Best Picture Project: Spotlight

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One of the best compliments I can pay any artistic production – film, television, theater, etc. – is to say that I did not once check the time while consuming said artistic production.

When the screen went dark and the concluding text started to appear on the screen, I was startled and disappointed to find that SPOTLIGHT was already over.

The Best Picture winners in recent years have been easily recognizable as technically strong, stand-out productions, but SPOTLIGHT is the first one in a long while that I have found so engrossing on every level. I recognize the value of BIRDMAN and TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, but it’s really not since THE ARTIST and THE KING’S SPEECH that I could see myself raving about a winning film.

SPOTLIGHT doesn’t explode on the screen so much as it smolders, growing hotter and hotter as the story unfolds. Every performance is tightly wound, from Liev Schreiber’s reticence as editor-in-chief Marty Baron to the face of Eileen Padua, who plays Rachel McAdams’ character’s grandmother, as she reads the final story in the paper. spotlight_28film29_poster

One of the things I loved about it was the way the main characters, the Spotlight crew, were not shown as righteous crusaders, but as flawed and passionate journalists who believe that this kind of truth should be spoken aloud and in public. Though they all believe fully in what they are doing regarding the Church, they each lose something along the way. Sacha (Rachel McAdams) can no longer bring herself even to accompany her grandmother to church because she gets so angry when she thinks of the abuse survivors she’s interviewed. Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) discovers during research that a priest “treatment center” is a block or two away from his house and becomes tortured by the idea of them being so near to neighborhood children. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a lapsed Catholic, always thought he would return to the Church someday, but now cannot. And Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton, in a performance I much prefer to the one in BIRDMAN) is dealt a double blow by discovering one of the priests in question was a teacher at his high school, and then realizing that all the pieces of the story were already at the Globe and had crossed his desk eight years earlier, but he hadn’t put it all together.

This film walks a delicate line between the hopeful tone of knowing the story dealt a blow to institutional corruption and the despair of realizing the story uncovered by the Spotlight team is a single piece of a much larger picture. Indeed, as Rezendes goes to the office of the lawyer who has helped tremendously with the story to hand-deliver a copy of the paper, he sees an interview room with three children in it, and the lawyer tells him that two were abused in a nearby parish. The satisfaction disappears from Rezendes’ face as he sees this proof that little has yet changed. Indeed, the film ends with text briefly describing the immediate impact of Spotlight’s nearly 600 stories on the subject of child sexual abuse by priests and friars in Boston over the course of 2002, and follows that with a truly disturbing list of other places in the world where major priestly abuse stories have come to light. It takes four screens of double columns to show the entire list.

SPOTLIGHT is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, without a weak spot that I can determine. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly urge you to do so.

WIP Wednesday

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Look! You can see the tip of one wing!

 

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And the peacock is now 25% complete. After nine years. Hopefully it won’t take another nine to finish it.

Once Upon a Time

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I started watching ONCE UPON A TIME and I love it. Don’t judge me. Admittedly, my main fascination is with Robert Carlyle and Emilie de Ravin, because he’s mesmerizing – sometimes truly blood-chilling and sometimes all coiled, barely restrained power – and the chemistry they have together makes my heart ache. The accents involved don’t hurt, either. The look on his face in the season 1 finale when he sees her – it’s

But I am a little weary of the Disney version of fairy tales and classic children’s literature being so dominant in our culture. I’d like to suggest a few characters to throw into the mix.

I’m only on season 2, so I don’t know who-all gets added into the mix in the next two and a half seasons, so bear with me and no spoilers, please.

First point is, if we’re stuck with Disney only, where’s Giselle from ENCHANTED in all of this? She lives in the Land Without Magic, after all.

But on to the fun part: bringing in some non-Disney flavor.

The one that I keep coming back to, that piques my interest the most, is the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga. Sometimes she’s solo, sometimes she’s one of a trio of sisters. We’d probably describe them as witches, but not in any sense that we recognize from Grimm or Perrault. They reward the worthy, if it pleases them, and usually after they have received something in exchange, like a period of housework or similar. And they don’t solve the problem. Instead they provide the worthy individual with a tool or two and a piece of advice to help them solve their own problems. And then there’s the distinctive characteristics. She flies around in a mortar and pestle, her house is on giant chicken legs, and frequently complains about the “Russian smell” of some of her visitors.

In general, I’d love to see OUAT tap Slavic folklore for some of its characters and imagery. Fenist the Falcon, the various Vasilisa characters (the Fair, the Wise, the Brave), the Firebird, Maria Morevna… It’d be great to see some of that world join into the Western European (and Disney-interpreted) world of OUAT.

To go back to the world of Grimm and Perrault, though – what about one of my favorite fairy tales, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” or Bluebeard, or – wait, where the heck is Rapunzel? There’s also the Goose-girl, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the Fisherman and His Wife, the Elves and the Shoemaker, Thumbling… and that’s just a tiny taste of the most commonly-known fairy tale collections in Western Europe. There are countless other story traditions from all of the world. Let’s face it, the only reason Mulan is in OUAT is because she was featured in a Disney movie. What about bringing in another taste of Asian folklore, from any of the Asian cultures? What about Jewish tradition, or Native American, or African, or South American, or Maori?

What about the creatures of myth – I mean, selchies have OUAT written all over them. A seal-woman who cannot change if you hide her sealskin? There’s something there, for sure.

It’d be interesting to see some of the historical stuff come in, too, like the Malleus Maleficarum and the Benandanti of the Early Modern period of European history.

Just saying. The fairy tale world is SO much richer than Disney presents.

Midwinter ARCs, Part 1

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I’ve gotten through a few of the Advance Reader Copies that I picked up at ALA Midwinter last month, and thought I’d post a few thoughts about each.

The Turning Point, by Freya North

A fun, lightweight weeper of a read. Has Lifetime Channel movie or summer chick flick weeper like THE NOTEBOOK written alllllll over it. It’s not silly or trite, but it is a little bit predictable. That said, the characters and situations are entirely plausible and I’d definitely recommend it.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger

Loved this one. It’s fun and quirky and full of engaging characters. Like The Turning Point, I could see this one optioned for a movie or an oddball tv series, but it’s also great fun for a quick real-world-fantasy read. I really hope the author revisits these characters in subsequent work – they were fun to get to know, and I was sorry the book ended as soon as it did.

The History of Great Things, by Elizabeth Crane

Started well with an interesting structure, but it took a weird turn in the last third that kind of ruined it for me. The idea of mother and daughter characters taking it in turn to tell each other’s life story is an intriguing one, prompting thoughts about how others see our own lives, and what they may or may not know. Kind of taking the “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” thing to a different place.

The Decent Proposal, by Kemper Donovan

Incredibly predictable. Sufficiently amusing to keep reading, but incredibly predictable. Reading it was kind of like this:

2 chapters in: Okay, this is a little rom-com-y, but I’ll bite.

4 chapters in: Why is everyone in the book described as so perfectly beautiful?

Halfway through: Rapidly turning into hate-reading.

3/4 through: WTF.

End: *headdesk*

 

Currently working on Sisi: Empress on Her Own, by Allison Pataki, which is historical fiction based on Elisabeth, Empress of Austria-Hungary in the late nineteenth century. I actually read rather a lot last month – also finished Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson, Point of Honour, by Madeleine Robins, and Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher.

 

WIP Wednesday, Double Stuf Edition

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It’s been a while since I did a WIP post on either of my projects, so guess what? Today you’re getting BOTH. Lucky you!

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L’Esperance, pattern designed by Michele Sayetta via Heaven and Earth Designs. Worked in floss, 1×1, on 25ct Lugana. Currently working on fourth page of 48.

 

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Peacock Tapestry from “Art Nouveau Cross-Stitch,” by Barbara Hammet. Worked in wool on 10ct canvas mesh. Currently on second page of six.

ALA Midwinter 2016 ARCs

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I’m already on my third book of this conference’s haul of Advance Reader Copies, and I’ve enjoyed them all so far. Two of them I think I’ll pass along, since they’re of the type that’s fun to read but I don’t expect to want to read them a second time. One I’m definitely keeping. It was FUN.

  1. Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger (KEEPING.) (6/16)
  2. The Turning Point, by Freya North (fun, weepy. Has Lifetime Movie written all over it.) (5/16)
  3. The History of Great Things, by Elizabeth Crane (interesting format, worth a read) (4/16)
  4. Arcadia, by Iain Pears (2/16)
  5. Some of the Parts, by Hannah Barnaby (2/16)
  6. Rare Objects, by Kathleen Tessaro (4/16)
  7. Julia Vanishes, by Catherine Egan (6/16)
  8. Ten Prayers that Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Faith that Shaped the Course of History, by Jean-Pierre Isbouts (3/16)
  9. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, by Douglas Brinkley (3/16)
  10. The Decent Proposal, by Kemper Donovan (4/16)
  11. Sisi: Empress on Her Own, by Allison Pataki (3/16)
  12. City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan (4/16)
  13. Three-Martini Lunch, by Suzanne Rindell (4/16)

 

I wanted to talk a little about Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. The reason I’m keeping it is because I read it in 24 hours and when I turned the last page, my first thought was to wish for a sequel so I could spend more time with those characters. But as I thought about it more in the hours after finishing, I realized that it does something unusual. It has a cast that is diverse in the way that Shonda Rhimes shows are diverse – it’s just who was cast, and the characters are generally not entirely based on what makes them diverse.

Last Call‘s main character is Bailey Chen, a Chinese-American woman. The main cast also includes a blind gay man, an African-American woman, and a post-transition trans man. The only one of those adjectives that plays ANY significant role in the plot is that Vincent is blind. I am particularly pleased by the treatment of the trans man. That element of his character literally comes up in one short scene, and it in no way defines his story arc. I really like that about the way Paul Krueger designed that character, and the character in question is one of the most appealing of the entire story. I heartily recommend this book, and I hope you all look into it when it comes out, especially if you like magic and mixology.

Holidays Again

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Here we are again. December 23rd. Nearly the 24th, but we’ll see how long it takes me to hit the “post” button.

Last year, I posted this holiday plea on behalf of the long-term unemployed or underemployed population.  I asked that the people I encountered inquire about the work I was doing, rather than the status of my job-search.

My suggestions in that post still hold true, but for me personally, well, ask about my job search all you want this year.

On December first, I interviewed for the position of Librarian and Archivist at the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco. On December fourth, I received an offer for that position. On December fifteenth, I started work.

The dust from that particular whirlwind is still settling, but it seems to be a pretty good fit. It’s more than a little nerve-wracking, going from student and freelance positions to effectively being head librarian and head archivist (okay, so there’s nobody under me except the occasional volunteer, but that doesn’t make my position any less “head”). Apparently in the library world these kinds of positions are called “lone ranger” librarians. Clearly I need some kind of Old West hat to go with the term.

There are some things I miss about freelancing already – not the least of which are sleeping and having free time – but it’s so nice to have coworkers and people to talk to during the day, as well as people to bounce ideas off. One of the things about the freelancing jobs I’ve had in the past two years that I really didn’t like was how lonely it always was.

This is a huge adjustment for me on every level. Nerve-wracking though the professional steps up may be, the puzzles and challenges presented to me so far have my brain buzzing with ideas, and my new colleagues are supportive and understanding about my anxieties about the size of what I’ve taken on. The puzzles will sort themselves out with time, patience, and care, much like the challenge of picking apart a huge mass of knotted threads. One of the things that’s really hard for me at the moment, though, is finding a new balance to my day. At the moment, I’ve got little time or energy for much other than work (and the associated commute, which turns work into a 12-hour day, thanks to the peculiar quirks of Caltrain’s schedule), meals, and going to bed so I can get up and do it all again. I do need to find a way to work in a necessarily small but regular dose of my meditation/anxiety management techniques, by which I mean my crafting.

I don’t anticipate writing about the job much here, as I have no intention of running the risk of doocing myself, but yeah. I got a formal library job at last!

So yeah. American Bookbinders Museum. Check it out. And come visit!

Some Miscellany

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It’s been over a month since my last post. Normally I’d prefer to post weekly, but I don’t much like posting for the sake of posting. Anyway, here are some photos from the past month.  

  Minion-o-lantern!
  
    
A little downtown fall color. I love the way the pistachio trees change. 

 
Thanksgiving whimsy. 

   
Waiting for the lessons and carols service at MemChu to begin. 
  
Dickens Fair hair! That’s today. 

So yeah. It’s been quite a month, mostly full of stuff I prefer to keep off-blog, at least for now. Looks like 2015 will end better than it started. 

 

Im Labyrinth des Schweigens: Labyrinth of Lies

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I just got back from the cinema, where I saw the German film LABYRINTH OF LIES. It is a masterfully-constructed story about a young and rule-bound prosecutor in Frankfurt in 1958 who starts picking away at the cultural whitewash concealing the truth of the Nazi “Final Solution.” Somehow it is deeply unsettling and cathartic all at once.

The film opens with a schoolyard at recess time. Three male teachers are wandering around, half supervising and half discussing something innocuous – possibly sports – and one goes over to the fence to offer a man searching for his matchbook a light for his cigarette. As he leans in to light his cigarette, he looks at the face of the teacher holding the lighter. He blanches, drops his art supplies, and flees.

We then turn to a young lawyer in the public prosecutor’s office, who is stuck dealing with traffic violations, but is strict about enforcing the letter of the law rather than making exceptions or dealing in gray areas. When the artist, Kirsch, from the first scene arrives at the prosecutor’s office with apparently a known muckraking journalist, Gnielka, the young lawyer, Radmann, is intrigued. He does research into the teacher, discovers he was indeed an SS guard at Auschwitz, and thus is not permitted to teach. He files his report and thinks he’s done his job. In a conversation with Gnielka, it becomes painfully clear that nobody of Radmann’s generation or younger knows anything about Auschwitz. Most have never heard of it. Thus begins a path of excruciating education for Radmann and the others working with him on a case that keeps expanding to encompass what began with one former SS guard, expands to fifteen former commanders at Auschwitz, and then turns into some eight thousand individuals who were stationed at Auschwitz during WWII.

The struggle that Radmann faces is the realization that there is no community, no family, no place in Germany that he can go where the people are entirely innocent of the atrocities of the Final Solution. If they didn’t actually kill others, they failed to speak up. He becomes bitterly aware of the common excuse of “just following orders,” and grows increasingly consumed by his obsession with catching Dr. Josef Mengele, known to many as the Angel of Death. In one agonizing scene, the artist Kirsch finally breaks down and tells Radmann and Gnielka part of his story, about arriving at Auschwitz and meeting a seemingly gentle doctor in white gloves who admired his young twin daughters. In a few sentences, he describes one of the most infamous and most appalling aspects of all of that period – the medical experiments performed on twins by Mengele and his staff.

Johann Radmann is a fictional composite of the two real prosecutors in the Auschwitz trials that began in Frankfurt in 1963 and lasted nearly two years. They were Joachim Kugler and Georg Friedrich Vogel. Both died within the last ten years. Many of the other characters in the film, such as State Attorney General Fritz Bauer (played by Gert Voss in his final role), were real people.

This is one of those movies that’s not exactly one you “like,” because that implies you enjoyed it. I was completely gripped by it.

Alexander Fehling is a master of the micro-expression as realization of what he is uncovering dawns. He goes from businesslike detachment to looking increasingly exhausted and emotionally frayed. He looks like he’s been losing sleep. There are even a few dream sequences illustrating his growing fixation on Mengele. At one point he tells Gnielka that “Mengele is Auschwitz.” Fehling and the film show the way Holocaust survivor stories get under your skin and consume you. I have spent much of the last ten months listening to survivor interviews in the course of research for a client – it wasn’t brand new information to me the way it is to Radmann, but it’s still so easy to lose yourself in the pain and horror.

I am glad the film has no concentration camp flashback scenes – survivor testimony and the charges leveled at the accused are delivered plainly, forcing you as the audience to look both survivors and perpetrators in the face.

One thing LABYRINTH OF LIES (by the way, it turns out the German title actually translates to LABYRINTH OF SILENCE, which might have been more appropriate, if somewhat less dramatic) does particularly well is the nuanced depiction of what I would describe as survivor guilt. There’s the expected kind, of Kirsch the artist mourning his lost daughters and wondering why he lived when they died. But there’s also the raw guilt of Radmann, the unconscious heir of the father he never knew was a Nazi Party member, coming to realize everyone over a certain age in his country was likely complicit in some way, even if it was just through silence and looking away.

There’s the third guilt, though – the guilt of the journalist Gnielka, who was seventeen when he was drafted into the army and stationed at Auschwitz. His guilt drives him to seek and punish the others who worked at the camps, to make the stories of what really happened there public. He is driven by his own shame at having been a part of it, though he had little choice in the matter, and he tried to pass bread and cigarettes to some of the prisoners when he could.

At one point, he and Radmann go to Auschwitz itself at Kirsch’s request, to say Kaddish for his little girls. Kirsch has been unwell and cannot travel, so the two non-Jews go to Auschwitz with a prayer book and try to say the prayer for his children. Gnielka asks Radmann what he sees. “Auschwitz,” he replies. “No,” Gnielka says. “You see a meadow. A fence, barracks, and a meadow. Auschwitz is the victims and their stories.”

Like most studies of human atrocities committed upon each other, this film adds to the message that memory is what’s most important. Acknowledging what happened and making it part of the public awareness, not covering it up and trying to move on as though it hadn’t happened. In Hebrew, it’s zachor, remembrance.

This film has already been selected and submitted by Germany for consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I hope it makes the nomination shortlist so that more people go see it.

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