Thursday, July 29, 2010

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood

Berlinger& Sinofsky's 1996 documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood, is often riveting as it tells the story of three teenage boys accused of mutilating and murdering three children.

The film exposes the ways in which emotions can dominate the judicial process, the ways in which the media can intrude on people and amplify aspects of events, and the ways in which people who may be considered socially deviant are vulnerable to demonization and injustice.

However, in many ways I found this film lacking in analysis and I was left wondering about the filmmakers' intent. What did they want the viewer to come away with?

The film also had a weird perspective in that it made everybody in the Arkansas town seem crazy. Specifically, the parents of the victim's came off as horrid, ignorant and vengeful, and the filmmakers did not seem to sympathize with their tragic and horrific loss. They were blinded by rage which made them unable to see the innocence of the accused, but I think the filmmakers still could have shown at least a little empathy for that rage.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Billy Redden

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to see a staged reading of Billy Redden, an off-Broadway play currently in rehearsal.

The story is emotionally and technically complex; a thirteen year old is visited by several versions of himself at different ages, ie, in his twenties, forties, etc. These versions of Billy Redden have complicated relationships with each other, and while they are there to try to control the unfolding of life events, the drama seems to really center less on this plot line and more on the psychological prism of self; an entire life and all its nuances captured and refracting itself at one surreal moment.

There is a lot of pain and regret in Billy Redden's life, as well as pride and accomplishment; the bitter frustration was brilliantly portrayed by Dave Chontos, who plays "Will"-- Billy in his forties. Sad, angry, lonely, Chontos' Will seemed to capture and embody the central dramatic tension of the play.

It was wonderful reading and I look forward to the final production.

(My program got wrinkled in my bag, so this is a rather unfortunate image...)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Murderous Maids (Les Blessures Assassines)

Jean-Pierre Denis' 2000 Murderous Maids is restrained, methodical, and unsettling in its retelling of the story of the Papin sisters, two young maids who murdered their employers.

The film is quiet and poised on the surface, just like the two protagonists, and the emotional, social, and erotic disturbances simmer throughout. The dominant sister, Christine, is on the brink of confused despair throughout, and although her character was remote, the actress portrayed such a mix of vulnerability and rage that she emerged as complex and even sympathetic.

The incestuous relationship between the sisters was interesting to me, but somehow the obsession and loneliness that seemed critical to their bond was not relayed fully enough. I guess the intimacy of their connection remained private and hidden, and I wanted to understand it more.

The violent murder includes gouging out the employers' eyes, and this was so intense for me. It seemed that in their horrific outburst, all their rage and shame and frustration was senselessly let loose, all the emotion that was not revealed throughout the movie just suddenly erupted.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Frontline: When Kids Get Life

I just watched the 2007 Frontline report, When Kids Get Life. Often I have trouble with what I perceive to be Frontline's over the top sensationalism, but I thought this documentary was very good.

It examines the issue of life without parole in the case of crimes committed by juveniles, and makes a strong case against this inhumane practice. A practice that no other country embraces. In fact, while the US has over 2,000 juveniles serving life sentences, there are only12 other juveniles in the world serving such sentences.

The stories of the crimes that were committed were very moving, and they chose young men who were very sympathetic. I guess it would be interesting if they had shown an unrepentant crazy asshole or something to round it out. As it is, the families of victims came across as vengeful and narrow minded, in contrast to the families of offenders who came across as sane and pained. So, yeah, there's a bit of a bias there. But I guess since the bias represents my view of the issue I'm less bothered by it and appreciate the rhetoric.


I just watched a recent French version of Bluebeard, directed by Catherine Breillat.

It is an awkward and strange telling of the fairytale. All the characters are remote and inaccessible. The scenes all have a muted, stilted, stagy feeling to them, but somehow this worked. Somehow it made everything seem mysteriously intimate and charged.

The story is told as a story-within-a-story, with two young sister in their attic reading the Bluebeard tale. I didn't really care for this at all, in spite of the fact that the two little girls were incredibly charming.

I was more interested in the Bluebeard part. I'm not really familiar with the story, so I'm not able to compare it to other versions. But what drew me in was the strained and clunky yet delicate and tender relationship between the big, sad, tormented, ugly Bluebeard, and his lithe and serious young bride. The quiet chemistry between them was very touching. Very enigmatic.

The gothic horror element wasn't really lurid and brutal; rather it was suffused with a sense of sorrowful inevitability.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Don't Cry

Mary Gaitskill's shimmering collection of stories, Don't Cry seemed to seep into my heart as I read them.

I'm a big fan of Gaitskill (although I didn't care for her celebrated Veronica and don't know if anything she has written since Bad Behavior effected me as much as that debut collection).

These stories glimmer and twitch with the mundane erotic and neurotic nuances of interaction. Lust, romantic confusion, loss, disappointment. What she is truly great at is capturing the subtleties of emotion that are constantly at play.

My favorite story, "Mirror Ball", describes the interaction of her characters' souls alongside their actual interaction. It is beautifully written. It doesn't seem surreal or magical, because there is such a concrete sense of truth to the idea that in many situations two conversations are going on at once -- the surface one and the nerve-infused one. The nerve infused connections between people come to the surface in each story.

Other favorites: "The Agonized Face"; "Today I'm Yours"; "The Little Boy" -- LOVED that one; and "Description."

I didn't read the last story, "Don't Cry." I was sitting in the waiting room of an MRI testing place, freaking out about what disease I might have, and, needless to say, had trouble concentrating. When I got home just now, I picked it up, and just had the feeling that I was finished. So there.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Wow. I really haven't read a book in a while. This has been quite a reading slump. Well, at least it's over now.

I just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. My first Kindle book, actually (and finishing a book on Kindle is not as satisfying as finishing a physical book).

This was the perfect book to get me over the slump. A fast, easy read, it is full of fascinating information and moving personal stories. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has several narrative threads. It's about the extraordinary cells taken from a cervical tumor of a poor black woman in 1951 which turned out to have remarkable reproductive abilities. These malignant cells just keep on reproducing, and the HeLa cell line contributed to many advancements in medicine. At the same time, this part of the story is deeply connected to the medical profession's exploitation of poor black patients as research subjects.

Skloot also investigates the life of Henrietta Lacks, and describes the history of this poor Southern family. In addition, much of the book is devoted to the lives of Henrietta's children, describing their relationship to the medical profession, and how they learned about their mother's special cells.

I'm not describing it very well. Basically, it's a fascinating, multifaceted story that makes a great read.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


After the Dead or Alive show, I went to another exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design -- Intertwined: Contemporary Baskets from the Sara and David Lieberman Collection.

This was a surprisingly diverse, innovative, and beautiful exhibit. Not your average basket weaving, that's for sure. The works were very complex and beautiful. Surprising textures and shapes. Ingenious, creepy and stunning.

Pictured here, Norma Minkowitz's haunting Sisters.

Dead or Alive

This afternoon I went to The Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle to see the Dead or Alive exhibit.

This fabulous group show features art made from previously live materials. Feathers, bones, insects, etc.

Each work was intriguing, evocative of pagan spiritual practices, witchcraft (yeah, it was a little on the Blair Witch side), and nineteenth century cabinets of curiosity.

Some of my favorites included Ango Design/Angus Hutcheson's Eight Thousand Miles of Home, a suspended sculpture made of tons of silkworm cocoons; Tessa Farmer's Marauding Hordes, also suspended, like a creepy mobile, mummified insects, bats, etc; Tracy Heneberger's Moon, a shiny disc made of shellacked sardines; Fragile Future 3 by Studio DRIFT:Lonneke Gordijn/Raph Nauta, a sculpture made from illuminated dandelion seeds; Tim Tate & Marc Petrovic's clever Apothecarium Moderne, depicting aspects of contemporary life through odd objects placed in apothecary jars; Helen Altman's complexly textured installation, Spice Skulls -- a grid of skulls each made with a specific spice or dried ingredient, such as cedar berry, coconut, and artichoke leaves.

My absolute favorite, however, was Jennifer Angus' Victorian Fancy, a large, box, decorated with Victorian style wall paper, with inked images of insects superimposed; magnifying windows are placed on each wall of the box, and when you look inside you see a delightfully creepy little world, covered in pretty wall paper, but with actual beetles and bugs forming shapes and formations. In the center is a dollhouse, also decorated with insects. It was truly lovely and enchanting.

I was less taken with a life size, ride-able motorcycle made in part from cow bones (and looking like skeleton on wheels), Damien Hirst's butterfly wing piece, Prophecy; or a three-walled room covered in rooster feathers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park

Last night I saw the New York Philharmonic perform in Prospect Park (this picture is Central Park, swiped from the NY Times website).

I picnicked with two friends and we a had a lovely time. Cava, artichokes, cherries, and babaganoush.

The evening was conducted by Andrey Boreyko. The program included Tchaikovsky's "Polonaise" from Eugene Onegin; symphonic dances from Bernstein's West Side Story; and selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

The intermission came after West Side Story, and during the long break the audience got a bit drunk. So, for the Romeo and Juliet there was lots of talking and people walking around, and it was more difficult to enjoy. Still, the music was great, as was the company, and it was all topped off with a gorgeous fireworks display.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dolores Claiborne

Based on a Stephen King novel, Dolores Claiborne isn't really a horror film at all; nor is it much of a mystery. It's more of a suspense melodrama (I guess that's what they mean by "psychological thriller").

The story is about a maid accused of murdering the woman for whom she worked for thirty years. Her estranged daughter is informed of the case and comes out (to remote Maine, I believe) to help. Both Dolores (Kathy Bates) and her daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are hardened, difficult women, and the lack of feeling between them supplies most of the movie's tension. The story about the murder is interwoven with a narrative about the mysterious death of Dolores' abusive husband. She was suspected of murdering him, when her daughter was 13, and the psychological make up of her character -- her rage, her solidity, her love for her daughter, is the most interesting thing here.

However, I found the dialogue and acting overwrought. Jennifer Jason Leigh's one-note bitterness was particularly tiresome. I usually like her a lot, and appreciate the roles and movies she chooses. But in Dolores Claiborne she was just a generic damaged woman...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

American History X

I watched American History X with my class yesterday. I had seen it in the theater when it came out and don't recall liking it then. I decided to show it because it brings up important issues relating to hate crime.

Ultimately found myself left unsatisfied with this 1998 drama exploring the white supremacist movement in the US. While beautifully filmed, the movie felt contrived to me, with each character speaking from a particular *position*– most characters were incredibly, unrealistically, well-spoken. That said, American History X did try to provide an analysis of hate. Unfortunately, it left me with more questions than it answered. I don’t feel like I have any more insight into hate, nor do I have insight into the “transformation” that the main character underwent.

Although, if I remember correctly, this movie was controversial when it came out, I doubt it inspired any really insightful debate.