Friday, December 23, 2016

Favorites of 2016

Ed Ruscha at the de Young, Seonna Hong at Hashimoto Contemporary,
Yuri on IceAll My Puny Sorrows, The Makropulos Case 

It's no secret that 2016 wasn't great. But here are the pieces of art and entertainment, from an ice skating anime to paintings in Milan, that I loved in this crazy year. 


All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: One of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies this year are about suicide, but both in an oddly hopeful way. In All My Puny Sorrows, two middle-aged Mennonite sisters - struggling writer Yolandi and renowned pianist Elfreida - grapple with Elfreida's suicidal ideation and their family's long history of mental illness. This sounds like a dreary premise, but Toews's novel is full of warmth, humor, and fierce love. In a highlight, Yolandi furiously gives her sister the kind of defense most depressed people long for, but never get.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: As a The Tempest superfan, I was excited for Margaret Atwood's novel take on the Shakespeare play. The resulting work, Hag-Seed, is inventive and entertaining (if not terribly deep). When a smarmy board member removes egotistical but dedicated Felix from his role as artistic director of a theatre festival, Felix goes into hiding. But when he finds a job teaching Shakespeare to inmates at a local prison, he realizes how he could have his revenge.

Bloodline by Claudia Gray: Set seven-ish years before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this eerily topical Star Wars novel captures, from Senator Leia Organa's point of view, the political tensions and escalating disasters that make way for the rise of the First Order.

Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie: A spaceship trapped in a human body teams up with a drug-addicted former colleague in a quest for revenge: this is the story Ann Leckie tells in three beautiful page-turners. The trilogy is a masterclass in world-building; a breath-taking tour of imaginary planets, space stations, and cultures. Characters like measured, compassionate, quietly determined Breq; the sometimes heroic, sometimes a hot mess Seivarden; and zany, endlessly curious Translator Zeiat become quick favorites.

After dutifully carrying out a devastating order she wishes she hadn't and then losing her omniscience in a betrayal, former spaceship artificial intelligence system Breq tirelessly plots a course that will take her to the evil leader of the empire she once served. Along the way she gains companions and rights various social justice wrongs. The vision Leckie presents of a compassionate, justice-focused way of governing is enticing and needed, but her didactic impulse can get distracting as the trilogy continues (even on the climactic brink of a potentially existence-ending war, a lot of time and energy is devoted to browbeating an emotionally unstable character over a microaggression, for example).

Older Books I Read or Re-Read
Grace Marks (L), the subject of Atwood's novel

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: One of Atwood's finest, Alias Grace is based on real murders that happened near Toronto in 1843. Told by various narrators, newspaper clippings, and even some poetry, Atwood imagines the build-up to the crimes; the lengthy aftermath; and most importantly, the precarious and complicated lives of female servants.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: I revisited this classic on a whim, and got a little obsessed. (Bonus: on Halloween, I scored a reduced price ticket to San Francisco Ballet's forthcoming production of a ballet based on the novel!)

The Debacle (Le Debacle) by Emile Zola: Something I'm writing has required me to do a lot of research on the Franco-Prussian War, which lead to Zola's The Debacle. Because of this research I already knew the novel's ending, but I got so invested in the characters involved that I hoped I had misread it. I hadn't. :( The translation I read, by Leonard Tancock, was distracting (he makes the French peasants talk like English cockneys for some reason, like with them saying "tuppence" and everything), but the story of two Frances represented by two men who form an unlikely friendship on the battlefield is still powerful.

Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre and The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: I read Zofloya for the Venetian setting when gearing up for a trip to Venice, and had no idea going in just how bonkers the 1806 Gothic novel would be. It is very bonkers, with murders, affairs, magic, kidnappings, and lovers clasping each other on top of a mountain while lightning flashes around them. But then I went back to what is considered the first Gothic novel, the 1764 The Castle of Otranto, which starts with a teenager getting killed on his wedding day by a giant flying helmet. That definitely takes the bonkers gold. Reading these made me better understand Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, her 1817 novel in which a teenage heroine who devours these types of books sees Gothic drama in everything around her.


Swiss Army Man: This bizarre, gross-out indie about a depressed man and a corpse is also deeply affecting.

Moonlight: "That shit was perfect," announced a man behind me when the end credits started to roll. It's hard to argue with that assessment of Barry Jenkins's reflective portrait in three acts of a gay boy growing to manhood in Miami's mix of drugs, danger, and beauty.

Arrival: I was a bigger mess during this movie than in 50/50, The Fault in Our Stars, or Liz in September, and cancer wasn't even mentioned. I cried at the beginning of the movie. I cried in the middle of the movie. I cried at the end of the movie. This film about a linguist hired to communicate with recently landed, cephalopod-like aliens is based on the Ted Chiang short story, "The Story of Your Life," and I'd suggest avoiding spoilers.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: New Zealand director Taika Waititi, unlike many people, presumably had a good 2016. Not only was he filming Thor: Ragnarok, a hopefully lighter addition to the increasingly bogged-down MCU, but his adventure-comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople was released. When it looks like Ricky - a city-raised foster kid who has finally found home at a rural farm - will be returned to the system, he and his cantankerous foster parent go on the run in the New Zealand bush.

Midnight Special: I am going to be totally honest and admit that I 100% saw this because Adam Driver is in it. He plays an awkward, studious government agent who is tracking down a boy, Alton, rumored to have strange powers. Also looking for the boy are representatives from the cult in which Alton was raised. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst are Alton's parents, and chameleonic Joel Edgerton is a friend helping them flee. Like other artsy sci-fi films Arrival and Under the Skin, Midnight Special spends long moments lingering on its Earthen landscapes, in this case the American South at night. The shots of headlight-filled highways and glowing gas stations reminded me a lot of the Ed Ruscha show held at the de Young this year (below).


Yuri on Ice: I'm not a big TV watcher, but I watched my usual stuff this year: South Park, Gotham, Drunk History, hours of HGTV in the background, etc. But what completely captured my heart (and judging my twitter feed, the hearts of girls from Japan to Mexico)? Ice skating anime Yuri on Ice.

Morfydd Clark and Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Donmar Warehouse: Josie Rourke and the Donmar Warehouse are British national treasures we're sometimes allowed access to via National Theatre Live. I loved Rourke's take on Coriolanus a few years back, and her production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, was another stunner. (The show eventually made it to Broadway, but I saw it via telecast at the Lark Theater in Larkspur.) My favorite aspect of this production was how Rourke made use of what we know but the characters and Laclos did not: that in just a few years, the upper class's lives of luxurious boredom and bored excess would be upended by the French Revolution. As the play progresses, the sumptuous set is stripped bare, mirroring the protagonists' pretense and foretelling the storm to come. 

Much Ado About Nothing - Cal Shakes: This gender-bending, cater-waiter take on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays worked marvelously. 

King Lear - PacRep: I had no idea what to expect when my family decided to see some local theater while on a trip to Monterey, and was blown away by the caliber of acting and set design in this King Lear

The Makropulos Case - San Francisco Opera: The image of Nadja Michael in a Pierrot costume was enough to get me through the door for this 1926 Czech opera about a 300-year-old superstar looking to further extend her life. Michael's charisma makes the piece work, but I also truly touched by the story of the jaded diva and the everyday people who have been embroiled in a generations-long legal conflict partly of her making. 

Detail from Seonna Hong's "Brotherhood of Men"

Musee Massena - Charlotte Salomon: Vie? Ou theatre?: The Musee Massena in Nice, France, celebrated the work of a young artist who once sought refuge nearby from Nazism.

Palazzo Reale - Simbolismo: When my sister and I stopped in Milan for the night on our way from Nice to Venice, we didn't do much research beforehand and didn't know what to expect. Along with the Duomo and finding the perfect duck umbrella, this exhibition of the beauty, weirdness, and sometimes gaudiness of the Symbolism movement was a highlight.

Fine Arts Museums San FranciscoEd Ruscha and the Great American West & Wild West: Plains to the Pacific: The de Young's Ruscha show focused on the artist's work capturing both the sprawl and emptiness of the American Southwest. Its sister exhibition at the Legion of Honor was a clear-eyed survey of the West through many artists.

Hashimoto Contemporary - Seonna Hong, In Our Nature: I was immediately taken by Hong's intriguing images of youths exploring minimalist landscapes in pinks, greens, and grays. I even ended up buying a 2.5 x 2.5" painting - an addition to my tiny collection of tiny original art.

Ancillary Mercy, Swiss Army Man, Bloodline,
Moonlight, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Previous Favorites:
Favorites of 2015
Favorites of 2014

Header and footer collages made in LiveCollage
Grace Marks: Murderpedia 
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: photo by Johann Persson
Seonna Hong: my photo of Hong's painting "Brotherhood of Men"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Yuri on Ice


Much like Welcome to Nightvale, Yuri on Ice is something I first saw talked about on twitter by people (generally women and girls) much younger than I am, and I wasn't sure what it was. When I saw screenshots, I initially thought someone had made a fake Johnny Weir anime. But it was a real anime, and I from what I could gather, young ladies everywhere desperately wanted the male leads to get married, as is true for media with male characters everywhere.

I hadn't watched any anime for a long, long time, but I did grow up in household where figure skating was watched enthusiastically. I remember the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding craziness, the tears of Oksana Baiul. I can remember where I was (playing in our house's guest room) when I heard of Sergei Grinkov's sudden death. My mom has a picture of my sister and I as kids posing with Brian Boitano (her all-time favorite) at a signing. We were devastated when Michelle Kwan lost Olympic gold to Tara Lipinski. We went to Stars on Ice. I fell in love with Evgeni Plushenko instead of Alexei Yagudin. We reveled in the juiciness of the rivalry between witty, sneering, flamboyant Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek, a gorgeous youth with the brain of a labrador and the mindset of a workhorse.

I'll always <3 him for getting Frank Carroll Olympic gold

I have to admit I'm not as "up" on what's happening in figure skating currently. I love the Shibutanis and local girl Polina Edmunds, but if you asked me to name a promising young men's skater I'd probably be like, "um..Patrick Chan?" However, I'm pretty sure I'm about to dive full into skating fandom again, because of Yuri on Ice.

I was expecting a silly, frothy yaoi soap when I watched episode one on 12/13 (Shout-out to the girl in Indonesia who responded to my inquiry into the twitter void on how to watch it. It's here). But the show, directed by Sayo Yamamoto, won me over immediately. I was surprised by the depth of the characters and show's dedicated depiction of figure skating. I understood why it had taken over my twitter feed. By midnight on 12/15, I had watched all eleven half-hour episodes currently out (the finale is next Wednesday).

Social media is also important on the show

The show's protagonist is Yuri Katsuki, a skater whose career is in a rut after a disastrous Grand Prix: he has no self-confidence, he's put on weight, and he's approaching "skating-old" at twenty-three. He moves back to his hometown: a small Japanese seaside city reliant on tourism, which is in steady decline. Unexpectedly, a video of him doing a favorite routine of his idol, Russian skating superstar Victor Nikiforov, goes viral. Even more unexpectedly, Victor himself shows up at Yuri's family's inn, announcing that he's retiring from skating to coach him. Soon bratty just-out-of-juniors star Yuri Plisetsky (nicknamed Yurio against his will to avoid confusion), also arrives to demand Victor choreograph him a routine.

Anime has been known to get pretty outlandish with sports, but there are no zany super-powered antics here. Instead, there are discussions of the intricacies of the scoring system, angst over quads, and lots of over-rotations and hands on the ice. No wonder so many actual skaters have embraced it! And as in real life, the sport is a multi-national, all-hands-on-deck production. Of course you have a skater from Thailand training with an Italian coach at a rink in Michigan!

And that skater is selfie champion and hamster daddy Phichit

One of my favorite things about Yuri on Ice is its generous cast of characters, and how it avoids one-dimensional heroes and villains. Yuri is sweet and naturally lovable, but myopic when it comes to how he treats others. Victor has such charm and confidence that it's easy for others and himself to assume he knows what he's doing...even if he doesn't. Yurio is a pretty terrible enfant terrible, but he's also a fifteen-year-old who's suffocating in the wake of fame (Yurio makes me feel bad for hating Tara Lipinski in the 90s. I'm sorry I hated you, Tara!).

A great strength of the show is how it goes into the skaters', coaches', and others' heads during performances, so we see, for example, the anxieties and joys of otherwise hate-able arrogant jerk JJ, the determination of standoffish Otabek, and the sincere passion for art harbored by Yurio's cold and exacting choreographer. That passion is what ultimately unites all the characters, despite their vast differences.

Angry baby kitten Yurio thinks he's a lion

Because despite the drama and fame and flowers and pageantry, that is what figure skating is about: the blending of sport and music and ice into art. Michelle Kwan might have lost two Olympic golds to her own Yurios, but the beauty of her spiral is iconic. I joke about Evan Lysacek*, but the straight line footwork in his Bolero routine is one of my all-time favorite skating sequences.

Yuri on Ice is an ice skating love letter, a portrait of flawed people pursuing their dreams and supporting each other, and a reminder to see the love and beauty around us and keep trying.

Fun fact: when Yuri and Victor wed, Japan and Russia will finally sign
a WWII peace treaty! 

For me the show brings to mind this song sung by Priscilla Lopez in A Chorus Line, where the auditioning actors reflect on the inevitable end of their dancing careers:

*Another favorite Evan moment: So Johnny Weir's most famous costume is his white swan costume from his Swan Lake program (this costume, complete with bird beak glove, was parodied as a peacock in Blades of Glory). Well, a number of years ago I went with my family to Stars on Ice in San Jose when Evan was skating. When he started skating to the Black Swan soundtrack, I was thrilled. Was this white swan versus black swan dichotomy intentional? By ending the routine on the black swan's moment of glory, the fouettes, I'm pretty sure it was. So catty!

It's a look.

All from Yuri on Ice except:
Frank Carroll and Evan Lysacek: Zimbio 
Jon Heder in Blades of Glory