Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Brief Little Rant About Employers

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Annoyance of the day: so today I went to the Rutgers Bookstore to hopefully be able to interview for a position as a Merchandise Associate there. But it's only when she---don't know what her position at the bookstore is, actually, but her name is Nicole---is ready to interview me that she tells me, "The last guy I interviewed today thought this was a summer position. I need someone for the entire year."

I told her I'd get back to her if I decided I still wanted to interview for the position, but in my mind I was annoyed as hell. You couldn't have made that clear on your job listing online? You had to let me know this now and waste my time trying to find parking in New Brunswick and coming here??

What's wrong with some of these employers? I know they're trying to entice people to respond to their job listings, but why withhold such important information? I mean, really, she had to have known that there are some people out there looking only for summer work. Come on now!

Her "I'm sorry if I wasted your time today" didn't offer much in the way of consolation.

And what's up with these employers never getting back to you after a job interview? Some of them are afraid to say "no" to someone over the phone? You employers are in your positions for good reasons, and I'm sure a reluctance to be honest with someone is hardly one of them.

Just had to get that off my chest.

Nope, no summer job yet. But tomorrow I'm thinking of dropping by a local staffing service. Maybe they could help me find something.

Yeah, let someone do the searching for me. Very proactive. (Guess I'm still living in that "dream world" where things just happen for me, right, Ma?)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Mom & Me: An Introduction to Our Troubled Relationship

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - It was only a matter of time before I decided to finally sit down and write this entry, but today gave me a particularly frustrating opportunity to reflect on the great ball of tension that is the relationship between my mother and I.

What happened? Simply put: she called me from work during the day as I was hanging out at home, still without a summer job (other than State Theatre ushering), and somehow the conversation leads yet again to her pet subjects this semester: how I'm an unreasonable asshole towards her, and how she still thinks I'm living in a "dream world," I guess, in which I prefer sitting around the house doing nothing rather than being proactive and making things happen for myself.

Ever since I came back home from Rockoff, this is what I've been getting from her. Not every day, mind you. But enough to get me so angry after she repeated those two words---"dream world"---that, after she ended the call, I slammed the phone down onto the receiver (without breaking it, thankfully), went to my front door and hit it with the palms of both my hands about three times, and started yelling at the top of my lungs to no one in particular. "FUCK YOU," I cried out. "I DON'T LIVE IN A DREAM WORLD!" "GO TO HELL!"


Dear newbie readers, there is something you all have to know about this troubled parental relationship---basically, how it got to this point, at least as I can best figure it. I'm not sure I could explain this in a coherent manner, so bear with me. This might take a while.

Obviously, it didn't used to be this way. Sure, my mother was strict and unreasonable about certain things when I was in elementary and middle school---but back then I took obeying my parents' discipline mad seriously, so I usually put up with it. Guess that's what being a kinda Jehovah's Witness does to you.

It seems to me that things started turning sour all the way in high school. There were the little things: her strictness about my not being allowed to watch much TV or movies during a given day of the week---as if using two hours or less of a 24-hour day to watch some film or TV program ever hurt anyone; I'm pretty confident that I could have balanced both, if allowed. And I guess maybe I still blame her a little bit for how much of a homebody I was in high school---and still am, I suppose.

But the big thing that has had the greatest, most detrimental effect to our relationship: her insistence that I pick up business as a major in college. This will be familiar to longtime readers of my previous blogs, especially my old LiveJournal, which were filled to the gills with emo posts like these.

She had her reasons for doing this, obviously. First of all, she apparently didn't even think she was insisting: she seems to have genuinely believed that she was just suggesting a path for my future that was too solid for any "intelligent" person to pass up. But second and most importantly of all: she figured this was the most secure way for me to make enough money for me to jump into something else that I actually enjoyed in the future. While not denying my passion for liberal arts, she figured---admittedly not unjustifiably---that it was too difficult to try to make a living, say, being a musician or writing film reviews. Better to play it safe and stick it out a few years after college with a job that I could accept and do well than struggling to stay financially and personally afloat with a low-paying reporting job or something.

Sounds reasonable, huh? For the first two years of my stay at Rutgers University as a Livingston College student, I was ready to begrudgingly go along this path, mostly because I guess I was too afraid of how she would react if I went against her, and because I was perhaps too passive to try to actively roughly sketch out an alternate route on my own. (Maybe I still haven't...but more on that later.) I had actually applied, and gotten into, Rutgers School of Business as an accounting major. I had even taken summer business classes at Middlesex County College.

But I guess (boy, aren't I using the word "guess" a lot?) it was a measure of jealousy that partly led me to seriously reconsider. I saw a lot of my friends doing what they say they loved doing, and not thinking too hard yet about how they would be able to make a living doing, say, theater when they got out of college. I wanted to be like them: I wanted to feel like I was studying what I really wanted to study in college. As far as how I'd make a living writing news articles...well, I certainly wouldn't deny that as a serious concern, but I'd take a one-day-at-a-time approach and hope for the best.

My mother isn't much of a one-day-at-a-time person, though: she's a plan-things-in-advance person who constantly toots her figurative horn about how she "thinks far" compared to us impulsive kids. So whenever I tried to let her know how unhappy I felt with doing accounting---a major that I could perhaps do okay, but which nevertheless I felt little passion for compared to what I felt for, say, music or film---she didn't give me much of an indication that she really paid attention to how I felt. When she believes, with absolute conviction, that she is right about something, she will not budge. So she usually thinks it's my attitude that needs changing, not hers. In addition, whenever I told her that I really didn't want to do accounting because "it just doesn't interest me," she usually tried to convince me of how wrong I was to undervalue it, and furthermore would bring up her own personal example of how she dealt with working as a United States Postal Service employee. "Sure, I didn't like my job at first," she would frequently say to me. "But over time, I learned to like it, and now I enjoy going to work." Why couldn't I adopt the same optimistic approach: learn to like accounting and do it well enough to earn enough money so that eventually I could do whatever I wanted, secure that I didn't have to worry a great deal about financial concerns.

If she couldn't even accept my "it doesn't interest me" as reasonable, what else could convince her to lay off the pressure? (Pressure, by the way, is another thing my mother denies ever applying, even though even my father agrees with me that she is sometimes unrelenting with it.)

It came to the point that, by the end of my second year at Rutgers, I was becoming kind of an emotional wreck. I remember one day going into the office of my Assistant Dean/Livingston College Honors Program head and basically breaking down in his office as I tried to reach out to him for some help in this matter. The pressure was just too much; I couldn't take it anymore. He referred me to a counselor at the Livingston College Counseling Center---a counselor I've been with ever since (although, sadly, we had our last session ever just before this recent semester ended; he's moving on to, I guess, bigger and better things).

Cut to a few months later, towards the end of August. Having resolved to drop the business school and focus on my journalism studies, I tried to calmly approach my parents with this decision, only to get predictable resistance from my mother. (My father was considerably more receptive.) Actually, that's not quite true: I originally was thinking about doing something even more "dangerous," becoming an actual film editor---I suppose I was more obsessed with actually working on movies rather than just writing about them. So that's what I suggested as an alternative at the time. It's only after I finally dropped the business school---Mom went crazy for a few days when I did that, bugging me constantly about "so what's your plan now?"---that I agreed, as a concession to my mother, that I would focus on journalism. She felt marginally more comfortable with that, thought that was a more "practical" (keyword for her) alternative than having crazy ambitions of becoming a film editor. (The next Michael Kahn? Well I probably would haved used computer editing software rather than old Moviolas to edit, but I guess we'll never know.)

Here's where I deluded myself: I was hoping that, now that I had pulled the trigger and made the move, that things would be better between us both. But life---as many of the greatest films I've seen should have helped me realize---is never that simple.

The resentment, it seems, still resides inside of me. And, after having put up with all of her annoyingly strict habits and blunt manner of criticism---which, of course, she expects me to accept lying down simply because she "means well"---for many years, that resentment seems to manifest itself in ugly ways in my behavior towards her. For those of you who think I'm quiet and pleasant outside of my home, you should see me inside of my home towards my own mother. I get annoyed at the littlest things she asks of me. I make grumpy faces at her. I address her in an occasionally jagged, abrupt, and usually disrespectful manner. I guess I've been doing this for quite a while now, so she seems to have the impression that if this is the way I act at home, this must be the way I act outside of the home. At some points recently, she has suggested that this unpleasant behavior of mine must be why I'm having trouble securing a job this summer.

She thinks I don't realize how nastily I act towards her sometimes. She's wrong. I know full well, at least after the fact. But when something she says or does triggers an annoyed response in me, I can't seem to control myself. It seems like every time I talk to her these days, when it's about something related to my job search, college, journalism, my future, etc., I just feel like I have to stick it to her every time. And for what? Her being genuinely concerned about me?

Certainly I could attempt to come up with justifications for my appalling behavior. I could try to excuse it on the basis of my resentment over her treatment of my unhappiness about accounting in the past: anyone who takes her son's personal reservations about a major with as much lack of seriousness as I feel like she did doesn't deserve my nicer side. I could try to convince myself that she brought this on herself. But such reasons, I hate to admit it, are basically immature and juvenile. So I must be acting immaturely, out of some childish spite over things that are, really, in the past. Maybe I've just always had a problem with putting certain things behind me.

Maybe the source of my current frustration with my mother simply stems from the feeling that she doesn't understand me. Or that she cares to anymore. She seems to have decided to play my game: now she tells me, flat-out, that she doesn't really want to bother with me anymore. Yesterday she was out sweeping our driveway; she didn't even ask me for help, because she probably figured I'd give her a dirty look and an attitude anyway. (And you know what? Maybe she's right.) It's not uncommon for her to say to my face, "You think I want to talk to you? I don't want to talk to you."

This I have a feeling I mostly brought on myself. Every time we get into an argument, I tend to throw dignity to the wind and go for the sharp (though not profane) verbal jabs: doesn't always matter whether I truly mean it or not, just as long as it hurts her.

But has she ever once really questioned where my unhappiness and anger comes from? She seems to have no understanding, or no desire to understand, of why I feel the cold antipathy I feel toward her. (Honestly, it's a struggle to summon genuine feelings of affection for her every Mother's Day.) Mixed in with her conception of me as this impossibly stubborn, nasty, friendless, unpleasant person, and thus you have her idea of "therapy": basically, once in a while, simply barge in on my business and try to do her "motherly" duty by telling me how to improve myself. And believe me, readers, she never pulls any punches. She's "straightforward"---her word.

What she doesn't understand is the depth of my frustration: how I feel not only frustrated by her manner, but how I feel frustrated by myself. What possess me to do this to her? Could it be stubbornness? Sometimes I get the disturbing feeling that I am so concerned about engendering antagonism towards her that, even if I may half-agree with something she says, I won't admit it to her openly. Her criticisms hurt too much for me to show signs of vulnerability. I simply can't take it when she insists that I'm living in a "dream world" dominated by my laptop computer and my illusions about how things will just come to me. A) I don't believe it; and B) even if it were true, couldn't she come up with a better way of expressing it instead of going for the jugular?

Another thing she criticizes me about is not showing even a glimmer of concern about what happens to the family. I have to admit that I don't always show sufficient concern about what's going on in the lives of my parents or brothers, and perhaps that is reprehensible of me to be so seemingly self-absorbed---but I have my own future to think about too. Somehow I don't think it's entirely my fault if my mind seems to occasionally obsess over how unprepared I feel about my future. I do the best I can: write as much as possible, look for a job or internship, etc.

But this is the one that bites the most: her palpable frustration at the fact that I don't communicate with her and the rest of the family. Instead, so far this summer I've mostly either been watching TV or sitting in front of my laptop computer. The epitome of alienation. (Maybe Wong Kar-Wai should use me as a film subject.) I don't tell her a lot of things: I don't even always show her my published work in the Targum, even if I'm proud of it. I just tell her about that stuff after the fact.

This criticism stings because there's a kernel of harsh truth in it. Why am I so reluctant to talk to her about anything? I'd like to think that it's simply based on past experience of sharing things with her: I'd often hide test or quiz grades just to avoid her disapproval. And I guess I never have been very open about telling her about my days at school, etc. Instead, I'd come up, eat something, and then just go upstairs and study. Too much work to be done.

I like to think that it's because I just hate being criticized and judged by my mother for things that I do. It seems like I read some deep disapproval into everything she does or says to me these days. (I mean, she's never really thrown 100% support to my college-education path.)

But maybe I should go out on a limb her and suggest something even wilder: what if I have some perverse masochistic desire to deliberately withhold things from her, just so she can get the wrong impressions about me, and just so I could have the pleasure---yes, believe it or not, pleasure---of hating her. Maybe I'm twisted enough to like this pain, like the pain of feeling passive and defenseless against her baiting. Certainly it's come to the point where I just can't deal with her on a daily basis without feeling my heart harden toward her. And now it seems as if she's not even trying to garner my love and affection anymore. And ultimately this frustrated feeling that I feel as I write this has something to do with guilt: that, although she's not totally in the clear, I've had a big hand in allowing this to happen, allowing my resentment to fester to the point that it's poisoned our relationship forever. Maybe I am stubborn: can't give her the satisfaction of seeing me assent to something she says ever again, can't give her the impression that she has any influence on me, even if sometimes I feel it may be a welcome influence.


In's complicated. So complicated that today I resolved to continue on with my counseling at Rutgers during the summer. After she uttered "dream world" again today and left me lonely and fuming, I felt like I couldn't go a day longer without finding someone to talk to to possibly get me through three more months of this emo shit.

I thought this would all go away when I finally changed my major. Guess I expected way too much. But, even if Mom is right that I really need to change my ways, for some reason the motivation just isn't there. And maybe, deep down, that scares me. I actually enjoy feeling this way?

So obviously no real progress has been made in writing this emo whining post. I'm trying to make less of a habit of dwelling on the past, and trying to always move forward. It's not easy: this kind of wallowing in self-pity has been such a bad habit in the past that these days I have to remind myself that it's really not worth it. But it seems to me that it's going to take much more than that to set me straight. Honestly---and, after a year since dealing with this same exact problem---I'm not sure I know where to begin.

I guess what this all boils down to is: I wish I could say "sorry" to my mother and mean it. I wish I could share these complex feelings with her without feeling like I'm being judged. At the same time, I, perhaps unrealistically, wish she was...well, different.


Depressed enough, readers? I'll certainly try to limit these kinds of posts in the future, but newbie readers, I think you all had to experience me getting all of this off my chest, because it seems like a big deal in my life, especially now that I'm at home and this kind of stuff gets magnified to life-or-death proportions.

But I'll end with something to reinforce the depressed feeling. (Indulge me just a little more, pretty please?)

Got my first flat-out rejection from an employer I talked to recently. Most employers probably wouldn't even bother to call if he/she decided to reject you. The fat lady who I talked to about selling Simon gift cards at the Brunswick Square Mall did call, and actually told me why she rejected me, even though I didn't even ask. "I'm looking for someone more outgoing," she told me. "You seemed kinda quiet and shy."

It must have been something I said, because I definitely didn't feel like I came off like that at all! I think I put near my best game face on for that interview; if an employer still got the impression I was "quiet and shy"---which I suppose I am, in some ways---then should I even bother to hope for success in this summer job hunt?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Brief Hiking Excursion, in Pictures

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Once in a while, my parents---well, my mom, mostly---gets an inkling to just go out one day during some weekend---usually a Sunday---and go hiking somewhere.

Not that we're serious hardcore hikers, mind you. It's usually just a chance to get out of the house and enjoy nature. And God knows we members of the Fujishima family need some of those chances! (We're all either working or doing homework or doing stuff on computers, it seems.)

Today was one of those days.

It was a pretty hot day too. Not ultra-humid, 90° weather---I think we've hiked in weather that hot in the past---but enough to work us into a reasonable sweat as we walked around trails in the Delaware Water Gap area and either admired scenery or, in the case of my youngest brother Michow, complaining about how much walking he has to do.

I could try to exercise my writing muscles by intricately describing some of the sights and sounds I experienced today. But on the commonly held belief that a picture is a worth a thousand words, I'll just show you a handful of digital photographs to give you all an idea of what my clan did today:

This photo was taken by yours truly at the end of the Dingman's Ferry Bridge in the Delaware Water Gap. As you can see, I tried to capture this waterfall at a strange angle---what cinematographers might call a "dutch-angle shot."

Another one taken by moi. No special angles for this one; just an attempt at a bird's-eye view of majestic trees.

I didn't take this one, but we did see quite a few of these little...toads? I think they're toads; not exactly sure whether this is a toad or a frog. Anyway, we saw quite a few of these while walking a nature trail.

Ah, just a silly little picture I felt like throwing in at the end of this post. My older younger brother Masao is the one on the left. This looks like a caught-in-the-moment photo, but it's actually not; it's just both of us being goofy as Mom took our picture next to the fake deer.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lights! Camera! (Too Much) Action!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - So far this summer, it looks as if the two-and-a-half star movie has become a trend of sorts. From Mission: Impossible III to The Da Vinci Code and now to X-Men: The Last Stand (**½ out of ****), the summer movies I've seen so far have basically been entertaining but rather shallow affairs---the kind of movies that most of us wouldn't mind watching if we merely wanted to relax and have a good time.

I went into Mission: Impossible III with fairly low expectations anyway, and I more or less got what I was hoping for: a lot of well-done, occasionally awesome action with a few small character touches to make it go down painlessly. But The Da Vinci Code is basically a faintly silly "intellectual" thriller that tries to pass itself off as something arty and serious.

X-Men 3 is somewhere in the middle: a nearly wall-to-wall action movie that doesn't try too hard to be something more, but which nevertheless may leave some people---particularly fans of the first two X-Men films---wishing that it had offered something more than a lot of noise and special effects.

Actually, no, the movie isn't as bubbleheaded as the previous paragraph suggests. In its first half-hour or so, X-Men 3 takes up some fairly intriguing extensions of themes set out in the first two films. A "cure" has been discovered for mutants, and while some mutants understandably jump at this great opportunity to get rid of their mutant deformities---the source of so much frustration and pain for many, like Rogue (Anna Paquin), who cannot make physical contact with anyone without killing that person---others, like most of the mutant in Professor X's (Patrick Stewart) school for "gifted youngsters," feel that this is yet another manifestation of society's inability to be able to simply accept mutants for who they are. This is only marginally different from the threat faced by mutants in the first X-Men film: a McCarthy-esque senator who whips up fear of mutants in order to drum up support for his Mutant Registration Bill. Still, the idea is the same: a marginalized societal group who demands that they be accepted for who they are instead of being polarized.

But while Professor X tries to fight for acceptance through humane methods, old friend Magneto (Ian McKellen---yes, Sir Ian lights up movie screens playing a villain for a second week in a row) is an extremist whose deeply negative view of regular humankind, the first film suggested, came in part from a particularly troubling experience in a Polish death camp during WWII. He advocates total destruction of humans, insisting that there is a war afoot between both humans and mutants.

For me, the fascination of the first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, came not only from the film's elegiac tone---unusual for a comic-book movie like that one---but also from the fact that the main conflict of the film wasn't humans versus mutants, but instead was between humanism versus extremism, with Professor X's band of mutants trying to ward off the vast human destruction being planned by Magneto's band (which includes Rebecca Romijn's oddly compelling Mystique, who can change into any form---even herself, as she does in X2 at one point). Instead of going for a boring good versus evil hook, X-Men pitted "good" guys against each other, thus bringing some welcome thematic complexity to the usual comic-book movie action. One can see why: Magneto's ultra-violent approach to solving the problems of mutant outsider status would certainly not do any good as far as changing people's already prejudiced impressions of mutants.

Thematic complexity, indeed, is something that all three X-Men films have in common. But, for me, the first film remains the best because it was the most serious in trying to explore its gray areas while delivering on its action. It was gripping because it dared to take its issues and its characters seriously, and dared you to go along with its contemplative flow as well. Its sequel, X2: X-Men United, also directed by Singer, lost some of that richness even as it upped the ante on action and special effects, but it still managed to come up with some startling images and some cool action sequences and still kept its eye on its characters and themes.

But X-Men: The Last Stand barely seems to have any time to delve deep into the issues it raises; in fact, until its bravura climax, it doesn't seem to have much time to craft expressive imagery either. (There is nothing, for instance, as thoughtfully edited and framed as the first meeting of Professor X and Magneto in an opening scene in X-Men, in which Singer eyeline-matches both X and Magneto separately, both edged toward the right side of the frame, suggesting the similarity of both characters even as they hold entirely different philosophies.) The director of this supposedly final installment of the series isn't Bryan Singer this time around---he was busy with the upcoming Superman Returns---but Brett Ratner, a Hollywood gun for hire who made Jackie Chan look slow in the two extant Rush Hour films. Like most action hacks, Ratner seems more interested from getting from one action scene to the next than in trying to make some kind of artistic statement, and so X-Men 3---more so than X2---is paced like a B-movie action thriller, hopping from one high point to another. Gone for the most part is the serious, even meditative tone of the first film and the visual ingenuity and even beauty of the second.

Perhaps it's a tribute to how good the first two films were in setting up its themes and characters that X-Men 3 occasionally rises above its B-movie trappings. Having lived with these characters for two films now, we can guess, for example, what Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is thinking when he sees a resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). And even if the script, by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, isn't above throwing in excruciatingly lame one-liners and lines of dialogue to some of its characters (bad-guy mutant to good-girl mutant: "I'm Juggernaut, bitch!"), it does manage to bring in some of that allegorical spirit that distinguished the first two films, and raise some fascinating issues about how even the most well-meaning of people---like the doctor who develops the cure in this film---can still engender division within a community. Are mutants merely diseased, or should they be considered as human as the rest of us?

Unfortunately, it has to attend to theme and character in the margins as the action scenes and special effects eventually take over. Certainly, the special effects in this movie are far from bad: in fact, they're actually pretty awesome, and the action scenes are often quite gripping and impressive. But it's disappointing to see an X-Men movie that, when all is said and done, eventually looks and feels just like every other wall-to-wall action comic around. The characters and the themes of the film have to fight the action scenes for air---and I think they lose.

Ratner hasn't disgraced the franchise, however. The film still retains that wonderful complexity of the original X-Men. Good guys and bad guys still aren't so cleanly defined, and, when allowed to flower, complicated emotion remains. Perhaps this is illustrated best in what happens to Jean Grey in X-Men 3: we discover that she is a Class 5 mutant, so powerful that, when her mind is free of Professor X's mental blocks, she can be an extremely dangerous force. (Her bad side is called "Phoenix.") She isn't evil: she just has so much anger and rage that, essentially, she can't help it. But glimmers of her good side still remain. And Wolverine remains torn between fighting her---because, really, he's the only one stands a chance against her, because of his self-healing power---and saving her. This ambivalence sets up the best moment of the film: the climactic final action scene, which leads up to a showdown between her and Wolverine that ends with the film's lone genuine moment of operatic grandeur.

Two last things: 1) Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has always provided the heart of the X-Men films, but I wonder if anyone else feels that he was much more interesting in the first film and to some extent the second, when he was more anguished and suspicious, and when Jackman showed more glimmers of the kind of rebellious sensuality that made James Dean a star. He's still watchable here, but the character has, perhaps inevitably, become a bit dull over time as he's become nobler.

And 2) Jeez, is young kid actor Cameron Bright now seemingly in everything? From bathing with Nicole Kidman in Birth to tagging along with his morally compromised smoking lobbyist father in Thank You for Smoking to playing the kid who provides the miracle mutant cure in X-Men 3, he may be our next Haley Joel Osment: the kid actor who refuses to act conventionally cute, and instead goes for the creepy vibe. (Not saying that's necessarily a bad thing...until he gets typecast...)

So the lowdown on X-Men: The Last Stand is this: a disappointment compared to the first two X-Men films---especially the first one---but serviceable as summer action entertainment. Thus, two and a half stars. Middle of the road. Just like most of my critical reactions to movies so far on this blog, it seems.

P.S. I don't usually stay all the way through the end credits for the films I watch in theaters, but now that I've discovered that there was an extra scene following the end credits of X-Men 3...unless someone spoils the extra scene online in the future, I'm going to be kinda haunted by the apparently important extra scene that I missed. For those of you who haven't gone to see the movie yet, then, stay until the end credits have finished rolling!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Don't Make Nice, Girl!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - There have been a lot of talk this week about the Dixie Chicks, as their new album in two years is released. This week's issue of TIME magazine had a whole cover story about the three-women country group, who were huge countries with their first two albums, but suddenly became something close to pariahs when lead singer Natalie Maines said to an audience in London in 2003, "...[W]e're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Simple yet pointed comment, to be sure, but people are allowed to give voice to such comments without fear, right? But this occurred just before the United States invaded Iraq, and so the Dixie Chicks were attacked for this statement: their music was pretty much shunned from country radio, and they received death threats for their statements.

About two years later, they have returned with their new album Taking the Long Way, which, from what the TIME article suggests, is a personal response on the part of the group---who wrote all of the songs on their new album---to the controversy that erupted from that comment. They're still not being played all that much on country radio, and a lot of country fans, it seems, are still not ready to forgive them.

Now, I don't profess to be much of a country fan. (I don't have a particularly strong aversion to country music---heck, I admire Johnny Cash just as much as the next music enthusiast. I just don't listen to it all that much.) And I haven't really heard much of the Dixie Chicks. So perhaps I really shouldn't be venturing into these muddy waters relatively blind. Still, I think this is an interesting story worth reflecting on.

One thing that comes to mind: the TIME articles has a telling sidebar that runs on top of all four pages of its cover story that notes the reactions to the music of other artists who dared to speak ill about President George W. Bush after Natalie Maines made her inflammatory comments in London. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, called for President Bush's impeachment at a NYC concert in October 2003, yet that didn't hurt sales of his next album. In September 2005, Rapper Kanye West notoriously accused Bush of not caring about black people during a televised Katrina benefit concert, but his second album Late Registration still made it to No. 1 (and, as TIME points out, "He continues as a pitchman for Pepsi"). And let's not forget Green Day's recent American Idol, an angry antiwar rock album released in September 2004 which revitalized the careers of Billie Joe Armstrong and co. and won them a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album in the process. In fact, most of the artists noted by TIME in their sidebar---with the exception of Pink, whose song "Dear Mr. President" from I'm Not Dead also bashes Dubya---are male, and all of them met with much less resistance from fans and critics than the Dixie Chicks did.

What gives? The article suggests that maybe people in general have been more accepting of subsequent attacks on President Bush simply because his approval rating seems to have plummeted, and criticism against the war in Iraq has heated up recently. Also possible is a difference in mindset of a country music fan than of fans of other music genres: as Josh Tyrangiel, author of the article, writes, "Unlike rock fans, most of whom are attracted to the music's integration of styles, some country fans...take it upon themselves to patrol a wall of genre purity." In other words, anything that breaks out of the country mold and image is likely to be jumped on hard by fans. Such is the case when a popular country group raises some ideological hell that pokes holes in the typical conservative country image.

Allow me to throw this out, though---and by all means, tell me if I sound way off base or ignorant at all here! I wonder if a lot of the derision greeting the Dixie Chicks' outspokenness, whether through public comments or through their music, is simply yet another case of the gender divide at work. The Dixie Chicks may have started out their lucrative careers projecting a certain spunky image or singing songs about love and all that---I'm guessing, because I don't really listen to their music---but people, especially country fans, began to shudder when they demonstrated that they could be daring enough to bluntly express their political views. That's not what we expect from a group called the Dixie Chicks! Perhaps I'm going a bit too far when I say this, but maybe something ingrained in society is going on, at least among a certain group of people, when they bash some of these artists for airing out strong views about something or someone in public---especially if those artists are females, and especially if they do so through their music. (We expect some ideoloical hell-raising from the Boss, but not from these country girls.) Through their derision, some people seem to inadvertently express their preference their music pleasantly innocuous and without a point-of-view or a personal vision.

Perhaps I should give this new Dixie Chicks album a spin. Certainly, I can respect any artist who feels the need to work something out that affects them personally through their music. If an artist isn't trying to do something deeply personal in a work of art, then really, what point does that work serve? It may be something pleasant to listen and perfectly disposable, but it wouldn't be worth a damn in the long run.

Assenting or dissenting opinions welcome.


Funny moment of the day: today I give a call to a local doctor's office inquiring about a job listing, and, during the phone call, one of the things the lady on the other end of the line says to me is, "You sound old."


Now, granted, it's not like she made this comment out of the blue. She had asked me how old I was, and then she says that to me. She explains, when I respond with very restrained disbelief, that a lot of old people look at her listings for billing clerk, secretary, or receptionist and call her up. And she said I sounded like one of them.

I say it again: What???!!!

I was surprised, to say the least, but I wasn't offended. Not in the slightest. In fact, I took it as mainly a source of amusement in an otherwise humdrum day at home. Hey, if my voice's sounding old = my voice sounding vaguely weary, then you know what? I'm fine with that. It reflects my mood at the moment anyway.

Also: I've gotten away this long with somehow convincing some people that I'm some super-smart genius. If I can add "old" to my arsenal, I could perhaps not only seem super-smart, but also seem wise beyond my years. Kickass!

By the way, I didn't have much luck with at that doctor's office either. In addition to calling me "old"---which I'm sure she meant in a lighthearted way---she also told me that she was mostly looking for someone who could continue after the summer. So that might not be for me. I like to have a reasonable amount of downtime to study during the school year without having to worry about an additional paying part-time job to work around.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Hills Are Alive...Not Recently

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Two things inspired tonight's post: 1) the final episode of American Idol , which Taylor Hicks won (congratulations, Taylor); and, most importantly, 2) the event I ushered at the State Theatre tonight, which was a classical music performance by conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra of works by Bartók, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky.

Other than American Idol, I haven't really written much about music so far in my blog. I guess that could just be because I don't quite consider music as huge a part of my life these days as, say, movies are. It's been months since I've listened to a new album, or gave a listen to a popular new artist. When it comes to current music, I'm just a little out of touch.

This wasn't always the case. Music used to be a major part of my life. Upon my second year in East Brunswick after I moved here from Queens---my original hometown---in fall 1991, I started taking piano lessons. A few years later, I picked up the violin. And during those early years, I was a voracious consumer of classical music. From Mozart and Beethoven to Ravel and Stravinsky, I didn't really care for much else. In fact, it took me quite a while before I actually started taking other kinds of music with almost as much seriousness. Sure, I'd occasionally listen superficially to the soft rock coming out of my parents' car stereo (courtesy of local station Magic 98.3 FM), but it would be years before I actually started getting into relatively more recent music: from jazz (Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington) to classic rock (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, and others) to contemporary stuff (Radiohead, Coldplay, and others).

But I suppose I will always have a nostalgic affection for classical music: it's the music I grew up with. I still listen to it, sure---these days, my obsessions are the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler---but not with quite the same passion that I used to have when I was much younger. These days, I usually just listen to familiar works as background music as I do something else; it brings me comfort, in a way, even though that comfort might have nothing to do with the work itself, which may be tempestuous in nature (as most Mahler is).

The passion went out of my piano and violin studies too. After a while, I suppose the thrill of playing those two instruments just disappeared. When I realized I actually had to work in order to master these instruments---practice a lot, and practice in a meticulous, intense manner---it just stopped being fun for me, I guess. And I definitely had no mature idea about what it took to be a good artist: as a younger lad, I must have thought that all playing the piano or violin was was getting the notes right and following the dynamic markings. Sadly, I only realized what interpretation really meant until after I had given up on both instruments. (I may still take up at least one of them---I supposedly have my whole life ahead of me---but I'm not holding my breath that it'll be soon.)

Besides, it just got wearying, going to see my violin teacher every week just to have him tell me "your arm is too tight. You have too loosen up." Thanks, Mr. Mao, but how? That's something I guess I never got. Maybe I'm just a tight-ass by nature. Someone who's always as worried about things as I am could never really step outside of myself and just play the damn instrument. And did I ever really master the technical aspects of playing my instruments? Even towards the unofficial end of my violin-playing days, I knew, deep down, that my violin vibrato just sounded constricted. How is one expected to be able to play with depth of feeling if he hasn't even got the technique down pat?

Combine that with a mother who kept criticizing my playing without ever having done much musical stuff herself (although she tells me she used to sing a lot), and after a while, I just decided to let it go. Nothing will come of it; you're too busy with other stuff anyhow. You're not going to become the next Itzhak Perlman, so why bother?

(Side note: for newbie readers, expect a future post explaining the ever-complicated relationship between me and my mother. At the very least, it'll reveal sides of me you might never have guessed from my first few posts on this blog.)

So these days, I'm content to simply give an occasional ear to music and focus more on my writing and my filmwatching---even though there are times when I wish I was more knowledgeable about all the music that's out there. Besides, the classical music scene just seems so drab and lifeless these days; these orchestras just seem to keep playing the same works all the time, and, with rare exceptions like John Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls---his fascinating, eloquent response to 9/11---new works have a lot of trouble catching on in the mainstream. Most people---and, admittedly, I am not above this tendency on occasion---prefer listening to the umpteenth performance of Beethoven's way-overplayed 5th rather than challenging themselves by going to a concert with, say, Oliver Messiaen's gloriously nutty Turangalila Symphony---if an orchestra is even enterprising enough to program that piece. So orchestra committees, understandably aiming to get more people to their concerts, feel compelled to give the people what they want. No matter if it makes classical music concerts feel like museum displays sometimes; edgy modern classical music---including defiantly atonal works by early twentieth-century composers like Arnold Schoenberg or Alban Berg---doesn't seem to be the people's choice.

Now, I might rightly be called a hypocrite for complaining about this perception of what most classical music fans prefer, because I can't say I've kept up with all that's new in the classical music world. Still, I think I can honestly say that modern music is often more interesting to listen to than is yet another rendition of a late Mozart symphony. Tonight, von Dohnányi and the Pittsburgh orchestra's first offering was Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra, and I couldn't help but be fascinated throughout by its atonal harmonies and sprung rhythms, and yet marvel at how expressive the piece was. (Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is another great example of his singular brand of modern lyricism.) I didn't feel that quite the fascination in hearing the band perform Haydn's 88th Symphony or Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, two more obviously tonal works. (Maybe it's just because I've heard both works many times before.)

Fresh new sounds: as far as music goes, that's what I crave---at least when I actually get around to listening to music. These days---especially now, as my summer job search drags on---those opportunities seem few and far between.

The Soul Patrol is Back In Town

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I had to tape tonight's American Idol Final Two showdown because I was busy ushering the Class of 2006 Robert Wood Johnson Medical School convocation at the State Theatre. Thankfully, I was able to set up my VCR correctly enough that it didn't stop the scheduled recording at an inopportune time, as my VCR did on Sunday when I inadvertently scheduled it to stop about five minutes before the season finale of The Simpsons ended. (Hopefully I'll be able to download it or something and see what I missed for myself; then perhaps I'll comment on it.)

Anyway, tonight's American Idol: I think this was Taylor Hicks' night. I was hoping for his second song that he would have done something other than Elton John's overrated "Levon"---a few weeks ago, he apparently did a great cover of the Beatles' "Something" which, from a few critics' ecstatic descriptions of it, I regretted missing---but Taylor did it well enough. In fact, I think he sang the song even better than Elton John himself did; certainly, Taylor didn't sound like he was straining or merely shouting. (I still am not all that much closer to figuring out what Bernie Taupin's lyrics actually mean, however.)

In his first performance of the night he rehashed his "Living for the City" cover and dazzled with it once again: it cut right to the heart of the words and was also fun to watch to boot. This was vintage Taylor because he not only brings soulfulness to his interpretations, but also consistently has genuine fun on the stage. He's magnetic and almost always interesting onstage.

And finally, his third performance, in which he was saddled with another generic "potential No. 1 single" ballad---this one named "Do I Make You Proud?"---and did his damnedest to try to sell it. Which I think he did, even though even he, with all his emotional intensity and sincerity couldn't quite mask the typically uninspired lyrics.

Vocally, it was miles better than Katharine MacPhee's simply weird performance of her potential No. 1 single ballad, some uplifting nonsense entitled "My Destiny." Weird because it seemed as if she lost interest in trying to create a genuinely musical performance out of it and simply just sang the words. And, in spite of the judges' effusive comments about her undeniably pretty voice, vocally she seemed rather breathy and lifeless in "My Destiny." I thought it was a near-disaster, although it thankfully didn't soil the memory of her repeat performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which she performed last week. I liked her interpretation of the classic song well enough, but Taylor's "You Are So Beautiful" stuck in my mind more that week, so I didn't give it much space. But I think tonight she actually sang it slightly better the second time around; every instance of melisma seemed absolutely appropriate to the yearning expressed by the song. This was far and away her best performance tonight...and even more impressive considering she apparently was forced to begin the opening a cappella portion of the song without a functioning earpiece to give her the first note. Guess she didn't need it, though; she was absolutely in tune from Note 1. (I won't say much about her first performance, of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree"; it was very good, but I'm inclined to agree with Simon that it was more a decent warm-up song than anything else.)

I think this is Taylor's competition to win after tonight. Katharine kinda sealed the deal for her with a weak third performance; while perhaps there was nothing she could have done with the song she was handed, she wasn't even able to bring her beauty of voice to make it at least sound good. Taylor had three good performances; Katharine had only two. Game, set, match. A Katharine victory would be a huge upset.

See how dispassionate I seem about American Idol in this blog entry? This is why I don't vote for anyone on the show: I may like one contestant over another, but I usually never feel enough of a passionate connection to one to compel me to take the contest seriously enough to vote. There are more important things to vote for anyway, hehe. If Taylor wins tomorrow night, though, I certainly hope for the best for him. He's an interesting singer with an original style. From an American Idol, what more could you want?

Now, all he has to do is cease and desist with the repeated "Soul Patrol! Soul Patrol!" cries. It's almost as embarrassing as contestant Rickey Smith's "Hercules! Hercules!" a few years ago on this show.


So I don't know if I'm going to get a position at Barnes and Noble after all. Yesterday's interview didn't go badly, but it didn't leave me all that optimistic. First of all, I committed the sin of not being totally honest on my job application; I stated my availability as "all day" except for Friday, even though in June, with my name still signed up for State Theatre events, that is definitely not the case. So I had to 'fess up to this inconsistency---which I didn't have space to address on the application---right at the start, when she asked me to make sure. I guess that put a damper on the rest of the interview, even though I think I answered her general questions well. I was able to think on my feet in order to come up with good responses to her questions about what customer service means to me, what I want to get out of this job, etc.

Still, the interview didn't leave me with a confident vibe. And I felt odd about feeling bad about it too. It turns out that the only position they have available at my local Barnes and Noble is as a coffee server at the bookstore's small coffeeshop. Not quite my ideal position at Barnes and Noble, but I think I was able to act convincingly like it didn't matter all that much to me. The quest for job earnings makes you bullshit like that, I guess.

Maybe the anxiety about trying to find a summer job soon is just getting to me a bit. Maybe I just feel that if I don't have a summer job soon, I'll feel depressed or something. I hope it doesn't come to that.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Another Long, Action-Packed Day Closes

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Thus the fifth season of 24 ends with a beaten-up Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) being taken away on a Shanghai freighter in what the Chinese see as long overdue punishment for the inadvertent killing of a Chinese consul during a covertly authorized break into the Chinese Consulate headed by Jack in the tail end of Season 4. As a season-ending cliffhanger, this might not have been quite as tragic as Jack's holding his dead wife Teri at the end of Season 1, as gut-wrenching as the last-minute poisoning attempt on President David Palmer at the end of Season 2, as intimately emotional as Jack's release of private emotion at the end of Season 3, and as poetic---yes, I said it, poetic---as Jack's walking into the L.A. sunrise forced to go into hiding at the end of Season 4. Still, for those who were wondering whatever happened to the thread about Cheng Zhi's (Tzi Ma) mission of revenge that was only barely acknowledged throughout most of Season 5...well, now we know.

Said Cheng Zhi to Jack: "Did you really think we would just forget?" It was almost as if the writers were telling the audience directly that they had really not forgotten after all.

That's another thing I love about this show: in spite of its action-thriller conventions, 24 never quite settles for the clean resolution. In the real world, Jack's sometimes disturbingly ruthless actions would have real consequences; while this show occasionally justifies those actions with implicit "ends justify the means" arguments, it never forgets that not everyone will things the same way, and react according to their beliefs. Jack may believe he did the right thing in spite of getting that consul accidentally killed when he stormed into the Chinese consulate last season; but obviously the Chinese would not see it that way, understandably.

Speaking of not seeing things the same way, tonight's two-hour finale boasted two remarkable scenes between treacherous President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) and wife Martha (Jean Smart), the latter newly emboldened to expose her husband after seeing a beaten-up Aaron Pierce about to be killed for his knowledge of the President's actions. The first one saw Martha trying to cleverly maneuver Logan into not getting onto a chopper to get to a funeral service for the late ex-President David Palmer so quickly (so Jack could get his way onto the chopper). A good liar indeed; she was so convincing in her attempt at an "apology" that she was even willing to have quickie sex with a person who a few hours earlier truly made her "sick"!

But it's the second scene that is worth discussing briefly: a pivotal scene in which Martha torturously extracts a confession of guilt from her husband. Now, a lesser action show less concerned with shades of character might have tried to overplay President Logan's villainy and make Martha seem too effusively heroic. This particular scene took a different approach: for a moment, it dared you to almost sympathize with President Logan upon his discovering Martha's insincerity. 24 has occasionally done this kind of sympathy-twisting: most notably, in Season 2, the show actually had the guts to make you, for a brief moment, sympathize with a terrorist as he witnessed what he believed was Jack Bauer's ordering his whole family to be slaughtered right in front of him. It turned out to be a ruse---but viewers didn't know that for sure until the end of the episode gave it away, and he fear in the terrorist's eyes were real. (I suppose the writers tried to make us sympathize with Hector Salazar's growing resentment in the first half of Season 3, but somehow it came off as all a bit too soapy to be nearly as compelling.)

But I think the source of the scene's power can be traced to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic Vertigo, in which James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson finally confronts Kim Novak's Judy Barton about her well-constructed "history" as Madeleine Elster. The emotional punch of that scene comes out of the reserves of anger Scottie clearly feels for having been seduced by what is essentially an image, not a real person. For a brief moment on 24, Gregory Itzin---who, along with Jean Smart in this scene, proved that maybe they both should be considered for Emmy nominations---tapped into that same angry desperation and almost made us feel bad for the weasly sucker for having been tricked by Martha's act, for having believed that Martha finally came to accept his actions. How could you necessarily argue when Logan responded to Martha's calling him a "hypocrite" with, basically, "you should talk"? For me, it made Logan's subsequent arrest after his David Palmer eulogy less sheerly heroic than it might have been---hardly a criticism, as this showed 24 at its best in casting shadows on what might have been clear-cut situations in less nuanced hands.

Now, lest all of that makes me sound like a pretentious 24 fanboy---look at him, comparing a scene on some popular serial TV action drama with a scene from one of the greatest films ever made---there is one scene from tonight's finale that also encapsulates what is rather problematic about this show. This occurred early on in the penultimate episode, during a terrific 20-minute cat-and-mouse action sequence in which Jack Bauer, Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller) and others try to take down Vladimir Bierko (Julian Sands). The show introduced a character, Petty Officer Rooney (Jeremy Ray Valdez), who was forced to kill one of the Russian separatist terrorists in order to get Jack & co. into the submarine with all the nuclear missiles in it. It was nice touch to give the petty officer character understandable reluctance to kill---but the show then falls back on one of the most troublesome of Hollywood cliches, the view of the dead close friend that emboldens an innocent into violent fury. When the petty officer saw that fellow submarine sailor lying dead on the floor, apparently he got over his human reluctance rather quickly and was able to sneak up behind a terrorist and stab him repeatedly in the throat.

Now, it was good to see that his action wasn't made self-righteous and heroic in the way the scene was shot and directed. Nevertheless, one of the tensions---maybe deliberate, maybe not---I've often noticed through these five seasons of 24 is the tension between trying to take a subversive view of Hollywood action cliches and also fuctioning as a gripping action thriller in the Hollywood style. So you might have a scene of torture in which Jack shoots a baddie in the leg in order to get information---crazy but undeniably effective---only much later on to find Jack having to sacrifice someone inadvertently in order to keep someone else alive: both of those scenes occurred in the same season (Season 4). I guess maybe some of my interest in this tension comes from the fact that I just have a pet peeve about violent revenge scenarios when they reinforce the view that vengeance will somehow be a cathartic release of anger or some bullshit like that; that's the kind of adolescent mindset I felt that one moment on tonight's second-to-last episode subtly endorsed. (Another slightly problematic moment in Season 5 was when Audrey suddenly turned vengeful in goading Jack to shoot Henderson after her father had driven off a cliff and was assumed dead; thankfully, I guess, she saved him for Jack to carry out tonight, in a startling moment that was presented without a hint of righteousness or heroism on the soundtrack.)

But then Jack's cold-blooded (if perhaps emotionally understandable) murder of Christopher Henderson moments later---after Bierko had been killed and the terrorist plot foiled---brought the violence right back down to earth, especially with that look of fear in Petty Officer Rooney's eyes when he witnessed the act. Jack's act of revenge just didn't seem so glamorized, did it? Call it the History of Violence approach to criticizing violence: present brutal violence that gets the right people killed, but then subsequently present a more ambivalently violent scene to plant doubts in a viewer as to what's good and what's evil. (Admittedly I balked at that ambivalent approach when I saw David Cronenberg's good-though-overrated thriller last year without fully realizing that 24, though much less overtly and art-consciously, has done something similar, to varying degrees of success, over its five seasons.)

Perhaps this ambivalence is what fascinates us all about Jack Bauer, the hero (antihero?) of 24. He is the embodiment, in a way, of the tension that has gripped the country post-9/11 regarding how to fight terrorism: throw civil and even human rights out the window, or do it within moral limits? Jack's approach isn't nearly as one-dimensional as, say, Dirty Harry's shoot-first-think-later approach to crimefighting, but he can turn cold and violent when he has to be. But how far can even a supercop like Jack Bauer be pushed before he's considered kinda inhuman? Season 3, especially, delved rather deeply into this question by presenting Jack reacting startlingly to one of his toughest days, and then, with that one quiet scene of him breaking down in a car at the end of the season, eloquently showing his private compassion and humanity. In Season 4, his cold tactics as a CTU agent essentially destroyed him to the point that he was forced to forsake his own identity in order to stay alive: that is what I found poetic and satisfying about the way the otherwise wildly uneven (and occasionally stale and predictable) fourth season concluded.

It's been welcome to see the Jack of Season 5 remind me somewhat of the Jack of Season 1, in which the welfare of his family was at stake and you could sense both his human desperation and also his willingness to do nearly whatever it took to keep Teri and Kim alive. Season 5, as a whole, has been remarkable in bringing back the gut-wrenching human emotion that I had thought been shafted in favor of more "action" in Seasons 3 and, especially, Season 4. But of course this had to be the case: with old friends becoming casualties in another crazy terrorist plot, one that goes all the way up to the White House, of course it'll all take a palpable toll on the people still alive and in the thick of things. It was a nice moment to see a picture of Edgar to remind us of his sad loss in the middle of the season, a victim of a nerve gas attack on CTU.

A few more loose ends. The final scene between Bill Buchanan and Karen Hayes suggests a possible romantic relationship in the future. Interesting, though not nearly as interesting as discovering that reliable computer nerd Chloe O'Brien used to have a husband named Morris! Who else was surprised to discover this? I certainly was.

Finally: I think it was just grandly refreshing to see the interrogation scene between Jack and Logan proceed through dialogue rather than through violence. Season 4 had taken the use of torture on the show to slightly ridiculous extremes (although maybe that was the point); Season 5 has thankfully dialed down the torture, relegating it to mere threats of violence rather than finger-crushing, needle-injecting action.

So another exhausting day in the 24 universes closes with Jack once again having to pay for past actions. I think this has been a pretty damn good season, and while it didn't totally extinguish my anxieties about how far the writers can take these terrorist scenarios before they start to seem played out, at least Season 5 successfully kept those concerns at bay for the most part. In all, I'd probably go so far as to call this season second best, just after the show's masterful second season (and yes, superior even to the groundbreaking first season). Bravo!

Ushering My Boredom Away

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - So, for those readers who don't know, I work part-time as an usher at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. I got the job in October 2005, finally getting an interview for an ushering position after trying them maybe one or two other times beforehand.

I bring this up because this weekend was a fairly busy one for me at the theater. This weekend was all dance recitals, all the time: Rising Star Dance Studio in Manalapan held a whole bunch of recitals, all of them ranging from 2½ to 3 hours long. A lot of standing! And the organizers of the event---the instructors at the dance school---were adamant that no one go down the aisles during a particular number.

This was different from the norm. Usually, we're allowed to just let people go up and down except for musical shows and orchestra concerts. But this weekend, we had to try to keep anyone from going down the aisles during numbers---even those who had already been seated.

So this weekend, I basically had to deal with quite a bit of rudeness, especially from people who simply walked past me as I tried to tell them to stay back until the number was over. "Oh, my seat's just over there," most of these fast walkers would tell me, pointing their finger at some faraway area and brushing past me.

All for seeing bunch of limited-talent kids anyway. (Hey, I didn't say that; another usher did!)

Still, this is what I signed up for---as an usher, I sign up for the events I want to work. Heck, this is what I expected when I applied to the job.

At the very least, this is something I've been able to honestly boast about in job interviews so far: ushering is a form of customer service, so I've had to deal with different kinds of people, answer their questions, basically be calm with even the least courteous of them.

I like working at the State Theatre. Sure, the pay isn't all that hot---$6.50/hr, woo-hoo---but nice people work there, and yes, I do get to see shows for free, which can be fun if the show is any good. (This job has been a boon to my classical music concerts consumption---and not just because I get to see more of them for free. In the past, believe it or not, I had slept at nearly every classical music concert I've been to. Because I have to stand as an usher, it's kept me awake even during overplayed, though certainly great, works like Beethoven's Seventh or Mussorgsky/Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition. No Mahler performances yet, alas.)

The only thing that kinda sucks is that it's not easy to get out of shifts if you signed up for one and then find out later that you might not want to, or might not be able to, work that shift: the House Manager insists that we find our own replacement. That means a lot of random calling and leaving of messages and pleading. I'm told, however, that that is the way it usually is for a lot of jobs such as ushers or even security guards; so I guess I shouldn't complain, right?

The State Theatre gets pretty dead in July and August, though, so that's why I'm going through this job search process right now. I need more money!

I'm probably going to ushering again next year. In fact, looking at the brochure for the 2006-7 season at the theatre, next year looks to be a pretty cool season! I mean, the New York Philharmonic is set to make its New Jersey debut here in September. One of the world's greatest orchestras on the New Brunswick stage! Man, I'm there, no matter whether I'm ushering or not!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Greatest Cover-up in Human History Revealed...So What?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - You know you're watching a different kind of summer movie thriller when a line like "I have to get to a library fast!" passes for something genuinely heroic.

That line is uttered at one point by Robert Langdon, the "hero" played by Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's new film adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code (**½ out of ****), which I saw last night in a fairly packed theater at AMC Loews Rt. 1.

Before I go into the nitty-gritty about the film, I must confess: I am probably one of the few in the whole world who have not read Dan Brown's enormously popular book. Or, at least, I haven't read the whole thing, cover to cover. Last week, I tried to read as much of it as I can before seeing the movie last night, but I wasn't able to get too far: I was too busy trying to find summer employment (and, I guess, updating this blog), and so I only got up to around pg. 150 or so, with Langdon and Sophie Neveu just escaping from the Louvre after finding "so dark the con of man" written on Da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks." And then I saw the movie.

Well, first, a word about the book---or, at least, as much as I've read of it (which, I admit, isn't much, so take the following with a grain of salt). Here's one thing I can say about it: it's, at the very least, well-researched. But, for a book that tackles symbolism in art and religion---heavy subjects, both---the novel, at this point, seems mostly rather graceless and pedestrian in its prose. Brown's book seems meant more to be digested as a fast-paced thriller (I've spoken to people who say they read the book in two or three days), while the nuggets of information clumsily thrown into the mix here and there are meant to give the whole thing a surface sheen of erudition. Not that the historical information he throws in aren't interesting, to be sure. It's just that, when it comes out of characters' mouths the way Brown writes it in the novel, it merely seems like dialogue no person would ever naturally speak.

It's a problem that Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter of the film adaptation, hasn't quite been able to solve, although I certainly appreciate the effort. Onscreen, the film still seems fairly talky and clunky in the way it tries to naturally impart important historical information through dialogue.

That didn't bother me a great deal, to be honest: Ron Howard has never been the most visually imaginative of film directors. And this film is, after all, meant to be an intellectual rather than visceral thriller, all about the process of uncovering truth---a scholarly academic's version of the classic police procedural---rather than bombarding with you mindless action scenes and violence. On that level, I think The Da Vinci Code more or less works. At the very least, it kept me reasonably involved for its approximately 150-minute length---but then, I haven't read the entire book, so many of the twists in the plot came as genuine surprises to me. (I wonder if the professional critics who found the film dull were simply bored because they could anticipate every turn of the plot, having read the book.)

Still, The Da Vinci Code came as a slight disappointment to me especially after all the controversy generated by the film coming from the Vatican and other Catholic religious organizations, all of them crying out at the film's alleged inaccuracy and errors.

There's a hint of genuine subversion in the film, which suggests that certain Catholic monks are willing to commit self-righteous murder in trying to cover-up a long-held secret about Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene---a secret that gives women more power in the grand scheme of things than many Catholics have been led to believe all these years---that could shake the faith of Catholics everywhere. (And we all know Catholics don't need any more faith-shaking after the recent string of sex-abuse scandals.) Religion, as many people are aware, have always been a source of violence and conflict, and Dan Brown, in his novel, must have used that simple fact as the fuel for his admittedly intriguing fantasies about ruthless killer monks, action-hero intellectuals, and centuries-long conspiracies of suppression.

But disappointingly, the film never really makes much out of these potentially troubling bits. The Da Vinci Code, for all its talkiness and play at intellectuality, never generates much heat and never probes very deeply into the issues it raises. (Maybe the book went deeper. What do some of you readers think, should I try to finish the rest of the novel now that I've seen the movie? Yeah, now I'm shamelessly trying to baldly elicit on my blog, hehe, since no one seems to want to comment on my blog since my second post.) Instead, the movie remains tasteful and safe throughout, content to merely play the role of intellectual summer movie thriller. (If Ron Howard didn't already prove that he wasn't a director to tackle deep, intellectual subjects in the way he treated schizophrenia---as a plot device---in his 2001 Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind...)

Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I didn't find The Da Vinci Code diverting on its summer movie thriller level. At its best, it offers the real pleasures of a good detective story, and it has been eloquently photographed by Salvatore Totino in earthy, brownish tones that recall a Leonardo Da Vinci painting. In fact, The Da Vinci Code may be one of Howard's more visually interesting films, especially in his use of flashbacks: not the lengthy digressions in Brown's book, but concise visual bursts shot with oversaturated film stock. And, as far as the performances go, the movie is pretty much stolen by Ian McKellen, hamming it up and having some fun in his role as Leigh Teabing, an authority on the Holy Grail. McKellen suggests a character who has a lot of fun being an intellectual---which is more than can be said for an uncharacteristically stiff Tom Hanks. He isn't bad, I guess---I mean, is he ever bad?---but he's seriously hampered by the fact that Robert Langdon, simply put, makes for a pretty colorless hero, at least in the film. He hasn't been written with much inner life (except for one traumatic experience which explains his claustrophobia). He's more a convenient plot device than anything else, really: he has the right knowledge at certain points, but he seems to keep an intellectual distance from everything he does (and I mean everything).

The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining, well-made film, but by the end nothing seems to resonate with any real emotional or intellectual force. It's, sad to say, a sham of a movie: it's not nearly as intelligent or probing as it seems to think it is. By the end of it, in spite of all its religious talk, and in spite of all its twists and turns, one might not unreasonably react with a measure of indifference to it all. (So clerics are willing to commit murder and then justify it to themselves as doing God's work---so what?) It may make for a superior two-and-a-half-hours worth of summer entertainment, but personally, I'd say you could do just as well, if not better, getting to your local libarary. Fast!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 1: Job Search

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - From time to time, you'll probably see short little posts like this one updating you all of what's going on in my life. Usually this will occur if I don't have much to say about anything outside my life---film, TV, politics, random thoughts---but I feel the need to write something anyway.

Basically, this past week has been spent trying to find a summer job. Mostly I've looked at the Rutgers student employment job search page to see what kind of office jobs and such are available. My approach---as was my approach to summer job hunting last summer---is to simply find and apply to as many possibly job opportunities as I can, and hope that at least some of them get me at least interviews with employers.

The approach seems to be working. Today I went to an electronics office in Dayton and interviewed for a possible office assistant position; I wasn't hired on the spot, but I was told I would be notified very soon as to whether they wanted to hire me or not. Tomorrow I have another interview with a lady who works at the Brunswick Square Mall. For EB-ers who read this: you know the people who sell Simon gift cards? Who knows, I might be one of them...

And today I got a call from a woman at the local Barnes and Noble who wanted to interview me as well based on an application I filled out just a few days ago. This was a pleasant surprise: I had been unsuccessful in my numerous attempts to apply to the bookstore in the past. I'm supposed to meet with her on Monday; if I don't have a job lined up by then, I will certainly be going and seeing what opportunities they have in the store. (I put "open" in the application when it asked me what position I was interested in at the store.)

If all three of these prospects fall through...well, I guess I'll keep trying.

By the way, if some of you readers don't already know: I technically have a part-time job right now, as an usher at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. I've had it since October 2005. But it's not nearly enough to keep me busy during the summer, because the ushering opportunities get pretty dang sporadic during the summer, especially during July and August---the House Manager told us that there were only 10 events scheduled during those two months. And $6.50/hr.? Yeah, not the highest-paying job around, to say the least. So I'm definitely taking this summer job hunt seriously---and not because my parents are pressuring me into it. Or, at least, not just because they're doing so.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sing that Funky Music, White Boy

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - At the beginning of the current season of American Idol, I told myself that I wouldn't get sucked into following it as I did in the last three years.

Why do you bother with the show, really?, I told myself. The people who participate it or win the competition may sell a lot of records, but, with the possible exception of Kelly Clarkson, none of them have really set the music world on fire with any kind of great innovation or even immensely compelling personal style. They're usually just one more pop star to manipulate and package---in fact, they're part of the American Idol package, really. This show is not really something to take all that seriously.

And in fact, this season I've more or less kept to my word. Sure, when it was on TV and I didn't really have much else to do, I tuned in and was mildly impressed by some performances, were either bored or irritated by others. (Who knew there could be someone ditzier and with less personality than last year's Idol winner Carrie Underwood? Yet this year we saw dreadful Kellie Pickler stick around for a few weeks longer than she deserved.) But I haven't followed it carefully this season...and I never vote. Don't really care enough to.

So when Tuesday evening's Top 3 show came around, I didn't really feel much of a stake in any of the contestants than I did with, say, the genuinely compelling Fantasia Barrino in Season 3. But once again, I tuned in a) because, once again, there wasn't much else to do, and b) I guess the promise of possibly hearing one great piece of singing is enough to lure me in. And, of course, there's Simon Cowell---gotta watch it for his sheer grumpiness when he hears something he dislikes. He's sometimes not as witty as he thinks he is, but, among the judges, at least he hasn't lapsed into sometimes embarrassing lameness as Randy (Dawgpound) Jackson and Paula (Incoherent) Abdul have. If there's any reason I watch Idol, Simon is definitely one major reason.

Was there good singing on Tuesday night? Certainly; you'd expect as much from a Top 3 show. But, with one or two major exceptions, the performances from Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, and Elliott Yamin weren't all that dazzling. Either the song choices were dull (or, in the case of "I Believe I Can Fly," just cheesy), or the delivery was solid but not very inspired. I think Elliott Yamin has a great, silky smooth R&B voice, but that can only get you so far.

I'll bypass Katharine McPhee, who did an above-average rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"---a great performance, to be sure, but, for my money, still not the most memorable "moment" on this show. (Remember Bo Bice's breathtaking, all a-cappella "In A Dream" last season? Now, that was a "moment." It's a shame Bice seems to mostly be doing cheesy ballads now.) Instead, I'll go right to Taylor Hicks, whose mostly terrific interpretation of "You Are So Beautiful" encapsulated what really stands out about him for me.

Basically, it's this: he's sincere and he's refreshing. That doesn't mean he's always great---watch out when he whips out those silly dance moves, which is what he did to rather distracting effect in "Dancing in the Dark" on Tuesday evening. Even at his worst, he's solid and fun to watch. But when he tears into a lyric with all the emotional intensity he can muster, he can move you in ways very few other contestants have done. His "You Are So Beautiful" was a perfect example: he clearly felt the beautiful simplicity of the lyrics, and he rendered it in a way that made you believe in his sincerity and passion---and, crucially, did it in a way that didn't sound like merely an imitation of Joe Cocker. (Props to Simon Cowell for an astute song choice.) If you didn't believe that he understood exactly what he was singing, all you needed to do was look at him onstage, with that yearning look in his eyes and the way he held the mike stand as if he wanted to kiss it forever. The performance was only marred by one unfortunate misstep: a gratuitous falsetto "whoooo" at a bridge moment that he must have spontaneously added that broke the mood of the performance for an instant. I guess Taylor must have felt a little restless when he did that; "You Are So Beautiful" is not a very wordy song, and maybe he felt he had to add something to keep his vocal cords relatively busy. But the "whoooo" was a misguided moment that made me think briefly on some of the goofier performances Taylor has given in the past (at least, of the ones that I've seen). But that was only a few seconds, and I think the overall performance withstood that mildly bothersome intrusion: it was, I'd almost say, magical.

Taylor, for those who don't know, is a whopping 29 years old, and his gray hair gives him that elder statesman look that I suppose has always attracted me to him as both a singer and as a person. Certainly great singing requires a considerable amount of life experience in order to enrich one's singing, to give it heft and authority. Compared to some of the teenyboppers in this competition, Taylor exudes at least a little bit of that kind of wisdom and authority, although he does so in the most humble manner imaginable: he almost always seems to be having fun onstage. (In his third performance of the night on Tuesday, he took Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" and at moments actually sounded uncannily like a black preacher having some kind of workout with that song.)

Maybe it's just the hair.

Well, for those who missed tonight's padded-as-usual results show, Elliott is gone, and so next week Taylor and Katharine will be going at it for the top prize. I don't really care who wins, either way, because I don't really take this competition seriously. (If a particularly enterprising contestant ever dared to tackle a song by a defiantly non-mainstream artist or group like, say, Pink Floyd or Radiohead, maybe, just maybe, I'd make it a point to tune in every week.) But, if Taylor won it all, I wouldn't be too unhappy. This hasn't been a particularly exciting season of American Idol, but at least a good man will have won it if Taylor wins it next week.


For the last year-and-a-half or so, my TV-on-DVD catch-up project has been Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the seven-season fantasy TV series that, at its best, connected a fantastical world of demons vampires with the harsh realities of life, whether in high school, in college, or just in the outside world.

I'm still on Season 6 right now, but last night I finally got up to "Once More, With Feeling," the show's nod to musicals. In the episode, a song-and-dance demon infects the entire town of Sunnydale with a curse that makes them all break out into song at seemingly random moments. It's all the angst of the typical Buffy episode, in musical form!

Now, granted, technically the singing, for the most part, is merely adequate, and the songs aren't the most memorable things in the world. But here's what makes it more than a cool-sounding gimmick: the song lyrics reveal what the characters who sing them think deep down about life, about relationships, about the point of their existences, etc. The music and the words really do convincingly grow out of the action. In a lot of contemporary musicals, it can sometimes be embarrassing to see a show awkwardly attempt to transition organically into a musical number; sometimes, if the transition isn't done well, you might wonder why a particular song needed to be there at all. No such problem in "Once More, With Feeling."

To some extent, a deep familiarity with the characters and the themes of the show probably help to appreciate the episode fully. Still, even the most casual Buffy watcher could glimpse what is so notable about this episode: it reveals the essence of what great musicals can be. Why is the title song of Singin' in the Rain considered one of the great moments in movies? Not just because it is a catchy tuned catchily performed by Gene Kelly. A lot of it is just the sheer feeling of the song in context: former silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly) has just kissed beautiful aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and he is so much on cloud nine, not even rain can dampen his spirits. So he basks in the rain: dances on lamppoles, stomps on a giant puddle, etc. Through the choreography and the singing, you can feel Don's delight at that moment. There isn't anything comparable in "Once More, With Feeling," but, by putting the potential of musicals to suggest feeling front and center, by making the entire musical episode all about characters' feelings, it's engaging in a subtle act of genre deconstruction that not even French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard---ever the energetic deconstructionist before his politics took over his films---could quite manage in his 1962 film A Woman is a Woman. Godard tried to evoke the feeling of a musical without actually making a movie musical genre piece---famously, he called the film a "neorealist musical," which is an obvious contradiction---but the feeling mostly remained generalized rather than specific to characters' thoughts and feelings. (The only moment where that happened in A Woman is a Woman, I think, is when Anna Karina's character, Angela, discovers that her boyfriend is apparently cheating on her; only at that moment does the song on the soundtrack, Anna Karina's jealousy-stricken face, and Godard's filmmaking technique combine to express something tangible.) "Once More, With Feeling" actually gets rather closer to the heart of what makes musicals tick, and also has fun with different musical styles and conventions (some of the music sounds like Jonathan Larson lite---which is hardly a putdown in this case).

Of course, none of that has anything to do with the trials and tribulations of Buffy Summers. Maybe for another post...