Local Woman Sees Star Wars: The Force Awakens

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Local Woman Sees Star Wars

The Hairy Space-Bear and The Guy Who Wears The Leather Jacket were both in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Two weeks ago, the long-awaited Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, hit theaters like a ton of space-bricks. Hordes of people of all different ages, all kinds of backgrounds, and varying levels of nerdiness flooded theaters on December 17th to see what this latest installment had to offer. They showed up to theaters two hours before the movie. They stood in lines that stretched out the door, around the corner, and possibly into the street. They ate popcorn by the bucketful and shouted over each other to answer the theater staff’s trivia questions and win free movie tickets (most likely for return trips to see this exact same movie). And, lucky me, I was one of the many, standing in line at 9 pm with my ticket in hand, waiting for the theater doors to open. There was really only one thing separating me from the eager crowd of fans humming with excitement around me:

I had never in my life seen a Star Wars movie.

I know. Suddenly my “space-bricks” comment makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? I know exactly zero things about Star Wars, so for all I know space-bricks are totally relevant to this fandom.

I am fully aware that every person in the world has seen Star Wars. I’m pretty sure they screen it for newborn babies in the maternity wards at hospitals. It’s been around for almost 40 years, but somehow I had managed to stumble through life without ever seeing it. I never accidentally watched one while at a friend's house or in a waiting room or settled on one while flipping through channels—you know, back in 2008 when people still had cable.

So when the new movie came out, and friends invited me along, I decided, “Yeah, ok. That could work. How important is it REALLY to have seen the other movies? I mean, I know stuff about Star Wars.”

This line of thinking was pure folly. A group of Star Wars-loving co-workers showed me just how wrong I was with an informal, pre-movie interview. Here are the things I “knew” about Star Wars before seeing the movie - spoilers ahead, but only for people as Star Wars-sheltered as me:

[begin embarrassing transcript]
So, what are you pretty sure you already know about Star Wars?
Luke and Darth Vader are related.

They sometimes fly around in ships and shoot at things, like giant desert rats.

One of the planets is, like, a desert planet.

Han Solo shot first. The internet was pretty adamant about that one.

Yoda talks funny and is green and small and…him and Luke were buds?

Jar Jar Binks is a gold robot. No, wait, he's the guy with the weird face!

There's a scene where there's deserts! Or planets.

Ok, what do you know about the general plot of Star Wars? Give us a summary.
Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One of some kind. He lives on a planet that is not Earth and fights some dudes. Not really sure about his motivation. He hangs out with Yoda and Han Solo and they teach him how to use a lightsaber. He goes to fight Darth Vader because no one likes that guy. They go to the Death Star, which is round and has a dent in it. Darth Vader wants to kill him for... reasons? Then there are storm troopers and they wear white and there are other kinds of storm troopers that look similar but are different. And they fight them? And they win? And Darth Vader dies? But first he says "Luke, I am your father." And that's all I know.

Who is Jabba the Hutt?
He's a fat guy who has Leia in a gold bikini. I know that because of Friends. Wait, is that guy blue?

What do you know about Boba Fett?
I don't remember. Is he an alien? He's not a person. Not as crazy looking as Jar Jar Binks. Is he a robot?

What about Obi-Wan Kenobi?
I used to think Harrison Ford was Obi-Wan Kenobi. But actually, he's Han Solo. I just assume they are both Harrison Ford.

How do you think the ewoks enter into this?
Oh. Yeah. Is Chewbacca an ewok? They are some sort of space animal…that are either Chewbacca or…I'm imagining them smaller? Like the footstool in Beauty and the Beast. You know that little dog?

Who is Anakin Skywalker?
That one I know! That guy is Darth Vader. He was a nice guy once and then his face got jacked up. So under his mask he has a jacked up face. What's his motivation? What's that guy up to? Is he trying to take over the universe? People are always trying to do that.

Who's the Emperor?
Is that different than Darth Vader?

Who is Lando Calrissian?
He is from across the Narrow Sea and has dragons and wants the Iron Throne?

Who does Natalie Portman play?
She was Princess Leia, right?

No.
Really!? Wow. I was like 80% sure she was Princess Leia.

What is the Force?
It's like chi? Energy. You use it for... fighting? With lightsabers? You should use it. I know you use it. And also that sometimes it is with you. Can it be good or bad? I think it's good.

What's a Jedi?
Oh, a Jedi is like an auror in Harry Potter. They fight crime and stuff and they wear brown robes. Also like Harry Potter! Wait, lightsaber color is important. I don't know why I know that. Do they have different powers? Do people have powers in this movie? Um, I know Jedis can return. They went somewhere and came back. Is Jedi plural? I think it's a job.

[end embarrassing transcript]

Yup. So, clearly I was starting on a solid foundation of very correct facts. I’m pretty sure by the end of the conversation, I was just directly quoting from movie titles. I am still not totally sure how wrong my information was, but I could kind of gauge it by how horrified my co-workers looked after each answer.

And so, armed with all of this very factual knowledge, I went to see the seventh Star Wars movie. I waited in line for two hours with a horde of die-hard Star Wars fans wearing quippy t-shirts. Some were dressed up as That One Character Who Wears Gray, or That Person With the Brown Clothes, or Princess Leia (nailed it). And lots of them were toting around what I thought at the time was some kind of zany orange and white space-hat (but was apparently a robot called BB-8). I watched my Star Wars-obsessed friends answer trivia questions and yell at a guy who dared to wear a shirt with a Star Trek font. I ate two pretzels.

And then it was finally time for the movie. We flooded into the theater, the lights went out, and the magic began.

Considering that I barely knew who anyone was or what was going on, the movie kept me completely hooked from beginning to end--aside from a very brief couple of seconds when I fell asleep because, well, it was almost midnight and I was basically full of pretzel cheese.

I thought the movie was funny, exciting, and incredibly realistic for a space opera. Spaceship chases? Yes, please! Lightsaber fights? Bring 'em on! But there were also real feelings, real relationships, and real stakes in this movie. Who'd have thought?

The main characters were just impossible not to root for. Finn, the stormtrooper who's been trained to kill for the dark side, but decides run off and fight for the Resistance; Rey, the clever, solitary junkyard girl who accidentally gets swept into this epic battle between good and evil; and BB-8, the world's most adorable space-hat, who is being hunted by the Republic.

Now, I'm not sure if a stormtrooper turning his back on the dark side and running away to fight for good is something that has ever happened in the Star Wars universe. If I'm honest, before Finn pulled off his helmet in the movie I didn't even realize stormtroopers were people. If I'm really, really honest, I didn't even know stormtrooper was one word. But the revelation that stormtroopers could have feelings and weren't all just soulless killing robots felt like a pretty new and exciting leap in character development to me--and a pretty cool introduction to the universe. All my preconceived notions, few though they were, were just blown to bits and suddenly it felt like anything could happen. If stormtroopers could be good maybe C-3PO would pull off his face to reveal that he's the Emperor. The possibilities were endless!

Rey was a joy to watch as she went from impoverished junkyard scavenger to lightsaber-wielding, butt-kicking fighter for the Resistance, and her chemistry and banter with Han Solo was so much fun. Kylo Ren, with his motivations and backstory left intentionally foggy, managed to seem well-rounded, and the relationships that were hinted at gave his character some great depth. As far as I can tell, Star Wars isn't known for making two-dimensional villains, and they certainly haven't started with Kylo Ren.

These allusions to histories and relationships between the movie's characters felt like completely new revelations, not old references that I just wasn't getting. But it was interesting how easy it was to pick up on the things that were old inside jokes. I didn't get any of them, of course, but I could tell when some classic Star Wars thing had happened because suddenly the camera would pan around to a nondescript, decrepit spaceship and everyone would start screaming and cheering. Or Han Solo would stop and say something completely unremarkable and the entire theater would explode into laughter and applause.

The combination of old references and new information made something incredibly clear, though. While I could probably say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good movie--I enjoyed seeing it and only fell asleep the one time--it would be impossible for me to say just how good it was without having seen the other beloved (and less-beloved) films in the series. Are these ideas, these characters, these plot lines original and revolutionary and surprising, or are they overdone tropes? Are they carefully planned and well-thought-out tie-ins to plot lines from the previous movies or have they kicked the old plot lines to the curb? Is this the continuation of one great big, epic story or an entirely new story with some familiar faces tacked on?

On a great big list of "Things I Don't Know About Star Wars," these questions have all risen to the top. Right below the biggest question of all: Was Star Wars: The Force Awakens really a good movie?

I think so. But I can't know for sure until I've seen the rest. And so, with the next movie in the franchise looming on the horizon, it might be time to give in to the gravitational pull of the Star Wars universe and just…watch the movies already.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and if she had to rename The Force Awakens, she would call it Star Wars: Stormtroopers Have Feelings Too. Or maybe, Star Wars: Everyone In Space Has Daddy Issues.



Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in theaters everywhere, all the time.

The Other Kind of "Pop" Music: A2SO's Holiday Pops

REVIEW MUSIC

Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's Holiday Pops concert

"Pop!" went the music as Measure for Measure joined A2SO's Holiday Pops performance.

On December 11th the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Christmas season with their 4th annual Holiday Pops performance. Combining music, song, and some audience-provided sound effects, the show captured all the best things about the holidays: cheer, togetherness, and good music.

I went in expecting the good music, so I wasn’t surprised when they started with some classic wintery waltzes, ballet pieces, and a host of other refined orchestral numbers that made me feel like I should have worn fancier clothes. It was beautiful and stirring and, after getting over the amazing sight of the instruments at work, I listened to most of it with my eyes closed. But I was pleasantly surprised a few songs in when the show revealed itself for what it really was—pure holiday ridiculousness in a fancy suit.

The conductor took a break from his straight-laced conducting for some charming holiday banter, ironically reminding the audience to go out and play in the snow and to see the heart-warming holiday film “Krampus.” Then he and the orchestra launched into a second wave of pieces that were just as beautiful, but far jollier. One song that perfectly combined the feeling of sophisticated symphony with festive silliness was the “Champagne Gallop,” an upbeat piece that included regular pauses for an exuberant “pop!” sound, mimicking the popping of a champagne cork. Technically, this sound was supposed to be made by the percussion section—but what fun would that be? Instead, the conductor asked the audience to create the popping sound themselves with the trusty finger-in-the-mouth trick. Suddenly, a song that would have been a pretty good time all by itself was made even better by the hilarious sound of 500 audience members making popping noises every time the conductor waved his hand in our direction. It was, in a way, like being a part of the orchestra—if there was a section of the orchestra designated to ridiculous sounds you can make with your mouth.

But generally speaking, there is not. I checked.

Partway through the program, the orchestra opened its doors and ushered in a flood of choirs: the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, Measure for Measure, the Skyline High School Choir, the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, and the Greenhills Choir. The orchestra’s performance was made all the more buoyant by the addition of song as each choir took its turn and, finally, joined the audience for a good, old-fashioned holiday sing-along. As the evening ended with the audience belting out verses of "Jingle Bells," "O Christmas Tree," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," the performance went through one last transformation, taking on the feel of a fun and cozy family get-together—complete with cheerful, off-key singing in my ear and children kicking the back of my seat.

Ah, Christmas.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian and she actually has no idea how to make that finger-in-the-mouth popping sound.


The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next big event will be their Mozart Birthday Bash at the Michigan Theatre on January 16th. Tickets are available online from their website.

Review: Come As You Are

REVIEW VISUAL ART

Nikki S. Lee Punk Project (1), 1997: Fujiflex print, edition 5 of 5 // Mark Dion Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division), 1998: Mixed media

Nikki S. Lee "Punk Project (1)", 1997: Fujiflex print, edition 5 of 5 // Mark Dion "Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division)", 1998: Mixed media

I’ve been waiting a few years now for the day that the 1990s are far enough behind us that we can start to look at that decade and the art that came out of it with a more objective eye, and the Come As You Are installation at UMMA seems to imply that perhaps that day is finally here!

The best thing about the installation, located in a large exhibit space on the second floor of the museum, is the diversity of mediums that comprise it. Paintings, sculptures, film, photographs, and large-scale multimedia installations are all represented. And, despite the bright colors, sounds, and even quick movement (!) of some of the pieces, they all come together to create an unusual sense of peace in the room… with a distinctive ‘90s aura.

Upon entering, viewers are directed to turn to their left (although I am sure many will be distracted, as I was, by a piece to the right featuring an office chair spinning at seemingly impossible speeds). The decade is broken into three segments for purposes of organization of the installation, beginning with 1989-1993, a time when the United States was rampant with debates about multiculturalism, race, and the “American identity,” and when issues of gay rights and feminism were just beginning to be truly discussed in the public sphere. As the introduction to the exhibit points out, it was dramatic political and social events that pushed these issues to the forefront of the media in the early 1990s: the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court decision, the Los Angeles race riots and Rodney King beating, and the continued AIDS crisis. The art pieces from these years reflect these issues well. "Synecdoche", by artist Byron Kim, is a grid of monochrome painted panels that doesn’t necessarily catch the eye at first. I was fascinated to read, however, that each panel represents exactly—or at least as close as Kim could get to—the skin tone of an individual that Kim invited to “sit” for a portrait. With “synecdoche” referring to a part that stands for a whole, Kim’s piece makes a simple, yet interesting commentary on a racially diverse society.

Prior to this, however, is a case of Rolling Rock bottles enclosed in bright orange plexiglass—a remnant from one of the performative installations of 1991 by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who invited people to sit and share drinks and a meal together while discussing issues of the day. Other moving pieces from the early 1990s include a velvet couch embroidered with the words of a suicide note left by a single immigrant mother to her daughter, and two enormous dresses with unnaturally long arms—a piece entitled "Famous Twins", by Beverly Semmes, that comments on skewed perceptions of the female body image. I didn’t quite “get” "Lick and Lather", by Janine Antoni, which features two self-portrait busts of the artist, one of soap and one of chocolate, but was absolutely fascinated—and somewhat horrified—to find out that Antoni formed them by licking away the chocolate and lathering away the soap.

Janine Antoni Lick and Lather, 1993, Two self-portrait busts: one chocolate and one soap, Photo by John Bessler

Janine Antoni "Lick and Lather", 1993: Two self-portrait busts: one chocolate and one soap / Photo by John Bessler

The mid-1990s mark the advent of the digital age, and the art in this portion of Come As You Are does, too. Digital photographs and several short films make up most of the art in this section. For one of the films, viewers actually step behind a dark velvet curtain for an enclosed viewing experience, a sharp contrast from wandering through the bright white rooms that house the rest of the pieces.

In the late 1990s, the focus of the art divides somewhat. About half of the pieces make statements on American cultural stereotypes in the latter portion of the decade, while others turn outward and focus on globalization and America’s role in the global economy. Nikki S. Lee has a series of self-portrait photographs on display, in which she portrays women who “typify” late-1990s American culture: a punk rocker, a Latina woman on a sunny city street, and a woman in an Ohio trailer near a confederate flag enacting a “white trash” stereotype. Nearby, Jeanne Dunning brilliantly contrasts a close-up photograph of a skinned tomato with an adjacent photograph of a mischievously-smiling woman, tomato juice running out of her mouth, inviting viewers to contemplate how women are often portrayed sexually in art—and that when a piece of art portrays a woman, it’s difficult to not see sexual undertones, even when none are intended.

Concluding the room are two vastly different pieces: the first simply a television screen with a screenshot of an actual Ebay auction from 2001: that of “Keith Obadike’s Blackness,” which will allow the purchaser to “gain access to ‘high risk’ neighborhoods” and acquire the ability of “instilling fear.” The second and final piece is a large, room-sized multimedia installation entitled "Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division)". Artist Mark Dion and his team actually researched and identified both the biological and geographical origins of the fish sold on a given day in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1997, a perfect sort of microcosm of the global economy. The art installation looks like a laboratory, with fish samples, files, and notes scattered about. This is the first time the piece has been exhibited since the year it was created.

I might be a little biased because I’m fascinated by the political and social events and the unique culture of the 1990s, but I found Come As You Are to be a particularly interesting, thoughtful, and special exhibition of art. As the first major museum installation showcasing the art of the decade, it really is a must see—even for those who remember the ‘90s less fondly than I do.


Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.


University of Michigan Museum of Art: Come As You Are will run through January 31, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am-5 pm; and Sunday 12-5 pm For information, call 734-764-0395.

Review: Henry IV, Part I, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

UMSMTD gives the devil his due in their production of Henry IV

UMSMTD gives the devil his due in their production of Henry IV

Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I isn't really about King Henry IV. It's about the rivalry between Henry's son, Prince Hal, the future Henry V, and the heroic and headstrong Harry "Hotspur" Percy.

The play is full of jolly roistering and clashing swords, but its theme of delayed maturity seems to fit well for a university production. And the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance offers a perceptive and action-packed production.

The heir to a much-disputed crown is happier in a tavern than on a battlefield and his father worries that Hal will never assume his proper role. Meanwhile, the son of one of his allies, Hotspur, has won acclaim for his daring. Hotspur and his father and aunt (a change of gender for the role) will soon change allegiance and lead a rebellion. Will Hal meet the challenge?

Not if an old, soused knight named Falstaff has any say in the matter. Falstaff is of course one of Shakespeare's great creations. He's a lecher, a drunk, a buffoon, a coward, and a great party animal. He's a "bad influence" but closer to Hal than his own father and something of a modern day cynic.

Director Priscilla Lindsay pulls all these elements together in a rousing, traditional staging of one of the Bard's most popular works. The production moves smoothly from the bawdy confines of the Boar's Head Inn to the royal court to the bloody fields of battle. Shakespeare's language is a challenge for young actors and the clarity of some of the actors is less than it should be. But Lindsay gets some excellent work from her three major actors.

Robert M. O'Brien is a handsome, charming, and playful Hal. He speaks the language well, he moves gracefully and, crucially, he makes a convincing move from party boy to a leader of men. He conveys some of the sadness and loss that that move will cause him.

The plum role in any production of this play and its sequel is of course Sir John Falstaff. Graham Techler may need padding to fill the obese profile, but he is a superb Falstaff. He handles both the rapid verbal wit and the complex physical comedy excellently. He's hilarious, but in his famous comments on "honor," he also conveys a deeper understanding of what he's saying.

But, the real find here is Caleb Foote. His Hotspur is a raging revelation. He is fierce, rapid-tongued, and physically athletic and on-edge. Foote's command of Shakespeare's language is amazing. He understands perfectly that the best approach is to speak it naturally as your own and in this case he even gives it a rough north English accent. When he is on stage, he commands the stage. He bears himself like a young Jimmy Cagney, which is perfect for the reckless if honorable warrior he plays.

Key roles are played by Larissa Marten as Hotspur's ambitious aunt, Matthew Provenza as the title character, Elyakeem Avraham as a Welsh lord and Jesse Aronson, Samuel Bell-Gurwitz, and Sten Eikrem as Hal's Boar's Head companions.

The complex battle scenes are excellently staged by fight director Robert Najarian. Costume designer Christianne Myers helps define the players by putting the king's men in golds and tans and the rebels in silver and gray.

The production concluded Sunday at the the Power Center on the central UM campus.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Review: The Light in the Piazza, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

A talented cast brightens the stage in The Light in the Piazza

A talented cast brightens the stage in The Light in the Piazza / Photo by Peter Smith

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance loves to boast about the many graduates who are making a name for themselves on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country.

A new production of The Light in the Piazza at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM North Campus just might add significantly to that list. An uniformly outstanding cast gives life to a musically challenging work that is at times comic, romantic, and richly melodramatic.

The musical with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel is base on a 1959 novella by Elizabeth Spencer about a mother and daughter trip to Italy. The time and lush setting suggest the romantic, Technicolor movie melodramas of the 1950s in which a family secret creates a tension that can only be resolved through love.

The UM production on the intimate Miller stage leaves the splendor of Florence, Italy, to the audience's imagination (for how could it ever be presented on a stage). The stage is bare except for chairs, a table and, in one key scene, a bed. These are moved about fluidly by the ensemble cast who remain on stage as a chorus of Florentines. The small orchestra is also on stage. Up front a common story plays out. Mother and daughter go to Italy, where once upon a time the mother and her husband had a carefree holiday before the realities of business and life intruded. The pretty but fragile daughter finds romance with a passionate young suitor from an equally passionate Italian family.

The "secret" is a childhood injury that has left the young girl mildly developmentally impaired. But this is the 1950s, and her parents want to protect her, or is it control her. A mother-daughter struggle ensues.

This is not your typical musical comedy. The music is rich and varied, moving from the lift of a jazz combo to the complex drama of grand opera. Music director Catherine A. Walker leads a five member orchestra through the score superbly. Walker also plays beautiful piano from boogie-woogie to rising romantic flourishes. This is not the kind of show in which you leave whistling a tune, but the songs musically and lyrically capture the range of emotions that are at the heart of the show.

The cast is challenged in unusual ways. The songs are in English and Italian. Some cast members must sing and speak in Italian and in the halting English we associate with Italian immigrants. They must also move easily from operatic passion to quietly tender emotion to joyful humor. Guest director Brian Hill makes it all work seamlessly. He has his young cast performing beyond their years and capturing every nuance of a richly nuanced play.

Christina Maxwell plays the delicate, charming daughter Clara. She perfectly captures the sweet innocent early on and the fierce young woman trying to make a life of her own as the story develops. He voice is sweet but, even in the tight confines of the Miller, needs more projection.

The Naccarelli family are a joy, even as they embody a variety of well-worn Italian stereotypes. Luke Steinhauer as Fabrizio, the suitor, is magnificently over the top in love. His "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" is at once passionate but outrageous and the reactions of his more knowing brother and father are hilarious. Ben Bogen is the philandering brother Giuseppe, quick and lively, who distracts his brother with a little jazz. Liesl Collazo is Giuseppe's tart-tongued, jealous but passionate wife and family translator, who also believes in love. David Barnes is suave and precise as the family patriarch who falls to the charms of Clara's mother and has a sweet duet with her. Kalia Medeiros brings spark to a giddy scene where she provides an explanation for what's going on when a family argument ensues in raucously rapid Italian.

But in this uniformly fine cast, one member stands out. Kaity Paschetto gives a star performance as Margaret, Clara's caring but tense mother. Paschetto resembles a young Angela Lansbury and seems to move as easily from comedy to drama to musical expression as that esteemed actress does. Her singing voice is bright, expressive, and emotional. She expresses excellent comic timing in her efforts to put off the suitor without causing a scene. But her best scenes are her sad encounters with her angry daughter and her long-distance conversations with an estranged husband (Charlie Patterson).


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

I'm Dreaming of a Sing-Along Christmas

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO MUSIC

Busters and weirdsmobiles packed Michigan Theatre to sing along with White Christmas

Busters and weirdsmobiles packed Michigan Theatre to sing along with White Christmas

The Friday after Thanksgiving, there was no more festive place for a musical lover to be than the Michigan Theater for their annual White Christmas Sing-Along.

If you're not familiar with one of my favorite movies, that's ok--I'll tell you all the best things about it:
- The oddball phrases that Bing Crosby used in real life were added into the script, which is how his character comes to call a holiday celebration a "yuletide clambake" and refer to Danny Kaye's character as a "weirdsmobile."
- Vera Ellen's character only wears turtlenecks. Whether she's clad in an evening gown, a bathrobe, or anything in between, it's a turtleneck. She has about 30 costume changes. All turtlenecks.
- That indoor fireplace at the Columbia Inn
- Danny Kaye
- There's no bad guy. The film's primary antagonist is the lack of snow in Vermont.

The sing-along is a happy, silly, and friendly event, where people in the next row up offer to take a photo of you and your friends before the show starts. The jolly atmosphere is fueled in part by singing along with a selection of Christmas carols accompanied by the theater's prized Barton organ, and in part by the goodie bag given to each attendee, which includes an extremely stylish Santa hat that almost every audience member wears throughout the whole movie.

The emcee of the event wears a Mrs. Claus dress that looks like an update of the Haynes sisters' dresses from the Christmas tree finale scene. She sings along with the carols and the movie, and this year, conducted impromptu "fabulous holiday sweater" and "White Christmas costume" parades. After spotting many festively-dressed folks in the crowd, she invited holiday sweater-wearers up to the stage to show off their fashionable knitwear. But the crowd was most appreciative of the dozen or so White Christmas cosplayers. There was a gentleman wearing Danny Kaye's costume from the "Choreography" number, two very clever costumers dressed as the butcher and the cobbler from the civilian clothes finale of "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army," and a couple who dressed in approximations of the "Sisters" wardrobe, one in the Haynes sisters style and the other inspired by Bob and Phil's famous lip-sync reprise.

The watching of the movie is punctuated with enthusiastic singing from the audience, with help from the lyrics captioning each musical number, and also with props from the goodie bags. They contained the following items:

-The aforementioned Santa hat - for establishing that this event is as cheerful as it is positively goofy
-A candy cane - for eating
-A snowflake sticker - for wearing
-Bubbles - to blow during the "Snow" song and at the finale
-Plastic horse - to trot out each time Betty mentions her knight-on-a-white-horse expectations of romance
-Blue feather - to garnish your personal rendition of "Sisters," which is played no fewer than three times
-Hand clappers - this plastic toy came in super-handy to chime in whenever there is on-screen audience applause, or an energetic bout of tap-dancing.
-Glow sticks - these red or green glow sticks were for swaying along with the ballads, most notably "White Christmas" but also "Count Your Blessings" and "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me"
-Popper - these tiny firecrackers accompany General Waverly in blowing out the candles on the cake celebrating the reunion of his admiring Army division
-A tissue - to pull out and emote along with Emma the busybody housekeeper. Pro tip: keep this tissue handy for whenever the General tells his men how much they mean to him

This is the kind of event best enjoyed with a group of friends, or your mom, or a group of friends and your mom, and what the hell, a group of your mom's friends too. It's a great time with a great crowd, and a great way to appreciate a classic holiday movie.


Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at AADL and she likes the song/dance number "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army" best.

Review: Jonathan Richman at the Blind Pig

REVIEW MUSIC

Jonathan Richman makes the secretaries feel better at the Blind Pig

Jonathan Richman makes the secretaries feel better at the Blind Pig (CC-by-NC)

Jonathan Richman, accompanied by his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, gave fans an intimate and fun performance this past Sunday, November 15, at the Blind Pig. Richman, who created the well-known band The Modern Lovers in 1970, has been touring on his own for decades, often accompanied by Larkins. Their extensive time together has made them the perfect duo: on occasion, Richman will lean over and suggest a vague beat to Larkins, who always seems to know exactly what he means and adjusts his drumming without expression.

As is traditional for Richman’s style, he rarely played a complete song at his Blind Pig show. Instead, he played snippets of songs, interspersed with direct conversation with the audience and wild dancing around the stage, typically with a maraca in each hand. Heavily influenced by other cultures, Richman sang songs in Italian, Spanish, and Arabic as well as in English, generously pausing throughout each one to translate for those of us who hadn’t the faintest idea what he was singing about. He encouraged fans to dance and clap, especially during upbeat songs like “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” and “Keith Richards.” Every so often, Richman paused and said, “Let’s see what Tommy is up to on the drums,” stepping back to grab his maracas and take a dance break while Larkins—still expressionless, of course—regaled us with a nifty drum solo.

One of my favorite moments of the evening came in the middle of Richman’s song “When We Refuse to Suffer.” He paused and stepped forward on stage to chat with the audience about driving through the United States with Larkins on prior legs of the tour (a funny image in and of itself, when you imagine Richman talking a mile a minute and gesticulating wildly while Larkins sits unmoving and silent in the passenger seat). At a gas station in Texas, Richman was struck by a magic marker sign taped to the wall that read, “Each person we see is fighting a battle that we know nothing about.” The gas station clerk told him simply, “Yeah… my boss wrote that.” Even though Richman chuckled when he told us this, he reminded the audience to keep the sentiment in mind as we went about our days.

Richman was about to end the evening, but then hurried back on stage saying he “had one more idea to try.” He struck up a song I’d never heard before, which, frankly, may have actually been made up on the spot. As Richman played guitar and sang “This love thing…” he had the audience respond back “…let me do it right!” This continued for three or four minutes, with Richman grinning happily. He then gathered up his maracas and guitar and gave the audience a quick wave as he and Larkins hopped off the stage.

Their tour continues in California, Oregon, and Washington in December.


Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library who drives a Dodge Veg-O-Matic.

In Which Bruce Eric Kaplan Talks About his Memoir and Career, But Would be Equally Happy to Discuss 1970s TV Show Plots Instead

REVIEW WRITTEN WORD VISUAL ART

Bruce Eric Kaplan talking TV and cartoons and parenting at AADL

Bruce Eric Kaplan talking TV and cartoons and parenting at AADL

Bruce Eric Kaplan’s talk at AADL on Wednesday, November 11, could have been titled “How I Accidentally Sold a Publisher a Book About my Childhood” or “I Love TV.” But his talk really didn’t have or need a title, in keeping with his low-key, off-the-cuff, c’mon-let’s-just-keep-it-casual approach to the event. This left lots of room for audience questions and comments, resulting in an easy, back-and-forth conversation between the room and Kaplan, whose pithy single-panel cartoons have appeared in the New Yorker for 20+ years, and whose television work has included scripts for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under and a producer role with the HBO show Girls.

Kaplan came to Ann Arbor as part of the 28th Annual Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival and he offered a short reading from his latest book, an illustrated memoir called I Was A Child. Kaplan's mother passed away several years ago, and then a couple of months after his father passed on as well, Kaplan found himself in a pitch meeting with a publisher, talking on and on about his parents and growing up in New Jersey. Afterward, he was so surprised to learn that the publisher wanted to buy this story, he made his agent call back to double check.

Kaplan says that working on this memoir was like spending day after day with his parents when they were young and healthy, and closing up his work each afternoon felt like losing them all over again. “We need a word for something that is both healthy and unhealthy for us,” he said, explaining that spending so much time thinking about his parents might have been unhealthy for him, but in the end, the closure he got from the process, was very positive. The process of writing the book also made him rethink parenting his own children, ages 8 and 10. “I realized they’re watching me,” he said.

The topic that really lit up the room, however, was television. Kaplan grew up watching TV, McMillan and Wife, I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Perry Mason, and countless old and semi-forgotten movies. (June Bride, anyone?) Even memories formed later in life are informed by his early love of television. For instance, after moving to Los Angeles as an adult, hoping to work in TV, he saw Mary Tyler Moore performing a scene on a soundstage. This was the breakthrough moment when Kaplan realized he could write television scripts, but in recounting it, he lovingly detailed watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a kid, when it was on in syndication, airing from 4-5 pm, EST, on Channel 4.

It was while writing spec script after spec script (he always thought he had a good Golden Girls episode in him, but he never managed to sell one), that he began submitting single panel cartoons to The New Yorker. At the time, artists could submit 10 ideas per week with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. He sent them in for years, his enclosed cover letters getting terser and terser, until finally, they bought one. He continues to submit cartoons monthly, and has been a regular contributor for more than 20 years. For people curious about the “labor of love” that is single-panel cartooning, Kaplan recommended an documentary, forthcoming from HBO, on New Yorker cartoonists called Very Semi-Serious.

Kaplan eventually sold several scripts to Seinfeld, which was the show that taught him that “you could incorporate your own existence into the half hour world.” In keeping with that lesson, he wrote the episode where George Costanza runs over some pigeons, an occurrence borrowed straight from the life of Bruce Eric Kaplan.

His experience working on Six Feet Under was a little different - while he wasn’t borrowing instances directly from his own life, he still felt an immediate connection to the characters on the show. “I read the pilot and I felt like I understood the family that doesn't talk and wants to connect but can't connect,” he said.

Because Kaplan was such a casual and conversational speaker, the event didn’t feel like a traditional lecture or a literary reading. It felt much more like sitting in someone’s living room, and chatting with a fellow guest who’s telling good stories about their interesting career. Then you remember you’re at AADL listening to the guy who drew this cartoon:

We just came from the stupidest meadow
and you think, I’m really glad I came tonight.


Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and was a real I Dream of Jeannie fan herself, back in the day.

Review: WSG gallery presents: Lynda Cole with North

REVIEW VISUAL ART

North 36h x 48w x 2d [beeswax, resin, pigment] / Image courtesy of Lynda Cole, through the WSG Gallery

"North" 36"h x 48"w x 2"d [beeswax, resin, pigment] / Image courtesy of Lynda Cole, through the WSG Gallery

In Lynda Cole’s hands, North is not only a primer in the emotional power of abstract art—it’s ultimately as much a state of mind.

Granted by this local artist’s definition, “north” is a psychological place, but when seen at downtown Ann Arbor’s WSG Gallery, North is as much a time as it is a place. And it’s in this fusing of time and space—both melding a particular state of mind—where “north” resides.

“My future travel will have to have ice in it,” Cole says in her gallery statement. “Where ice is found I encounter stillness, a beautiful quality of light, large horizons of the sea and sky and the color and purity of the ice. These things contribute to a feeling of tranquility I don’t find in most other places.

“On a recent trip to the Arctic during the midnight sun,” continues Cole, “early one particular morning, I looked out over the Arctic Ocean and felt as if I was Alice falling down the rabbit hole. The sea was entirely still with bits of ice in it.

“The light quality of the sky was a pale palette, striped and moody. It felt unlike Earth.”

This moodiness is reasonable as what Cole seems to mean is that “north” is as much an expressive place as it is physical location. But as a depiction of emotion, it might not also be much of a stretch to say it’s rather a way of life: A durable outlook that’s as much equal part exaltation as it is seclusion.

Solitude gets short shrift today. The pace of contemporary life so often hurries our sense of self, the mere act of checking one’s perception of the environment can seem more of a burden than did the leisurely appreciation of the sublime in prior eras not so long ago. And although the exhibit is much more; if nothing else, North encourages a leisurely appreciation of the sublime.

“The paintings in this exhibition are painted with beeswax, Damar resin and dry colored pigments on various substrates,” says Cole of her work’s technical expertise. “Many layers of wax are painted on the substrate and heated with a torch to fuse them to layers below. It’s an ancient technique which has enjoyed a certain revival during the past 50 years or so.”

A certain revival, indeed—fusing her layers of wax with heat to bond her working surface to a high gloss luminosity, Cole’s wax is sculpted and combined with collage material to create swaths of incandescent facture whose flaring textures reflect a subdued solemnity. But it’s also a solemnity with purpose.

The title work illustrates the stunning effect Cole can craft with her materials. “North”—36” x 48” with an impressive two-inch depth—is a meticulous masterwork whose frosty pigments compete with beeswax to create a moody visage of abstracted ice and air. The work’s upper and lower irregular grids flank, yet do not quite contain, a center of competing blue fields whose incandescent depth pull the viewer’s eyes into the composition more by suggestion than articulation.

Not quite improvisation, for Cole’s command of her materials is far too controlled for this laxity, yet loosely enough crafted to allow for nonrepresentational inventiveness, “North” instead reflects an emotional timbre whose resonance strikes a firm expressive state. What’s outwardly rigid in its appearance is also nuanced in its form. For “North” is a kind of painting that requires a contemplative deliberation and willingness to explore the infinity of its surface.

It’s also a call for a thoughtful appreciation of our environs—here and elsewhere.

One of six other such considered paintings on display, North like the rest of Cole’s latest offerings at WSG follows in the unhurried continuum of her art. Her work is a reminder that art nature (like nature) often unfolds meditatively in its own time and in its own manner. We must merely follow in the imaginative manner of our forebears to appreciate splendor on its own terms.


John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.


North will run at the WSG Gallery, 306 S. Main Street, through December 6, 2015. The WSG Gallery is open Tuesday-Wednesday, noon–6 pm; Thursday, noon-9 pm; Friday-Saturday, noon-10 pm; and Sunday 12-5 pm. For information, call 734-761-2287.

Review: Arlo Guthrie: The Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour

REVIEW MUSIC

Arlo Guthrie brought the whole family along to the Michigan Theater

Arlo Guthrie brought the whole family along to the Michigan Theater

He flew us into Los “Angeleez”, then to the City of New Orleans, on to Stockbridge Massachusetts (where the Massacree occurred) and then to Woodstock. It was family night for Arlo and the Guthries, and the capacity crowd at the Michigan Theater loved every minute of music and stories.

I snagged a last-minute single ticket among the few left from everyone’s favorite online ticket marketer (who shall, like Voldemort, remain nameless), and headed up to balcony right for a seat at the rail with perfect sight lines to the stage. What a spectacular and rich venue the Michigan is. I secretly hoped that the mighty Barton organ would provide a processional as we were seated – it did not.

The evening began with Sarah Lee Guthrie who joined her dad’s tour a few weeks ago as an opener. Growing up in her father’s musical world (as Arlo did with his dad Woody) Sarah appeared on Arlo’s work as both a toddler and an adolescent, and has today established a solid singer-songwriter-storyteller reputation of her own since she began recording in 2001. She channeled her dad’s stories on stage, and her grand-dad’s lyrics and music to provide a delightful introduction to a Guthrie generational anthology that was told through the rest of the evening.

The three generations have all written songs especially for children, and Sarah has made a specialty of it in recent years. She delighted the crowd with a spirited sing-along "Go Waggaloo" from Woody’s catalog. She played lovely standards in her own style such as Tim Hardin’s "If I Were A Carpenter", followed with one of her grandfather’s most loved songs "I’ve Got to Know" and finished her portion of the evening with her own "Circle of Souls".

To be clear, Sarah can hold her own, on her own, in any roots, folk, or Americana venue. There’s no need for her to borrow from that legacy to make her performance powerful. She is proud to sing her heritage on stage, and you can see that same family pride in the face of Arlo’s son Abe as he leads the band with keyboard and provides supporting vocals. The rest of the band that supported Sarah and Arlo features drummer Terry Hall, guitarist and vocalist Bobby Sweet, and guitarist Darren Todd.

As Sarah left the stage, the ornately vaulted Michigan Theater did not brighten as it would for intermission. A large screen flickered to life at the rear of the stage as we heard the first chords of "The Motorcycle Song" accompanied by a stop-motion animated short created almost 40 years ago entitled No, No, Pickle. What a delightful way to bring out a vital and still funny-as-hell songwriter, Arlo Guthrie.

Displaying youthful energy and a slightly raw throat strained by touring – Arlo Guthrie hammered out a classics-studded evening of music and stories that kept the capacity crowd laughing and singing along all evening. He first measured the crowd’s age: “For those of you who heard about this concert and asked, ‘isn’t he dead?’… well, I’m workin’ on it.”

While prefacing a story about Woodstock, he quipped, “Well, I remember getting there…” and then told the story of his history-making appearance in front of “more people than I knew I would ever see again in my entire life” while in a significantly altered state of consciousness. It was just what we wanted to hear from an icon of the era, and he kept all generations in the audience enthralled with story and song.

Arlo Guthrie Set List – November 9, 2015 – Michigan Theater

1. The Motorcycle Song
2. Chilling of the Evening
3. St. James Infirmary (Joe Primrose)
4. Ballad of Me and My Goose
5. Pig Meat Blues (Leadbelly)
6. Coming Into Los Angeles

Intermission

7. Alice's Restaurant Massacree
8. I Hear You Sing Again (Janis Ian)
9. City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman)
10. Highway in the Wind
11. This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
12. My Peace (Woody Guthrie)

The crowd lit up for the most memorable tunes, including a rousing back-to-the-60s rendition of Coming into Los Angeles to close the first set. The story of the infamous “massacree” – the namesake of Guthrie’s 50th Anniversary Tour – top-lined the second set, and you could tell the audience had not gotten tired of the telling. Somehow, Arlo told the story as though for the first time – so that those listening for the first time would not be short-changed. “If I’d known the song would be so popular, I wouldn’t have made it so long.”

According to Arlo, Steve Goodman gave him a song he had just written, "City of New Orleans", to hand off to Johnny Cash. Arlo recounted that Johnny was concerned that one more train song might pigeon-hole him…to Arlo’s eternal benefit. The words to Arlo’s greatest ballad were on almost everyone’s lips in the audience. Mr. Guthrie also presented himself as an accomplished musician throughout the evening, brandishing a number of acoustic and electric guitars and a keyboard. Most enticing was the blue-to-black Rainsong 12-string acoustic as it jangled its carbon-fiber sound across the theater as if on its own dedicated speakers.

Arlo rolled up the evening with more of his own stuff like "Highway in the Wind", a lesser-known but no-less-special cut from his 1967 breakout album, Alice’s Restaurant. He included a sweet cover of Woody & Janis Ian’s "I Hear You Sing Again" as if he was singing of his own family, and then explained that he lost his wife of 43 years, Jackie, to cancer in 2012. Arlo may still be grieving, but remains wistfully positive on stage. He spoke of their meeting in 1968, and how Jackie knew she would marry Arlo the moment she saw him. You can see the result of their love on the stage with Arlo in Sarah and Abe.

The whole family took the stage for the Guthrie past patriarch’s masterpiece "This Land Is our Land", and Arlo spoke of the song: "as though in the multitudes of re-singing by so many millions of people, the song has now acquired its own spirit and weight in the universe. He bade us goodbye by passing his peace to us – My Peace – from he and his family to the audience".

Arlo and his family are an extraordinary example of the age-old practice of passing on passion and skills from one generation to another. They don’t just want to sing their father’s – and his father’s – songs. It’s not just good folk music or good money or good politics. They must sing them. It’s a family thing.

Many, many thanks to The Ark and to the Michigan Theater for bringing the Guthrie family back to Ann Arbor.

A very similar audio version of this great live event is available on Spotify. Check it out.


Don Alles is a marketing consultant, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.