Can I still admire Marion Jones?

May 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm (watch)

The WNBA season opens this weekend, and when the Tulsa Shock face off against the Minnesota Lynx on Saturday, a league that has long struggled to build a fan base will find a few more eyes cast its way—because Marion Jones is on the roster for the Shock.

Most people, of course, know Jones best as a fallen track superstar, who recently spent six months in prison for lying to federal investigators about taking performance-enhancing drugs before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She’s also a 34-year-old who just gave birth to her third child last year. But as an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine detailed, the former college basketball star (she won a national championship with the University of North Carolina in 1994) is staging a comeback via the WNBA.

Amid all the hoopla, I’ve been struggling with the question: Is it okay to still like, and even admire, Marion Jones?

During the golden-girl media storm leading up to her five medals at the Sydney Olympics, I thought she was fantastic. That crooked-toothed smile. Those specially-designed, clear plastic Nike spikes with no heel, the lightest ever made, that cast the soon-to-be Vogue cover model as a modern-day Cinderella. That teddy bear of a shot putter husband (who, like her second husband, sprinter Tim Montgomery, ended up busted for doping). That speed.

I started running track in high school, the year after Sydney. Breathless after a race, crumpled to the ground with burning thighs, I’d picture Jones zipping across the 200-meter finish line in 21.84 seconds. She would have been charming reporters before I reached the straightaway.

Now, a decade later and roundly disgraced, Jones is back. And even after the drugs and the lying and the check fraud scheme and the jail time and the struggle of her poor Olympic relay teammates, who to this very day are fighting to regain the medals that the IOC ordered stripped from them, I find myself rooting for her.

Did Jones lose my respect? Of course: I was angry and sad when the truth came out (and some people speculate she never told the whole truth, or revealed the extent of her drug use). She is an embodiment of the problems that plague high-level sports, and part of the reason why, when people watch an astonishing race from Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, their first instinct is to say, “He’s got to be taking something.” She deserved to crash and burn, and to suffer the harsh consequences—public, private, athletic, financial—of her lies.

But I thrill at her pure competitive fire. I’m in awe of her physical prowess–how many people can be among the best in the country, or world, in one sport, let alone two? And I think it takes no small amount of courage to get knocked down, hard, and get back up.

Jones could be accused of joining the WNBA for less-than-noble reasons: she’s trying to reclaim the spotlight and celebrity, to curry public favor, to recast her past through the filter of motivational-speaker rhetoric about lessons learned. Regardless, Jones is legitimately an athlete. An amazing athlete, who appears to be busting ass in training for a chance to get back in the game. And though she’s one of the oldest players in the WNBA and could probably use a little boost, you’ve got to think that she’s 100% clean this time around, or else she’s a damn fool.

“The word redemption is not in my vocabulary,” Jones said at a press conference in March. “This is an opportunity for me to realize a dream. This is an opportunity for me to share my message of hope, of second chances…but redemption doesn’t creep into the equation for me.”

But of course her story will be framed as a quest for redemption; it’s a narrative we all know and love. I hope she pulls it off.

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Grammar police take on Twitter

April 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm (read)

I love grammar and punctuation. In high school, I thought the standardized tests that asked you to correct sentences were fun. I use semicolons in text messages. My job involves proofreading. I have a visceral reaction to mangling of the English language. I don’t understand what is so damn difficult about distinguishing its and it’s, your and you’re, their and there and they’re, and I admit to judging people who seem incapable of doing so or simply don’t care.

For these reasons, the internet often pains me.

So imagine my delight in reading today’s New York Times article about people who troll Twitter for grammar and spelling mistakes and publicly chastise the guilty tweeters. I’ve had to rein in my tendency to correct or point out errors (not on Twitter, just in general), because nobody likes a critic. Luckily, fearless linguistic leaders such as Grammar Fail, Grammar Hero, Your Or Youre and CapsCop are trying to clean up the website. (Grammar Fail and Grammar Hero actually aren’t very good–i.e., as often happens, the style section may be exaggerating a trend–but I’m more jazzed about the fight than the individual sites.)

One complaint. In a piece about valuing correct English, there is no room for this sentence:

“They see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette.”

Barf. Unlike “twitterati,” “tweetup,” “twitterature” and all the other obnoxious fake combination words, “twetiquette” isn’t even a clean rhyme.

The article mentions a couple of celebrity offenders, John Cusack and Kirstie Alley. I love this exchange and little zinger from the writer, John Metcalf:

“GrammarCop, one of several people who seem to exist on Twitter solely to copy-edit others, recently received a beatdown from the actress Kirstie Alley, to whom he had recommended the use of a plural verb form instead of a singular. ‘Are you high?’ Ms. Alley wrote back. ‘You really just linger around waiting for people to use incorrect grammer? you needs a life.’ (One of Ms. Alley’s people said that the actress was too busy to comment for this article.)

A life, indeed. While some of us may live to host weight-loss shows, others find solace in pedantry.”

In the comments on the article, “get a life” is a predictable refrain. “They literally need a life,” writes one reader. Uh huh. Because they are dead. And trolling Twitter from beyond the grave.

A few people express relief that at least they’re not alone, and that someone else out there still cares about grammar. (I should mention that I wrote this post in Microsoft Word first, and the grammar check suggested that I change “there” to “their.”) Brooke from San Francisco is especially eloquent:

“Do people tell mathematicians to stop being all fussy about numbers? I cringe at bad spelling, grammar, punctuation – and I’m an editor. Some people dig that precision, and we become editors. And editors are important! … No one makes fun of precision in accounting, or architecture, or carpentry — but language? Apparently we need to ‘get a life.’ I object strongly to this derision of what I take seriously. A world without editors = the New York Times reading like a Cusack tweet.”

But perhaps the most useful comment was this: “It is sad that the New York Times has given credence to self-righteous twits like these jr. grammar cops. If these ninnies want to change the world, they might consider becoming real teachers rather than simply running amok with virtual rulers.”

Good idea. If people who rant about terrible grammar (that includes me) put that energy into volunteering at an after-school program or tutoring kids, that would probably have more of a real, positive impact than adding to the cacophony of 50 million tweets per day.

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Talking politics and unicorns with author J. Robert Lennon

April 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm (read, Uncategorized)

Some books just grab me, and I become one of those well-meaning, perhaps sometimes annoying, literary evangelists who tells everyone I meet, “You have to read this!” Such was the case when I discovered J. Robert Lennon‘s brilliant story collection Pieces for the Left Hand several years ago. Set in upstate New York and made of up 100 “anecdotes,” each about two pages long, the book is funny, unsettling and simply mesmerizing. I’ve been a huge fan since.

Lennon’s most recent novel, Castle, which comes out in paperback on Tuesday, similarly blends matter-of-fact style and morbid spirit, but is much more ambitious in its themes. It is about Eric Loesch, a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown in rural New York to buy 612 acres of land. When he discovers that a small portion of the land does not belong to him, and finds a castle built on that plot, details of his traumatic childhood and military service begin to resurface. (Both Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand received an enthusiastic review from the New York Times.)

Early in the novel, Loesch says: “People, in my long experience, want to talk. They may believe they wish to keep secrets, and they may believe that they are capable of doing so. But the truth is that secrets exist to be revealed; and it is usually very easy to find the combination of words that will cause them to emerge.” By the end of the book, the ominous undertones of this statement come to the forefront, and readers may be left with a bit of PTSD.

Though Lennon keeps busy teaching at Cornell, blogging, rocking out as Inverse Room and, of course, writing, he kindly answered a few questions via e-mail about the book–and unicorns!

Q: Of your works that I’ve read, this book is the most political. Did Castle come specifically out of the Bush Administration and its torture policy, or had you previously been interested in the military and the psychological wounds that it can inflict?

A: No, I used to be pretty apolitical.  I’m a Democrat, but I never got particularly angry at Reagan and Bush 1, though I didn’t like their policies.  Then, like a lot of people, I got kind of radicalized by the Bush years, and was quite worked up about the war.  I tried several approaches to writing about it, most of which failed miserably.  It’s hard to write about political things in a literary way. Even now, when people don’t like Castle, it tends to be because of the political content.  But I had to do it.

You get into the head of protagonist Eric Loesch, writing a minutely detailed first-person account. But as the story progresses, the reader realizes that Loesch has concealed or repressed some vital information. What were the challenges of writing in the voice of an unreliable narrator? Did you struggle over how much to reveal, or when and how to do so?

It was tricky–he started out as an amnesiac, then evolved, over many drafts, into a liar, and then simply a guy who was telling himself a story that he needed to hear.  The narrative is self-serving; it leaves out a lot and accidentally reveals a lot more.  Loesch has a pedantic, almost infantile way of speaking–it was a challenge to strike the right balance.

I think it’s funny that the cover of Castle features the silhouette of a mysterious white deer (an animal that figures prominently into the novel), and in the author photo on the back flap you’re wearing a shirt with the silhouette of a white unicorn. Do you have a special fondness for mystical white creatures? Is there any story behind the shirt?

The shirt is an in-joke for some internet friends–I spend a lot of time on a private messageboard for off-duty musicians, fooling around and telling jokes.  And that’s our t-shirt.  But, believe it or not, I never noticed the connection between the unicorn and the deer!

This may be an impossible question, but what is your favorite sentence that you have written? It can be fiction, essay, love letter, whatever.

I think maybe that is impossible.  The most important sentence I’ve written must be the text I sent last week to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; I believe the exact wording was “The leaves are turning. Omar is at large.  Execute Project Sigma Tangent.”  If this sounds like nonsense, just wait a few weeks.  Events will make everything clear.

What is your favorite sentence that someone else has written?

A line from my wife’s [Rhian Ellis] novel After Life: ” ‘I love cake,’ I lied. ”

What are you currently working on?

I finished a novel about a documentary filmmaker, then shelved it.  It didn’t work.  Now I’m writing a book that involves a parallel universe. What with Lost wrapping up, somebody has to fill the gap.  I have some new short stories coming out, too, in The Paris Review and Salamander.

You can read his new story, “The Impossible Man,” from The Paris Review‘s Spring 2010 issue, here. Enjoy!

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In good Company: Stephen Sondheim and his fans

April 23, 2010 at 12:37 am (Uncategorized)

Stephen Sondheim is having a heck of a birthday party. The titan of musical theater turned 80 last month, and tributes to his work—which includes West Side Story, Company, Follies and Sweeny Todd—have filled New York with a little night music. The Philharmonic celebrated with performances by Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Elaine Stritch; it was announced that Broadway’s Henry Mill’s Theater will be renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater; and yesterday marked the opening of a new Broadway review, Sondheim on Sondheim.

For all the respect they command, and the revolutionary impact they had on the genre of musical theater, Sondheim’s shows are not easy, friendly blockbusters. As a composer and lyrisist, he took risks in both style and content, favoring striking arrangements and dissonant chords over catchiness (this is a man fascinated with murderers and assassins, after all). He aimed beyond comfort and familiarity, striving for something new, dark, clever, funny, moving, bitter, longing. As he says in a Fresh Air interview from earlier this week,

“The problem with so much music… was that you went into the theater humming it. You know, if you hum something on first hearing it, it might be because it is so immediately memorable, but more likely, it’s because it reminds you of something else.”

Sondheim developed a sound that was recognizably his own. His success, and resulting stature, didn’t make him world’s cuddliest composer; as this New York magazine article reveals, some theater stars have been terrified to work with him. But the best quote comes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote In the Heights and did the translation of West Side Story for its recent bilingual revival:

“You know, he could seriously just, like, smack people around all day and just be like, ‘I’m Sondheim; cook me a steak.’ But he’s actually still really nice and really generous and really generous to younger artists.”

In honor of the huge influence Sondheim’s work has had on younger artists and musical theater fans, here are a few of my favorite Sondheim homages and pop culture moments.

Camp (2003)

Set at a musical theater summer camp for teenagers, this movie is predictably packed with show tunes and theater trivia. Sondheim gets a nod early on, when the hot new guy sees a photo of an older man on the nightstand by his roommate’s bed.

“Is that your father?” he asks. The roommate is aghast—how could you not recognize Stephen Sondheim?

But the showstopper comes when mousey Fritzi, who has spent the summer slaving for her bitchy, spotlight-hogging roommate Jill, poisons Jill before the performance of Company. As Jill pauses during “Ladies Who Lunch” to vomit, Fritzi (played by Anna Kendrick, now an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air) swoops in for a biting, fiery performance. I’ll drink to that.

Tick, Tick…BOOM!

In Tick, Tick…BOOM!, an early musical by Jonathon Larson of Rent, the main character is, like Larson, an aspiring musical theater composer who idolizes Sondheim. The song “Sunday” is a clear parody of the song of the same name in Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by pointillist Georges Seurat.

But while Sondheim’s song evokes a painting, Larson’s is about brunch, at the diner where he works to pay the bills.

Sondheim’s lyrics:

Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water

On the green purple yellow red grass

Let us pass through our perfect park

Pausing on a Sunday

By the cool blue triangular water

On the soft green elliptical grass

As we pass through arrangements of shadow

Toward the verticals of trees

Forever

—–

Larson’s lyrics:

Brunch

Sunday

In the blue, silver chromium diner

On the green, purple, yellow, red stools

Sit the fools

Who should eat at home

Instead, they pay on

Sunday

For a cool orange juice or a bagel

On the soft, green cylindrical stools

Sit the fools
Drinking cinnamon coffee

Or decaffeinated tea

Forever

In the blue, silver chromium diner

A performance of Sondheim’s “Sunday”:

And a recording of Larson’s:

Desperate Housewives

The show’s creator Marc Cherry (who has been, um, a little busy lately) is a huge Sondheim fan. Nearly every episode of the show, which is now in its sixth season, takes its title from a Sondheim song name or lyric. Some examples:

Episode 1.12, Every Day a Little Death (from A Little Night Music)

Episode 3.11, No Fits, No Fights, No Feuds (a lyric from Gypsy)

Episode 4.9, Something’s Coming (from West Side Story)

Episode 6.5, Everybody Ought to Have a Maid (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)

This Sunday’s episode is called Epiphany, after the Sweeny Todd Song.

What are your favorite Sondheim songs, references or memories?

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Living and Writing in Spanglish

April 11, 2010 at 11:39 pm (read)

When I browse amazon.com, read book reviews or go into bookstores, I’m always struck by the sheer volume of volumes out there in the world. “How can there be anything left to write?” I think. “How is there any story left to tell, or any new way to tell it?”

Then I find a writer like Susana Chávez-Silverman. To be honest, I didn’t have to look that hard—she was my Spanish professor in college, for three semesters of literature and poetry. But equally as interesting as the stories and poems on the syllabus was Chávez-Silverman herself, a fiesty cultural omnivore with a passion for language and all its possibilities, and author of the new book Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros natural disasters.

Chávez-Silverman was raised bilingually, living in California, Spain and Mexico, but her experience with language is far from the “Spanish on the left side, English on the right” layout of bilingual textbooks. She has written of the “otredad that has dogged/blessed me toda la vida,” and that perpetual otherness—of not being able to pick, and belong to, one language/country/side or the other—led to the choice to not choose. Instead, she works in Spanglish (academics call it “code-switching”), peppering the combined languages with her own ticks and quips.

Like her previous memoir, Killer Crónicas, Scenes is composed of personal missives, which began as gossipy, funny, heartfelt, descriptive and/or contemplative e-mails, letters or diary entries and are usually addressed or dedicated to friends and family. This style draws from the epistolary tradition, as well as from the chronicles written from and about the newly “discovered” Americas.

The February issue of The Believer includes a roundtable discussion among three Latino novelists about writing in Spanish versus English. The moderator, Daniel Alarcón, says that the language he loves most is Spanish, but specifically its spoken form:

“It is impossible not to be awed by the inventiveness of language as it exists all over Latin America and Spain, the breadth and diversity of it, the way each local and regional vernacular traces a particular history, honors it, then subverts it, transcends it.”

Eduardo Halfon agrees, adding that while “spoken Spanish is eclectic and thrilling and beautiful[,] written Spanish or Literary Spanish is obedient and proper and cautious.”

In her books, Chávez-Silverman breaks out of “proper” language and writes the way she speaks and hears language spoken. She traces her own history from Guadalajara to South Africa to California to Buenos Aires to Madrid to Australia (not necessarily in that order), bringing along favorite phrases (chévere!), invented spellings (“shuvia” for “lluvia”—rain—to capture the accent in Buenos Aires) and fake translations (“Pero anygüey” for “but anyway…”). She respects language, but isn’t afraid to have a little fun.

Now I’ll stop talking and just let you read something she wrote. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her new book, describing a walk through the grounds of a northern California arts center, where she was an artist-in-residence. It encompasses her special fondness for flora and fauna, astrology and memories:

“I did find, sin embargo, como engarzadas en las ramas muertas del bottlebrush, a cache

of those little round, spiny, sea urchiny, hollow, stemmed pods. Se habían caído de un

árbol vecino, and gotten lodged in the lower thicket of bottlebrush branches. Hot tears

saltaron, instant and automatic, as I reached up for one. These pods were, quizás,

Mom’s most idiosyncratic (bizarre, perfect for a Scorpio) Christmas decoration: we’d

collect them for her, in the Valley, y luego los hacía spray paint con esa laca. Silver and

gold. Y luego los metía entre las ramas del Christmas tree.”

It helps, of course, to speak both languages. But, though she might lose a few readers, Chávez-Silverman’s refusal to conform to one “correct” language is an act of carving out a space for herself between the two worlds. There is a growing culture of inbetweeners with whom this resonates. For my college thesis, a video about middle schoolers and reading, I gave Killer Crónicas to a girl of Mexican heritage, living in LA. She read a few sentences, looked up and smiled. “This sounds like me,” she said.

To translate into a single tongue would be to lose something essential about Chávez-Silverman’s voice, and her identity. Even if you can’t parse everything, I hope you think it’s chévere.

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Art Watch: Jeff Long at JayJay

March 30, 2010 at 11:08 am (look)

Exploring Sacramento’s galleries every month, I rarely come across a show as striking as the one currently up at JayJay. Through April 24, the East Sac gallery is presenting the first Sacramento exhibit of longtime San Francisco-based painter Jeff Long, and it’s well worth a visit. (Long is paired with local artist Roger Berry, whose curved and twisted bronze sculptures are stunning feats of engineering.)

After years of paintings that were abstract yet still tied to concrete things, from boats to landscapes to temples in Thailand, Long’s current work has become “content-less,” in his words. The paintings, in a palette of blue, ochre, red and black, “have oblique references to design motifs, both Western and tribal, but really aren’t about anything in particular,” Long told me when we talked earlier this week. “My work has gotten lighter, more purely formalist.”

Translation: there’s no need for mental contortions to figure out what it all means. Just look at the paint. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, recently criticized the “idiotic academic proscriptions against visual pleasure,” and Long isn’t afraid to make paintings that are simply beautiful, the kind that you want to stand in front of for hours just because they are so good to look at. (Rex Ray, another San Francisco artist and master of shapes and patterns, offers similar visual feasts.) For a piece like Creek 1/Creek 2 (pictured above; at a combined size of 8’x6’, it anchors the exhibition), the fun is in letting a thin orange helix carry your gaze across a flat red backbone to a black and white curve that, like a water slide, deposits you into the subtle, textural layers of a neutral background. But even the backgrounds stay close to the surface in Long’s paintings. Despite the presence of shapes passing in front of or ducking behind others, or of overlapping forms taking bites out of their neighbors like Venn diagrams, the paintings avoid depth of field or indications of space.

(Untitled-4)

With their interplay of sharp edges and organic, biomorphic forms, Long’s paintings draw from 20th century Modernism in both fine art and design, echoing the flattened geometry of Modernists like Mondrian along with the curves of a midcentury Eames chair.

“There was a playfulness that intruded into 20th century design at that point, with kidney-shaped pools and lava lamps and that kind of thing,” says Long. “It was a way of bringing ideas to the masses that might have originated in painters like the Surrealists and [Arshile] Gorky and the sinuous shapes he used.” Now, re-injecting design into painting, Long is completing the circle–and giving hippies a far better way to decorate their living rooms.

(Loopy 23)

With all the fluid curves on display from both Long and Berry, the whole show can leave you feeling a little loopy. But both artists balance verve with restraint, and the results are elegant. It’s another strong outing for JayJay, and an exciting Sacramento debut.

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Zoolander Changed My Life

March 24, 2010 at 4:31 pm (watch)

When I was younger, I was kind of a brat. Not mean, not cruel, not a bully—just someone who thought she was usually smarter than the other kids around her, and sometimes smarter than her teachers.

I also loved movies, but I took pride in watching good movies. When my sister and I would go to Blockbuster, she would suggest a title and I’d say, “we can’t see that—it got a C- from Entertainment Weekly and one and a half stars from Ebert and Film Comment didn’t even write about it. How about this Oscar-nominated foreign film that never got a theatrical release in Sacramento?”

And then one day she said, “Shut up, Anne. We’re watching Zoolander.”

Roger Ebert gave it one star and found it offensive. I loved it. Its silly stupidity, faux-seriousness and caricatured characters make for a perfect blend of laughing-at and laughing-with. Even now, reading through memorable quotes on IMDB cracks me up. (“If there is anything that this horrible tragedy can teach us, it’s that a male model’s life is a precious, precious commodity. Just because we have chiseled abs and stunning features, it doesn’t mean that we too can’t not die in a freak gasoline fight accident,” Zoolander eulogizes—or, “eugoogoolizes”—after the death of his friends.) Luckily, last month, nearly nine years after the untimely just-after-9/11-release-date of the original, it was announced that a Zoolander sequel is in the works.

For me, Zoolander was the PG-13 gateway drug that opened the floodgates to Meet the Fockers and Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers and Along Came Polly and Talladega Nights and The 40 Year Old Virgin and Bad Santa and Superbad and Borat and Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Tropic Thunder and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all the other lowbrow raunchfests that were part of the mid 2000s renaissance of the R-rated comedy. (But I hate Old School, and Will Ferrell’s overgrown, often nude, man-child shtick in general. A former roommate and I had frequent Stiller vs. Ferrell face-offs, with her fighting in the corner of Elf and Anchorman and even Stepbrothers. Plans for Anchorman 2 seem sketchy—there are reports that it is “on hold”—so take that, Brittney!)

Stiller’s role in the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, which opens in wide release on Friday, has prompted a look back at his 30-year career. A recent New York Times piece, called Mortification Man, distilled Stiller’s career down to being a “perennial punching bag”:

“He anchors family movies and romantic comedies alike, and it says something about his charisma— and perhaps about the dark appetites of the moviegoing public — that he has done so with a screen presence that is often synonymous with anxiety, pain and humiliation.”

True enough, given that his big break, There’s Something About Mary, found him snared through the cheek with a fish hook (not to mention the famous hair gel scene). However, my favorite Stiller characters are the muscley preeners, those where he twists his neurotic persona into inflated, egotistical goons like gym owner White Goodman in Dodgeball (who literally inflates the groin area of his tight shorts), action star actor Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder and, of course, Derek “Blue Steel” Zoolander.

These characters also have their hang-ups—the gym owner is terrified of becoming fat again, the actor wants critical acclaim that eludes him when he goes “full retard,” the male model is afraid that his life has been meaningless—but they’re too self-unaware to be neurotic, too oblivious to be humiliated, too aggressive to be punching bags. It’s worth noting that Stiller co-wrote and directed both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. When he takes charge, his lead roles serve as bulked-up and really, really, ridiculously good looking antidotes to his “mortification men.” They’re dumb as shit, though, so no one can accuse Stiller of taking himself too seriously.

I still watch Oscar-nominated foreign films, and I’m still guilty of occasional snobbery. But according to IMDB, Stiller has 17 movies in the works, so maybe he’ll knock it out of me yet, with the power of Zoolander’s unleashed Magnum.

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Oscar Watch: The Sci and Tech Awards are a Man’s World

March 7, 2010 at 11:29 pm (Uncategorized)

On a night that Kathryn Bigelow made Oscar history by becoming the first woman to win an award for Best Director, another moment on the telecast made clear how far women still have to go in Hollywood.

Partway through the packed show, actress Elizabeth Banks highlighted the Academy’s Scientific & Technical Awards, which she had presented in a separate ceremony on February 20. According to the Academy, the awards honor “the men, women and companies whose discoveries and innovations have contributed in significant, outstanding and lasting ways to motion pictures.”

Just one problem: there were no women. As the group photo scrolled across the big screen, it was tux after tux, bow tie after bow tie. Forty five men.

Interestingly, the Sci-Tech awards are always presented by beautiful young actresses—Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Hudson are among the recent hosts. Last year, Biel presented to all men. In 2008, Alba honored a lone woman, Julia Pakalns, for her work (along with three men) on the Maya Fluid Effects system, which helps digital artists accurately animate liquids and gases.

Though I can’t tell you what awards like “advancing the technique of ambient occlusion rendering” mean, I can say that all of these technological advancements are changing the way movies are made, and that both men and women should be a part of that filmmaking future.

Clearly, the gender divide in these awards is only a symptom of a systematic failure to engage and encourage women in science and technology—a failure that extends far beyond the film industry. Last week, I attended the California Museum’s celebration of Women’s History Month, which included a discussion with astronaut Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first woman to go to space. During the panel, she mentioned that when she first went to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, of the 4,000 scientists and engineers employed there, only 4 were women. And when the crew for her historic space flight was announced, at the press conference a reporter fromTIME magazine asked if she cried when things went wrong in the simulator.

The vital question is how to overcome centuries of social, cultural and institutional biases that make it difficult for women to enter and excel in scientific and technical fields. Though it’s an enormous issue, institutes like Georgia Tech’s Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology and initiatives at MITUSC and many other colleges are a welcome sign of the need for and commitment to change.

Hopefully not too long from now, the only tears will come during award acceptance speeches.

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Two Words: Swagger Wagon

March 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm (Uncategorized)

Toyota has been having a tough time lately, so I thought I’d show the company some love by sharing their hilarious new series of commercials for the Sienna minivan, set up like a sitcom about a dorky-cool family with two little kids. The sense of humor, skewed self-perception and music all give the clips an Arrested Development vibe, and I think the lead actors are perfect. I know they’re ads for a minivan, but I just watched all the videos on their YouTube channel. For some reason I can’t embed the clips, but I recommend this 30-second spot that introduces you to the family, and this clip starring the dad. Dance party!

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Spanish Flashback

February 28, 2010 at 4:53 pm (look)

Today I’m starting work on a painting for a friend, and I figured it was about time I posted some pictures from the last series of work I did, based on Spanish architecture I saw during my Spring 2007 semester abroad. The 25 small paintings were for a show at 20th Street Art Gallery that ran Nov.-Dec. Here are a few highlights.

The bullfighting ring in Sevilla:

Houses in Granada:

The interior dome of a cathedral, city forgotten:

A graffitied wall in Granada:

A pillar in Parque Güell in Barcelona:

A bench, also in Parque Güell:

A cathedral in Sevilla:

The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid:

Stained glass windows, all over Europe:

Who’s up for a vacation?

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