Monday, June 27, 2011

A Study Guide to The Piano (1993) as Watched on Netflix

ENGL 567: Half-Sleeping through Movies On Sunday Afternoons
Dr. Greenlaw

The Piano (1993)
Writer and Director: Jane Campion
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Editing: Veronika Jenet
Music: Michael Nyman
Cast: Holly Hunter (Ada); Harvey Keitel (Baines); Sam Neill (Stewart); Anna Paquin (Flora); Kerry Walker (Aunt Morag); Geneviève Lemon (Nessie); Tungia Baker (Hira); Ian Mune (Reverend); Peter Dennett (Head Seaman); Te Whatanui Skipwith (Chief Nihe)


1) Many critics describe Holly Hunter's character of Ada as intuitively feminist. How do you reconcile that with the fact that she doesn't speak for most of the movie. I mean, she barely even makes facial expressions. I know she's dealing with a lot of shit but doesn't she seems like kind of a frosty box?

2) Anna Paquin, barely 11 years old, won an academy award for her role as Ada's daughter, Flora. Although she did a passable job, are child actors ever really good? Don't they always seem kind of fake? Can you argue that the Academy Award for best supporting actress really have gone to Rosie Perez for her work in Fearless?

3) How did you feel upon seeing Baines' (Harvey Keitel) bare buttocks? How did your feelings change when you realized you would also be seeing his penis?

4) Consider the scene at the climax of the movie, where Stewart chops off his wife's finger. Wasn't that part cool? Why couldn't the whole movie be like that?



1) Sometimes when watching a movie we don't particularly enjoy, we are overtaken by a masochistic urge to finish it rather then abandoning the viewing experience halfway through. What inspired you to finish the movie? Where you encouraged by extenuating circumstances (snacks, a particularly comfortable pillow, mild wine hangover)?

2) Is there a certain mount of prior knowledge the viewer should be expected to bring to the viewing experience? Or is it reasonable for the viewer to be 45 minutes into the film before realizing it takes place in New Zealand?

3) While filmed in English, The Piano is still technically a foreign film. Does that make it permissible to alter the viewing experience by turning on the subtitles? How thick and/or mumbly do the actor's accents have to be before the use of subtitles is validated?

4) What is the deal with the piano? I mean, seriously. Who cares?

5) In the coda of the film, Ada is revealed to be wearing a prosthetic metal finger in place of the one that was chopped off. Was your first thought "F yeah Terminator"? Did this reaction make you rethink your decision to watch a costume drama in place of the sci-fi you've been shoveling in your eyeholes all summer?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Huntsville, Alabama

It was late May, the weekend before Matt was scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh. We had one last full weekend together, and we returned to our favorite early-relationship past time: the day trip.

"Let's go to Hendersonville, or Columbia" Matt suggested, perusing a list of the strange little cities that circle Nashville.

"No," I said."Let's go to Alabama."

Alabama is less then a 2 hour drive south of Nashville. Matt and I had traveled through The Heart of Dixie only once before, on our great Southern roadtrip of 2007. Matt remembered driving through the cities. I mostly remembered the creepy rest stops, and having this song stuck in my head for hours and hours:

We decided to chart a bee line south for Huntsville, Alabama with a few stops for flea markets and whatever else we came across. For the uninitiated, Huntsville is mostly known for two things.

1) As "Rocket City" it is the largest hub of NASA activity in the country. Here, shuttles and rockets are designed and manufactured and astronauts are trained. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people in Huntsville is an engineer.

2) The location of the "bed intruder" news story, and consequent viral autotune video.

I packed a variety of snacks, Matt wrote down the directions, and we were off.

Our first stop was the state welcome center, and its attendant rocket.

Welcome to Alabama

Next we aimed for the Huntsville Flea Market. On our way there we got sucked into the vortex of the Hard Times Thrift Shop. We made a u-turn on whatever route we were driving and checked it out.

Hard Times Sign, Alabama

The Hard Times Thrift Shop was a combination of everything awesome and terrible about off-brand thrift stores. Architecturally it was phenomenal. The whole thing was housed in a collection of ramshackle buildings mended and expanded with whatever oddball materials were accessible. The main building used to be a roadhouse bar, and there were little hints of it still in the corners and rafters. This building was surrounded by a half-dozen one-room wooden shacks, each housing a different seller.

Back of the Hard Times, Alabama

The goods however, were overpriced, boring or offensive. Pretty colored liqueur glasses for $15 a pop. Ceramic angels. A table full of mammy dolls that were clearly made in the 90's or later. A young couple tried to sell us a kitten, and a woman gave us the stink eye when I tried to take a picture of a creepy ventriloquist dummy. We beat a hasty retreat, happy to have seen the place, and satisfied enough to move on.

A little further down the road we found the Huntsville Flea Market proper. It was a very traditional flea market (swords, wigs, vinyl belts, incense, knock-off oriental carpets) and there was nothing much on interest there. We followed the long halls as they connected to other long halls, until we were so deep into the complex I suspected we had reached Moria. After checking out the old Zoltar machine we hit the road again.

Huntsville itself was a rainy ghost town. We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon and everything was shut down. We walked around downtown, looking in shop windows and imagining what this place was like / is like, when filled with people. Overhead the clouds grew threatening and thunder rumbled, echoing between the bank and the court house.

Weathervane, Huntsville, AL

We found the home that Tallulah Bankhead was born in. A three-story stone building of apartments and houses still very much in use, it retained a turn of century charm that seems so rare these days.

Tallulah Bankhead House, Huntsville, AL

On our way back to Nashville we cut through a part of Alabama that had been devastated by tornadoes just a week or two before. I gave Matt the camera and asked him to take a few shots as we careened by. I was eager to have a chance to see the destructive force of the tornadoes in detail, but I didn't want to stop and subject the locals to disaster tourism as they slowly moved debris and struggled to reclaim what was left of their homes.

Tornado Damage, North Alabama

Tornado Damage 3, Huntsville, AL

Tornado Damage 2, North Alabama

People always remark on the odd selectivity of tornadoes, how they destroy one house but spare its neighbor, or demolish a kitchen but leave a glass vase sitting on the counter. That level of haphazard catastrophe was present here, where jumbles of wood and brick laid 20 yards from a garden of tomato plants, still upright in their cages. Nature has a blind eye, but a very precise hand. The sun began to dip as we discussed fate and chance on the drive home.

And that, my friends, was our trip to Huntsville, Alabama.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

State of the Summer, 2011

Trick photo, decapitated man with bloody knife, holding his head

People, I have not been keeping up with my blog. You know why? Because some shitty stuff has been going on.

Numero Uno: My darling husband and best friend is working 500 miles away this summer, and I haven't seen him for a month.

Numero Dos: My hard drive died and I spent about two weeks without a computer.

Numero Tres: My health has been kind of fucked.

The first two I can deal with. Being separated from your partner always sucks, but it's only temporary. In fact, in 10 days I will be leaving to spend a week and a half in Pittsburgh, in which we will be able to hang out ALL DAY! EVERY DAY! Until then there are phone calls, texts and emails to keep the fires warm. And while my hard drive was destined for that big garbage can in the sky, I am fortunate enough to possess both a external back-up drive and a warranty, so there is no harm done beyond a few corrupted photos (and I suspect most of those were of the cat).

Now the health issue, well, that's another story.

The diet I'm on sucks. It's necessary, but it sucks. My energy is low because the foods I can stomach are so nutritionally empty that even while taking vitamins I'm exhausted most days. I'm eating a lot of sugar because it's the only mildly indulgent thing I'm allowed - fruit smoothies, jello, marshmallows. I dream of green salads, wheat bread with a tooth to it, kale tossed with vinegar. I eat peanut butter on saltines, broiled tofu and bowls of low-fat cottage cheese. I'm found two decent vegetable dishes which don't upset my stomach, and I make them endlessly: roasted summer squash topped with a lick of goat cheese, and mushrooms sauteed with a little butter and garlic and served on toast. Other nights I eat things that come in boxes, heated up in my toaster oven. Pop tarts. Frozen pizzas. Veggie chicken nuggets, dipped in low fat mayo. Sometimes I cook things and I can't even bear to eat them. I sit them on the counter until they grow cold, and then I throw them away.

The reflux medication I've been on since March has stopped working, so now my tiny, ascetic meals are interspersed with bouts of reflux that extend to my sinuses and leave everything tasting and smelling like stomach acid. Often on the bus ride home I am closer to vomiting then wanting to cook up yet another tasteless meal.

As a cook, this is depressing. As a devotee of gastronomy, this is heartbreaking. And as a human being this is a level of frustration and self-loathing I have not experienced in many years.

However, the worst thing I can do right now is to let my spirits flag. Holing up in my house watching movies and wishing things were different is not going to magically produce a solution. This diagnosis is not the end of anything - it's an opportunity to use my creativity and years of cooking experience to create new standby favorites that are both nourishing to my off-kilter body and unmistakably delicious. Right now I am walking a tight-rope, flailing my arms for anything to grab hold of. But what I really need is to find my own equilibrium, the innate balance within myself that will keep me steady, healthy and happy.

It's hard to give yourself a pep-talk without dipping too far into the corn, so please excuse me. I should probably resist anyways, since corn is on my no-no list.

Anyway, in the spirit of boot-strap pulling and rain-drop dodging, expect a flood of posts in the next few weeks on such diverse topics as Huntsville Alabama, the life cycle of cicada, and why I have a thing for hobbits. Till then, keep on (keeping on / chooglin' / secretly enjoying frozen pizza).