Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: The Road

I should insert two warnings: first, that I will be discussing some definite SPOILERS to the film, though I will try to keep the worst ones to a comment to follow immediately upon this, so casual readers won't be surprised. Second, that this more or less constitutes a rant. One final caveat: I have not read McCarthy's novel, so I will make no reference to or comparison to that text. I suspect it may work rather differently -- and as a medium, may be more amenable to telling this particular story -- but I don't know.

Let me say a few good things: the cast is mostly quite good. I would not have sat through this film had not Mortensen been his usual engaging self. The bleak world is convincingly rendered visually; in fact at one point I thought, "What a nightmare set dressing must have been!"

Let me also get off my chest that in the credits one finds the most incredibly fatuous, self-inflating, pretentious credit ever for the young actor's father, something like, "Acting Coach, Guardian and Mentor." Apparently his father -- who has a bit part in the film -- is a less-successful-than-he'd-like actor and hopes to inflate his self-esteem via his son.

Now to the film: I'll admit that I find it beyond irritating when mainstream writers appropriate speculative fiction tropes, because so often they do so with arrogant ignorance. This film does that in spades; now, some of the problems may be the making of the source material, but given the cavalier attitude modern filmmaking has toward written materials, there's no excuse for not addressing them and improving the narrative.

From the start, what's clear is we're living in a kind of post-apocalyptic world. Gradually some details about the past emerge, but never a clear indication about what happened. I'm fine with that. People dealing with something they can't understand is a wonderful premise for exploring their characters. But there's a cardinal rule: to achieve Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" you can stretch reality a long way, but there has to be an underlying plausibility. Whether you want your audience to believe they're in Hobbiton or on Rigel-7, you have to make that world work.

That's the major thing that went wrong here.

The catastrophic happening seemed to be a sort of biblical fire and brimstone, burning everything and leaving a mantel of ash behind. The cataclysm destroyed just about all vegetation and animal life -- except of course, humans (how convenient), but apparently had absolutely no affect on the water supplies.


Even in less than apocalyptic occurrences, this is an always dangerous problem. So it's completely insane that while the Man and the Boy wander the blighted landscape, they have no concerns about bending down to drink from an passing stream or indeed stripping off to enjoy the caress of a hidden waterfall's pool. If the ground is diseased, the water will be, too.

At first, this world seems to be the kind that modern Hollywood loves best: a world without women. But it becomes clear that it is in fact a world with One Woman: Charlize Theron's Woman (yes, there are other female actors, but save one addressed in the SPOILER comment, they are not really characters at all, though to be fair most of the characters are not really "characters" so much as potential dangers). Like most MW1W, it also becomes quickly clear that she is not a woman at all, but a meaning for the Man: a memory of golden sex and comfort. For my friend Peg, with whom I saw the film, this was part of showing the Man's gradual loss of humanity, but for me he never had any. From beginning to end, he is the same: terrified and paranoid, too afraid to live, but too afraid to die. Even when we flash back to the beginning of the apocalypse, he is the same bundle of terror and frozen indecision. His only deterioration is physical.

I suppose that as a meditation on how to live when all the comforts of culture are stripped away, the filmmakers want to set up a little behavioural experiment, but even there it fails. If you know you're living in a post-apocalyptic world where violent gangs rove the blighted landscape looking to kill your for your possessions and might even eat you up, do you:

A) Keep to the unpopulated areas, move at night, travel light and be silent.


B) Drive your noisy shopping cart piled high with stuff in broad daylight (well, such as it is in this murky world) along the main highway, the one place roving cannibalistic gangs will surely be found as they obstinately seek out the nearly depleted fossil fuels (leading one to assume that the gangs are made up of former oil execs and car manufacturers)?

[More in the spoilers comments]

So, no -- I didn't like The Road despite a good cast and a well-designed look. Cameos were particularly ridiculous, filled with obvious camera work designed in the most notable case to scream "isn't this Oscar-worthy! Look at this gesture!" I can't help contrasting this with the absolutely stellar cast of Young Victoria, who were without exception excellent yet completely immersed in their characters, not showboating for their reputations.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

BitchBuzz: I Hate Top 10 Lists

My latest column for BitchBuzz, grumbling about top ten lists:

If there's one thing I hate about the end of the year, it's the proliferation of Top Ten (and Top 100 and so on) lists. Everywhere you turn, there's another blowhard detailing what was really best about the last year or decade or even century. It really irks me.

To explain why, I have created my own Top Ten list in the hopes that the utter irony and chutzpah of this move will cause reality as we know it to implode or at the very least bore everyone so much that they swear off top ten lists forever.

As always, read the rest at BBHQ along with other fine pieces.

I'm just back from my travels, all of which went as well as might be hoped and with only minor irritations, which is fairly amazing for MLA. Dinner with Todd and Isabel at Eulogy was terrific, my breakfast po'boy at the Reading Terminal was delish, the panel went well and was well attended, lunch with Sandi was great -- we caught up on all kinds of news -- and then back to NYC and a bevvie with Karen at Grand Central -- first time we've met in person, glad to find her just as delightful as she is on-line -- and then up to Poughkeepsie where Robert picked me up and gave me a belated Xmas dinner and birthday cake. Quite a satisfying trip all around -- made sweeter by the fact that it was my MLA swan song! Whoo hoo -- I shouldn't have to make another trip to the world's most stressful conference™ anytime soon.

Kipper is happy I'm back, which he showed by wolfing down his food and immediately up chucking it. Ah, home. Now he's staring at the radiator as if there were something alive in it. Not at all disturbing, no.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Philadelphia and NYC

I am off to Philadelphia today to make a flying visit to the always stressful conference for the Modern Language Association. Fortunately, this is probably the last time I'll have to go to the conference (at least for the foreseeable future) and I am neither interviewing candidates nor interviewing for jobs, so my personal stress level should be reasonably low (assuming all goes well with my travel plans -- one can never tell). I plan to see friends for dinner, then chair a panel and a brief meeting on Tuesday before I head back to NYC and then dinner with Robert. Wonder if I can squeeze in a visit to the Mutter?

I hope everyone had a nice holiday weekend; I actually got a good bit of writing done, which always cheers me. Nothing completed, but a couple of things well along the way. I also watched a number of movies on DVD as well as The Road which I saw with my pal Peg on Tuesday, but haven't had time to write up. I always have too much to do and too little time in which to do it.

Don't forget: there's a new episode up at The Mangrove Legacy, in which Alice chats with a very pleasant ghost. You may notice, too, that there is a new look to the serial which should make it much easier to read (or so the initial feedback suggests).

How many of you have time off this week? What do you plan to do with your leisure?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jane Quiet: Fashion Icon?

Ah, the randomness of the internet! This post on Polyvore showed up on my Google search for Jane Quiet. No idea who this user is or what prompted them to choose Jane, but it's kind of cool (especially the raven ring!), though Jane would never wear those shoes. You can't chase demons in those heels.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Solstice!

After the darkest night, the sun begins its return. It's the start of winter but the beginning of the return of the light. Enjoy the season, a good time for contemplation. I hope to do a little more of that -- not to mention writing -- now that I'm ready to turn in grades.

There's a new podcast up over at Radio Wombat, another Conceit, this one entitled "Words"; there's also a new episode of my comic Gothic serial The Mangrove Legacy up, too -- oooh, scary, kids! Ghosts!

For some seasonal reading, check out my evergreen repeat, Anglo-Saxon Yuletide which has appeared in print, electronically and occasionally as a performance.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Moping and Missing Friends

The nor'easter puts the kibosh on plans for the party at Elena's. I was so looking forward to seeing everybody tonight! I am now going to sulk and watch sad movies... once I finish grading. Bleh.

Friday, December 18, 2009

BitchBuzz: Blogging by Gender

My latest BitchBuzz column is up. It was sparked by the revelation this week that the uber-macho blogger James Chartrand is really a woman and the reasons she gave for that mask:

Blogger James Chartrand revealed this week that "he" is actually a she and deliberately took up the name after finding it impossible to make a living as a female blogger and facing ridicule and dismissal. It's hard to tell whether female bloggers were more disgusted that pretending to be a misogynist jerk actually worked or depressed that nothing has changed about the contempt for "ladies" who write.

Feministing put the revelation into the context of the "pale/stale/male-ness of the media" as a whole and pointed to a study by the University of Maryland demonstrating the disproportionate threats women face online when identified by gender...

As always, you can read the rest at BBHQ. One thing I forgot to include was trying out the Gender Analyzer to see what its opinion was and got the following: "We guess is written by a woman (55%), however it's quite gender neutral." So the AI was not fooled by the macho graphics of the page.

This here blog of mine? "We guess is written by a man (56%), however it's quite gender neutral."

I find it fascinating, the variety of ways we read gender into things. How gendered is your writing?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Chilly Birthday

Only one hat will do today: it's the Mad Hatter! During one visit to Adrean in Brussels, I kept walking past the shop window where this hat was displayed and I kept thinking, "Oh, it's too expensive." Then I thought, "You're going to regret not getting that hat. What if you never come back to Brussels?" So I got the hat -- but I've been back to Brussels many times.

No regrets though!

It's supposed to be about 17 degrees today. The hat's not just stylish, but necessary. I have to go grade my sophomores' final presentations on medieval drama, then grade the upper div papers while listening to the Punk Rock Jukebox, then meet pals at the Albany Pump Station. Sounds like a good day, eh?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cool Friends

Have I got cool friends or what? As many of you know, tomorrow is my birthday (yes, during finals week -- sigh!), but the gifts have already begun rolling in. Pictured is the book from my friend Alessandra in Rome, who knows well my obsession with Wombats and found the perfect book to appease that. Simons' tome addresses "Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in in Victorian London" and is chock full of wonderful illustrations. I love it!

Not to be outdone, the Boojums sent a lovely package -- those of you who've received such packages know that the outside is every bit as lovely as the contents -- with a fantastic map of London, a jar of Marmite and the most amazing card with a photograph of a magpie quill pen.

Big smiles here, as you can imagine! Besides, when I got home a few minutes ago I had another package: pecan chocolates from New Mexico. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Gothic Monday

Have you been keeping up with my serial novel blog, The Mangrove Legacy? As I contemplate ways to regularise my weekly schedule here, it strikes me that I don't always remember to draw folks' attention to the serial novel, which I update every Sunday night. If you like comic gothic shenanigans, you will probably enjoy its silly nature. It does have adventure and suspense, too -- as well as the occasional pirate or other brigands.

Ghosts, too! Are they real or are they Scooby-ed? Only Mrs. Radcliffe knows... or does she?! Mysteries, romance -- and pockets!

At present, the schedule seems to be this: Monday, serial; Tuesday, WLoAD; Thursday, BitchBuzz; Friday, podcasts. In between there will always be random thoughts and reviews as well as announcements. Of course it's not set in stone. I'm really not too inclined to follow rules, even of my own making. I do have an exciting new project for the blog in the new year, but that will be unveiled anon.

As always, I thank the faithful readers of this blog and welcome others who drop by (unless you're leaving spam links, which I cheerfully remove [okay, not that cheerfully]). Despite the fun I have on Facebook and Twitter, I have no plans to abandon the blogs any time soon.

Last day of classes today!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Radio Wombat is Back!

Yes, after far too long I have made another itty bitty podcast for your delectation, part of a new series that wormed its way into my brain in the middle of the night. Yes, do take that as a caution.

The series will be called "Conceit" (the literary kind, not the arrogant type although I suppose the habit of keeping blogs evidence enough of a kind of chutzpah) and the first one is called "Diva Soup" -- further warning I suppose. It features me playing Louhi, the ten string kantele.

The lovely Karita Mattila, pictured left, has nothing whatsoever to do with the piece other than she is Finnish and a fabulous opera diva.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

BitchBuzz: Facebook Trains Us

My latest column for BitchBuzz is up. Sure, my greatest thrill is that I was able to work both Peter Cook and Groucho into the piece, but I am interested in the ways that we grow used to new technologies. Watching people cope with change is always instructive and I think the keepers of Facebook are getting smarter about the ways that they introduce change, because folks seldom like it. While I'm always concerned about the subtle machinations behind the fa├žade, I hardly think the world of social media is as dire as some neo-Luddite academics think. Far from being the end of the world as we know it, I've found it does nothing but enhance my friendships and bring me new ones -- and besides, it makes feel bouncy bouncy. It's only a tool, after all -- it's how you wield it that matters.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Days

Well, sorry to all my students, but it appears that we will not have a snow day today, despite the snow and its continuation and the madness of the people driving and causing accidents as if snow did not fall EVERY WINTER around here! Seems that someone forgot to wear their PJs inside out (a new tradition to me -- is this a widespread practice? I only learned it here in Albany).

Doesn't my Xmas cactus look lovely, though, blooming like crazy with the snow in the background?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

WLoADed: QoE

Drop over to the Women's League of Ale Drinkers to see the latest profile: our very own fabulous Queen of Everything, Stephanie Johnson. She has been responsible for an amazing amount of arresting images! It really tickles me that vague notions of mine have emerged from her keen imagination as glorious logos that serve as candy to the eyes.

I'm thinking of making every Tuesday WLoADed day, so pass along the names of fantastic female artists who might like to join the ranks of the League. We love all kinds: writers, artists, musicians, designers -- let us know about them!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mondays Sometimes Require...

Reminding myself the semester is almost over, then will come the time to actually catch up...

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Krampus Eve

Have you been good? Or will the Krampus whack you with his sticks -- or put you in chains and take you off in his basket?

Friday, December 04, 2009


I rolled myself out of bed early for the fourth Social Media Breakfast for Tech Valley. This meeting focused on blogging and coordinator Amy Mengel had as guests Lara Kulpa, Christina Gleason, Amanda Magee, and as moderator, All Over Albany's Greg Dahlmann.

My college's Communications Department sponsored the event (and they're hoping to host the next breakfast in their new media center in January) so a bunch of my colleagues were there. So was my pal Kim, who's becoming quite the media matrix herself and was indulgent of my less-than-wakeful state.

I'm not going to give you a summary: you can see the tweet stream here and get a good picture of it. The by-words for blogging remain the same: passion, responsiveness, content and the big one, community. The rules apply whether you're talking about a personal blog or a business one, something a lot of businesses still don't understand.

Ahead of time, I had put a question on the Facebook group asking whether blogging was needed anymore given the popularity of social media sources like Twitter and Facebook; of course, it was a bit of a leading question. Fortunately, the panelists all said the same thing I think, which is that the ephemeral nature of the more instantaneous lacks the stability of blog posts, which you can go back and find. Sure, there are Twitter aggregators, but the swift chunks of tweets don't add up to the same kind of experience.

But I've been thinking about the structure/planning issues. By default, Thursdays end up being BitchBuzz day; should I have themed days? Monday is movie day or Tuesday is beer day? What kind of topics should I cover regularly? How about a day for complaints? Everybody needs to complain. What if you had one day a week to just get a pet peeve off your chest? What do you think?

UPDATE: Local TV coverage of the event, as well as Humberto Martinez's article for the Times Union.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

BitchBuzz: Jane Austen Writes

My BB column this week revisits the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan which I enjoyed so much last week (and yes, the William Blake exhibit is still on for a few more weeks). It's such a delight to see Jane's own handwriting and little pieces of her life gathered together for this exhibit, which offers a good sense of the Regency period in which she lived:

Through March of next year, the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC features an excellent exhibit, "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy" which contains her handwritten script of Lady Susan as well as many letters, mostly written to her beloved sister Cassandra, and other personal effects.

While it seems impossible that we don't know everything there is to know about Jane (which isn't as much as most fans would like), it's a revelation to see so much written in her own hand.

Sure, there's the fannish squee of being so close to something Jane herself touched (then again, I'm a medievalist who shed a tear upon seeing for the first time the one and only Beowulf manuscript), but it's also an intimate window on the world in which she lived: one where paper was so precious that she used up every bit of surface area in her letters by writing across her own lines with further perpendicular lines (known as "cross-hatching")..

As usual, you can read the rest at BB HQ. Please help spread the news be retweeting, sharing and linking here!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Holiday Shopping?

What could be better than a fabulously Finnish-flavored collection of stories? You'll laugh, you'll cry, it will become a part of you -- and you can tell your family and friends who receive this fabulous gift that you know the author.