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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog


Archives for March, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BUZZ SAW, by John Hilton

"Attention please: the Ann Arbor News is closing." Sales rep Vikki Enos, first with the buzz as usual, announced the news over the Observer intercom at 9:55 Monday morning. I discarded the email message I'd been about to forward from restaurant reviewer Bix Engels--the first of a dozen that delivered the incredible news over the next few hours. In between came calls from worried advertisers who'd mistakenly heard that it was the Observer, not the News, that was closing. (Some wanted to express their sympathy, only to embarrassedly withdraw it.)

As the word rippled around the country, I heard from Observer founder Don Hunt in Traverse City, ex Guides editor Erick Trickey in Cleveland, former News reporter Mark Peyko in Youngstown, and even my sister in Chicago. But the strangest call came that evening, when profiles editor Eve Silberman, working late, answered the Observer phone--only to be asked if she'd like to take advantage of a "terrific offer" on a three-day-a-week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) subscription to the News. The price was right--just $1.25 a week. "But the News is closing!" Silberman exclaimed. "Why would I subscribe to a paper that's closing?" Defensively, the caller replied that there would be a new paper in a different format--though she admitted, "We're as nervous as all get out" about the future.

As it turns out, at least one subscriber had been prescient. Former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw used to pay for his News a year in advance, but lately signed up for just six months. He says "rumors" about the paper's possible demise made him nervous about committing longer term.

An hour ago, I called the News to ask what will happen to my own home subscription. I sat through a canned spiel about how they'd be contacting subscribers in the next few weeks, waited on hold for a few minutes, and was rewarded by reaching a terrific customer service rep.

"It's very simple, sir," Bob promised. "It'll get cancelled and if you've got any money coming you'll get it back." But, he added, "I've had six people so far today--that's not a lot but it's six people--that are going to just roll [the balance on their News subs] into the Thursday and Sunday" paper that will replace it.

What will the twice-weekly paper cost? "I have no information on that--this all just came down yesterday," he pointed out. "If you like I can take your information and put you on that list."

He took my phone number and looked up my subscription. "You're paid though August 8, and you're on easy pay, so you're not going to be charged again," he said. "Your last payment was $162." Publishing only twice a week, the new paper "would have to be less," he ventured. "I would think a lot less."

I told him to put me down for it. "I've printed your screen, and I or somebody will be in touch with you," he promised. "I'll be here right to the end."

I said I was sorry about his job. "I've only got three more years left before I would have been retiring," he replied--then added briskly, "We'll see what's out there."

posted by John Hilton at 6:34 p.m. | 0 comments


Friday, March 20, 2009

THE RETURN OF THE PASTEL POET, by Eve Silberman

OMG, he's back! Poet/musician Rod McKuen, heartthrob of my vanished sixteen-year-old self, will be performing at First United Methodist Church on April 3 as part of its Green Wood Coffee House Series. And though he's no longer the handsome, soulful, blond bard who had me shrieking at Ford Auditorium in Detroit in, literally, another century, he doesn't look bad for a geezer of (pause for wikipedia check - gasp!) seventy-four.

I no longer have my Rod McKuen books, those slim, pretty-jacketed volumes whose covers featured the poet looking pensively at rivers or a collection of rocks or maybe his cat Sloopy, who rated a book of his own called, natch, A Cat Named Sloopy. I spent hours looking at those books, listening to Rod's slightly gravelly voice reciting lines I still know by heart: "Where are we now? / Where are we now? / A thousand miles apart. / What have we now? / What have we now? / Not even love enough to break each other's heart." Those lines touched me in ways that the soliloquies of Hamlet and Lear, droned in a room of bored 11th graders, did not.

McKuen, according to Green Wood's press release, is that rarity--a best-selling poet whose works have been translated into some thirty languages. His heyday was the late Sixties and early Seventies, when he took his handsome self around the country, singing/reading to sell-out, mostly teenaged, mostly female audiences. I was thrilled to snag a ticket to that Ford Auditorium performance. His closing words that night: "It doesn't matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love." The audience erupted.

Afterward, I waited in a line of awe-struck girls, holding open my copy of Listen to the Warm for his golden autograph. "Sleep Warm, Rod McKuen," he wrote--in my book and all the others. Phooey on me for losing mine -- I might have gotten $15, maybe even $20 for it on eBay.

McKuen's extraordinary popularity probably had much to do with the sweetness he brought in raucous, rapidly changing country. The times were exciting but unsettling. Music was loud, clothing was loud, the anti-war chants loud ("Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"). McKuen was pastel in a world of primary colors.

A book-loving friend of my father's was appalled when I told him I thought Rod McKuen was the greatest poet in the world. Hadn't I read real poetry? he demanded, referencing Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Wasn't I, a prize-winning, high school writer, too smart to fawn over a pretty-boy mass entertainer? Nope, I wasn't.

I'm sorry our friend died long ago. Before I went on to college and almost fell off my chair hearing a professor's reading of Yeats's "The Second Coming"--"And what rough beast / its hour come round at last..." Before I experienced loss, serious illness, the monotony of life's daily, draining compromises. Before, in short, I lived a life. It would have pleased my father's friend to know that now when I can't sleep, I turn to the words of the greats: "It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for." Or, as old age lurches toward me from the nursing home, the defiance of "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Not "A Cat Named Sloopy." Or "Listen to the Warm."

I briefly thought of checking out Rod again: it's not often that you hear an artist forty years after your first encounter. But I'm passing on the Poet of My Adolescence. Still, I hope at least a few romantic teenage girls show up at the Green Wood, convinced that Rod is the best poet that ever lived. Because, for a short time in their lives, he just might be.

posted by Katie Whitney at 2:36 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THE ART OF OBSESSION, by Katie Whitney

What if you woke up one morning and realized that you couldn't stop noticing red pants? You notice them everywhere--that bag lady's sweats, that kid's corduroys, that girl's tight jeans--red pants, red pants, red pants. You even noticed when they weren't around, and worse, you missed them. You felt compelled to grasp at the moments you had together. Would you keep it to yourself? Tell a friend? See a psychologist?

Chris Schneider seems to suffer from this quirk, and he's made his own cure in his "Red Pants Project," a series of 382 snapshots of people wearing red pants. It's one of 27 works in Obsession, on display through April 12 at Gallery Project. Individually, the shots suck: the photography's often blurry, with haphazard compositions and no attention to white balance, not to mention subtlety. They're simply records of the artist's compulsion. But when put together, in a dizzying wall of neat rows, they form something awe inspiring: an archive--measured, organized, deeply satisfying--of one small slice of this person's experience (a major raison d'etre, one could argue, of the blogosphere). I was surprised to find the artist has priced the photos to sell separately, or in small groups. They have very little aesthetic value on their own, and I doubt someone would buy just one--even if it were a Picasso (or maybe especially if it were a Picasso, considering the recent Yves Saint Laurent auction debacle).

The power of repetition and scale forms the greater part of the intellectual content of this exhibit. Besides the photos and one other piece, the entire exhibit is abstract--and most of it is doodles. One artist has simply drawn tiny circles of varying sizes in a circular pattern over a large piece of paper. It's intriguing. Taken together it looks almost cell-like, a tiny organism, multiplying and expanding. But ultimately, it's pencil, paper, and little circles: the art is in the patience. And this theme runs throughout most of the exhibit. Patterns emerge--not just in individual pieces, but between different artists' work: a fondness for forms that echo bones, cells, innards, never quantifiable or exact, but often with an unsettling plant-animal hybridity.

There are two pieces that make me want to go back to see the show again, and both are not only skillful, but subtle and meditative. Thom Bohnert's "One in a Hundred, One of the Same" is a set of 100 drawings of the same bird. They look like small, pointilised Audubons on old-looking yellowish Kitakata paper. You could play the Sesame Street game of figuring out which ones are not like the others, but it's far more satisfying to bask in the serenity.

The other piece, Namin Kim's "Circles," is an installation on the floor of terracotta sticks piled on top of actual sticks in a circular pattern. (There's a version in the little back room done in porcelain.) I don't really know what it means, and I don't really care to know. Its just lovely in its simplicity and vague evocation of nature, altars, and solitude.

In both of these works, the artist is in complete control of his or her obsession. That passionate energy for one quirky subject--contained, directed, molded, and transformed--is something to behold.

posted by Katie Whitney at 4:46 p.m. | 0 comments


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

GREAT ESCAPES, by Michael Betzold

Movies provide great escapes. One reason I don't watch TV is that it's hard to get lost in the small screen. It's the same reason I sit up close at movie theaters. Like vivid dreams, movies have the power to immerse you in other worlds.

Two recent releases, Coraline and Watchmen, satisfy that urge for rapid immersion in alternate universes, but those universe's couldn't be less alike. Coraline is the detailed nightmare of an imaginative young girl who longs for more attentive parents and a less boring life. Watchmen depicts a feverish fictitious world, circa mid-1980s, in which the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war, Richard Nixon has been elected to a fourth term, and someone is targeting a group of mostly washed-up superheroes for extinction.

Both films are vso inventive that at times they are barely coherent. But Coraline has the wacky logic of a dream world, a world with the moral: Be careful what you wish for. In the case of Coraline, who has just moved into a strange new house from Michigan, she'd like some parents who weren't cranky writers, a friend who didn't run off at the mouth, and some outlet for her imagination.

There's only one problem: Her dream parents have button eyes, and her dream mother turns out to be a monster.

Watchmen is much more ambitious and complex, but that's not necessarily a virtue. Based on an acclaimed comic book series turned graphic novel, it's packed full of superheroes like Rorshach, whose mask is its own ever-changing ink-blot test, and Dr. Manhattan, a mutant nuclear physicist--a big blue naked man with the power of a living bomb and a bent for philosophical pondering. The other characters are far less interesting, however, and though the film is full of stunning imagery, it's a narrative kitchen sink, crammed with back stories and dueling plots and overwrought with blood, gore, spectacle, and pretentious ideas. In its eagerness to be bolder, bigger, and more important than other superhero movies, it ends up being a bloated bore. You can get a similar story, more economically told, in The Incredibles.

It's worth noting that some of the snappier scripts and smoother plots in recent years have belonged to animated films like Brad Bird's Incredibles and, yes, Coraline (Wolverines be warned though: an MSU sweatshirt makes several appearances). By comparison, the big spectacle live-action movies increasingly look like they were made by and for people with ADD.

Surviving Watchmen, I had the feeling that I kept seeing the same movie over and over again. I call it superhero fatigue. If you've got it, too, the quieter Coraline might be the perfect antidote.

posted by John Hilton at 12:52 p.m. | 0 comments


Thursday, March 5, 2009

POST-SLUMDOG SYNDROME, by Michael Betzold

Now that the Oscars are over, the Michigan Theater is finally going to show one of the most-talked-about Oscar-nominated films, Waltz with Bashir, and I-m eagerly planning on going to see it Friday. My enthusiasm is only slightly diminished by an encounter this week with an old friend and movie buff who lives in Los Angeles and says the film is a letdown after you get past your amazement at the animation technique, and by the unexpected Academy snub and award for best foreign film to an unheralded Japanese entry Departures. No doubt we-ll be seeing that at the Michigan soon as well.

Meanwhile, now that the spirited Slumdog Millionaire has kicked the ass of the soporific The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (both showing locally at Showcase Cinemas and Quality 16), millions will see what all the fuss is about, as Slumdog is re-released widely. The excitement over Danny Boyle-s film was so palpable that it made the overly stagy Oscar telecast actually come alive for a few moments. This is one film that earns its feel-good chops with a brutally frank depiction of growing up in Mumbai-s slums.

The winners themselves brought lots of fresh air to the awards ceremony, and it finally seems like Hollywood is shedding its provincialism and getting a whiff of the global village. Slumdog is not only class-conscious and race-conscious but worldly in a way that smashes the claustrophobia of Hollywood-s limited vision (car chases and formulaic sequels). Penelope Cruz-s acceptance speech also noted how art should and can unify the actual world--as opposed to Hollywood-s cramped notion of the world.

But the most exhilarating moments belonged to Milk, currently at Showcase. Not only did Sean Penn-s thrillingly human performance defeat the tawdry work of the overrated Mickey Rourke in the execrable The Wrestler-which should rightly be seen as a triumph of real manhood over fake machismo-his predictably highly political speech barred no holds. He slammed down the reactionary forces of homophobia to the canvas, making it clear their days are numbered.

Yet the most moving words came from Milk-s young screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who in one of the bravest speeches ever given at the Oscars, said in part:

-If Harvey had not been taken from us thirty years ago, I think he-d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.-

That, plus several scenes from Milk that showed men kissing each other, should have made all the latter-day Dan Whites of the world quake. We-re all going to hell because of the movies.

The rest of the telecast was innovative in a retro sort of way, if you happen to be excited by the thin idea that the British box office for Mamma Mia! means musicals are making a comeback. As the first non-comedian to host the Oscars (unless you count Billy Crystal), Hugh Jackman proved he could sing and dance and leave the comic moments to the real pros like Steve Martin and Tina Fey. The complicated sets were wonderful if you ignored the fact that this was a telecast and viewers might have been interested in actually seeing the movie clips projected on the remote reaches of the backstage.

It was a nice touch to have five previous winners of the acting awards give their props to the current nominees, creating such bizarre moments as having Sophia Loren salute Meryl Streep and making it more obvious that Daniel Day-Lewis was MIA. And it was nice to see Kate Winslet get an Oscar even though it was for the wrong movie (she and Leo were fantastic in Revolutionary Road, but not even a brilliant effort could salvage the ridiculous character Winslet was asked to play in The Reader, a movie that asks us to accept the fantastic notion that shame over illiteracy somehow mitigates guilt over participation in the Holocaust).

I guess the moral is that, like a real slumdog, you sometimes have to wade through excrement to bask in the presence of genuine movie stars.

posted by at 9:36 a.m. | 0 comments


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