High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, July 23, 2007

When a Body Meets a Body Comin' Through the Nose: Chicago Sings in Millennium Park

So, when I was volunteering at the Resource Center on Tuesday, I was perusing the school's main web page and noticed two things: First, that two of the teachers are blogging from Moscow as part of their pilot exchange program; the second was that a number of OTSFM-related folks, including Robbie Fulks (with whom we traditionally spend the third Sunday of the month), were participating in Chicago Sings at Millennium Park. And Frank Gehry always inspires me to sing. howl, or whatever.

I packed up my Assassins' Guild satchel with a blanket in case we needed to sit on the lawn, and we were off. Traffic, for once, was fairly light, and we got parked in the garage with no difficulty. We then, of course, discovered that we had no idea how to get out of the MP garage, courtesy of really terrible signage.

Worries about blankets and lawns were for naught. There were plenty of seats still available, although there were a few hundred people already there and maybe another hundred sprinkled about the lawn. We sat in front of the control booth right about in the center of the seats. The "house band" was already playing when we sat down, and Christopher Bell , the Grant Park Chorus director came out as the "warm-up band." He explained that this Sing-Along was both the continuation of similar efforts mounted by the city around Christmas and a brand-new experiment in moving sound from the audience to the stage when the space is renowned for its acoustics in the other direction. (With time, I've escalated the band shell to definitely ugly, but really the sound is astounding.)

Bell did a great job getting the crowd warmed up with a fairly complex medley of "Sing, Sing, Sing," "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." He got voices going with a combination of well-paced instruction and pointed insults about Chicago accents. For some reason, M was particularly affronted about "American Ts," when clearly his mocking of our nasal tones was the unkindest cut of all.

Robbie and family (including not just Tennessee and Preston, but wife Donna and mother-in-law Sharon as well). There section was a little . . . free form. They started with "Hard Day's Night," and no instruction. I've got to admit that I'm rusty on the lyrics of all but the chorus. But if one found that challenging, their choice of Bill Anderson's "Cocktails" for their second number was probably not for you. (Myself, I find young children singing balls-out country songs to be hilarious.) And then, just to be sure that no one would regain his or her footing while they were on the stage, they finished up with "Me and My Arrow" from Getting to the Point. Up next were Mariachi Perla de Mexico, who were great, but there was not much emphasis on the "along" part of their singing on account of its being in rapid-fire Spanish. However, one of their fiddle players had an absolutely magnificent tenor.

But the "along" part of the afternoon was not lost for good. Next up was nearly the entire vocal staff of the OTSFM: Elaine Moore (my very first vocal tech teacher), Kathy Cowan, Chris Kastle (she of the shanties), Barb Silverman, Robert Tenges, Tisa Batchelder, and Rita Ruby (my harmony teacher). They led us through "The Crawdad Song," "Jamaica Farewell," and "I'll Fly Away," all of which were great fun. To finish up the Sing Along (considerably earlier than indicated on the schedule), Ella Jenkins and her trusty tenor guitar (with several of the Old Town vocal staff as back-up singers) led us all in some funny but very decidedly kiddo songs after teaching us all to say hello in about 7 billion languages. And for the big finale we had everyone crowding back on the stage for a rousing rendition of "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms," which Elaine taught to us. The band members, mariachi and house, rocked out and we ended in a bit of a muddle.

Overall, it probably could have used a little more planning and structure. And advertising! . . . I know it's part of a general, summer-long "Target Family Fun festival," but I hardly saw anything about it at all other than on the school's website (which is a sadly well-kept secret of its own, requiring more planning, structure, and advertising, but that's another story for another time). Still it was great fun and I hope they do more of them.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

All the lonely hotels stand like monuments to fear: 1408

So I don't sit at home pining for Halifax all day or anything. We go out, we do stuff. Last night "stuff" involved a trip to Fry's, some top notch Mexican food, and
an investigation of whether Stephen King has ever ended a story successfully.

I'd like the look of 1408 for a while: John Cusack? Gooood! Samuel L. Jackson? Goood! Non–torture porn horror movie? Goooooood! And despite the gratuitous slam on Mr. King's struggles above, I have spent many enjoyable hours having him scare the bejeezus out of me.

The timing for the start of the movie was not great. We were thus subjected to the macking of the teenage couple next to us, which was interspersed with her whiny inquiries into why he'd taken a Koren class for HER (HER clearly being a previous girlfriend), when he hadn't bothered to learn her (her being one of the mackees) language. I also learned that I really would rather be forced to sit through I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry than a Harry Potter movie.

M and I agree that 1408, although far from a perfect movie, is a really damned good one. It's a simple enough story that the events are believable and don't distract the audience by making them ask, "Now why the hell would he be doing that?" It has a character that one empathizes with and roots for, although he's not wholly likable or always sympathetic. And most important, it's intensely scare in the grand old spine-tingling, suspenseful tradition, rather than relying on excessive gore or extreme violence.

Oddly enough, having seen the trailer a number of times acted like "Cliff's Notes" to the movie (I normally object to the spoiler-riffic nature of trailers), because one of the ways in which the movie falls down on the job is in letting us really know who Mike Enslin (Cusack) is and why he does what he does. From the trailers, we at least have some idea that he didn't just start out as the walking stereotype of a drunken, one-hit-wonder writer. Rather, trailer watchers know that the loss of his young daughter has derailed him fairly seriously.

Even with the helpful trailer clues, Cusack has his work cut out for him making Enslin both sympathetic and comprehensible to the audience. In the opening scene, he's driving through a dark back road on the dark and stormy night required by law. After some backtracking, he arrives at an inn and is pretty much a dick to the friendly, if somewhat overeager and consequently inconsiderate, couple who run the inn. We see a very small amount of his night drinking and listening for ghosts before we see him crankily driving away, dooming the inn to "5 skulls on the shiver scale."

Later, at a depressingly poorly attended book signing, we see a few more snippets of him using "tools of the trade" to gauge supernatural residue and what have you, but it's not exactly clear at whom 10 Haunted books are aimed or what his purpose in writing them is. As M said, the scenes with Olin (Jackson), the manager of THE hotel, there is a strong implication that Enslin is pissy and jaded because he's uncovered numerous not-particularly-sophisticated attempts at deliberate hoaxing, but that's not what we've seen. Furthermore, the trailer gives the strong impression that his daughter's death led him into research on the supernatural in the hopes of discovering something beyond life, but there's virtually no follow-through on that score at all.

Beyond waffling on what Enslin's attitude and motives are, the movie is not on especially firm territory when it explores its own orientation toward the supernatural. There's a scene just about in the middle of the movie when Enslin opens the minibar in his fridge and encounters mini-Samuel L. Jackson. It's a well-shot, well-acted, very Lynchian scene, but the content is baffling. In it, mini-Olin chides Enslin for raining on the metaphysical parade of his readers, taking away their hope of an afterlife. This is in keeping with some flashbacks to the time after his daughter's death when he was prone to beating up himself and his wife (metaphorically) over the fact that they assured her that she was going to Heaven or a reasonable facsimile thereof and that all her friends and God would be there. But it seems very out of step with the research and book-signing scenes, which don't really indicate that he's writing sneering debunkings of these supposedly haunted locales.

But if the movie fails on the grand philosophical score, it succeeds in exploring the many faces of fear: abject, senseless personal terror; big-time phobias; the fear that bleeds into despair and hopelessness; the banal stresses of everyday life. The conceit, of course, is The Unbeliever and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hour in the haunted room.

Mike Enslin did not so much relocate to the West Coast as he did flee as far away as he could from anything that would remind him of his daughter's death. But he decides to make an exception to his "No more New York, EVER" rule when he gets a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel that says; "Don't Stay in 1408." He notes that 1 + 4 + 8 = 13 and remarks, "Cute," but he's intrigued enough to try to book the room. He is not explicitly told that he can't stay in the room, the room just happens to be unavailable for any date he mentions.

He gets his publisher's lawyer on the issue and learns that under antidiscrimination laws, they cannot refuse to let him stay in the room unless it is already occupied. When he arrives Cheryl Hines informs him that he'd better be "Packing His Trunk", the desk clerk alerts management. Enslin is oh-so-very-politely ushered into Olin's office for some very expensive cognac and gentle persuasion from the Bad Ass Motherfucker himself. He takes the cognac, but still insists on staying in the room, even after Olin offers him free access to the gory crime photos and other details of the suicides, maimings, and natural deaths that have occurred there. On their way up to the room, Enslin asks what the "story" is on the room: Who died there? Who killed whom? What gypsy had a bug crawl up her ass and die there? Olin (whom we've just seen speaking French to some other staff member in an awkward I ASSURE YOU HE'S VERY CULTURED EVEN THOUGH HE'S BLACK moment) leans in and Jackson gets his contractually obligated f-bomb in: "It's an evil fucking room." 'Nuff said.

And truly the room itself is unremarkable, save for the fact that it is (a) supposed to be a hotel room in New York and yet (b) it is larger than my first apartment. Still, it's unnerving in an effective way. As Enslin talks into his recorder, he notes that all hotel rooms have something creepy about them, but this one especially so: The sightlines are bad; there are too many corners, too many oddly placed pieces of furniture, too many closets, curtains, and . . . well hiding places for things that want to eat your face, ok? The paintings are grim and depressing, but no more so than typical hotel room paintings. The room is uncomfortably hot (although this is fixed without incident, just a moment, a detail). The sounds from other rooms seem to occur not quite randomly, managing to be startling just as you start to relax.

The tension builds fairly slowly with a few well chosen scream moments: The clock radio blares on (revealing, unsurprisingly, that the soundtrack to hell is provided by the Carpenters) as it has in a dozen other movies, but it's accompanied by the bed being turned down, chocolates on the pillow, and the toilet paper having been refolded to its hotel-required point. They're funny little hotel-specific adjuncts to a tried and true horror device, but the giggle they evoke is just slightly hysterical.

And then the window slams down on Enslin's hand, cutting it badly. Again, any fan of horror movies is necessarily a connoisseur of slamming, digit-maiming windows, but 1408 smashes your fingers with a difference. Enslin is really in pain. He's bleeding, and when he goes for the bathroom sink to rinse the injury, steam explodes from the faucets, driving him back to the shower curtains, which, from then on, bear bloody, straggling hand prints.

And Enslin does something no character in the history of horror movies has ever done: He gives up when it makes sense to do so. He picks up the phone to check out and is caught in an endless loop of hotel services. He goes for the door himself, smearing yet more blood, and finds that it won't open. He tries to unlock the door from the inside with his key. It breaks off and the shaft is pulled through from the other side. When he climbs out on to the window ledge, making for the room next door, the outer wall is transformed into a brick expanse in which his two windows are the only openings. As he makes it back in to recheck the floor layout, he realizes that it is blacked out except for the island that is 1408 (with, of course, the helpful red "YOU ARE HERE" dot).

And . . . well, I won't belabor the review with a point-for-point synopsis, but it's full of clever plays on general horror tropes and it very successfully mines its own specific setting. There's real claustrophobia, paranoia, and despair. Even the device of the clock radio counting down from 60 (no one's ever lasted more than an hour, of course), which could have been so very done works, not just because it resets and you realize that there's no magic dawn coming to save him, but because it forces a mental inventory of the fears to which Enslin (and the audience through him) has just been subjected: Claw-hammer-wielding maniacs, failure at parenthood, failure of one's own parents in their old age, old age itself, disease, financial ruin, parking tickets . . . just everything . . . ending with his daughter dying in his arms.

As for the eternal question "Can Stephen King successfully end a story," well, I don't know, as I haven't read the short story. The real resolution for Enslin in the movie is pretty satisfying: It's redemptive without requiring total sacrifice, but it's also not a saccharine happy ending (and real horror fans hate those). Throughout the movie, it's entirely possible that Enslin is hallucinating the whole thing and several shots establish that the camera is not seeing what he does. Although I favor at least some resolution over hedging, I thought the epilogue was a touch on the ZOMG IT REALLY HAPPENED melodramatic side.

But with its relatively minor flaws (and believe me, even though I liked Secret Window, I am aware that its flaws weren't minor) it's quite a watchable movie and maybe the best Stephen King adaptation I've seen.

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That Province . . . Took ADVANTAGE OF ME: The Halifax Report, Day 5, pt 1

Thursday was the last day of the conference, and it was really only a half day with the most appalling excuse for 'science' packed into it.

Truth be told, I spent most of the first morning session catching up on my e-mail. As I mentioned in my first report, the Lord Nelson's lone flaw was the lack of free wireless in the rooms; fortunately part of our conference schwag packet was a login and password for the Dalhousie wireless network. However, I'd been mostly too lazy to carry the New Hotness to campus most days.

Anyway, caught up during the first session so that I was able to devote full attention to the second. It had some hoity-toity title like "The Phenomenological Post-Kantian Repercussions of How Totally Awesome it Is to Be Human," which was not confidence inspiring. Fortunately, the chair, who was also the first speaker said, "I have no idea what's up with that title . . . but all the papers in this session kinda sorta deal with humans. Let's rock and roll." (I paraphrase.) Most were good, even one by a member of the legion of our sworn codon-model enemies. (Diabolically good, because convincingly presented and completely devoid of any of the criticisms we've been leveling, which amount to: "Yes, and? What the hell difference does this actually make to anything we're looking for?"

But there was a truly appalling paper in this session. Worse, it was a truly appalling NIH-funded paper. It had ridiculously hand-waving hypotheses, a good 20 years out of sync with current literature and thinking, that were not even being tested by the data collected. True crap and very disappointing to see it anywhere, let alone at an otherwise high-quality meeting. It was especially unfortunate that this was in the last session and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. A bad taste that could only be removed . . . by shopping.

Most of our walkabouts were at night, and most nonhospitality businesses were closed at that time. This had absolutely zero effect on my drooling over things in windows. Specifically, there was a small hosiery/lingerie shop that had a to-die-for grey scarf with a skull-and-crossbones motif. Had to have it. Also had to have some superfly skull laces for my Doc Martens as it turns out. Who knew?

While I was merrily shopping, J drew the unenviable task of not only shopping with me, but simultaneously trying to sort out why the hell we couldn't check in for our flight online. We had discovered this unfortunate fact just as we discovered that the Lord Nelson really is not very smart about these Intarwebs things. (Even in their business center [which comprises 2 PCs], they required that you call down to the desk for a 45-minute key to log in. Blegh!)

As we wandered away from the hosiery store and further down Spring Garden, J scored (a) a live person at United (SPIT!) Airlines and (b) a fabulous shirt befitting Puffy D (you probably don't want to ask). Still further down the street, there was a shoe store that, at first glance, I thought was called Ka/Ks. (It was, actually, Kas Footwear, which is weird enough, and if you know why, I either pity you or scorn you as one of our legion of sworn codon-model enemies.) Some Campers totally wanted me there, but I remained strong.

Continuing on, we decided that it was probably a good idea to fortify ourselves with at least a bit of lunch. We shared a tasty enough bagel sandwich and I recaffeinated. Always a good idea.

We soldiered on past the Commonwealth's most baked library. As we were heading down the diagonal path toward the store next to Mary Jane's Smoke Shop (not a smoke-shop, a hippy clothing/jewelry/fabric/tchotchke store; ah, thank you, google, it was called The Black Market ), J took my elbow, and stepped us off to the side of the path, muttering "Rickshaw." I was just on the verge of laughingly saying, "I'd have sworn you just said 'rickshaw'," when a man pulling a rickshaw passed us by. Though slackjawed, I was able to repeat, "Rickshaw?" And being Canadian, he politely offered us a ride. We did not, however, take him up on this.

I got a cute wrap skirt and a red belly-dancing top at the Black Market. Why a belly-dancing top, other than to make all who have seen me scream, "MY EYES! MY BRAIN! HOW COULD A SUPPOSEDLY BENEVOLENT GOD ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN?" Well, (a) because it was $9, (b) because if I ever do get off my butt early enough, I want to take the Middle Eastern Belly Dancing class at OTSFM, and (c) because Puffy D was watching out for the interests of the ZK.

From the Black Market, we continued on along and down, passing the Press Gang 15 or 20 times as we made our way northeast. The most notable stop we made along the way was at Peep Show Girly Boutique (I have to tell you I loathe that article, which I'm glad I didn't see before we went in). Rather than being . . . well, anything at all like what that article purports it to be, was eerily like stepping back into the shopping fugue I experienced in New Orleans last fall. The staff were over-the-top friendly (even for Canadians), but were far from attempting the hard sell. Rather they kept urging us to have fun and look at things.

There were easily 7 different bags that I really, truly, needed to have. And dresses. And skirts. And kneesocks. And jewelry. And shoes. And then there was this completely awesome shirt that had a guy with giant mutton chops and the caption "I like boys in punk rock bands," (tragically, it did not fit). How I had the willpower to leave there with nothing more than a bright blue shaving kit decorated with the Warhol skull (I'll use it as a toiletry bag, which I honestly needed) I will never know. Probably inciting J to purchase items as gifts helped.

We'd sort of had a vague intention of going down to the maritime museum (and there just HAPPENED to be a store down there we wanted to pop into), so we headed waterfront-ward. At the store that just happened to be there, I picked up some neat little hexagonal hoop earrings and a necklace with an interesting brass pendant. We tried hard to get a luscious silk blouse for Wire Monkey Mother, but sadly, the sizers in this store were working on the "teeny, rackless" Asian sizing model and there was no room at the inn for The Girls. Pity, because that charcoal blouse was smokin'.

The outbreak of capitalism rather derailed our plans on the cultural front. By the time we got to the Maritime Museum, we realized that we'd only have 45 minutes or so to wander around. Now that might be enough to time to taken an exhibit called, simply, Pirates, but once you add in the exclamation mark, you're in for the whole day. We decided instead to walk up toward the Citadel.

There was a last gasp of running-dog-ism at a jewelry store (and I'm glad there was, as we found a great pendant for and I got a bit giftie for a friend) and then a real trek. You must remember that J and I are not used to topography at this point. It wasn't especially hot that day, but the sun was bright and the grade impressive.

We were puffing more than a little bit by the time we reached the level of the Clock Tower. WE rested a bit there on the pretense of reading the text, then made the big push up to Citadel Hill itself. We were destined to be completely culture free (there's also a charge to get into the Citadel proper, and the guards wear the fluffy hats of ultimate seriousness regarding their duty. But it was well worth the climb, as the view of the city and the harbor is absolutely breathtaking from that height.

We headed back to the Lord Nelson along a road just north of the gardens, which was not our usual route. That's how we discovered that the Highland Games were going to start without us. Curses! Back at the hotel, we cleaned up quickly and went to catch a cab for the Hydrostone Market, where we had dinner reservations at Rogi Orazio.

Our cab driver was a very chatty lebanese guy, and we bonded over pizza (he told us where to get the best pizza in Halifax and had a good handle on the fact that this was a local rendition of pizza, and a good one, rather than being any kind of attempt to imitate Pizza) and garlic. The restaurant just happened to be right next door to LK Yarns and we just happened to arrive with about 10 minutes to spare for yarn shopping. I yarn shopped, obtaining some lovely mohair in a lustrous navy color for something out of the Sublime Very Gorgeous Kid Mohair book, and another odd skein in a colorway I just couldn't resist.

Although it had felt hot during the day, by the time we sat down to dinner, it was breezy and lovely, so we sat outside. Have I mentioned that Halifax builds these boardwalks on to the fronts of their streets so that outdoor seating doesn't completely bugger up pedestrian traffic? Well they do. So as we sat enjoying champagne, a large number of extremely cute dogs walked by for the petting. We also realized while sitting there munching on awesome red pepper bruschetta and spicy, cornmeal crusted calamari (no, I'd have never thought of combining cornmeal with calamari, either, but it was fabulous) that I was staring at a wine supply store, and J was staring a brewery. Oh, and there was a massage therapist on the upper floor of the yarn shop's building. In a lesser city, this would have looked desperate.

I knew nothing about the Hydrostone Market, and J only knew that it was historic in some way, so we asked our server about it. As so many things are, the market is tied into the Halifax Explosion. The neighborhood was built on the Garden City plan as temporary housing after the explosion under the supervision of Thomas Adams. Our server thought that all the stone for the neighborhood actually came from Boston, but I can't seem to find confirmation of that, just indications that Boston and Massachusetts in general were of great help around the time, and Halifax still sends them their giant Christmas tree every year.

After appetizers, J had a soup and I had a salad, both quite luscious. For my entree, I had a fabulous mediterranean pasta dish with chicken, shrimp, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives, and J had something spicy (as a final safe indulgence in a context that would not kill his lovely wife). We had another very good bottle of wine and I could barely make a dent in my dessert, which was some kind of will-sappingly-scrumptious brownie concoction.

And then, suddenly, it was very nearly 8:30, and we needed to get back to the Lord Nelson, but quick, for our date with the pirate (who had actually called during dinner to confirm that the hike was a go for that evening). The hike and the pirate deserver their own entry, and this one's long enough, but I just have share our opening conversation with said pirate. He gathered folks up and handed out tickets, then said we'd wait a few more minutes, both to let it get a bit darker and to accommodate any stragglers. In the meantime, he said in an unmistakably Newfoundland accent, "I've got to get a coffee. I am useless on the tour without a coffee. Does anyone want one?"

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