashford).  Williams was the greatest lyrical voice of the American theatre. The lengthy outpourings of his tormented characters play more like arias than monologues.  All of his plays were personal, if you ask me, but this one seem to be an outpouring of his rage against duplicity in every corner of life - family, medicine, law, and religion.
Mendacity is the system that we live in.  Liquor is one way out an' death's the other.

Why is it so damned hard to talk?

Like E.M. Forster, he exhorts us to stop lying and connect to others, even if it's tough.  They couldn't have been more different writers, but both were gay, so they were familiar with the ways that society expected them to lie.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Are we many selves or just one self? (Books - Dark Matter by Juli Zeh)

I have actually finished three books in the last two weeks, started two more (the new Oliver Sacks - Hallucinations - and a review copy of A Tale for the Time Being), and attended two interesting science talks, but you couldn't tell that from a visit to bookeywookey lately.  I have had some very long days at work and every moment of writing time has gone to my dissertation, so I have been letting things slip around here. I'm afraid I may not remember Tenth of December, the much-talked-about short story collection by George Saunders, well enough to write about it. I don't know that I will have time to write about the discussion of collaborations between scientists and educators, or the other on how scientists and members of the media communicate relationships between brain and behavior.  I hope I can get to Vaclv Havel's memoir To the Castle and Back, but for the moment, I'll write something about Juli Zeh's Dark Matter, because it is freshest in my mind.

Juli Zeh is a German writer and the sometimes stilted, but still involving, translation is by Christine Lo.  I learned about Dark Matter from Lizzy Literary Life - an excellent recommendation, thank you Lizzy.  It is a smart, inventive mystery by a German writer about two physicists and two detectives each, in their way, struggling with love and each, in their way, struggling with time. The two physicists, Oskar and Sebastian, share a long, tangled past full of deep love. This love has persisted even as their diverging opinions about the nature of time and the universe has created an animus between them.  Rita Skura, one of the two detectives, is an odd duck.  A self-conscious giant, brusque, married to her work, Rita is so acutely sensitive to, and also alienated from, people that she has terrible judgement about them.  She would seem to be miscast as a detective, but learned from her mentor, Detective Schilf, that if she went with the opposite of her instincts, she would be dead-on.  When she fails to solve a particularly sensitive series of murders in a hospital in the city of Freiburg, where she lives and works, Schilf is called in.  Schilf is a schlumpy, asocial being, but the combination of a recent fatal diagnosis and a new relationship has spurred him to action.  Although he is meant to help solve the hospitals murders, these overlap with another murder and the kidnapping of Sebastian's son.  These two detectives are likeable, idiosyncratic creations that add much enjoyment to the reading of this unconventional mystery. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Film - Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

Mary Queen of Scots (1971) suffers from a turgid, 1970s script, some wooden acting from Patrick McGoohan and Daniel Massey, however the young Glenda Jackson manages to combine being commanding and vulnerable.  It is a pleasure to watch the young Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm, and Timothy Dalton before they grew into themselves, and history has provided a cracking good story.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Scientist as harridan, Hollywood icon, and bad dresser

Dr. Patricia Fara, historian of science at Cambridge, bemoans in Nature today the role biographers have played in reinforcing stereotypes of women in the sciences and mathematics in Women in Science: Weird Sisters?.
It seems that being an ordinary woman with a stellar scientific career is simply not enough: to be marketable, she must also be odd. Dust jackets entice purchasers by rebranding an overlooked character as a unique female individual — in other words, as a weird woman.
Converting female scientists into publishing opportunities may sell books, but it does the cause of equality in science no favours.  

Her critique offers a list of recent biographies which, despite any shortcomings, profile some important scientists such as Rosalind Franklin, Dr. Jocelyn Bell, and, Hedy Lamarr, no really.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The allure of the counterintuitive - is it good or bad for science?

There is a good critique on how the popular press hypes social science research in The American Scholar: The Allure of the Counterintuitive by Jessica Love.  Well worth a look.  I very much agree with her point that the press gives very little space to studies which are
incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions...
But Love seems to feel that the appeal of the counterintuitive is damaging to science because people will be so entrained to hype that they will not support studying brain processes that appear to be obvious.  However,  I would argue that interest in counterintuitive conclusions is an opportunity to argue for why we study the brain, its behaviors, and its less visible processes (like the electrical and chemical signalling whose outcome are our cognitive functions) in the first place.  Even though our minds are are own, we do not have conscious access to all its processes.  This is an opportunity to explain just that, and in the case of neuroscience conclusions are even less obvious.   Although our minds 'think' our neurons do not.  We do not know before studying brain processes which hypotheses will confirm our common sense notions and which will not. So, while I get a little tired of "hey wow" science and do not like inaccurate popular press interpretations of studies, the allure of the counterintuitive offers an opportunity to better explain critical thinking and experimental processes if it is used well.

Hat tip: The Dish

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Opera and the Holy Grail - Parsifal

The Met's new Parsifal directed by Francois Girard, with beautiful sustained singing, precise rich playing from the orchestra, and intelligent performances by Rene Pape, Peter Mattei, and Jonas Kaufmann. Wagner bombastically told us that his five-and-a-half-hour quasi-pagan-quasi-christian-sci-fi myth shouldn't be staged. In my opinion, it is his best score, so I'm glad no one has listened to him.  It wasn't the first thing Wagner was wrong about.  The production smartly doesn't focus on the action of the story or try for ridiculously literal effects like flowers and grass on stage. These are symbols.  Instead, it directs our attention to the themes and lets the human beings convey what it is like to be players in a grand scheme.  Taking on the pain of mankind is an experience on a geological scale.  This production is physically stark but striking, communicating the reach of the myth with clarity and gravitas.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Film - The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Having just read Robert Massie's vivid biography Catherine the Great, we got Josef von Sternberg's very loose film adaptation of her diaries - The Scarlet Empress - an absurd, expressionist, Hollywood-ized concoction starring Marlena Dietrich as the sex-starved naif turned dominatrix- Empress.  In an interview done in the 1960s, Sternberg who was born in Vienna without the 'von,' emigrated to New York at the age of two, and dropped out of a Queens high school, described himself as 'having no influences' and doing everything himself - design, cinematography, etc.... This film reeks of such arrogance.  He clearly allowed no one to interfere with his vision and it's too bad.  He could have benefited from hearing the word 'no.'  The film has that sort of amateurish hysteria marked by someone who thinks that all he has to do to make a great film is control every lighting angle and the texture of every closeup, but he simply has no idea what to do with the human beings cluttering up the set and he is clueless about casting.  Louise Dresser plays the Empress Elizaveta (daughter of Peter the Great) looking like one of those classic 1930s Hollywood middle-aged matrons and sounding like Lucille Ball playing a slattern.  The man cast as the head of the Russian orthodox church read his lines like John Wayne.