My Year in Review

The end of the year is approaching and I haven’t compiled my end-of-the-year lists. Not that they would be interesting anyway. Nonetheless, what I would like to do is look back in the year and think about small, and maybe big things that stood out, things that made 2009 special for me. Here’s my brief review of the year.

Films: I like going to the movies a lot and I like movies, both documentaries and narrative features. Unfortunately lately it has become almost impossible to love a film. The feeling is that they don’t make great films anymore. Still, I saw 58 movies this year and some were better than others: “O’ Horten” was a Norwegian film with absurd and edgy humor & amazing cinematography. I admired the scenes, I laughed at the lines, it touched my heart; that’s what I want a movie to do to me.  Other interesting ones were “An Education” (seductive & lovely), a “A Serious Man” (always interesting and surprising) and “Everlasting Moments”, a Swedish film about a housewife turned photographer (my blog post about it is here). The guilty pleasure of the year was “(500) Days of Summer”: the critics hated it, but I enjoyed it. Best acting of the year: Christian McKay as Welles in “Me and Orson Welles”. Documentaries I liked the best: “It Might Get Loud”, “Food, Inc.”, “We Live in Public” and “La Danse”. I sort of felt that documentaries were more compelling than narratives this year.

Live Music:  This year I saw the Muffs, Andrew Bird with Loney Dear, Mogwai, A.C. Newman, The Bad Plus, The Shins with Delta Spirit, PJ Harvey & John Parish, the Flaming Lips with Explosions in the Sky, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, The Psychedelic Furs, Neko Case, Sonic Youth and the Feelies. I also saw a handful of local bands, and was glad to discover Arms & Sleepers, and the Motion Sick. I saw the Muffs at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and at Southpaw in Brooklyn, which was a pretty awesome venue. I wish Boston had a venue like Southpaw, on the small side, with plenty of character and good sound.

A very interesting show combining both film and music was Split/Signal at the Armory, a new arts center in Somerville. The silent short movies shown were accompanied by live bands, and it was a pretty neat event.

Music: I’m so old-fashioned, I still buy CDs. I won’t bore you with what I listened to, but only with what was in heavy rotation this year: the amazing compilation “Dark Was the Night”. Also Andrew Bird’s “Noble Beast”, Arms and Sleepers’ “Matador” and Florence + the Machine’s “Lungs”.

Theatre: I managed to see some plays this year: Boeing Boeing  (on Broadway), Endgame, Fool for Love, the Superheroine Monologues, A Winter’s Tale (by a local theatre group in a church basement), Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Orfeo’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), the Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare on the Common), Fences, the Big Broadcast War of Worlds, and Sleep No More. Sleep No More was unlike anything I’d seen before, an interactive deconstructed Macbeth set in an abandoned school. I loved it, it was a unique experience and I’m going to see it again tomorrow for the second time.

Art: In my two trips to New York City back in January, I saw Pipilotti Rist’s video installation “Pour Your Body Out” at MoMA, the William Eggleston and Alexander Calder exhibitions at the Whitney and the Kandisky one at the Guggenheim. Here in Boston I saw the Shepard Fairey exhibition at the ICA twice and wrote about it here , Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese at the MFA, which was exceptional, and I really liked the Dutch Seascapes at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Dining: I am a person who doesn’t cook and food really does not matter to me that much. Having said that I eat out quite often and I can tell when I had a good dining experience or a bad one. My best dining this year was at Craigie on Main. Everything was delicious, the service was superb and if I was rich I guess I would eat there more often. The worst dining experience of the year was at Addis Red Sea in Cambridge and I wrote about it here. The weirdest dining (more like non-dining) moment was when we attempted to have brunch at the West Side Lounge: The place was pretty much empty. We walked in, the host showed us to our table, and we looked at the menu. When we were ready to order nobody was coming. We were looking towards the host, the bartender, the three waitresses, did not get their attention, they didn’t acknowledge us.  Did I mention that there was just us and one other table in the whole place?! The employees were chatting with each other, and seemed to intentionally ignore us. I thought I was in a candid camera kind of a show. Really strange and rude. If they didn’t want to serve us, they shouldn’t have seated us. So after waiting for about 5 minutes in vain for somebody to take our order, we decided to leave. And as we were leaving the waitress who was by the door, didn’t even bother to say anything. I don’t think I’m going to the West Side Lounge again any time soon.

A couple of other interesting things happened this year: I went to Greece for vacation for two weeks and it was pretty awesome, I took figure drawing classes, and video shooting and editing classes at the Cambridge Community TV. I was part of the team that created a short documentary about the Out of the Blue gallery in Central Square. I liked the experience. Oh yes, I also got a new laptop, an iPhone and got addicted to Twitter.

All things considered, 2009 was good to me. Despite the tough economic times I was able to enjoy the things I like doing.  There were some moments where I felt my job was threatened, and some more tough times could be ahead. I don’t want to be a pessimist though. Biking and yoga gave me a little bit of energy. I also tried to be somewhat creative with drawing, photography and writing, and hopefully this will continue in the new year. I have no real new year’s resolutions, just a hope that the good things will continue and I’ll be content.

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Movie Theater Manners (or Lack Thereof)

Watching movies in a movie theater (read big screen) is an experience that I love and much enjoy. But one that can be easily ruined mainly by other people. I don’t know what expectations these people have when they go to a movie theater, but to me, when in a theater I try to keep to myself and minimize my impact on my surroundings.

When I say surroundings I mean people, seats, floor, food, everything. Oh, yes, food. How did chomping on popcorn become associated with movie watching? What compels people to purchase overpriced bad popcorn and ridiculously diluted soda? What compels people to chomp and slurp? How can they not realize it is annoying?

Bad habits, yes.  Generations of people being brought up with the conviction that the world is theirs to conquer. An attitude evident from the movie-going crowd to the foreign policy. It might be useful to boost youngsters’ self-confidence telling them they can be whatever they want to be, but it can also be useful to teach them that they should respect other people, because unfortunately, we have to share this world. I know, it sucks, but that’s how it is. There’s a fine line between ruthless go-getters, and obnoxious. Evidently some people think the world is their playground, but sorry to have to break it to you, the movie theater is not your living room. No, you cannot be as comfortable as you are in your livingroom. Until the time comes when movie theaters feature couches, you cannot stretch your legs while seating in a movie theater. Putting your feet up the seat in front of you is gross. (And, by the way, you are wearing these freaking stupid clogs, while you’re not a Dutch peasant and while is not Halloween). All I want to do is turn to you, smile and say as politely as I can “Would you mind putting your feet down? I’m afraid they smell really bad. Thanks!” How humiliated would you feel? Would that put the message across to your brain?

Probably not. Cause probably you were never taught good manners. Or you chose to erase them from your brain. Whether you like it or not you live in a society, meaning you have to respect some rules; this is not a desert island. It’s the same attitude that makes people yelling “liar!” while the President addresses the Congress, the same attitude making that god awful Kanye West snatching the mic away to say his sorry bit. It’s the same attitude of feeling entitled. You shouldn’t though, simply because you are not actually entitled. Not more than anybody else.

So while you take your feet off the seat in front of you, make sure that you keep quiet. Yes, you heard me, quiet. Resist the urge to turn to your companion every 5 seconds and comment or question or sigh loudly or exhale loudly. You can save it for later. And it would save us some aggravation.

And now that you masticated like a lovely bovine and the movie is over and it’s time to leave, can you take your trash with you? I mean really, what’s with leaving it behind? Is it some kind of animal territorial marking behavior, like leaving b.o. or urine behind? Unnecessary.

Unfortunately this obnoxious behavior is noticed in every theater: urban, suburban, arthouse, blockbuster. And actually it extends outside of the theater: people not covering their mouths while yawning, people talking while eating, eating with open mouth, eating like pigs while not in the confines of their house, driving without using the turn signal while turning, picking their noses while driving (yes, though you might be alone in your car, you can actually be seen by others outside your car), people cutting you off while talking, people talking endlessly and loudly…

The bottom line is that we do not have to sustain behavior that encroaches into our spatial, visual, aural space. Manner bullies, cut it out. Please. Thank you.

Endgame by Samuel Beckett

I recently saw the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Endgame. Endgame is an one-act four-character play. The characters are Hamm (wheel chair-bound and blind), his servant Clov, Nagg and Nell (Hamm’s parents)

Endgame is a chess term and it refers to the final moves of the game, when there are few pieces left on the board. In this play Beckett writes about the Endgame of the characters’ lives. We’re all heading to the end, and what is it that we seek in the last moments? Closure? Laughter? Beckett provides us with some good laughs. Hamm is the master and sounds like he’s been giving his servant Clov hell for a long time, but Clov is still by his side sustaining one blow after the other. Hamm’s parents live in the ground and at the beginning we see two trash lids on the stage and when Clov opens them we only get to see Nagg’s and Nell’s heads. As Alan Astro writes in Understanding Samuel Beckett

Hamm would be the hammer, merciless against all humanity, who bears down on several nails: his servant Clov (clou in French means nail), his father Nagg (Nagel is German for nail), and his mother Nell (whose name sounds like nail)

The production was minimalistic, the setting grim, sad, deteriorated . We see boarded up windows, exposed rusting pipes. I found that Markus Stern’s  direction conveyed the feeling of the short trip toward the end. And you know it will end, but still there is a stretch to run. The actors, especially Will LeBow as Hamm and Thomas Derrah as Clov did a very good job. I could understand the characters, read their misery, their anger, their frustrations. Karen MacDonald played the part of Nell, and Remo Airaldi the part of Nagg. I liked it.

Hamm: Why don’t you kill me?

Clov: I don’t know the combination of the cupboard.

 Clov: When there were still bicycles I wept to have one. I crawled at your feet. You told me to go to hell. Now there are none.

 Hamm: Did you ever have an instant of happiness?

Clov: Not to my knowledge.

 Hamm: Use your head, can’t you, use your head. You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!

 Clov: I say to myself— sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you— one day. I say to myself—sometimes, Clov, you must be better than that if you want them to let you go—one day. But I feel too old, and too far, to form new habits. Good, it’ll never end, I’ll never go. Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes, I don’t understand, it dies, or it’s me, I don’t understand that either. I ask the words that remain— sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say. I open the door of the cell and go. I am so bowed I only see my feet, if I open my eyes, and between my legs a little trail of black dust. I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit. It’s easy going. When I fall I’ll weep for happiness.

Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

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I recently saw Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock `n` Roll” at the Huntington Theatre. The play is set in Cambridge, England and Prague, Czechoslovakia. It roughly follows the life of Jan for twenty years, from 1968 (the year of the Prague Spring), when he decides to return to his native Prague from England, to 1990 one year after the Velvet Revolution. This is almost the opposite course from Stoppard’s life whose family fled Czechoslovakia when it was invaded by the Nazis during the World War II and never went back.

 

Jan is a rock `n` roll (duh!) aficionado, studying in Cambridge, England and his mentor Max is a Marxist academic philosopher. There is lot of discussion about the potential of communism and its ultimate failure. In theory communism sounded good, but in practice it isolated people, restricted their rights through unjustified persecutions. Jan thought that life in Prague would be good, but unfortunately for him the Prague Spring was short lived and the country was invaded by the Russians. By returning to Prague Jan basically gave up some things. His beloved vinyl records get destroyed by government agents and he’s forced to work at a bakery, things that would not happen in England even under Thatcher’s government.

 

Jan plays music from the Pink Floyd, the Doors, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, the same music we hear during scene changes. He makes fun of the Beach Boys. His friend constantly asks him to sign some kind of petition (e.g. for freedom of expression). Then Jan discovers this cool Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe. Their music at some point is found to be non-conformist by the regime, so their singer is thrown in jail and has his hair cut. Of course when all ends well and they are ready to embark on a tour to the West Jan basically declares them as sell outs. To be honest I found Jan mildly irritating, because he was mainly talking like he was drunk (although in some scenes he was supposed to be drunk).

 

Jan’s obsession with rock ‘n’ roll is the constant factor of his life: regardless of regimes the music is always there. Jan is not really a dissident, but his musical taste in rock n roll makes him one.  Rock `n` roll is not only about music, it’s about a free lifestyle too.

 

Rene Augesen did a brilliant job as Eleanor. Eleanor is Max’s wife and they are parents to Esme, the girl who Jan had always had a crush on, and ended up together in Prague at a Rolling Stones concert.

 

The play was solid, fun, and unfortunately some of the jokes and the references got lost in the crowd, like jokes about the “Ahoy!” greeting and the Czech navy, references about Thatcher and Syd Barrett, and references about the Eastern Block. The stage design was interesting, and one of the memorable moments was when Jan and his friend Ferdinand are walking in the street under Jan’s flat, the ceiling opens and Jan’s broken vinyl records fall down (the government agents destroyed his records and throw them out of the window).

 

 

Confusions

In the beginning of the play when the characters were talking about Cambridge, I thought they were talking about Cambridge, MA. And then my next thought was “what’s with the British accents?” and then it was, oh, yeahhh, Cambridge, England!!!!

After the play I took the T home and people were talking about the play, and their comments were generally positive.  The apex of confusion was this couple, I’d guess in their late 40s. The guy was confused about Eleanor and her daughter Esme: Esme in later years is played by the actress who earlier played Eleanor, so he didn’t really understand when the change in character occurred. And then the woman wondered (with a British accent): “And what was that all about Syd Barrett? Is he a real person???” Her partner did not respond in the affirmative and my chuckle was getting wider.