Sunday, October 22, 2006

More about Del Toro

I forgot to mention that Mr. Del Toro had quite an animated response to an audience member who asked, "So, who is your target audience? You've just made a movie with a child protagonist, but it's scary and there's lots of gore.' Del Toro responded: "(Who cares about) the target audience. I am the target audience. If I thought about such things, I'd be out there making 'X-Men Part Four. The rules of commercialism are pleasurable to subvert. If you try to 'appeal to both quadrants,' if you let that lingo seep into what you do, you will domesticate your imagination. In the long term, all that is false anyhow. Besides, you can see a lot of Jennifer Aniston movies that failed to appeal to any of the 'quadrants.'''

By the way, I was very impressed that he storyboards his entire movies himself -- including his own elaborate pen-and-ink drawings of every character. But he also says that 'preparation should not be a straitjacket. Film is about capturing the accident even at its best, while orchestrating a bunch of things that do not seem to relate to each other.'

Columbia MFA story in latest Poets and Writers

Columbia got written up in the latest Poets and Writers study of the top 5 MFA programs. The article was highly entertaining, and there was a great quote from Michael McAllister. All in all, it was a great read.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Sneak preview of "Pan's Labyrinth''

One of the great things about Columbia's MFA program is the free events at the School of the Arts building (Dodge Hall.) The Film Division, for example, has screenings almost every week, featuring first-run movies, including many that are in the sneak-preview phase. The film division lets us know about these things, in the form of flyers and emails, but we get so many emails about goings-on that it's easy to miss the best offerings. Last week I saw Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth,'' a strange but potent blend of horror-movie images, Grimm-style fairy tales and Franco-era fascist nastiness. The movie focuses on an 11-year-old girl whose stepfather is a cruel and overbearingly macho Franco supporter. He's in charge of an outpost on the edge of a vast forest, where guerrillas are hiding out and mounting attacks against the Fascists. Trespassers and curfew breakers --- including two hapless rabbit hunters -- are gunned down on sight. The interweaving of fantasy sequences (from the girl's imagination), and the Fascists-fighting-the-guerrillas sequences, is extremely well-done. The girl's imagination takes her to some increasingly dark places, including the lair of the "Pale Man,'' a cannibal with eyes in his hands. He presides over a banquet table. If a guest dares to take any item of food from the table -- even a single grape -- the Pale Man, a dead-ringer for Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Children,' springs into action and devours them. De Toro himself was on hand to talk about making the movie. In an eye-opening and profanity-laced interview, he said he was trying to create a film about disobedience in the face of an overwhelming power. This movie is a "Harry Potter'' for adults. (Impressionable kids should steer clear. It's full of sudden violence, torture sequences and some pretty off-putting horror imagery.) If nothing else, it's a reminder of a nasty (and recent) episode in Spain's tragic past. De Toro spoke of Generalisimo Franco "dying happy, in bed,'' in the mid-1970s.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rename Donner Pass

Lately I've been doing a lot of research about California (my home state) and the emigrants who made their slow, miserable way across the Great Salt Flats in the 1850s. After reading quite a few books, I'm puzzled by one thing: Why is Donner Pass named after the Donners, the murderous, quarrelsome and (some would say) stupid group of people who left too late, brought way too much stuff, took an ill-advised 'shortcut' and wound up marooned in shanties in the Sierra Nevada, where they were forced to eat axle grease, dogs, mice, coyotes, rawhide, and, eventually, each other? It's not just the fact that Donner party behaved in reprehensible ways. On top of all this, they were not the first emigrants to cross the pass that bears their name. A homely -former blacksmith and fur trapper named Elisha Stephens crossed the same pass a full two years before the Donners clawed and gnawed their way across it. In fact, Stephens did not lose a single man, woman or child in his wagon train while half the Donner Party died of starvation and exposure. Stephens got very little glory for his role in all this. He ended up a beekeeper in Bakersfield and died alone and obscure. It's strange, how people who make a mess of things can become household names. Sometimes, doing your job properly, and quietly, confines you to the dustbin of history.

Beauty in a rat-infested courtyard

Sometimes you can find beauty in seemingly disgusting places. For example: my wife and I live in an attractive Pre-War apartment building, and Columbia owns the place so the rent is way cheaper than it would be if it was market price. Anyhow, there is a dungeon-like courtyard where we must go to do the laundry. It's in the basement of our building. To get there you must descend some rusted-out stairs to an enclosed flat area with large stinking Dumpsters (registered trademark) where some of the fattest burliest rats in the world live and thrive. In fact, every other time I get there, a huge honking rat runs right in front of me, looking terrified. It's kind of strange, the way rats run in terror every time I approach. It's not like I'm going to try to pet them or eat them. Anyhow, I was dragging our laundry down the stairs of that rat-infested hellhole when, all of a sudden, I heard this unearthly sound: a woman singing, mezzosoprano, perfect pitch, perfect tone, and the sounds of it were wafting through the air, out of an open window on one of the upper floors. It was one of those moments where everything seems to stop for a while. I just stood there with my laundry basket balanced on one of the stairs and listened for 10 minutes. It was like front row seats at the Met. Then the singing stopped and the courtyard was quiet again. Only in New York.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hair-raising True Stories about the Natural World

Yesterday I asked my students to come up with some stories about the natural world, situations that challenged their assumptions about man and nature. They came up with all kinds of amazing stories. One of them talked about having to fed off a horde of crazy raccoons when he was in elementary school. Another told me that his surf break was temporarily rendered off-limits when wildlife officials tried to 'bury' a dead whale at sea, attracting the attention of enormous white sharks. Another was shocked by the murderous behavior of his feral cat. One student was shocked when he moved to New York and saw that the shy, retiring squirrels of his countryside home were nothing at all like the vicious aggressive squirrels we have here in the city. It's all part of a class section in which the students will be reading essays about man's uneasy relationship with nature. We started things off with a screening of "Grizzly Man,'' Werner Herzog's strange and hair-raising documentary about Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly enthusiast who was, eventually, eaten by one of his ungrateful (and hungry) beneficiaries. The class mostly thought he was well-intentioned but a total kook. We're going to put these experiences in context by reading Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and others. I'm hoping to develop this (eventually) into a semester-long course. Another instructor in the writing program helped me out immensely by suggesting an essay about William Cronon, which challenges the American view of "man'' and "nature'' being separate realms. He claims that city parks and city trees are just as 'natural' as their counterparts in the forest.