Nominating the Hugos

I was surprised when I learned that having joined the
Anticipation SF Convention last year, I not only got the right
to vote on the Hugo Awards last year, but I get to vote for the
nominees this year.

For how organized the voting procedure was (they sent you a
packet of most of the nominees as ebooks), the nomination
process is surprisingly free-form.

I wasn’t able to find a list of eligible works anywhere. Some
of the blogs I read had lists of what their authors had that was
eligible, and a couple of them offered to send voters free
copies. I don’t make any pretense of following the shorter
forms. And although I would like to be aware of good new
science fiction and fantasy novels, I’m not at all sure that
always happens.

So I did my best. I nominated four novels:

  • The Price of Spring, Daniel Abraham
  • Makers, Cory Doctorow
  • Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett
  • The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

I was cheating a bit on Makers, since I haven’t
finished reading it yet, but it’s clearly a good novel.

I also nominated The God Engines by John Scalzi, in the Best
Novella category.
I probably wouldn’t have read it if he hadn’t sent any
nominator who asked a free copy, but it is well-written,
although I hope there are other good novellas to read before I
have to vote.

I nominated District 9 and Star Trek
in the Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, and tor.com in the Best Related Work
category. There should probably be some specific online
categories, but there aren’t yet.

District 9

I watched this
movie
last night because I’m going to be nominating Hugo awards
and this seemed like a likely candidate for a nomination.

It’s a surprisingly good science fiction movie. I found it
very unpleasant to watch because of all the violence, so I only
gave it two stars at netflix, but really, Hollywood doesn’t
“get” science fiction that well at all often. It’s about first
contact with aliens, who get treated like a “lesser breed” by
the South African government. There’s lots of blowing things
up, and a creepy makup job as the main character gradually turns
into an alien.

You get to nominate 5 movies, and I’m sure this should be one
of them. Whether I’ll vote for it when the time to vote comes
is another question. I would really like there to be a movie
that’s as good that I actually enjoyed watching. The only other
candidate I’ve seen so far is Star
Trek
, and it’s certainly not as good Science Fiction,
although I really enjoyed watching it.

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Coco before Chanel

The big disappointment in this
movie
was that I didn’t really enjoy looking at the
clothes.

This defect is inherent in one of the good qualities of the
movie — it’s about the period in Coco Chanel’s life when she’s
looking at all the clothes around her and hating them and
thinking she could do better.

But except for the last scene, where she’s wearing a Chanel
jacket and watching her models go down the runway, we don’t
really see any examples of her doing better — the dress she
designs for herself to replace the “feminine” one her
“protector” has bought her seemed fairly pedestrian to me. The
little black dress she designs to go dancing with her new lover
is better, but we don’t really see it very well.

Looking at the movie as either a moralist or a feminist, I
think the script romanticises the demimondaine lifestyle,
although I’m sure the writers would dispute that. The
self-centered lord of the manor whose mistress she becomes is
realistic enough at the beginning, but his conversion to
supporter of her design career is completely unconvincing.

I mentioned a few
weeks ago
that I hadn’t yet seen any of the other
candidates for the Best Costume Design Oscar, but I was rooting
for Bright
Star
to win it anyway. This is part of the competition, and
having seen it doesn’t change that opinion any.

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Bright Star

This
is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about a poet.
The people who make movies in general do better with composers
— you’re going to need background music anyway. You can
actually have background poetry in some cases, as the reading of
Ode to a Nightingale over the closing credits of this movie
demonstrates, but it’s less common. But often they just take some
event in the poet’s life that could be part of the plot of a movie
and write that movie without using anything at all about the poetry.

What makes this a good movie about a poet is that there’s
ordinary dialog (well-written, but not transcendent), which is
then echoed in a recitation of one of the poems (which is
transcendent). Keats is making love to Fanny, and says
something like “I need a better word for you than bright, or
soft.” And several scenes later, he’s reading her:

BRIGHT star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
   Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
   Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task
   Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
   Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
   Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
   Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I was also really impressed with the costumes. It’s the Jane
Austen era, set between 1818 and 1821, so you have lots of
supposedly authentic BBC examples to compare them with. But
these costumes were made by someone who really likes looking at
fabric draped over the human body. Apparently the costume
designer used actual antique fabrics or copies.

Costume design was the only Academy Award this film was
nominated for. I’m not sure all the people nominated for Best
Actor and Best Actress were actually better than the two leads
in this film. And I haven’t yet seen the other films nominated
for Best Costume Design, but I liked this one well enough that
I’ll be rooting for it anyway.

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Sent a movie back unwatched

I don’t usually do that, and it’s not that it’s a terrible
movie.

It’s called Hands
over the City.
It’s about urban development politics, which I expected to be
interested in, but in this case I just wasn’t. I tried twice,
and I just couldn’t get interested in any of the characters
enough to even recognize them when they came back in later
scenes.

There is a good scene at the beginning when a building
collapses, injuring several people. You expect that kind of
European film to have a lot of visual interest even if you don’t
like the characters, but I think one of the points of this one was
how ugly the development was making Naples, and there were an
awful lot of ugly shots of skyscrapers.

So I can’t really tell you not to watch it, because it could be
if I’d persevered there would have been all kinds of catharsis.
But I can tell you I found the first 50 minutes or so pretty boring.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I read Tom Stoppard’s play in college, and had never had a
chance to see it, so I put this
movie
on my Netflix Watch Now queue when I noticed it. It’s
directed by Stoppard himself, and has a cast with some notable
stars in it.

It was one of the high points of that course in college — we
read a lot of good literature but most of it was stuff I’d read
already — this was an example of something I wouldn’t have read
on my own but really enjoyed.

The memorable scenes are all really good. There’s some less
memorable stuff that doesn’t get too tedious in between. As you
would expect, the parts that Shakespeare wrote are pretty
conventionally acted, except for bringing out the conceit that
nobody, including the two characters themselves, can remember
which is which. I gave it 3 stars.

If you don’t know the play and want to know whether you want
to, here are the parts I remembered fondly from reading it:

  • R. and G. play a game of “Questions”, where you have to
    always ask a question and it can’t be a non-sequitur or a
    rhetorical question. Then after their first encounter with
    Hamlet they score it by those rules.
  • They try to decide whether Hamlet is mad today based on his
    “when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw,”
    speech, and fail to determine the direction of the wind, where
    North is, or the time of day.
  • The statement that toenails never grow.

You can see some of these quotes out of context at imdb.com,
but it really isn’t one-liner humor.

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Lohengrin at Bayreuth

I enjoyed this
DVD
quite a lot, although it’s probably a bit long to be a
good introduction to Wagner if you don’t already know you want
to watch him.

With my memory refreshed on my previous viewing of the opera by
my post
last Monday
, I could see that the Bayreuth organization
and Werner Herzog (who did the stage direction) had to struggle
with many of the same problems that the Met touring company so
flagrantly failed to overcome.

Of course, the DVD had electronic means of overcoming any
imbalance between the singers and the orchestra, but probably
they hire singers to sing live at Bayreuth who have the right
vocal equipment. This is less rare than the right vocal
equipment for Hynes Auditorium, since Wagner designed his
theater very carefully for exactly that kind of production,
whereas Hynes Auditorium was designed for something else. (I’m
not really sure what, but it wasn’t Wagnerian opera.)

They coped with the problem of opera singers not always
grabbing the right end of the sword in the heat of all the other
things they have to think about by giving them “swords” that were
like wiggly light-sabers, which could be held anywhere along the
length of the weapon. The sword fights weren’t particularly
elaborately staged, but they did always seem to attack with the
“point”. The light-sabre conceit made some good lighting
effects possible.

The Swan was a stuffed Swan head and wings on the actor playing
the non-singing
role of Gottfried. And lots of lighting. As I remember the
Hynes Auditorium production, it wasn’t at all clear where the
dopy looking boy came from at the end. In this production, you
wonder why you can see the boy with the stuffed swan on his head
when none of the characters can. It’s one of the places where
I’m sure Wagner would have loved Hollywood special effects.

I thought all the singing was quite good. The acting was a
little more variable — Elsa was very good; Ortrud was
monochromatically angry; the men all verged on being a bit
wooden, with Lohengrin the best of the bunch. In general,
we shouldn’t expect opera singers who have been trained to act so that the
third balcony can see what they’re feeling to suddenly be subtle
in a film closeup. And I’m not sure we have the cultural
training to reproduce 19th century depictions of ancient
cultural figures in their public personas. We might well have
thought King Henry was wooden when he was addressing his
people if we had seen the real thing.

The scenery, lighting, and camera work were all quite good,
which you’d expect with a famous film director in charge. The
costumes were what I’ve seen in other Bayreuth-produced DVD’s —
nightgowns in attractive colors. This is one of the areas where
the production ignores explicit text in the libretto —
Lohengrin should have been wearing shining armor instead of a
vaguely steel-colored nightgown.

In general, I don’t believe people staging an opera from a
century and a half ago should feel compelled to follow all the
stage directions, or even all the staging explicitly called for
in the libretto. But I do wonder why they don’t change the
libretto when they’re changing the staging. Another place where
this production ignored Wagner’s writing was in the final scene when Lohengrin is
leaving his Sword, his Horn and his Ring for Gottfried when he
comes back. He does leave the light-sabre, but his costume
doesn’t have a horn, so he just sings about it without actually
putting anything down. This isn’t as irritating as when Brünhilde
is calling for her horse, and then talking to it for several
minutes and there isn’t anything remotely resembling a horse on
stage. But I do think they should address the problem when they
change something.

I spent a good part of the third act thinking what lousy wife
material Elsa was, aside from being able to deliver the Duchy of
Brabant. Before the wedding, she goes on and on about falling at
his feet and worshipping him. Then as soon as the ceremony is
over, she starts nagging him about telling her his name, which
is the one thing he’s asked her not to do. The marital
relationship between Ortrud and Friedrich is actually fairly
well-drawn, but virtuous women weren’t really Wagner’s strong
point.

There are other reviews: of this DVD at wagneropera.net,
and of the production as seen live (with a different cast) in The
New York Times
. I don’t disagree with much that they say,
but I think the wagneropera.net reviewer was a little harsh on
the acting.

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