Saturday, April 28, 2007

New York Report: I Love New York

I'm in New York City, having arrived Friday afternoon for Chris's concert with JACK tonight. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art yesterday afternoon (free after 4 p.m. and nothing much is free in New York.) What a surfeit of riches at MOMA. We spent several hours and barely dented the possibilities. I like it better than the Chicago Art Museum or the Louvre, maybe equal with Musee D'Orsai in Paris, because it has more of the art I like, less of the boring stuff.

We met Chris for dinner at a great Thai place just around the corner from Carnegie Hall. Where to meet? Why, just under his picture, of course. JACK is promoted, just like they were a big time group. Chris is all smiles. He has been having a great week. He announces at dinner that he and his girlfriend are going to move to New York this summer. I think I know, but just to be sure, I ask, "You mean, like, you're both going to be in New York, or you're going to live together in New York?" Well, I didn't want to make any assumptions. I did offer to buy champagne instead of sinking weeping to my knees.

The New York Times for Friday lists among its classical music offerings for the weekend the "Kronos Young Artists Concert" with "four emerging quartets." We're hoping somebody reviews the concert Saturday night.

There's lots more I could tell, and will after I get back home, but at $18 an hour, this abbreviated report will have to do for now.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ebertfest Report: The Weather Man and Moolaade

I saw two excellent movies today. My favorite was The Weather Man which came out in 2005, starring Nicholas Cage and Michael Caine. Cage plays a weather man on a Chicago television station, who is separated from his wife and has trouble making connections with his father, played by Caine, and his children. People blame him when the weather doesn't turn out as predicted and throw food at him when they encounter him in the street. Although he is making $270,000 a year, he is a loser, and nobody beats Cage, with his natural hangdog expression, at playing a loser. Although there is eventually some sort of resolution, it is not a formulaic Hollywood ending.

Everything about this movie is great. The script is one of the best pieces of writing I have seen. It is intelligent, moving without being mawkish, and knows when to mix in humor to lighten the depression. The cinematography is outstanding. The movie looks good; the pictures are pretty; the blocking is interesting. The acting is great. I have already mentioned Cage and Caine who always give good performances, but the lesser characters, particularly, Gemmenne de la Pena, as the overweight daughter and Nicholas Hoult, as the troubled son, also do fine jobs.

Attending the showing and talking afterwards were the writer of the movie, Steve Conrad, and the actor, Gill Bellows, who does an excellent job as the son's counselor who makes a move on the son. Conrad has the kind of quirky intelligence that makes him the kind of person who would be fun to know. A friend, who attended the morning panel discussion, heard Conrad's young son, who looked to be 7 to 9ish years old ask his father why he couldn't see the movie. His father said it was because it was rated "R" meaning that it had words in that he should not hear. "But, Dad, I've heard you say those words," Conrad's son replied. I gave this movie five stars and would say it is one of the best movies I have seen at the festival the last several years.

The second movie today was Moolaade, a movie set in Senegal about female circumcision (a nice word for genital mutilation.) Ebert touted this as the best movie at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. I don't know what else played at the festival, and although it certainly is a good movie, it is a message movie, although one done very well. It is set in a Muslim village and does an excellent job of depicting the color and the deprivations of poor West African villages. Trouble starts wehn Colle, the second of four wives of a powerful man, who has refused to let her daughter be cut, is asked for protection by four other young girls who do not want to be cut. She invokes "moolaade," a word meaning protection, which involves tying a strand of bright yarn across the entrance to her compound. It is believed that anyone who violates the moolaade will have terrible things happen to them, so the girls are safe as long as they stay inside the compound.

The male elders get fed up with the feminist rebellion, and put their foot down, burning all the radios they women have been listening to and pushing Colle's husband to beat her until she lifts the moolaade. She refuses to submit, despite the public beating and as she stands taking the blows, the other women of the village start cheering for her. Eventually, all of the women unite to prevent their daughters from being cut.

The discussion afterward included the lead actress of the movie, Fatoumata Coulibaly, herself a practicing Muslim living in Mali, who has herself been genitally mutilated. She said it was hard for her to do the movie because it includes a rape scene in which her breasts are exposed, and public nudity of any kind is against her religion and her culture. However, she feels so strongly about the need to stop female circumcision that she felt it necessary to do the movie. She explained that the result of the mutilation, which removes the clitoris, supposedly so the woman will not enjoy intercourse, causes sexual intercourse and childbirth to be extremely painful.

Although Moolaade was made in West Africa and is intended to influence West Africans, it has been shown primarily in the West. It has been shown hundreds of times in Europe and North America and only three times in Africa. Some of the West African governments are outlawing the practice, but individual villages still have to be convinced to stop it and that can only open when real women, like the women in the movie, declare that they won't take it anymore. I gave this movie four stars.

I am sorry that I will miss the remaining movies of the festival, particularly, given the health of Roger Ebert, the future of the festival is in doubt. Hopefully, it will go on, even when he is not able to participate, but we were told that this year's festival was about to be cancelled when Ebert was told that the season passes had all been sold in less than a week, he said that he would make it if humanly possible. Some of the movies still coming up that I would have particularly liked to have seen are Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Paul Cox's Man of Flowers, Werner Herzog's Stroszek, Andrew Douglas's Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley of the Dolls. Herzog's movies are always interesting and Herzog himself will be here, although without Ebert to interview him, I don't know that he'll talk until 2 o'clock a.m. with a still-packed house hanging on every word like the last time he was here. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, although I've never seen it, is from what I hear, sleazy, but it was written by Roger Ebert, so it would be fun to see what was coming out of his warped mind 35 years ago.

But we fly out of Midway Airport tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock, without regrets for the Big Apple. Hopefully, there will be other Ebertfests in the future; one's progeny debuts at Carnegie Hall only once.

Ebertfest Report: The Start of the Ninth Annual

Last night was the opening of the 9th annual Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival. I am a big fan of Roger Ebert and his festival, usually taking vacation days so that I can attend everything. This year, I will only be able to go to the Wednesday night and Thursday movies because of Chris's concert at Carnegie (see below.)

Ebert displayed a lot of courage, or maybe a fanaticism about movies that exceeds the bounds of reasonable people by showing up Wednesday night. He had warned the public in a Chicago Sun-Times column on Tuesday that he's not a pretty boy anymore. He's not; his face has become misshappen because of multiple cancer surgeries on his jaw; he can't speak because of a tracheotomy and he's walking like a man with a lot of health problems. But his spirit and his love for movies and for his hometown are still there. His wife, Chaz, did the speaking for him last night, with Roger standing at the podium beside her, scribbling notes and making her laugh.
I like Ebert's movie picks, although I don't always agree with his evaluations, because although he has informed opinions, he does not exhibit the distain for ordinary people and pedestrian movie tastes that some self-annointed movie experts show.

I did not like the opening movie last night, Gattaca. I have a prejudice against science fiction; I just cannot suspend my disbelief enough to get into it. This movie features an excellent cast, with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman in lead roles; Gore Vidal in his last movie, and Alan Arkin and Jude Law in supporting roles. It is set in the "not too distant future" (the movie was made in 1997, so maybe about now.) It envisions a world in which through DNA testing, parents can select nothing but good genes for their children.

Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, a young man who wants to go on a space mission to Saturn, but because he was born the old-fashioned way, cannot get into the space program because of genetic deficits in his eyesight, heart and life expectancy. He devises a way to fool the genetic testers using blood and urine samples from Jude Law's character who has the right genes, but a broken down body from an automobile accident.

For such a technologically-advanced society, the gene testers are ridiculously easy to fool. Improbability is piled on top of improbability, until the whole structure topples over into the mandatory Hollywood chase scene. If chase scenes don't hook you, there is also the formulaic love interest with the beautiful Uma Thurman character, who figures out the scam but doesn't say anything.

Ebert apparently likes this movie because it is science fiction based on "ideas," the idea that a "perfect" world might not be so "perfect." That is all well and good but the "ideas" behind this movie neither educate me nor entertain me. The movie did nothing to change my prejudice against science fiction and I rated it two stars.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Everyone has heard the old joke about the tourist in New York City who asks the native, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The response is "Practice, practice, practice." Well, I'll be getting there Saturday night by walking just a block, from the Park Savoy Hotel on West 58th Street, after flying in to LaGuardia on Delta on Friday.

Why, you might ask, am I going to Carnegie Hall this weekend, the weekend of the 9th annual Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, to which regular readers know I am so devoted that I usually take off work from Thursday through Sunday to attend? There is only one reason that could pry me away from the historic Virginia Theater on the last weekend in April and that is a pressing family matter.

As regular readers know, I have a son, Christopher, who is an outstanding young violinist. He plays in a string quartet called JACK, which has gotten its big break. It is one of four quartets who won a chance to work with the biggest name in modern string quartets in the world, Kronos Quartet. They are in workshops, open to the public, this week in which they receive coaching from Kronos. This culminates with the concert at Carnegie Saturday night.
Chris has been a fan of Kronos since he was a kid, just learning to play violin (which hasn't been that long ago, he's only 23 now) and we went backstage to meet them after a local concert. His violin teacher, Ken Wollberg, knew one of the violinists, although I have forgotten which one. The appeal of Kronos is best described in this quote from their first violinist, David Harrington, from their website:
"I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story if possible. . ."

Wouldn't you be excited if your kid was getting coaching from someone with a philosophy like that?

But wait, there's more. JACK is on a tour, which actually started at a small performance space called "The Tank" in New York on April 20. We asked Chris last night how it went and he said, "pretty good," which is about as superlative as he gets about his own performances. Usually he says, "It could have been better." The Tank doesn't hold many people, but they had a standing-room only crowd, he said.

Next week, JACK will be at Northwestern University on May 2nd, where they are being promoted as "one of the country’s top young string quartets specializing in contemporary music," (which I already knew to be true but it still gives me thrills to read someone else saying it.)

From there, they will come to Champaign and play on May 4 at the Music Building Auditorium. After eating some of my famous french toast on Saturday morning, they head back to Chicago to play at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago on May 5th. Then, they're off for several months until they head to Switzerland to play the Davos Festival from August 7-11, and the Lucerne Festival on August 16th. Their tour winds up playing the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy on October 8th.

If I have internet access in NYC, and I surely will, I will blog about our experience there. Also, check back late tonight and tomorrow for the first several days of Ebertfest before I leave for New York

Monday, April 23, 2007

Movie Report: Fracture

An abbreviated movie report to satisfy pg, aka anonymous, who thinks my reports do not give enough detail. Fracture is about a man who would have gotten away with murder if he had known a little more about the law. Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling have great roles and do good jobs of acting. The device by which the man would have gotten away, if he hadn't tried to represent himself as his own lawyer, doesn't make any sense. Three stars.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Movie Report: "Lives of Others" and "The Namesake"

I have seen two very good movies recently. Lives of Others won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language movie, an award it deserved in my opinion. It is set in East Germany, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It depicts what happens to the observer and the observed when the East German secret service spies on a popular author and actress. I gave it my highest rating, five stars.

The Namesake is about an Indian family that emigrates to New York City. It is a very warm movie, reminiscent of My Big Fat Greek Wedding in its depiction of the clash of cultures between first and second generation immigrants. This movie is less successful because the plot is a little thin. It is an adaptation of a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, a book which I have not read. My wife, who has read it says the book was better (but then books are almost always better.) I gave this movie four stars.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Ask Aunt Tillie: What About My Seester's Picture?

Blogger's Note: Since this blog is somewhat Amishcentric, I get questions from time to time from readers about Amish life and culture, which I refer to my Aunt Tillie, an opinionated, but humble Amish woman. Here is a recent question and answer. Please leave a comment or email me if you have questions you want me to refer to her in the future.

Dear Aunt Tillie:

My sister wonders what you would say about borrowing her picture from a school publication and publishing it on my blog. What is it about Amish and pictures anyway? Have you ever had your picture taken? Could you give me a copy to put on my blog so I can convince readers you really do exist?

Signed: Amishlaw

Dear Nephew:

So many questions; so little time. First of all, I have never read your blog, so I don't know how appropriate it was to publish your sister's picture. I hope you didn't show her face, not that there's anything wrong with her face, but we Amish prefer to be photographed from the rear. I think your sister's rear would have been just as nice to show your readers as her face, and it would have been less embarrassing for her.

What it is about Amish and pictures is kind of puzzling to me, too. Our preachers tell us that one of the Ten Commandments is that we are not to have any graven images, and that is why we don't have our pictures taken. The problem with that explanation is that we do have graven images of landscapes, animals and other things on calendars which we have all over our houses, so I don't think it's really the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments don't say don't make graven images of people, but maybe that's what they mean. I try not to do too much interpreting of the Bible, but just go by what it says. We don't like tourists taking our pictures, but who does? Even the Hollywood people, I'm told, get mad when tourists stick cameras in their faces and those are people who make their livings getting their pictures taken.

I did have my picture taken once, before I joined the church, and I gave it to Abner when he was courting me, but when I joined the church, I tore it up. It wasn't the sin so much that made me get rid of it as the feeling that if I kept looking at that thing, I would want to start improving my face and then could lipstick, liposuction and Botox be far behind? Since then I've only been photographed from the rear (and I have to confess that I start thinking about liposuction again when I see those ample shots) when some photographer showed up when I was in town buying groceries or some worldly nephew showed up at a funeral and wanted to take some souvenirs to show his friends.

As far as getting a picture of me to prove that I exist, I'm afraid I can't go along with that. What would a picture prove other than I'm getting a little old and wrinkled. The skeptical would think you just found a picture of some other Amish woman and the believers don't need pictures. I guess if God doesn't have to produce a picture to prove he exists, I shouldn't have to either.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Third Day Book Report: "Finn" by Jon Clinch

I read Huckleberry Finn many years ago, and although I am a Mark Twain fan and have intended to re-read it, there are so many good books I haven't read even once that I have never gotten around to it again. This month's Third Day Book Club book is Finn by Jon Clinch. This book is based on some of the characters of Huckleberry Finn, notably Huck's father, "Pap," who is called "Finn" in Clinch's tale. I had hoped to go back and read Twain's book before posting this review, but here it is, the 3rd day of April, so I'll just have to wing it.

I'm not sure what I think about the technique of writing a novel that is based on the characters of a different book by a different author. I don't think I like it, although in the right circumstances, I might. Many years ago, I read The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, a ripoff of the Sherlock Holmes classics and didn't like it. More recently, Scarlett: The Sequel to Gone With the Wind got some notoriety, and as I remember was panned by the critics and the public.

Twain is such a master story teller, than an author has to have considerable audacity to set himself up for comparison by playing around with his characters. Clinch is a good writer, apparently many critics consider him a master story teller up to the task, but I didn't like his effort.

The book starts with the discovery of a body floating down the Mississippi, and repeats Huck's folk wisdom from Huckleberry Finn that there is a difference in how dead male and female bodies float; one floats face side up and the other face side down. The body is fished out and turns out to be that of a badly decomposed woman, and, we eventually figure out, Huck's mother.

But that is only the beginning of the horrors. We soon find out that Pap, or Finn, as he is referred to in this book, has skinned the body and taken some of the skin to his blind bootlegger friend to be fried and eaten. Mark Twain was criticized in the 19th century for being indelicate, but to introduce his characters to cannibalism goes beyond indelicacy, even in the 21st century.

Some critics compare Finn to Cormac McCarthy's work, and although I haven't read a lot of McCarthy, I have read enough to know that it is too bloody violent for my tastes, as is Finn.

All of Clinch's characters speak in short, clipped sentences. Apparently, that's how Midwesterners talk, and they all say, "I know it," with alarming propensity. I could understand one character having a verbal tic, but everyone saying "I know it?" Clinch defends the use of the phrase, which occurs hundreds of time in the book, in an interview as helping advance the novel's "mythic scope." In the same interview he mentions Melville and Faulkner as sources of inspiration for his book.

I never studied English literature, and although I think I know the meaning of "mythic," I would need to go back to college to learn how having everyone say "I know it," advances mythic scope. I just know what I like, and although the author clearly knows how to write, I don't like his writing. I gave the book two stars.