Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bad news on the doorstep

One of the perks of being done with grading is the ability to resume my role of moviewatcher, and last night's selection The Messenger is a marvelous, somber film with perfect pacing. While The Hurt Locker is sweeping up critics awards (and deservedly so), this makes something of a companion piece, viewing the current war with much-needed pathos and intelligence. The film follows two men, played by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, who are assigned the task of informing various people that their spouses, sons, and daughters have been killed. As you can expect, the film is pretty harrowing. The blows aren't softened, nor are they windows into deep thoughts; they simply spill out in raw emotion, and then we leave. These moments may make up the emotional core of the film, but they operate somewhat on the periphery. Actually, almost everything operates on the periphery of the story: a romance broken off, a romance begun with a widow played by the always superb Samantha Morton, and a subtly potent scene in which a welcome home party wanders irrevocably from joking into awkward silence, echoed later by a wedding toast that narrowly avoids disaster. Even the central relationship between Foster and Harrelson never feels like it commands attention. There are plenty of tears, and a rewarding number of laughs, but the film is governed by its silences, and that's I think its central achievement: a sound design that provides much of the drama that goes unspoken by the characters. In one scene, a father's Mozart and a daughter's rock and roll clash moments before the characters confront one another. The film makes prominent use of noise: loud, aggressive rock music, a method of blocking out the silence, aggressively loud phones ringing and talk radio ad television advertisement hosts practically assaulting the listener, and elsewhere equally loud silences. It's the attention the film pays to the details, and by that I include the personal details nailed by the film's performances and richly warm timing, that makes it so deeply affecting and deeply believable. I can't recommend this one enough.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I can't believe it's only the first snow of the season! I'm nestled up on the couch with the blog, enjoying the peace and quiet before tomorrow's storm of grading begins. I also can't believe I've gone this long without blogging, although it's been a whirlwind of activity since AMS, including:

-Well, AMS. It was a fantastic, if crazy with all the people. There were people I never saw until they were checking out of the hotel. But those I did see were great. There was a variety of papers (more than I expected to go to)- Robert Fink's illuminating and provoking look at the design process of Disney Hall (how wonderful, really, to reach out into other fields (especially architecture and urban planning!)), Albin Zak's fascinating look at novelty records of the early 1950s (the best music of the weekend), the fantastic handout by John Howland tracing the path of orchestras in "luxe pop," a handout which beautifully captures not just ideas but the process of making them, and my advisor's rather successful look at Jimi Hendrix's versions with the national anthem. There was a fun evening spent with bloggers Phil and Ryan, tasty food at Sabrina's with fellow Michiganders, the horribly inefficient giant musicology party with everyone where I saw no one, and those great moments on the escalator or in the lobby, catching up. More of those please. Ottawa, people?

-Money, Writing, Grading. A large part of my craziness since returning has been the need to get out a second chapter, grade things, and in the course of a week, write a fellowship proposal I wasn't informed I had to do things for. I survived, but let's not speak of this again. On the upside, the chapter is coming together

-Writing. I just moderated a panel yesterday with Jim Wierzbicki, one of our great mentors here who's leaving for a job in Australia. Jim's role here is editor of MUSA, but he's also one of the most helpful and giving of his time for students. He wanted to organize a panel on publishing, which included two of our most published scholars, Judith Becker and Richard Crawford. Seriously, it was a delight to have these three there, eating pizza and sharing stories, offering great advice. There's a lot I could say, but two of the most revelatory moments were the advice to read fiction and poetry to get yourself accustomed to the art of writing well, and when doing interdisciplinary work, the key isn't the inter, it's the discipline (i.e. know the field you're entering as well as someone in it). I came out of it with new zeal, much of it directed to the drafts I've been reading of my students. Maybe we should start a book club, reading short stories and other bits? I can pass on a recommendation of the New Yorker this week, with a story by Ian McEwan of an interdisciplinary marriage, and Judith Becker's new article in Ethnomusicology about the process of interdisciplinary work in the sciences.

-I gave a lecture for the ethnomusicology class. It was on transcription and documentation and politics. The lecture itself felt rough and boring, but I really enjoyed section that week, in which I led students through the newspaper in search of photos that revealed more than just documentation. This week, it's test review.

-Thanksgiving. I made food for 25 people: a 24 pound turkey, squash stuffed with feta, rosemary, and cranberries, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes and apples, sauteed mushrooms, garlic green beans, cranberry sauce, and 12 pies (pumpkin, sourcream apple, pecan oatmeal). Wine followed, work did not.

-Musical performances, movies, Glee, and assorted moments of fun. I will say the score to An Education is among the most buoyant musical bits this side of the Candide overture.

And now, it is time to head to bed in preparation of the piles of grading and maybe piles of snow! I will endeavor to be more active once again...