25 October 2010

And Now I Have a Bird Head

When I found out I was nominated for the Last Drink Bird Head award, I thought the other folks in my category were so immensely talented and deserving that it was inconceivable -- INCONCEIVABLE! -- that I could win. Jeff VanderMeer asked me to appoint someone to accept the award in my absence should I win, and also to write an acceptance speech in case I happened to need one. I got busy and forgot about this request, and remembered a couple days ago and thought, "No, there's no way."

And then I won.

So here I am, like the occasional Oscar winner who doesn't write a speech because there's just no way in heckapalooza they could win, and then they do, and they speak extemporaneously and bizarrely, and everyone then thinks, "Wow, that person is a bird brain!"

Here, after the fact, is my extemporaneous acceptance speech upon winning the Last Drink Bird Head award in the category of "Expanding Our Vocabulary":
Oh wow. Gosh. Wow. Okay. So, uh, yikes, you know, I didn't actually, ummm, think I'd like, uh, win? The award? But here I am, so, uhhhhh, yeah! Wow! Man, these things are heavier than they look! Oh, so I should, ummm, there are -- there are people I have to thank! Right! I couldn't be here today without, of course, my parents, who made me, and ummmm, right -- and I have a dog! No, I don't have a dog. I don't even really like dogs. I've been thinking about getting another cat, because my old cats died and-- Wait, the red light's going on, that means I have to, like, wrap it up, right? But there are so many people to thank without whom I couldn't be here today! The person who invented the Internet for instance -- whoever you are -- thank you! And and and -- oh, the music, that means------ [MUSIC RISES]
When the awards were handed out, I was actually up in northern New Hampshire and Vermont with Eric Schaller, Mr. Last Drink Bird Head himself (for the whole story, you have to read the book). Little did we know that we were celebrating!

Thank you to the mysterious cabal of advisors to the award; I am really and honestly grateful -- amazed! -- that the various work I've done has found an appreciative audience.

23 October 2010

Theater of War

I began watching Theater of War with low expectations.  Documentaries about the making of plays usually disappoint me for a variety of reasons, not the least being that what works well on stage seldom works well on film -- in so many ways, the art forms are the opposite of each other.  The process of making plays is also not inherently dramatic -- it's generally slow and repetitive, often frustrating, and the best rehearsal processes, at least in my experience, are ones all about doing as much wrong as possible in order to find, through experiment and elimination, what's right.

I often found Theatre of War gripping, however.  Partly, this is because I'm interested in the people involved -- Tony Kushner, George C. Wolfe, Meryl Streep, and, especially, Bertolt Brecht.  The film uses the opportunity of chronicling the 2006 production of Mother Courage and Her Children put on by the Public Theater in Central Park to chronicle much more than that -- to explore Brecht's life and work, and to meditate on essential questions of art and politics.

The Public's production starred Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, was directed by George C. Wolfe, and the translation/adaptation was by Tony Kushner, with music by Jeanine Tesori.  Great actors, a tremendously creative director, and a script by one of the greatest playwrights of the last century translated/adapted by one of the greatest American playwrights of the last twenty-five years.  As ingredients for productions go, that's a pretty marvelous mix, and part of my interest in the film was in seeing how all of those people worked together.

I don't know if the production was artistically successful -- I am inclined to trust Michael Feingold's judgment on things when it comes to Brecht, and he had only the barest praise for it.  That doesn't really matter for the movie, though, because the film can sift and sort, showing us only the most interesting moments of the many hours filmed.  Mostly, director/editor John Walter decided to focus on Meryl Streep's performance, and the judgment seems to have been a good one, because it lets us glimpse some of the development of the role.

All of that is fine and good, especially for someone like me, who prefers rehearsals to performances.  But you don't have to be a theatre geek to get a lot from this film, because Walter opens things out effectively, bringing in discussions of Marxism, politics, culture, and history.  It's not obvious why the filmmakers settled on having Tufts University professor and writer Jay Cantor talk about Marxism and Brecht, but the choice turns out to have been inspired -- Cantor is both insightful and funny, with good screen presence, and I sometimes found myself thinking, "Forget Streep and Kline -- let's get back to Jay Cantor and the labor theory of value!"

For me, though, the most exciting material was about Brecht, Helene Weigel, and the Berliner Ensemble.  I could listen to Carl Weber reminisce about Brecht for hours, and Barbara Brecht-Schall's reminiscences of life with her parents were fascinating, though all too brief.  (If only they'd been able to add Eric Bentley!)  I doubt some of these sections would be as compelling to someone who was not particularly interested in Brecht.  I spent much time during my undergraduate years in a love-hate relationship with his work; have, over the last fifteen years, read the majority of his plays, poems, and essays; and have seen quite a few productions, especially of Mother Courage.  Brecht remains a writer I wrestle with more than embrace, but that in some ways makes him a writer of more interest to me than most others (indeed, among playwrights, I would rank him second only to Beckett in the 20th century).  John Walter skilfully weaves together ideas and information that would have proved daunting to many other filmmakers.

Ultimately, there is too much information and too many idea for the film to really cohere, but that didn't bother me too much  -- because I'd gone in with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the movie was interesting, and then I was willing to follow wherever it wanted to go.  Any of its five sections could have been expanded into a film unto itself, but I was okay with that.  Theater of War got me thinking about Brecht again, about art and politics, about fame and history and humanity.  Most movies accomplish far less.

21 October 2010

A Comment, Briefly

So, after lots of kerfluffle, Elizabeth Moon is no longer invited as Guest of Honor to WisCon.

And, rather quickly, Juan Williams is no longer employed by NPR.


Some people are crying about free speech and all that, but that's silly.  If an avowedly feminist, anti-racist, and progressive/left/whatever convention doesn't want to honor somebody who posted what seemed to lots of folks (including me) an Islamophobic and blazingly ignorant screed ... that seems like a fairly predictable outcome, one that maybe should have even happened sooner.  It's not like Moon had been invited as guest of honor to the Newt Gingrich Sing-a-long -- it's WisCon!  (And as Nick Mamatas points out, this is not the first con to disinvite a GoH.)  She's welcome to attend WisCon if she wants, she just can't do it as a guest of honor.

With Juan Williams, NPR doesn't want to pay a guy who says he's scared of Muslims when they get on planes.  NPR's not destroying his freedom of speech; they're deciding who they want to spend their money on.  (And Fox News promptly gives him $2 million -- they, too, are deciding who they want to spend their money on.)

If my posting this causes the White Supremacist Sci-Fi Convention to decide not to make me a guest of honor in the future, that's okay.  And if Fox News decides not to hire me, I'll understand.  Really.

There are plenty of discussions of both of these topics happening all over the place (e.g., the WisCon News blog), if you're looking for more depth and chat about it all -- I particularly liked Cat Valente's post on Moon and Ta-Nehisi Coates's on Juan Williams.

12 October 2010

Putting the "Man" in Sandman ... and Everywhere Else...

Since I've been spending the past few weeks preparing a Gender & Science Fiction class, there's very little I seem to want to write about at the moment other than the thing Kate Bornstein calls "the gender cult".

Thus, we have yesterday's Strange Horizons column (written a week and a half ago), "The Failure of Masculinity" and today's latest episode of the Sandman Meditations, "Men of Good Fortune".  They are in many ways companion pieces.

By the way, I haven't had a chance yet to mention that Strange Horizons is holding their annual fund drive.  SH has paid contributors, volunteer staff, and no advertising revenue other than that which comes through Amazon Associates links to books.  This is SH's tenth year of putting out a new issue nearly every week.  It's an amazing endeavor, and the archives are rich with a wonderfully varied collection of material.  They are able to do so because each year lots of readers thank them with a contribution.  Let's keep thanking them!

09 October 2010

Horror Countdowns

It's the month of Halloween, and a couple of websites are running countdowns of great horror movies, providing essays in justification of their ideas.  Well worth reading are those at Wonders in the Dark and Gestalt Mash.  We'd all rank our favorite such films differently, of course, and it will be fun in the end to see which films get missed (I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see if one of my own favorites, Blood Feastgets included on either list!  One must always use exclamation points when talking about Blood Feast!!!  I love it as much for its poster as for the film itself!!!!)  The rankings are interesting, though -- for instance, Wonders in the Dark lists the seminal, original Texas Chainsaw Massacre as #25, and I would be inclined to put it in the top ten; I'm impressed that the writers think there are 24 horror movies superior to and more important than the original TCM.  (And I Walked with a Zombie is all the way back at 85?!?  Insanity!  I'd move it ahead by about eighty spots.)

Oh, where would the world be without lists?!  How did the world ever get by without our being able to fight over such things?!?

08 October 2010

Checking In

Egads, I knew October was going to be a slow month for blogging, but this is my first post since September 24...

What have I been up to, you ask?  (Well, no you don't.  But I'm going to pretend you do.  Allow me a few of my delusions, please!  I gave up on world peace and my imaginary friends, so can't I at least have this?!?)

What I've been up to is mostly just the ordinary stuff of life, which for me right now primarily means teaching at two different schools, one a university, the other a high school, in a schedule that's leading to a bit of brain discombobulation.  A lot of preparation for next term's classes, too, particularly the Gender & Science Fiction one at Plymouth State -- all the suggestions from folks were helpful, because even in the case of things I was already considering, it's helped me focus.  I still have a week till I have to turn in book orders, so I haven't settled on much yet, but I do know I'll be using The Left Hand of Darkness, and that's a direct result of all of the comments in its favor.

I got an email recommendation of Karen Traviss's novels (not her media tie-ins), and so I picked up a copy of City of Pearl, read it, and really enjoyed it.  I'm told some of the later books in the series are even better, so I look forward to reading them, though for some reason the second book, Crossing the Line, is out of print in the U.S.  Why this is, I don't know -- the others all seem to be in print.  Weird...  For the class, if I use one of Traviss's books, it will be City of Pearl, and not only because I don't have time to read any of the others between now and when book orders are due, but because it looks like the series is the sort that really needs to be read in order.

Among the many other books I'm reading at the moment is the great Gabriel Josipovici's Whatever Happened to Modernism?, which I'm reviewing for Rain Taxi (it will be one of those reviews that's really more about an encounter with a book than any sort of critique of it -- I would be a fool to pretend I am qualified to argue with someone as well-read as Josipovici).  The response to the book in the UK has been strange, sometimes vitriolic, and often inaccurate in how it represents what Josipovici is up to, as Stephen Mitchelmore quite brilliantly shows in a recent blog post that is one of the best pieces of writing about a text that I've seen in a while.  I don't expect my own piece on the book to be either as analytical or as simpatico with Whatever Happened to Modernism?, not because I expect to disagree with the overall argument (many of the writers I most revere are modernists; I seldom write about them because I've rarely found a form in which doing so feels like anything more than pathetic groping; very little current fiction truly and deeply affects me in the way so many works by Kafka, Beckett, Woolf, and others do), but because I think I usually read for different purposes and with different expectations from Josipovici.  After all, half the time I'm reading popular fiction of some sort or another.  So we'll see...

In other topics, I made some of my students read Gary Lutz's amazing essay "The Sentence is a Lonely Place".  I don't think many of the students finished it or even got much beyond the first few paragraphs, but I keep bringing it up in class and reading little sections to them, which will probably lead to lots of course evaluations that say things along the lines of, "The instructor is insane, repetitive, and way too obsessed with sentences," but so it goes.  It's a writing class, and couldn't a writer be defined as somebody who's way too obsessed with sentences?

I expect things to continue to be pretty slow around here until about the middle of November.  Or not; it's hard to predict.

Meanwhile, because of limited time, I've been doing more with Twitter than anything else, though even there I'm not prolific.

And I probably owe you an email.