Saturday, March 6, 2010

Alice in a 3D Spectacle

Yesterday I saw Tim Burton's new Alice in Wonderland. I saw it in 3D, which is definitely the way to see it, as the key to enjoying the film is to let yourself get caught up in Burton's spectacular visual imagery.

The story is a pretty standard Hollywood female-empowerment adventure about adult Alice's return to Wonderland (more properly called "Underland," in one of the little plot points that are potentially confusing without adding any meaning), but just like Avatar, the plot is just there string together the moments of visual wizardry that are the real meat of the film. The use of computer animation to make Alice shrink and grow is the best of the visual effects, and Helena Bonham Carter's performance as the Red Queen is well-complimented by the visual of her giant, heart-shaped head perching on her tiny body.

The movie only uses Lewis Carroll's work as a jumping-off point, so an essential part of enjoying it is being willing to accept the ransacking of classic literature. Of course, that's pretty much essential for watching anything with literary origins that comes out of Hollywood, so if you enjoy Tim Burton's style of film-making then you'll find something to like (though probably not love) in Alice. It's the sort of movie in which amazing visuals are held back by flawed writing, leaving the final product pretty good but not great.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The DCPA is giving up on the future of theatre in Denver

This blog went on something of an unannounced hiatus last spring when my free time and writing energy were consumed by finishing my masters thesis, but that's all done now, so here is my return to action (at least until April, when I leave with the Peace Corps to teach English in Kyrgyzstan, at which point I hope to transition this into a blog about that experience).

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It should be clear from some of my previous posts that I go pretty regularly to see shows at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and the availability of good theatre in Denver is important to me. In light of that, I was shocked and appalled by the news today that the DCPA is cutting the National Theatre Conservatory. At first glance this may seem to be just one more of the countless tragic minor tragedies of the recession, but a closer look reveals just how much the DCPA board is shortsightedly and dangerously throwing away something of great value to the future of theatre in the city of Denver.

The NTC is one of the top theatre graduate programs and the only congressionally chartered MFA program in the country. Like all forms of education, training top-notch actors is an investment in the future of theatre. In the same way that giving a man a fish is less work on that one day than teaching him how to fish, education rarely looks like a good deal if you only focus on short-term return on investment. The DCPA claims that the recession (including less success from recent touring Broadway shows) is forcing them to end the program in order to save $1.2 million that will redirected toward making sure that there are no cuts to the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Denver Center Attractions (those big Broadway shows). I don't dispute that maintaining the quality of the DCTC should be the top priority, but completely ending the NTC for $1.2 million/year is throwing away the future in order to avoid any uncomfortable belt-tightening in the present.

Like it or not, the value of an education is closely related to the reputation of the institution, and by completely ending the program, the DCPA board is throwing away all of the value that has been accumulated by the NTC name, and the tricky thing about good reputations is that they are easy to lose and very difficult to regain. Whatever the financial situation of the DCPA, their decision to eliminate the NTC rather than simply changing it says one of two things. One possibility is that they are so foolishly short-sighted that they cannot see that completely ending the program to save money during a time of hardship is like a panicky investor who sells his valuable assets when their price is at their lowest and then rues his folly when things recover and he sees how much value he has thrown away. The more frightening possibility is that they have bought into the prophesies of the doom-sayers who argue that theatre is a dying medium, and that they have decided to sacrifice the NTC in order to prop up their core programs for as long as possible until the whole institution goes belly up. Either way, this incredibly short-sighted decision casts doubt upon the future of the DCPA and the whole Denver theatre community.

I've groped for some way to see this as anything other than a disaster, and the best that I could come up with is that maybe the DCPA board is only pretending to be stupid and is really cynical and manipulative. The phenomenon of donor fatigue is well-documented, and one of the best ways to get people to open their wallets is to manufacture a crisis (just look at the way campaigning politicians have mastered the art of spinning each new development into an opportunity for their supporters to give money). They are saying right now that they will be eliminating the program with no plans to ever bring it back, but everyone knows that they would reconsider in a heartbeat if a deep-pocketed donor offered a big gift to keep the NTC going. Sad as it is, I actually find myself hoping that the board decided that making this shocking announcement suddenly and without warning was the best way to galvanize potential donors into providing the support that they need to get through the recession. Unfortunately, it seems equally possible that they might be killing the NTC as a way to spur donors into giving money that will go towards the theatre company and Denver Center Attractions: "Better donate now, or the plays you enjoy might suffer the same fate as the conservatory."

I could keep listing all of the different reasons why this surprise decision is really stupid and dangerous, but there's little to be gained by it. It all boils down to the fact that throwing away the future to "save" the present is a horrible mistake, and I can only hope that we will not someday look back at this as the beginning of the end of quality theatre in Denver.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Next to Normal is Extraordinary

Back in January I had the chance to see an absolutely fantastic musical at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. Next to Normal is now on Broadway, and I strongly encourage anyone who is or will be in New York to see it. It is one of those rare works in which every character is both unique and profoundly compelling, and this montage can barely begin to show how engaging and deeply thought-provoking the show is.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

At long last: an official "Where the Wild Things Are" trailer!

Of all the movies that have come out in the last few years or are currently in the works, this is the one I am most excited about. This is so lovely that it manages to simultaneously give me chills and make me feel warm inside.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Favoritest Animal Ever!

Like most people, as a child I had a favorite animal that I was passionate about. I would get excited about anything that had even a tangential connection to dolphins, and I often felt that being one would be much more fun that being a human. Watching this video made me feel like I was ten years old again:

Monday, February 9, 2009

Magic bullets are for werewolves, not education reform

My mom passed along a recent piece by Malcolm Gladwell on education reform in The New Yorker. At the very least, the article does a good job of provoking thought and discussion, even if (especially if) one disagrees with him.

Gladwell is right about the problem of selecting teachers when there are no reliable predictors of quality, but the comparison to financial services is a bit misleading. "What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?" is the wrong question to be asking. If it were just a question of spending as much money on teaching candidates as we do on financial advisers, then it would have been solved already. Because teaching has so much more social significance than how we manage our money, there are different political pressures that would come into play.

Imagine what would happen to a financial services firm if their shareholders had a bunch of other priorities above making money. There are lots of self-described "single-issue" voters, and I have yet to hear anyone present a way insulate a teacher selection process like the one Gladwell suggests from the pressures of taxpayers who would reject, say, all teachers who believe in evolution or anyone who opposes gay marriage. Even post-Obama, there are lot of people who would be rejected by most voters based solely on who they are, and it would be a disaster if teachers were subject to the same sort of social/political litmus tests.

That said, the status quo is not working, and the system does need reform. The trouble is that the issue is far too complex to be solved by any idea that is simple enough to be summed up in an Op-Ed piece. I understand the temptation to throw out the existing dysfunctional system and start over based on a new model, but as satisfying as that might be, those sort of revolutionary changes always create more problems than they solve. Precisely because education is so important, it will take careful, incremental changes, and the first step is for everyone to understand that there is no magic bullet.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Inauguration Day

I had the extreme good fortune to get a ticket to the presidential inauguration ceremony from my congressional representative, and I traveled to Washington DC for a week to attend the historic event. The following is my attempt to record as thoroughly as possible my Inauguration Day experience.

My Aunt Laura works for the National Park Service, and I stayed with her while I was there. All of the National Capitol Region employees (and park rangers from other regions who were brought in to help out) were doing much of the work for the inauguration, and because of the bridge and road closures, everyone had to come in and spend the night at the NCR headquarters (near the Jefferson Memorial). Most of them had to spend the night on cots in a giant tennis bubble, but those who had offices spent the night there.

Because we knew that the Metro would be strained beyond capacity from the moment it opened at 4:00 am on the 20th, I came in with Aunt Laura and we both spent the night on Red Cross cots in her office. We got MREs, which I wanted to eat primarily for the novelty factor, and the new kind of MREs have really cool self-heating chemical packs. They also distributed sweet Red Cross blankets that we got to keep because it was easier for them to give them away than deal with disinfecting them, so I've got a pretty awesome souvenir.

I got up at 5:30 in the morning to get ready for the inauguration, and on my way to take a shower I walked in my pyjamas through a group of rangers in the middle of a briefing in the lobby. I had a shock (though it shouldn't have been surprising) because the shower in the building had no hot water. Even though my shower was just a few moments of splashing ice-cold water on my face and armpits, I still ended up running a little bit behind.

It was very cold, so I bundled up in boots, two pairs of warm socks, two pairs of jeans, a t-shirt, a long-sleeve thermal layer, a sweater, and my jacket. I wanted my Obama shirt to be visible, and luckily it was large enough that I could pull it on over my layers and then put my buttons on it. I capped off by wrapping my neck and lower face in the thick wool scarf that Laura had lent me and doing a fold and loop with my other scarf to hold it in place, then I wore my LSU hat with Laura's big wool hat on top of it. The advantage of spending the night there was that I only had to cross a bridge and I was basically right on the Mall, so I had planned on leaving at 6:30, but I ended up missing that by a few minutes.

When I walked across the bridge there was a solid stream of buses inching along beside me. I was by myself until I reached L'Enfant Promenade, but I quickly was absorbed into major crowds when I reached Independence Avenue (the south side of the Mall). At times I had to fight a tide of people who were heading towards the entrances to the non-ticketed areas to make my way toward the silver gate entrance on 3rd.

As it turned out, I was far too optimistic about where the end of the line would be, and around 4th I realized that the people standing on the side of the street for the last few blocks were the line. There were two girls who realized the same thing at almost the same time, so we walked together as we walked all the way back to 7th. I'm not actually sure if that was the end of the line, but at that point it got muddled by the flows of people, so we picked an unoccupied spot and planted ourselves in it.

One of the girls was wearing a bright red OU Sooners hat (which made it easier to keep track of her in the crowds), but it turned out that she was a college student from Nebraska. Her friend was a student in Richmond, and they had spent the weekend together there before coming up by commuter rail early that morning. We were joined in line by a friendly older couple from the DC suburbs. The girl with the Sooners hat didn't stay in line very long before she went off to find one of the thousands porta-potties that lined the Mall, but she didn't make it back before the gates opened.

The line ended up not meaning as much because there was a space in between the gate that they opened at 8:00 and the actual security screening area. There was such a rush to fill up that space in front of the security bottleneck that the line devolved into a bit of scramble to move forward. A handful of people actually tried to run and weave their way forward through the crowd, but the bulk of the former line moved forward at a brisk walk, and the only people who got passed were those unwilling or unable to keep pace.

I stayed with the older couple and the girl from Richmond until we reached the first bottleneck in front of security. The girl left at that point to try to reconnect with her friend because she had both of their tickets. We moved forward slowly in the crush toward the security screening area.

The police had 3rd blocked off as buffer between the two parts of the silver section, and the security checkpoints fed into the west section (further from the Capitol). They were preventing a headlong rush that would crush people into the Capitol reflecting pool by only allowing small groups to cross 3rd at regular intervals. I got across pretty quickly, and I positioned myself a little bit to the right of center. They had the area right in front of the pool blocked off while they got people settled in the handicapped section, and when they opened that final fence I was able to position myself in a great spot. I was just a couple feet back from the railing with only one person in front of me, and the spot I was in allowed me to see a jumbotron as well as glimpse the distant speck of the podium through some tree branches.

My immediate neighbors were several younger black women from South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. A few of them were vocal about placing a high value on "respecting the office," which mostly seemed to mean that they disapproved of booing George W. Bush. They did not represent the majority of the crowd, and when his face showed up on the big screen he was jeered by a rousing chorus of "Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye!" They clearly were prepared for the crowd to have a negative response to Bush, and they quickly drowned out the chant by cranking up on the volume of the music. I expected that Palin would also provoke a significant response from the crowd, but they once again stage-managed things to avoid it. As the governors were being shown coming out of the Capitol building, the camera panned away before Palin came to the front of the line, so the crowd never got a chance to boo her. Interestingly, John McCain did not get jeered or booed at all as far as I could hear, and the only other person besides Bush to get booed was Joe Lieberman.

The excitement continued to build as we watched Obama's girls come in, and the air was thick with enthusiasm by the time he reached the podium. The miscue during the swearing in was barely noticeable in the crowd, and it was only later when I watched clips that I understood why people who'd only watched it on TV were making such a big deal about it. The cheer that surged through the crowd when he completed the oath of office was not the loudest I've ever heard, but unlike cheers at sporting events or concerts, it was all about personal emotion rather than making noise for its own sake. There were tears of joy on almost every face around me, and although I did not come close to crying, that has more to do with the fact that only certain very specific kinds of emotional distress get me cry. My primary emotion was excitement, with my whole body feeling highly charged in spite of the cold.

President Obama's speech was fantastic, and one of the most incredible moments of the whole day came when everyone went silent as he began to speak. All morning there was a constant happy murmur from all of the people packed in together, and not only did the Mall go completely silent, but all of the little movements of people brushing against each other in the crowd ended too. The feeling generated by two million people suddenly becoming completely still and silent is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It was like the abstract notions of importance, gravity, and historical significance were suddenly transformed into something visceral and powerfully tangible.

The content of his speech was no less powerful, and there were a few things that particularly stood out for me as I was experiencing it live. On Monday afternoon, I had talked with my friend Ben about the sad shape of the country and the inevitability of America's decline from the position of superpower, and Obama grabbed hold of me right from the start when he declared that the end of America's greatness is not inevitable. Normally I would not be moved by such a declaration from a politician, but he lifted it above the usual rhetoric of American exceptionalism by making it clear that the nation's problems would not solve themselves and that America's continued greatness depends on a lot of hard work from everyone. I also took heart in the fact that he included nonbelievers in with the Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus. I was tempted to cheer at that point, but that line did not go over as well with the rest of the crowd, and I hesitated and lost my chance. His declaration of support for science and education was a welcome poke (among others) at the outgoing president seated a few feet away from him, and I'm looking forward to having a president who doesn't treat academia like a punching bag. Last but not least, I was inspired by his call for a spirit of service among all Americans to work toward solving our problems and achieving our goals together.

Different people in the crowded reacted more strongly to different parts of the speech, but overall the feeling was extremely positive, and the surge of emotion at the end of his address was such that one woman near me actually fainted. I suspect that fatigue and cold were probably major contributing factors, but it was clearly his stirring conclusion that was the trigger. All of the surges of emotion before that moment were dwarfed by the flood of joy and relief that overwhelmed me at that moment. Usually a state of shock is caused by something traumatic, but I was stunned with happiness as I listened to the inaugural poem and closing prayer.

As the shock wore off, I was sad to see how quickly the mood turned more selfish in the aftermath. The police didn't even waste their time trying to prevent people from jumping the barriers and sliding all over the frozen reflecting pool (the sun had been shining on it all morning, and several times it cracked and people would scurry for the sides, but I was disappointed that there was no karmic justice in the form of people actually falling through). There was lots of pushing and rudeness as people tried to set up their ideal photos. It seemed vaguely like a disaster movie when I got through the crowds around the reflecting pool and saw the huge quantity of newspapers and other trash being blown all over by the wind amidst the mass exodus of people from the Mall.

It was surreal to be walking with huge crowds of people in the middle of the eight lanes of Independence Avenue. I saw the massive bottlenecks as hundreds of thousands of people tried to crowd into the Metro, and I was really glad to be able to avoid it. The walk back to Laura's office was a remarkably easy, and the people selling food and Obama stuff to the exiting hordes on L'Enfant Promenade were doing huge business at impressively high prices ($25 for a cheap t-shirt, postcards 2 for $5, knit caps $30, etc.).

When I got back to Laura's office, she was dying to get away, and they hadn't really needed her to work the phones anyway, so we were able leave at 3:00. They had done such a good job of keeping cars out of the city that we had wide open roads as we made our way to her boyfriend's house on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Laura's place is in the Maryland suburbs on the opposite side of the city and doesn't have TV, so we picked up a bunch of Yuengling (yay!) on our way and then settled in to watch the parade and relax after a superlative day.