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.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Oracle Bones"

Separated migrant families, strained diplomatic relations, and the search for Chinese civilization's soul. In Peter Hessler's second book Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, the New Yorker's Beijing correspondent paints an initially disjointed but gradually cohesive picture of normal Chinese citizens' anxieties and aspirations. In a rapidly urbanizing society in moral and social fluidity, these hopes are difficult to capture; the book's subtle gradations humanize ordinary Chinese and offer a multilayered view of the national psyche.

The 2006 Oracle Bones is a parallel fusion of an uprooted Uighur, university-educated migrant workers, and noted oracle bone scholar Chen Mengjia. For those familiar with Hessler's New Yorker profiles or 2001 book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, the stories of his Fuling students will resonate and seamlessly weave into Oracle Bones. Hessler's complementary writing attracts followers while allowing him to explore new elements of Chinese society within a familiar narrative.

Boiling complex change into human stories is Hessler's forte. Shared political and economic pressures exist in all three threads, infusing the text with China's subtle-yet-overbearing past. The question of the past's relevancy, particularly how it shapes a young nation with a 5,000-year-old civilization is pressing. Hessler's use of archaeology to show pride and disruption in China's collective memory is ingenious and effective.

The author's Uighur friend, Polat, is an indispensable voice for understanding China's ethnic tensions. Although 90% of Chinese are Han, the P.R.C. officially recognizes 55 ethnic groups, many of which resist cultural assimilation into China's national fabric. Polat operates at the margins of Beijing's economy as an illegal currency trader and risks government retaliation when he sought political asylum in the United States. The Polat character depicts China's fractious diversity and cross-cultural misunderstandings on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Migrant workers have epitomized China's post-Mao growth model and urbanization initiatives. Hessler portrays migrants' hopes and emotional displacement better than other foreign observers, as his longstanding friendships with former students offer deep psychological insight. The pressure to earn more money in stratified cities is piercing, as Hessler demonstrates it's impossible to understand contemporary China without understanding migrant workers.

Chen Mengjia's thread is the book's strongest, as Hessler meshes primary and secondary archaeological sources with living subject interviews. Turmoil for urban elites in the early P.R.C., particularly during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign and 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution has lingering effects in contemporary China. Hessler's inclusion of the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, April 2001 Hainan spy plane incident, and September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks show links between modern chaos and early Red China's chaos.

Living subject interviews offer competing perspectives on Mengjia's personal and professional lives. Hessler is both extremely fortunate interview subjects in advanced age were willing to discuss China's painful nation-building and extremely resourceful to seek them out. The interviewees both confirm and contradict each other, as Hessler explores how truth plays into national memory. Both the passage of time and more openness in Chinese society have allowed Hessler to research these topics.

Mengjia's involvement in archaeological and traditional character preservation created many enemies, which mirrors disputes in contemporary Chinese archaeology. Chinese civilization was not as insular as previously thought, which distorts national self-understanding and cultural essence.

Transitions in this book may feel inorganic, but the emergence of common themes make it an easier read. Hessler grapples with complicated questions about contemporary China and its relation to the past. The fundamental success of this book is how it broke down complex social trends into human tales. While China's growth rate is even disorienting to Chinese nationals, it's even harder to imagine for foreigners. Hessler's book is a great service for foreigners who want to understand contemporary China.

Monday, February 4, 2013


The intro of Beyoncé Knowles’s Super Bowl XLVII halftime performance paralleled the championship game’s emotionally-scripted excesses: a Vince Lombardi speech trickled into flashing lights, pyrotechnics, and a colossal silhouette. For those offended by multimillion dollar thirty-second ads and deer antler spray, Ms. Knowles’s adept understanding of venue and audience connection redeemed the night.  

The former Destiny’s Child member and 16-time Grammy winner opened her set with poor direct lighting and thick smoke behind her. She wanted to introduce viewers to the idea of her before engaging with piercing eye contact and Romanian gymnast flexibility. Beyoncé did not ask for crowd involvement as much as demand it with stomping heels and tossing part of her top into the front row midway through her opening song “Love on Top”.

Emotional outpouring was not an issue for Beyoncé. She was a woman on a mission after receiving negative P.R. for lip synching the national anthem at President Obama’s second inauguration two weeks ago. It was her imperative to establish the crowd’s trust, which she did by urging fans to wave their arms and sing along. Beyoncé displayed humility by praising her guitar player and singing to her a la Bruce Springsteen with the late Clarence Clemons.

Perhaps the most refreshing element of her performance was its contrast to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. After Janet Jackson’s 2004 “nip slip”, the NFL has consistently chosen performers like the Springsteen, The Who, and Paul McCartney to avoid moral mishaps. While all are rock icons, their music is 60-year-old white guy music. The Beyoncé decision shows youth and willingness to reach new demographics.

After “Love on Top,” her next three songs were “Crazy in Love,” “End of Time,” and “Baby Boy.” The surprise apparition of Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, fellow Destiny’s Child members, led to renditions of “Bootylicious,” “Independent Woman,” and “Single Ladies.” A solo performance of “Halo” left the New Orleans Superdome erupting into applause.

The amalgamation of her Destiny’s Child past with her current hits as a solo artist demonstrated Ms. Knowles’s artistic progression. In our current social media age marked by instant consumption and instant dissection, Beyoncé earned widespread praise and humorously received credit for the stadium’s half-hour power outage. She silenced inauguration doubters about her vocal and dance skills, or more fundamentally, her ability to put on a first-rate show.

During the performance Kobe Bryant tweeted, “Phenomenal talent #Respect @beyonce the Greatest Female Entertainer of All Time.” Much of the postgame discussion has revolved around Beyoncé, not the Harbaugh brothers or MVP Joe Flacco’s three touchdown passes. Ms. Knowles has defined herself as the quintessential 21st century entertainer and a perfect match for the NFL championship game. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sherlock Homie #Bad30RockJoke

Regardless of the artistic medium or performers’ level of expertise, the critic’s tripartite responsibilities include informer, consumer advocate, and entertainer. If I were to write a review of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre’s “Sherlock Holmes: The Last Adventure” production, I would keep those tasks in mind while highlighting the features of community theater such as volunteer performers/staffers and a small production budget.

Context and actor experience are necessary review components: one would not critique the Kalamazoo College basketball team the same way one would evaluate the Los Angeles Lakers. Sophisticated communication, superior execution and raw experience demarcate professionals from amateurs. I came into “Sherlock Holmes” knowing it was an amateur production in a small Midwestern city (or a middling farming village by Chinese standards). Previous community theater works and campus productions defined my evaluation prism.

My lack of familiarity with the Sherlock Holmes tale left me at an extreme disadvantage. If I were to formally review this play, I would acquaint myself with the most important Sherlock Holmes adaptations to fully understand this director’s artistic vision and this playwright’s dramatic intent. Even at the local theater level, a formal reviewer should have intimate knowledge of the story’s differing interpretations and progressions.

Beyond being sucked into a mystery, I didn’t have personal expectations for the work. I feel uncomfortable responding to this question because outlining expectations and evaluating whether the production confirmed preconceived hopes is treading close to conflict of interest territory. I fear citing specific set, acting, or written elements could lead to a violation of journalism ethics.

The show’s elements must be analyzed both individually and holistically. The aural and visual components should be combined because the reviewer must accurately inform the public on the entire production experience; yet highlighting specific elements of the play may demonstrate knowledge of the medium and an appreciation for its gradations.

Personally, reviewing film is less challenging than reviewing theatrical productions because I have more exposure to film and took the Reading Film course three years ago. Reading Film taught me a basic technical vocabulary for film analysis, which benefitted my artistic understanding. At this stage, I lack the technical vocabulary and training to write a nuanced theater critique.

When evaluating a play, I would consider how it meshes with similar works. I would use actor and crew expertise, equipment quality, and the venue itself to classify a production. There is no “one size fits all” approach to theater reviews. As each artistic medium is different, the critical expectations shift to fit the medium’s specific characteristics. Yet the fundamental stress on critic as informer, consumer advocate, and entertainer is unwavering.

For the 30 Rock joke (RIP):

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seeing Stars

In his first book Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan, Dennis J. Frost examines the creation of Japanese sports stars, how their malleable images suit diverse agendas, the societal values behind their creation, and how sports celebrity is related to public self-perception.

“History of sports celebrity is also history of media,” said Dennis Frost, the Wen Chao Chen Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at “K” College in an interview. Fan or not, socially constructed sports celebrity images permeate social ideals, body culture and self-understanding.

As a graduate student, Frost encountered numerous sports references while studying Okinawan youth politicization during the post-World War II American occupation. He reshaped his doctoral research to the formation of Japanese sports celebrities, a topic no scholar had probed outside the Euro-American framework.

Frost outlines the Japanese sports star paradigm through analyzing sumo wrestler Hitachiyama, female track star Hitomi Kinue, baseball player Sawamura Eiji, and boxer Gushiken Yoko. The Japanese sports celebrity narrative stresses filial piety, hard work and sacrifice above all else.

The book argues that Japanese sports star social construction is an original and co-constitutional process, not a Western imitation. The award for the top pitcher in Japanese professional baseball is named after Eiji, which was created before the American equivalent Cy Young award.

Although the text is a historical monograph, its cohesive structure, clear arguments, and sufficient background information make the book accessible. The book’s straightforward yet layered structure is effective.

While researching, Frost created charts with concentric circles to determine how these athletes overlapped and differed. The common sports celebrity elements fostered narrative flow between chapters, while offering Frost flexibility to demonstrate different elements of a shifting Japanese society.

The structure allowed him to investigate related topics such as gender, national strengthening, and regional identity as they pertain to particular stars. By chronologically organizing his book, Frost tracked the technical progressions of media platforms. Twentieth-century mainstream media expansion allowed the Japanese public to understand athletes’ heights, weights, and achievements in newfound ways, which defined national body culture.

Frost assigns the book for his History 283 course titled “Faster, Higher, Stronger: Sports in East Asia.” He uses the chapter on Eiji in History 285 “Modern Japan” because it explains the nation’s World War II total mobilization effort.

Sports celebrity can’t be divorced from modern life—more scholars will expand on Frost’s research to understand sports stars in a non-Western context. Frost’s book opens an invaluable window into Japan’s modernization, remaining accessible for those with little knowledge of Japanese history or sports.