Archive for the ‘the petri dish’ Category

The Beautiful Game

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Between working on my new book and keeping up with the World Cup, my days have been very busy lately. What better soap opera than the implosion of the French team? What better opportunity to compare bad haircuts than the one provided by the Algerian team? What more devastating exit than that of Brazil, who scored against themselves? Was there ever a more exciting football game than the Uruguay-Ghana match this week? I had hoped that Ghana would make it past the quarter-finals and was crushed when they didn’t, especially because the game would not have been decided on penalties if Gyan hadn’t missed his kick against Uruguay. And don’t get me started on Suarez’s left hand! So you see there is plenty of character and drama, which is all I need to keep me happy, whether in or out of books.

Photo credit: Getty images


The Last Station

Monday, June 28th, 2010

I didn’t know what to expect from The Last Station, the film adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel about the last year of Tolstoy’s life, but I have to say I enjoyed it tremendously.  As I’m sure you’ve heard, the acting is great: Helen Mirren plays Sophia Tolstaya; Christopher Plummer is the great man;  James McAvoy plays Tolstoy’s secretary Valentin Bulgakov; and poor Paul Giamatti gets to be Chertkov.  But really what sets this adaptation apart is that the screenplay is so good. It’s multi-layered, well-paced, and handles its deeply flawed characters with great care.  Which, of course, it owes to Parini’s novel. This movie made me glad I reinstated my Netflix subscription.

On a somewhat related note, it was reported this week that Sergei Tolstoy, the novelist’s 87 year old great-grandson, now lives in a low-income assisted living facility in DC. He wants to write a book about his service as an undercover officer in the U.S. Army.

Photo credit: Sony Picture Classics

The Road

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

I went to see the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a couple of days ago. I tried to trick myself into not expecting anything from the movie because I thought that would prevent me from being disappointed. There was anything wrong with director John Hillcoat’s work. And Viggo Mortensen delivers a fine performance (but then he nearly always does.) But I was still terribly disappointed. The problem, I think, is that there was no poetry to this movie and it simply doesn’t do justice to the novel.

Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

The Californian artist Sandow Birk has just unveiled a new, monumental project titled American Qur’an, a series of paintings of an English-language Qur’an that has been adorned with scenes from American life. He has been working on this project since 2004, and has managed to finish approximately 60 of the 114 chapters. Some of the paintings are on display at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco and others at the Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles.

I went to see the show when it opened this past weekend. Each of Birk’s paintings is made up of a Qur’anic chapter hand-written in ink, in a style of writing reminiscent of graffiti art. According to the New York Times, the text comes from a copyright-free 1861 English translation by J. M. Rodwell. Beneath the hand-written chapters are pictures in gouache. A few of the illustrations seem to me to be literal or expected (e.g. the chapter titled “The Constellations” comes with a picture of a constellation), but the vast majority are novel or unusual in some way (e.g. the first chapter, the Fatiha, appears with a maze of L.A. freeways.) Most of the pictures are narrative scenes: farmers working in a field; people standing in front of a display of dinosaur bones; workers picking up trash; and so on.

When Jori Finkel of the New York Times asked Usman Madha of the King Fahd Mosque what he thought of the project, he cautioned that some people might find the work offensive. The potential for offense is always there, as with any piece of art. But my take on it is that, although the project is titled American Qur’an, it is a highly idiosyncratic series.

It is not what one might call traditionally “American.” The painted scenes do not take place exclusively in the United States; there are representations of outer space and of a South American pyramid. And those narrative scenes that are from the United States include many different races, ethnicities, and languages. Neither could the project be referred to as a proper “Qur’an”. It is not a book, it is a series of paintings. The text is not in Arabic; it’s in English. And it doesn’t even appear to be entirely faithful to one English version. For instance, I noticed that in Rodwell’s translation, Chapter 86 is titled “The Morning Star” and begins with “By the heaven, and by the Night-Comer! / But who shall teach thee what the night-comer is?” whereas in Sandow Birk’s version, Chapter 86 uses the Arabic title of “At Taariq” and begins with the “By the heaven and that which comes in the night/But who shall teach you what it is that comes in the night.” Chapter 36 uses the proper name “Yasin” as its title and so do several English translations, but Birk uses the title “Human Being.” Birk also includes a couple of misspellings. In Chapter 53 (“The Star”) the word revelation is spelled revalation. All in all, this struck me as a highly personal project, in which an artist tries to make sense of the Qur’an on a highly personal level.

Photo credit: Sandow Birk/Koplin del Rio Gallery

Ansari on The Office

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Producers of The Office have announced that Aziz Ansari has joined the cast for their spin-off show. I am unreasonably excited about this–can’t wait to see what he’ll do.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008


I loved Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly when I read it almost ten years ago, so I was quite reluctant to see the film adaptation, even though I’d heard that it was directed by Julian Schnabel. The movie arrived via Netflix on Friday and…it’s incredible. Schnabel does what so few directors are capable of doing when it comes to adaptations of novels, which is to say, translate literary language into visual language. What a beautiful film.

(photo credit)

The Band’s Visit

Monday, March 17th, 2008


So last Saturday, we braved traffic on the 405 to go see The Band’s Visit. It’s about a small Egyptian orchestra that arrives in Israel for a performance, but instead finds itself stranded in the desert, in the remote town of Beit Hatikva. All right, so you have to suspend disbelief for this one, considering Egyptians and Israelis aren’t going to be performing in each other’s countries anytime soon. Anyway, the band has no money and no place to stay, and Tewfiq the conductor (Sasson Gabai) is a grouch. One of the film’s running gags is that Tewfiq persists in referring to the band as the Alexandria Municipal Classical Orchestra, and no one has any idea what he’s saying. Eventually, the band is taken in for the night by a restaurant owner named Dina (played by the lovely Ronit Elkabetz). The Egyptians don’t speak Hebrew, the Israelis don’t speak Arabic, so everyone speaks broken English. I thought the story was a bit thin and the director, Eran Kolirin, tried to be cute, but for some reason I was charmed by the film. (And I don’t do cute. Go figure.) My favorite line in the movie is when Dina asks Tewfiq why he still plays Umm Kulthum, and he answers, “This is like asking a man why he has a soul.”

(Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics. You can view the trailer on YouTube.)

Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, so here’s a little poem for you by the lovely and amazing Suheir Hammad: “Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic.”

Levantine Center Pledge Drive

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

The Levantine Center is a Los Angeles-based organization that brings the arts, literatures, and films of the Middle East and North Africa to American audiences. It regularly puts together wonderful events (some of which I’ve written about in this space) and now they are in need of your support. This month, a generous donor has offered to match every pledge up to $10,000, so every penny you give the Levantine Center will be doubled. Please: Reach out for that checkbook or credit card and go here.

Atonement in Film

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008


When the Oscar nominations were announced last week, I was a bit surprised to hear that the film adaptation of Atonement had earned a nod for Best Picture. In some ways, the beauty of the novel rests on its use of language, its psychological depth, and a rather odd structure, which Ian McEwan somehow manages to pull off. The first third of the book takes places over the course of one day and is told from the points of view of several characters: the young, impressionable Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer; her older sister Cecilia, who just returned from Cambridge; their inept mother, Emily; the teenage Lola, a house guest who is raped that evening; and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ charlady, who also just returned from Cambridge with a ‘first-class degree,’ and stands accused of the crime. The second part of the book is set during the Second World War, in which Robbie serves. Through flashbacks, we find out what happened to him, and learn more about his romantic relationship with Cecilia, and his fight to clear his name. The third part of the book is told through Briony’s point of view. She is now training to be a nurse, and works at a London hospital where a huge number of wounded soldiers are sent. There is also an epilogue, written in 1999 by a now elderly Briony.

In Joe Wright‘s adaptation, the first third of the book is rendered beautifully and the shifting points of view work well on screen, but the entire project falls apart as soon as Robbie is whisked off to jail. The war scenes inevitably recall in the spectator’s mind the work of Steven Spielberg–and the comparison is not to Wright’s advantage. Where the book is subtle (in France, Robbie sees a single human leg hanging from a tree), the adaptation hits you over the head (a whole group of Catholic school girls dead under a tree.) The parts that are set in the hospital feel bogged down and irrelevant. Saoirse Ronan (who plays Briony as a child) and Vanessa Redgrave (who plays an old Briony) manage to rescue the scenes in which they appear, and the cinematography is certainly breathtaking, but I thought Atonement just didn’t hold together as a film. (In sharp contrast to, say, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men.)

Photo: Atonement film still (link.)

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