Monday, February 23, 2009

Chin National Day 2009

Somewhere back there in the blog logs I made mention of Chin National Day, a day set aside by the people of Chin State in the southeast Asian country of Burma - “you may know it as Myanmar...but it will always be Burma to me” - to commemorate “national unity, [and] simple truths of freedom, equality, and self-determination.” February 20th, 1948, was the day on which the people of Chin State - located in western Burma - rose up to demand their independence from the British. The Chin people continue to celebrate the anniversary of this important day in their history, and the people of Indiana - particularly on the south side, in Perry Township - are fortunate to have one of the largest populations of Burmese refugees of any city in the United States.

So...after Jackson had his nap Saturday afternoon, we bundled him up and headed down to the Perry Meridian Academy, which is attached to Perry Meridian Middle School, which is down on the south side on the northwest corner of 135 and Stop 11 (although technically I think Stop 11 changes names once you get west of 135). Their gym was packed, almost entirely with Burmese people, and so many of them were happy and smiling and clearly having a very good time. We got into the gym just as the speeches part of the afternoon was ending, so we didn’t stay in our seats for very long. People started clearing out, and we made our way to the cafeteria, where traditional food from Burma was being served.

Amy had a bowl of noodles with bits of hard-boiled egg in a light chicken broth, and I had a bowl of hominy and tripe (yes...tripe) in a thin broth of indeterminate origin. Each bowl also contained a deep-fried, salty cornbread dumpling. Served with these soups was a little bowl with salt, wedges of lime, and a small amount of an extremely spicy seasoning that contained chiles, lemongrass, and cilantro. Say what you will about people from Southeast Asia - they don’t screw around when it comes to heat in their food. The tripe was interesting at first - the texture was something akin to calamari, and it tasted vaguely of beef - but I found Amy’s bowl of noodles and hard-boiled egg more enjoyable in the end. The cornbread dumplings were very good, and the chile mixture (not pictured) was very good - though exremely spicy and not for the faint of heart.

We repaired back to the gym after we ate and were treated to a fashion show consisting of girls in elaborate dresses and boys in fancy sport coats parading up and down the stage; a dance in which the girls got to display some fancy footwork as they danced around and over a series of long poles that boys, situated at each end, were tapping rhythmically on the floor; and finally some wrestling, where the two opponents each had to take hold of a belt worn by the other and attempt to effect a takedown. Unfortunately, each takedown brought cheers and whistles from the sizable crowd, and all the noise scared poor little Jackson, so we had to beat a hasty retreat before the wrestling got too far along.

It was a little bit hot and cramped in the gym, with that many people, but it was still a lot of fun. I took about a million pictures, but my modem isn’t working and playing well with others and my Internet connection has been sketchy for the last couple of weeks, so I may not be able to post the pictures until I pick up my new laptop and get it set up and connected to the Interwebs on Monday night. However, I can post a link to a recent story in Poets & Writers magazine, about the state of literature in Burma; it's not a pretty picture. On a short list of the poorest countries with the most oppressed people on Earth, Burma would be at or near the top. Every word of every page of printed matter in Burma must be approved by government censors. There can be no defense of a such a policy, nor of an illegitimate faux governmental entity that supports such a policy. Quite a lot of Burmese people shook my hand and thanked me for coming to the Chin National Day celebration on Saturday - but we are the ones who should be thanking them, for having the courage still to smile, and to share their culture with the uncultured people of Indiana, who desperately need all the lessons they can get in diversity and tolerance.

And we can hope that humanity will continue to evolve, to the point that eventually the pox that is conservative thinking will be exterminated. Only then will freedom ring, and perhaps one day Myanmar will become Burma once again.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Wrestler

Finally got around to seeing Darren Aronofsky’s latest picture tonight after work, and it’s got me thinking about two other pictures - Aronofsky’s own Requiem For A Dream - to which The Wrestler bears some uncanny thematic similarities - and last year’s There Will Be Blood, from P.T. Anderson, which is similar to Aronofsky’s latest in that it’s largely a showcase for one particular actor.

The story is of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke, in a role that’s probably going to win him an Oscar Sunday night), a professional wrestler who is past even the twilight of his career. Twenty years ago, he headlined Madison Square Garden in a now-legendary match against the Ayatollah - and now he’s making the rounds of east coast regional circuits and contemplating a nostalgic repeat of his classic match with the Ayatollah.

(There are echoes here of the real-life match between Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik from back in the eighties. Hogan won the match, and the WWF title - and thereby set the stage for the massive explosion of popularity that professional wrestling enjoyed in the late eighties and early nineties, and which it is still enjoying, to a somewhat lesser degree, today.)

Then he has a heart attack, and now it’s time to take stock of his life and finally look full in the face all of the important things he has, to varying degrees, been ignoring all his life as he tried - and failed - to make a living in the ring. This consists primarily of making peace with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and making it known to the stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), he’s in love with that he is, in fact, in love with her.

All of it weighs on Randy, and Rourke brings this off brilliantly, with heavy, sad eyes, weary voice, and an air of resignation that hangs over him like a shroud. He goes through the motions of getting a job, calling on his daughter, and making awkward advances toward Cassidy; but the effort is Sisyphian, especially with respect to Stephanie. He manages to break through the space between their lives by buying her a present that Cassidy helps pick out - but then he misses a dinner date that he makes with her because he winds up partying with a girl he meets after Cassidy rejects one of his advances.

If the basic argument here sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same thing that happened to the Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans characters in Requiem For A Dream. Their addiction was smack - Randy’s is wrestling. It’s all he is, all he knows how to be - and the cruel irony is that the heart attack didn’t kill him; instead, it damaged him just enough to make him realize that everything he gave up for wrestling is all that he has left. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what to do with any of it, and we get to watch the inexorable pull of the ring as he runs into more and more dead ends in his post-wrestling life. (Actually, that’s not exactly true - he does know what to do with all of those things he has now instead of wrestling; he just doesn’t know how to do any of them very well.)

Much of the film plays like a documentary, which I think is due to three major factors. The first is the film’s style - grainy photography, close shots, and handheld cameras (though not nearly as pervasive - nor as jarring - as those employed in Rachel Getting Married) that foster a feeling of gritty realism. The second is the virtually complete lack of melodrama - these are just real people trying to do the best they can, and failing more often than not. None of the characters in this film have any delusions of grandeur - nor are they made to appear as though they do when they obviously do not. The third, of course, is the ghost of Rourke’s own checkered past, which includes, most importantly, a largely unrealized potential as an actor. To the extent that this film works, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it could not have worked without someone such as Rourke playing the lead.

That being said, however, the film is not without its flaws - the ending being foremost among them. (And this from someone who was a-okay with the abrupt ending of No Country For Old Men.) It’s pretty clear what’s going to happen to Randy, but waiting there in the wings - literally - is Cassidy, who is ultimately a stronger character than Randy because she does what he is unable to do. She walks off the stage in the middle of her set and goes to see Randy in his rematch with the Ayatollah - and in doing so breaks out of the funk that has become her own life. It could be argued that Randy remains true to himself by going back to wresting, even though he knows it will probably kill him; but the self to which he remains true is an incomplete, lesser self - and he chooses to remain that lesser self, despite the fact that his efforts to rise above it are sincere, if not motivated by his own designs.

I’m not arguing that there should have been a happy ending - nor even that there should have been a more complete, which is to say resolved, ending; but I think that Cassidy gets short shrift being left in the background as Randy takes to the ring. Marisa Tomei is up for an Oscar for this role, though she won’t win; and I don’t know that an extra scene at the end, giving a sense of where her character goes next, would have been enough to win a second surprising Oscar for her - but it would have gone a long way toward making The Wrestler a more satisfying film.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I’m not an expert when it comes to Woody Allen movies; I can’t identify the line of demarcation between his classic films and the slightly goofier things he’s been doing lately. I know that I’ve only seen two of the classic movies (although one of them might be the classic Woody Allen Movie), Husbands And Wives and Manhattan; and I’ve seen a little less than half of the output since Small Time Crooks, including the most recent picture, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Not being an expert is the reason that I don’t know the answer to the next question, and so have to ask it: When Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton were to Allen, in their turns, what Edie and her ilk were to Warhol, were they always cast as lighter-than-air quasi-bimbos whose every utterance landed somewhere between banal and idiotic? The reason I ask is that Allen’s latest Superstar, Scarlett Johansson, fits that mold perfectly in both Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Scoop; her observations are only slightly more insightful than the bombshells of wisdom Deanna Troi dropped on the crew of the Enterprise.

It’s almost like Woody Allen doesn’t even take himself seriously anymore, perhaps knowing full well that most of his audience stopped doing so years ago. Apart from the slightly bohemian setting, Vicky Cristina Barcelona might as well be Husbands And Wives Redux, except that Allen has already made all of these points before, and did a better job of it in the previous picture. And yet...I sort of liked VIcky Cristina Barcelona, even though I don’t think it’s all that great a movie.

With all of the other movies out there to Netflix, though, is it even worth the time to hunt and peck through the Woody Allen oeuvre for the gems that might be there (among the ones that are not already well known as gems) - or should I just watch Match Point and call it a day?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Movin' Out

So on Sunday we went to a ballet. No kidding. An honest-to-Darwin ballet, although I think it’s actually billed as a musical; either way, it’s not the kind of thing that I would usually do. On the other hand...this was neither your usual musical nor your usual ballet - I don’t think. My experience with musicals, since high school ended, has been fairly limited, and pretty much begins and ends with The Sound Of Music, which is the only musical that I actually enjoy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Murat - a few years back now, that wacky Twlya Tharp decided she was going to put together a stage production (the production notes say that the thing was “conceived by” Twyla Tharp - okay) that revolved around some of the better known “characters” in Billy Joel’s songs. I think it takes a pretty good songwriter to craft songs that actually make you think of the subjects of those songs as characters.

Right off the top of my head, I’m having trouble thinking of many other songwriters whose songs make me think of characters - or characters that seem as real as the characters in Billy Joel songs. Some Bob Dylan songs leap to mind - probably most people would agree with “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Hurricane” as the most notable examples, although since the latter is about real people I sort of discount it; and there are some Beatles songs that certainly fit the bill. Actually, there are lots of Beatles songs that fit the bill - “Eleanor Rigby,” “Ob La Di, Ob La Da,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” - although I think the best example has to be “Rocky Raccoon.”

Discounting “Hurricane,” the only song in that list that has characters that feel remotely real, in the tangible sense of the word, is “Tangled Up In Blue.” But Anthony working in the grocery store...saving his pennies for someday? Brenda and Eddie, who had had it already by the summer of seventy-five? Virginia, who is told that it’s better to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints because the sinners are much more fun?

Yeah, those cats feel real to me. Does it have anything to do with the fact that Billy Joel is a New Yorker? Damn straight it does. (Due respect to Bob Dylan, but he ain’t a New Yorker. You gotta be born and raised on those mean streets. Perhaps I am mistaken and someone can correct me...but I don’t operate under the assumption that there are any mean streets in Hibbing, Minnesota.) I was born right here in Indianapolis, Indiana, but there is something about New York that resonates in my soul. My Dad is from Bayonne, New Jersey, which is close to New York, though not of it. Some kind of yen for the Big Apple probably passed through the blood. The fondness for beer certainly did.

But’s not just the New York connection. There’s also a college connection. Everybody can think back to college and probably think right away of three or four songs - maybe even three or four albums - that form the beginning of the soundtrack of their college years (and if that’s not a Rob Gordon “all time top five” blog post waiting to happen, I’m sure I don’t know what is). One of those albums for me (while technically a compilation and not a real album) is the first two volumes of Billy Joel’s greatest hits. (Yes, there are two new songs on the album. Don’t even get me started on what a bunch of shit it is to put one or two new songs on a greatest hits package.)

I have a somewhat bizarrely selective memory. I think I recall staying up all night (or most of the night) in college once while Billy Joel songs played in the background from one or the other of those CDs. I remember for sure playing hearts with Heather and Jason and Kristen in Kristen’s basement and at some point hearing the song “Don’t Ask Me Why.” The jazz band in high school played “Just The Way You Are” one year. I still think it’s the most overrated Billy Joel song ever. Storm Front and its quasi-megahit “We Didn’t Start The Fire” closed out the 80s just as I was really beginning to get into pop music. (And that’s pop as in “short for popular,” not the bubblegum crap, although I did like some of that back then. But let’s not dwell on that - nor on the fact that Debbie Gibson was my first concert.)

Billy Joel was also the back end of a double-concert weekend in the spring of my freshman year in college. Both shows were at Market Square Arena, and it’s still the only time I’ve ever gone to back-to-back concerts. The front end of that weekend was Rush, touring to support Counterparts. Best. Show. Ever. Also at that Billy Joel show? Amy, though I didn’t know her yet and had only even met her once to that point. She was in the front row with one of her friends from college. Why? Billy Joel apparently has - or had - a lackey who walks the crowd before the show and gives front row tickets to hotties. Two girls from the dining hall I worked at that year were also at that show and were in the front row.

One last Billy Joel memory...the Grammy awards (I think) for whichever year he would have been invited to play “The River Of Dreams.” There’s a long pause in the song between the second verse and the third chorus, and he held that pause for at least twice as long when he played on the show, and muttered into the microphone, “Valuable advertising time going by...valuable advertising time going by...valuable advertising time going by.”

But I digress. Several paragraphs ago, this was about going to the ballet on Sunday. By now, of course, you’ve puzzled out the fact that the show in question is “Movin’ Out,” which played the Murat this past weekend. It was a sort-of Valentine’s Day present for Amy. We don’t really do presents much anymore, at least not of the material kind. I have more than enough “stuff,” although I can never seem to get rid of any of it. I always tell myself that I’m going to read some of the books on my shelves and then sell or donate them...and yet the stack of library books next to my reading chair is always about a foot high.

Anyway...I had heard that “Movin’ Out” would be in town, but I assumed that tickets would be too expensive, or gone right away - the show was huge on Broadway and is on at least its second tour across the country. But when I checked Livemaster or Nationtickets - or what the hell ever - a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that both of those assumptions were wrong. Tickets were both available, and relatively cheap, at twenty-five bucks. That sealed the deal.

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough - which is to say any - experience with musicals or ballets of the live variety to really be able to review the production, except to say that I quite liked it. It’s a ballet in the technical sense because it’s a story acted out by players who don’t actually recite any lines; on the other hand, all of the musical numbers are actual songs sung by a band that was situated on a stage elevated above and slightly behind the dancers on the actual stage.

The story started out with Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” who got married and then divorced, as they did in the song; from there Brenda hooks up with Tony from “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” and there are a couple of characters called James and Judy who are also a couple (I think) and moved in the same crowd with Brenda, Eddie, and Tony. I don’t know the song with James and Judy, though. The fellows all wind up going to Vietnam (the lyrics in “Italian Restaurant” are changed slightly to have Brenda and Eddie get married in the summer of ‘65 rather than the summer of ‘75, because there was obviously no one being sent to Vietnam in 1975), one of them gets whacked, and then, even though “they couldn’t go back to the greasers,” all of the friends who survive manage to reconnect and move on with their lives.

The songs were mostly excellent, even if the guy singing them didn’t quite have the chops that Billy Joel had when he recorded the songs. That lack of chops in places took nothing away from the energy he projected, and was helped along by some very capable background vocalists - and it was clear that the singer, the “Piano Man,” don’tcha know, was channeling Billy Joel and doing a pretty good job for a dude who looked a lot more like John Popper than Billy Joel.

The best number was “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” and what you have to do immediately is forget the post-modern music video that you saw on MTV and even the somewhat goofy march of the lyrics. The number came during the first act, when the guys were in Vietnam, and the action on stage was a night battle, and the song was played as a relentless, heavy, chord-laden barrage that was practically a death march. Try to get your head around the lyrics of that song backed by the heavy guitars from R.E.M.’s Monster - not the poppy chords of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” nor the acidic, sour drone of “Bang And Blame” or “Crush With Eyeliner,” but something more along the lines of “King Of Comedy.” And then throw in a dash of the Metallica album ...And Justice For All. Your head spinning yet? I think that was probably the idea.

The other exceptional musical number started with “Pressure” and stopped mid-song to go right into “Goodnight, Saigon.” It’s probably not a coincidence that those songs are back-to-back on the album they both appeared on (The Nylon Curtain). The latter is a very long song, and they didn’t play the whole thing, but they did do the most haunting lines - the ones that best spoke to the problem with the war in Vietnam:

They heard the hum of the motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive

I didn’t follow along with all of the characters as well as I probably should have - that inexperience, again, with the form of the production (and I don’t think it helped that most of the guys looked an awful lot alike and so did the girls, except for the brunette, who I think was Brenda) - but it worked for me, mostly because I love Billy Joel’s songs. Amy was worried that I would not like hearing someone other than Billy Joel singing those songs, and I wondered ahead of time if that would be the case, but it wasn’t. Like I said, the “Piano Man” (credited as three different guys in the notes, although I believe the cast listing for our show said it was a guy called Jon Abrams) clearly had his role as troubadour down pat and did as good a job being Billy Joel as I could imagine being done by anyone who isn’t Billy Joel.

But here’s how I know that it really worked for me. Before we got our seats, we briefly perused the tiny souvenir stand set up in the theatre lobby. One of the items for sale was the cast recording on CD of the Broadway show. I thought before I saw the show that I would certainly not need a CD of, basically, Billy Joel covers, no matter how good they were. I have volumes one and two of his greatest hits, as well as a couple of other albums that I have ripped into iTunes - and I figured I could mix together a CD of the songs from the show if I wanted to re-live it. A day later, though...I’m not so sure. There was an energy to the show - actually, even though I hate this word because of its corporate connotations, there was a synergy to the show that elevated those songs in that combination to something more than they would be on a mix CD. I think that might be a very acceptable definition of art.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

There's My Church, I Sing In The Choir

Charles Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln. You may not have heard about that, what with all the talk about Lincoln's birthday and all the talk about how our grumpy new President is learning the hard way that it's a hell of a lot easier to run for President than it is to be President. Feel free to look away if evolution makes you uncomfortable; if it does not make you uncomfortable (and you're in the mood for a link-fest), click here for a post concerning evolution on Cosmic Log, the lovely blog run by MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle. The first point he makes is that quite a lot of religious congregations will be talking about religion and science this weekend, which has apparently come to be known as Evolution Weekend, a project devoted to dispelling the myth that religion and evolution can't get along. The really cool part? The guy who started the whole thing, Michael Zimmerman, is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at our very own Butler University. religious thinking in Indiana. Who knew? (And yes...sigh...that is sarcasm.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Roger Ebert And The Reader

I was having lunch at work yesterday when I stumbled upon this blog post by Roger Ebert, which intentionally takes the most circuitous route possible to - perhaps - explain how it is that Mr. Ebert came to interpret The Reader in the way that he did. I thought his review of the film was excellent because it got the point that Hanna's secret - not the Holocaust, not the love affair, not the trial and her subsequent imprisonment - is the central subject of the story, and that all of the resulting details and events follow from it. Some might say that this minimizes the atrocities committed by Hanna, but I disagree; the gravity of those atrocities - with the understanding that they are atrocities that would not have been committed absent the secret that troubles Hanna's soul - illustrates the power of that secret and its effect on the whole of Hanna's life.

I sort of wish that I had had Mr. Ebert's blog post to read while considering my own review of The Reader, because most of the above paragraph would have served well a review of that film, with respect to the construction of the story, and I only touched on it obliquely when I wrote my review. Alas, though, Mr. Ebert's blog post was from this past Sunday, so could not have been read before I wrote about the movie. For some reason, I neither mentioned nor linked to Mr. Ebert's review of The Reader when I wrote my own review of the film. The link can be found here, and the review is excellent. At some point along the line, Roger Ebert ceased to be just a reviewer of films and instead became a combination film reviewer and film historian - and is, above all, a fine writer.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Praise Song For The Day

A sampling of links concerning the poem written by Elizabeth Alexander for President Obama's inauguration, including the text of the poem posted on with permission of Graywolf Press, which is publishing a chapbook edition of the poem; a review of the poem from the Christian Science Monitor; and the author's website.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Things I Don't Understand

Why a package of socks would have a re-closable Ziploc-style device at the top of the bag.