5.28.2010

"The New Daughter" Film

Warning, there are spoilers ahead.
"The New Daughter"
I'm excited because APPARENTLY this one was made into a film starring Kevin Costner (which, with me, can only mean one thing) that had a limited release by Anchor Bay last month. Now I have to find it....


This story expands on a parent's fear of a child growing up. She leaves her toys behind, she rebels, she dabbles a bit on the edge. And what she goes through is something that parents can only understand on the surface. If they try to dig any deeper, they will hit a stone wall and their understanding will begin to crumble and fade. Connolly uses his gift for folklore to explain this change as related to the stories of faeries exchanging human children for changelings. This kind of abrupt change in a pre-teen girl must   be paranormal, right? Right? I appreciated the father seeing a "red flicker" in his daughter's eyes. On the surface, it appears to be merely visual, and symbolic of her changeling nature. I think it's more than that, though. It seems (in the least disgusting way possible) to refer to menstruation, something that her father would not only have trouble understanding, but of which he would (like most fathers) avoid any kind of contemplation.

It's the same as it's been since the dawn of time: girl tries to grow up. Father tries to stop her. Father blames other people when she grows up anyway. And she does, for all intents and purposes, become his new daughter. And she knows, better than anyone, that no matter how vigilant her father is, her brother will one day grow up as well. It expresses the futility of parenting. You wish to do right by your children and, because you are their parents, everything else in the world seems somewhat malicious.
                            - From my take on reading Nocturnes (pt. 2)

Available for purchase on Amazon.com
Let's just say the film is loosely based on Connolly's story. The main frame of the story is the same - a study on the futility of parenting. One of the first few scenes really captures this - shot so that we see the children in whole, but only see the father from the chest, down. Some of the specifics are a little different - the daughter seems a little older than in the story, the son seems a bit older too (I kind of pictured him as a short little tow-headed kid who still had chubby legs - not so here.

Whereas the story takes place in the British Isles where the faerie hill makes sense, the film takes place in rural South Carolina (but no one sounds like they're from South Carolina), leaving the mythology of the hill to be kind of fudged. They make the argument for some kind of Native American mythology related to the mounds (which they say in the film, link many civilizations across the globe) and apparently some gods (called mound walkers) who lived within the mounds. The entire concept is explained parallel to the lifeforce of an ant colony - many workers, one queen ant, and a replacement queen ant coming to power, etc. While obviously made up, and a little silly, the mythology lends itself to certain themes within the original story that have translated to the film.

For example, the opposing forces of light and dark. Dark seems to prey on the light - attack the light, even. Dark -haired Louisa pushes the blonde bully down the stairs and seems constantly at odds with her blonde father and tow-headed brother, and her brother's blonde teacher. Her doll Molly (later replaced with creepy spider-bearing straw-doll from hell) is also blonde. Blonde hair seems to represent an ideal or a promise of childhood that is targeted and disposed of by puberty.

The red eyes of the story are gone, but it's replaced with a very creepy vision of Louisa with darkened eyelids (as if she's wearing too much eye makeup - this is how dad Kevin Costner knows that his daughter is gone), and when Louisa comes home covered in mud and crouches in the tub, there's a swirl of scarlet within the brown run-off, indicating a wound? or menstruation? or that she was raped by the scary mound people. Unfortunately, the latter seems to make the most sense for the mythology and process of the film. Yuck.

Along with the interesting chest-level shot early in the film, there's a deliberate attempt to highlight the father's metaphorical near-sightedness....with actual near-sightedness. He wears a pair of specs around his neck at all times, and I really appreciated that bit of nonsense. 

Unlike the creepy pale-faced no-eyed faeries of Connolly's story, there's a human-sized threat in the film. I liken the revelation of their presence to a cross between "Lost"'s smoke monster, and the anticlimactic appearance of the green alien in the Brazilian videotape in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs". The sound effects were boar-ish and wheezing at once. I was almost convinced that the real monster was the smoking man from the X-Files!

But then I heard it eat the nanny and grab Erik Palladino out of the police car, I realized that William B. Davis simply was not nimble enough to pull that off. And then Kevin finds himself in the kitchen with it, and I was pretty sure it was floating. It looked like something out of the Ninja turtles cartoon series. My exact stream of consciousness response was "Is it floating? Is it a giant ant? SHIT. SHIT. WHAT THE FUCK? SHIT. It looks like an ant with Walter Cronkite's head on it! WHAT THE FUCK!" (Yes, that's transcribed from what I wrote while watching the film).

Now, the story ends pretty eerily - the daughter has changed, the father lives in constant fear, he holds onto his son (until he inevitably grows up). But the film takes it a few steps further and past the realm of any kind of examination of parenting society. Kevin tells the son to stay in the house and wait for the police and tell them to call (divorced) Mommy. Kevin (who conveniently has dead cop Erik Palladino's car (and arsenal?) at his disposal runs to the mound and follows the tunnel and carries his daughter's body out, only to be chased by creepy golum-ant-walter-cronkite-kraken-looking things. Then his "daughter" begs him to stop but he sees the too-much-makeup look and knows it's not her, so he seals the hole and blows the mound up.

We see this through the eyes of the son who's left the house and now stands framed by the fence in the yard. He sees the explosion, and we watch as his eyes go from upset to hopeful. He obviously sees a figure in the distance. He says "dad?" and we hear a twig snap, a hint of a smoking man wheeze, and then we see a creepy golum kraken monster a few feet behind him AND THAT'S IT.

WHAT?!?! What happened to the very human study of puberty, the father and daughter always being at odds, a father's need to protect his son? Where did it go? GOLUM KRAKEN ANT WALTER CRONKITE!!

5.24.2010

Review: Salem Possessed - The Social Origins of Witchcraft, by Paul Boyer & Stephen Nissenbaum

I have to say, I feel like I was gypped in my high school education.

Okay, so that goes without saying, really, I mean...it was a Florida public school and the fact that I made out with any kind of basic knowledge of anything should be a credit to the individual teachers, as well as my own passion for learning (since, if either I or my teachers had gone by the recommended curriculum of the day, I would have never made it back out of Florida). But still, I feel like I was gypped.

In my high school (which was, and still is, an arts magnet school), the theatre kids had English and Theatre classes back to back so as to keep certain lessons and certain projects in tandem and consistent. As a result, sometimes the lines between fact and literary fiction would get a little blurred. And it's not as if our 11th grade American History teacher did anything to help that. I've said this before - some of those teachers didn't know anything outside of the basic curriculum, so we got screwed.

Anyway, in our theatre-oriented English class we read a ton of New England drama/poetry (in preparation for our annual trip) and we read The Crucible by Arthur Miller (which takes the facts of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, runs them through a rinse cycle, and lays them out flat to dry into a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings). (Prior to that, I had read Kathryn Lasky's Beyond the Burning Time which explores a lot of the themes that are historically established in Boyer and Nissenbaum's history, but I had read it as summer reading prior to freshman year of high school so there was a test on it, but it was never discussed). That same year, we took the annual bus ride up to the north east, visited Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Salem, Mass.

Even modern day Salem seems to be in on the trickery. They have the name, so they have the fame - even though Salem Village (where the drama really took place) eventually became Danvers, Mass with just a little bit of overlap into Salem Town. And in the spirit of capitalizing on their witch-themed merchandise and ghost tours, they don't really tell you any different. They don't mention that most of the turmoil leading up to the accusations came from a split in the community - half wanting to maintain their membership in Salem Town and explore their commercial options, half wanting to segregate themselves and become independent of the very town that now hosts explosions of tourism every Halloween season.

Don't get me wrong - I love Salem. I've been back since that high school trip, and I've loved every second of it. I've done the ghost tours, I've shopped the mystical shops, I love the atmosphere that town has in October. But I feel like knowing what I SHOULD have known then, I'm disappointed. I'm excited to go again having all of this information and revisiting my experiential opinion of the place, but I wish I had had the real history, before.

Boyer and Nissenbaum have done their research. The book may be a few decades old, but with a topic that's now over 300 years old, a few decades doesn't make a lot of difference. Their exploration into the financial logistics of Salem Village's situation in the 17th century is a little boring at times, but their explanation of the divisions within the community between the Putnams and the Porters, on the side for or against Rev. Parris, and between Village and Town is remarkable. Sometimes I have to kick myself to remind me that people actually kept personal records in the 1600s and they had some of the same problems we have today (and not wholly plebeian, as I so often mistakenly think).

The facts are good, but on that same token, Boyer and Nissenbaum seem to lay aside any concerns from the religious standpoint. In the 17th century, with religion being the way it was, witchcraft was a scientific plausibility. Forget the social aspect of it - the idea of a witch/wizard/devil appearing in specter form to a victim was a rational concept! It wasn't JUST the socioeconomic situation that drove these trials to the head that they reached, it was the belief that such things could truly be.

Today, you need a video camera and a television or a projector with a screen to accomplish what the "afflicted" claimed they saw in 1692. Throw in the pinching and tormenting, and you just need to actually be present, screw technology. But that seems to be left out of Boyer and Nissenbaum's scope of understanding. They leave out half of the psychological impetus and that, to me, makes it an incomplete narrative. Seems to me, if you're going to lay a claim of understanding of the "social origins" of anything, it shouldn't just be the monetary end of that understanding.

5.14.2010

Review: Diary - a novel, by Chuck Palahniuk

If I am unsure of a book, if I want to like it but the first few pages make me want to gnaw my face off, I give it ten percent. Figure out how many pages it has, divide by ten, and that’s how many pages I’ll give it to convince me that continuing is in any way worth it. I used to agree with the old librarian rule of reading your age (i.e. I’m 25, so I’d read 25 pages) but on shorter books, that proved silly. In this case, the book is 260 pages, I read to page 26. And I still hated it. But I kept reading, probably out of some sadistic need to end up hating myself, Palahniuk, everyone in the novel, and viewers like you.

This epistolary novel revolves around art-school-dropout Misty Marie Kleinman Wilmot and her fated existence among the chipped paint facades of Waytansea Island, located somewhere, it seems, in New Jersey. Appropriate for a hellish existence, New Jersey. There, she has been baited and lured, and now she hangs on the line as her life, and her previous lives, flash before her/our eyes.

The novel is not without merit. It’s intelligent and colorful and, if nothing else, proves that someone’s done their painting homework. But anything written in (even semi-) second person (i.e. addressing the reader as a character) as this is, can be jarring, unnerving and uncomfortable. It was like having an anxiety attack for three days straight.

Somewhere around page 200 I decided that I didn’t completely hate it, that it wasn’t just some sadistic need to be reading that kept me doing so, that there was something of me in it relating to the art. But as I reached the last few chapters, that vicious self-serving need to just finish the damn book took the wheel again. By the end, I felt like Peter Wilmot, sitting alone, gas tank empty, engine exhausted, poisoned by prose-y sleeping pills and fumes.

But the real kicker came when the story seemed over. On the last page of the book, Palahniuk does exactly what I loathe, exactly what Porter Grand did with Little Women and Werewolves by including the fictionalized publisher’s letter and exhibiting the novel as a previous version by Alcott. It’s a cop-out. Palahniuk’s work is far too intelligent to sink to that kind of nonsense. Better to end on an anxious high than sink in the finale with that kind of kick in the head that makes the psychological and kind of horrifying tone of the novel feel trivial and dull like hard plastic.

5.10.2010

Review: Little Women and Werewolves, by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand

It's been a while since I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I think my seeing the Broadway musical in 2005 was more recent than the last time I read the book. Fortunately, the entire work is available online, so anything I had to question was easily checked. I found that, as with Pride and Prejudice (and Zombies) and Sense and Sensibility (and Sea Monsters) most of the original text is in tact, and the additional material does in fact manage to enhance the work, not dumb it down (mostly).

Unlike those two Austen works (published by Quirk), Little Women and Werewolves comes to us from Del Rey (an imprint of Random House) and is co-written by new author Porter Grand. While the werewolf gimmick works well within the confines of the sometimes homely and blasé source material, I have the same complaint about it that I had for the two Austen mashups; there is an all-around serious lack of irony that seems necessary in horror films and yet does not appear in these novels. Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre had ample irony, but it lacked a good enough story to make that irony worth the trouble.

In all three of these mashups, the gimmick is included in the main story within the first sentence. I get it. You need a hook. I accept that. But the title should do that. I would appreciate this book so much more if the characters didn't start off talking about their book's particular affliction as if they've never done so before. In Little Women and Werewolves, their full-moon-challenged canine friends have been around for quite some time. It seems almost lazy to bring it up on page one if page one has nothing to do with the horror.

Grand, in this case, has included a fictional letter prior the story's text from a publisher by the name of Mandrake Wells to Louisa May Alcott. It hints that the story we're going to read is in fact a "lost manuscript" of Alcott's, a version of Little Women before the final edit. I hate it when authors do that. I know it's in the spirit of fun, but I just think it's rude. Granted, history tells us that Alcott had an affinity for the gothic novel and for the more fantastical end of fiction. But the highly sexualized presence of the werewolves seems unlikely for Alcott. Example a) the scene where Jo spots Laurie through the window, example b) the scene were Laurie fulfills the condition that Amy made for their getting married, example c) Beth and Mr. Laurence's relationship.

The author here has set her book apart from the Quirk mashups in one other kind of a peculiar way. With Austen, we were talking about Zombies and Sea Monsters, both of which are just that; they are constantly that which horrifies. In these cases, they're an everyday problem, or at least it's made so by putting London in an underwater dome. *sigh* But with werewolves, they're only really a problem on the night of the full moon. Sure, the stigma continues to be there, but it's been made clear that the upper classes (and most of Europe) have accepted that anyone could be or become a werewolf, and that they're only dangerous for 12 (12.37) nights per year. And even then, most of them are overly conscious of their behavior and they will only kill when they absolutely must (or, apparently for some kind of revenge).

The real monsters in this book would appear to be "The Brigade," an army of leather- and metal-covered men whose goal is to discover and kill werewolves and their sympathizers. However, they are pretty consistently arresting and murdering non-werewolves and an array of persons who may or may not be sympathetic to the lycanthrope society. If they were truly doing their job correctly, then by the end of the book everyone would be dead. Unfortunately for them, their presence is mostly laughable and Alcott's characters both survive and thrive, as she meant them to.

Little Women and Werewolves
By Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand
416 pages
Del Rey
(May 4, 2010)



Also published this month was Lynn Messina's Little Vampire Women. Judging by the cover, alone (yes, I totally judge some books by their covers), I think I'll stay from that one.

5.06.2010

Review: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

I’m not really into memoirs or biographies/auto biographies. I find the majority of them to translate with a significant amount of conceit. Nor do I list graphic novels among the ranks of my trusted book army. I like words, and illustrations are often appreciated, but the comic-book-like format of graphic novels has always felt a bit juvenile for my tastes. When I graduated to words, I made a semi-conscious decision to avoid comic books and their older cousins, graphic novels. I recognize that my judgment of the format was without true cause and, for a large part, unfair.

While I still can’t get through quite a few of them, there are shining examples with more than passable literary merit that I’ve had the good fortune to stumble upon. One of these in particular, which I feel like I should have read some time ago, is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis which recounts her childhood from the years 1979-1983 in Iran during the revolution. Her cast of characters includes herself, her parents, her maid and her grandmother, and a carousel of political-prisoner-uncles and neighbors. It’s a story about socio-political structure, and about war, but most importantly it is about freedom.

When I was in school—in history classes—our education was limited to x number of years. “World History” in my high school ended in World War I. “American History” in the same school ended in the Korean War. My Western History class in college ended sometime during the Reagan administration. My college American History course ended somewhere around FDR. All of that being said, none of my classes were focused on what was happening in Persia once we got around about to Charlamagne in 1066. Iran was never mentioned as Iran, let alone the revolution happening there. Even the Iranian hostage crisis – the first time I heard of that was on one of the anniversaries of their release, on television.

My education thus far – especially my Florida education – was biased toward America every step of the way. Very few allowances were made for America being wrong in what they did. Thanks, FOX News. In similar fashion, young Marji witnesses the discrepancies between what is reported and what truly happens. In this way, her testimony is a reflection of both the Iranian experience as well as the universal experience. Her fiery response to being subjugated as a woman bears the same two-sided reflection. Her honesty is what makes the piece so unique, so superb.

It is this honesty that gives her narration its edge – she does not shy away from the pain and the death. She does not deny her reader the grim light of the true experience. The amusing and singularly “comic” aspect of the comic-book format allows her to balance the images in our mind with her somewhat humorous illustration of a body that has been cut into pieces. All this made even more approachable and comic by the presence of an illustrated Karl-Marx-like God who feeds young Marji’s conscious need for affirmation in her pursuit of feminine freedom and fame.

5.05.2010

Review: Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, by Kenneth Turan (and Joseph Papp), OR In Memory of Lawrence Sacharow

I have a bad habit of writing a little too much. In high school and college, and in the real world when you’re writing for something, you’re given a limit, i.e. your paper must be between 18 and 23 pages long, double spaced, 1” margins, 12pt font and include both a works cited and a works consulted, an outline and a title page, each page after page one must contain the page number next to your last name, make sure you use MLA citation. I know why that is -- for one thing, they don't want you exhausting yourself when you have other work to do, and for another, and more importantly, they want you to focus on your subject and tighten the paper so that it is succinct and to the point, but still good. I mostly fail at this.

In 12th grade, we were assigned a long and tedious research project on a pair of persons as assigned by our English and Drama teachers. Some people had two actors, some two directors, some two something else. I was assigned two directors/producers, which means I couldn't have cared less.

At that moment in time (early Fall 2002) I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I was certain that theatre was where it was at. When I applied to college, I applied to a lot of generalized theatre programs. I thought that I was going to go into dramaturgy, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with it. I had stage managed one main stage production the previous year (and poorly), so I wasn’t even sure that was what I wanted to do. I knew I was not going into acting, and I knew I didn’t want to direct. I toyed with the idea of props or lighting, but once I had a blowout fight with the lighting designer I’d worked with for three years that very fall, I kind of let all of that go. And I hadn’t yet directed my student production, but once I did, I didn’t really know what I was doing.  

But I had directors. They had given me Joseph Papp and Peter Brook, two of the most complicated and formidable theatrical persons ever. But, as with anything, I threw myself into it. Overachiever that I was, I was determined to learn everything about them. (That paper was titled "Deadly Theatre: The Exuberant Impresario vs. The Invisible Man - The Opposing Artistic Visions of Joseph Papp and Peter Brook" ...I think I must have been going for shock value or something, because that title blows.) I associated more with Joe Papp and, as a result, delved a little more into his work than Brook’s but my project was pretty well balanced. By the final draft it was just barely within the limit for number of pages. Actually, in trying to squeeze the last few sentences in, I accidentally cut a sentence from the end of one page and, as a result, my final draft had a page that did not continue properly from the previous one. Go me. But prior to that, I had an insane number of cited works and even more consulted works. I wish I’d kept the list. I had something like 90 sources, a list that you rarely see outside of a full blown bibliography, or perhaps encyclopedia.

There are memories – facts, dates, places, images – from that project that have remained with me, even though they didn’t make it into the paper. Most of them are from Papp. That could be due to my re-using the paper in my freshman year of college. I don’t remember what exactly that project was, but I essentially rewrote and condensed the Papp half of the paper just one year later. (That paper was titled "Joseph Papp: Peanuts, Rock Music & Free Shakespeare" ... a duller title has never been seen.) Fortunately, I still had my notes and my research cards from the initial project, so that worked out.

Papp has just stuck in my head. It also didn’t help that once I got to college my first class and my first professor was Acting with Larry Sacharow. A long time ago, Larry said, he had worked with and done odd jobs for Joe Papp. He bore an odd resemblance to Papp, as well. Really not helping is the fact that Larry continues to kind of haunt me. We lost Larry in 2006. Leukemia. He was really sick for a long time, but he worked very hard not to show it. The last production he directed at Fordham was Tony Kushner’s Slavs! (Thinking about the longstanding problems of virtue and happiness); I was his stage manager.

I had never worked with anyone like Larry before. Anyone who knew him will tell you that even when he wasn’t in the room, his aura continued to pervade the air of the production. He was so brilliant and his sprituality allowed him to be so undeniably in-tune with the material as if he were himself giving birth to it. And he made every single person involved feel invaluable -- even when I was in freshman acting with Larry (and I am a godawful actor) he knew what I was there for and he knew how to draw the best things out of me. Larry gave the entire process a musicality that I’ve been striving to match in everything I’ve done since then. He's stuck with me in this way.

And I see him everywhere – perhaps not as often as I used to, in the first year after he died. But I still see him. Constantly. It's terrible to know that someone who mentored you so ardently is no longer there to do so, and yet you can see them wherever you go...and they ignore you because...it's not really them.

Perhaps that’s why I decided I wanted this book. Perhaps it didn't really have much to do with Joe Papp, after all. Maybe it was all about Larry. The dust jacket has a picture of Papp that is so reminiscent of this bemused, knowing and determined look that Larry used to get. The resemblance isn’t uncanny, they’re not twins or anything. But their look and the way they stood, emboldened by the bright passion in their eyes – this is where the similarities are.

I picked up this book hoping that it would enable some kind of mind blowing catharsis, that it would let me let go, both of Larry and of what I consider a silly attachment that I have to this thing called theatre. In a funny way, I think it's done its job. I was all set to write a real review of the book and talk about the way that it seems to peter out in the end, painted with huge primary-colored strokes as opposed to the 265-color detail of the first several chapters. And I was all set to comment on the use of collage - the way the interviews are textually collaged into the body of the book to create the history. And I was all set to harp on not having this book as a reference when I was writing my awful awful awful papers. But those things don't matter when I consider the real reasons for having it in my collection. Reading about Joe again has left me weeping - a little bit for the success of the NYSF, and a little bit for the memories, and a lot for the passion that reminds me so much of Larry. 

It's funny because this book has absolutely nothing to do with Larry Sacharow. After all, it was Peter Brook who believed in Jerzy Grotowski, and who did the epic Mahabharata (it was by Larry's insistence that Ratan Thiyam came to Fordham to direct The Blind Age which is similar in structure and story). And yet, it kind of has everything to do with Larry Sacharow. He was a revolutionary, a fighter, an inspiration. And having that idea come back to me by riding on Joe Papp's coat tails...it is cathartic. And, in a way, it brings a sort of peace.