29 September 2015

The Electric “Elements of Oz”

Elements of Oz is a new stage/video show that seems to combine an homage to the MGM movie with Ozma’s Magic Picture. (Which, as we all know, can show you any place or person you ask to see.)

Here’s a taste of the review in today’s New York Times:
At “Elements of Oz,” having its premiere as part of the Peak Performances season at Montclair State University here, viewers are encouraged to use smartphones or tablets during the performance. . . . You download a special app that instructs you to put your phone in airplane mode until the show starts. The app then provides access to various elements that enhance the production, primarily nifty filters that, when you point the phone at the stage, add new layers of imagery to the action. When Dorothy’s house in Kansas flies skyward, for example, you can hold up your phone and see a real corker of a tornado and slashing rain that isn’t apparent to the naked eye.

Directed by Marianne Weems, “Elements of Oz” was jointly created by James Gibbs and Moe Angelos. Ms. Angelos is also one of the three performers, alongside Sean Donovan and Hannah Heller. A loose, loopy and enjoyable seminar on the making of the movie and its influence on pop culture, the production combines live video and performance — several famous scenes from the movie are more or less filmed anew before us — with anecdotes about its production and other random arcana about the film and the book it was based on by L. Frank Baum. . . .

The live re-creations of scenes from the movie are technically marvelous; the digital video (by Austin Switser) is dazzlingly pristine, and it’s fun, at least for a while, to watch the wry comic impersonations of the performances in the movie. . . . But ultimately these sequences don’t provide enough comic stimulation to justify their length. It begins to feel a bit too much like a draggy day on the back lot, and you might find yourself tempted to escape the app and fire up the real movie on your phone…
The performers, who each play multiple roles, all get praise, as does Bert Lahr.

21 January 2015

Woodsman, Spare This Retelling

Today’s New York Times offers Laura Collins-Hughes’s review of The Woodsman, an hourlong play inspired by The Tin Woodman of Oz:
A movement piece with puppets, James Ortiz’s “The Woodsman” is an elemental reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz. The spectacle is handmade, infused with breath and light.

This is the Tin Man’s back story: how a regular human named Nick Chopper (Mr. Ortiz) came to be a rusting pile of metal in need of a heart. The story, laid out in a spare spoken prologue in this largely wordless piece, involves the witch who rules this part of Oz. Her only apparent vulnerability is an aversion to sunlight.

When Nick falls in love with her barefoot slave Nimmee (an appealing Eliza Simpson), the witch schemes to prevent their union. She enchants an ax to cut off chunks of Nick, one by one. With prosthetics to replace them, soon he is wholly made of tin. Without a heart, he can no longer love. . . .

Mr. Ortiz’s puppets are fanciful and gorgeous: the witch, with her pinched face and dowager’s gown; the crows, whose wings in motion are all taffeta susurration; a fabulous golden-eyed monster, a cross between a tiger and a bear. (Oh, my.)
That would be a Kalidah, shown above.

Alas, Collins-Hughes concludes, “With so many pieces well in place, it seems churlish to complain, but one significant flaw holds ‘The Woodsman’ back: The storytelling isn’t clear enough. The visual language can be muddled, and important bits are sometimes rushed.” She obviously hopes a future staging will improve.

24 November 2014

Having Trouble with This Aspect of Darren Wilson’s Testmony

According to Officer Darren Wilson, after his first brief exchange on 9 August with Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson about walking in a Ferguson, Missouri, street, he backed up his police vehicle and confronted them again because one of them was wearing a black T-shirt.

In an interview on 10 August, the day after the shooting, Wilson stated: “I heard on the radio that there was a stealing in progress from the Ferguson Market on West Florissant. I heard a brief description of a black male with a black T-shirt.”

In his grand jury testimony several weeks later, Wilson repeated that: “I was on my portable radio, which isn’t exactly the best. I did hear that a suspect was wearing a black shirt and that a box of Cigarillos was stolen.” That description confirmed for him that he’d come across the two suspects from the store robbery: “I did a doublecheck that Johnson was wearing a black shirt, these are the two from the stealing.”

However, earlier this month the police radio dispatches from that day were released.

The dispatcher said, “it's going to be a black male in a white T-shirt.”

An officer confirmed, “Black male, white T-shirt.”

Four minutes later, another voice added: “He’s with another male, he’s got a red Cardinals hat, white T-shirt, yellow socks and khaki shorts.” That was an accurate description of what Michael Brown was wearing.

Officer Wilson couldn’t have heard anything about a “black shirt” on the radio. The radio calls, as recorded and released, mention only Brown’s “white T-shirt.” Three times.

How much did Wilson, consciously or unconsciously, massage his memory to conform to what he saw after shooting Michael Brown dead?

21 November 2014

The Benghazi Strain of OIP Derangement Syndrome

One easy diagnostic test for OIP Derangement Syndrome is an abiding belief in conspiracies and secrets surrounding the fatal attack on the US consulate and CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

In my personal experience, the people who say they’re most concerned with digging out more facts about that event also have a lot of trouble keeping the existing facts straight, such as how the US had no embassy in Benghazi.

There have been multiple investigations of the attack. In fact, the “Asked and Answered” website not only answers common right-wing questions and claims about Benghazi but also a list of how many times those questions have already been authoritatively answered.

Today, two weeks after the national elections, the House Intelligence Committee finally released its report on the event. And that bipartisan but GOP-controlled body came to the same conclusions as the previous inquiries.

As the Associated Press reported:
A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people. . . .

In the aftermath of the attacks, Republicans criticized the Obama administration and its then-secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for president in 2016. People in and out of government have alleged that a CIA response team was ordered to “stand down” after the State Department compound came under attack, that a military rescue was nixed, that officials intentionally downplayed the role of al-Qaida figures in the attack, and that Stevens and the CIA were involved in a secret operation to spirit weapons out of Libya and into the hands of Syrian rebels. None of that is true, according to the House Intelligence Committee report. . . .

Rice's comments were based on faulty intelligence from multiple agencies, according to the report. Analysts received 21 reports that a protest occurred in Benghazi, the report said—14 from the Open Source Center, which reviews news reports; one from the CIA; two from the Defense Department; and four from the National Security Agency.
The AP also noted that this report “was released with little fanfare on the Friday before Thanksgiving week,” despite how much importance some Americans have attached to the subject in recent years.

Sadly, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have already taken steps to feed those people’s delusions further. Earlier this year it commissioned a special House committee to conduct an eighth government investigation. Based on this one’s schedule, we can expect its report days after the 2016 election.

(Shown above is the cover of a book that supposedly exposed some of those lies and conspiracies about the bengahi attacks. It was featured on Sixty Minutes, then pulled by the publisher when the author was found to be lying. Note how the cover twice uses the word “embassy”—that should really have been a clue about its accuracy.)

20 November 2014

Publishers as Venture Capitalists?

Another of Paul Levitz’s observations about the publishing industry last week was that book publishers have usually operated like bankers. They extend interest-free loans to authors in the form of advances, to be paid back (they hope) in royalties over succeeding years.

And like bankers, those companies are quicker to loan money to people who don’t need it: authors who are already earning a fine living off past books or in other fields. New or unknown authors, especially in fiction, have to do most of their work before they see any money, and then they don’t see much.

(That of course reflects that publishing advances aren’t exactly like loans. They’re also bids on properties, and in any business what looks more like a sure thing commands a higher price than an unproven quantity.)

Levitz suggested that publishers will have to become more like venture-capital firms, investing earlier in authors’ careers and projects. And, presumably, offering more guidance and control over their creations, as venture capitalists watch over the start-ups they invest in. Hollywood studios work closer to that model, paying earlier in the process to develop projects with a larger payoff.

I see a couple of problems for authors with that model. First, Hollywood studios are notorious for the number of projects they abandon: scripts in turnaround, TV pilots shot and never aired, and so on. Likewise, venture capitalists know that many of their investments won’t pay off, and they pull the plug a lot. Right now authors who get as far as a publishing contract are usually sure that their books will eventually see print, even if they’re marketed even more weakly than usual.

Hollywood studios are also notorious for getting involved in the creative process with script notes, personnel ultimatums, recutting, and so on. All to make the final stories more entertaining, of course. But does that work?

The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman famously wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade:
Nobody knows anything. . . . Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.
What’s more, writing a book is a far less collaborative process than making a movie, or creating a tech company. How much solid advice can publishers offer to authors early in the creative processs? How many experts can they bring on board, or how many systems can they put in place, when the whole enterprise consists of one person and one keyboard?

19 November 2014

A Paradox of Geek Fandom

Last week I sat in on a discussion with Paul Levitz, former President at DC Comics, at MIT’s Media Lab. (The door to the building said I had to have an MIT identification to enter, but I rode up the elevator with Levitz and helped him find the auditorium, so I figured I deserved to stay.)

Levitz started at DC Comics as a sixteen-year-old freelance writer and editor, and is still scripting comics. From 1976 to 2009 he took on increasing internal responsibilities, spending the last seven years as President. Having long functioned as a big part of the corporate memory, he recently wrote a gigantic history of the company.

Among other observations at MIT, Levitz said that “geek culture” has overtaken “pop culture.” That reflects the popularity of videogames and of superhero and science-fiction movies and TV shows, of course, but it also speaks to a certain style of consuming entertainment.

I asked Levitz for his thoughts about one paradoxical aspect of “geek culture.” On the one hand, that form of fandom is very interested in seeing the process of storytelling:
  • comics collections often include early sketches, scripts, and creators’ discussions of roads not taken. We rarely see that in novels.
  • DVDs feature deleted scenes, commentary tracks, outtakes, and other peeks into the creation of the movies or TV shows they document.
  • TV “show runners” are becoming celebrities with their own following.
  • the moviegoing/viewing/reading/gaming public follows the creation of a new piece of entertainment earlier than ever; news that used to be restricted to the industry is now spread everywhere.
In sum, it’s more obvious than ever that those stories we like are artificial creations designed to entertain us and earn our dollars. And we enjoy the reminders of that.

And yet “geek culture” is also marked by a fervid, sometimes rabid, protectiveness about those stories and the characters in them, as if they were real or deserved to be. Fans want to guard their favorites from the very companies and people who have the assignment of keeping them alive.

Levitz could only reply that part of his job as a DC executive was to warn people adapting the company’s properties to other media when they were straying too far from the characters’ “core.” He found that he couldn’t define in advance what would raise most fans’ protective responses, but he knew it when he saw it. And that emotional attachment remains, still hard to map but perilous to cross.

18 November 2014

The Wizard of Oz teapot tempest”

In 1957 Ralph Ulveling, director of the Detroit Public Library, received nationwide criticism for remarks he was reported as having made about the Oz books.

I’ve been looking into that story, and this is part of one of the documents from it: Ulveling’s counterattack in the October 1957 American Library Association Bulletin.

Ulveling insisted that his library system hadn’t gotten rid of The Wizard of Oz—it simply wasn’t in the children’s rooms. To be fair to him, that decision had been made “More than thirty years ago,” or shortly after L. Frank Baum’s death. On the other hand, his endorsement of that policy acknowledged rather than refuted the anti-Oz-book sentiments attributed to him.

Ulveling went on to accuse the Michigan State University Press, of all people, of ginning up the controversy to sell books.

And you know, he might have been right.

16 November 2014

DC to Feed Nostalgia for Six to Twelve Years Ago

DC Comics executive Dan DiDio told USA Today that the company’s “Convergence” crossover event for next spring will return to older versions of its primary characters. “We’re picking up at points of their lives where we left them and finding out what’s gone on with them since then,” he said.

Closer examination at Comic Book Resources confirms that these stories hearken back to the company’s continuity before the “New 52.” But each tale seems designed to return its hero to a happy high point popular with his or her following. Back in June, the gossipy site Bleeding Cool heard from a creator that the upcoming project would be “a love letter to DC Comics fans.”

Thus, Wally West is not only the Flash once more, but he’s married to Linda and both their kids appear to have superpowers. (After 2010, only their daughter had powers.) In another nod to the domesticity of about eight years ago, Superman and Lois Lane are expecting a child.

Stephanie Brown will be back at Batgirl, with Tim Drake in his first Red Robin costume and Cass Cain as the Black Bat. That also reflects their situation in about 2010 (though we didn’t see much of Cass back then). Damian Wayne, who appears to be coming back in some form in the regular continuity, might well show up in one of these miniseries without ever having died.

“Convergence” thus gives DC a chance to “correct,” at least temporarily, recent developments that many fans vocally disliked, such as the murder of the Atom Ryan Choi and Roy Harper’s loss of both his arm and his little daughter.

Indeed, in some way, these series “correct” the entire “New 52” as they show the heroes fending off attacks from “Flashpoint versions” of other heroes; Flashpoint was a 2011 crossover presenting dystopic versions of the world which led to the “New 52.” The characters or versions of characters that disappeared in that transition have, the summaries suggest, been living under a protective “dome.”

I have particular questions about the Nightwing/Oracle title, to be scripted by Gail Simone. The teaser for the first issue says:
Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon reevaluate their relationship under the dome (wedding!), but Flashpoint Hawkman and Hawkwoman attack, and everything changes.
For many fans, Dick and Barbara are meant to be together. But the last time they were talking marriage in DC’s regular continuity was back in 2006. So are they reevaluating from that perspective, or after all the events that happened between then and Flashpoint? If the latter, that means Dick has become Batman, and no one has successfully penned his decision to go back to being Nightwing. At least not yet.

15 November 2014

It Should —— Scan

The New York Times coverage of the new picture book for frazzled parents, You Have to —— Eat, reminds me of why I didn’t see the first one as worth noticing.

There’s this thing in verse called metre. If you’re going to write parody picture books, you should get to know that.

This quoted passage from the new book starts out anapestically enough but stumbles in the second line.

The sunrise is golden and lovely,
The birds chirp and twitter and tweet,
You woke me up and asked for some breakfast,
So why the —— won’t you eat?
And the third. And the fourth.

These books come from a small press that hasn’t specialized in the form, so perhaps its editors don’t notice the problem.
The sunrise is golden and lovely,
The birds in their nests chirp and tweet,
You woke up and asked me for breakfast,
So why in the hell won’t you eat?
But it’s really not that hard.

14 November 2014

Family Fairness, Then and Now

Back in early October, The Hill reported:

Congressional Republicans are outraged that President Obama may take executive action on immigration reform after the mid-term elections—perhaps by deferring deportations and providing work authorization to millions of unauthorized immigrants with strong family ties to the United States. However, past Republican presidents have not been shy to use the White House’s power to retool immigration policy. In fact, Obama could learn a lot from presidents Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s executive actions to preserve the unity of immigrant families, and move past Congressional refusal to enact immigration reform.
After President Reagan signed the 1986 immigration reform law, people noted that it could apply to some members of certain families but not all, thus putting the US government in the position of splitting up families. Advocates like the US Catholic bishops argued that the government should take care to prevent that, but bills went nowhere in Congress. In 1987, therefore, Reagan’s Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner announced the agency was “exercising the Attorney General’s discretion” to defer deportation for many illegal immigrants.

Immigrant advocates worried that still left many families at risk. Legislation once more stalled in Congress. In February 1990 President Bush used executive action to implement the provisions of a bill that the Senate had passed overwhelmingly and the House hadn’t acted on. Bush’s INS commissioner explained the “family fairness” policy by saying, “we can enforce the law humanely. To split families encourages further violations of the law as they reunite.” The administration estimated that action would affect 40% of the illegal immigrants in the US at the time.

Today the Obama administration faces very similar challenges: keeping families intact, not coming down hard on children, bringing productive members of American society out of the shadows, a Congress too divided to act. The US people granted President Obama executive power in the 2008 and 2012 elections, which clearly includes the Reagan and Bush administration precedents. So far Obama has issued fewer executive actions than his recent predecessors.

And yet top Republicans in Congress are now saying that if President Obama uses the same executive power as Presidents Reagan and Bush to address the same problem, that would justify either shutting down the federal (again) or impeachment (again).