Wednesday, March 6, 2013

We Built It?

In her 2011 debut novel The Submission, Amy Waldman tracks ambition and anxiety over a proposed 9/11 memorial while challenging the monopolization of grief and liberal provincialism. The selection process sparks civic controversy instead of healing when the contest's anonymous entry winner is a second generation Muslim immigrant named Mohammad Khan.

A governor-appointed jury evaluates 5,000 blueprints before Widow-in-Chief Claire Burwell persuades her peers to pick The Garden design instead of an overbearing twelve-story granite slab called The Void. Burwell pleads that The Garden will create contemplation through rubble, and when Khan's name is revealed, the hyper-liberal committee immediately backtracks. They claim Middle America would not accept his submission, in essence "othering" the guilt and ensconcing their closed-mindedness.

Khan is not religious, drinks alcohol and prematurely broke his Ramadan fast with orange juice. Like any true American, he stabs his partner in the back to propel his career and create a name for himself in the architecture field.

His name is leaked to the press and the country is forced to examine questions of public memory, Muslims within the national fabric, and balancing civil liberties with national security imperatives. Waldman's examination of Muslim belonging is especially topical considering the failed plan to build an Islamic community center in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory two blocks from Ground Zero.

The strongest prose is Waldman's dissection of murky media ethics and contradictory liberal mores. Her experience as New York Times South Asia bureau chief gave her keen insight into the ideologically and religiously divisive debates on memorialization of public space after the 2001 terrorist attempts. Waldman presents conflicting progressive views by victims whose minds approve Khan's garden design but can't go through with it in their hearts.

Although most media attention in the novel is devoted to upper class and highly-educated whites, Waldman's inclusion of a Bangladeshi immigrant named Asma who lost her spouse in the attack, voices her views at a City Hall public hearing, and is later murdered in her Brooklyn neighborhood challenges white and Christian ownership of grief. To assume all victims were well-paid and socially prominent whites is an inaccurate picture, and the author presents a more nuanced and multifaceted view.

Regardless of social class, gender, or ethnic background, all the dialogue in this novel sounds strikingly similar. Still, this is a pertinent book that challenges exclusionary views of American belonging and emphasizes the importance of space.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final Paper Abstract

For my final project, I would like to analyze evolving concepts of American identity and ethnic belonging in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Godfather: Part II. The film features chronologically-varied story arcs that explain the Corleone family's arrival to the United States, the family's integration into American society, and depictions of the "American Dream" that remain relevant in the 21st century. I argue that the film's portrayal of family dynamics and stratified ethnic lines remain pertinent almost 40 years later.

To undertake this project, I will watch the film again with an increased awareness of how the Corleone family is perceived by others, notably how the Corleones are portrayed as "dirty" money. I will also discuss how the film's multiple narratives both reinforce and challenge the Corleone family's belonging, particularly juxtaposing Vito's humble beginnings to the scorching excess of Michael in the Cuba scenes.

I will rely on scholarly texts on ethnic integration into the American fabric, immigration, national identity, as well as an interview with my History junior seminar professor. Her Ph.D. dissertation explored Italian immigration to the United States after World War II and she has studied notions of gender in ethnic studies. I would like to use her as a resource to focus on the portrayal of Italian-Americans in this film, and what elements of the film can be related to a greater societal level.

Classifying The Godfather: Part II as a "negative" or "positive" image of Italian-Americans depletes the film's of its emotional power. The Corleone family offers insights on the strained American family fabric in a way that few films have matched, and the seemingly distant world it depicts is actually much closer to home.

Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Oscars

On a circular stage with staggered lights that mimicked the Los Angeles Dolby Theatre's tiered balconies, Seth MacFarlane blended Star Trek, sock puppets, and boob jokes in his opening monologue at the 85th annual Academy Awards. For the "Family Guy" creator, the performance was part platform fusion, part hyper-awareness of public reception, and complete comedy dud.

While MacFarlane's monologue introduced the evening's musical theme, it did little to entertain the audience, conservative viewers, or even loyal "Family Guy" fans. MacFarlane confused and offended those unfamiliar with his risque animated humor, and disappointed diehards by not pushing the envelope far enough or developing a flow.

Ben Affleck's "Argo" won the evening's most prestigious Best Motion Picture award. Affleck's film on a CIA operative's successful rescue of six U.S. embassy workers in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis offered suspense, insightful commentary on Hollywood, and an emotionally-complex protagonist. It beat out an unusually deep field in this year's awards to ease the pain of Affleck's nomination snub for Achievement in Directing.

The Achievement in Directing Oscar went to Ang Lee for "Life of Pi." The adaptation of the bestselling novel used innovative CGI techniques and classical adventure elements. "Life of Pi" had a successful evening, earning accolades for Achievement in Cinematography, Achievement in Visual Effects, and Original Score.

Pop star Adele was awarded Best Original Song for her work in the most recent James Bond installment "Skyfall." The Bond 50th anniversary tribute stressed the staying power of character and technical advances in shooting, editing, and cinematography techniques.

To the surprise of very few, the Best Actor and Actress in Supporting Role awards were given to Christoph Waltz and Anne Hathaway. Waltz received the statue for his work in "Django Unchained" and Hathaway won for her role in "Les Miserable."

Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln" and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" won the two most important individual awards: Performance by an Actor/Actress in a Leading Role. Nine-year-old actress Quevenzhane Wallis received a nomination, giving her a twenty-year head start on Meryl Streep when she received her first Academy Award nomination in 1979 for "The Deer Hunter."

The Academy Awards are challenged for honoring the film medium on television, which enforces stricter technical limitations. Although MacFarlane did a poor job as host, the films of 2012 were thought-provoking and memorable. The 2013 Academy Awards featured pertinent and moving pictures, but poor flow and tired jokes.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wilde Times

The most provocative sentence in Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist" was "To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblances to the thing it criticises" (907). In my experience with reviews, the original artistic content is intrinsically tied into my writing, specifically through an awareness of structure and voice. The notion of critic as independent artist without grounding to the artist's creation is mildly problematic for me.

I agree with Gilbert because he stresses criticism as a creative endeavor and an engagement with the artist. Gilbert was particularly persuasive describing the critic's role as interpreter and the concept of criticism as self-projection. While a critique is by definition an independent creation, I feel a strong critique must be inspired by the original work or infused with similar stylistic elements because a critique's direct correlation with the original content strengthens the critic's insights.

Who is more responsible for sustaining artistic standards: artists or critics? Wilde states that Criticism is "the record of one's own soul" (905), and if a critic's primary function is to project him or herself onto the artistic material, it seems difficult for a critic to be engaged with art when her primary object of study is herself. Pauline Kael was accused of reviewing everything about a film except the film, and I have my doubts about how the tripartite critical responsibilities of informer, entertainer, and consumer advocate can be upheld when the review's content drifts so far from the original artistic creation. 

Wilde was right to note the interconnected nature of artist and critic through consumption of artistic output. He argues, "It is through its very incompleteness that Art becomes complete in beauty..." (908). The critic and artist have a symbiotic relationship to capture the nuances of beauty as an ideal. Whether it be through direct criticism or analysis of larger societal trends, both can cooperate towards this goal.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kael Salad for Two

Rigid in her beliefs, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael refused to see a movie twice. She stuck with her gut reaction, defended the lowbrow, and respected artistic risk. Kael often carried her reviews to the extreme of examining social trends at the expense of a film’s technical or aesthetic qualities, making her a pioneer of film criticism and a defining figure of twentieth century cinema.

Her review of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” embodied her willingness to go against the critical grain and probe a film’s psycho-emotional complexities. Kael questioned her peers’ universally glowing reviews and challenged the work’s creative substance. Perhaps the strongest aspect of this review is her analysis of intellectual undertones in a vernacular and honest voice.

Kael fearlessly followed her gut in praises and pans. Although some fear criticism’s polarized spectrum, Kael’s biting prose attracted followers while reshaping critical standards. Ken Tucker noted on, “Foes, too, hard their own favorite Kael pieces.” Her writing style and voice have transcended film criticism and filtered into new fields.

Throughout her career, Kael lauded filmmakers for pushing the medium’s limits, notably when she told Francis Davis in an interview her favorite decade in cinema history was the 1970s. Others expected her to say the classical Hollywood era of the 1930s/1940s, but Kael said, “There were directors coming along who really brought something new to the medium.” Creative expression and artistic jumps were praised by Kael; stale techniques and stories were not.

Perhaps her resounding belief in film as art mostly strongly guided her criticism. She said, “One of the great things about movies is they can combine the energy of a popular art with the possibilities or a high art.” Kael’s own writing style reflected this tenet by using common language to investigate complex emotional insights.

Detractors such as Renata Adler have criticized her limited vocabulary, reliance on images, and use of rhetorical questions. Adler said, “Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for an argument a protracted, obsessional invective…” While her controversial topic choice and writing style were sure to garner enemies, haters nevertheless paid continuous attention to Kael’s craft and contribution.

Modern film criticism was affected by Kael’s unwavering reactions and slicing prose. It’s impossible to divorce her writing from the genre or understate her impact on legions of young critics. Kael was an overwhelmingly positive influence on arts criticism and her legacy lives on after death.

New York Times Critical Defense: As Not Seen on TV

Our defense examines New York Times food critic Pete Wells' recent review of celebrity chef Guy Fieri's new Times Square restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen and Bar.  We hope to explore the scope of arts criticism and the question, Is food considered art?  In addition, we'd like to discuss the intersection of television celebrities and pop-dining.

Our presentation will address these major issues:

1. What is considered an art review? How does medium influence reviewer approach and reader expectations? What external factors impact reviews across media?

2. Is this review "successful?" How can we gauge success, particularly when it comes to commercial and culinary success? Is this review a justifiable pan? Is Well's voice too critical or is this type of critique merited?

3. How does a piece full of interrogatives alter the reader’s experience? How does it alter the diner’s experience at the restaurant after reading the review?

4. How can we connect Pete Wells' review to Pauline Kael's reverence for the popular?  How can we relate this discussion of pop to highbrow and lowbrow culture? Is this an appropriate piece for The New York Times dining section?

Our stance: By infusing his piece with interrogatives, his review mimics the disjointed nature of the menu, atmosphere, and experience. While this is an nontraditional format, nevertheless this is a successful art review.

You can read the Pete Wells' piece here.

For additional reading, check out another review here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Vagina Monologues

"Who needs a handgun when you got a semiautomatic?" asked WMU student Kailynn Cummings to the Dalton Center Recital Hall's audience during a student production of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monolgoues.

Cummings performed Ensler's "Vagina Happy Fact" monologue in the fifth of fifteen installments. Her segment centered on the clitoris having double the nerve concentration of the penis, which elicited applause and light laughter. The performers created an immediate connection with college-aged peers, as cast and audience came together to support the V-Day movement and the YWCA of Kalamazoo. Both aim to end violence and sexual abuse against women and children.

Ensler's monologues emotionally ranged from innocently humorous to socially-imposed shame. She interviewed over 200 women of diverse ages, professions and races to write this play. Her research emphasized similar threads while leaving outlets for individual expression. Although one can't generalize on female sexuality, the ideas of self-discovery and overcoming social stigmas to experience pleasure were powerful.

Lack of narrative flow between monologues was both distracting and a boon to Ensler's greater message. The abrupt transitions were somewhat eased by thematic overlap and audience participation, as the play's shifting gears highlighted the individuality of female sexual identity formation. While certain themes tied the production together, the inorganic transitions were frustrating at times.

All performers wore red or black clothes, but there was no wardrobe unity. The costumes did an excellent job of mirroring recurring themes of sexual discovery, rising above external disapproval, and ensuring one's safety, while stressing actress individuality. The lack of props, glitzy lighting, or overly-imposing sound systems on the stage laid focus on the performers' stories.

WMU's Womyn's Equality student organization produced this play. Director Genae Carter's decision to cast student actresses was the right one. Despite occasional missteps, the acting was well-done and the peer dynamic empowered the message. During the third monologue called "The Flood," the over twenty cast members spoke in quick succession, creating an aural cascading waterfall effect. Ensler's play stressed the individual sexual discovery narrative, but interpersonal dynamics offered a new perspective.

The performances first focused on body discovery and budding sexuality, but gradually probed issues of sexual assault and denied personhood. Carter ended the performance by thanking the audience for their donations to local women's shelters, urging the end of victim blaming within rape culture, and encouraging all to dance on Valentine's Day in solidarity with victims.