Tuesday, December 27, 2011

San Francisco Literary Mags: the Big Three

San Francisco's a literary town, so I decided to do a series of blog posts about its literary magazines and journals. How many posts this series will have I do not know, but I decided to start with what I'm deeming the Big Three, the literary journal behemoths of SF: ZYZZYVA, McSweeney's Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story.

After decades with cantankerous legend (and founder) Howard Junker in the driver's seat, editor Laura Cogan and managing editor Oscar Villalon have taken the wheel at ZYZZYVA, and both the journal and website have hipper, more upscale redesigns. A subscription for this quarterly is $40 ($30 for students). As a journal spotlighting West Coast writers (CA, OR, WA, HI, & AK) since its inception in 1985, ZYZZYVA has more of a regional focus than the other two litmags on this list, and notably publishes poetry as well as fiction, non-fiction, and art. ZYZZYVA also differs in having less of a velvet rope feel to it - in fact, "first time in print," for previously unpublished writers, is a regular feature. Even so, getting one's work into this journal is far from easy. Recent high-profile contributors include Sherman Alexie, Karen Joy Fowler, Gary Soto, and Stephen Elliott.

McSweeney's Quarterly
From self-publishing success story to Baron of Quirk, Dave Eggers proves literary superstars still exist. McSweeney's now encompasses a string of national tutoring centers, several magazines, a pirate-supply store, and more, but the artistically produced quarterly literary journal is where it all started. Part of the fun of subscribing (if you're willing to spare the $55) is seeing the form in which the journal will arrive. Although the McSweeney's brand has somewhat of a reputation for disconnected hipster twee, there are some stories here that linger. The cult-classic-ish but recently cancelled "Bored to Death" HBO series began as a Jonathan Ames short story in issue 24. Other recent high-profile contributors include Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, and Roberto Bolaño, because who isn't publishing the great and surprisingly-prolific-postmortem Bolaño?

Zoetrope: All-Story
Like its fellow late-90s-founded litmag McSweeney's, Zoetrope: All-Story is redesigned every issue, although the issue-to-issue changes in Francis Ford Coppola's baby aren't as extreme as in Eggers's. Celebrity artists who have guest-designed All-Story include Kara Walker, Rodarte, Mikhail Baryshnakov, Guillermo del Toro, and Wayne Thiebaud. As one of Coppola's goals with the magazine was to highlight the connection between art and film, a regular feature is a reprint of a piece of literature that has been adapted to the screen. One of the slimmest litmags out there, each quarterly issue of the magazine-sized All-Story contains a handful of top-quality short stories and one-act plays with minimal advertising. US subscriptions are $24. Recent high-profile contributors include Ryu Murakami, Ethan Coen, Jim Shepard, and Philip K. Dick.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Nutcracker & A Christmas Carol

Two holiday stories have become quintessential for Christmastime: Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol (full title: A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, as before the internet, verbose titles were not limited to theses) and the ballet The Nutcracker.

Part of A Christmas Carol's endurance must be its predictable-but-satisfying compact structure. We meet Scrooge and immediately recognize him as an archetypal old grouch; Marley shows up to considerately lay out the plot; we get sad ghost, happy ghost, and really sad ghost; and then reconciliation and a happy ending involving a child. That can easily be fleshed out into a full-length feature film, whisked through in an elementary school pageant, or adapted into a TV series' holiday episode with its own characters replacing Dickens's cast (oh, so, so many TV episodes). I reread A Christmas Carol a few years ago, and it's fun, light read. Plus, if you are super immature like I am, you can giggle at stuffy and unintentionally suggestive Victorian language like this: "He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle".

Can you blame him for his lack of restraint earlier, though? What a slutty ghost.

Full text of A Christmas Carol, via ibiblio.

The origins of The Nutcracker are a bit more nebulous. In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote the holy-crap-wtf-is-this short story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." In 1844, novelist Alexandre Dumas revised it in a more child-friendly manner. Finally, in 1892, Marius Pepita and Lev Ivanov choreographed a much more straightforward and sane ballet of Hoffman's story, set to Tchaikovsky. In 1944, San Francisco Ballet was the first company to perform the ballet in America. And, somehow, the ballet about how a girl is given an anthropomorphic wooden nutcracker by her flamboyant uncle, and then there's a battle with mice, and then that nutcracker becomes a handsome prince, and then the girl gets to travel all over, became a holiday tradition. Even families who would never think to attend any other ballet have probably attended The Nutcracker at least once. And it's pretty perfect for Christmas: a child has festive, magical dreams as she waits for Christmas morning. Furthermore, like A Christmas Carol, this story too has a set formula that offers fill-in-the-blanks adaptability: a girl, a prince, and lots of opportunities for gorgeous costumes and set changes. It can be as long or short as need be, and can even be performed by dogs! And that's why we have nutcracker dolls everywhere in December.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Steampunk Bromance (With Explosions)

 You just lost...the game. Take that, shadow.

This weekend I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to 2009's flashy steampunk reboot. This 2011 edition has some critics bored and dismissive, but Roger Ebert loved it, because he is easily delighted and is also just an awesome guy who knows how to have fun.

And yeah, it has faults. Lots of them. Faults that shimmer with special effects in slow motion and then explode for no reason. But dammit, it's a fun time.

Okay, let's start with the faults. Even putting aside the fact that Guy Ritchie apparently jizzes special effects and superfluous fight scenes, there was a lot thrown in to this movie. Some of the indulgent little asides were great (the most heart-warming pigeon-feeding scene since Mary Poppins, Stephen Fry doing anything), and some just added to the run time. I can't apologize for laughing at a way-longer-than-it-needed-to-be sequence involving an adorable little pony scurrying around, though. Adorable little scurrying ponies get a lot of leeway.

Let us put on our goggles for our ride in the motorcar.

Then there's the lady issue. Obviously a movie needs a lady now and then, but what to do with them? Rachel McAdams is back in the beginning, I guess to show us Holmes is sexy and to give him even more motivation for solving crimes or maybe McAdams had a contract or something? Then Noomi Rapace's character shows up simply to be a woman on screen and also sort of help the protagonists find the McGuffin. Ironically, near the end we find out that Dr. Watson's bride Mary, who was kicked off the honeymoon by Sherlock in drag (he had his reasons), was being totally capable and awesome off-screen the whole time.

But to move to the good: Moriarty! Mad Men's Jared Harris is perfect as the math professor/supervillain. It's easy to imagine his Professor James Moriarty calmly advising graduate students and also efficiently running a worldwide criminal organization. And along with Irene Adler and Mycroft Holmes, another minor Doyle character gets some screen time: Sebastian Moran, Moriarty's "bosom friend" (Doyle's words) and top assassin. Their quiet, proper, murderous partnership gets some quick "don't worry about me!" theatrics, but the film's main bromance really lets it all hang out.

Wow, Sebastian. You look a lot better than when Paget drew you.

Downey and Jude Law are hilarious and full of chemistry again as Holmes and Watson, and there is no attempt at subtlety time around. "Lie down with me," a half-naked Holmes demands at one point. After one argument, they wrestle in a manner that threatens to impregnate Law. And there's the whole crashed honeymoon thing. But, although the trendy bromance is played up to the point of buffoonery, you always feel that there's true affection and devotion behind it. Holmes is jealous of Mary, and desperate to protect Watson, and if he has to wear a dress and lipstick and then jump around shirtless to prove his love for his friend, that is what he is going to do.

And herein lies the difference between Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock (and really, it's silly to even pretend they're the same). In Doyle's The Sign of the Four, when Watson breaks the news to Holmes that he's marrying Mary, whom they met on a case Holmes solved but didn't get credit for, he asks Holmes what's left for him. "'For me,' said Sherlock Holmes, 'there remains the cocaine bottle.' And he stretched his long white hand up for it." Yes, Doyle's Sherlock passive aggressively mopes and shoots up. He'd still put his life on the line for Watson, but he's not going to wear a dress. And while Downey's Sherlock is quite the wooer, perhaps the closest Doyle's Sherlock was willing to get to having sex with a person was when he kept a picture of Irene Adler as a memento after she outsmarted him in "A Scandal in Bohemia." Irene Adler was bangin' dudes like a boss in that story, but Holmes certainly wasn't one of them.

But it doesn't matter. Nothing with this many explosions is trying to be true to Doyle, and that's fine (interestingly, an important sequence near the end is true to Doyle, and leaves the door wide open for a third installment). This movie is about witty, attractive guys having adorable friendships and also action stuff happening, and it does those things very well.

You never wear lipstick for me anymore.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review: Melancholia

This weekend, I finally saw Lars von Trier's Melancholia in SF's adorable and intimate 1939 Bridge Theatre. With a current 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has gotten mostly positive-to-mixed reviews, with a few negative ones thrown in. As with Black Swan, I had to take a walk after leaving the theater to decompress and sort through my feelings about the film. With both, my initial reaction was to be swept up and in awe, but I wanted to examine what contributed to those feelings: the sumptuous visual beauty of the films, characters who hit so very close to home, powerful musical accompaniment, et cetera.

After spending some time reflecting...I still love it. There are a few parts I view as faults, but years from now this will still probably be one of my favorite films, or at least one of those I recognize as having affected me the most.

Two common complaints about this film I've seen in reviews are its length and pacing (over two hours) and its grandiosity. And it is long and grandiose (that's what she said?), especially at the beginning with its montage of despairing, otherwordly scenes set to Wagner. Among these images is that of Kirsten Dunst, as Justine, floating down a river with her bridal gown and bouquet, bringing to mind Ophelia or the Lady of Shalott.

In other scenes, a horse crumples; dead birds fall from the air; a stately, symmetrical terrace looks out at a formidable sky; a mother tries to flee with her child; and the bride walks through a forest despite the vines holding her back. It's all very dramatic, and all very beautiful, and ultimately feels completely right for the film.

After this, we find Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) en route to their wedding reception, held at Justine's sister and brother-in-law's (Charlotte Gainsbourgh and Kiefer Sutherland) remote estate. And yes, this reception goes on forever, at times making it feel like you're actually there, waiting for Justine to just come downstairs and cut the damn cake already. But this at times painful drawing out of the evening serves its purpose. Justine is dealing with severe depression, and her ability to hide this wanes more and more as the night progresses, especially as her understandably concerned and frustrated family members try to help her "snap out of it," mostly with guilt trips, bullying, and promises of apple orchards.

Without giving away too much, the reception is ridiculously beautiful, oddly removed from reality, and ends in disaster. The trailers alone had made me thinking of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (variously translated in English as The Lost Estate or The Lost Domain), and actually seeing the full reception only strengthened the connections between the two for me. A wedding is a time for beauty and pageantry, but underneath all this, all the players are still people with human faults and ugly and banal realities.

Some time later, Justine, at this point barely functional, comes to stay at the same estate with sister Claire and brother-in-law John. Claire tries various methods of dealing with Justine's depression (gentle encouragement, yelling, meatloaf), but it's only as Melancholia, a newly discovered planet, approaches Earth that she starts to regain any vitality.

This same approaching planet, however, causes Claire much anxiety. Although her husband points out leading scientists insist it won't hit Earth, she spends hours online reading the opinions of naysayers. And her worry is understandable: she has a young son. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert writes that at this part, "[i]t appears that the two sisters exchange personalities". To me, this felt like an accurate depiction of depression and anxiety. The pain and fear felt by those with these mental illnesses have little to do with standard responses to more tangible threats (like a planet on a collision course with your own). Trying to get out of the house and make it to the taxi your sister has called for you: barely fathomable. A forthcoming apocalypse: something to be dealt with.

Through all of this, we never see what is happening outside of the estate. Besides a brief glimpse of Claire's computer screen and what John verbally relays of scientists' opinions, we don't know how the rest of the world is coping. I thought this was a good choice. Scenes of frenzied newscasters and mass riots would have been distracting and pushed the film further into traditional sci-fi territory. This movie is about this family, these sisters, their personalities and emotions, and that is enough to fill a story, and a beautiful and powerful one at that.

-Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are both beautiful women and powerful actresses, but there is no way they came out of the same vagina. Still, after seeing the film, I can't imagine a different cast.
-Justine's boss comically trying to get an advertising tagline out of her the whole evening felt...off. The manner in which it was done didn't seem to fit into either our or the film's reality.
-The callback to the bean-guessing contest: really?
-I didn't like how the last three seconds or so looked.

Images (c) Magnolia Pictures

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Peaks and Recreation

I'll admit I've only seen a few episodes of Parks and Rec, but can you imagine if Special Agent Dale Cooper and Leslie Knope met? The truest, chipperest love. Heather Graham's ex-nun (Remember that? Near the end of the series? When everything was kinda turning into a mess?) would be history.

Special Agent Albert Rosenfield would not be impressed with the government of Pawnee.