Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A little break...

Headed to points east for a conference and a couple of days of relaxation.  Be back soon.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Film - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

I was surprised by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Though predictably sentimental, the persistence of a young boy who is probably on the autism spectrum (Thomas Horn) in trying to make sense of what happened to his father on 9/11, made for a touching story with a sense of adventure and imaginative characters.  I would have liked more time spent developing the people he meets on his journey instead of collapsing them into montage, but there are two good scenes with Viola Davis one with Jeffrey Wright, and a lovely relationship developed with Max von Sydow, who never speaks a word.  Zoe Caldwell really disappears into her performance as the boy's grandmother, I must admit that I didn't even recognize her.  As Sheila pointed out to me, the fact that a 12-year-old carries this feature length film is pretty impressive.

The surreality of celebrity life (Books - The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro)

If you're looking for another Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, that is not what you're going to find in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).  Mr. Ryder, a world-famous pianist, arrives in a small, unnamed Western European city to give a concert, a concert he cannot remember planning.  In long, run-on paragraphs, the surreal action of Ishiguro's book describes the days leading up to this concert on which numerous events seem to be planned, events Mr. Ryder cannot remember scheduling, listed on an agenda he never received.  They not only involve the expectation that he will address local music groups, but that he will take opinions on long-standing arguments in town politics, advise family members on their relationships, listen to amateur musician's practice sessions, revive the reputation of the town drunk, a once great conductor, and perform surgery by the side of the road following an accident.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Theatre - The Big Knife - Roundabout Theatre

Clifford Odet's 1948 The Big Knife takes a big slice out of old Hollywood.  A movie star needs to decide if the studio will own him or if he will own himself.  The lyrical idealist who wrote Awake and Sing is now bitter with the money he has taken from the movies, takes out a big knife, and tries to cut out his own liver.  It's not a pretty play, but it's a good one.  This production, directed by Doug Hughes, has a number of actors who can combine the ability to be vulnerable to their dying careers and their dying souls while singing Odets's theatrical 1940s vernacular.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When autobiography fails to be personal (Theatre - Mayday Mayday - Theatre at St. Anne's Warehouse)

I know Tristan Sturrock's work as a talented member of Kneehigh Theatre, which did, among other works, a brilliantly inventive theatrical adaptation of Brief Encounter.  Mayday Mayday: A True Story by the Man Who Fell is Sturrock's one-man account of his recovery from an accident which broke his cervical spine.  It is presented by his own Theatre Damfino.  It sports a number of creative moments with its spare means, and I have no doubt that its creation was useful therapeutically, but that didn't make it involving theatre. Audiences often seem unwilling to say when autobiographic works about recovery haven't made for captivating works of art, perhaps they fear their reaction will be felt too personally.  In fact, Sturrock opens the performance by saying that this was, for a long time, a story he didn't want to tell.  I can't blame him but unfortunately, I could tell that from the performance. The work uses narrative storytelling to remain distant to the experience of it. While it showcases Sturrock's remarkable physical precision and appealing presence, it doesn't live.  It is emotionally unrevealing of his experience then or his present experience with us.  I'm pleased for his remarkable good luck but wasn't won over by Mayday Mayday as theatre.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Keeper of the cabinet of human curiosities (Books - Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks)

Now nearly 80, neurologist, writer, and keeper of the cabinet of human curiosities - Oliver Sacks - has written his 12th book.  This one is on activations of the perceptual systems that are produced by internal rather than external stimulation or Hallucinations (Knopf, 2012).  They run the gamut.  You can smell them, hear them, see them, and feel them.  They can have their origin in disease processes, chemicals, injury to the nervous system, or sensory deprivation.  They can take the form of geometric patterns, religious conviction, snatches of music, or little people (Lilliputian hallucinations).  I too have seen a patient with this last form of hallucination.  Her's were holding their heads in their hands (detached from their necks), but it didn't seem to cramp their style any.  I think that the term is probably my favorite in neurology.

I have always admired Sacks's writing about his patients because I feel that I am reading about people rather than cases.  I am a great admirer of Sacks's early books like An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, both are less continuous narratives than Hallucinations or Sacks's recent Musicophilia and The Mind's Eye.  Rather than thematic in nature, these earlier books are simply collections of essays on human beings whose strange neurologic cases make them fascinating, but who otherwise have little or no relation to each other.  I found some of the material included in Hallucinations had to stretch to be subsumed under the book's theme.  While I found most of the material interesting, an episodically constructed book might have been a more natural and satisfying form.

On more than one occasion in this book (and his last, The Mind's Eye) Sacks becomes his own subject. In this case, he writes frankly of his experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, a piece that appeared in The New Yorker last year, and of a serious hiking accident during which Sacks says that a voice commanded him to keep going. 

I am always impressed by the historical sources Sacks cites.  They immediately make me want to visit the library.  Jackson's original papers on epilepsy and aphasias, are cited in Hallucinations.  Perhaps this is not as enticing to the average lay-reader, but for a neuroscientist, these are the golden oldies. Jacksonian seizures were named for John Hughlings Jackson.

Hallucinations makes colorfully clear that the mechanisms in the brain that eventuate patients' perceptions in the absence of external stimulation can be diverse.  The light patterns that are experienced in the aura prior to migraine might be thought of as electrical disturbances like a wave passing across the visual parts of the brain.  Whereas the hallucinations reported around near death experiences such as a floating above one's own body may occur due to stimulation of the right angular gyrus, one of several brain regions implicated in a circuit that according to Sacks mediates body image and vestibular sensations.  The vision of a dark tunnel with light at the end may be the result of decreased circulation to the retina, which narrows the visual fields.

The most remarkable of the cases Sacks writes of in Hallucinations was that of an 86-year-old English man who already had glaucoma and macular generation, but when a stroke compromises his right occipital lobe he loses vision completely in his left visual field.  What is most interesting is that he is not aware of his loss
...his brain appears to fill in the missing parts.  Interestingly, though, his visual hallucination/filling in always seem to be context-sensitive or consistent.  In other words, if he is walking in a rural setting, he can be aware of bushes and trees or distant building in his left visual field, which when he turns to engage his right side, he discovers are not really there.  The hallucination do, however, seem to be filled in seamlessly with his ordinary vision.  If he is at his kitchen bench, he "sees" the entire bench, even to the extent of perceiving a certain bowl or plate within the left side of his vision - but which on turning disappear, because they were never really there.  Yet he definitely sees a whole bench, with no clear separation between parts composed of hallucination and true perception.
The human brain is a remarkable country and it is always enjoyable to travel there with Oliver Sacks as your guide.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Film - The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

The 1970s was the heyday of a certain kind of American movie which stressed gritty, real performances, scene writing that jumped into the middle of things in-progress, captured accident and unease, told stories with human behavior as the medium, and sported the message - break out and be free.  It was a great time for American movie making that doesn't have a mainstream equivalent now. The King of Marvin Gardens: Bruce Dern as a bullshit artist who believes his own hype, an unusually quiet and vulnerable Jack Nicholson, and a brilliantly unhinged Ellen Burstyn (dir. Bob Rafelson).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Living with integrity (Books - Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach)

In the maelstrom of dissertation and article writing, I have been getting seriously behind here at bookeywookey.  You wouldn't know it, but I've finished reading four books: To the Castle and Back - Vaclav Havel's memoir, The Unconsoled - an early novel of Kazuo Ishiguro's, My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak, and Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach.  I really had the best intentions to write about all of them.  And I'm nearly finished with Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations.  So I realize that I had better get cracking with some shorter write-ups if I am to write anything at all before I forget my impressions.

Doris Grumbach is a much respected American novelist, memoirist, and literary critic. She served as literary editor at The New Republic in the 1970s, but is little-heard-of these days.  If you check out her very interesting biography, at 94 years of age she still runs Wayward Books with her partner.  This was my second reading of her novel Chamber Music, originally published in 1979 (2008, Pushcart Press), and my respect for its convincing first-person voice, restrained passion, and plainspoken diction was only increased by a second look.
I write this, then, because I am freed by my survival into extreme old age, and because I write in the air of freer times.  Whether this air is entirely salutary, whether the old must of chests, of closets, bell jars, and horsehair sofas is not a better climate for the storage of the private life, I do not know.  But I tire very quickly these days and must speak openly, for once.  I am now free.  Extraordinary for me, and for one of my time, I intend to put down extraordinary truths.
I stress the believability of the narrative voice because, although Grumbach was like the narrator of Chamber Music - she wrote as a lesbian who was born into a more constrained era but lived into the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s (still ongoing).  Grumbach too married a man in her youth and was late to come into herself.  But Grumbach was only 60 when she wrote in the voice of the 90-year-old Caroline McClaren, wife of the famous American composer Robert McClaren.  Yet she creates a confessional tone and a context for writing which are so convincing that they will send you to your favorite search engine (I was going to say to the encyclopedia) to look up Robert McClaren's music and biographical details.   

This work offers the rare artistic accomplishment of wholeness.  Its pieces, its technique are integral, they never call attention to themselves - it achieves artistic integrity.  And via that form, Chamber Music conveys a subtle message of the human costs of living covertly because the societal majority has  conferred shame upon what you are.  And don't think that this is a purely contemporary concern.  It is, and in this novel it feels like it, a classic artistic subject - think of Jude the Obscure.  So the integrity of this novel's form reflects its content, which concerns living with integrity.  Lastly, is the pleasure of its tone - one of dignity and joy. This lesser-known novel and writer deserves a renaissance.  Consider reading Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Theatre - Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is certainly the most amiably nihilistic play ever written and is most appositely titled....With every exchange between the fencing lovers, the abyss glitters, and their mutual wit does not so much defend against other selves as it defends against meaninglessness. - Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Critics are fond of declaring the near impossibility of this play's swift switches from screwball comedy to tragedy, but I thought the current production at Theatre for a New Audience pulled them off admirably, largely because they didn't overplay what is supposed to be funny and the actor's were capable of being moved by the seriousness of their characters' predicaments. Maggie Siff and Jonathan Cake (above) as Beatrice and Benedick were particularly strong.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Theatre - Old Hats

Old Hats is a delightful vaudeville from master clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner with music by Nellie McKay (dir. Tina Landau).  It's classic clowning but there's nothing old hat about it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Film - Out of The Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947, dir Jacques Tourneur).  A man (Robert Mitchum) tries to escape his past (Kirk Douglas) but a femme fatale (Jane Greer) won't let him.  This film is classic noir and noir is not about second chances.