Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ballet 101—Giselle

This weekend, I took a break from the endless process of setting up my new computer and watching Oscar hopefuls to attend the opening night of Giselle at the San Francisco Ballet. Although I have long appreciated the music, I had never seen the actual ballet live.

After being relatively disappointed with my last outing to the Nutcracker, I was glad to see the San Francisco Ballet kick it up a notch and deliver a stellar performance all around, particularly Yuan Yuan Tan in the title role. Apparently, the company is using multiple pairings throughout the run, so I’m glad we went to opening night and were able to see her. Giselle is such a demanding role, both technically (requiring exquisite balance and difficult footwork) and expressively (with the lead moving from naïve peasant girl, to someone driven mad by love, to a mature adult in the netherworld of the Wilis) that it is essential to have an experienced dancer.

One of the reasons I first sought out the ballet is that it was co-written by one of my favorite nineteenth-century authors, Théophile Gautier. Virtually unknown here in the States, Gautier is a jack-of-all-cultural-trades: painter, critic, poet, novelist, and dramatist. His most famous legacy is probably his espousal of the phrase “l’art pour l’art,” that is, art for art’s sake, or, as adapted for MGM’s Leo the Lion logo, Ars gratia artis. I love him for his supernatural short stories involving vampires, mummies, and all manner of ghostly appearances, which is probably why he was so attracted to the legend of the vengeful ghost-like Wilis.

The music helps enormously in telling the story, with a heavy use of leitmotif to heighten the drama. While not as overtly dramatic as something like Swan Lake, for me, Giselle is one of the strongest ballets in conveying the story through music. This may be because its composer, Adolphe Adam, was primarily a composer of operas. However, he did compose another ballet in the repertoire, Le Corsaire (ballet with pirates!), which I was lucky enough to see at Lincoln Center some years ago. Perhaps more familiar to readers, he was also the composer of the ultimate French Christmas carol, “Minuit, chrétiens” (“O Holy Night”). Léo Delibes, who composed Coppélia, the next story ballet in the San Francisco Ballet’s 2011 season, was his pupil. And, after this amazing performance, I’m very sad I won’t be able to see it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Luddite Chronicles

I knew the moment was coming. Slowly things were giving way. And then it happened; the fan died. I had to get a new computer. Ugh.

I think it’s quite safe to say that I am not an early adopter. I never rush out to buy the latest gadget and I am not impressed or distracted by new technology. I’ve never purchased a TV for myself and only got a cell phone when I moved to San Francisco because the person I lived with hadn’t put in a landline. Even in the arts, I rarely prefer the modern.

So, for me, when I have to get a new computer (and I’ve kept each of my laptops for 4+ years), I feel like a 1950s housewife on a car lot. Of course, helpful friends try to give advice, but so often the people that actually know something about technology are the ones most distracted by shiny toys and apt to recommend what they would want, and not what you really need. I had a boyfriend like that. It didn’t last.

Of course, I’m grateful for the advice, because I really have no idea what the difference between processors means, but I must admit it gets tiring to hear that I must have this or that, like I’ll die without it. You must get an iPhone. You must get a Kindle. Admittedly, this may be much worse in the Bay Area where most of these things are made, but I don’t feel like foodies or clothes hounds do this to the same extent.  It’s truly mystifying to me that people can seem so invested in someone else’s purchasing decisions on household items.

One thing that did make me quite happy about this shopping trip was the fact that, for the first time, money was not an object. Price was just one of several factors to consider. Of course, since I only just completed my fully funded emergency fund, I had to dip into that, and buying a new computer is not really an emergency (like Christmas presents, a new car, or new furniture, it should be a purchase you save for over time). However, I had been planning to use my upcoming bonus for this, so I don’t feel too guilty. Well, except for the fact that solving my computer woes meant missing my planned outings to the San Francisco Film Noir festival. I do feel a bit guilty about that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar Blitz 3: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

And the nominations for Best Picture are…

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

You can see a full ballot list for printing at

The Good?  Completely predictable (and so I’ve done pretty well covering everything with my Oscar blitz).

The Bad?  Completely predictable (Come on, Academy, throw us a bone, everyone likes a few surprises).

The Ugly?  This continues to be the existence of an Animated Feature category and the rules for submission in the Foreign Film category.

So, it looks like if I want to cover the rest of the categories that matter to me (acting, directing, cinematography, editing, writing, art direction, and costumes), I need to see Animal Kingdom (which is already in my Netflix queue with The Social Network and Winter's Bone), Another Year, Biutiful, Blue Valentine, I Am Love, Rabbit Hole, and The Tempest. I think I’m still going to save Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows until both parts are out.

Except Another Year, none of those new additions are particularly appealing. I’d love to hear from anyone who can convince me otherwise.

Addendum: I have to laugh that Salt actually received a nomination (Sound Mixing)!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oscar Blitz, Part Deux

This past week, in my continued effort to catch up on Oscar contenders, I managed to see The King’s Speech, True Grit, and The Fighter, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although there’s a special place in my heart for good westerns, and I would probably most want to rewatch True Grit, I found The Fighter to be the most compelling of the three, both for its storyline and performances.

I am not a fan of Christian Bale, but his performance here is incredible and definitely Oscar-worthy (not that the Oscars are necessarily reflections of worth or merit). And Melissa Leo was completely unrecognizable to me as his mother. In fact, all of the acting was spot on, to the point where the film was hard to watch in places; not just because of the boxing (which is always hard for me), but rather because of the raw portrayal of family dynamics and social issues. Don't skip this film because you think it's just about boxing.

The performances in The King’s Speech were very good, but, except for Colin Firth, I didn’t really lose myself in them like I did with The Fighter. I was very conscious that it was Helena Bonham Carter playing the Queen Mum, Geoffrey Rush playing the therapist, etc. I’d say the same was true for the two male leads in True Grit. On the other hand, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross blew me away. I agree heartily with those who have said she would be perfect to play Katniss in the upcoming film of The Hunger Games.

For a bit of fluff amongst all this seriousness, I also netflixed the recent spy thriller Salt, where the title character is basically a female (but not “feminine”) Jason Bourne. It was a pure adrenaline rush that I liked far more than it may have deserved and really only served to increase my inexplicable girl crush on Angelina Jolie. (Just go with it. It’s something I can’t explain. Much like my love for Keanu Reeves, it’s a mystery probably “best left unsolved.”) If you like action movies, seeing a woman kicking serious ass, and are willing to completely suspend your disbelief, I definitely recommend it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Opera 101—The Modern World and the Underworld

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to dip my toe into the pool of contemporary opera when I attended Ensemble Parallèle’s preview of their production of Philip Glass’s Orphée, which will be performed on February 26-27 at the Herbst Theater here in San Francisco. While postwar concert music is not really my thing, and my knowledge of Philip Glass is limited to my brother’s repeated playing of the Koyaanisqatsi* soundtrack in high school, I was intrigued by the Orphée part of the equation, as the Jean Cocteau film was one of the first I studied in graduate school.

The film itself is a modern, surrealist spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus, whose main claim to fame was travelling to the underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, killed on the day of their wedding. Orpheus persuades the gods through the power of his song to be allowed to bring his wife back from Hades, but only on the condition that he not look back at her until reaching the land of the living; however, like Lot’s wife, he fails to resist the temptation, losing her forever.

Cocteau updates the setting to postwar France, where Orpheus is a famous poet, hated by rivals, but adored by the public (only in France, people). In this version, Death falls in love with Orpheus, which complicates matters with his one true love just a bit. But how can one resist when Death is played by Maria Casares with steely determination and killer outfits? Although the special effects are laughable by today’s standards, the film remains extremely poetic, if a tad bizarre at times. I can totally see why it would appeal to a modern composer like Philip Glass, although I was somewhat disappointed to learn that he pretty much lifted the libretto straight from the film.

Surprisingly, I quite liked the music we heard and the singers, especially Eugene Brancoveau playing the lead, did an excellent job with it. This production is also adding a circus element to the depiction of the underworld, which I found to be a really interesting idea and totally in keeping with the spirit of the film. I particularly loved that the motorcyclist henchmen would be played by people in Roue Cyr. I was less convinced by some of the other design elements, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt based on what I saw.

As a side note, it was lovely to meet so many bloggers who have taught me so much about the San Francisco music scene these past months including SFMike (albeit briefly), The Opera Tattler, and Axel Feldheim, who I was thrilled to discover really isn’t a scary German. A big thank you to John Marcher for the invitation.

*As my New England town only had a 99-cent movie theater that played movies very late in their run, we would sometimes drive quite a ways to see something semi-interesting. However, these weren’t exactly “family nights” at the movies, since typically we all arrived together but then almost inevitably chose different theaters. The night my brother saw Koyaanisqatsi, my father and I saw the re-release of Rear Window, and my mother saw some Italian film, The Night of the Shooting Stars, maybe?

Monday, January 17, 2011

It'll Turn into an Oscar Blitz

There’s little I love more than the Oscars. It’s the one dinner party I can be counted on to throw every year, complete with betting pool. Even while living in Paris, I continued the tradition through a variety of strategies—one year having my cousin hook up a cable descrambler and staying up all night to watch live, and another year hosting a party the following night while holding a news embargo throughout the day. One of the great fringe benefits about now living on the West Coast is being able to have people over without being up until all hours of the night.

I generally try to see all the nominations in the major categories, but, as time goes on and I go out to fewer and fewer movies, my annual Oscar blitz becomes more and more difficult, especially now that the ceremony is a month earlier than it used to be. This year, I saw more foreign films in the theaters than usual, but not much else, although I did manage to catch both Leonardo DiCaprio movies (I swear that was not intentional). While Shutter Island is unlikely to get any nominations, at the very least, Inception should garner nods in art direction and music.

So that means netflixing The Social Network, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter’s Bone, and getting out to see The Fighter, The King’s Speech, True Grit, Blue Valentine, and eventually maybe Rabbit Hole. I’m boycotting 127 Hours on principle since I generally can’t watch any bodily incisions whatsoever, let alone one performed at the bottom of a canyon (which is why you’ll never hear me talk about any television shows set in hospitals, or those involving the initials C, S, or I).

This weekend I saw The Town and Black Swan. I enjoyed one a lot more than I thought I would and the other a lot less. The Town was a fun, if unexceptional, little film. I continue to be impressed by Jeremy Renner as well as Ben Affleck’s turn to directing—it will be interesting to see where he goes with it. Black Swan was a bit of a mess. The performances were great, but the story had more holes than the bodies in The Town. Of course, from the moment we were hit over the head with the “story” of the ballet, and that story was wrong, I knew it was going to be a difficult ride. And that was before all the self-mutilation. Not even Tchaikovsky can make up for that.

While I love Swan Lake as much as anyone, if you really want to watch a movie based around one of Tchaikovsky’s most technically demanding works to perform, I’d suggest instead the feel-good French film of the year (how often do I get to say that?), The Concert, based around the sublime Violin Concerto in D major and starring the equally sublime Mélanie Laurent, last seen on this side of the pond in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds.

In the meantime, any Oscar contenders you recommend? What are you going to see between now and February 27th?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Because Atheism Has No Holidays

“But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all.”
“Can't I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea.”
“But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That's how I believe.”
—Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

This month’s book salon topic was novels with religious characters or settings. Salonista selections were quite varied and ran the gamut from anti-religious to reverential: Cain (José Saramago), Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather), The End of the Affair (Graham Greene), In This House of Brede (Rumer Godden), The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco).

Preparing the discussion questions took me back to the fabulous “Theology and Literature” class I took in college, where I first read Graham Greene, Gilgamesh, and Shusaku Endo’s Silence. This theme provides so many avenues for discussion (and there are so many novels on its list that I want to read) that I think we could totally do it again in the near future. Following the meeting, I am most intrigued by Cain, read in Spanish by La Maratonista Minimalista. Sadly, a quick search of Amazon, Goodreads, and the San Francisco Public Library leads me to believe it might not be available in English yet. If you believe otherwise, let me know.

Unfortunately, before our meeting, I had only read about 300 pages of my selection, The Name of the Rose; however, I don’t feel too guilty, because one conclusion I came to while reading it is that it is probably a better fit for next month’s topic, Books and the Bookish. For, although the novel takes place in a fourteenth-century monastery, it is really more about language, learning, and books, than about religion. But I do need to finish it by the end of the month since it’s my challenge book for January. And, even though the book salon concept means that it’s not really crucial to finish a text before meeting, I much prefer it, and therefore I need to get started on Possession soon, which, from what I recall, should be an interesting follow-up to the Eco.

Speaking of challenges, how is everyone doing on The Great Unread? Please post below, whether you’ve only just picked your January book, read a fair amount, or finished your selection. Depending on your outlook, you have only have half a month left, or you have half a month left.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Political Rhetoric

In my December post about my 2010 book challenge reads, I selected The Handmaid’s Tale, a disturbing portrayal of a dystopic American future, as the book I felt everybody should read. In my Goodreads review of the book, I wrote that “given the extremes in rhetoric we are hearing more and more in the public sphere, this may have been more chilling to me now than if I had read it ten years ago.” At the time, I wondered if that might be too strong a statement. The events of this weekend were a sad reminder that it was not.

While extreme rhetoric has always been with us, going back to the Founding Fathers, and I myself showed a certain fondness for Thomas Jefferson during the misguided war and escalating deficits of the Bush years,
“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the mean time we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war & long oppressions of enormous public debt. But who can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when & where they would end?”—Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 4 June 1798

I truly hope that the events of this weekend will have people on both sides of the aisle rethinking how they contribute to the public discourse. I know I will.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year, New You 3: A Place For Your Stuff

This is the final of my New Year’s resolutions entries and we’re back to more traditional blog length. Mostly because I don’t think I can really give you much advice about getting organized. You sort of are, or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you can get great tips on organizing your work and home life at Get-It-Done Guy. He is particularly good at teaching you how to better manage your time, from controlling email backlog to streamlining to-do lists.

The best advice is probably just to get rid of stuff. Before my move from the East Coast, I read that most people could get rid of one-third of their possessions without missing them, so that became my benchmark for every category in my apartment. It was easy for furniture since the only pieces I wanted to keep were my brand-new mattress and the few pieces of furniture I had inherited from my parents. Books and kitchenware were probably the hardest items to eliminate. But I did it and it was all very cleansing. The only thing I ever regretted was this fabulous sauté pan I had gotten in France. I would kill to get another one.

For some people, clothes are the hardest. One of the books I mentioned earlier this week, What You Wear Can Change Your Life, has an entire chapter on culling your wardrobe, and another on storage and organization of your closet. Be ruthless! Beyond items that don’t fit or have stains, which should always go, I find a good test of whether or not you should keep an item is to ask yourself the following: “Would I care if I ran into my crush (mother-in-law, ex’s new girlfriend, arch-nemesis, etc.) wearing this?” If the answer is yes, get rid of it!

And remember, please don’t just throw things away, even if you aren’t using it, that doesn’t mean that someone else can’t or won’t. I found my old prom dress over the holidays and, while my first thought was that no one would be caught dead in that style today (think Laura Ashley in the 80s), I realized a tailor could probably turn all that gorgeous raspberry cotton into some lovely table napkins.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year, New You 2: Looking Good, Feeling Good

“Remember, my friends. Saludos, it’s better to look good than to feel good.”
—Billy Crystal in “Fernando’s Hideaway” on Saturday Night Live

Actually, I’d say it’s more likely that when you look good you often feel a lot better. Or, in the words of those wise sages of Trading Places: “Looking good, Billy Ray!” “Feeling good, Louis!”

Lots of New Year’s resolutions involve looking and feeling better, either by losing weight, exercising more, or eating healthier. These are all laudable goals, but what if you could look better right now? There are two things you could do almost immediately that will appear to take years off your age and pounds off your figure. The first is learning what colors are most flattering to you (they may not be what you think) and the second is learning what types of clothes best flatter your body shape. You may be thinking right now that it can’t make that big a difference, but I assure you, it can.

When I was bored and unemployed a few years ago and watching a lot of What Not to Wear, I decided to remake my own wardrobe as best I could with limited resources. The change in people’s reactions to me afterwards was astounding; I would even get random complements from strangers in elevators, something that I assure you never happened before. It gave me a huge boost of confidence, which of course helped me look even better—an anti-vicious circle as it were. Budgetary constraints have meant I haven’t been able to fully realize a dream wardrobe yet, but it’s nice that I at least know what I should be looking for. What follows are a few resources to help you get through the process a lot quicker than it took me.

If you can get your hands on two classics from the 1980s, I highly recommend Flatter Your Figure and Color Me Beautiful. Don’t be turned off by the ridiculous fashions and horribly outdated photos, the strategies they give for identifying your problem areas and figuring out your colors are right on the money. Modern books on style often talk about body shape and color, but don’t provide the tools for honest self-assessment in these areas. What I learned when I performed the steps in Flatter Your Figure is that one doesn’t always have a clear perspective about one’s body. Going into the afternoon, the three of us doing the measuring (it involves a stick and string and you need to do it with at least one other person) all had one “problem” area that turned out to be all in our minds.

Once you’ve identified your strong and weak points, you can get more contemporary shopping and fashion advice from books like the original What Not to Wear guide, which goes through a number of different problem areas and what shapes you should be wearing to minimize their effect on your silhouette. It was a revelation to me to finally understand why all those clothes I loved on the rack never ended up looking that good on me. It also made shopping, which I never really liked, much easier.

Color is often an even bigger part of the problem. Back in high school, I naturally gravitated to colors that look great on me, primarily pinks and purples, but my love of autumn and living in New York soon made me turned to darker hues that did nothing for me at all, especially black. But I had no clue and old habits are hard to break. (Seriously people, black is not slimming: fit, cut, and fabric are what count. Plus, if it’s not the right color for you, black is horribly aging.) Until I did a serious examination of the issue, I had no idea what a disservice I was doing myself.

Color Me Beautiful uses a system based on seasons and has a lot of tips for determining whether your skin tone is cool (winter/summer) or warm (fall/spring), but, in the end, I ended up going through every item in my wardrobe in front of a mirror in good light and making piles of what made my face look better or worse when held next to it. To an item, everything that made me look worse was a “fall” color, and everything that made me look better was a “summer color” (of which there were very few in my wardrobe). The “I have no idea” pile was almost inevitably “winter” colors. If you want to do a quick test, try holding up both fuchsia (cool) and orange (warm) next to your face and see which makes you look healthier.

While I don’t hold to a rigid interpretation of the seasonal system, having the summer palette identified and available made me try a bunch of colors, like aqua, that I never would have tried otherwise and that actually look very good on me. Even more important, it made me seek out cool (blue-based) makeup rather than the more prevalent warm (yellow-based) makeup, which makes a huge difference. After my sister and I did her colors (she’s a fall), we went shopping and I insisted she buy this mustard-color jacket we found. She hated the color, but bought it anyway, and every time she wore it received lots of compliments. This doesn’t mean you can never wear colors out of your season, but try to have something in your own colors near your face whenever possible—scarves are great for this purpose.

If you think the Color Me Beautiful system sounds dated, look no further than the recent publication of the it-costumer designer of the moment (Janie Bryant of Mad Men) who discusses this system in the very first chapter of The Fashion File (a fabulous book with lots of great advice on clothes and personal style). It is also the basic division of the color system used by Trinny and Susannah of What Not to Wear, although they leave out spring and just use “cool and bright” for winter (black, navy, jewel tones), “mid-tones” for summer (muted bright colors like lavender, periwinkle, most pinks, raspberry, blue-green), and “warm” for fall (olive green, mustard, rust, warm browns, tomato reds). I highly recommend their What You Wear Can Change Your Life for learning how to wear color. I keep this book in my closet since I am constantly referring to the great color charts for ideas. The color combination suggestions may seem radical at first, but just try them for a week or two and you will be converted.

This may seem overwhelming in the beginning, but, once you get the hang of both color and shape, shopping and dressing will become much easier, if only because the items in your closet will work together much better than before. And, remember, even if you do want to lose weight or exercise more, appreciate and dress for how your body is now, not for how it one day might be. Otherwise, you are doomed to eternal frustration.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year, New You 1: Improving Your Finances

I’m not a big one for making resolutions (although I really should promise to blog more consistently), but if you are one of the many that have made resolutions this year to improve your finances, look better, or get organized, then my next series of posts are for you!

First up, improving your finances. Whether you want to get out of debt, spend less, or simply save more, you need to have a plan. We live in a culture that encourages us to buy what we want when we want it, so it can be hard to see the bigger picture and tighten your belt for a distant future. But, as someone who recently got out of debt, I can’t emphasize enough how good it feels to no longer have that burden of obligation—the benefits in stress reduction alone make the sacrifice worth it.

If you are hoping to get out of debt, or just become better about money, I highly recommend Dave Ramsey’s financial advice and strategies. If you want details, he has numerous books and workbooks on the subject, probably available at your local library, but his basic plan involves a series of steps, the first four of which are 1) setting up an initial emergency fund of $1000, 2) paying off all debt except your mortgage using the debt snowball, 3) building up your emergency fund to be 3-6 months of expenses, and 4) investing 15% of your income in retirement accounts.

His plan is not easy (and I could never bring myself to follow it completely), but it does work. As I’ve said before, his radio show and podcast are great motivators, particularly on Fridays, when people call in to shout “I’m debt free!” and tell their own personal get-out-of-debt stories (which often made my own attempts at sacrifice seem like child’s play). As someone who used to work in investment consulting, I find most of his financial advice to be extremely sound. He is particularly good on how to budget, which was never something I had focused on before. But, from my own experience, I can tell you that just setting up a budget and sticking to it made me feel like I had more money.

The gist of his budgeting technique is as follows:
1) Every dollar of income should be spent on paper at the beginning of the month.
2) Monthly cash flow should be zero, with any overflow after expenses directed at savings or paying down debt.
3) Use the envelope system for as many items as possible since people have a tendency to spend far less when they use cash not credit. The envelope system works as follows: take out the monthly category amount in cash, put this cash in an envelope for that category, and when the cash runs out, spending for that category for that month is over. Personally, I didn’t use categories and just started with a gross amount per week that I used for everything, but if you have a difficult time sticking to you budget, the envelope system can be very helpful until you get used to budgeting.

Today, to further my own budgeting efforts for the coming year, I finally signed up with I’ve been on a pretty strict budget for the last few years in order to be able to pay off my enormous graduate school loans, which I did in March with the help of some long-awaited money from my father's estate (and I thank both my parents for being such a good savers that they were able to provide us with so much when they made so little). However, my small publishing salary means I still have to be pretty vigilant on the budget front since I am bound and determined not to borrow ever again (unless, as per Dave Ramsey, it’s for a 15-year mortgage where the payments are not more than 25% of my salary).

I haven’t been very happy with the budgeting tools on Money, so we’ll see how things go with Mint. I will say it was extremely easy to set up my accounts with them, which I hope is a sign of how easy it will be to adapt to a new system. I definitely look forward to being able to track everything online wherever I am and not have to wait for when I get home to enter items. And one thing I already love about this software is that they have an easy way to roll over budgets month-to-month for categories like clothing where you might spend far more in one month than another. That feature should also make short-term savings goals and spending, such as for travel or Christmas presents, much easier to handle. If anyone out there has tried Mint, I’d love to hear how it worked for you.

In the meantime, look out for the next installment in this series (“Looking Good, Feeling Good”) on Monday.