The thing is, Burma was already a disaster of epic magnitude when Nargis hit. Since 1962, the country—once a powerful kingdom, briefly a British colony, and then finally an independent republic—has been ruled by a military junta, led since 1992 by a reclusive general named Than Shwe who rarely appears in public and has strengthened the regime's totalitarian grip on the country. Than Shwe moved the capital from Rangoon and built a new, eerily empty one on the mostly vacant plains of central Burma, a geographical affirmation of his government's remoteness and unapproachability.
Burma is an international pariah, a status with which it seems content, propped up economically by its powerful neighbors in China and India. The junta has made itself rich while miring most of its roughly 50 million people (there hasn't been a census since 1983) in deep, desperate poverty. Burma's government is, by many measures, the worst on earth.
That is why an optimist could view Nargis, catastrophic as it was, like something close to an opportunity. Would the influx of foreign rescue aid help lead, somehow, to political change? "Is it time to invade Burma?" wondered Time magazine, as U.S. Navy ships waited in the Andaman Sea—to deliver supplies, of course, but it took little imagination to see it as a military move.
That is probably how the Burmese government saw it, and so they declined offers of help from most of the world's major players. America, France, the United Nations and England (which had once colonized Burma) were all rebuffed. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the country fell into chaos, ruin, death. Because so little information escapes from this tightly sealed country, it isn't clear whether Burma has really recovered.
Although we may have forgotten about Nargis, it has not escaped Emma Larkin—or rather, the American journalist who writes under that pseudonym (the only way she can keep a cover in Burma). Larkin is based in Bangkok—she has lived there most of her life—and studied Burmese in London. Her new book, Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (the title is from a Bob Dylan song) is an eyewitness account of the cyclone's aftermath, and one that is highly recommended around the Christmas season. If nothing else, Everything Is Broken will remind readers to be grateful for all that they have: relative comfort and wealth, national and personal health and, above all, freedom—freedom in its essential form: the right to do what you want with your body and mind. The right to live as you wish to live. The right to be.
In her debut feature, Tiny Furniture, writer-director-star Lena Dunham plays Aura, a recent college graduate (from a college in Ohio, presumably Oberlin, where Dunham went) who moves back into the huge Tribeca loft of her successful artist mother after breaking up with her college boyfriend.
She’s not getting along with her 17-year-old sister Nadine (Grace Dunham, real-life sister of the filmmaker, deadpan and amusing), who excels academically and thinks Aura is kind of a loser. To make matters worse, she’s not doing well with the two crushes she pursues shortly after moving back: a comedian who’s shopping around his “Nietzschean Cowboy” YouTube video with television producers, and a chef at the restaurant where Aura works who speaks in obnoxious clichés like “no harm, no foul” and “same shit, different day.”
In turn, Aura says things to these guys like “My dirty little secret is that I actually hate foreign films,” and “It’s cool that you have a thing. Like, food is your thing.” Well gee, what guy wouldn’t go for that?
Dunham, for the most part, gives a grounded, tender performance that makes Aura— unkempt, a little chubby, and unsure of herself—feel much more immediate and real than most 22-year-old female characters in American movies. Dunham spends much of Tiny Furniture in her underwear, in a feminist dare to a viewer who might think only more glamorous, svelte female figures should be seen on screen. We want the best for Aura, and we ache when she’s rejected romantically, and ache even more when she’s briefly, almost brutally, accepted sexually.
While the character of Aura is realistic and vulnerable, the fact that she’s also extremely privileged gives the film an uneasy feeling that it doesn’t benefit from, and there’s not much to distract us from it. There’s very little chemistry between anyone on screen, despite the fact that Dunham has cast her real mother and sister as Aura’s mother and sister, and real-life friends as Aura’s friends. Arguments feel manufactured and written rather than believable, Dunham’s static frames are annoyingly precious, and the whole thing looks like it was shot from behind a screen door.
Released in the summer of 1982, at the end of the first computer game boom, TRON tried to plug into the immense popularity of video arcades. The plot, such as it is, follows Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a software programmer whose game designs have been stolen by an unscrupulous tech exec. When Flynn breaks into the corporate mainframe looking for proof, the computer’s Master Control Program abducts Flynn, digitizing him and forcing him to fight in the very games he created. In order to escape, he must enlist the help of other programs—anthropomorphized software who take on the appearance of their “users”—to fight against the tyranny of the MCP.
While the dialogue is often bad, many of the central ideas of the movie are original and clever, and presaged cyberspace, computer hackers and avatars. Long before "information superhighway” became yesterday’s catchphrase, TRON showed its characters moving from computer to computer in vehicles of all sizes.
That TRON works at all is due almost entirely to Jeff Bridges, who holds the whole mess together with gleeful enthusiasm and a proto-Dude demeanor. It did not hurt that futurist Syd Mead (Blade Runner) helped design the visually sleek vehicles or that Moog maestro Wendy Carlos created a synthesized score.
The Disney production was also notable for being the first big screen film to use computer animation to generate whole scenes, and many of its special effects. Not all, however. The majority of shots that take place “inside” the computer world were filmed using tricks and techniques that went back to the early days of cinematography, and its signature “glow” was achieved by hand-tinting the film frames. This often lent the movie a silent picture feel, as if you are watching long-lost colorized footage of Metropolis, or the Soviet Constructivists.
TRON therefore is a unique cultural artifact, sitting on the divide between old and new cinema.
Alas for a disappointed Disney, TRON didn’t do well at the box office that year, especially against such sci-fi blockbusters as E.T., Poltergeist, The Road Warrior and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even the TRON video game made more than the movie.
It may have been the video game, in fact, that helped secure the film’s long-term reputation. Driven by a booming 8-bit version of Carlos’ ear worm of a soundtrack, the arcade game was challenging and addicting and everywhere. Even today you can find functioning machines collecting quarters in bars and the rare surviving arcade. The video game wasn’t just a product tie-in, it was considered an extension of the movie and had elements that didn’t make the final film, but which were part of the official story — an early form of cross-platform pollination now known as “transmedia.”
Even as a box office failure, TRON continued to influence. The hardware and software needed to generate the SPX had been built from scratch and cost millions but the lessons the technicians took away from the experience helped shape the future of computer animation in Hollywood.
The kids who dropped all those quarters in the arcade grew up to become writers, programmers and filmmakers. TRON’s concept of a virtual reality is firmly present in the DNA of cyberpunk, the online community Second Life and The Matrix.
About the only property that didn’t benefit from TRON’s influence was TRON itself. Disney, for its part, never seemed to be aware of what they had, or how to tap into this particular fan base. Gamers, clamoring for years for a follow-up to the video game, had to wait until 2003 for Tron 2.0, a first person shooter with a TRON-esque veneer. It wasn’t enough though and some industrious fans, tired of the delay, took to designing their own homemade “light cycle” games. (By now it was possible, as processing power on personal computers were greater than the ones used to make the movie in 1982.) While the light cycle duel is only about two minutes long in the film, it has inspired over a dozens different arcade versions you can find online for free.
Will Eno is to theater as Steven Wright is to stand-up comedy. His deadpan, non sequitur one-liners throw both the audience and the medium into awkward mirth. Like Wright, Eno is more deeply a poet than anything else. He interrogates language and being and neatly dissects our assumptions, rationalizations and sentimentality, while yearning on our collective behalf for the very simple yet deep contentment that he tells us we're foolish to want. (There is a character who calls himself "The Beauty of Things" and "The Majesty of Life," smirking the whole time.)
Eno's writing contains a dramatic tension between the beautiful and the lacerating, the soothing and the snide—much as there is in another recently performed work, Alex Chilton's Big Star masterpiece of 1978, Third/Sister Lovers. (See the Indy's preview and Lisa Sorg's superb report from the show.)
Oh, the Humanity has lines that wonder at one point whether men in a photograph (which the audience is kept, tantalizingly, from seeing) have just done something heroic or are about to do something violent. Are the characters in the final scene going to a funeral or a christening? Should we feel devastated by a plane crash that kills everyone on board, or perhaps cheered that the jet managed to stay in the air as long as it did—even that it could fly at all? Which side of your life are you living on? In describing your likes and dislikes, do you find that they just cancel one another out?
Eno's is not so much the comedy of half-full/ half-empty—he's a flag-waving pessimist, albeit a very, very funny one—as of whether you can nudge your consciousness into seeing its pitiful little lot from the right side of the glass, if you can even decide what side that is. There is a satisfying laugh-line early in the play, in which an embattled (i.e. losing) sports coach says: "I found myself standing in the unforgivable light of a grocery store, staring at my reflection in a freezer, and realizing: ‘You’re not having a bad day—this is just what you look like.’”
(The moment echoes the most memorable line from 2007's The Cornucopia of Me, the occasionally Eno-like one-woman show by Katja Hill, who also performs in Oh, the Humanity: "You're not depressed. Your life just sucks.")
Well, how does he think the bags of corn niblets feel on the other side, freezing to death in their little plastic baggies, hoping desperately to be plucked from a pile of other corn niblets? The monologues following the coach's, aptly, are given by people making video personal ads of themselves.
Eno unsparingly harries not only his characters but his audience, as he did in Thom Pain (based on nothing), a highlight of local theater in 2006, also a Manbites Dog production and also directed by Storer. When was the last time a stranger described your expression for you? (How hard it is not to immediately assume it!) How often, recognizing your own feeling in an onstage character are you filled not with sympathy and identification but embarrassment?
You walk out of Oh, the Humanity on edge, maybe even put off by Eno's presumptuousness. "Be more mortal," one of his characters exhorts you—while asking you and your fellow audience members to pose for a photograph, that most immortalizing and self-conscious of moments.
Not an easy thing to be charged with, since a) you're already doing that, with animal inevitability, and couldn't possibly do it more unless you were to drop dead in the theater; and b) being mortal is the one thing above all you'd probably rather not think about doing. Doesn't God promise us immortality—if, that is, as Eno interrupts himself to add at one point, if there is a God?
After the play I felt scoured clean. Oh, the Humanity scrubs off not just the simple syrup of sentimentality, but its more insidious relative, what Vladimir Nabokov called poshlust: a Russian term that encompasses "corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature."
(A fuller elucidation appears in Nabokov's 1967 interview with the Paris Review.)
What's dangerous about poshlust is that it lurks even in well-made art and uprightly lived lives. Eno battles it many ways—and in the Manbites Dog production, he has to wage further war against the comforting, pretty and prettily sung John Prine tunes with which Storer has interlarded Eno's scenes (the production's only significant misstep, I thought).
But Eno's drying, acidifying, truth-seeking strategy is perhaps best exemplified by the poor, pathetic football coach, who builds up to a big explanation for his team's failure but finally just says: "I don't know."
And it was in that state—uncertain, in-between, both-sides-of-the-glass—that I walked out of Manbites Dog Theater into a world uncertain and in-between. Into a world transformed, or transforming.
SOUTHEASTERN FILM CRITICS ASSOCIATION HONORS ‘THE SOCIAL NETWORK,’ ‘THE KING’S SPEECH,’ ‘WINTER’S BONE’ AND OTHERS
(Dec. 13, 2010) The Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) yesterday named ‘The Social Network’ the Best Picture of 2010. Director David Fincher’s incisive account of the founding of Facebook earned a total of four awards, with its other victories coming in the categories of Best Ensemble, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. [Complete list of winners at end of story.]
According to SEFCA president Curt Holman, the association’s 19th annual awards saw ballots from 43 members, all film journalists working in print, radio and on-line media in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The historical dramedy ‘The King’s Speech’ won Best Adapted Screenplay and two major acting winners, with Colin Firth taking Best Actor for his role as the speech-impaired King George VI, and Geoffrey Rush winning Best Supporting Actor as his unconventional speech therapist (in a narrow victory over Christian Bale as a crack-addicted ex-boxer in ‘The Fighter’). Natalie Portman won Best Actress as ‘Black Swan’s’ mentally unstable ballerina, and Hailee Steinfeld won Best Supporting Actress as a spunky, vengeful frontier teen in the Coen Brothers’ remake of ‘True Grit.’
Other winners include Charles Ferguson’s account of the U.S. financial collapse, ‘Inside Job,’ as Best Documentary; the Korean thriller ‘Mother’ as Best Foreign Language Film; Pixar’s popular ‘Toy Story 3’ as Best Animated Film; and True Grit for Best Cinematography. This year SEFCA introduced awards in the Best Cinematography and Best Ensemble categories for the first time.
In its sixth year, the Wyatt Award went to ‘Winter’s Bone,’ a drama starring Jennifer Lawrence as a young woman trying to track down her missing father against the backdrop of the rural drug trade. ‘Winter’s Bone’ earned runners-up honors in such categories as Best Ensemble, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress. Named after the late SEFCA member Gene Wyatt, the prize seeks to honor one film each year that best embodies the essence of the South.
TOP TEN FILMS
1 - The Social Network
2 - The King’s Speech
3 - Winter’s Bone
4- Black Swan
5 - Inception
6 - True Grit
7 - Toy Story 3
8 — 127 Hours
9 - The Fighter
10 - The Kids Are All Right
BEST ACTOR Winner- Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
Runner-up - James Franco (127 Hours)
BEST ACTRESS Winner - Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Runner-up - Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Winner - Geoffrey Rush (King’s Speech)
Runner-up - Christian Bale (The Fighter)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Winner - Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Runner-up - Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Winner - The Social Network
Runner-up - Winter’s Bone
BEST DIRECTOR Winner - David Fincher, The Social Network
Runner-up - Christopher Nolan, Inception
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Winner - The King’s Speech
Runner-up - Inception
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY Winner - The Social Network
Runner-up -Winter’s Bone
BEST DOCUMENTARY Winner - Inside Job
Runner-up - Exit Through the Gift Shop
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM Winner - Mother
Runner-up - Biutiful
BEST ANIMATED FILM Winner - Toy Story 3
Runner-up - How To Train Your Dragon
Winner - True Grit
Runner-up - Inception
The GENE WYATT AWARD for FILM THAT BEST EVOKES THE SPIRIT OF THE SOUTH Winner: Winter’s Bone
Runner-up - Get Low
3½ stars out of 5
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Dec. 12
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
3 stars out of 5
Theatre in the Park
Through Dec. 15
It’s “Is it good enough? ”
Take the professional touring version of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Under the circumstances, I’m tempted to follow that sentence with the Youngman-esque rejoinder, “Please.”
Clearly the musical, based on comedian Mel Brooks’ landmark 1974 send-up of horror films, is a haunted work. Unfortunately, what it’s mainly haunted by is its predecessor: THE PRODUCERS, Brooks’ previous landmark musical based on his 1968 backstage farce of a film. (For anyone who’s, um, forgotten, that production was an anchor on Broadway for six years, from 2001 to 2007.)
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN's apologists have pointed out, with some merit, that after the critical and commercial zenith of THE PRODUCERS, anything less than Einstein’s unified fields on stage was going to qualify as a comedown. Which, they assert, is how the mere 16 months that Brooks’ monster movie meshugas lingered on Broadway somehow became so much chopped liver: by comparison. By itself, the reasoning goes, it’s a perfectly fine piece.
None of which alters my main point, which is this: At this juncture, no ticket buyer is walking into Durham Performing Arts Center under the illusion that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is the equal of THE PRODUCERS — or walking out, shocked (shocked!) to learn it isn’t. In our critical culture, that question was effectively addressed a little over three years ago; it’s something of a waste of storage media for me to pretend it wasn't.
Which leaves the question I’m called to answer here, instead: Is it good enough?
But why, pray tell, should we have all the fun?
Below are the categories and guidelines our critics will follow in determining the award winners for 2010. If you were on our panel of critics, which show would you nominate for best production? Which individual performances would get the nod for best lead and supporting work? Did any production rise to the level of Achievement in Ensemble — with superior acting in all leading and supporting roles on stage? And what individuals, groups or organizations — again, if any — gave special assistance to the theater or made special theatrical achievements in the Humanities?
Go ahead. Tell us. Tell the world. The recognition that you give a deserving artist for their superior work — in our comments section below — will make your appreciation and support of them public. (Plus, it just might jog our critics' memories!)
There’s not a lot of scenery in the N.C. Symphony and PlayMakers Repertory Company’s take on Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, but what’s there nearly upstages the drama. Presented with the entire symphony on stage, with the actors working on front (and occasionally behind) the musicians, the production pays brilliant tribute to the love of music at the heart of Shaffer’s characters, but technical problems at Friday night’s performance made the story at the heart of the music occasionally difficult to follow.
The presentation employs microphone headsets for the actors to help project to the wings of the 1,600-seat Meymandi Concert Hall, which in the first act suffered from slight distortion and low volume. Even those seated near the stage, where I sat, found it difficult to hear the dialogue—particularly problematic when a great amount of the production involves fast-paced, overlapping quips and characters speaking in multiple languages.
The production reprises the cast and direction from PRC’s production last year, with the notable exception of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Michael Urie from television’s Ugly Betty (Urie is having a very good week: It’s also been announced he has a new TBS pilot and will take over the role of Prior Walter in the current Off Broadway production of Angels in America).
Urie brings a flamboyant comic energy to the role in the first half, but particularly shines in the second act when portraying Mozart’s increasing desperation. He’s well-matched by Ray Dooley, who reprises his role as Salieri. Dooley nicely plays up the self-righteous, unreliable narrator aspects of the “patron saint of mediocrities” while giving him a sympathetic, childlike joy at Mozart’s music.
And what music it is. Even though the play stops for long portions for the actors to sit on stage and react to the N.C. Symphony’s performance, director Joseph Haj (who also plays the Emperor), keeps the pace tight enough that it doesn’t feel as though the narrative simply serves as an intro to the music. Grant Llewellyn’s conducting gives the music its powerful due—you can feel the ominous power to the Requiem or the joy of The Marriage of Figaro.
By the second act, the dialogue problems were mostly fixed, and theatergoers enjoyed an evening of great drama and great music. If the Saturday and Sunday performances address these issues, then this will be one of the strongest theater productions in the Triangle this year. If those issues aren’t resolved, then … well, there’s still the wonderful music.
Oh come all ye lonely, baffled and despondent, oh come ye, oh come ye to—Manbites Dog Theater, where your questions will be asked, your fears and hopes revealed, and your dreary isolation breached by a touching production of Will Eno’s Oh, the Humanity and other Exclamations. You may not get enough information to figure out just where you are on the time line between birth and death, but you certainly will be reminded that you are not headed toward the former, and that you might better open your eyes to the Majesty lurking over your inattentive shoulder. Majesty is represented here by actor Derrick Ivey, smiling like the Cheshire Cat as the lights go down, making that spiritual reminder as smooth and snappy as chocolate spiced with cayenne.
If you are looking for plot or even continuous narrative to impose fictitious order on life, don’t look here. As David Berberian’s character, a coach holding a press conference to talk about a losing season, says about his year, this play is “barely a shambles.” It consists of five short playlets, each with one or two characters (plus Majesty, at the end), and nothing really happens in any of them. But stories are told, unanswerable questions are asked, and the metaphysics of reality and representation are given a fresh thrashing. It is all talk—smart, heart-out talk without a shard of brittle cleverness. Eno treats us hapless humans gently; when he laughs at the pathos of our lives, we laugh with him.
There was a retro-red diner table in the right corner just before the insubstantial wall segregating the women’s bathroom from the opaque air—as I’m re-etching this scene, I’m distracted by the memory of a melancholic collage sprawling the wall adjacent to my corner table. The image was of a naked woman cloaked in dense shadows, hunched like a question mark, cupping her chin in her hand. I always found it a befitting portrait, no more displaced than the regulars who lit their first cigarette of the morning in this sanctuary for solitude, appropriate murals for an asylum of lonely people.
Pete arrived shortly after I had situated myself in what became my perfect corner refuge and scattered my ritualistic array of 85-cent coffee, composition books and inspirational poetry—Nikki’s Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgment, Neruda’s… anything. My memory recalls this balding, unshorn white dude lancing over and hovering a bit before asking to share my table, a perch at which he’d performed his own writing rituals countless mornings before. It was then that Peter Eichenberger began to influence my vision of the world through Cup A Joe’s smoke-laden lens.
We talked about North Carolina State University, where I was then a student skipping class to write poems in dingy coffee bars. Our easy dialogue ran the gamut of personal resumes, southern anecdotes, relative weirdocities and the tiny details of wronged worlds. So inspired, I penned a rusty little poem called “The Night We Won the Game” in the midst of my very first conversation with Peter:
The town in the city/ is the running man’s home place/is the sidewalk that sleeps/ with its eyes awake…
Subsequent mornings overlapped late afternoons, and we continued dissecting Hillsborough Street through conversations and lukewarm coffee, snatches of homelessness, pitchers at Sadlack’s, and promenades down back alleys once designated mandatory thoroughfares for Raleigh’s late-night black folk.
Who knew from that first encounter, sitting there, listening eagerly to Pete’s political waxing and hypnotic inquisition into the woman I hoped to be, we would spend the next couple of years navigating the nuances of our Hillsborough Street, beginning each morning with a warm corner cup of joe, my dear friend and I, ending up places I had passed many times on my own reticent strolls, but, would’ve never guessed I belonged.