February 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

Six weeks late. Ah well. After the cut, reactions to The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, This Film is Not Yet Rated and several books I read for school.

Movies

Word Wars
So when I started watching this, I was thinking it was the crossword puzzle documentary, you know, the one with Jon Stewart in it? But, no, that one is Wordplay. This one is about competitive Scrabble, and doesn’t feature anybody anyone’s heard of. Unless they’re in the world of competitive Scrabble, I guess. But it turned out to be fairly interesting anyway. I mean, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Scrabble tournaments, but it makes as much sense as spelling bees, I suppose. And some of these people were really into it, as in, they were making their living by winning Scrabble tournaments. Certainly makes my attempts at Scrabble seem feeble. There are really three or four guys they follow around, hearing their take on the somewhat insular world of Scrabble tournaments, up until the world championship. I guess since Spellbound did well, all the other sorts of games/competitions are trying to get into the documentary action. None have yet come close to Spellbound‘s magic, though.
Average
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The Devil Wears Prada
Perfect guilty pleasure movie. I mean, come on. New York City, high fashion publishing, super-competitive assistants, supremely demanding editor-in-chief, way-too-pretty-to-be-considered-ugly Anne Hathaway, wonderfully snippy Emily Blunt, and sublime-as-always Meryl Streep. Of course, it’s totally style over substance, but hey. World of fashion, remember? The whole point is style over substance. This film knows exactly what it is, exactly what it’s doing, and it does it well. There’s not much you can really say against a film like that except on purely ideological grounds. It’s great fun, and sometimes that’s all a film needs to be.
Well Above Average
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Dreamgirls
This is again something of style over substance, in that the story is fairly routine (despite being based on the real life story of the Supremes; sometimes real life is routine)–a girl group in the sixties makes it big after leaving behind its strongest singer for image reasons, but was it worth it? We all know the answer already. But that’s okay, because not having to worry about the story leaves us more time to enjoy the music. And if you like Broadway-inflected Motown-style music, it’s really really good. Eddie Murphy continues to annoy me, but Jamie Foxx does well in his somewhat thankless role, and American Idol-alum Jennifer Hudson completely outshines everyone else in the cast, including Beyonce, going on to win a well-deserved Oscar. (My favorite Dreamgirls-related story is how Beyonce’s father was completely upset when Beyonce didn’t win the Golden Globe for Best Actress, and he claimed it was because the Hollywood Foreign Press were racist–in an awards year when they gave Golden Globes to Jennifer Hudson, Forrest Whitaker, and Eddie Murphy, the Best Musical/Comedy statuette to Dreamgirls, and Beyonce lost out to freakin’ Meryl Streep–see above.)
Well Above Average
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Three Times
I don’t know what to write about Three Times. It’s a Chinese film, laid out in three sections–one set in 1966, one in 1911, and one in 2005 (the year it was released). Each section has the same actors playing out a love story. They’re not meant to be connected, I don’t think, in any kind of metaphysical way, except insofar as they intrinsically comment on each other as three love stories in three different eras. Each story was told very beautifully–I particularly liked the 1966 one–but the film is almost agonizingly slow. I hate saying it like that, because I know what I think whenever someone tells me a movie was slow: “Well, yeah, if you have a five-second attention span.” But I’m serious. This film really takes its time. It’s worthwhile, the acting is good, the cinematography is gorgeous, it’s just paced very differently from mainstream Western film. I would like to see it again sometime when I’m in a less distractable mood, because now I’m left with a film that I thought was beautiful but didn’t enjoy watching very much.
Well Above Average
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This Film is Not Yet Rated
This documentary is an expose of the MPAA ratings panel, i.e., the people who decide whether a film gets a family-friendly G or PG, a teen-friendly PG-13, an R, or a deadly NC-17. The creators are mostly concerned with the arbitrary nature of the ratings (since there is no hard and fast set of rules applied consistently to all films), the concealment of the rating process (since often filmmakers aren’t even given reasons for their film’s rejection), and the anonymity of the board. Various filmmakers and actors are interviewed, including Kevin Smith, John Waters, Atom Egoyan, and Maria Bello, showing the wide range of inconsistent responses they get from the MPAA. The film does well as long as it focuses on the theoretical issues of ratings consistency and process disclosure–two areas which I think definitely do need reform. However, director Kirby Dick gets a little overexcited about the conspiracy aspect in his attempts to unmask the panel members–the segments of the film where he has a private detective follow and out the board members come too frequently and last too long, taking away from the real problems with the system of which anonymity is really only a symptom.
Above Average in concept; Average in execution
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Books

Cane by Jean Toomer
Cane is a series of short stories, vignettes, and poems that add up to something less than a coherent novel, but something more than just a collection of writings. They’re all set in the Deep South, dealing with various aspects of black culture in the time period sometime between emancipation and when the book was written in 1922. It could be polemical, but it’s not. It could be political, but it’s not. When I wrote about it briefly for class (Harlem Renaissance class, this was), the best word I could come up with to describe it was “impressionistic.” Reading it is very much like looking at paintings by Renoir or Monet…you get glimpses of particular people, at particular moments, but it’s only a flash, and then it’s gone. It’s gorgeous, but baffling. But really, it’s the sort of book you can’t really talk about–you have to experience it.
Well Above Average
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There is Confusion by Jessie Fauset
Jessie Fauset was one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, her home being a major meeting-place for the African American writers and artists of the 1920s…sort of like the 19th century Parisian salons. She also wrote a novel or two, including this one. It’s really interesting for its insight into an upper-middle-class black family in New York City in the 1920s, a side of the culture you don’t often see. It basically posits a societal order among black families that’s separate from but equivalent to white families. The one thing I really liked about it was that it focused more on interpersonal relations than race relations–race was in there, of course, but Fauset was under delusions that solving the race problem would solve every problem facing her characters, because the socio-economic and personal conflicts would still be there. That said, There is Confusion is a fairly routine book. It was a fast, fairly enjoyable read, but it wasn’t anything terribly special.
Average
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Partial Books

I’m not really counting these as fully-read books, because I didn’t, you know, fully read them. But I read enough of them that I feel they merit a mention.

The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England by Samuel H. Monk
I did my first European Romanticism essay on the concept of the sublime and its relationship to Romantic thought, and this book popped up in article and bibliography after article and bibliography. So I got it, and though it’s not brand new (1930s), it’s a very readable introduction to the many, many writers who talked about the sublime during the 18th century–hence, the sort of thought that permeated the culture of the Romantics. There’s a lot of content, because there were a lot of people discussing the sublime, its relationship to the beautiful, in conjunction with classicism and neo-classicism and the gothic novel and romanticism…it was hard to keep it all straight, and Monk does an admirable job with it all.
Well Above Average
WorldCat

The Romantic Sublime by Thomas Weiskel
Weiskel looks at the sublime from a psychological perspective rather than an historical one, describing the way the sublime affects the observer in Kant and Wordsworth especially, but also some other romantics. There’s a lot of really deep stuff in here, but it’s not terribly readable–it’s obvious that Weiskel was brilliant and it’s just very difficult to try to keep a handle on what he’s trying to say. Still, it’s definitely worth a look if, you know, you happen to be writing a paper about the sublime. While Monk’s book is really a historical recap with commentary, Weiskel’s is sort of a new addition to the field. He looks at the previous writers, but he also seems to be breaking new philosophical ground, and there have been papers written about this book, not just using it as a reference.
Above Average
WorldCat

Coleridge and the Concept of Nature by Raimonda Modiano
I only read one chapter of this, the one about Coleridge, Schiller, and the Sublime, but I’m mentioning it because Modiano gives one of the best explanations of Kant’s theory of the sublime and the beautiful that I saw anywhere in my reading. In case it comes up, Kant? Not that easy to read. I finally felt like I understood him after reading like six descriptions in other books about him, and this one was particularly concise and lucid. She also gave the only description of Schiller’s philosophy that made any sense to me at all. Definitely will come back to this if I write about Coleridge any more–if the rest of the book is as good as the chapter I read, then it’s pretty dang good.
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