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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Shakespearean Plays on Stage

It occurred to me that I should keep a record of the ones I've seen on stage:

Richard III (STC, lead: Stacy Keach)
King Lear (STC, modern version set in the Balkans)
Henry V (Folger, lead: Zach Appelman)
Much Ado About Nothing (STC, set in Cuba)
Romeo and Juliet (STC, all male production)
Coriolanus (STC 2013)
Measure for Measure (STC 2014)
Richard III (Folger Theater 2014, lead: Drew Cortese)
Henry IV, Part 1 (STC 2014, Stacy Keach as Falstaff)
Henry IV, Part 2 (STC 2014)
Julius Caesar (Folger 2014)

Aim to see at least one in London (The Globe) and one in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Into the Woods (movie)

Before the movie came out, Sondheim fans were worried that Disney would pour syrup all over the original musical and fuck it up. After the movie came out the complaints seemed to die down, but I still think the movie has been sugarized and messed up.

Let's not kid ourselves. The marketing campaign for the movie gave it away. The movie was marketed as a "family film" and it is adapted in that way. People who had never seen the original musical or the video of the original musical or who didn't know Sondheim from Speilberg took their kids to see the film. How could they possibly be given the musical in its original way as intended by Sondheim and Lapine?

Case in point is how the Wolf is kept --- but not really --- in the movie. The sexually suggestive song he sings to the Little Red Riding Hood ("Hello Little Girl") is quickly gotten out of the way in a blur. Not to mention the costume ... Awkward ...

And the movie does nothing for one of the main themes of the musical: parent-child relationships. No one would come out of the movie with any enlightenment or insight about this. What a waste. Into the Woods was, in some ways, Sondheim's psychological processing of his troubled relationships with a narcissistic mother and a father who escaped to save himself and left his son to drown. Damned if you got any of that from the movie.

The most important song in the musical is "No One is Alone." In the movie, the setup for the song gives you a fraction of its meaning and emotional depth. Everything is dumbed down and dashed off, as if afraid the audience would actually think about the lyrics and messages and meaning, and feel slightly disturbed.

One critic observed that the tempo of the songs in the movie is too slow. I think the reason is that most of the actors couldn't sing them properly. Movie actors are shit at singing, especially such difficult songs. The much revered great Meryl Streep was pretty shit at playing the witch too. Bernadette Peters can destroy her performance with a few verses.

This is why I prefer the stage to movies. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Apparently the "war" on procrastination has been raging around the world. Hanging out on the Chinese twitter, I saw how the issue has become a fashionable epidemic among the ambitious and upward-mobile Chinese youths. Hmm. And of course self-help books that claim to cure your procrastination problem fill up bookshelves in the only bookstore left in my neighborhood.

I don't have any remedy to cure anybody's procrastination. I am bothered by my own apparent tendency to put off doing things that are unnecessary but not enjoyable, sometimes, occasionally. I can't cure myself or anyone of occasional laziness.

The thing is, I just recently realized that institutions and even companies that are supposed to be ruthless money-driven machines procrastinate, and far worse than any individual person. People put off not only doing their work but making decisions that affect others' work downstream. And the problem is rampant. Especially by the end of the year, all the previously unmade and delayed decisions have snowballed into a gigantic snowball that swallow a bunch of innocent bystanders who did nothing to contribute to the others' indecision and laziness.

Yeah, indeed, when institutional procrastination is far worse and destructive than minor transgression by individuals, why beat oneself up over it?

It's perfectly logical for institutions to procrastinate than individual persons, because an individual knows the direct and first-hand effect of delays in doing laundry and taking out trashing, but the effects of procrastinating on making decisions and doing work in an organization are almost completely painless, until your boss or colleague comes to your office and looks at you with disgust and reproach. It's all the more painless when employees on salary see no difference in their paycheck, regardless of how much they have slacked off.

Corporations are not people, and people seem to know that instinctively. That is why they don't give a shit at work.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Portrait of Jennie

The movie Portrait of Jennie left a strong and lasting impression on me when I first saw it on TV in my early teens. Re-watching it now (available on YouTube here), it holds up remarkably well. The cinematography, shot on location in New York City (very realistic) and Massachusetts (not so realistic), is beautiful, especially the foggy and moonlit night scenes. Some scenes were clearly shot through a gauze or cloth to make them look like oil paintings on canvases. The soundtrack is also fabulous, in which Dmitri Tiomkin cannibalized several Debussy's themes (I only recognize "Faun") rather perfectly. It walks a fine line between a cheesy ghost story and a palatable fantasy about time distortion. I think what made it work well is the early skating scene in broad daylight, which establishes a solid and sunny presence for the female character.

I see some degree of imitation of Portrait of Jennie in at least two later time-related fantasy novels (both were also adapted for screen): Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Matheson even used the same device of a painting as a means of freezing time. In my opinion neither achieves the same degree of ghostliness and whimsy as Robert Nathan and the movie. Matheson's novel is a bit overlong and overwrought, while Niffenegger's writing is utterly unreadable and puke inducing.

The only complaint I have about the movie is the casting. Both Jennifer Jones (28) and Joseph Cotten (43!) are too old for their roles. On the other hand, if the star weren't Jones, David O. Selznick would not have thrown loads of money at the production and insisted on shooting all the outdoor Central Park scenes on location.

When I saw the movie in the mid-1980s, China was just opening up and imported a number of classic movies through some kind of contract with CBS and showed them on TV. Among these movies were some Shirley Temple fluff. Portrait of Jennie was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. Around the same time I saw "The Third Man" (incidentally also starring Joseph Cotten) at least twice. Without knowing any background about them, I was utterly fascinated by these two movies, even though I couldn't understand half of the context and meaning (especially "The Third Man"). The movies that went down easily and happily left no impression whatsoever. In fact I was quite bored with the song and dance stuff or the cute Shirley with golden curls.

Indeed it seems that I had excellent taste at an early age --- another piece of evidence to support the theory that taste is an instinct. You either have it or you don't. Shit taste is rampant, but that cannot be helped.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Whims 2014

At the end of the summer, I dragged DH with me up to the Deep Creek Lake in Maryland and hopped into it twice. Did not swim for more than 15 minutes each time, as it was quite cold. Whenever I submerged my head into the murky lake water, the cold shocked it like an icy clamp. So I turned over and floated on my back, with the backhalf of the head in water. It was all right, but unlike the rosy, filtered memory of that one other time when I had swam in a lake nearly three decades ago. It had been unbearably hot that summer and the water had been comfortably warm. My mother took me on a retreat of sort sponsored by her employer. I spent the idle days with a couple of her colleagues' daughters. There was a translation of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales collection lying around, which I devoured in a couple of days.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I again dragged DH (poor Mr. S) with me up to New York City and skated at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. It is smaller than one would infer from photographs, but I liked it nevertheless. The vegetation growing by the boards and the rocks and trees of the park surrounding the ice are an odd contrast to the skyscrapers in the background. The ice is of an irregular shape, suggesting that it used to be a pond on which people skated. Incidentally (or perhaps logically), this fancy was also related to a memory from childhood -- the movie "Portrait of Jennie" starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton (based on a novella by Robert Nathan). A painter met a strange girl in Central Park one winter, and they skated on the ice rink. In the movie the park was deserted, leaving only the two of them in the world.

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