Friday, February 28, 2014

Film: Engineering Project

The Wind Rises written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

I have an off-again, on-again relationship with Japanese animation. As a child, I was not exposed to Macross or Star Blazers, but I got more than a double dose of Kimba, the White Lion through Paul Shannon's Adventure Time. In college I remained immune to the rising force of manga, though I read all of the english translations of Akira. I have good friends who are anime fans and work on translations, and through those I get a semi-regular dose of animation on the small screen, but it has been years since I have been in a theater for the medium (Akira again, at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee).

But last night was an excellent occasion to renew the habit. The Wind Rises is reported to be the last film of writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, who has built up the powerful Studio Ghibli over the years. And it is a retrospective, not of his life life, but rather a fictionalized account of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. And it is magical fictionalization, grounded in the reality of the modernizing Japan of the Showa period, but taken leaps of dreams and imagination.

Jiro Dreams of Biplanes
We meet Jiro as a boy, nearsighted but dreaming of flight. In his dreams, he is met by the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, who becomes his spirit animal, guiding and exhorting him to pursue his dream. We follow the youth through school (and the Great Tokyo Earthquake), to his job at Mitsubishi (and the collapse of the banks) to visiting Germany (and the rising militarism of the '30s). And his desire for flight is matched in description of both the rising Japanese desire for modernity and the relentless technological advancement created by war. He meets and re-meets his bride, perfects his aircraft, and suffers the loss both personal and national.

And through it all Hayao's dream supports him. He is the portrayed against a backdrop of glum, if not grim, fellow Japanese. No one else is smiling, yet he is amused, buoyed by his dreams. He performs small acts of heroism, but for the most part dodges the worst of his world. The other major characters have their ups and downs, their rages and tears, but Jiro remains a calm island. The exception to the glum companions comes late in the film, where he lectures a group of younger engineers, and there we see the laughter and wonder of others sharing the same mission.

Miyazaki gets engineering right in presenting it as a form of creativity. As a former civil engineer, I do not dream of flying (well, I rarely do), but I do dream in maps, in floor plans. Within my topological dreams I know exactly my location, even when the ground shifts. I assume this to be natural, but it seems to be the way I order my mind. I look at buildings and see lines of force and stress. And even with my shift into fiction and games, I still see that structure within words and paragraphs. It is a clockwork as beautiful as a biplane's fabric wings. So yeah, Miyazaki unites both the soft nature of creativity and the hard universe of numbers. Jiro's winged dreams match up with Miyazaki's own celulloid achievements. It is autobiography by transposition.

But I disagree with the hand-wave given to the results of Jiro's work. Caproni, his spirit guide, writes off the military nature of his creations as a thing that gives him the ability to create beautiful planes. And Jiro is of similar mind, even though Miyazaki has to admit the darkness at the heart of Jiro's beautiful creations. The darkness remains at the perimeter, haunting always.

Should this be Miyazaki's last work, it seems to pack the feel of autobiography. I don't know the director's backstory, but it feels like pointing out the unification of imagination and technology matches up well in the area of movie making, another dimension of flight and dreams. It is a long film, alien in many ways to Western sensibilities (indeed, the fascination with steam engines as an analogy of development of Japan approaches the fetishistic, and is probably will be the source of many college papers). The rhythms of the movie are not those of Western film, with its quiet bits, the way it draws attention, and subtlety of the players all mixing into a core experience. If you get the chance to see it on the big screen, do it.

More later,

Monday, February 17, 2014

Play: Masochism Tango

Venus in Fur by David Ives, Directed by Shana Cooper, Seattle Rep through March 9.,2014.

Is this a season of sex at the Rep? Bo-Nita echoes Lolita, A Great Wilderness deals with gay conversation therapy, and here we now have a cogent and brilliant deconstruction of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, complete with the requisite fetishware.

It's a good play, perhaps the best of the season so far. And I say it even though this one is not one of the local-born plays that the Rep has been delivering with such wondrous efficiency this year. And I say this despite the fact that it is a play about an playwright and an actor. Plays about writers and actors portraying actors are all so very, very meta and always send up a red warning flare for me, that the theatrical version of I-5 construction is coming up, and we're in for slow going.

But we're not - the action moves smoothly and the actors dance through their roles with verve and believability, right up to the end. Michael Tisdale is Thomas, the playwright looking for the perfect actress for the female lead in his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's work. He's tightly-wound, frustrated, intellectual, and a bit of a control freak. Gillian Williams is Vanda, the aspiring actress that blows into the auditions late after everyone has gone home and seems to embody all the negatives of aspiring actors. Until she steps into the role she is playing and suddenly embodies the part, as if the vodun spirit of Sacher-Masoch's work is riding her.

OK, let me back up a moment for the original, pluralized fur-bearing Venus from Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch gave us the term masochism, much like the Marquis De Sade gave us sadism (are there any other isms that come from writers, or do we just get the sexual ones?). Sacher-Masoch uses the term "supersensual" to describe his protagonist, Severin, who is so struck by the aloof Wanda that he agrees to be her slave for a year, and goes through all manner of degradations, humiliations, and dominations (I'll cop to the fact that I have not read said text and I am leaning on Wikipedia for this summary, though the full text is here), until finally he gets it all out of his system. Indeed, Sacher-Masoch makes the case that one cannot be dominate or submissive with the other gender, but must be equal, to be companions. It is a hallmark moment in the original work, but we don't get to that point in the play, because the play is not really about that.

The thing about the original Venus (and about the version that Thomas in play adapts and presents to us the audience) is it from the masculine POV. That is, the text deals with Severin's compulsions that drives him forward, and lasts until the point that he declares himself "cured". He effectively tops from the bottom, while the heroine (named Wanda in the original) is almost a bystander. And that's one of the things that play DOES rattle about with - the question of who is really in charge here - Severin or Wanda? Thomas or Vanda? Director or Actor? Man or woman? Creator or muse?

It is heavy going in places, and could just collapse of its own weight. However it is spared from that fate by a script that is bright and engaging, and characters that are incredibly likable. We immediately connect with both the neurotic Thomas and the brassy, earthy Vanda. The humor is there, accessible, positive, and likable. The early bits have that casual attractiveness of an episode of the Big Bang Theory (nerds and hotties and the goofy attraction therein), which you need for later when you are deep in the forest and things are getting dark. This is all foundation work.

Michael Tisdale is good as Thomas, but Gillian Williams is amazing as Vanda, an incredibly demanding role that requires her to turn on a dime from struggling, desperate actress to cool countess and back to modern commentator. The audience is sometimes a half-step behind both of them as they barrel through the assumed roles and assumptions. And the end? I don't quite buy it, but the logical part of my brain has by this time been swept aside by the emotional. Supersensual, indeed.

Worthwhile and engaging. Yeah, worth seeing, and worth comparing against A Great Wilderness. Go have fun.

More later,

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Postcard from Bellingham

This past week, the Lovely Bride and I celebrated our 31st Anniversary. For our 30th, we snuck off to Maui. For our 31st, we headed north for Bellingham.

We've actually made it a thing for the past few years - doing local weekend getaways - Alderwood down on Hood Canal, Snohomish Lodge, even downtown Seattle. It is a way to break away from the regular duties, and to hang out, play games together, and read.

So, this time, Bellingham. The vibe I got of the town was very much similar to Madison, another railroad town with a university present. Actually, it is four different towns that eventually grew together, which explains both the multiple old-building shopping areas and the street grid, which bounces off at all angles. The place has a strong progressive vibe to it plus an old-time industrial feel, and the current stress seems to be between those pushing for more commercial/tourist activity versus acting as a transportation hub (looking at the recent concerns about a proposed coal-loading platform).

We stayed at the Belleweather, a recent creation on the coast, a peninsula with new buildings including hotel, restaurants, and shops. We had a water view, which meant a view of the marina along one side. The place was nice, but there were weirdnesses - a huge bathroom with an deceptively small tub, a gas fireplace without a couch in front of it (instead two stiff-backed chairs), and those weird louvered windows between the bathroom and bedroom (which work as a concept only if you don't have the toilet visible as a result). The staff was positive, though, and the main room was dominated by Biscuit, the resident yellow lab. It was good but not great, and to be frank, a Sunday morning fire alarm did little to improve things for us (which was when we discovered the phone didn't work).
Henderson Books - Bigger on the Inside

Bellingham is the home of the Whatcom Museum of History and Art and the Sparks Museum of Electrical Invention, neither of which we visited. Instead we pampered ourselves with hot stone massages (at Zazen, also on this peninsula, and recommended), and book shopping. This is probably one point it reminded me of Madison. Michael's on Grand was recommended on the net, and  was a sprawling bookstore in disarray, where you had to do a lot of digging to find anything you are after. Good for treasure hunting, but the history section looked like a small hurricane had hit it. However, Henderson Books directly across the street was neatly arranged, well-organized, and had exactly what I was looking for (Books on the War of 1812 from Canadian or British publishers). So yeah, if you're looking for something specific, head for Henderson.

On restaurants, the ones on the peninsula were totally OK, but the best ones we found were in the city proper. Anthony's has an outpost here, and its Hearthfire was large, noisy (we were fortunate to be in a sub-room), and had good ribs and a crab mac and cheese the LB liked. The local Italian place had for me a good lobster ravioli/shrimp for me, but the LB's veal chop marsala had a burnt sauce. And breakfast at the hotel was a sad thing - mushy oatmeal and an under-seasoned omelette from one of those automatic machines, and a negligible buffet. It was bad enough that on Sunday, after being roused by the fire alarm, we still chose to seek breakfast elsewhere.

The good places in Bellingham were more local oriented as opposed to traveler/tourist formatted. The Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro was pretty damn brilliant. The LB chose it solely for the BLAT (Bacon/Letuce/Avocado/Tomato), but the young lady at the front desk of the day spa raved about their beers, so I ordered a sampler. Six 5 oz. glasses on a place mat informing you of their natures (as I child I would get a place mat with a maze and maybe a word jumble - this was better). The best of their regular brews were the Scotch Ale and the Blonde, but the ESB and Red Ale were excellent, and the Oatmeal Stout went nicely with a well-prepared lamb burger. I'm not a fan of IPAs, I have decided, but discovered by the end of the meal that this sample had vanished as well.
Art at the Harris Avenue Cafe by Gretchin Leggitt.

Anyway, after a Saturday Breakfast Fail at the hotel, we cast out for on the net for a replacement for Sunday, and ended up in Fairhaven, which was one of the OTHER towns that melded to form Bellingham. Fairhaven itself has the small-town charm of old buildings re-purposed to art shops and restaurants, and one of these was the Harris Avenue Cafe (which is attached to Tony's Coffee & Espresso, and in cold weather, you come in through the coffee shop). And it was wonderful. I had an amazing italian sausage omelette that was folded enough times to resemble origami.The LB, daunted by the eggs on the menu, went with oatmeal (which was real, thick, and fruited), toast, and asparagus (the waitress said everything on the menu was available). And she raved on the asparagus (grilled, not steamed), the oatmeal and toast. Yeah, it was a good turn for the final day in Bellingham.

Both Boundary Bay and Harris Avenue were crowded, and the crowd was a mix of townies and students, baseball caps and fashionable scarves. For Bellingham, I would say hair colors not found in nature, tattoos, and piercings are a good sign for the quality of the food. And that's among the clientele. The more traveler-oriented spots were OK, but just OK. The stuff in the older buildings, re-purposed for new businesses, hung with local decor or art (Gretchen Leggit had her art at the Harris, which made me find her site, which I then recommend as well), is where to find the good stuff. It is worth hunting down when you are in Bellingham.

More later,

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Play: The Power of the Word

A Great Wilderness, by Samuel D. Hunter, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Repertory, through February 16, 2014.

One of the benefits of having season tickets at the Rep is that you end up going to plays you'd never really consider if they were standing alone. I mean, imagine this conversation.

Me: Hey, it's a Sunday afternoon - want to go a play?
You: Sure. What's it about?
Me: It's about a man retiring from his job running a gay conversion therapy camp in Idaho.
You: You mean ...
Me: Yeah, convincing young men not to be gay.
You: Oh.
Me: No, really, it's pretty good.
You: I bet.
Me: And it deals not only with gay conversion but end of life issues.
You: Yeaaaahhhh. I'm sorry, I just remembered I have an anvil in the oven and can't make it.

And yeah, on paper it looks like this could go horribly, horribly wrong, a cringeworthy very special Lifetime movie with a moral lesson for us all. But it is not like that because writer Hunter plays fair by his characters and refuses to let them fall (mostly) into caricature or give them the easy way out. He builds their nature brick by brick and makes them accessible, even likable. And that, given the subject matter, makes them all the more challenging.

OK, here's the set-up (with spoilers). Walt (Michael Williams, brilliant in the role) has been running a camp for troubled (read gay) young men up in Idaho for thirty years, and is finally listening to his ex-wife and fellow camp founder  Abby (Christine Estabrook) and is about to move to a retirement home, a phrase he hates. Walt agrees to take on one more young man, Daniel (Jack Taylor, also honest and engaging) , who disappears soon after arrival, even before Walt's ex and her current husband Tim (Rep alum R. Hamiliton Wright) arrive. Then Daniel's mom Eunice (Mari Nelson) shows up, along with the park ranger (Gretchen Krich) who is leading the search. Responsibility for the young man's disappearance spills into the fate of the camp and the responsibility of what Walt has done over the years. Much cognac is consumed. Oh, and then there is a forest fire.

Walt is erudite, thoughtful, and caring, plagued by failing facilities and a frustration with accepting his age. He is also very well-meaning. He keeps a huge volume on hand in his cabin on a stand, but it is dictionary, not a bible. In fact, no one prays onstage, no one quotes scripture at each other. These are very secular Christians, a more real-world type that dodges the hypocrisy leveled at those who abide by chapter and verse. Walt is frustrated by people assuming that his conversion methods involve shouting and electroshock. He's a much more gentle creature whose intentions are good even if his goal is questionable.

Walt uses words and feels those words leaving him as a sign of his own mortality. Abby. by comparison, has her own words and considers them her property, her way of enforcing her will on the surrounding world. Tim is Walt's replacement in her life, and there is a mirror between the two men, of what might have been had Abby and Walt remained together. Eunice is stressed out and burned out by dealing with her son, yet is not challenged as she slips into depression building her own fort and defense with her words. Janice, the ranger, is the most cartoon-like of the characters, coming off as a bit Fargo-esque, and uses words without thinking of their effects.

Were this an Albee play, all would be trapped in that tiny cabin and the stress kicked up by multiple rounds of accusation and counter-accusation until something snaps and everything goes to hell. But Hunter allows the characters the room to move, to leave, to go off-stage, to regroup, and to think. The delivery is low-key and human,as opposed to theatrical. And that makes this an excellent play.

It has its own weaknesses. The ending is abrupt, and I don't know a way to address it. There is no rising action, no swell of music, no look-to-the-future optimism or ironic fatalism. Just a sudden blackout that confuses and makes you want to know more. The audience does not know when to applaud. As we done? Where did we go with all this? What was this all about?

Where I ended up was with John the Baptist (what?). I know this is weird, but there are hints throughout the text. Walt lives his whole life and finds that someone else gets the revelation he has been seeking. Someone else gets the surety of faith. He discovers, much like John that he was put on earth to be the opening gig for Jesus. Ultimately, this play is a question of reviewing one's life and trying to determine if it has meaning. Its a big-ticket question wrapped in a play that I have trouble describing otherwise.

And it is worthwhile, an excellent example of theatre pushing the envelope in both presentation and subject matter without going over the top. It is a very good play, but I think a very tough sell.

More later,