Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My favorite Oscar nomination

The Oscar nominations are up and I think it's an interesting list with a lot of potential for surprises. (I honestly have no clue who really is the front-runner in the Supporting Actor category, despite conventional wisdom going for Eddie Murphy.)

I have plenty of things I could say about the whole list, but let me give a shout-out to one: Emmanuel Lubezki cinematographer, the Mexican for Children of Men. I've been following him (and director Alfonso Cuarón) since I saw A Little Princess, an amazingly charming little film that was breathtaking as a visual piece. The Academy got it right in nominating him that year and I've been waiting for him to actually win one of these days soon. So forget Abigail and Jennifer and Meryl and Jackie Earle: it was this nomination that I looked for this morning, and I was thrilled to see him up for it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Things Come Together

Sometimes, good stuff happens in a surprising way. Today, for example:
  • Xan, incredible kid that he is, finally figured out that when I turned around in the car and stuck my tongue out at him, that I was playing a game and that he shoould stick his tongue out back at me. (I have been doing this for several days now and each time I did this prior to today, he would shake his head, "Noooo! Idon'twantit!" This actually made me laugh, which is why I kept it up at all.)
  • I got an absolutely incredible e-mail from an old student who is currently attending Sundance, thanking me for introducing him to Atom Egoyan in class six years ago, which means that I actually did make a difference to someone's life.
  • After reading that, I also got my teaching evaluations from last semester and did pretty well. One class was way higher than I thought it would be; the other would have been the same except I clearly pissed someone off royally. (For every question, 45 people evaluated me in the top two categories and one person gave me the lowest score possible. Whoops.)
  • The Oscar nominations are tomorrow morning, which I will show live in class. For once, I have no friggin' clue who will be nominated, much less win -- which actually makes it exciting.
  • The hiring meeting at work was surprisingly congenial.
  • Xan had a good bath day and I was requested to read Kitten's First Full Moon, which is my favorite, too.
  • I discovered that I'm a network executive's worst nightmare, due to my lack of TiVo. I had been dreading today, when 24 and Heroes would finally go up against each other, but thought I had solved the problem when Angela started taking a class on Monday nights. Fine, I thought, I'll tape 24 and watch Heroes since she is into the former and not the latter. Except while I was watching Heroes, I kept turning back to 24, even though I was taping it, because I wanted to know. So it appears that I have made a decision anyway about my own TV watching habits and (alas) can dump one. (Sorry, Hiro!)
  • Upon going down to our library to find my "marked-up" copy of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I instead come upon a signed copy. I didn't know I had a signed copy. I just sat here staring at it for a moment.
Oh yes, and I finished chapter one of the book. It ain't pretty (yet) but it's out of my system. (The third attempt at writing this chapter seems to have done the trick.) Which means I now have Introduction through Chapter 7. Eight down, one more to go.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Tonight, I stayed late at work to continue writing my mortal coil (also known as the book I'm trying to finish). I shut down at around 10:45 and went outside to wait for the 11:00PM shuttle from campus to the metro stop. No one was around, so I shivered - winter having finally arrived in DC -- blankly for a little while.

As the bus approached, three girls came out of the dorm near the stop, dressed in high heels and miniskirts. The parent in me thought, They should really wear more clothing. It's cold. The bus stopped and I got on.

At which point I remembered that it was Friday night. On a college campus. In DC.

The entire bus was filled with very loud, very young women. The scent of perfume mised with seemingly half-digested alcohol in the warm, cramped air of the bus. Girls yabbered on so excitedly with such shrill voices, I actually couldn't catch a single conversation. One of six people with a Y-choromosome on the bus (and one of two over the age of 25, the other being the bus driver), I sat in the front of the bus. I frantically looked around, praying that none of my students -- past or present -- were on board.

For some, the prospect of being in close quarters with all these young women would be exhilerating. Quite frankly, I believe there are just certain things a professor really shouldn't even know about, much less see. I found the experience mildly terrifying.

The bus opened the doors and I zipped out to run down the escalator stairs before the gaggle approached me, thinking as I went downward My God, I am so glad I'm not 20 anymore, because goodness knows I wouldn't be able to take this.

With that, I happily declare myself old.

Monday, January 15, 2007

When (television) worlds collide

My life is such that I actually plumb forgot about the Golden Globes until after 24 was over. I immediately flipped over to the awards show because, well, students will probably ask me about it when classes begin tomorrow.

Here's my question, for anyone else who might have done the same:

After watching Los Angeles get blown away (literally), was I the only one who feared for Sacha Baron Cohen as he went up to accept his award?

Just wondering.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dance, dance evolution

On Friday, Anegla and I went on a date. This is, of course, a minor miracle: we never go on dates! We’re responsible people! Parents, even! And I’m untenured! I should be slaving away at my writing at all hours of the day instead of having any fun whatsoever, or at least I should be seeing movies, which can be work. Thankfully, my wife said, “The hell with all that. We’re going dancing.”

Contradancing, to be precise. I had agreed to do this, a tad reluctantly because my type of dancing usually involves strobe lights and a good five-hour techno beat. (Which, mind you, I haven’t done in years, primarily because Angela lasts about 20 minutes in such a scenario but also because, as my students remind me, I’m old.) But sure, I’ll bring my semi-metrosexual self to some English line-dancing. We had been before – once in Ann Arbor, once in Pacific Grove, so ages ago – but not anytime recently. The nearest contradance area to DC is actually at Glen Echo Park, a historic area with a beautifully preserved ballroom whose heyday in the 30s was still evident, not chipped away.

About two minutes in to the first dance, I was giddy, thinking God, this is SO MUCH FUN.

I had forgotten how much fun this was: trading partners even few bars, swinging people around in circles and generally having a really good time with all sorts of people. The intricate dance patterns were instructed before each dance (and a good thing – due to a child care snafu, we arrived too late for the lesson) and both of us wore “newbie” buttons which pointed the more experienced folk to ask us to partner up with them so that they could show us the ropes. I had forgotten how accepting these kind of folks are, not caring when I overthought a pattern and went the wrong way once. It was suggested to us that we not dance with each other but rather seek out more experienced partners, so we did that.

Also flooding into my head within the first five minutes of that dance: the memory that I once plotted out an entire novel called Contradance, following a pair of characters as they progressed in patterns down and back through a line, which I thought would make a wonderful literary device. Long abandoned, I suddenly remembered that notion and brought it back out of the cobwebs to at least put on a very back burner to simmer. (There are at least two or three creative projects that have been stewing for longer and thus are more immediate, though they all take place after these two academic books are done. Tenure tenure tenure.) I now think that idea of the contradance pattern would be better for poetry than for a novel, but we’ll see where it goes in my head eventually.

At one point in the contradance, I had a brief moment of confusion. In the progression, I came upon someone in a skirt with longer hair who was taller than I was. She was as thrilled and giddy as I was and I was swinging her around as I was supposed to. “How are you doing?” I quickly asked, as I had done several times before to other partners. “Great,” she said, “although this is my first night out as…” And she let that trail off quickly as she went around the progression.

And it hit me in a split moment that she was about to say …as a woman. My confusion came about, perhaps, because there were a few men who were clearly crunchy and challenging gender issues by dressing in skirts, but they were also dancing as men. (Indeed, Angela’s first partner that night was one of these guys.) But this person wasn’t part of that group of young people at all and besides, he was “playing” at gender roles as much as passing. Looking a little closer, it immediately hit me that this person was transgendered, though rather convincingly. And my heart immediately swelled: Damn, I thought, what an amazingly brave thing to do. This is the last place I would have expected to encounter someone who was transgendered, way out of what I might think of as an expected “comfort zone” and yet what a perfect place: there was no time for anyone – including her – to get hung up on anything before she would get passed down to the next partner anyway. I don’t know if I could be that brave.

Within a minute, she was back swinging with me and we entered a promenade for a moment, right before we would both progress to our next partners. I wanted her to know that she was doing fine and that I, for one, didn’t care at all that I probably saw through her to him. I laughed and said, “That’s OK, this is my first night out in a long time as well.” And she laughed and moved on.

Angela and I finally got to dance with each other when the band – amazingly, almost 30 people strong! huge!! – broke into a waltz. I had been cajoled into dancing the waltz by a partner I had had earlier, but Angela (who used another guy to get out onto the dance floor herself, that minx) cut in and we finally got a chance to dance together before we left. Today she’s sore and I’m back to writing, but for one dance, I could look her in the eyes, sweaty but overjoyed. “Thank you,” I said. “I had forgotten how much fun this is. Remind me that we need to do this more often.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Chicken Dance as cultural marker

Our local library has a "Spanish circle" twice a month on Thursdays, where kids can play and a wonderfully energetic woman named Señora Lupe plays with them and tells them stories in Spanish. It's true that Xan really doesn't need this since his daycare person is Ecuadorian and only speaks to him in Spanish, and I attempt to speak only Spanish when I'm alone with him, but it is a chance to hang out at the library and our view is that anything that gets him used to going to the library is a good thing.

Last semester, I had to teach on Thursdays; in the spring, Thursday is my day home with Xan. Angela had been taking Xan and he has loved it, so she reminded me that today was time for Señora Lupe and to not be too late. I had heard about Señora Lupe and the nutty things she did. ("¡Una mano! ¡Dos manos! ¡No manos! Yaaaay!") We arrived early, actually (how novel!) and watched as Señora Lupe got things organized. She put in a CD and went out of the children's room for a moment.

A song came on.

La gallina turuleca
Ha puesto un huevo, ha puesto dos, ha puesto treees...

I thought, Wow, I know this song. But I haven't heard this song for, gee, at least 25 years. The song is patently idiotic (about, natch, a crazy hen laying eggs everywhere) but I started to sing along to Xan with the music.

Señora Lupe came in, saw me singing and stopped. "¿Eres peruano?" she asked.

I blinked. This has to have been the first time I've been identified as Peruvian so quickly, particularly since I hadn't even said anything. "Sí," I said.

She immediately got excited: looking at her again, I realized that I should have immediately seen that she was Peruvian. Indeed, at that moment, I remember Angela telling me this a while ago, although I had forgotten.) But how did she know?

She smiled and pointed to the CD player. "Hola Yola," she said. "My sister just sent it to me for Christmas. I hadn't been able to find it before."

And sure enough: it was the music. I hadn't realized that "La gallina turuleca" is not a song every Latin kid should know; rather, it's sung by the famous kids variety show diva Yola Polastry who, no joke, has been doing this since I was a kid. Think of Xuxa, only Peruvian and less slutty. In fact, I had the very album that Señora Lupe was now playing. (And, with the wonder of YouTube, you can even see her performing it below! It is really dumb. And yet so awesome.) I hadn't realized that my knowledge of this song pretty much identified me not only as Peruvian, but also fo a certain age -- much like my ability to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution only by singing the Schoolhouse Rock tune does the same thing as an American kid. Indeed, my son and I immediately became Señora Lupe's favorites for the entire time.

And dammit if I'm not still singing the song, over and over like an earworm. How it brings me back.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

One step closer to ownership

The following transcript simulates an actual phone conversation had just a few days ago:

"Thank you for calling Direct Loans Customer Service. How may I help you?"

"Yes, hi. I'm calling because I just got a notice that my automatic debiting for my college loan has been discontinued. I haven't discontinued it, so I wanted to know why automatic debiting has been canceled."

"Hold on, sir, let me check."

Lum dee dum dee dum.

"Thank you for holding, sir. It appears that you have just finished paying off the loan."



"Yes, sir. Your account balance is at zero."

"Is it appropriate to do a little dance now?"

"Go right ahead, sir."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Best Supporting Actress, Class of 2006: Rinko Kikuchi

It helps that, of this large ensemble cast, she is the focus of the storyline that could easily stand on its own.

It helps that she convincingly plays someone who is deaf, even though she is not.

It helps that she manages to convey a panoply of emotions --rage, lust, empathy, hunger -- on her face and body, even when she has no clothes on, or when strobe lights flash all around her.

It helps that she is not a star (indeed, that we have never even heard of her before), that she is indeed acting.

It helps that, even if for me she is not part of the key "image" that I take from the film (that would be her competitor, the fine actress Adriana Barraza, who walks alone through the desert with the torn red party dress trailing behind her) that her performance is strong, convincing and indelible throughout the film, to the point that her face alone will not free you.

For these reasons and more, I submit my candidate for Best Supporting Actress 2006: Rinko Kikuchi.

This entry is part of the Supporting Actress Blogathon -- please feel free to visit the other sites on the list, particularly since they have probably seen more films than I have, heh heh.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Don't tell Brandon Adams...

...but it appears that Julie Andrews will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. My dear friend from freshman year, who probably thought that this is long overdue and who once typed a short paper about Andrews on my computer when I fell asleep next to my desk (replacing my paper on Iranian author Sadiq Hedayat with the likes of "Julie Andrews is the most fabulous person in the world, and you should know this, professor!!!!"), will probably faint when he hears this.

I'm still not sure whether he's seen S.O.B. yet.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Despite all the bowl football watched on New Year's Day...

...the boy still wants to read, thinking about dragons in wagons. He sat there for almost 15 minutes, quietly looking over this book.

Now that's my kid.
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Monday, January 01, 2007

JM's Best of 2006

Happy New Year everyone! Before we go into the deep dark night of this new year, I thought I would rattle off some of what I considered the better films that I saw this past year. Among other things, I suppose the new semester's worth of students who find this blog will have something to judge me by. Of course, this disclaimer is necessary: I haven't seen all those many flicks again this year because, well, I'm busy and I have a kid. (My good friend JJ needs more time to play catch-up; I realize I will never catch up and thus offer this small list.) More than anything, this list reflects a personal view of this year's films, and perhaps will encourage a scant few of you to take another look (or, in one case, a first look, if it ever gets out). It also serves as a precursor to the Supporting Actress Blogathon coming up in next week, for which I have agreed to write an entry. (Stay tuned: my choice is not referencedhere.)

Without further ado:

5. Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee -- I saw a number of good movies in preparation for choosing my final project for my intro film classes this year and this was one of my finalists for last spring. My students will note that I ended up choosing a meatier film for class that semester, Thank You for Smoking (which I also loved); the truth, however, was that I really enjoyed this one immensely, despite the fact that it was "just a genre film." Sure, it's just a heist flick -- but done so well. I generally enjoy thrill rides like this and honestly love it when I just can't figure it out until the end (hence, why you won't see The Prestige up here, which I guessed early on.) . I actually like to see Spike Lee do a "big movie" like this, and yet still punctuate it well to make it his own. The end result was a tremendously fun, smart flick all around. Kudos to Lee also for using the song "Chaiyya Chaiyya" from the Bollywood film Dil se for the opening credits, which sent us looking for that film, which we also enjoyed. (A runner-up, for the same merits, would have to be Casino Royale, which was another popular 2-1/2 hour flick which surprised me when the credits came up.)

4. The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky -- The original tag line for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was 'The ultimate trip," undoubtedly aware of the many implications of that statement; in much the same way, I find The Fountain a rightful heir as a gorgeous flick that forces the viewer to use her brain. A lot of people hated this movie, perhaps because they expected so much from it after Pi and Requiem for a Dream, not envisioning a highly stylish personal picture. The movie intertwines three stories -- past, present, future -- played by the same actors with similar character names, all hunting for the secret to eternal life. The end result is perplexing and mystifying on many levels -- and yet I literally had my breath taken away with this one. I can't tell you with confidence that I "got" the picture, but I felt I had gone through a truly thought-provoking experience. I wonder how this will translate to the small screen, as I found the picture's attempts at grandeur mesmerizing on the large one. (Two other messy films that had me going precisely because of the messiness, done by directors with clout: Marc Foster's Stranger than Fiction and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel.)

3. Shortbus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell -- I had been curious about this ever since 2003, when I got to interview Mitchell in Lima and he told me about the beginnings of this follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch; in this one, he said, people would be having real sex, but it would be metaphorical, not pornographic. Reading and listening to folks talk about the film after its release, people got so hung up on the sex and its reality, that I felt that they missed the point of what is really a whisp of a movie, a fantasy involving a melange of New Yorkers who can't seem to remember E.M. Forster's famous epigram to Howards End: only connect. Much like laughter punctuates the horrific in such disparate elements as MacBeth, the early Rossellini film Rome, Open City and the most basic of horror flicks, the rather graphic nature of the sex shown here only punctuates the fantasy. For me, the various scenes of New York made out of paper-maiché were far more indicative of what the movie was all about -- and why, when the entire cast started a sing-a-long toward the end of the movie, it didn't seem out of place.

2. Little Children, directed by Todd Field -- Up until I started actually writing these out, I was planning to put this at the top of my list. For starters, the movie has to be the best trailer made this year. The film itself is a careful study of repressed, fragile denizens of suburbia, connected largely through their conceptions of parenthood. (Hmm, perhaps this is why I liked this film so much.) I found this movie completely unpredictable, tense and unnerving in many ways. (That Isay this about a film that prominently features a voice-over narrator, which I usually loathe, says something.) The cast is exceptional, particularly Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Hailey and Phyllis Somerville and Field's taut direction is evident throughout.

1. Day Night Day Night, directed by Julia Loktev -- I have decided to leave the top spot for a film I saw at Telluride that has not gotten a release, nor might it ever. It's one of those films that makes you bang your head against something hard when you think of how many National Lampoon flicks get released while no one will give this one a chance. The plot, what little there is, is simple: a girl spends the last 48 hours of her life preparing to be a suicide bomber. The film is far more complex than that one sentence. For one, the little we know about her works wonders -- and this changes as the film continues. Loktev (who won the Director's Fortnight prize at Cannes for this) keeps the camera so uncomfortably close to the protagonist that we as viewers start to sense everything about her -- and Williams, who is a major find, brings out a tight, subtle performance that pierces. The questions brought up with this piece demonstrate just how film in its very stylishness can also say something important.