Monday, November 30, 2009

Movie Review: Red Cliff

File:Zhuge Liang.jpg
An artist's rendition of Zhuge Liang

There is a point in John Woo's Red Cliff  when the alliance between Liu Bei (Yong You) and Sun Quan (Chen Chang) has suffered what seems to be an irreversible setback.  Their adversary, the evil Prime Minister Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), has sent the dead bodies of his typhoid-ridden soldiers down river to Red Cliff, where they have infected many of the soldiers in Liu Bei's and Sun Quan's smaller armies.  Liu Bei, knowing that he cannot lose any more men, leaves with his remaining troops, carrying his typhoid stricken men out of quarantine, much to the shock and chagrin of his allies and of his military strategist, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro).  Then, more bad news.  Since Liu Bei took his arrows with him, Sun Quan's army is 98,000 arrows short.  Liang tells them not to worry.  He will get the arrows.

How he achieves this is ingenious, and "ingenious" might be the best word to describe this movie.  The fighting techniques employed by the heroes of Romance of the Three Kingdoms will make you gasp with awe, and the big battle sequences will remind you of The Two Towers and The Return of the King in scale.  Unlike those two movies, however, the armies in Red Cliff employ actual battle techniques, and, indeed, the focus of this movie is on the battle of wits and the strategies employed between Cao Cao and the two strategists for his adversaries: Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the latter of whom is the viceroy for Sun Quan.  These scenes (including the one in which Liang gets the 98,000 arrows) are among the best in the movie.

What is lacking somewhat is character development.  With so many characters in one movie, and the movie being chopped from its original four and a half hour length to two and a half hours for international release, this version wisely focuses on fleshing out Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, while leaving the other characters in the background, so that the damage to the main story is minimal.  Still, the ending suffers a little as a result, since its effect depends more on our feelings for these characters and their sacrifices than it does any flashy battle sequences or unique strategies (not to be confused with the final battle leading up to this sequence, which is outstanding).  According to this review in the Village Voice, most of the two hours that were excised from the film flesh out the characters more, and indeed, one of the triumphs of the 800,000 word book on which it's based is its complexity (no, I have not read the book: this is according to Wikipedia).

Another way that this film feels like The Two Towers is that it starts in medias res, but without the benefit of having an earlier movie detailing what has happened up to that point.  Indeed, the Red Cliff episode in Romance of the Three Kingdoms occurs somewhere in the middle of that story, with much to come afterwards (don't worry, this movie doesn't end on a cliffhanger).  Though voiceover narration is lacking in the Chinese version, that appears to be where the four and a half hour version begins, as well (which is actually two films, again begging the question of why they weren't released separately overseas, instead of mashed together as one film--did the distributors think Americans aren't smart enough to appreciate the epic scale of these films, much as they appreciated the epic scale of Lord of the Rings?  Or is it a question of subtitles, which is another dumb argument?).  And while an entire synopsis of the two films is included here, I would not read it until after you've seen the two and a half hour version (better still to see the two movies that comprise the longer version first, which can be found on, provided your DVD player can support formats outside of Region 1).  Of course, if you live in Southeast Asia, you can buy the movie at your local video store.

I only have one caveat about the battle scenes.  Once or twice I wasn't sure who were the good guys and who were the bad guys (John Woo mostly avoids this problem by focusing on recognizable characters from each side fighting soldiers from the other side, and even with so much fighting going on, I only lost track of the good guys once or twice throughout the entire movie).  The other problem I have concerns the CGI.  For the most part, it's used brilliantly, but the CGI arrows in this film look like CGI arrows, and during one battle sequence, some men appear to be firing nothing from their bows (this is in a long shot during the Turtle formation sequence).  Having said that, the rest of the effects are excellent, and Woo wisely focuses much of his attention on the numerous one-versus-many fight sequences that dominate the shortened version of his two films,which is his strength.  After all, fight sequences are what make John Woo John Woo.

As for the acting, a little too much smiling and knowing grins go on between some of the good guys, but the actors who play Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu are excellent in their respective roles, as is the actor playing Cao Cao (though this movie does not make him as complex as Liang and Yu).  I hope there is more in the original version of Yu's wife, Xiao Quiao (Chiling Lin).  She plays a very important role near the end of this movie, but  I felt her character deserves to be fleshed out more than this shortened version allowed (though it tried).

On its own, this two and a half hour version contains a masterpiece sandwiched between two less satisfying bookends.  Perhaps when I see the complete version, I can label the whole thing a masterpiece.  For now, I encourage you to seek this out this shortened version on the big screen, be awed by its ingenuity, and ask for the four and a half hour version for Christmas.  Or ask for the book.  Even if you don't celebrate Christmas.

Red Cliff Trailer (with English subtitles)

Red Cliff on IMDB

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My First Blog Award

One of my followers, Melee, has decided to give me the following award for my blog.  As part of the deal, however, I must answer the following questions.  Reminds me of those "get to know me better" surveys that my friends would email me in college.  Anyway, I shall do my best, and perhaps you, fair readers, will learn a little more about me, without learning too much, of course. :-)

1. Your hair: I have thick hair, but my scalp is bothering me at the moment--a combination of dry weather and shampoos that are probably too harsh for it.  I should just go back to Head & Shoulders Intensive Care.

2. Where is your phone: Next to this computer, though I don't like the thought of my phone signal killing bees.

3. Your father: I look like him, but with a smaller head and more hair. ;-)

4. Your mother: Misses not having me at home, but then, she should be used to my sojourns abroad by now.

5. Your favourite food: Pizza, though I'll eat anything delicious.

6. Your dream from last night: Not sure, but I had a strange dream a few nights ago where I was repeating my senior year of high school (for some reason that's never explained in these dreams), except that this time I realized that, since I graduated from college, there was no need for me to be going back to high school.  The second part of that dream was quite bizarre, too, but I'll leave you with the first half, as I have many more questions to answer.

7. Your favourite drink: Looks like I got a British award (notice the spelling of "favourite")!  Anyway, I'm not sure if I have a favorite drink.  I like water, other times I prefer milk.  As for alcoholic drinks, I LOVE kiwi and lime sours.

8. Your dream/goal: As stated at the top of this blog, to become a professional novelist, poet, and playwright.  In addition, I hope to get married, have children, and have numerous opportunities to travel all over the world.

9. What room are you in: The computer room, which doubles as my bedroom, until I move to an apartment.

10. What is your hobby: Reading books (novels, poetry, etc.), watching and discussing movies, surfing the 'net (need to do less of that, methinks), writing stories, writing on my blog, listening to classical/pop/rock/operatic music.

11. What is your fear: That I'll hold myself back from being the person that I can become.  And to be alone in this world.

12. Where do you want to be in six years:  Gainfully employed, be published as a novelist, have my own place (either a condo or a house), be married, possibly have kids, and still be living in or near Seattle.

13. Where were you last night: Part of the night I was working; the rest of the night I was here.

14. Something you are not: I'm not a mean, selfish, and uncaring individual, nor am I female. ;-)

15. Muffins: Blueberry muffins are the best!

16. Wish list items: Can I put "an enjoyable full-time job" on that list?  And a laptop, since I don't want to impose for too much longer on the hospitality of my brother's friends, and I'll need some sort of computer with Internet connection when I move.

17. Where did you grow up: The technical answer is in Connecticut, but really, most of my growing was done in Virginia, England, and Japan.

18. Last thing I did: Answered number seventeen.

19. What are you wearing: A college sweatshirt with a hood (but without a zipper, so not really a hoodie).  And pants.  Sneakers, too.  And underwear.  And socks.  And a watch.  And glasses.  And another shirt under the sweatshirt.

20. Your TV: I don't have a TV here, so I end up watching whatever my hosts are watching.

21. Your pets: All dead. :-(  I used to have a hamster, a Grow-A-Frog, an ant farm, and a (family) dog.

22. Your friends: An eclectic bunch from all over the globe.  My closest friends all tend to be intelligent, wise (which is not the same thing as being intelligent), funny, personable, and artistic (or into the arts).  And passionate.  They (and I) don't sleepwalk through life.

23. Your life: In transition right now, but at least not stalled.  I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

24. Your mood: I'm glad I'm not working today.  In all of the jobs that I have held, yesterday was the worst first day I've ever had on a job.  There were some bright spots through the gloom, but there was a lot of gloom.

25. Missing someone: More than one, but at least I can stay in touch via the Internet and my cell phone.

26. Vehicle: The bus, and my feet.  And other people's cars (they drive me around, folks, just so that you don't get the wrong idea).

27. Something you're not wearing: A hat.

28. Your favourite store: It was Best Buy, but they don't sell enough old movies (and by old, I mean anything released before last year).  If virtual stores count, then Amazon is my favorite store.

29. Your favourite color: Light blue, like the color of the sky on a whispy summer day.

30. When was the last time you laughed: I might have laughed yesterday out of necessity, but I was laughing pretty hard at times on Thanksgiving.  Group games are awesome!

31. When was the last time you cried: Hmmm, that's a tough one.  I usually cry when seeing an emotional movie, and while I teared up a little bit while watching An Education, I haven't really cried in a while.

32. Your best friend is: Intelligent, witty, and beautiful, and someone with whom I could talk with all day about absolutely nothing and think it was the most interesting conversation I've ever had.  Plus, she was there for me a few critical times in Japan.  Having said that, I'm blessed to have had more than one during my lifetime.

33. One place you go over and over: When I was in Japan, it was Akihabara.  When they weren't busy, the maid cafes there were great places for me to practice my Japanese--until they started catering to foreign customers.

34. One person who emails me regularly: That would be best friend number two, who always emails me about events happening at the Mark Twain House.

35. Favourite place to eat: Wherever there's good food and good company.  I'm sure that, the first time I visit Connecticut from Seattle, I'll think that my parents' home is the best place in the world to eat.

And now I guess it's my time to pass this award on, so I'll pass it to Elara, who draws really wonderful pictures on her blog (feel free to just copy and paste the award from this post onto your blog, if you don't have time to answer any of the questions). 

Tomorrow I go to see Red Cliff, so I hope to have a review of that movie posted by the following night.  Until then!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving: The Most American of Holidays

Jean Lean Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), The First Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in America, when families get together to gorge themselves on too much turkey and stuffing, then fall asleep in front of a football game on TV.  But, just as Christmas is not about the presents (even for the Japanese--who are mostly not Christian.  For them, Christmas is about the decorations), Thanksgiving is not about the food (and I promise not to make this post sound like a Hallmark card--may they burn in hell.  The cards, not the company).

I sense I am getting off topic here, so let me begin again: Thanksgiving is not about the food.  Not really, though the food is the most prominent feature.  Only the bare outline of Thanksgiving is covered in elementary school, but it is enough of an outline for us to fill in the gaps.  That, and Wikipedia.

The Pilgrims, a persecuted group of settlers, had come to the New World with hopes of religious freedom without a loss of cultural identity (they had initially moved from England to the Netherlands, but left after fearing that their children were becoming too Dutch).  The first winter was a disaster that claimed almost half of the colonists' lives, mostly due to diseases that they had contracted while on the voyage there.

When they celebrated the first Thanksgiving the following year, it was a religious celebration thanking God for surviving that first winter, and it was celebrated with members of the Wampanoag tribe, including their leader, Massasoit, and Squanto, who had taught them how to plant corn and catch eels (Wikipedia  "Thanksgiving").  And while they partook in a huge feast, like Americans do today, the feast lasted for three days, not just one.  Unfortunately, Americans can't stop working for that long.  Plus, they need the day after Thanksgiving to start buying presents for Christmas (or rather, the day after Thanksgiving retailers need Americans to start buying presents for Christmas), so we only celebrate Thanksgiving for one day (though the meal lasts forever in leftovers), and while grace is often said before eating the meal, much of the religious nature of the holiday has been lost in the intervening years.

What I find interesting about Thanksgiving is how unique it is to America.  All other holidays and traditions can be traced back to Europe, and even though Independence Day is also a uniquely American holiday, independence is celebrated by other countries who threw off tyranny (Cinqo de Mayo, Bastille Day).  But only Americans celebrate Thanksgiving.  Only we set aside a day to gather with family and friends to remember what we have.  The irony is that it comes before Christmas, where we think about out wants again.  Maybe that is on purpose.  Thanksgiving celebrates all that we are thankful for in life, among people whom we are thankful for. Perhaps we need that reminder before thinking about our wants once more.  Maybe we'd discover that our wants aren't as important as our need for the people around us.

I'd like to end this post with some of the things that I am thankful for.  This part will come the closest to sounding like a Hallmark card:

1.) I am thankful that I am alive and have been allowed to have all of the experiences that I've had.  Even the bad experiences taught me something.
2.) I am thankful that my brother's friends just so happened to move to Seattle, and I just so happened to become interested in moving there right before they just so happened to buy a house, and they just so happened to allow me to stay with them while I looked for a job and a place of my own.  Without any of these just so happened's, I'm still a frustrated writer living in my parents' house in Connecticut.
4.) I am thankful that one of these friends is a really good cook.  Not that my mom's a bad cook, but of the people making food for Thanksgiving, two are chefs in restaurants, and the other one (my brother's friend, whom he met through his girlfriend, who is friends with her) is really good.
5.) I am thankful for the Internet, which allows me to contact my family and friends cheaply and with more regularity than I could with even my cell phone.
6.) I am thankful that, for the moment, I have a home.  Many people don't.
7.) I'm thankful that I have a job, even though it's seasonal, and in retail.  And involves clothes.  Again, many people don't.
8.) I'm glad that my parents didn't say "no" to some of my more hair-brained schemes, like living and working in Japan.  Or becoming a professional writer.
9.) I'm glad we Americans have a President who uses correct English when he speaks.  Poor language skills shows laziness or stupidity--or both--and no one wants a leader who sounds lazy or stupid.
10.) And finally, while I won't be spending Thanksgiving (or Christmas) this year with my family, I am thankful that they are only a phone call away...and the time difference is three hours, not fourteen.

(even if you don't celebrate it)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What Job Searching and Girl Hunting Have In Common

Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival, 1882

Okay, so girl hunting sounds like I'm going out with my club at night, knocking innocent women unconscious, and bringing them back to my lair.  Or I'm going out to a bar looking for a cheap thrill.  Neither of those images is even close to what I mean, but no other combination of words seem to work, so I'll leave it as is.  Or maybe I should title this entry, "What Job Hunting and Girl Searching Have In Common."  No wait, now I sound like a pervert. :-/

ANYWAY, there are more similarities between the two, at least in my case, than you'd think.  In jobs, I tend to settle for part-time work in which I am overqualified.  In girlfriends (DON'T GO THERE), I tend to settle for women whom I am overqualified for [and no, I'm not talking about THAT.  You people and your sick minds ;-) ] Since I tend to settle for jobs that I'm overqualified for, or any job that I can get, I don't tend to work long at them.  I have not been at any job for more than two years, unless you count the Mark Twain House, where I worked for slightly over two years, but slightly less than two years in any one position (I give up).  And for legal reasons, I must state that all of the opinions expressed in this blog are my own opinions and do not necessarily express the views and opinions of the Mark Twain House or its workers, except for this one: Mark Twain is a golden god.  No wait.  That's from Almost Famous.  Even in Japan, where I spent three years of my life, that time was split between two different companies.

I fare worse with women.  My "record" for dating someone is two months, and during those two months, I saw her twice.  Seriously.  She even broke up with me by email.  To my cell phone.  While I was watching Azumi.  For the second time.  Of course, it's the quality of the time spent with someone, not its length, that counts (as Before Sunrise proves--click here for my review of that movie and its sequel, Before Sunset).  In that case, my track record is even worse.  Not that I didn't have some blissful moments with my exes [again with the dirty minds ;-)], but in the end, none of the relationships were quality ones, ones I wish hadn't ended.  What I usually wished was that the person I had dated had been the person I hoped her to be, rather than the person she actually was.

Dream jobs and dream girls seem much the same to me, too.  Always just out of reach, always requiring much planning and/or gumption to get.  Crushes tend to be like jobs we think we want to have: when we don't get them, it allows us to fantasize even more about how great they are.  Also, job hunting and dating can get stuck in similar ruts.  In job hunting, one can get stuck in the seasonal, part-time, retail rut, while in dating, one can get stuck in the type of girls that one dates (I said type!).  Those who like retail and are looking for part-time work, of course, are fine with ruts, as are those who end up marrying their high school sweethearts (don't go there).
free public domain image man with glass writing at desk clerk thank you card paying bills dot is pen ink drawing

With online dating and personal ads, even methods of finding jobs and girlfriends are the same.  You can find both through networking, both through print ads, both through online ads, both through search engines.  Jobs sites include descriptions of the jobs; dating sites include descriptions of the people.  Both include qualifications (1-2 years customer service experience a MUST; SWF looking for SWM 18-39), both include preferences (college graduate preferred; looking for someone over 6'2", nonsmoker), both annoy you with their restrictions.  Yet the best way to find one, both a job and a girlfriend, is through other people.  Networking results in the most job hires; networking results in the most relationships.  Picking up a woman at a bar, on the other hand, is akin to answering a "help wanted" sign--and perhaps less satisfying (though I can't speak from personal experience on this).

Job searches and dating also share one other thing in common: I'm bad at both.  But might it be the same failing?  Might my failure at both have the same root cause?  Perhaps.  Perhaps I lack the knowledge necessary to know when to keep fighting for what I want, and when to let go (I always let go when rejected), and that goes for both job hunting and girl searching, or job searching and girl hunting, or career chasing and girl grabbing (well, maybe not that).

So, which one will I prove more successful at?  As far as jobs are concerned, sooner or later, everyone gets one (we are told).  Whether it will be the right job for me remains to be seen.  At least I know that my writing career awaits.  So even if I get a full-time job that's a disappointment, if it can sustain me financially--and allows me to continue writing on the side--I can deal with it for a few years.

As for a girlfriend, well, having one is the means to an end, and perhaps I've been too focused on the end.  There's no need to date someone because, in the future, we're going to get married.  That kind of thinking eliminated too many choices for me in high school.  Rather, I should date someone because I like them now.  Or, to quote what one of my friends said about her then boyfriend (now fiance): "I don't know if he's the one, but he's the one right now."

Living in the present, while the artist lives in the future.  And yet, I'm learning.

NOTE: The same friend whom I quoted above is also the one who convinced me not to delete this post after hearing the gist of what it was about, so be sure to thank her in your comments, if you like what you've read, and curse her, if you hate it. ;-)

A Tale of Two Theaters

After my orientation on Tuesday for my seasonal job, and my long and boring training on Wednesday, I got to enter my world again on Thursday and Friday--the world of theater, of movies, of art.

Thursday I joined the SRO (Seattle Repertory Organization) annual meeting.  They are a volunteer organization that helps out at the Seattle Repertory Theater.  Mostly composed of older members of society (the youngest members of the SRO are about double my age), they were a fun group to spend a morning with, and I was introduced around by one of its members, who works (volunteers?) in the HR department.  After the meeting, I also got to meet Fran Kao (pronounced "Gao"), the Public Programs Manager, who had mentioned this meeting to me on the phone.  So now we have faces to go with our voices.

At the meeting, I got to sit with some "fellow Italians" (funny how they can pick me out in a crowd).  Most of the agenda covered business as usual, including an introduction of guests brought to the meeting (though I brought myself, I was introduced by the same woman who had personally introduced me to others in the group).  What was different about the meeting was, at times, the humor projected into it.  Nothing so represented this humor as when the Operations Manager, Johnny Mac (John R. McNamara), came into the meeting speaking with a British accent and dressed like someone from Shakespeare's time.  Many references to his codpiece and what was underneath it, as he passed around his "satchel" for donations, which would go to the interns.  These people were whipping out tens and twenties, whereas if I had given money, it would have been a couple ones.  As I didn't know what it was for (until afterwards), and as I hadn't brought much money with me, I did not contribute.  This may also be because I am the most frugal person on the planet, though I always give money to the Salvation Army.

The only other noteworthy thing about the meeting was an announcement that one member of the theater staff (Daniel Sullivan, perhaps, since he's the artistic consultant?) was hoping to implement a program that would allow the theater to work closely with up and coming playwrights.  Oh really?  I'll have to keep my eyes open and my ear close to the ground on that one.

Anyway, once the meeting was adjourned, there was a little break before three actors from the show "Opus" joined us to talk about the play.  They were introduced by one of the interns, who had worked with them on this play, before introducing themselves.  When one of them said he was originally from Connecticut, the ladies to either side of me nudged me with their elbows.

Together, these two actors (and one actress) were a riot.  Very lively, with some very funny stories.  Afterwards, two of them sat amongst us (the third one left), but unfortunately, not at my table.  If I hadn't gone to the bathroom right after they were done, I would've had a chance to introduce myself while they were still sitting at the front of the room.  Oh well.

After waiting a long time, I got to talk to Fran Kao after the meeting was over (this was our first face-to-face, mentioned earlier).  I mainly wanted to ask her about another program I had heard about, called the crew, who had pre- and post-show parties, seeing the play in between.  She told me that the crew was mainly for subscribers, though I could buy individual tickets for each event, too, and directed me to the box office.  The woman there was very helpful and told me what my best options were (too bad I wasn't under 25--monster discounts!).  After thinking it over and checking the website, I decided not to join the crew or get a subscription until I have a more regular job, as I imagine that most of the crew events are on Friday and Saturday nights, when I might be working.  Still, it depends on my hours after Christmas--whether I get hired for regular store hours, or I find a job elsewhere.  Might be best to get in with the fringe theaters, where I can volunteer on stage painting and such, instead of front office monetary issues (though I wouldn't mind working the gift shop).

On Friday, I went to the second theater in this title--a movie theater.  Called the Egyptian Theater, it originally was a Masonic Temple.  Now it shows movies on a large screen in a spacious auditorium (I felt like I was outside--that's how high the ceilings are).  Ever better, the SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) is shown there (not to be confused with the year-round SIFF cinema).  So, now I can see art films, something I could not easily see at movie theaters near my home in Connecticut (well, I could've seen them in Hartford, but I never felt good about driving through Hartford at night).

Friday night, I saw An Education, which was a very good film, though I wondered, as I left the theater, what the message of the movie was supposed to be.  Maybe there wasn't one.  Maybe it was just a case of the heroine having lived through an experience and grown as a result.  Not that it mattered much, as the acting by Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina (as her father) were great.  In fact, the acting all around was good, but those two stood out.  You can read a review here.

What impressed me the most, though (besides the beauty of the theater--I wish there were pictures online of its interior!) was the audience reaction.  I saw a matinee, so the crowd was small.  Even so, I noticed that when the previews began, some people were whispering, but I could hardly hear them.  Yes, they were actually whispering so as not to be heard by their neighbors.  Then, when the film began, a smattering of laughter at appropriate moments, but no talking.  Even more impressive, when the film ended and the credits began to role, people didn't pop out of their seats and head for the exits.  They actually sat for a while and watched, and while not everyone stayed until the end, I didn't feel that there was a mad dash to leave the theater.  And, since this movie attracted the young, the old, and those in between, having such a respectful audience bodes well for my future cinematic adventures in this city.

After the movie, as I took the bus home, I saw, for the first time, Seattle lit up at night, and as the bus passed downtown, I observed, with childlike joy, the trees adorned with lights for the upcoming Christmas season.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The End of An Era

I don't want this to be a long entry, as I have many things to do today, but to not mention this at all, and the impact it will have on the literary world, would be a gaping hole on a  literary blog.

After 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show will be no more.

Sure, she might have another talk show on the new network that she's starting up, but that will be on cable, which doesn't reach as many people as the public airwaves do.  Why ending her show will have such an impact on the literary world not only has to do with her book club that she started in 1996 (which, several years ago, she relegated to classic books--and I have to admit, I had to smile upon seeing a new translation of Anna Karenina top the bestseller list over a hundred years after Tolstoy wrote the original), but also with the opportunity her show allowed writers to discuss their work.  Quick!  Name other talk shows that have writers on as guests (cannot include famous people who have written books).  See what I mean?  There's Glenn Beck for popular fiction (heaven help us), and Charlie Rose, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report for books on current events, but for "serious" fiction, there's only Oprah and NPR (though I prefer to call popular fiction "entertainment" and serious fiction "art," and no, they aren't mutually exclusive).

As for myself, this means that I have precious little time to finish my novel and hope that I am interviewed on one of Oprah's last shows.  Minus winning a prestigious literary award, that would be the highlight of any writer's literary career (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen's--I kid!).  For me, I would want to be on her show if for no other reason than to thank her for using it to support writers for all these years.  Then again, I have published a poetry book...

(Click here for an excellent summation of the show and Oprah's impact on the world.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde!!

"The old believe everything; the middle aged suspect everything; the young know everything."  -Oscar Wilde (born November 16, 1854)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What Happens in Between Sunrise and Sunset

 Edvard Munch, Separation (1900), Oil on Canvas

I have seen Before Sunrise more than any other movie, save Amadeus (about nine times for Before Sunrise, about fifteen times for Amadeus).  In fact, it was at one time my favorite movie, before Lost in Translation came along and knocked it from its pedestal.  Still, it remains one of my favorites.

In this film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American man, meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French woman, on a train. Due to a argumentative couple, Celine moves to a seat opposite Jesse.  They strike up a conversation.  He invites her to the cafe car.  They talk some more.  When they reach Vienna (Jesse's stop), he has a crazy idea: since he was just going to wander around the city until his flight left the next morning (having no money for a hotel), why doesn't she join him?  She agrees, and the rest of the movie chronicles their conversations and encounters with Viennese locals, and their growing attachment to each other.  But, they also know that, when the morning comes...

In its own way, Before Sunrise is a perfect movie.  The conversations are interesting, the characters are likeable and well-drawn, the scenery is gorgeous (Vienna!), the music complements the mood, and the movie accomplishes its purpose as an ode to young, idyllic love, a love that is made perfect by its brevity.  This type of love, however, cannot endure.  Or can it?

Enter Before Sunset.  When I first heard that Richard Linklater was filming a sequel to Before Sunrise, I cringed.  How could they make a sequel to such a great film, especially since part of that greatness concerned an ending ambiguous enough that the audience could decide for themselves the future fate of Jesse and Celine?  And yet, Before Sunset complements Before Sunrise perfectly.  While the earlier film takes place mostly at night (hence the title), Before Sunset takes place during the day.  While the first film takes place in Vienna, the second film takes place in Paris, where Celine lives.  While the first film celebrates young love in all its innocence--in its images, in Jesse and Celine's conversations, in their naive belief that they can keep the relationship going--the second movie deals with its effects.  How would such a love affair affect the rest of someone's life?  Would other relationships measure up?  And, if these characters were given a second chance, would things turn out differently?

The same types of philosophical conversations are spoken in both movies, but in Before Sunset, they seem like shadows of the first movie's conversations, much like the characters have become shadows of their former selves (both characters appear gaunter in this film, with faces that have become lined with the responsibilities of everyday life).  Perhaps the characters, in their conversations, are trying to pretend that everything is the same as it was the last time they walked through a European city together.  But it isn't.  Jesse is married now and has a kid.  Celine is still single, but that is because she has never met a man to measure up to Jesse.  At one point, she tells him that their one night spent in Vienna "ruined" all future relationships for her.

Here is stark reality, the movie even occurring in real time.  Unlike Before Sunrise, there are no fringe theater actors, no fortune tellers, no poets by the water, no man playing harpsichord in the basement of his house nor wine drunk in a park from filched glasses and a bottle received on the promise of future payment.  In fact, there are no people to disturb this revelry, but none to add to the magic, either.  Any people that Celine and Jesse address--outside of each other--are either off camera or in the background, and they are addressed briefly.  The longest interaction that either character has with someone else is when Jesse responds to reporters' questions at the beginning of the film (he is on a book promotion tour, having written a novel based on his experience in Vienna).

What both movies have in common is that they are dialogue-intensive, yet both characters say the most about themselves when they aren't speaking.  Celine hesitates before getting off the train with Jesse in Before Sunrise.  In Before Sunset, she reaches out a hand to comfort him, then withdraws it.  With Jesse, notice how he acts in the record booth in the first movie.  Or when he asks Celine for a kiss.  In the second movie, notice how his eyes react to Celine at the end of the movie.  Another similarity between both films is that Jesse is operating on a schedule.  He has to catch a flight from Vienna in the first film.  He has to catch a flight from Paris in the second film.

Though Before Sunset is much shorter than the first film (eighty minutes compared to one hundred and five), it digs deeper into its characters' souls.  In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine were carefree twenty-somethings; now, they carry the baggage of being adults with responsibilities.  Before Sunrise is the more crowd-pleasing of the two, because it projects what we wish real relationships (and life) were like.  Before Sunset is less likable not because it is a lesser film, but because it disappoints us in the way that sequels (in life and in movies) often do.  And yet, unlike most sequels, Before Sunset does not disappoint due to lack of quality.  If the first movie is a projection of what our lives should be like, the second movie is a projection of what our lives are like.

And yet, as I said, these films complement each other.  Even the endings (and no, I won't spoil the endings for you here).  I will only say this: both characters are older and wiser in Before Sunset than they are in Before Sunrise.  So, being older and wiser, will Jesse allow Celine to drift out of his life again?  Will Celine allow Jesse to leave hers?  Will reality allow the fairy tale to continue?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Portrait of Seattle By a Young Man

Puget Sound

The past few days have been a mixture of rain, then clouds, then sun, then more rain. At times, the rain has been heavy, matching the strength of the sun's rays which come after. So it is that the city is balanced evenly between hope and despair.

I have not explored all of the city yet. I'm staying in West Seattle, a suburb of Seattle, at the bottom of a road that looks like a steep staircase with few steps. In Downtown Seattle, in the heart of the city proper, the road often drops in waves to the water, some sections of road dropping steeper than others. On clear days, Puget Sound sparkles. On cloudy days, the Sound sits there like a large black beast.

Downtown Streets, Sloping Toward the Sound

Most of the streets in downtown run straight and parallel to each other, jointing at the next neighborhood over (Pioneer Square or Seattle Center). Each section has its own personality, and sometimes certain blocks do, too. Near the water is Pike's Place Market, where Farmer's Market is located.

Farmer's Market in Pike's Place Market

Pioneer Square is south of there, past Columbia Street, and includes the oldest structures in the city--most of them underground. The International District is east of Pioneer Square, and is near Qwest and Safeco Fields.

Chinatown/International District

Qwest and Safeco Fields

Then, on the other side of downtown, heading north, one encounters Seattle Center. I took a monorail to there, from which one can see a great view of downtown as it slides past. The Space Needle is in Seattle Center, as is the Pacific Science Center and--most importantly--The Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum.

The Monorail and Part of the Experience Music Project

The Space Needle

I have seen people wearing suits downtown, but not many. When I wore a suit on a mid-morning bus, I got stares. Most people dress casual to semi-casual. Most are Caucasian, with the rest being black, Southeast Asian, or (a few) American Indian. Lots of people smoke at bus stops, but no one smokes inside buildings.

And then there's the food.

A Home Cooked Meal, Courtesy of My Hosts

I haven't eaten out much, but what I've eaten has been delicious--even the food I ate at a buffet. I don't drink beer much, but I've been told that that will change while I'm living out here, since they have so many varieties. While that was being said to me, however, I couldn't help but be reminded of an English major telling me that I would start smoking before I graduated college, due to my major. I still don't smoke (and never will), and while my reasons for rarely drinking have more to do with personal preference than my health, I don't want to develop a beer belly, like the one I saw someone sporting on Halloween, clashing with his Harry Potter costume.

Like most cities, Seattle can be a lonely place, especially when you know few people and not so well, and when your best friends are flung here and there across the globe. I am looking into volunteering at theaters around here, in order to meet more people and return to my theatrical roots, though the big theaters in Seattle tend to draft members of the geriatric society into their volunteer army. Most people who volunteer are in their sixties, probably retired. If that is the case, it means that the youngest of them are older than my parents by at least several years (I take back the geriatric comment and replace it with this one: the volunteers tend to be old). But I shall not meet them for another two weeks. At least the theater people I've met seem friendly. And Seattle Center, where the Seattle Repertory Theater sits, reminded me a little of the Big E, with its open spaces and roller coasters. In essence, it's an asphalt prairie with slabs of grass that seems many miles removed from the shopping district downtown.  And it has a musical fountain.

A View from the Monorail Platform

The International Fountain

Until next time...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Why I Do What I Do

I have some stuff to report on Sunday concerning my job search and life in Seattle, but today, I've decided to figure out what my mission statement is.  In other words, why do I do what I do?

The idea of a mission statement came from a program called "Project Hire" that I took a while back at Manchester Community College.  This was in addition to three free workshops I took there, which were called "Interviewing Skills," "Job Search and Cover Letters," and "Effective Resume Writing"--each class being, with questions, a little under 90 minutes in length.  Project Hire, on the other hand, was composed of brief opening remarks, and then two classes (we had a selection to choose from) covering similar material as taught in the workshops, but by different people (and for job hunting, some additional techniques to use).

Anyway, I am now trying to figure out my mission statement.  I've done PAR (problem-action-result) statements, but have yet to really think about my career objective (to retire?).  My career objective apart from being a novelist, poet, and playwright, that is.  And I think that is why I am having trouble with my mission statement.

Having just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I can't help but question whether or not I'm going about my job search correctly.  After all, the point of that book (among others) is to not follow the crowd when the crowd is wrong, and Phaedrus's search for Quality is familiar to anyone in any career who chooses to measure success on how good their products are, not on how much money they make.

And that's another thing I find a little disturbing about the whole key to success in a job search: not that you are marketing your skills, but that you are, in effect, marketing yourself as a product.  Not a human being.  A product.  While I don't disagree that thinking that way about oneself will allow one to see the skills and attributes that one can bring to a company--and will help in bringing about a successful end to a job search (at least temporarily)--I don't like comparing myself to an inanimate object on a shelf, devoid of personality or life.  Perhaps it would be better to follow the old mantra "know thyself," for that is essentially how one not only lands a job, but lands the right job.

But I am getting away from my mission statement.  According to my brochure, "It should quickly convey who you are, what you do and what you are trying to accomplish.  It is about what you believe in; what makes you passionate about doing what you do every day."  Well, I am passionate about writing.  Why?  Because I enjoy telling stories, I love communicating with others, and the sense of accomplishment after creating a really good piece of literature--whether it be a blog post, a short story, a poem, a play, a novel, or parts of each--is indescribable.  It's when Igor Stravinsky finds that note on the piano.  In some ways, it creates something new that wasn't there before, or reveals something that was there all along.

What do I believe in?  I believe in a job well done.  Even if you have the shittiest job in the world, you should do that job to the best of your ability.  Why?  Because even the best job has parts of it that are not enjoyable, that are tedious, and that need to be done to continue doing the parts you do enjoy.  I don't mind editing and proofreading my novel, but doing it again and again and again is not that fun.  And sometimes, I'll come across a section that I don't know how to fix.  So do I just leave it?  Maybe for the moment, but eventually, I know that I'll come back to it and figure it out, because by breaking through that one tedious edit, I may vastly improve the entire novel.  And while I can occasionally slack off, I am not lazy, and I am not a quitter.

What do I do?  Besides writing, I read books, magazines, and poetry, watch plays (though, since college, this has been a too rare event), see movies, enjoy the outdoors on nice days, learn about different cultures on TV and through my travels, study Japanese (hopefully I'll start doing that again this weekend), and hopefully begin to study French again someday soon (Vancouver is just a car ride away, though Quebec would be better for French-speaking--and listening--purposes).  I also love meeting new people, especially from foreign lands or different ethnic backgrounds than me.

What am I trying to accomplish?  Simply put, I want to make a positive difference in this world, whether it's through my writing or by my example.  Working with a nonprofit to feed starving children in Africa (heck, to feed starving children in America) would be right up my alley.  I also would prefer to work for a company that treats its employees and customers with respect, not one over the other, or neither.  It would also be nice if I could work for a company whose bottom line was people instead of money.  If your main goal is customer service, the money will come, but if your main goal is making money, at some point, the customers will dry up, and so will the money.  So really, companies should focus on the people they serve and employ if they want to make money long-term.  The problem is that too many people within companies only care if they make money, screw the long-term consequences.  Of course, paying executives 400 times what their employees make for bankrupting companies (when it used to be 40 times for a job well done) seems to serve neither the goal of servicing customers nor the goal of making money.

Who am I?  I've saved this question for last because it's the toughest of the bunch.  I'm sure my friends could give you a great answer to this question, but I'm too close to the action.  Still, let me try: I am a principled, artistic, creative, intelligent, hard-working, spiritual, knowledge-hungry, passionate, loving, kind, somewhat shy, humorous humanitarian who would love to have a job that pays well, but not if it requires me to break my principles (I will bend them, but not break them).  In fact, I would rather have a job of which I feel good about that pays nothing, that a job of which I feel terrible about that makes me wealthy (then again, isn't that my situation now?).  I also tend to be a bit frugal with my money (I hear you laughing, people who know me!), which is why I've been able to save enough of it to move out to Seattle and try my luck at finding a job here.  That, and money from a will and a house sale.

So, now I just have to compress all of that into a ten-second spiel.  What could be easier?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Mozart Personality and the Beethoven Personality

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was timid in his dealings with his benefactors.  That could be why he had so much trouble securing a job while in Vienna.  Other factors included the unpopularity of his father, Leopold, and Salieri's jealous guarding of his position as court composer (though the two were rivals, theirs was not the heated rivalry portrayed in the film Amadeus).

At the time Mozart lived, composers were considered servants.  Leopold was under the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg, as was his son, and when Wolfgang broke off ties with the Archbishop to pursue a career in Vienna, he, in essence, became a freelancer.  Still, in all of his dealings with those of the noble classes who commissioned works for him to write, he was considered of a lower class than they.  This is not to say that the nobility heaped scorn upon Mozart, for they did not, but they also did not treat him as their equal, for those his gifts rivaled theirs, in the society of the time, they were of a higher pedigree.

Beethoven was different.

Ludwig van Beethoven refused to be treated like a servant.  He is considered a transitional figure from the classical to romantic periods not only because of his music, which threatens to break all classical constraints at times but never does, but because of his view of his music and his status in society.  His music was art.  His status was that of the greatest living composer.  As such, he was not one to be treated as a mere servant.  He demanded to be paid what he felt he was worth, and would often withhold compositions if the person who commissioned it did not pay him the agreed-upon amount.

In Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers, Schonberg has this to say about these two musical geniuses (and I'm quoting from memory here, so if anyone owns this book and can provide me with the actual quote--in the chapter on Beethoven--I would greatly appreciate it):
           While Mozart would timidly knock at the servants' entrance, 
           waiting to gain admittance, Beethoven would kick down the
           front doors, sit at the head of the table, and demand to 
           be served.
It is this quote that inspired today's post.

I think most people with talent--any talent--fall into one of these two categories better than the other one (I should make it clear that people who have these personalities may or may not have the talent of these two artistic giants--the personality type has nothing to do with a corresponding level of talent).  The Beethovens of the world have such powerful personalities that people forgive them their idiosyncrasies and cater to their every demand.  The Mozarts of the world, meanwhile, are often championed by a handful of people who recognize their talent, but are largely ignored by the powerful or the populace until after their deaths--and sometimes, not even then.

There is a third type of personality, too, which I'd like to call the Wagner personality.  While Beethoven types demand that the world recognize their genius, Wagner types demand that the world recognize their divinity.  Not that Wagner really fit this type, himself (his was more of a strong Beethoven personality), but he did inspire religious fervor in many of his supporters, and so we have Wagner types today, who try to create a religion around their work, complete with objects to worship.  The more common name for them is prima donna.

Unfortunately, I have a Mozart personality.  I'd like to imagine that, deep inside, resides a Beethoven personality, but he only comes out in the company of friends and family.  In public, I knock timidly at the servants' wing door, waiting to be admitted.  Still, I have enough of a Beethoven personality not to leave until someone opens the door.