Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Alarming Trend

By now, I suspect most people have heard of the passing of J.D. Salinger yesterday at the age of 91. It is a death that was both shocking, expected, and heartbreaking. Until today, I hadn't realized how much Salinger meant to me.

Of course, we all know the Salinger legend -- the bright, literary star who essentially went into complete seclusion after giving the world perhaps the greatest novel of the 20th Century, The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger's seclusion, a seeming response to the celebrity Rye brought him, made him perhaps even more famous than he had been before. Decades have been spent wondering what Salinger was up to, if another novel might emerge from his New Hampshire compound, if he would ever come back out and join the world that was so mystified by him. The answer appears to, sadly, be no -- he came back to us only with the news of his death.

Of course, now the mystery about what he'd been up to all these years will intensify. There are rumors of notebooks filled with stories, unpublished novels locked away in safes. Perhaps in Salinger we'll see the emergence of a literary Tupac and he will become more prolific in death than in life. Who knows?

Salinger's death hit me rather hard this afternoon and makes me worry that perhaps 2010 will be to my literary spirit what 2009 was to my pop culture spirit. Salinger's death comes just a week after the death of Erich Segal, author of Love Story, one of my favorite books when I was in junior high and high school. The book that replaced Love Story as my all-time favorite book once upon a time? The Catcher in the Rye. See where I'm going with this? It makes me really fear for Judy Blume and, God forbid, Harper Lee. Now talk about deaths that would leave me shattered.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where I've Been

By now, longtime readers are aware of the fact that January is perhaps the busiest month of my year. I'm in the midst of speech season, directing a musical, teaching, and battling winter blahs. This year, I've added to my laundry list of obligations by taking on a major role in the local community theatre production of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. (For those familiar with the play, I play Norma Hubley, the mother of the bride who has locked herself in the bathroom.) It's a part I've longed to play for a good 20 years or so, so even though I knew tackling this role would be yet another major task in a season already loaded with major tasks, I had to go for it.

Added to the fact that it's a great, funny script and role, PS has always held a special place in my family's "lore." When the local community theatre group first did PS back in 1971, both my mother and father worked on the production. My father designed and ran lights; my mother was the props mistress. The show went up in early fall of 1971 -- meaning that my mother was hugely pregnant with me during the production, so much so that she said that there was a "fear" among the cast that she would go into labor mid-show. Fortunately, I cooperated and waited until the show had closed to make my debut, but I often jokingly refer to PS as my first theatrical experience... in utero. Being able to actually appear in the show feels like a tremendous tribute to the parents who instilled their passion for the arts into their children with a loving ferocity.

This time working on PS has, so far, been a pretty incredible experience. I've never really played a role quite this large. While Norma only appears onstage in one of the show's three acts, she is onstage the entire time. There are several times when she is onstage completely alone. She is a character who frequently changes in an instant -- going from calm to panicked to angry to frightened all in the span of seconds. For the act's roughly 23 pages, it is me and one other actor onstage. That's a LOT of memorizing! My partner in crime onstage (the actor playing my husband) is an incredibly gifted actor, pushing me in terms of what I can bring to the stage with my own acting. (It's an actor I've worked with before, discussed in this post discussing my experience in The Sunshine Boys last spring.) There have been a couple times when I've found myself thinking in my head, "Wow, he's good . . . and I suck!" But there have also been times when I've found myself thinking, "Wow, WE are really clicking in this scene!" There is an amazing feeling that comes from working with a partner onstage and you're both firing on all cylinders and the chemistry and the timing and everything just clicks. It's a really great, natural high.

I know some stressful weeks lie ahead as rehearsals for PS become more plentiful and I get into full rehearsal mode for our spring musical at school, Wonderful Town, but I have a feeling that I'll never regret getting the opportunity to really push myself and grow as a performer and perform in a show that I've longed to do since high school (or maybe even longer). If, however, I disappear from blogging for long stretches or seem particularly grump or irritable, please know that it stems from a very, very tired woman who has a heaping plateful of artistic goodness to munch through.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two Douches and a Candid Brit (Who's Breaking My Heart)

1. Many of you have perhaps seen former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's latest stroke of genius -- claiming that he was "blacker than Obama." A total bonehead comment to make, but not surprising coming from Rod "I Didn't Do It" Blagojevich. When he's not painting himself as a victim or an unsung hero, he's lashing out at anyone and everyone. If I were to make a list of real-life douchebags, Blago would be pretty near the top. And then something dawned on me last night. I was curled up watching an old episode of The Office. Michael Scott made a rather racially insensitive comment, looked around, and said, "It's okay because that's how they talk in the movies." Suddenly I realized that Rod Blagojevich is a real-life Michael Scott. On tv, Michael is lovable and harmless because he's a sitcom character played by Steve Carell. In real life, Michael Scott would be a nightmare with his neediness and his insensitivity and his inability to pick up clear social cues. The only real difference between the two (outside of the fictional/non-fictional thing) is that Michael Scott hasn't broken any laws (allegedly) . . . yet.

2. My excitement over the start of American Idol tonight was somewhat dampened yesterday when it was announced that this would be Simon Cowell's final season. This was a blow, friends. One of the reasons why I started watching the show in the first place was the commercials that trumpeted this nasty Brit who was willing to speak the truth, no matter how painful. One of the things that kept me coming back was my love for Simon. With Simon's exit, we are going to be left with Randy "Useless" Jackson and Kara "Writer of Pap Songs Oh Wait Except for 'Ain't No Other Man'" DioGuardi. And Ellen. Who knows how Ellen will fare at the table -- my hopes are guarded at best. I am concerned, though, that this may be the end of Idol unless the producers take the advice of my hero Michael Slezak at and shake things up a little. Bring in a judge (or two) who is both honest and "hip." Give us more of the good stuff and less of the bad. (I'm dreading the next couple weeks of American Idol: The Freak Show.) And, um, while they're at it, could Randy Jackson please be sent packing. Give the show a fresh start with a fresh slate of judges who know their shit and aren't afraid to say it. Kara started off so well during auditions (remember her battle with the vile Bikini Girl?) and then promptly because a fuzzball (perhaps in response to reaction that she had been too harsh?) full of pat cliches ("you got the chops") and malapropisms (not to mention her inability to count). My gut reaction to Cowell's announcement was that this could be the end of my relationship with Idol, but we've broken up before only to reconcile, so I'm not counting us out yet. This love is real, folks. It's deep and genuine and twisted and abusive and real.

3. The whole Leno thing . . . sigh. Is it just me or does Jay Leno seem like another example of a real life douche? I don't know the whole behind-the-scenes thing, but it does seem to me like he's the one coming out of this with the worst reputation. He managed to rebuild his rep for many people (not me) after screwing Letterman out of The Tonight Show back in 1992. Now, it seems as if the seemingly affable Conan O'Brien is his next victim. To me, Leno has always seemed like a manipulative ingrate (the guy didn't even bother to recognize Johnny Carson the night he took over the show) who is not funny, not particularly likable, and willing to stab whoever he needs to if it insures he gets what he wants. I rarely if ever watched him when he took over for Carson. I will absolutely not watch him now. I hope that Jay's 10:35 ratings suck as badly as his 9:00 ratings do, and I hope that Conan musters up the courage to tell NBC to take a flying leap and finds a job where he will be appreciated. This is a step in the right direction. Ginger Power, Coco!!

PS -- This is even better. Fight the power, Coco! (PPS -- Will you marry me? Seriously -- the beautiful, smart, funny, oddball ginger kids we would produce would one day rule this world!)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

And So the Race Begins

January means a lot of things to me -- that New Year's resolution to make this the year that I learn to eat better and lose some weight, the stress of speech season, getting ready to start directing a musical, first semester finals, and Oscar season. January is the final stretch before nominations are announced, and it's crunch time for Mel as I attempt to figure out which movies will garner nominations and which one is the frontrunner. It's been more than 20 years since a movie won Best Picture without me having seen it first. It can be a stressful experience -- our local multiplex doesn't often attract a lot of art films and even movies that have opened in more theatres don't often find their way here right away. (Still waiting on Up in the Air, for example.) This season has been a tiny bit more stressful as the season has begun not because I'm worried about whether the frontrunner will show up in town but because one of the big frontrunners is here -- and I didn't want to see it.

I'm talking about Avatar. I've been heard cursing around the house a lot lately over this film. I had zero desire to see it, but it became increasingly obvious as the weeks rolled on that I was going to have to. When Dave Karger called it the Oscar frontrunner recently on, I knew I was screwed. So this weekend, I swallowed my bile and headed out in sub-zero weather to see Avatar.

The movie had a lot going against it as I headed into the theatre. Next to westerns, science fiction is the film genre I dislike the most. With limited exceptions, I just don't get into fantasy films in general, sci-fi in particular. They often require tremendous suspension of disbelief that I just can't muster. Add to that the fact that this particular film is directed by James Cameron whom I've never forgiven for the bloated monstrosity that was Titanic or for his insensitive, conceited behavior when he won Best Picture that year. Throw in a running time that pushes three hours, and it was like a committee had gotten together to create the ultimate anti-Mel film, the surefire way to break my Oscar streak.

What this committee failed to anticipate was my extreme stubbornness. If I would sit through Gladiator or the Lord of the Rings movies, I'd sit through this. I gritted my teeth, bought my ticket, and sat there, stewing at the injustice of it all as I waited for the film to begin.

And then it did.

And I was sucked in.


I won't try to explain the plot here because quite frankly, it sounds ridiculous when you try. And I won't lie -- the critics who've called it Ferngully meets Dances with Wolves are pretty spot on. Let's be honest: James Cameron is not a gifted writer nor do I think he is a good director where getting the most out of his actor's is concerned. Neither is George Lucas, but what they both have in common is that they do know how to tell a good story and how to give you a film that is arresting to look at. Lucas must have been sick after having seen what Cameron accomplishes here -- the creation of a world that is so real and yet so unreal that it is almost devastating to behold. There is a seamless quality as the film goes back and forth between the "real world" and the world of Pandora, Cameron's creation.

As ridiculous as the plot sounds on paper (and it does), the truth is that it was engaging even if it was familiar. More than once, I found myself weeping from the beauty or the pain onscreen. Perhaps what got me most was the same thing that has some people grumbling -- the pretty overt environmental allegory that Cameron has created. At its core, the film is about the desecration of the environment. At one point during the film, a character says of the human invaders, "They killed their mother," meaning that we destroyed our environment so we're coming after theirs. As images of enormous bulldozers rolled through the jungles of Pandora, I wept. There is a powerful lesson at play here -- to protect our earth and to understand and appreciate the way that we are all interconnected as people and interconnected with the world around us. I expected to go into the movie and experience pretty but not much else. I didn't expect to think and be quite so moved.

Should the film win Best Picture? I don't know. I still have a couple contenders to take in before I make a judgement, but I will say it deserves the nomination. If you're on the fence about the film like I was, I recommend it. It's so much more than I expected, and you may be as surprised as I was.