Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Electric, So Frightfully Hectic

It’s that time of year again: Oscar Blitz!

As I wrote last year, even if I haven’t gotten out to see many films in the theaters, I never miss the Oscars.

And the nominations for Best Picture are…

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

You can see a full ballot list for printing at Oscar.com.

I’ve gotten a bit of a head start on my blitz, having seen The Artist a couple weeks ago with La Javanaise, and having just Netflixed The Help and Midnight in Paris, with Moneyball in the DVR right now and The Tree of Life at the top of my queue.

In my mind, The Artist leads the pack. It was great fun, with plenty of nods to cinéphiles throughout. As a film historian, I’m happy for the success of any movie that gets people to see a black and white picture, nevermind a virtually silent one at that. Plus, you know I have to root for the French one.

That’s not to say I didn’t like The Help. I thought it was a very strong adaptation of a good book. And certainly its acting nominations are well deserved.

As for Midnight in Paris, let’s just say I have no idea why people like this movie. Sure, Paris looks gorgeous in the opening montage, but other than that I felt it was complete fluff. And not the good kind that goes with peanut butter. The kind that meanders with no real point. Yes, Paris in the rain does beat any other city in the rain, but it’s still rain.

Of course, I have yet to see Hugo, which I could root for based on the subject matter alone. I thought the book was just okay, but I can see where it would make a gorgeous film. And if there is anyone who can pay proper tribute to the genius that was Georges Méliès, it’s Scorsese. Silent films and film history are really front and center this year, aren’t they?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is this year’s 127 Hours as it would have to be Citizen Kane before I’d pay to see a film about that day, especially with Tom Hanks. And I really have no interest in War Horse, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise if people think it’s good. I haven’t really heard much about it.

Films that received multiple nominations but didn’t get a Best Picture nod include Albert Nobbs, Bridesmaids (which I actually saw in the theater), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the last Harry Potter (which I recently Netflixed), The Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn, A SeparationTinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Transformers. I’m not particularly interested in any of them except for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I’ll probably try to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and A Separation as well. I will not see Transformers.

One-offs include Drive, The Ides of March, Jane Eyre, Margin Call, Rise of Planet of the Apes, and W.E. I can recommend both Jane Eyre and Margin Call and will probably Netflix at least the first two, both of which I meant to see in theaters. As I have done previously, I will see both short programs (assuming they once again play in a local theater).

In the meantime, any Oscar contenders you recommend? What are you going to see between now and February 26th?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Readers' Choice Challenge #1: Bonkers, Brilliant, Rubbish

To the Lighthouse was all three. (Why those terms? More on my latest obsession below.)

Beloved readers, I think you may be a bit bonkers for loving this one so much. Yes, there are moments when the language is absolutely brilliant, but getting there, oh my god, such a chore. I did love the “Time Passes” interlude where I thought the poetic language really fit the image of an abandoned summer house; however, for a whole novel, language isn’t enough for me, I really need either character or plot. Yes, I know, I’m demanding that way.

Also, isn’t Virginia Woolf supposed to be feminist? I wanted to slap all these women and tell them to get over it already. I realize I’m reading this work from a privileged twenty-first-century position, but really, I sympathized with no one here (except maybe James, who had to wait ten frakking years to get to the lighthouse already).

“It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

Yup, that last line pretty much sums it up. Thanks, Virginia.

Honestly, I would have abandoned this one on the rubbish heap if it hadn’t been part of this year’s challenge. So, I guess I thank you for picking it since I do think I needed to try Woolf at least one more time after my disastrous encounter in high school. I guess we can definitely say that modernists and me are unmixy things. Next up, Lolita! That should go very well. (I kid. I already read the first few pages and think it will go just fine.)

Speaking of which, the Goodreads voters have spoken and there are a number of you who would like to start a longer-term read of Middlemarch in February (easily beating out War and Peace, so that will be deferred until the second half of the year). Second place in the voting went to “Are you kidding?! I’m not even attempting those.” Slackers.*

If you are a new or lapsed reader and wondering what the heck I’m talking about, you can see recent posts about this year’s challenge and our Goodreads group here.

Finally, in other reading news, I have discovered a new books podcast out of the U.K. that I absolutely love: The Readers. This weekly podcast is basically two guys with fairly divergent tastes nattering about books and book news, with various guest appearances by authors and other bloggers. It is incredibly funny and informative and I highly recommend it. I must admit, I have a bit of a podcast crush on both of them and am suddenly finding my conversation littered with various exclamations including “bonkers,” “brilliant,” and “rubbish.” Between his love of Rebecca and his hatred of the Kindle, I have a slight preference for Simon (sorry, Gav!), but I’m sure you will find things to love about both of them and the topics they discuss. There have been 17 episodes since early October and all are available on iTunes. As a completist, I naturally think you must start with episode one and listen to them all, but if you must cherry-pick, try episode seven if you like Sherlock Holmes, episode eight if you like Ann and Michael of Books on the Nightstand (which, as you may remember, I already recommended way back when), or episode 13, the Boxing Day year-in-review special. Seriously, check them out.

Note: For future reference, I can’t see who voted for what, but I’ll try to make at least general results visible to everybody for next time, I just couldn’t go back and edit the poll once it started.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Opera 101—The Gondoliers

Oh, 'tis a glorious thing, I ween,
To be a regular Royal Queen!
No half-and-half affair, I mean,
No half-and-half affair,
But a right-down regular,
Regular, regular,
Regular Royal Queen!
—“Then one of us will be a Queen,” The Gondoliers

Oh, philosophers may sing
Of the troubles of a King,
But of pleasures there are many and of worries there are none;
And the culminating pleasure
That we treasure beyond measure
Is the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done!
—“Rising early in the morning,” The Gondoliers

I feel a little bit like a broken record saying it, but last night I saw another marvelous production by the Lamplighters. This time, they added the brilliant touch of reading the opening announcements in Italian (except for key phrases such as “cell phone” and “emergency exit”).

The cast of The Gondoliers. Photo by Beau Saunders.

The Gondoliers (or The King of Barataria) was one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s final Savoy Operas and their last real success. Although the subject and songs are light and the plot involves the typical topsy-turvy element of babies switched at birth, somehow I find it to be one of the most realistic of Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

The first act takes place in Venice, where two gondoliers are about to pick their brides from a group of young maidens. As they are getting married, the Duke of Plaza-Toro (Count Matadoro, Baron Picadoro) arrives from Spain with his wife and daughter Casilda to seek out the long-lost son of the King of Barataria, whom his daughter married as an infant. Hidden in Venice due to insurrection in his home country, the future (now) king was raised along with the son of a gondolier, but the Grand Inquisitor who arranged the escape doesn’t know which is which. It is decided that both men should rule Barataria* until the nurse who can identify them is found. This is not very pleasing to their new brides who must stay behind, but it is a relief to Casilda, who is in love with her father’s attendant, Luiz. The second act takes place in Barataria where the gondoliers decide to rule according to their republican values and “all shall equal be.”

Speaking of equals, one of the enjoyable things about The Gondoliers is that there are many large parts rather than the standard three or four leads backed up by the chorus. There is no true patter song, but a number of patter-like songs that leave you humming. In fact, The Gondoliers has the longest vocal score of any Savoy Opera. I particularly enjoyed the songs quoted above, as well as “In the Enterprise of Martial Kind” and “I Stole the Prince.”

Once again I felt the singing was strong overall, but Robert Vann as Marco stood out for me. I was also happy to see Amy Foote, who made a superb Elsie in The Yeomen of the Guard last year, return as Marco’s wife, Gianetta. Elise Marie Kennedy certainly held her own in her Lamplighters debut as Casilda and I thoroughly enjoyed John Brown as her father, the Duke of Plaza-Toro.

John Brown as the Duke of Plaza-Toro.
Photo by Beau Saunders.

Last night, I was particularly struck by how old the audience is for these shows. These performances are always such fun and of such good quality, it's really a shame that the audience is not more diverse. If you can, try to catch one of the remaining performances tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, or next weekend in Walnut Creek.

Note: The Gondoliers is the Lamplighters’ second production of the 2011-2012 season. They will close out the season with a singalong Pirates of Penzance in March.

*You may recognize the name Barataria as the fictional insula that Sancho Panza is granted in Don Quixote, which I’m sure is completely intentional on Gilbert’s part.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 Readers’ Choice Challenge Update

For those who don’t obsessively read the comments here, or who missed my update to the survey results post, I thought an update on the 2012 Book Challenge was in order.

Image ganked from "How May I Shush You Today?"

I have set up a secret group on Goodreads for discussing the books as I go along. Secret means that only members of the group can see the group, who’s in it, and what they post. So, if you are concerned about privacy but want to participate, you can easily sign up under a pseudonym without having it spider all the way through your Facebook connections.

I’ve set it up so each book has its own discussion folder; that way, if/when the main discussion spins off onto side topics, we can set up different discussion threads within each folder and keep like comments together. For the moment, there is a main reading thread and an author thread for each book on the list. Therefore, you can easily track just the discussions about the books you are reading or are interested in.

You can register and find me here. It is quite easy to set up an account and you can get an idea of how the site works in general by viewing my profile. You have to friend me in order for me to invite you to the group: when you do, please indicate you want to be part of the Sly Wit Book Challenge (especially if you are using a pseudonym, as I generally don’t friend people unknown to me through at least social media).

As for reading, I’ve gotten To the Lighthouse from the library and plan to read it over the next couple of weeks. After that, I’m planning on Lolita (since I’ll also be reading Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in preparation for the ballet), followed by A Prayer for Owen Meany. However, in addition to discussion threads, Goodreads groups also let you do polls and right now I have one about reading Middlemarch and/or War and Peace starting February, so if you are interested in either of those, please join in and voice your opinion!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012 Book Challenge: Readers’ Choices

The results are in!

Reader’s choice quickly became readers’ choices with so many of you voting and leaving comments. I apologize for any technical difficulties you may have encountered in doing so and greatly appreciate your efforts and opinions.

Lolita and A Prayer for Owen Meany were the clear winners. I’ve been meaning to read both of these for some time based on many personal recommendations over the years so that worked out well.

First up, however, owing to early love from John Marcher and others, is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I figure I might as well tackle my nemesis when I’m fresh and enthusiastic. Hopefully, the story at least features a lighthouse somewhere. Don’t tell me and crush my hopes and dreams if it doesn’t.

To the Lighthouse was one of six books in a tie for third place. I’ve decided to put all of them on the list, even Oryx and Crake, for which Jennifer made a compelling counterargument. (I’m going to blame her anti-Canadian sentiments on hormones: Jenn stop jeopardizing your baby’s future in the Great White North by criticizing Atwood—will no one think of the children!?!)

Other books I really want to read based on comments here and on Facebook and Twitter are Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita, Never Let Me Go, and The Sense of an Ending. That last one is strictly in honor of Aaron, ultimate Barnes fan as well as creator, potentate, and Lord High Executioner of the original Facebook challenge that kicked off this crazy reading frenzy.

So, I ended up with a list of twelve, which, if you know me at all, is a very good thing as it would drive me crazy all year long not to be matching the number selected in previous years.

The Dirty Dozen
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

These twelve books have 6000+ pages between them. Doable? Certainly (Goodreads tells me I read approximately 18,000 pages in 2011). Likely? Only time will tell.

If anyone wants to join me, I’m happy to read these in any order, depending on library availability (which probably only affects The Sense of an Ending, for which I’m currently no. 178 of 192 holds). Just let me know and we can coordinate.

I will be starting a secret group (meaning only members can see the group, who's in it, and what they post) on Goodreads for discussing these books as I go along. Selfishly, I am also hoping it will be a space for motivation and encouragement.

If you want to read along with any or all of these selections and join the discussion there, please contact me and I will invite you to the group. If you are not already on Goodreads, it is quite easy to set up an account just for these discussions. You can get an idea of how it looks and works by visiting my profile.

I am not getting To The Lighthouse from the library until this weekend, so I don't anticipate any real activity until next week.

Sly Wit 2012

Happy New Year!

As always, I welcome the New Year with open arms and lots of plans and projects.

Barring any 2012 doomsday scenarios coming to fruition, here’s what you can expect to see at Sly Wit this year.


Clearly you all have opinions on these and I will be posting what I think of your favorites throughout the year as part of the 2012 Readers’ Choice Challenge. Encouragement as I tackle some of the longer ones is always appreciated!

I will also be trying to keep the book salon alive as many members move on to bigger and better things following the near dissolution of my former office by The Man. Appropriately enough, this month’s theme is “Go West, Young Man!” for which I chose to read The Grapes of Wrath.

Performing Arts:

Ballet 101 posts will probably dominate the spring as I enjoy a subscription to the San Francisco Ballet for the first time. Sadly, I don’t foresee the ballet of the Opéra de Paris in my future this year, but you never know what the fates may bring.

Opera won’t be completely absent, as I have tickets to The Lamplighters’ upcoming productions of The Gondoliers and The Pirates of Penzance singalong as well as Nixon in China at the San Francisco Opera in June. I’m also hoping to see Ensemble Parallèle’s The Great Gatsby in February.

Of course, assuming La Maratonista is willing, I’m planning to renew my subscription for the San Francisco Opera’s 2012-2013 season. To combat my opera withdrawal symptoms, I’ve been listening to a number of classic recordings and, before our next subscription starts, I’m hoping to write up some more systematic Opera 101 posts that go through the history of this art form, starting with the Baroque era and continuing to the present day.

Television and Film:

I’m still debating giving up cable, but I have to wait until at least the end of January since there is no way I am missing Season Two of Downtown Abbey on PBS. And, of course, The Voice will be starting up again soon. But there’s not much else I’m excited about going forward besides Season Two of Sherlock, which can’t come soon enough.

Aside from the Oscars, I don’t often talk about film here. (That in and of itself might not seem odd, unless you know that my training is as a historian of French culture with a specialization in the film industry and my doctoral dissertation was on the reception of American films in postwar France.) I’m hoping to rectify that with a new Film 101 series looking at various genres I want to explore again without having to view them through an academic lens. Right now, I’m thinking of three of my favorites: film noir, screwball comedies, and westerns; however, inspired by David Smay’s series at HiLobrow, I may also take on horror, a genre I don’t know at all.

But before I begin that project, I will spend the month of January rewatching my favorite director of all time, a man who incorporated all those genres into his work (okay, maybe not westerns), Alfred Hitchcock. A colleague recently asked for recommendations of his films and, having lately read John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles (which became Young and Innocent), I decided he was due for a serious review.

I hope you join me for these and other random musings!