Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Film Review: The Young Victoria (2009)

I was quite amused.

The Young Victoria is immediately engaging because, really, the costumes are just so darned pretty! The filmmakers obviously paid every bit of attention to convincing us that we were in England in the 19th century, and there's also the fact that in some scenes Emily Blunt, the young lady who's steely reserve and nerve make the film well worth watching, bears an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria with some of the hairdos and costumes that she wears.

So the costumes are convincing, as is the chemistry between Victoria and Albert (played with a sort of Hugh Grant affability by Rupert Friend), but the working of the plot doesn't always possess that spark. A few moments in the movie necessitate asking, "Wait, who's that guy?" and there's a particularly tricky moment in the middle of the film during a change in power in Parliament.

In short: If you don't know a decent bit about the relationship between the Queen and her majesty's government and the monarch's power to dissolve Parliament and force elections, there will be about ten minutes in the middle where you're utterly lost.

But that aside, the movie blends equal parts drama, suspense, good acting, and chick-flick cute romance between Victoria and Albert, and what dragged me into this film was that here, we're getting an image of a young queen who is passionate, in love, intelligent, capable, and affectionate. And it presages, as well, how Victoria would rebuild Britain's bureaucracy and lead a society through an identity crisis of science, faith, and advancement. She's not the dowdy old ma'am of the empire, the pouty woman who will tell you in a heartbeat that she is "not amused."

So watch The Young Victoria, and you will be quite amused.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: From "Chamber Music," by James Joyce

For all of his talent and experimentation as a prose writer, James Joyce was--at best--conventional as a poet. So far I've been showing off poems that I enjoy, but for a change of pace, I'll give you a piece that I think is a bit hackneyed and--unfortunately--shows what most people [quite negatively] expect from poetry.

So my apologies to James Joyce.

From "Chamber Music"

    Strings in the earth and air
    Make music sweet;
    Strings by the river where
    The willows meet.

    There's music along the river
    For Love wanders there,
    Pale flowers on his mantle,
    Dark leaves on his hair.

    All softly playing,
    With head to the music bent,
    And fingers straying
    Upon an instrument.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Star Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the creations of George Lucas have figured out space travel, war in the stars, and lightsabers.

And possibly, America is launching our world in that direction.

NASA just launched a prototype for the X-37B military spaceplane, which is about one-fourth of the size of a traditional space shuttle. My initial thought at the idea is cool, we've got a spiffy new miniature space shuttle. Cool beans.

But it seems at odds with the President's decision to cancel Dubya's plans to get Americans back on the moon, and NASA creating a spacecraft for the military also seems at odds with the same President just winning a Nobel Peace Prize. The most terrifying words in the BBC's article occur after a mention that the US Air Force is willing to discuss the vehicle's design: "...but its purpose remains classified." Especially problematic, because the vessel appears to be designed to orbit. And the last thing America really needs is being seen as even more aggressive and more war-mongering. Oy.

The sci-fi geek in me thinks that the possibility of life on other planets, of a world that's moved beyond our own, of taking that pioneer spirit into the stars, can be pretty fantastic. But...the military? I have some concerns about that, particularly given the dark side of human nature.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "[after the murder]" by G.C. Waldrep

Today's poem is from Waldrep's first collection, Goldbeater's Skin, for which he won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. At work in Waldrep's poetry is an intriguing mixing of historical, religious, and humanist terminology, which enhances--particularly in this collection--poems that attract the reader through clearly drawn images. What results throughout the collection are three sequences of poems that are tactile, visual, and entrancing.

[after the murder]

after the murder when men rise into the moon
I will be thinking larceny, I will be thinking spandrel,
I will be thinking anything except coterminous resolution
of the ineffable, I will express this absence as euchre,
I will cast lots for each trick as it falls
in the signature of this or that affection,
I will not meet their gaze, I will exchange my own
excess for a battered valise or else
a spangled trellis, I will dowse for the source
of that spring, the doxic clarity, I will offer cash,
after the murder my pockets will overflow in the soft light
spackling the inside of my schoolboy globe
illuminating the undersides of nations,
the living and the dead, I will engrave an open border
between feeling and action, between trespass and consequence,
I will accept the citizenship of my exile
as they lead me into a wider circumference,
I will raise my eyes to the roof boss of a productive fidelity,
I will bridge the river of my enclosure,
I will inscribe an island on the wrist of my nearest blood kin
without reference to politics, I will vote, I will adopt
the autarchy of a commendable introspection,
I will place one foot in front of the other,
I will spring the trapdoor of my forced amaryllis,
I will lift each pebble from its clay pot as I wash my own hands
in that icy water, I will accept this gift--your check--
though now they take all else from me.

Waldrep, G.C. Goldbeater's Skin. 2003. Center for Literary Publishing. $16.95/paperback.

Order Goldbeater's Skin from Barnes & Noble.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cleaning out the House, or It Is All Interrelated and Interconnected

In The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace sweeps aside any misconceptions about precisely just how screwed up this entire world is, and really, how much would it be worth saving this one, or should we just brush it off to the side and start up from some previous option?

For starters, The Broom of the System drops us in a slightly altered Cleveland, OH, where the phone switchboard console at the publishing firm Frequent & Vigorous has started channeling a number of phone calls all together. At the center of this mess of wires and misdirected phone calls is Leonore Beadsman, the daughter of baby food-tycoon Stonecipher Beadsman III. After a visit to the nursing home (bought, BTW, by the Beadsman clan) that Leonore's great-grandmother (also named Leonore) inhabits, Leonore the younger finds that her namesake--and a number of other patients/residents of the retirement facility--have seemingly vanished.

Add to this mix a strange brew of past coincidences, Leonore's jealous lover/employer Rick Vigorous (who has more penis envy because of his rather deficient member than Freud could ever imagine anybody having), Leonore's cockatiel Vlad the Impaler (who's rising to stardom on the evangelical TV scene because of a sudden penchant for spouting Christian messages that contain amusing double entendres), and a slew of clever yet witty philosophical references and a number of sharp jabs at the BS of psychoanalysis, and you might have used The Broom of the System to scrape all the insanity of this hyperrealist novel into the proverbial dustpan, for our--that is, the readers'--inspection.

And have I mentioned that Ohio has a desert in this novel? Yes--the Great Ohio Desert, referred to by the acronym "G.O.D." And East Corinth, OH--where Leonore lives--has a streetplan that looks like Jayne Mansfield.

Wallace drops us into a veritable wasteland of details, of overlapping stories that are often over the top but blisteringly relevant to the reality of the narrative. But so too are these flurries of activity that tire, exhaust, and frustrate Leonore as she sifts through the seemingly unrelated detritus of a dozen lives. Leonore discovers, in the process, that there's something quite seriously off-kilter about the whole layout of things, at least as her life is currently situated. It's not until she steps above her circumstances, sees through the sand, and looks down onto her own life, a little distanced from it, that she can observe precisely how all of these things--like the East Corinth streets--are situated to show us who or maybe what Leonore Beadsman is or isn't.

Upon observing that, upon choosing a different life path, things can finally start over again.

Wallace, David Foster. The Broom of the System. Viking-Penguin. Paperback/$16.00. 467 pp.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the Loss of the 'Titanic')"

Two Thomas Hardy poems in a row, but consider last week as an introduction to this one. Thomas Hardy wrote this particular poem upon learning about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic because of its famous iceberg collision on 14 April 1912. On the 98th anniversary of the Titanic catastrophe, I felt that this poem had a particular resonance and ought to be shared.

"The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the Loss of the 'Titanic')," by Thomas Hardy
I. In a solitude of the sea,
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
II. Steel chambers, late the pyres,
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents third, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
III. Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls--grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
IV. Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
V. Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...
VI. Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
VII. Prepared a sinister mate
For her--so gaily great--
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
VIII. And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
IX. Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
X. Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
XI. Till the Spinner of the Years
Said 'Now!' And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith

I can't believe that I'm about to say this, but...

I had fun reading this book. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter comes to us from the author of the pop-culture-acclaimed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, but whereas those two books take Jane Austen's novels and insert new material to drastically change the feel and environment of the novels, Grahame-Smith does something more innovative with Abraham Lincoln.

He spoofs the genre of historical biography, and he lampoons the pseudo-novelistic styles of biographers such as Doris Kearns Godwin and David McCullough. What results is a very grave-sounding narrative that tracks Abraham Lincoln through his early days and childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and presidency and assassination.

To be fair, it's not a particularly well-written book, but it's fun. We learn, in Grahame-Smith's reinvention of the famous president, that Honest Abe had a bit of a dishonest streak to him, one that had the very honorable inspiration of driving vampires from the woodwork and attempting to end their control over human life. To this end, he trains at night, studies, reads, forges letters, and hones his skill with his trusty axe. And through these ventures, he makes a number of allies, including a pale and distraught young poet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe. Like Lincoln, Poe has encountered vampires, and they confide in each other their knowledge of the undead.

So obviously, this book isn't to be taken seriously, but it's amusing precisely because Grahame-Smith writes the book as if it is serious. If anything, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter reminds us that those scholars who offer these seemingly monumental accounts of famous lives are still telling stories. And we're not reading the capital-t Truth so much as we are the author's vision of how this life went, one event at a time.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Film Review: Star Trek (2009)

To start off with a gem from Mystery Science Theatre 3000, "If you wonder how they eat and sleep and other science facts, remind yourself it's just a show and sat back and relax."

For being a science fiction flick made in the post-Michael Bay's Transformers deluge of massive machines and weapons exploding for three hours, Star Trek, which reboots the franchise with the iconic characters of Mister Spock and Captain James Tiberius Kirk, travels where few sci-fi filmmakers have gone in the past five years: into the cosmos of entertaining films, although Star Trek suffers from a few plot-wormholes that made this reviewer quirk an eyebrow in confusion.

The merits of the film, firstly, arise from the fact that Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine do not attempt to mimic Leonard Nimoy's Spock or William Shatner's Kirk, respectively. So it's not an imitation of Nimoy's expressive furrowed brows or Shatner's witticisms. Instead, we get a Spock torn between the two halves of his genetics--the logic of Vulcans and the emotion of humans--and a Kirk who keeps his laissez-faire attitude, albeit through throwing caution to the wind.

After the first twenty minutes of obligatory origin stories (since it is a reboot, after all), Star Trek accelerates into its plot's thrust...but here was an initial hangup. A Romulan named Nero (whose planet got engulfed in a supernova, so a psycho avenging a home lost in flame...that's not riffing off of ancient history) has traveled back in time through a wormhole, and he is, unbeknownst to our heroes, waiting to destroy Spock's home planet of Vulcan. Now, here's plothole the first: Why is the Federation spread so thin that its Star Fleet has to send cadets into space? Then, plothole the second: Why doesn't Nero take the opportunity to destroy the starship Enterprise--and importantly, Spock--when he has the chance?

Instead, he commits a classic bad guy blunder: not just killing the good guy while he has a chance. But no matter. There are some plot issues that arise from the timey-whimey premise (which I shan't go into here for the sake of avoiding spoils, except to say that somehow elements of parallel universes co-exist without destroying the entirety of the universe due to some implosion-causing paradox), but Star Trek is, first and foremost, fun--as any good sci-fi or fantasy flick should be.

And it's obvious that J.J. Abrams--the creative vision behind the reboot--still enjoys a few good Star Trek jokes. Firstly, there's a scene when Kirk, Sulu, and an ensign Olson have to disable a drill that's boring into Vulcan's crust. And Olson's quite obviously a redshirt, equipped with a red jumpsuit and parachute, and so when I saw them divebombing toward the drill, I immediately knew--just from the red uniform--that poor Olson was expendable. (Sarcastovoyance: Olson was, in fact, expendable.) There's also a witty trade-off between Kirk and Spock; when Kirk finally employs some logic, Spock finds fault with the ideas on an emotional level.

Star Trek doesn't have the most brilliant use of the time-space continuum; for that, I kindly direct your attention to Doctor Who. But what Star Trek does well is respecting the historic series while retooling the franchise for a genre that's used to too many explosions and not enough plot. And somehow, with all of the excitement, Star Trek manages to have an intricate--albeit flawed and slightly wormhole-y--storyline. It's an enjoyable film, particularly for sci-fi buffs, but it has enough action/adventure/why-is-Uhura-wearing-an-improbably-short-skirt-in-a-military-organization? elements to engage a broad array of viewers.

In short: ignore the timey-whimey plotholes. Watch it and enjoy the stuff it does really well, such as the interplay between Spock and Kirk.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "The Voice," by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was best known as a novelist, but he wrote those only to make his living. During the last three decades of his life, he turned himself to his true passion, poetry. Hardy claims, "My opinion is that a poet should express the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own."

"The Voice"
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Art of the Essay

Over the weekend, I finished Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, where Woolf concludes that for a woman to be an artist (or, really, if a woman's to pursue her own dreams and ambitions) she needs to have money and a room of her own. Basically, women need the same kinds of resources and respect that have traditionally been given to men. Only then can they have the opportunities to write, create, invent, etc. that the feminist movement has sought to instill.

But what struck me the most about A Room of One's Own was that it was an essay that was actually fun to read. Woolf ties in personal anecdotes, and she uses these with a dash of wit, humor, and research to flesh out her argument. And in writing the essay, she builds several small stories into her larger argument. She recalls when women received the vote, a time at which she just inherited from an aunt a large sum on money; she recalls at the time being more excited about the money than the vote, because it was money that would enable her to pursue her artistic ventures.

And then there's Woolf's hypothetical situation--what if Shakespeare had a sister, Judith, who was as talented as Shakespeare? Woolf tells us the story about Judith's life, about how she gets disparaged for reading books and never receives the education that her brother did, about how her attempts to follow in his footsteps get her ridiculed.

So yeah, A Room of One's Own reads like a piece of modernist prose, but it's engaging. Part of the problem that we find with essays is this thing that gets drilled into our brains in middle and high school, and it really screws our ability to write well: the five paragraph essay, "In this essay I will...." But Woolf tells us stories, she tells us jokes, and peppers anecdotes throughout to spice up her language and make the entire argument personal.

A good essay should do these things; a good essay should be engaging and fun and informative. In reading it, we should get an idea of exactly why this means so much to the author and why, therefore, it's important that we hear about it. Having personality isn't just for the personal essay.

And seriously, read A Room of One's Own.

(Star Trek review on Friday! Poetry on Wednesday!)