Archive | April, 2011

The Perils of Listening In

26 Apr

2000irises: The Perils of Listening In

This piece ran on smartly. Chicago on April 25, 2011:

Remember the last time you were sitting in that café, minding your own business, chatting with a friend? You were completely focused on one another, catching up on recent events, sharing traumas and victories, emotions, fears. It was a wonderful conversation, wasn’t it? Personal and satisfying, meaningful, refreshing.

Yeah. I remember that too. I was listening the whole time.

I possess the dubious superpower of Super Hearing. (Imagine concentric red lines emanating from my ears.) I’d rather have Super Strength or Eidetic Memory, but I suppose I’ll take the hand I’m dealt (or ears, if you will.) I haven’t yet used my power to thwart criminal masterminds, but I totally will if the opportunity rises.

Like most superheroes, I have a love/hate relationship with my super ability. Generally, I use it for good. After all, Super Hearing can be practical and useful. For example, when I waited tables, I always “magically” knew what my guests needed before they asked. Imagine the tips! Later, as a teacher and professor, I easily discerned whispered conversations, the rustle of passed papers, the pucka-pucka of cell-phone keypads. A glance in a student’s direction usually sufficed to bring them around. You can also easily imagine how handy Super Hearing can be for a mom.

Beyond its benefits to maintaining order, though, Super Hearing can be vexing. You see, I can’t turn it off. There are many, many conversations I just don’t want to hear. For example, recently I’ve been unwittingly privy to:

* “She thought it was hidden, but I found her diary under her mattress. She called me a bitch.”

* “I’ve been clean since I got out of prison, but it’s hard. I’m lonely a lot.”

* “Oh yeah, she’s hot. I’d love to get my hands on that ass.”


All this wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t also ridiculously empathetic – another “talent” I can’t turn off. Sometimes others’ whispered confessions and harrowing stories bring me to tears or inspire such fury, I have to escape to the safety of my car and cry. There have been times when I’ve heard things so awful I’ve considered whether or not to contact authorities. Occasionally, with students in genuine need, I have intervened, but mostly I keep my nose out of other people’s business.

Instead, I compensate. I never leave home without my iPod because I don’t want to hear your hushed argument with your boyfriend, your regressive political views, or your cell-phone conversation with your divorce lawyer. I don’t want to know the details of your sex life, drug habits, medical issues, bank account balances, or relationship with Jesus. I always wear my noise-canceling earphones in the café, in doctor’s waiting rooms (deadly), in the library, on public transportation – anywhere bored people are prone to chit-chat.

Originally, I cultivated my Super Hearing. As a young child, tuning in to others’ voices served me well if things got dicey. But I no longer need this skill. Voyeurism holds no allure for me. I’d happily trade my Super Hearing for, say, Time Travel or Super Speed. Super powers never come free though. As Spiderman, Batman and Catwoman have demonstrated, there’s always a cost.

I imagine old age will eventually dull the constant din of other people’s voices, especially as I’ve spent the last twenty-five years listening to loud music through earbuds. In the meantime, know that I honestly don’t want to eavesdrop, but if I’m sitting nearby without my earphones on, I’m listening.

smartly. Chicago post #1

25 Apr

Have a look-see at my first post for smartly. Chicago. I’ll repost the essay here in a day or two.

Adapt or Die

18 Apr

2000irises: Adapt or Die — A Review of the film Hanna

I’m not normally a fan of the action film. Testosterone-drenched, glamorized violence does nothing for me. Generally, action movies are ridiculous at best, boring at worst. Yes, boring. I don’t care enough about pumping soundtracks and squealing tires to sit through a plotless parade of scantily clad women and sweaty men. Yawn. Action movies rarely show any inspiration or creativity, and the inevitable, endless regurgitation of sequels only waters down the already-bland content. Fast Five, for example.

Then, occasionally, an action movie comes along which surprises me. This year, it’s Hanna. If you haven’t seen Hanna yet, you really, really should. Hanna’s director, Joe Wright, is most widely known for his literary adaptations of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. (He recently announced he’s tackling Anna Karenina next.) Hanna is nothing like his previous work, but it retains crucial elements of his auteur style, in particular, his focus on complex female characters and their social environments. In a recent interview with Morgan Denno, Wright said, “I think most action movies have a very dubious socio-political point of view. It’s all about the glorification of violence and women becoming objects. I wanted to make an action movie that had a moral and a socio-political conscious.” [sic]

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is unlike any film heroine in recent memory. She’s s teen girl who’s been raised in the arctic wilderness, trained by her father to be an assassin. Sure, she kicks ass, but that’s a tiny part of why she’s so compelling. She’s lived away from civilization for most of her life, and despite her fluency in several languages, she doesn’t understand people or society. When it comes to relationships, motivations, falsehoods, love, she’s totally at a loss. This vulnerability balances out her fearsome fighting skills. Hanna has the innocence and self-preservation instincts of an wild animal – a comparison Wright sets up in the first scene. Hanna must kill her nemesis before she is killed, but her real challenge is to learn how to exist and survive among other people.

It’s notable that Hanna is not the only woman in this film. Unlike almost any other action film, the leads in Hanna are primarily women, none of whom are hypersexualized. (For comparison, check out what Joe Wright has to say about Sucker Punch.) Cate Blanchett plays Marissa, the CIA agent out to destroy Hanna and her father.

Jessica Barden plays Sophie, the “typical” teen daughter of the vacationing family that Hanna temporarily latches onto. And Olivia Williams plays Rachel, Sophie’s affectionate mother who tries to show Hanna kindness and protection. In contrast, only Eric Bana as Hanna’s father, and a truly sinister Tom Hollander have significant male roles. (Oh Mr. Collins, No!)

Hanna features gorgeous fairy-tale locations, fantastic cinematography, solid, terse dialogue, and amazing acting. What especially intrigued me, however, was the thematic question about mother-daughter relationships. Mothers populate this film: Photographs of Hanna’s dead mother haunt her throughout the movie. Hanna’s grandmother also appears briefly, and challenges Marissa to consider her position as a mother. (Watch Blanchett’s mouth and throat twitch when she admits she has no children.) Rachel is a surrogate protective figure, and Marissa, of course, is the anti-mother. Significantly, Wright doesn’t moralize about or idealize these mothers (or non-mothers) one bit. Instead, he presents complex characters in impossible situations and lets us consider how these mother-daughter relationships are relevant.

One doesn’t ordinarily expect such subtlety or philosophic consideration from an action movie. In his Vanity Fair interview with John Lopez, Wright explained, “Paul Greengrass showed us with the Bourne films that it’s possible to make an action film with a political, social conscience. I liked that idea of making an action film that was the opposite of misogynistic, gun-loving bullshit. Something that could entertain, first and foremost, but also have a social conscience.” Well done, Mr. Wright. Hanna is beautiful, well-written and masterfully executed.

Oh yeah, it’s also fast-paced, loaded with cool weaponry and impressive fighting, and set to a kicking soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. No car chases though. You’ll have to (gulp) see Fast Five for that.

Frankenstein Review Redux

11 Apr

2000irises: Frankenstein Review Redux

While I’m putting the finish touches on my review of Hanna (I expect to post that tomorrow), I thought I might discuss the opposite casting of Frankenstein. I saw it April 2nd when it ran at Notre Dame. In the first broadcast version, I loved Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, but now there is NO question in my mind that the Jonny Lee Miller – Creature / Benedict Cumberbatch – Victor is a far better combo. Cumberbatch nails Victor, bringing life and complexity to the character that JLM did not. I originally thought Victor was underwritten and his motivations confused and neglected; now I see what was missing — nuanced acting. I really like JLM as an actor, and maybe he’d had an off night when they filmed (he did seem hoarse and tired), but the difference was remarkable. Instead of just being vaguely a self-centered jerk as played by JLM, Victor is a downright scary sociopath in BC’s hands. Every detail of the performance was different: line delivery, facial expression, physical movement, stage presence — Victor’s very interactions with the other characters changed.

Two examples stand out vividly for me. The very first time we see Victor, he storms on stage and reacts to finding the creature alive with revulsion and horror. JLM rushed onstage, yelled something incoherent at the Creature, threw the cloak at him, and ran away a few seconds later. In contrast, BC rushed on stage and stayed to actually act out the mix of emotions Victor clearly felt. You could see Victor marveling at his accomplishment even while disgusted. The plotting of the scene was the same, but the meaning and relevance changed significantly and took more time.

In another scene, Victor is explaining to Elizabeth why he must return to England. He’s obsessing about creating the Creature’s bride. Victor assures his fiancee that she’s beautiful and he desires her. Where JLM seemed to be just mouthing the words with no emotion whatsoever behind the lines, BC slows down and uses facial expressions to communicate what’s happening in Victor’s mind. He holds up Elizabeth’s arm and studies it with a clinical coldness which is terrifying. We can see he’s imagining her as one of his experiments: she’s a specimen to be considered, not a living, feeling person at all. It’s the first time we see the parallel between the two brides, foreshadowing the coming horror. It’s breathtakingly awful (and freaking awesome.)

On the other hand, I could not see the same variance in the two actors’ portrayal of the Creature. They each did the Creature a bit differently, of course, but not in a way which impacted the significance of the character. Most of the difference lay in their body-types, I felt. JLM is stockier and more powerful, BC is longer and more fluid. I wouldn’t say either was “better.” The delivery, the depth, our belief in the Creature — all these aspects were pretty balanced. JLM was amazing as the Creature, which is obviously an enormous challenge. The role is complex and demanding, and must be hell to act. But bringing life to Victor is a more subtle challenge. Comparatively, Victor doesn’t have much stage time, but he’s still absolutely crucial to the play. We need Victor in order to truly appreciate the structure and meaning of the play.

As an aside, Frankenstein encapsulates something about British performers that captivates me. Good British actors and actresses are versatile in a way even the best American actors rarely are. Both JLM and Cumberbatch have shown they can do period drama, action, freaks, junkies, creeps and weirdos, straight drama, comedy, romance (less so for BC here, but gosh would I love to see more. I’m sure he’d be good at it. *cough-lastenemykisses-cough*) Also many British actors and actresses are as comfortable on stage as they are on screen. Perhaps Hollywood just has a greater tendency to typecast and pigeonhole. Perhaps American theater is too Broadway-focused. Doubtless there are dozens of American performers who can pull off multi-genre, multi-medium performances, but who? Kathleen Turner. Laura Linney. Natalie Portman. Matt Damon? Brad Pitt? Harrison Ford, maybe. (It’s harder to think of men.) I’m sure there are others, but I have to actually think about it. I wouldn’t say the same for British entertainers.

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