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A pleasant surprise in film adaptation

As mentioned in a previous post, I often feel a slight twinge of disgust when I learn that literature I treasure is going to be morphed into a film adaptation. It’s not that I dislike the act of doing so as a concept; it’s just that the current body of film adaptations does not instill any hope that new ones will be any good. So imagine the horror and despair I felt when I learned that a former fashion designer (a field for which I do not have much respect) had adapted the most accomplished novel from my most revered writer into a new film?

To my pleasant surprise however, Tom Ford’s rendition of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was highly enjoyable to watch. And while I reserve some criticism around his choices in bringing this devastating story to the screen, I would recommend it overall, particularly for those of you who enjoy Isherwood’s work. It was refreshing to finally see Colin Firth as George break out of those interminable tethers to his famous presentation of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, which he seemingly represents in nearly all of his roles. Julianne Moore, as George’s boozy British best friend, is also a delight, but that is nothing new.

Ford manages to convey the power of Isherwood’s story: the ordinariness of George’s pain in losing his long time lover, suffocated underneath the cultural conservatism and fear rampant in mid-century America. In doing this, Ford seems to have done just fine with his film. What more can we ask? As originally determined from the film’s trailer, the visuals are stunning. Sometimes it almost reaches the point where I was not sure if I was watching a commercial for high end luxury products or a film. We can forgive Ford his indulgences, for he does give us imagery that is astounding overall and coaxes his actors into fine performances. I thought the New York Times review of the film did very well in comparing Ford’s work to that of Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-Wai.

This adaptation was tastefully done: any changes made to the story seemed natural in the transition from written word to moving screen image. Adding the gun and George’s desire to commit suicide gave the movie some dramatic impetus, which is needed in a film but can be left out of a piece of literature. My one main criticism has to do with the hyper-stylization of the film, even though I did find it gorgeous. Art directed to the maximum effect, Ford seems to pander to the materialistic and consumptive side of our culture in needing to make everything beautiful. The characters seem to be wealthier than represented in the novel, and everyone is so fashionable! But perhaps this is what audiences want to see, why would we want to be reminded of our drab lives? It just rings a little false in comparison to Isherwood’s original story, which was not glamorous. It seems like Ford did a great job of adapting the novel, but in bringing it to the screen put the entire thing before his personal fashion panel: anything that could be made pretty was done up, the whole tableau of visuals fit together too perfectly.

Overall though, the film was a very pleasant surprise from an untested filmmaker, who managed not to crap all over a seminal work in modern queer literature. For this alone, Ford deserves praise. It will certainly be interesting to see what he does next with his new found path. Hopefully this wonderful novel will get a bit more attention now that the publishers have slapped Colin Firth’s mug on the cover for a re-print.

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Not learning poo from history

Were not those that failed to learn from history doomed to repeat it? With Barack Obama gearing  up another American surge, this time in Afghanistan, we could afford to look at a bit of history. Let’s take a quick look at one of America’s most influential political, social and artistic predecessors: Rome.

And this is not the Rome of the modern European travel circuit, but Latin Rome that began as an Etruscan influenced city-state ruled by kings from 600-BC onwards. About a hundred years later, the city’s aristocracy established themselves via coup as those enfranchised with power and formed what we could call a republic with the lower classes (who were given nominal representation within this power sharing system). Anyone who was not a propertied male did not have much voice or agency at all. Rome went on to clash with its neighbors, conquering them militarily and savagely working away at consolidating the entire Mediterranean basin into an economic and political unit that became the dominant power in the Western world in the years around the turn of the previous millennium.

However, the original class based republic did not last. Hundreds of years into the republic the (in)famous Julius Caesar declared himself dictator in 44-BC based on his popular and military support, and was promptly stabbed to death by those same enfranchised aristocrats above (on the very floor of the Roman Senate – talk about political theater!), not keen on surrendering power to one member of their class alone. Military struggles between factions ensued, and eventually Augustus Caesar (Julius’ chosen heir) won out in 27-BC, settling on a new constitution that claimed to “restore the republic” but in fact gave the Roman people a monarchical government. Augustus was princeps (first citizen), and his successors called themselves imperator (emperor), and thus the Roman Empire germinates around this time.

America can take some strong points here for its own consciousness; examples that we could keep in mind as we evolve with the paradigm shift (which certainly will not be easy in proud and exceptionalism-minded America) that is coming with a multi-polar world of geopolitics: exampled by our intrinsic lock with China over finances, our historical/socio-cultural/militaristic ties to Europe, and dependence on (often hostile) oil-producing states.

The imperial expansion of Rome introduced the same paradox that the Athenian Greeks faced between democracy (Athens was in fact a class/gender based democracy) and the pursuit of empire and subjugated peoples. The United States soon followed Rome’s precedential path from republic to empire in picking fights with both Mexico and Spain, amongst many others from Asia to Africa throughout its short history — sometimes acquiring vast tracts of territory and population, sometimes acquiring subtler or non-existent gains; look at the mess we caused in southeast Asia. A country which cannot afford or prioritize giving its people healthcare, building decent transportation networks (let alone high-speed trains), or keeping its education system credible cannot afford to militaristically harass far flung peoples. We have and will continue to expend enormous amounts of blood and treasure on our misadventures, clearly stressing our current creaking economic system. Hundreds of years went by for the Roman Empire before they succumbed to internal and external pressures, seeing generals vie for influence through military power struggles, eventually buckling under the immigration influx of what history has branded Germanic tribes, around 400-AD.* As the United States continues to face old and new pressures, such as relative power decline, economic strain and a continued influx of large numbers of immigrants (Spanish speaking peoples mostly, coming back to reclaim much that was stolen during a mid-nineteenth century war?), it will be interesting to see what happens to this country.

And now back to Afghanistan, where we seem to be further investing ourselves in an endlessly violent quagmire. Here we are hideously not learning anything from the historical record. Our predecessors the British in the mid-1800s and the Russians in the 1980s, were two other foreign powers that tried to control Afghanistan forcibly, to disastrous results. Sinking more resources into forcing our conceptualization of the modern state onto a people who are not accustomed to it, let alone did not ask for it, is not going to work out and it serves to only weaken the United States further. It will function as one of the external pressures like those felt by Rome in its twilight period.

*For a hint of more context, this is when the beginnings of our ideas of France/French, Spain/Spanish, Italy/Italian et cetera develop in western Europe.

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The book to movie cringe

To be truthful, I usually frown upon most literary narratives transitioned into film, as I feel that in their essence the two media are not capable of telling stories satisfactorily in a mutual way. Of course, each is enjoyed thoroughly by many people and independently of one another in their own contexts. Apparently having demonstrated our appetite for these adaptation films, numerous examples have been produced and actually make up a sizable portion of the overall mainstream film output. But gawd, aren’t most of them absolutely terrible?

Do you remember when they tried to make Philip Pullman’s interesting and severe His Dark Materials into a film franchise with lots of lights, money and beautiful hollywood faces? (And rightly failed to do so) Zzz. Not all productions from literature to film are so hideous. Peter Jackson allegedly scraped by with his rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings. But in the wise words of the character Val Goldman from the film The Birdcage — “Don’t add, just subtract.” — Jackson’s film seems replete with images that could have been spent on more accurately transitioning Tolkien’s detailed and simple narrative. But even the sage advice above does not always hold, demonstrated by the adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, made by Clint Eastwood, of all people. He embellished the role of The Lady Chablis, enriching and poking the story into interesting places, a rare example of a filmmaker adding some queerness to one’s work. Overall, it seems to be varied on how well the transition is made, depending on who does the work.

So I will admit that a cringe was elicited upon realization that the previously seen but unidentified film poster at the Kabuki theater* in San Francisco was in fact an advertisement for an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. My evidence was found in this article from the NY Times. My love for Isherwood’s written works led me to masochistically devour the article and rush to the web for the trailer. The former designer turned film auteur Tom Ford gives us a version featuring credible performers, if clearly altered (clear from the article and online trailer) and looking to lean towards high drama. Isherwood’s novel is subtle as it is emotional and devastating; it will be interesting to see if Mr. Ford can stew these down into a visual and moving cinematic experience without serving us something overcooked, drowned in a flavor of Ford’s own publicity and ego. I hope to be proven utterly wrong**, and see the delightful balance that can exist between two executions in form of a single original story. Here’s to optimism.

What will certainly be interesting to see is how much attention Isherwood the writer and his collective works receive in the release and attention around Ford’s film. Sometimes this can actually be the undoing of a piece of literature, at least in its mass-produced and marketed life. We have all seen the paperback transposed with movie poster at our local box bookstore. They have the ability to drain a lot of goodness from what would otherwise be a pleasant book experience, but should one complain if more people are reading said book? More people reading Isherwood’s writings is a great step in itself as they tend to be underread.

*I was there seeing another book to movie transition, the Wes Anderson directed spin on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I found to be wonderful. But I have the benefit of not having read Dahl’s original (to be rectified soon thanks to the San Francisco Public Library), so did not have to suffer the burden of comparing.

**I feel my interest in Isherwood will compel me to see Ford’s film. At least it will be worth comparing to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, which is based on Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

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Muni service changes came Saturday 12/5/09

Castro Muni Station

Remember public transit users in San Francisco: this past Saturday, December 5th The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or SFMTA, or commonly referred to as Muni, changed its service schedule in order to accommodate certain budget crises. In a letter from Tom Nolan (Chairman of the SFMTA Board of Directors) and Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. (Executive Director/CEO), we were assured this change in service was due to the larger global meltdown of the capitalist world order, and in fact, only half of the bus lines are being affected at all! Lesser used lines  saw capacity cut, while busier corridors had service boosted, which seems to make sense. We were also reminded that the changes were meticulously planned using input from the Transit Effectiveness Project, with the sage assistance of both the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors.

So nothing to worry about? With an ever increasing individual ride fare, not to mention price of fast-passes, we have to wonder what the long term trajectory of Muni’s service is going to offer us as riders. Will the system still serve your needs? Coming off a period of accidents and poor press, Muni can ill-afford to incite any more severe distaste.

Many of the major cross-town lines went unchanged, like the 14 Mission, the 24 Divisadero, and the 43 Masonic. The 38 Geary however was trimmed down a bit in the Outer Sunset, but its express lines remain intact. Many lines had some alteration made, including eliminated segments and reduced hours of service. It seems along busier corridors, some lines have had their frequency and service hours increased. However, this may be due to the need to cover what are now completely discontinued lines. Goodbye to the: 4 Sutter, 7 Haight, 20 Columbus, 26 Valencia (this bus really never seemed to come anyway), 53 Southern Heights, and 89 Laguna Honda. Farewell bus lines! I will miss the 7 Haight, which often took me between my place in the Haight and work downtown.

Here is a chart that fully describes the changes to each line, ordered conveniently by the number of the bus route. Safe travels as you ride Muni.

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Thanks to the chickens & their sweet delicious eggs

Free range, local, organic and sustainable eggs are best for you, the chickens, and the Earth.

Around Thanksgiving, lots of Americans are thinking of turkey and pumpkin pie… traveling to see family and friends, maybe waking early on Friday morning to initiate the Christmas consumption. Many people also take a brief moment to give thought to what they are thankful for in this life: the family and friends come back into the picture, maybe our health or vitality, something usually registers on this day of pensiveness around our fortunes.

I feel extremely fortunate for eggs! Specifically, the eggs of one of my favorite feathered friends: the chicken. While I am also grateful to Aurore, the other winged friend featured in this year’s bountiful Thanksgiving feast, the eggs really shone through as I was making all of the various dishes for this year’s meal. Eggs are a necessary and ubiquitous component of many of the  side dishes which make their way onto the Thanksgiving table I have had the fortune to share the last few years. The sheer volume of egg consumed this year will be staggering:

  • 2 quiches — 4 eggs each (two whole eggs, two eggs yolks)  — 8 eggs total.
  • 2 pumpkin pies — 4 eggs each — 8 eggs total.
  • 1 casserole of mac n’ cheese — 2 eggs.
  • 1 bread stuffing — 3 eggs.
What a nice bird.

That makes for 21 sweet delicious eggs. The dishes not featuring eggs are only the turkey herself, and vegetable based dishes (raw salad, roasted root veggies, greens, brussel sprouts)—everything else calls for that jack of culinary trades: the egg; for which I am especially grateful this year. Having cracked and opened each one, I am trying to picture them now. Sticky and slimy. The gelatinous whites dusted in nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves before mixing. Being beaten into milk and cream, creating the frothy beginnings of custard like desserts. Mmm, thank you eggs.

To all you seasonal chefs out there, what are you thankful for in the kitchen this year? (Or if the day has passed, of what were you appreciative?)

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Riding the bus in an age of transparency

Being an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I am always trying to engage my students on relative topics in a contextual form, and I have an abundant amount of materials with which to work. Recently we have been discussing the usage of mobile phones based on a chapter of our text book. We discussed in which locations and situations they are either appropriate or not to use. One scenario seems to be a source of mixed opinions not only for international students, but also the citizens of San Francisco: riding the bus. In using MUNI as my main means of transit around this fair city, one will notice that people act in a variety of ways. I personally get off my phone before boarding the bus, or sometimes will chat quietly if the bus is relatively uncrowded. Some people seem to follow a similar, simple method: speak discretely or stick to texting. However, there is also a wide range of people within a spectrum of folks who speak quite loudly and openly on their phones, with some sort of consciousness that the other passengers are then privy to this form of communication, thus engaged on some level. People talking about their family drama, about their favorite TV show, about their day… talking to someone but certainly nobody on the bus. Internationally, we seem to be working with this concept of how much space we are taking up while in each others space. Everyone is privy to details, as long as they are tied to some electronic medium. Some people still keep it wide open without the phone or the blog the social networking page. The other day on the #7 Haight Inbound (soon to be discontinued as of 12/05/09, goodbye busline!) a young woman and her friend were speaking quite animatedly on the bus about a woman, and letting the entire rear end of the bus know intimately how they felt about a third woman, not on the bus but the subject of their loudly spoken conversation. Apparently she had traded down for an apartment on Haight as opposed to Cole Valley, and did not her building look like a tenement—indicated by the purple metal railings and front stairwell design. The rest of the conversation was just as brazenly catty, dotted with lots of self-absorbed consumerist details and inanely odd personal details around cannabis club locations and other subjects maybe not best discussed loudly on public transit, even in San Francisco? That may just be my latent paranoia, but nevertheless, it was a public discourse in that all the other passengers were the unwilling eavesdropping audience to this odious trite. Where is the line when we are riding the bus, or when we are on the train or aeroplane? What boundaries should we strive to create around honoring where we are presently, but respect the desires of those who want to be plugged in to someone else not on the bus with us?

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Porkflu inspired common sense

What a nice pig.

Whilst riding BART today, I saw an advertisement that was trying to inform citizens about a few best practices around the avoidance of getting sick, of spreading it to other citizens. This advertisement suggested coughing into the crook of your arm as opposed to coughing into the faces of other BART passengers, coworkers, friends, you get the drift. Maybe we could stay at home when we’re sick!

Should simple best practices in harm reduction such as these be learned through advertising? When did a significant number of people lose these common sense practices, creating the perceived need in some organizations to engage in advertising (the 6th circle of capitalist hell) to (re?)teach them. Clearly we could be discussing the need to inform people they should not be coming to work, and the further complication around working out a system where people are forced to choose between earning money/infesting coworkers and not earning money/recovering, as there are major discrepancies with notions around “sick time”.

As we gear up for more porkflu hysteria, we may see more and more resources poured into such areas as advertising and marketing. I think the best thing we can do as conscious citizens is to take care of ourselves, and each other the best we can. Discuss harm reduction best practices with your friends, and where possible, shoot for the execution of sustainable, holistic, balanced and mind-body wellness informed tactics for staying healthy this season.