Saturday, February 20, 2010

Movies: The Red Shoes

This Powell & Pressburger classic has just undergone a stunning restoration and is playing on Film Forum's screen. Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell's widow and three time Academy Award winner (she has been the editor on every Martin Scorsese film since Raging Bull), was there last night to introduce the film and answer questions (she and Scorsese served as advisors on the restoration, done at UCLA by Robert Gitt). She was a gracious and interesting speaker, but most of her comments were of a nature too technical for me to understand (which is rather delightful, considering the fact that she looks like a grandmother who doesn't know how to use a cell phone, much less digitally edit a feature-film). She did, however, explain how technicolor films were made from three individually colored strips, the composite of which offers the richness of color, but also leads to blurring when the strips fall out of registration. Further, because the film exists on three original strips rather than one, there was three times the amount of film to restore.

But it was well worth it. The movie is gorgeous. Clean, clear, and sharp, it maintains the nostalgic touch of hand-coloring. The plot, of a driven red-haired ballerina torn between two driven men—the director of the Ballet Lermontov, her employer and mentor, and Julian Craster, the company's young genius composer, with whom she falls in love, revels in the dreamy visuals. Lermontov, insanely jealous and uncompromising, fires Craster from the company when he discovers the affair, and the ballerina, unwilling to sacrifice her relationship, leaves the company. While Craster flourishes, writing his first opera, his new wife wilts, longing to dance again. The night of his opera's opening, she secretly returns to Lermontov, to restage her famous ballet, The Red Shoes, a part written for her by both Craster and Lermontov before the affair began, based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale in which a girl goes to a ball in a pair of enchanted red shoes, which refuse to stop dancing, even when she's tired, unto her death. The film's plot echoes that of the ballet, for, unable to decide between her love of Julian and of the dance, the ballerina at last throws herself off a balcony in Monte Carlo onto train tracks, when her husband is at last able to remove the red shoes.

The film's glory is the central section in which the Ballet of the Red Shoes is performed, transforming from a Rogers-and-Hammerstein-style musical number to a Daliesque surrealist landscape, and in which the ballerina finds herself led by the enchanted shoemaker, a clownish, hobo-like conjurer. The art director, at Powell & Pressburger's demand, allowed the stage to open to the camera and explore the dance as a dream-state; so that the ballerina sees her own self dancing more than once, which duplication could never actually happen onstage. She floats on air, becomes a bird, a flower, a cloud. To mark the passage of time, a newspaper page flutters through the empty streets; the paper takes the shape of a man, and suddenly is a man, her partner dressed in newsprint, even his face painted, she in a dirt-stained and bedraggled gown. Soon he crumbles back into a sheet of paper. At last, her partner is dressed as a priest, and the corps de ballet, in black shoes, march through her funeral. Still, she cannot die, until she is released from the red shoes.

The film's incredibly tender ending, which brought me to tears, shows the sobbing Lermontov introducing the ballet the fateful evening our dancer has ended her career by leaping from the balcony. The curtain draws, and the opening act of the ballet is performed, and empty spotlight moving where her body would be.

The film's ending—in which a female artist sacrifices her career for love, dates it, for a contemporary studio would never make such an ethically irresponsible statement. That said, as unrealistic and inhumane as he is, the ballet master Lemontov is progressive enough to sneer at her choice, even asking her directly how she could give up her dreams to be a mere housewife surrounded by screaming children. And even if I don't intellectually support her choice, if forced, I'm certain I would choose the same. That said, Lermontov and Craster's insistence that she make that choice belies that neither of them truly love her, and neither warrant any sacrifice (for the love that deserves the sacrifice is the love that never demands it).

Art: Tino Sehgal's "This Progress" at the Guggenheim

I've had more conversations about "What is Art?" than I care to recount. In fact, sitting here writing my previous entry, I was just engaged in a conversation on precisely that topic by the person sitting next to me, who turned out to be a filmmaker. He asked about my blog, and said that he, too, had one. He had started it as a way to talk about his movie, and was surprised that, ultimately, people used his movie, and his writing about his movie, to connect with other people and talk, not about the movie, but about themselves. He was a bit surprised that his art was more a vehicle for human connection than a direct communication from himself to an audience.

This didn't surprise me much at all. I asked him, really, what was the purpose of art if not to enable people to connect with each other? There were certainly periods of high culture in which art was something very rarefied, very elite, very top-down, but that unilateral communication isn't fashionable these days, probably because it isn't very potent. The intensity of an experience is dependent on the degree of the participant's investment. It's hard to feel anything when you're standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, you here and it there, wondering what the big deal is. But, if you engage with the artist's intoxicated dance, lock in on a line with your eye and follow it, walking back and forth, your eyes zooming up and down, swinging with the paint and letting it lead your tempo, not only do you instantly "get it," you are elated.

But even Pollock is a pretty elitist artist. If no one tells you to engage with the work this way (and trust me—no one will) the painting will continue to hang on its wall, totally separate from you and your life. This is why Tino Sehgal may be my new favorite contemporary artist.

I walked into the Guggenheim knowing nothing about the artist, the piece, or what to expect, which is the ideal way to experience it. (And so, if you are reading this while the show is still up, and you are here in New York, stop reading, go see the piece, and then resume reading. I would hate to ruin it for you.) As I turned the corner at the bottom of the ramp, still rather excited about the smaller piece he had staged on the museum's circular central floor, a red-haired boy wearing taped-up glasses came up to me. "Hi! I'm James!" he said, and shook my hand. I said hi back, shook his hand, told him my name. "This," he said, "is a piece by Tino Sehgal." "What is?" I asked him. "This," he said, making a sweeping gesture with his hands. "This?" I asked pointing to him. "Yes, this," he said, pointing to himself with his thumbs. "This?" I asked, pointing to the tape on his glasses. "Well, not really that," he said. "Anyway," he said, "Would you like to come with me?" "Sure," I said, and he began to walk me up the museum's spiral ramp.

He asked me how I would define "progress," and I said "Hmm. . . Movement. Forward. Or upward." He engaged me in a conversation about this. I said that we were progressing along the ramp. He asked whether progress was inherently good. I said yes, definitively, because of the meaning of the prefix "pro-."

We were shortly joined by a 20-something man. Our child-guide introduced us, quickly recapped our conversation to him, and passed us off. We continued to climb up the ramp, talking with this new guide about progress. He was trying to help us problematize the concept, inviting me to comment that, certainly, if I have something, that's something he doesn't have, so that my personal progress might come at the expense of someone else's progress.

We began to be shadowed by another man, bearded, who joined our conversation for awhile before the 20-something man left us (they all introduced themselves, but I cannot remember their names). This man continued to nudge the conversation; we spoke about the importance of individual responsibility, and what an education system would look like where this kind of mindfulness and compassionate responsibility was taught (for I argued that our current educational system teaches people to be obedient, to accept the status quo, because compassion can be "dangerous," insofar as radical love upsets the status quo. I worried about how I would explain to my children (when I have them) why there are homeless people on the subway, who smell. I asked him what I'm supposed to do when I get on the train with a homeless person who smells. I confessed that sometimes, when I'm feeling very human, I see them and want to hug them, long and hard, even though I know I can't really do that. I asked him what I am supposed to do.

He suggested that the thing to do is to stay on the train, and tolerate them for awhile. I said, "NO—tolerating is exactly the problem. Tolerating doesn't change anything. Tolerating is the status quo. What is needed is radical, violent loving." We had to walk past a pole, and he let me go first. I was just saying something about Jesus Christ when I turned around and saw that he was gone. "Where did he go?" I asked.

And then an old man approached me, and introduced himself. He said that he had been reading an article about the growing middle class in China. He asked me whether I thought it was a good thing that the middle class was growing. I told him that it depended. I told him that, generally speaking, the middle class consumes too much. There's nothing definitively wrong with middle-class-ism, but the Chinese middle class is modeling itself after the American middle-class, and there is something definitively wrong with that. Now, every middle-class person in China feels entitled to a car, as every American middle-class person has one. I told him that the American middle-class out instead follow the Chinese middle-class, and ride bicycles. I told him that the American middle-class eats too much, shops too much, hoards too much stuff. He asked whether I could think of anything positive about the middle class. I told him that I was grateful that, as an American middle-class woman, I had been entitled to an education, and free to make my own living, so that I could marry a man I loved, rather than be given by my family to a man for financial reasons.

The old man asked whether I thought there was any universal thing that all people needed to be happy (aside from food, shelter, etc.) I thought about it awhile but wasn't sure. Love, I suppose now, but at the moment, I was stymied by the concept of universality. My friend suggested "self-confidence," or the feeling of being accepted, and I joked, "the envy of others," which had been suggested in a novel I was reading at the time. Our guide, though, liked these ideas, and said that, in his long life, he had thought quite a bit about it, and had decided that the only thing we did universally need was positive human relationships; connectivity with others. He asked us whether we thought it important to human happiness to satisfy goals. We both vehemently argued against the strategy of goal setting; arguing that, if one sets a goal and achieves it, one often feels disappointed by the results, and the lack of drive after that achievement, and further, if one doesn't achieve the goal, one feels dissatisfied with one's abilities. Our tweedy old man seemed a bit taken aback by our answer, but rather liked it. As we were by that point at the very top of the museum's spiral, he bid us good bye and good luck, and sent us on our way.

All this time, we hadn't much noticed that there were no art-objects hung on the walls. Looking down the museum's spiral, we saw clusters of people, in groups of two and three and four, deep in conversation, looking ahead, or thoughtfully down at the floor, or into each other's eyes, gesturing with their hands. The museum was empty and white, a treadmill for the mind.

My friend, who had "seen" the piece a few times already, and who knows my taste fairly well, had thought that I would hate it. Indeed, conceptual art usually leaves me cold, because I'm hungry for a visceral, physical, aesthetic experience, not just a puzzle for my mind. But, though Sehgal had created no beautiful objects on which to focus, he had invited us to focus on the beauty of the interaction of human minds and hearts. This sounds a little gooey, and I apologize for that, but it was truly elating to go the the museum and connect in meaningful conversation with other human beings, both my friend I'd arrived with, and the strangers who had served as our guides. This is why we go to museums—to think and feel and share—but we so often forget that, either going alone and allowing ourselves to feel isolated in our emotions, or going with our friends and gossiping about the minutiae of our lives, occasionally remarking that we do or don't like something, and rarely talking about why.

The filmmaker next to me suggested that, possibly in the future, films would be pure aesthetic experiences, because the audience would evolve beyond needing characters or plot to talk about, being more engaged in applying film's sensation to their own lives. But I disagree. I think that films are more appealing to the general public than museums because of the human connectivity—the plot's invitation to us to connect with the characters. If museums continue to progress in this direction, art will again mean something. And that is deliciously "dangerous"—an invitation for radical loving.

Movies: Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy)

I'm never ashamed to admit that I've enjoyed a bad movie, but I rarely dislike a good movie. That said, after Terribly Happy ended, I had a long, interesting conversation with my movie pal, which started with my saying, "I didn't like it."

The movie took me places I didn't want to go; it lingered there, and then took me even further against my inclinations, into a bleak world where people can't control their dark passions. I've never denied that these impulses exist, but I don't like to see them indulged.

At the film's start, we find ourselves in flat, boggy outpost, where the amiable bearded policeman Robert has been temporarily stationed, as some kind of punishment. The sole legal presence in a town of 25 grizzled characters who know each other all too well, he's quickly befriended by another outsider, the blonde Ingerlise. With his wife and daughter back in Copenhagen, and for some reason not taking his phone calls, Robert finds himself more and more intrigued by this woman; her crooked teeth are childish and inviting; her downy bosom maternal and comforting.

But like the town itself, Ingerlise has an ugly, public secret. Her husband, Jørgen, beats her regularly; at night, their wide-eyed daughter, wearing a coat and two braids, pushes a squeaking pram through the empty city streets, and everyone knows this means Jørgen is beating Ingerlise.

This conflicted, skittish woman comes to Robert with a combination of desperation and desire; she lacks the confidence to take her daughter and leave on her own, and instead wants Robert to take them away. As Jørgen becomes aware of their relationship, Robert becomes the target of his rage.

We don't trust Ingerlise and desperately want Robert to keep his head down, bide his time, and get the hell out of this strange and horrible place, but like the Hitchcock or Chabrol not-so-innocent innocent, something inside him, which he's tried to crush, is blooming—thriving in this climate. Something flashes in his eyes that scares Ingerlise; he hits her; when she tries to leave his house he traps her, cowering by the door.

We discover why Robert is being punished. Back in Copenhagen, he found his wife cheating on him, and pulled a gun on her. He didn't shoot, but was sent to a psychological treatment center for three months before being posted out in the bog.

Now, we see that Robert is more like Jørgen than we would have liked to believe. One night, while the brute is passed out on the stairs of his home, bottle still in his hand, wife bloody in her bed, Robert gets a phone call and goes to their house. He tiptoes over Jørgen's hulking body, brushes Ingerlise's hair away from her bleeding eye socket. She pulls him to her. We see him struggle at first, but he acquiesces. She pulls him down onto her, hungrily opening his pants. Noisily, she takes him in, as he trembles with desire and fear and confusion. Hearing Jørgen awake on the stairs and calling his wife's name, Robert tells Ingerlise to be quiet, but she won't stop moaning. He muffles her pleasure with a pillow; Jørgen falls back asleep, and once he's sure the danger has passed, Robert moves the pillow. Ingerlise is dead. He has suffocated her.

But this is only the beginning of the nightmare. The townspeople, who always feared Jørgen and never trusted Ingerlise, are happy to belive that the brute killed his wife. In fact, they are more than happy to force Jørgen into the bog at gunpoint, and almost drown that blight in the bog, except that Robert appears on the scene and will not let them.

Though Robert has saved Jørgen's life, the brute isn't exactly grateful. He knows he did not kill Ingerlise, and he suspects Robert. Their dual comes to a climax when Robert awakes in his home to find Jørgen sitting across from him, holding the shirt button Robert lost in Ingerlise's bed. Unable to save himself in any other way, Robert shoots Jørgen. The man takes his time dying, in fact responds to the first bullet in the chest with vociferous laughter. Robert disposes of the body in the bog and falls asleep in his car.

The next morning, the law from the adjacent city pays a visit. Here, we expect everything to be revealed; the blood in the carpet where Jørgen dragged himself across the floor, the true cause of Ingerlise's death, the body of the dead man in the bog. But, as in a dream, everything has been hidden. As the constable walks across Robert's carpet, the submerged blood oozes, but he doesn't see it. At the bog, a body is dredged up, but it's not Jørgen's. Robert, it seems, appears innocent, and as his time is up, he's due to return to Copenhagen.

Across the street from his temporary home lives the town's doctor, a drug-user who has been intimately involved in the plot's workings as a kind of fire-tender, feeding drugs to Ingerlise, calling Robert the night she was beaten (the night she would die), and later writing "cardiac arrest" on her death certificate to protect Robert. This doctor spends his evenings playing Hearts with the town's preacher and shopkeeper; from the film's start, we have seen them putting their cards down on the table. They have long needed a fourth for their game, but Robert insisted from the start that he did not play. At the moment of Robert's gun-shot, when Jørgen exploded with laughter, the film cut to these three individuals, laughing diabolically. When Robert has packed his bags for Copenhagen, and goes across the street to say goodbye to the three at their table, they give him some unfortunate news: they still need a fourth for their card game. They know what has happened. They know what happened back in Copenhagen, and they know what has happened here. They are happy to keep this a secret if he stays, completing their game, but if he leaves, they will ruin him.

We've had a sneaky feeling for awhile now that perhaps Robert isn't posted in a boggy part of the country. He is too like Jørgen, his feelings toward his wife and daughter too reprised in his feelings toward Ingerlise and her daughter, for these relationships to be incidental. Jørgen took too long to die once he was shot; his blood and body were hidden too easily. Even before he died, he gave Robert his boots; seeing Robert standing in his shoes is a hard symbol to miss.

The men at the card table cackle like lunatic inmates, too grimly pleased to keep Robert in their midst. The neighboring constable, who brings Robert to this place at the film's beginning, and leaves him there at the film's end, has the gentle, appeasing smile of a care-taker, pretending not to see what Robert doesn't want him to see. I would propose that everything that has happened has been a projection, a deranged fantasy, a delusion in which Robert's psyche is trying to control, punish, redeem itself. If he succeeds in suffocating his desires and silencing his brutishness, he must accept living forever in this boggy land and in denial.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Movies: District 9

I've put off writing about this Blair Witch meets E.T. because I've wanted to think about it. I saw it nearly a month ago and I'm still thinking—not because its themes are so very challenging, but because I'm struggling with its ethical inconsistencies.

There is no law that a film must be ethically consistent—in fact, as a medium that requires the touch of hundreds of hands, and is ultimately controlled by a profit-oriented corporation, we might expect that film be consistently inconsistent. But the moralizing tone of District 9 insists that right and wrong exist. Through not-so-subtle metaphors, it accuses us: "Do you see what you've done?" but, then, allows itself to succumb to the very attitudes that generate the behaviors it condemns, strictly, it seems, for comic relief. I will explain.

Science Fiction and Social Dystopia have a long history of overlap, and District 9 claims a place in the lineage of Brave New World and 1984. A silver pancake of a spacecraft has come to rest over the city of Johannesburg, and its extra-terrestrial inhabitants have entered the city. Rather quickly, an apartheid-like situation has come about, in which the aliens, derogatorily called "Prawns" by the locals (for the bipedal creatures look semi-crustacean—think of the malnourished progeny of E.T. and the Terminator and you might begin to get a mental image), live in fenced-in slums. Posted signs around the city warn "for humans only" and "no Prawns allowed." In the midst of civil unrest about the Prawn situation, the government hires a contractor to relocate the Prawns to another ghetto, farther from city center. Tasked with spearheading this effort is our bumbling hero, for he is the son-in-law of the company's Founding CEO (much to that man's chagrin).

The twist comes about when our hero is somehow infected by a special elixir—he has entered the shanty-town with his men, attempting to serve each Prawn household with an eviction notice (most of which the sub-human creatures simply try to eat or tear apart), and confiscated a bottle of something that looks vaguely like a weapon. We will come to discover that this fluid has been slowly culled for years by one of the few intelligent Prawns, who has a secret laboratory in his basement, where he is slowly repairing part of the ship, so that he can return home and get help for his species. The fluid's effects, however, on touching our hero's skin, are noxious. First he gets very sick; then, his fingernails begin to rot and fall off. In a matter of days, his arm is that of a Prawn's.

Now, he is of very special interest to a number of parties. The Prawns have a highly-evolved collection of weaponry that only works in their hands. A quick series of tests demonstrates that our once-human hero's Prawn-arm is capable of firing Prawn weapons. Not only does the contracting company want to turn him into a science experiment, but a thuggish Nigerian warlord wants possession of his arm as well. This leads to me to the inconsistency.

The Prawns, effectively isolated in their ghetto, are carnivores with a particular taste for canned cat food. A band of lawless Nigerians becomes the broker between the Prawns and the white humans, trading cat food for weapons, which they are stockpiling, though they don't have the technology to use them. The caricature of the Nigerians—witchcraft-practicing thugs who believe that, by ingesting Prawn body parts, they will develop the ability to fire Prawn weapons—destabilizes any ethical ground on which the film had begun to establish itself. We see our hero lose everything—his job, his wife (whom he loves so tenderly, you will cry), his humanity—as he slowly becomes a Prawn. A weak-hearted hero, we see him partner with the intelligent Prawn so long as it serves him, only to throw the creature to the wayside when it won't do his bidding. The film's finish is poignant; after a grandiose battle, the ship does get fixed, going off to get help, but leaves our hero and the Prawn population behind in the meanwhile. He lives there, in solitude, crafting silent gifts that he leaves for his wife.

And so, oddly, this film tells us, "you too could become a Prawn, so treat Prawns with tenderness," but never "you too could be a Nigerian, so treat them as humans." In the real world, where there are no Prawns, the latter message is more important than the former, and in fact, before we see any thuggish Nigerians in the film, we are certain that the Prawns stand in for South Africa's apartheid-era blacks.

This grave inconsistency aside, District 9 is one of the greatest Science Fiction films I've seen, with an ideal blend of action, romance, and thought provocation, very much entrenched in our cultural moment, when weak men are made heroes much against their will by battling something of which they once were a part. Perhaps the film's ethical inconsistency is equally symptomatic of our times, in which we profess equality but perpetuate segregation by letting stereotypes propagate, unchallenged.

Books: The Rainbow Stories, by William T. Vollman

I've written about Vollman's Whores For Gloria here, where I commended his limpid realist prose, but found his material so dark that I wondered whether I'd ever read him again. It took nearly a year, but I did find myself back for more, reading this fat volume of short stories organized by color, and more certain than ever that Vollman is a sick man with a great talent.

For the most part, these are also stories set in San Francisco's grittier cross-sections; Vollman's cast of characters are skinheads, winos, hookers, and junkies, and while there are exceptions to this rule, The Blue Wallet and The Green Dress, in particular, these stories offer an equally disturbing picture. The Green Dress, for example, is a love story about a man and the green dress worn by a woman who lives in his apartment building. He has no interest in the woman, but breaks into her house one day to steal the dress, which he takes home, makes love to, and brings out to the park on dates.

Vollman is clearly fascinated by the mentally-unsound, and his most disturbing and strangely, most beautiful story in the book, The Blue Yonder, invites us to fall in love with a group of homeless winos that camp out in Golden Gate Park, while simultaneously tracking the obsessive-compulsive and split personality murderer who is systematically killing them because they are unclean—by knocking them out and packing their mouths full of Drano crystals, then beheading them after their jaws have dissolved. While this sounds incredibly sick (who in their right minds would want to read about that?!), Vollman is such an honest guide, never an exploitative sensationalist, that our empathy overpowers our disgust. Though there is nothing evangelical about his writing—the man is a tender documentarian, but never suggests that anything should or can be otherwise—Vollman is a kind of authorial Christ, openly embracing society's dregs.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dance: The Sleeping Beauty at New York City Ballet

The only thing I have to compare NYCB's The Sleeping Beauty with is Disney's The Sleeping Beauty, which isn't quite fair, especially when taking into account the fact that I haven't seen the Disney movie in over twenty years, and unlike favorites like The Little Mermaid, probably only saw it once. In fact, I think I saw the Joffrey Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty twenty years ago as well; it was my first time going to a performance in New York, and my mom asked me whether I wanted to go to the ballet, or to see something called Cats, which would have tap dancing. (At the time, I took both ballet and tap lessons every Saturday.) I chose the ballet, but changed my mind a few days later. "Mom," I said, "I've decided that actually I would rather see Cats." "Oh, honey," she told me, "It's too late; I've already bought the tickets." We went to see The Sleeping Beauty and I fell asleep. The next year, and the five or six years after that, we went to see Cats. I bought the soundtrack and the book of T. S. Eliot poems it was based on, and after memorizing all the words, I would perform the songs for my mother. Freshman year of high school, I was still shameless enough to perform both songs and dances from Cats with a classmate for a kind of mandatory extra-credit project in our honors English class. Our teacher was disappointed that we didn't discuss any of Eliot's other work. At the time, I didn't know he had any other work to speak of.

The New York City Ballet generally offends my sensibilities. Aside from the fact that all the dancers are very, very white, all the pas-de-deux are for heterosexual couples, and most of the bodies on stage are tasked to stand prettily in a semi-circle while the two principles perform breathtaking feats, there is the repressed airlessness of extreme control that pervades the performance. Never does a dancer test her limit on stage, or even approach the extreme. Everything is measured, perfectly rehearsed, calculated. Modern dancers have more play in their ribcages, and a wider range of expression across their faces, but they also have more flexibility in their technique: every movement is exploration, rather than execution, and a performance is no different, at least in that sense, than a rehearsal. And so, where the NYCB must offer a full orchestra, expensive moving scenery, and heavy costumes with hand-embroidery and rhinestones that can be seen from the highest balcony to impart any drama, real drama reveals itself when all of this is stripped away and the body expands to fill that space.

Then again, the performers in Cats wore some pretty extravagant costumes as well. In fact, there was one enjoyable pas-de-deux in The Sleeping Beauty. In the final Act, when Princess Aurora marries the Prince, a number of couples perform short dances in their honor. One of these couples was a pair of, yes, cats, who had license to jump and frolic and flirt, their exuberance no longer suppressed by their humanity.

Books: Sensing, Feeling, and Action, by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen

This collection of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's articles and interviews serves as a kind of exploratory textbook on Body-Mind Centering (BMC), Bonnie's methodology for increasing proprioception and kinesthetic awareness. Though the chapters are culled from 1980s issues of Contact Quarterly, a small dance magazine that's still around, the book is of interest to movement-curious non-dancers (e.g. yogis, marshal artists, athletes, and physical therapists). Unlike the average western orthopedist, Bonnie understands the body as an integrated (or, when things go awry, dis-integrated) set of systems that support each other, so that the muscular-skeletal system is not only not the initial generator of movement, but it is also not always the root of what seems to be a muscular-skeletal malfunction or discomfort.

Bonnie is very well-attuned to developmental patters, and points out that the neurological pathways that instruct our muscles to generate movement are formed very early in life. Any number of factors can interfere with the development of the ideal, most efficient pathway, which can lead to physical problems later in life. Perhaps the best example is that of the infant transitioning from lying on its stomach, to lifting its head using the muscles along the spinal cord, to propping itself up on its arms and developing those muscles, until it is strong enough to push itself back onto its seat. Now, the baby can sit up straight and strong, because it has spent months exercising its neck and back, and those muscles are fully formed. Parents, though, often overzealous and over-valuing precocity, will sit their babies up prematurely, so that the baby slumps over. This will translate to slouching in later life as well. Similarly, pre-mature walking, encouraged by baby-bouncers and walkers and the like, puts the body in a vertical posture before the core muscles have been properly developed, which happens through crawling. Thus, Bonnie might give an adult with poor posture baby exercises. An adult who slumps over should lie on her stomach and, slowly locating the base of her spine, engage those muscles to gently lift her head and look around, the way an infant would. Bonnie might "wake up" certain ineffective muscles by tickling the back of the neck with a feather, which sensation initiates awareness and then encourages the woman to use the more efficient muscular pathway. Similarly, an adult with a weak abdomen and a collapsed lower back, who walks with his shoulders actually behind his pelvis, would be given crawling exercises, to integrate his core and recover his plumb-line.

But this book is not only about correcting movement deficiency. Bonnie writes about the organs, and how we can generate movement from these places, which each have their own tone. She illustrates this with a series of photographs, analyzing people's postures and explaining which organs dominate their postures. She also writes about the fluid systems, the coursing of blood and lymph through our bodies, and has a detailed chapter on the workings of the voice, along with exercises for opening the voice so that it sounds from deep in the body. The exercises are focused on integrating the different systems, for example sounding through different organs, which seems a little kooky, but actually is both freeing and fascinating, once we have moved past our inhibitions.

Books: The Breathing Book, by Donna Farhi

As a seasoned yogi, many of the exercises suggested by Donna Farhi in The Breathing Book are rather elementary—that is, I've already been doing them for years. The average urban 9-5er non-yogi would certainly benefit from starting the breath practices she outlines, but I wonder whether that person would be able to execute her exercises—and the subtle set-ups, with bolsters and stacks of blankets—in a safe and productive way. I've personally never learned how to do anything from a book, other than read and write. Perhaps there are people who can, but in the constant shifting back to the text, how is one supposed to really lie down, close one's eyes, and imagine breath in the belly and the pelvis, or the outer rib cage and the back? It might work as an audio book.

Farhi's style is also a little folksy, although one can feel immediately that she is well-intentioned and targeting a lay audience. For someone who already has a yoga/meditation/breath practice, but feels the breath sticking in certain spots (this is why I read the book), the final pages, a series of sequenced exercises targeted to various complaints (headaches, depression, sinusitis, etc.) are the most valuable. The beginning pages, too, in which she carefully diagrams the respiratory system and its movement through the muscular-skeletal system, depicting the rocking of of the pelvis with breath, and the movement of the diaphragm and pelvic floor, are helpful , even if you already have a basic kinesthetic knowledge. This is not the kind of book that you check out of the library, read through, absorb, and return. It's a handbook that serves as a decent reference for yoga beginners. Unfortunately, though Farhi clearly hopes to address readers who are stressed out, frazzled, anxious, and harried, it is unlikely that audience will have the patience to do mindful exercises out of a book.

Movies: The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 (2009)

While a decent way to pass 106 minutes of an eight hour transatlantic flight in the opposite direction of your fiancé , The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 is little more, and certainly nothing approaching the tightly-orchestrated adagio of Joseph Sargent's 1974 version, in which the hijackers wear trench coats, tortoise-rimmed glasses, and fake moustaches, and call each other Mr. Brown, Mr. Gray, and Mr. Green. Instead, we are given a disgruntled hedge fund manager (John Travolta, who is looking more and more like a trailer park child molester these days) out to get back at New York City by crashing the stock market and making good on gold, and a few not-so-bright Latino henchmen he picked up in prison (where he was sent for some kind of white-collar scheme). Instead of Walter Matthau at headquarters, we are offered Denzel Washington. Ten years ago, Travolta v. Washington could be almost as promising as Pacino v. DeNiro in Heat, but these days, both are pretty washed up.

Washington has some kind of dark secret which comes out during his cat-and-mousing with Travolta. It turns out he accepted a bribe while overseas negotiating a contract for the purchase of new trains—so that he could pay his daughters' college tuition. Luckily, Mayor James Gandolfini is more than willing to erase that from his permanent record after Washington risks his life chasing Travolta through the city, both underground in the subway tunnels, through traffic-filled streets (obligatory car chase!)*, and on foot across the Manhattan bridge, eventually shooting the man dead (somewhat against his will, of course, as he is a good citizen who has never before shot a gun). Gone is the 1974 mayor, who was sick in bed with the flu when the ransom order came in, and his griping about the filth that is (was) New York—which was the funniest part of the movie.

This film could have been so much more than a B-level action flick people watched on the plane, but the screenplay is so lazy (why?! More than half the work was done in '74!) and reliant on stereotypes that the competent cast can't get it off the ground. The original film does typecast the hostages (even in the credits, they are listed as The Mother, The Homosexual, The Hooker, The Pimp), but they are just hostages—the story is not theirs. Tony Scott's version, perhaps stabbing at egalitarianism, lets each hostage shine for a moment—the soldier who dies so that a mother's child can live, the undercover cop who tries to save the day but is shot dead, and the college kid whose girlfriend witnesses the entire takeover via skype on his laptop (ugh). Meanwhile, we never get a clear understanding of our hero.

*The movie also includes an obligatory rat bite.