Women with weapons: on Emily Blunt and the triumph of Higgins-ism

In subway stations a few weeks ago, I began seeing a poster, for a film called Sicario, that featured Emily Blunt wielding a pistol. To put it plainly, this bugged me. Is this fulfillment of Henry Higgins’s wish for a woman to be more like a man really the kind of equality we want? I had felt the same way a few months back, when I kept seeing promos for the second season of the HBO series True Detective that featured Rachel McAdams with a handgun. Recognizing that there’s a certain appeal to this form of power (as in a few of my pictures on Flickr), I grabbed a quick photo and posted it to Instagram with a comment:

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The fantastic and the real: new plays at NYTW and Roundabout

Elevator Repair Service performers in Sibyl Kempson’s new play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Elevator Repair Service performers in Sibyl Kempson’s new play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Fondly, Collette Richland: Like Lewis Carroll and other fantasists, Sibyl Kempson, in this phantasmagoric new play created for Elevator Repair Service, takes a few characters through an almost unnoticed portal and into another realm. What they find isn’t a genial land of drollery (Carroll’s wonderland isn’t always purely genial either) but instead a cavalcade of grotesquerie sprinkled with tomfoolery. Scholar Victoria Nelson has been arguing in books (such as this one) that the cold light of rational materialism hasn’t abolished the supernatural—it has simply moved underground, out of official religion and into art and entertainment. Kempson, who delved into Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade for this play (according to a recent Times article), may have been reading Nelson as well; the “resurgence” that’s referred to in her text parallels the one that Nelson describes. Regardless, Kempson’s work plays with similar material. Continue reading

The cheating heart of Volkswagen’s software: quick thoughts

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the recent discovery, by U.S. regulators, that Volkswagen’s diesel engine-management software cheats: it detects when a test is being conducted and limits emissions during the test to meet the standards, but it doesn’t do so the rest of the time. Why would VW do this? I haven’t read any details. Presumably the company reckoned that meeting the standards all the time would noticeably degrade the engine’s performance. This seems weird—the wrong way to think small. Diesel is a less expensive fuel than gasoline, and it gets more miles per gallon, but VW engineers would have to be employing a crude and clumsy means of emissions control for it to make an appreciable difference in fuel economy. Why don’t they just do their job right? (Which might also be said about another case recently in the news.)

Regardless, some people have gotten all upset over this. I saw a tweet yesterday reporting, I think, that the VW cheat put an extra million tons of pollutant into the air every year. That may sound like a lot, but if I remember correctly the scale of the numbers for automobile emissions, that would amount to very little. Likewise, someone else said we should reckon the number of people sickened or killed by this. Again, I’d think the difference would be tiny. If we want to talk about a single step that’d make an appreciable difference in combustion emissions—which is not really the way to go about warding off climate change—it’d probably do more good for the U.S. to raise its petrol tax to something like the level in Europe, or to institute some kind of overall carbon tax. For me, given what little I know so far, the reason to care about VW’s behavior is not the actual consequences but the principle of the thing: we’ve been deceived.

Addendum, 10:15 AM: My skepticism may be misplaced in this case. The Economist, in a brief report included in this morning’s Espresso, adopted a distinctly gloomy attitude; read it here.

Your experience will vary: an elusive Isolde from New York City Players

Three corners of a love triangle: Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Three corners of a love triangle: Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

All the classic love stories are tragic, it seems: Paris and Helen, Tristan and Iseult, Abélard and Héloïse, Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps not much should be hung on such a slender thread, but common usage typically refers to the man first, the woman second. Writer-director Richard Maxwell has turned that around, and a good deal else, in a play now running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience. His Isolde modernizes and thoroughly transforms the old tale.

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More negative thinking about honors, awards, and prizes

Yesterday, I briefly questioned the purpose of awards along the way to praising a particular nominee for a particular acting laurel. I didn’t have the time, and still don’t, to go into the overall issue, but Christopher Hitchens did some of the work in a December 1992 column for Vanity Fair. A few illustrative extracts from his commentary, which is mainly concerned with awards for books but which applies more broadly:

  • “The constantly burgeoning awards racket…is the importation of show-biz values as the ruling values everywhere.”
  • The proliferation of prizes is “a kind of extended essay in the cultivation of self-esteem and positive reinforcement, as envisaged by Lewis Carroll in the ‘Caucus-race’ of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Dodo roundly declares that ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’”
  • “The unstoppably inflating awards business exists to reward sponsors, to pacify egos, to generate sales, and to puff reputations.”
  • “In the atmosphere created by the prize cult, it is forgotten that a canon of literature is made up of works and books, not of ribbons and awards.”

In the light of these remarks, it’s peculiarly ironic that earlier this year a prize named after Hitchens was established. The announcement that this new prize was being launched stirred up some discussion. Was it actually bestowed upon someone? I never heard. If I were writing in the guise of a responsible journalist, I would find out and report, but that would only defuse my point. One of the presumed intentions of an award is to cut through the clutter, yet the awards racket has generated its own clutter, and it joins the very thing it hopes to hold itself apart from, namely, the profusion of consumable artifacts that some early-modern critics termed the culture industry.

One reason—or is it six?—to care about this year’s Emmy Awards

Here, in a nutshell, is one of my problems with awards. Six performers have been nominated for an Emmy Award as outstanding lead actress in a drama series:

  • Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in Empire
  • Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
  • Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards
  • Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder
  • Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men
  • Tatiana Maslany as Alison, Cosima, Helena, Krystal, Rachel, and Sarah on Orphan Black

I’ve seen four of the six performances, and as far as I’m concerned they’re all outstanding. Considering how marketing works these days, the fact of having been nominated will continue to be mentioned throughout each of their careers. What’s the purpose of choosing one as a winner? The answer seems to be that there’s no fun in naming six people who’ve done excellent work; the fun comes from picking one as best and letting people argue over it. This suggests that awards exist, at least in part, to entertain us. It’s as if acting—or writing a novel, or producing a film—were a form of sport or even a battle. The tendency is long established: the annual theatrical festivals in ancient Athens awarded prizes, and the Old Comedy playwrights sometimes wrote claims for themselves into their texts.

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Music at the ballet: a short note on upcoming performances

As I’ve said before, but maybe not on this blog, even a blind person could appreciate a dance performance with live music. The thought occurred to me while attending the New York City Ballet, but many smaller-scale and less-expensive dance events offer the same rewards. An example comes up this weekend: two New York performances by New Chamber Ballet will feature music by Mozart, Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and two composers unknown to me, Friedrich Cerha and Richard Carrick. The choreographer is Miro Magloire, whose work I haven’t yet managed to see. For details, try this link or this.