Saturday, December 30, 2006

ODTAA and Subjunctive History

I LOVE THIS MOVIE. I went into The History Boys thinking the plot was going to be clich├ęd, and it definitely was: students study to take important test, teacher gives lessons in life rather than just books. But the old familiar premise wasn't the driving force behind the film.

After acing their A-levels, a group of boys at a grammar school in Yorkshire study for history exams for admission to Oxford and Cambridge. Hector, the old teacher, has the boys for "general studies," mainly literature and music. Irvin, the new, younger teacher (played by a really cute and dorky unknown actor who unfortunately has the most unflattering photos available online), tries to challenge their automated answers. And here I show my bias. The movie pits Hector's literature-and culture-disguised-as-fun approach against Irwin's teaching-to-the-test ideas. Hector tells them to be themselves and pursue truth; Irwin tells them it's okay to lie and to highlight the irregular.

As a history major, I resent the portrayal of Irwin's history class. The old stodgy history teacher had them memorize nothing but years and facts; Irwin had them questioning the dominant paradigm. How is that lying? How it that opposed to truth and honesty? How is that teaching to a test? It shows critical thinking! "Revisionism" has a completely different context in popular culture and partisan politics than it does in the academic field of history.

Hector also teaches the boys to memorize poems and songs and essays, but it's portrayed as the enjoyment of enduring human sentiments rather than only in historical context. The problem is, the movie depicts a "detached" approach to history as necessarily a unhuman one, and yet fails to

So as a cultural studies major, I disagree that the two teachers' methods are at odds (yay, interdisciplinary approaches). There's a scene where one of the boys says the answer to a question depends on whether they need to seem "thoughtful" (gestures to Hector) or "smart" (gestures to Irwin). They shouldn't be separate, and neither should the two classes. The film confuses the feelings stirred up by Hector's coursework with all things related to thinking. There were too many scenes where Irwin says "What?" to a reference Hector taught the boys, and vice versa. Hello, tear down the walls in the ivory tower.

But in spite of all this, the debate on the role of teaching and knowledge (however muddled and uninformed) is presented in such a wonderfully compelling way, with great dialogue, that I love the film. What other film out there addresses theory and history and literature at the same time? The movie throws out a ton of really great questions (and answers them pretty sloppily), but the conversation continues in the viewer. There were so many great nuggets of conversation that I wanted to see expanded. And now I can bug everyone I know to see it so I can yap their ears off. =)

There's also a hilarious scene spoken entirely in French, but it's French spoken as teenagers learning the language speak it. So if you took high school French, it's pretty easy to understand. And laugh. (Judging by the lack of reaction in the theatre, though, I think everyone else took Spanish in high school...)

The characters aren't very deep; in fact, not much is revealed about the boys or the teachers. Except for a few scenes, we only see them in school, in their respective roles. Not having much insight into the characters gets a little dicey because there's also the subplot involving the molestation tendencies of some of the teachers. Actually it isn't so much a subplot, it's pretty central to the story. Basically Hector is a lovable fat mentor except when he gropes his students. And Irwin has his own issues too. In fact, all the male teachers at the school except the religious gym teacher are revealed to have inappropriate interactions with students. And the students are all weirdly okay with it, which the movie doesn't explore at all. Also, the unstated correlation between being gay and being a potential child molester made me a little uncomfortable. There's wrongness at all levels with this theme of the film. Personally, I think the movie would have worked even without it.

Obviously, a teacher would interpret this film differently in light of this aspect of the film. I choose to focus on the history part, with the other stuff as useful tangents. Maybe it's really the opposite....

That's the beauty of polysemic texts.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tin Roof Rusted

One would think that, growing up in the Northwest, walking 8 blocks with a paper bag in the pouring rain would be intuitively unthinkable. But nooooo. Three paper bags (albeit slightly laminated ones from a department store) full of Christmas presents, I walked 5 blocks before one of the handles sogged off. Hugged the bags for another two blocks before they just turned to mush and all the gifts spilled onto the soggy street. And it had to be in the dark, in the sketchy area close to the bus stop. Had to pile everything on the bus stop bench and guard everything while calling my mom and sister (whichever had the free car) to come pick me up.

But Santa, like the postal service, made it through the rain.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holla Daze

After several people mentioned how great it was, Holidays on Ice happened to be a strategically-placed impulse-buy at the local bookstore where I was frantically getting a last-minute birthday present for a friend. I knew it was a collection of short stories, which I always like better than long novels (it's the ADD thing), so I bought it.

It cracked me up. David Sedaris has a really sarcastic, snide way of writing about situations. All of the stories are about the modern madness of Christmas. There are only six stories, and I found myself laughing uncontrollably while reading the book at the bus stop. (Nearby people edged away and pretended not to notice.) Some of the stories are irreverent and impolite, and some have faint autobiographical undertones, but they're all tongue-in-cheek and hilarious. They're all told first-person, so what the reader ends up with are a full range of snapshots of character's holiday experiences, told in their jaded, snarky voices. And it's funny.

My favorite story was the first one, "SantaLand Diaries," about a 30-something elf at Macy's. The insights into the behavior patterns of store employees and customers are brilliant, and anyone who's ever worked retail can relate. "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol" was a hilarious review of school holiday pageants from a guy who doesn't care that they're just kids and not actors. "Dinah, the Christmas Whore," a story about a brother and sister who bring an abused prostitute home to their family, was at its core just a great story about being nonjudgmental and recognizing the good in everyone (this premise always works better at Christmas, it seems).

The three that started off interesting, went on a bit long, and had ridiculously improbably endings, were the ones I liked but didn't love. These three were also stories where the reader slowly begins to realize that the reliability of the narrator is questionable. "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" started off as a funny parody of holiday letters, where it's revealed that a recent addition to the family is the daughter the father unknowingly sired while serving in Vietnam. I was a little uncomfortable with stereotypic descriptions of the girl's choppy English, scanty outfits, and inclinations towards incest, until it gradually dawned on me that the narrator, the mother, was a little unbalanced, and the whole description of the girl was from her warped viewpoint. It was the same thing with "Christmas Means Giving," about two rich families who try to outdo each other every Christmas; the story quickly snowballed from the familiar and believable to the impossible and ridiculous. "Based Upon a True Story" made fun of made-for-TV movies that capittalize on tragic stories. It was probably my least favorite, but it was still well-written.

If anything, everyone should read "SantaLand Diaries."

A story you'll get only on...

Watched Scoop the other day. I'm not really a Woody Allen fan, and both Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman are just great to look at, but I haven't overwhelmingly loved any of their movies. I liked this one, though. The basic plot is that college student Scarlett teams up with magician Woody after getting a tip from a ghost that aristocrat Hugh might be a serial killer. It played mind games on its over-thinking audience --is he the murderer? No, it's his dad! No, it's the magician! No, it's the butler!

The film was definitely quirky (the dead are ferried on the River Styx into the afterlife). And there are some plot holes (for instance, how is the dead journalist able to keep coming back with more info for Scarlett and Woody?) It was a different kind of role for Scarlett Johansson, too, and I rather liked her in it; she got to be goofy, and not just sulky and mysterious and pretty like she is in most of her films. It was also kind of funny seeing how the costume people kept putting her in bulky, awkward, unfashionable outfits in an attempt to make her look unbeautiful. (Meanwhile, everything that Hugh wore was droolable.) The only beef I had was that Scarlett's character considers herself a journalist, and she's only in college. Nobody considers themselves a journalist yet if they only write for a small college paper. That was a little ridiculous.

A friend pointed out that it was kind of like the comedy version of Match Point. And it did have similarities. But I liked this one better.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bored at work

Have already googled the gingerbread Nazi story, which was mentioned on The Daily Show last night (there's also a brief audio file on NPR).

But now, the news that the final Harry Potter book has a title. This is very exciting. Also very exciting and coincidental: someone brought really cool Harry Potter napkins into the office, with homemade fudge. I made off with more napkins than fudge.

If you go down to the woods today...

A really sad news item: bears in northern Spain have stopped hibernating because of changes in the climate.

Poor little bears. They're probably confused, and don't know why they have insomnia. They're wandering around, thinking it's eternally spring.

And now I'm sadly reminded of the CG polar bear from An Inconvenient Truth, swimming and swimming in the Arctic waters, unable to find an ice floe big enough to rest on. That's obviously a very different situation. But it's still a bear. I like bears. They shouldn't suffer because their human neighbors are destroying the planet.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Closure at the almost-four week mark

Breaking up with Mr. Coffee has been difficult. The fatigue and the early-morning prevalence of annoying people still hasn't gone away, as well as the heartache whenever I pass a coffee shop and get a whiff of java. Oh, the memories. The memories! Some of the morning grogginess can also be attributed to late nights and, uh, Christmas cheer, but the decaffeination doesn't help much.

But I finally took one of the next steps, and put Mr. Coffee on top of the fridge, with George Foreman. There's now a big, weird blank space on my kitchen counter where the coffeemaker, several pounds of coffee, and coffee filters used to be.

The coffeemaker, which was programmable, also happened to be my most reliable clock. The others, like the stove and the VCR, are always a little off. So now, in addition to the big white space on the counter (and in my heart), there's also a time warp in the house to deal with.

Reading schmeading

Haven't been reading much lately. Not even the Atlantic Monthly that's been sitting near my couch. Instead, I've been watching a lot of movies. I somehow lost my cable (wasn't paying for it anyway), so TV isn't really interesting anymore. So Netflix is a staple source of entertainment these days, as well as friends' DVD collections or rental preferences.

In the recent tradition of watching movies not normally on my radar, I saw Old School last weekend, under similar circumstances as the Super Troopers viewing. The Vince Vaughn/Luke Wilson/Will Ferrell comedy team worked really well. Luke Wilson played a good straight man to the other two: Vince Vaughn's verbal antics are almost always hilarious in any movie, and Will Ferrell is better when he's totally outrageous (then again, I always think streaking is way funnier than it probably is....) It made for a lowkey Saturday. Followed up with a few episodes of Police Squad, which I'd also never seen but found funny.

And two days of singing (first at karaoke, then at a holiday caroling party) makes your throat hurt.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Norman Bates!

In high school, when I was soccer captain, I'd post flyers on the players' lockers on game days, with pictures and personalized notes. When it came to putting my own up, I didn't want to be the only one without a handwritten note of inspiration, so I'd scribble something like "Hey B! Good luck today! From, B" or "From yourself." I'm sure it scared the nosy kids who read them. Anyways...

I've been designing this week's email alert, which is a holiday e-card. I usually have to test for compatibility in Firefox and Internet Explorer, then check Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail to see if there is any wonkiness with different systems. (A lot of love and micromanagement goes into the weekly alerts....) At any rate, since I have half a dozen email accounts, I've been sending myself the test messages. But they're c-cards! You can't send an e-card without a note of some kind. So I've also been writing myself little messages, like, "Yo B, how's it going over at Yahoo?" and then I reply by sending another e-card, this time to Gmail. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

It makes the work a little more exciting. But also, admittedly, a little more schizophrenic.

I am Spartacus...!!!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Windstorm, the Windy City Gal, and the Granny

The recent windstorm left my sister without power on her birthday, so we had the celebrations in my little basement apartment (my neck of the woods was completely unaffected). She and my mom clung to the hope that power would return at any minute. In fact, they clung so tightly that they neglected to tell me they were spending the night until I thought they were leaving. They didn't even want to drive home for PJs, clothes, and a toothbrush, because the traffic lights weren't working on the Westside. So naturally I had an OCD freakout (my mom's classic parent-guilt response: "What do you mean you're not mentally prepared for us to spend the night? I'm your mother....") So stay they did.

Day two: mom and Joy were out doing things during the daylight. Instead of going to the gym, I mopped the floor, scrubbed the bathtub, bought groceries and toilet paper, washed their towels and blankets, and re-fluffed the couch pillows. Fully expected them to have to spend the night again. At the last minute and after three voicemails ("Meeting some friends for drinks, Mom, here's where I'll hide the key for you guys"), their power went back on and all that tub-scrubbing was for nothing.

My arms are still sore.

Well, but not for nothing. A friend from college is in town for two days for a medical residency interview at UW (Torgo, your old suitemate and Xtina, your current fellow Chicagoan). Mom took us out to the Thai restaurant that we impose on all family guests because it has a great view of the city. Had fun driving around and showing off the hometown. And I think I talked her into coming to karaoke tomorrow. Mwahaha.

Amid the guided tour, we're managing to catch up. I found out that my freshman roommate apparently got married and just had a baby. (We, uh, had extreme personality differences and so didn't communicate after freshman year. But Jackie, who lived with her after I did, is still on the email list, and got the flickr links. So I checked those out.) Anyways, it reminded me of the fact that one of my senior year flatmates just had a son, and another one just got married and so will probably have one soon. This means of the 5 people I lived with in college, 3 are married and 1 is partnered, and 2 have kids. Which is cool in terms of accumulating life experiences. But auuuugghhh! It also means that retirement is just around the corner!!!!

Good thing I started that IRA for my 25th birthday.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Aaaaaalvin!!!!!

The characters in The Hudsucker Proxy were all such giddily deliberate caricatures of '50s film: they really do up the voices and phrases in particular. That was really awsome.

The story itself could have used some help, though. Aside from all the anachronisms (which you take in stride because the whole spirit of the movie is more about fun and invention and fighting greed, not the precise years the hula hoop and bendable straw were patented), the characters weren't very well developed. For instance, who exactly was the kind, grandfatherly, guardian angel-like black dude who lived in some timeless factory behind the ticking clock? I know they're all supposed to be stock types straight from black and white movies, but the film also purports to be an all-American portrait of greed and fat cats and corporations and the little guy. If it didn't pretend, it would have been a hearty all-in-good-fun movie.

I like scenes of snow falling in cities. As mentioned before, I am also obsessed with clocks and the concept of time. The opening scenes of Hudsucker had snow falling on empty city streets, and slowly moved towards the building with the giant clock. It was a kind of magical moment, but after that, it all went downhill. It was a fun ride downhill, though. Just one I couldn't take too seriously because at time it took itself too seriously.

But speaking of corporations...

One way self-admitted nerds and their friends can celebrate the holidays: a blind eggnog tasting. With six different brands of eggnog, six people tasted them all without knowing which was which, then ranked them on several characteristics. Darigold won. Horizon was a close second (and my personal favorite, though the Darigold was my second-favorite). And the really expensive brand came in last.

And I have to atone at the gym for a while...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Fozziwig!

So far it's been a very Dickensian December. The Muppets version was surprisingly true to the book (which I admit I haven't read in about 6 years, but the friend who reads it every year said the same thing). Except for the singing, of course. And Michael Caine was a great Scrooge.

The oddest and yet strangely fascinating thing was watching the bloopers and outtakes. Of muppets!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Me, I want a hula hoop..."

The improv "Christmas Carol" has triggered the annual cheese dripping.

Finished my holiday cards! I did them in timed geographic order, with the non-U.S. ones going out first, then the east coast and midwest ones a few days later, then the California ones. Have just penned all the ones for Washington State. Yeeawww.

I have my little $1-from-the-Target-sale-bin 1' silver Christmas trees up, decorated with my Mardi Gras beads and miniature disco lights. Random bells and stuff I've collected from the Dollar Store over the years are up on the doors. Took forever, but I managed to line the walls with the same holiday lights I've had since college. Can't find the musical reindeer ears I bought to embarrass my sister at the airport, but I think they're at my mom's.

Even made a little dent in the shopping tasks. Wrapped a few presents while listening to last year's holiday playlist. Mental note: heavy on the oldies, need to make new playlist, even I have to borrow my sister's CD collection to add Amy Grant's "Tennessee Christmas." After Grandma died, I inherited her entire Time-Life Christmas CD collection, so I think I have every holiday song recorded before 1965.

The hibernation began last week

For some odd reason, part of me was expecting with Secretary to be a thinly-disguised S&M porn flick. I was expecting to have political issues with the female as both the automatic submissive role and the fact that she only gains self-confidence when an older man teaches it to her and the fact that a lawyer should know sexual harrassment laws. And yeah, those aspects bugged me (couldn't the shy girl turn into a dominatrix? Couldn't the male character have some metamorphosis or parallel character development? Geez.) But it turns out, the movie was kinda cute. Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader were both great. It was just your average little romance story, except with the mental illness history and the S&M thrown in. The weird workplace harrassment aside, at least it didn't try to justify or explain why two adults doing whatever they want is okay. That was the unspoken premise of the whole movie. It was a little odd, though, that in setting up these characters in what is considered an unconventional relationship, they end up reinforcing conventional social norms by getting married.

I have no idea how American Dreamz got to the top of my Netflix queue. I'll watch any parody. Can't guarantee I'll like it, but I'll watch it. Even if it's a terrible movie that's trying so desperately, and failing embarrassingly, to "make a statement" about "American culture." The problems arise when it's unclear what either of those are. (Unfortunately, due to over-conditioning on postmodern theory and social critique, I have pretty high standards for what constitutes even a barely-decent cultural analysis.) In Dreamz, I was impressed with Sam Golzari and Tony Yalda, but I think that's mainly because there are so few Middle Easterners in the media. It was good to see John Cho again. And I think I've realized I like Mandy Moore better when she knows she's playing a caricature, in Dreamz as well as Saved!.

This film was terrible on so many levels, I can't even begin to start, so I won't. I don't care about the irreverence or un-PC aspect, that was actually vaguely amusing. The film's only redeeming quality: it made me sing along to Sinatra's "My Way," in the scene where the one-time wannabe terrorist embraces that good ol' American spirit of indepedence and chooses not to blow up the President with a suicide bomb on national TV.

Finally, a movie that wasn't even on my radar was Super Troopers. But there was caffeinated beer, chai and rum, and good, fun company, so it got on my radar. It had a better and more believable plot than American Dreamz, and I like the idea of cops vs. highway patrol. One fascinating thing was watching some of the bloopers, realizing the a lot of the antics weren't really faked. One of these days, I should try chugging syrup, just for the hell of it!

My favorite aspects: the little mixed kid really did look mixed, and the gray stone shots of the trooper HQ really did kind of look like Vermont. And all references to a state fiscal budget were accurate.

A fish toss away from the Market

Back in early November, I attended the Emerald City Swank for the fourth year in a row. That happens when you have three friends on the board. At any rate, with so many friends at different nonprofits with annual dinners and fundraiser, I used to be really addicted to silent auctions. I'd arrive on time, of course, bid on several items I was kind of interested in, then run around in a panic thinking I'd have to pay $800. It helped me to walk around and be social (and holding a wine glass never hurt either), instead of pretending to read the emergency exit maps and liquor license details in the corner by the free food.

The weening-away process is easier than with drugs, so this year (for the first time), I didn't bid at several silent auctions attended. Except at this one. And I ended up winning tickets to "An (Improvised) Christmas Carol" at a local improv theatre. The tickets were donated to the silent auction by the live auction emcee, who also happened to be our trivia host from the old EMP days (it's a small, small town) and starred as Scrooge in the production.

I love improv when it's done well, and this was definitely top-notch. The audience got to come up with a list of words or scenarios, which then changed the details of the Dickens storyline but not the heart of it. Good evening. And next year, I wouldn't mind paying to see it again!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Teapot Dome Scandal, sans oil

Day 11 of no coffee. No headaches yet, just uber-fatigue and a proliferation of stupid people everywhere, especially in the mornings.

Had been drinking buckets of the peppermint and chamomile tea I found in the office cupboards, but then realized three days late it's all decaf. Oops. Felt happier after drinking the bad tea from the machine (the same machine which dispenses what I didn't count as coffee when I tried to quit last year....)

It's amazing how much a little caff- um, tea can brighten the day and make the surrounding people smarter.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt

This has been on my mental task list for a while. I practically had to hide it at checkout counter at the library, but I finally got around to reading Madonna's The English Roses. I've been wanting to to read it for the simple fact that one of the characters has my name. Spelled the same and everything!

Hmmmph.

It was REALLY, REALLY WEIRD seeing my name in a book. I'm not used to seeing it in the third person. Whenever I see it, it's usually written by me or addressed to me or about me. Because it's not a name!!! It's a word!!! I half suspect Madonna chose it because she's into the Kabbalah. Why else name a little English girl in her story with the Hebrew word for "understanding"? (A quick wikipedia search shows that the word is also some sort of division on the Kabbalah tree of life.) The other girls were named Nicole, Amy, Charlotte, and Grace. Why not name the little outcast girl Beatrice? Or Betty? Why me?????

The story itself was pretty unoriginal, and the narrative style was disjointed.

Hmmmph. Hmmmph. Hmmmph.

Hmmmph.

Monday, December 04, 2006

And on the seventh day...

HA! Made it 7 days without coffee!

No withdrawal symptoms until today's headache, but perhaps being slightly sick has something to do with that. Unless being irritible with the crowds downtown counts as a symptom, but that might also be the street un-savvy Christmas hordes.

Alea iacta est!

Finished the trilogy. The Reckoning completes the Sharon Kay Penman saga of Wales and England. The conquering of Wales is a depressing story, so the book doesn't end on a happy note. The main characters (or at least the ones based on real people), their children, and their friends, all end up wasting away in English prisons, hung/drawn/quartered, or beheaded and their heads on pikes. There's also one death-in-childbirth chapter with one of the main characters. Two made-up characters survive to symbolize hope. But the rest is still a sad, tragic tale.

I knew I wouldn't like reading about the late-13th century. But Penman again does a good job of getting into the minds of characters who are also historical figures. Like Davydd, the last Prince of Wales, who festers in an English jail knowing he'll be hung, drawn, and quartered. She did a good job of writing defiant and despairing thoughts that seem logical for a man about to face that horrible fate. Her character depictions work well except with Edward I. (She had the same issue with King John, in the first book of the trilogy.) She tries valiantly to reconcile the loyal family member to the heartless butcher, but the only sentiments she can fall back on are politcal. Where she was okay with simply not resolving those contradictions in John (the whole point was that he's a big, evil mystery), with Edward she tries to throw in a King Arthur complex. But it doesn't emerge until the final chapters, this desire to conquer the entire island, and doesn't really explain away his earlier cruelties.

Though the third and final book ends with a lot of violence and misery, it's still better than the second, which pretty much had a death per chapter. This last book also featured a pirate kidnapping a royal bride, a notorious murder in an Italian church, foiled assassination plots, and of course, several Welsh rebellions. It all really happened, which I guess makes it both intriguing and sad.