Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Visceral Beauty of Spoken Word Poetry: Ten of My Favourites

Spoken word poetry is arguably the rawest form of human expression. The body becomes a technology, and words fall like dominoes to leave an audience in awe. I feel that poetry is taught in high schools with a certain tired detachment, much like the plays of Shakespeare. Unless the teacher has penned their own body of work, enthusiasm will often be lacking. Students mistakenly believe that all poems must rhyme, and many male students (not me, of course) feel that writing poetry would expose a sensitive side they would much rather keep to themselves. If spoken word poetry was integrated into the curriculum, I believe today's youth would not only be more keen on devouring poetry, but that they would also be inspired to create their own. In this post, I'll share my ten favourite spoken word poems with some brief commentary. I won't bother ordering them, as that would be a futile exercise. Be prepared to feel goose bumps, and it wouldn't hurt to sit beside a box of tissues. Some of these will hit you like a tonne of bricks.

What Teachers Make - Taylor Mali

Stand-up comedians often fabricate certain aspects of their lives for the sake of a good joke. "I was walking down the street the other day..." Were you? Or were you sitting on your couch thinking of jokes for your next set? I don't mind if comedians lie; what matters is that they make me laugh. In the case of spoken word poets, and especially in this instance with Mr. Mali, you get the sense that nothing is a sham. You can feel the legitimacy reverberating from the words. You see the truth in the poet's gestures and facial expressions. Taylor Mali spent nine years as a teacher of English, history, and mathematics. He now lectures and holds workshops for teachers and students the world over. Indeed, his experience as a teacher informs many of his poems. He has even written and performed a poem about something as insignificant as girls lending pens. He is clearly a man who is passionate about his vocation, as evidenced through this electrifying poem on teaching to make a difference, not a wage.   

That Love - Simone Stolzoff

In Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there's a scene where Scarlett Johansson's character laments that she is not gifted. She can appreciate art and music, but she doesn't have the talent to create her own. Hence, she must live with so much repressed emotion. Stolzoff's poem is written from a very similar perspective. Here is a young man with a romantic, sensitive soul. All he needs is a girl who will let him love her. Can you really write a love poem if you've never been in love? He needs to find someone who will validate his sweet words. It is frustrating to watch people take love for granted; to see people whinge about their partner's flaws instead of embracing their positive traits. There have been countless times where I've been speaking to someone and they have cautioned me, "Steven, never get a girlfriend!" or "Don't you ever get married!" In these situations, I must resist the urge to tell that person to break up with their partner if relationships really do suck that much. Also noteworthy is the subtle humour Stolzoff injects into the poem, such as the stony facial expression and deliberate pause when he compares finding love to finding a five dollar bill resurfacing from folds of denim.  

This is Not the End of the World - Neil Hilborn

This is one of my go-to videos on days when I feel like utter shit. Sometimes, it's just so hard to believe that you make a difference to people in this life. You only consider this on your birthday when everyone's standing around a cake, singing Happy Birthday to You. The other 364 days can be a real drag. This poem is a big "fuck you" to the negative feelings within the gamut of human emotion. Hilborn suffers from bipolar disorder, so this poem is understandably close to his heart. He espouses that, to persevere against bipolar and other mental illnesses, one must always be busy, or at least optimistic. Wallowing in self-pity only digs a deeper, more disastrous hole. My favourite line: "Whatever you're feeling right now, there is a mathematical certainty that someone else is feeling that exact thing." If this poem isn't enough to make someone step down from that ledge, I don't know what is.

Social Anxiety at 130 BPM - Aaron Burstein 

This didn't really appeal to me on my first listen, but it really grew on me over time. Now, I have not been diagnosed with any anxiety disorder, but then again, I've never gone to get tested. All I know is that I can get very, very uncomfortable in social situations where everyone is a stranger. I can't go to parties if I don't know at least one other guest besides the host. As an introvert, loud environments unnerve me. I'm at the train station when I see someone I went to school with. I want to avoid this person, not because I hate him, but because we never spoke that much and small talk is my weakness. Burstein nails the experience of entering a crowded room when you are not gifted with social skills. The whole "expectations vs. reality" dilemma is spot on. "They're just people," you think. "This will be easy." But then you walk in that room and the inane chatter is too grating to bear. With one foot in the door, you already want a change of scenery. I also like how Burstein portrays the fluctuation of thoughts throughout one interaction, giving his poem a stream-of-consciousness flavour. Most importantly, he reminds us that it's okay to fake it 'til you make it. Be The Iceman.   

Liars, All of Us - Chad Anderson

Earlier in this post, I differentiated between stand-up comedians and slam poets. I said that poets don't lie the way comedians do. This doesn't necessarily mean that poets don't glorify the nastiness of life. There is a difference between lies and concealment. One is a direct untruth. The other is the hiding of a truth. What Anderson's addressing in this meta-poem is the way poets choose to distort the truth in order to get the snaps and applause. A poem is not a photograph. As a poet, you have the opportunity to paint a rosy picture of a sordid scene. This is poetry as therapy, or poetry as distraction. You need to embed some hooks and rhymes in your poem, because if you dish out the bare truth, your audience is going to be depressed. It loses its status as art and becomes confession—the stuff you tell your psychiatrist when all that surrounds you is four walls. 

Muse for a Restless Leg - Simone Stolzoff

Here's another beautiful poem from the grossly underrated Simone Stolzoff. It's probably the vaguest poem on this list in terms of subject matter, but like Anderson's poem above, it tackles the theme of writing for an audience versus writing for yourself. It's a little tough to decipher, but my interpretation is that Stolzoff wrote this poem as it allowed him to fantasise about life with a girl he loves. However, by the time he finished writing it, he realised that he would have better chances of getting the girl if he actually practised what he preached rather than sharing his desires with a room full of strangers. The line that breaks me every time is "It's awful nice to save the last bite of dessert for someone that you know is coming home." Ain't that the truth? 

The Future - Neil Hilborn

The second Hilborn poem on this list is about Neil's struggles and epiphanies caused by his bipolar disorder. It's a well-written poem, but it's Hilborn's delivery that takes it to a whole new level. His genius is that he can trivialise his own illness without insulting other bipolar sufferers. When Hilborn talks about the symptoms of bipolar, he doesn't speak for everyone. He individualises the illness so well that he can talk about suicidal thoughts with an animated timbre to his voice. By the time he conjures up the portmanteau blowmotion, we have fallen in love with him. Here is a man who wants to make people smile, even when he is sharing the lowest points of his life. I love the homely image of the future as "a small town we're all gonna move to someday." I think Neil Hilborn deserves to be the mayor of that town. 

Rubik's Cube - Benjamin Barker

I'm amazed that Barker was able to remain composed during this performance. I still remember the night I lost my last remaining grandparent: September 27, 2004. I bawled my eyes out. The trouble with grandparents is that, when we're children, we don't have a complete understanding of mortality. We know what "old people" look like, and we have some understanding of death, but we don't expect our grandparents to die because they are such a strong presence in our lives. Yes, we know about death, but we don't know how it claims people without warning. What's the difference between cancer and a stroke? The juvenile mind does not know, nor does it want to know. Barker demonstrates his knack for storytelling in this performance, so much so that I almost felt like I had lived his history. The metaphor of a Rubik's cube for a mind ravaged by Alzheimer's works wonderfully, just like Barker's hand gestures. When he describes the vivid colours of World War II, I think of the blissful brutality of The Thin Red Line. This is a thoroughly moving work which deserves more recognition.   

Pine City - Renee Schminkey

For a poem that comes from such a personal place, Pine City is surprisingly accessible. We sense Schminkey's genuine pain over growing up amidst a sophomore scrapheap, and the tacky media circuses and gossiping that would follow each instance. She is deadly accurate in capturing the hysteria that surrounds a string of deaths in a small town. I don't say this from experience, but I've read enough national and international news to recognise the outpouring of grief that sounds like it was aided by an autocue, and the way it tapers off when everyone has had their Act of Remembrance validated by another. Schminkey feels smothered by the culture of misery her town has accrued, and her gasps at the start of each sentence are signs that she's surfacing for air.

OCD - Neil Hilborn

Even if you're not too familiar with poetry slams or spoken word poems, here's one you might recognise. This is such an important poem in the context of the spoken word community. It is the most-viewed slam poem ever posted on YouTube, and for many people (including myself), it's the poem that sparked their interest in the wonderful world of spoken word. I've already touched on Neil's bipolar disorder in this post, and it just so happens that he is also afflicted by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The "tics" that Hilborn exhibits in this poem are deliberately used for dramatic effect, but otherwise, his OCD is very real. OCD is the best-delivered slam poem I have ever seen. Hilborn starts slow and progressively builds to a crescendo. The result is that we are floored by the climax. I thought my goose bumps were about to mature into fully-fledged geese. You can't fake this emotion. Neil Hilborn's OCD is slam poetry realised to its greatest potential. It is pure magic—the product of an artist, a microphone, and a room full of people hoping to see themselves in another human being.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

December 2013 Film Wrap-Up

December 2013: The month I watched a ridiculous amount of Woody Allen films, and the month I discovered the pleasure of rewatching my favourite films. Oh, and I finally bought a Blu-ray player!

For those who are interested, I watched a total of 264 films in 2013. I began with The Seventh Continent and finished with one of my all-time favourites, Scream. 

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947) = 4.5/5

A psychological drama about a convent of nuns in the Himalayas and their struggle to adapt to new, exotic surroundings. This film is brimming with vibrant colours and atmospheric lighting. It's a subtly erotic drama about isolation and desire. Powell & Pressburger are knocking on the door for a spot in my top 10 favourite directors. 

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) = 5/5

I'm not going to write too much about this one, as you would already know my thoughts on it. It's my second-favourite Allen film, behind Hannah and Her SistersThis is the most important romantic comedy ever made, and it is driven by one of the best scripts ever written, period. I will never tire of this film. It will always be funny and it will never lose its power to move me. Thank you, Woody Allen.

Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984) = 4/5

I remember seeing bits of this film (or perhaps the sequel) as a child. I liked what I saw, but I couldn't recollect much of it. That's why I pounced at the chance to see this on the big screen at Dendy Newtown. This movie exists for one purpose: to provide the viewer with a fun time. It succeeds. It's an almost-perfect family film. You can argue that it's too violent to be a family film, but if/when I have kids, I will have no objections to them watching this. Heck, if I handled The Exorcist at age five, what damage will Gremlins do to a young, developing mind?

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (Woody Allen, 1982) = 3/5

It's not Allen's worst film, but it's a contender for his most painfully average. It's lighter than a babycino. It's amusing in parts, but I mostly felt like a passive observer.

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) = 4/5

First of all, I am grateful that I was able to tell my Facebook friends I was watching this without getting homophobic remarks hurled my way. This is a quiet film that requires patience, but amidst the silence, there are moments of yearning that roar. It's well-acted and punctuated by a beautiful score. The cinematography is also rather stunning. I miss Heath Ledger.  

Hollywood Ending (Woody Allen, 2002) = 3.5/5

Woody Allen has gone on record as saying this is one of his favourites amongst his own films. He is perplexed as to why it raked in so little at the box office. While it's not top-tier Woody Allen, it's certainly an entertaining film that milks a lot of laughs out of a one-joke premise. It's gratuitously self-referential but endlessly watchable. 

Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994) = 3.5/5

One of several 90s films that dissected the Generation X mentality. Nothing original here, but pleasant nonetheless. It's well-written, and I'm sure many of the lines will stay with me. My favourite: "He's so cheesy, I can't watch him without crackers."

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) = 4.5/5

I can't believe I waited so long to watch this film! It is wonderful and it thoroughly deserves its status as a landmark of popular culture. It's funny, entertaining, and unexpectedly touching. I guess I'll have to watch the sequels now!

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013) = 3.5/5

If The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were a food, it would be one of those giant rainbow-swirl lollipops. It's a dazzling amalgamation of colours and you will concentrate on the subtle details of particular shots with the same intensity of a child poring over a Where's Wally? double-page spread. Does this lollipop taste good? I think it does, but I also think I'd have enjoyed it more if it didn't have so many cracks. This particular film reviewer prefers his movies with a cynical edge that confirms his worldview—life is a series of disappointments, with the occasional intervening success. Walter Mitty is not the type of film that echoes such a sentiment. While the eponymous protagonist does persevere through several obstacles, the film is ultimately a sweet one that will have you exiting the cinema with a smile on your face. Most films that veer into saccharine territory have no idea how sentimental they are. They mistake goodbyes in the rain for profundity. Walter Mitty can get sickly sweet at times, but I can forgive this, for the film is inherently tied to notions of escapism. You can read my full review here.

Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978) = 3.5/5

It's easily Allen's bleakest film. Do not seek this out if you're after a good time. It's well-written and superbly acted, but the sombreness feels forced. After all, this is Allen's homage to Bergman's chamber dramas. As is often the case, he focuses too much on paying tribute and not enough on saying something. Despite this, I still admire him for giving this a shot. It's quite good considering it was his first proper drama film, following the semi-serious Annie Hall.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) = 4/5

I dream of an era where Noah Baumbach is recognised as one of the greatest living directors. I've now seen Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Frances Ha, of course. I have loved each of these films. Frances Ha is a film for those who are brimming with passion but have no idea where to place it. It is gorgeously directed, and Gerwig is very endearing as the eponymous character. I expect Baumbach and Gerwig to become one of the great director-actress combinations of our time. 

Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) = 3.5/5

Technically stunning with great performances, but it doesn't warrant its long runtime. It just feels too clunky and disjointed, and there came a point where it was bogged down by legalese. To paraphrase Chaplin, I thought too much and felt too little.

Scoop (Woody Allen, 2006) = 2/5

A farcical waste of talent, time and money. It all feels so contrived. Call me a cynic, but I wouldn't be surprised if Allen only made this film so he could act alongside the beautiful Miss Johansson. I lost count of the number of times he touched her on the arm or back.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) = 1.5/5

Sorry, but I just do not get it. At all. Ron Burgundy is one of the most irritating protagonists in the history of film. This is a weak excuse for satire, and it is depressingly juvenile. I had seen this before many years ago, but I had to rewatch it to confirm if I found it average or if I truly hated it. I hated it. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) = 4.5/5

One of the great contemporary westerns. It's slow but never tedious. The characters are morally ambiguous, and the cinematography is impeccable.

Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999) = 4/5

A sweet film that carries undertones of sadness. This mock biopic feels incredibly authentic. Penn and Morton shine in one of Woody Allen's most underrated films. I love Zhao Fei's cinematography in this film.

Surviving Christmas (Mike Mitchell, 2004) = 2/5

It embarrasses itself with sitcom sensibilities. A schmaltzy, chaotic mess. It's too juvenile and lazy to love, but it's too harmless to incite hate. I just pity it because it thinks it's more profound than it actually is.

Shadows and Fog (Woody Allen, 1991) = 3/5

Aesthetically interesting with some great patches of dialogue, but I seldom felt involved in the narrative. I much preferred Allen's one-act play Death, which the film was based on.

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983) = 4/5

An accurate depiction of what it's like to be a child at Christmas. A feel-good film that is never sickly sweet.

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) = 4.5/5

It moves at a pace that allows your eyes to take a leisurely stroll around the screen. A haunting contrast of chaos and calm. With each Malick film I see, I become more fascinated with the man's approach to making movies. 

The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013) = 4/5

A quiet, emotionally mature film that wisely refrains from sacrificing believability for extravagant plotting. I thought it deserved a more conclusive ending, but its ambiguity does nicely complement the film's central message that it's okay to be unsure about things because life isn't scripted. If we want a happy Hollywood ending in our own lives, we have to work for it.

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen, 2007) = 2/5

A candidate for Woody's worst film. It's an almost impenetrable movie. Woody Allen was the wrong person to direct it. A great cast is wasted on a contrived movie where nothing rings true. It also contains one of the most rushed endings I have ever seen in a film. 

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) = 3.5/5

First of all:

1. This was a first-time viewing.
2. Some of you may know my views on the action genre. I don't really like it and when I do decide to watch an action film, I am very selective with what I pick.

I thought the action sequences in this film were well-directed. The film moves at a very watchable pace and does well to not veer into gratuitous explosions. Although I am no expert in the field of action films, I think it's safe to call this a classic of its genre, but it's only a speck in the history of cinema as a whole. It was good enough, but I won't be watching the sequels.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (Woody Allen, 1972) = 3.5/5

A hit-and-miss collection of vignettes that allows Allen to showcase his comedic versatility. Whether your tastes are highbrow or lowbrow, you'll find something here that you like.

Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003) = 3/5

You've got several genres competing for precedence which makes it very awkward to watch. It just feels off. Thornton makes this watchable despite the fact his character feels like a caricature.

Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994) = 3.5/5

Jazz-scored pandemonium that almost gave me a headache. This might be the loudest Woody Allen film. There's a lot of dialogue and plenty of music, and it becomes almost overwhelming. Luckily it was well-written with a wealth of great performances.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Chris Columbus, 1992) = 5/5

My favourite Christmas film, and one that I watch every Christmas Eve (this tradition only started in 2012). 

10 reasons why Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is better than Home Alone

1. New York City is a character in itself.
2. Brenda Fricker as the Central Park Pigeon Lady (great scene in the loft of Carnegie Hall).
3. Tim Curry and Rob Schneider.
4. It’s so much darker than the first one…found it really scary as a kid which only made it more enticing.
5. I prefer the music in part 2. ‘Christmas Star’ is a beautiful song.
6. “Mr McCallister…here's your very own cheese pizza!”
7. I like the setting of the Plaza Hotel.
8. Duncan’s Toy Chest.
9. The significance of turtle doves.
10. Cliff.

New York Stories (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola & Woody Allen, 1989) = 3/5

Scorsese, Coppola and Allen each direct a featurette in this ode to the city that never sleeps. 

Scorsese's segment = Average.
Coppola's segment = Abysmal. Co-written by a teenage Sofia Coppola, which may explain why it's terrible.
Allen's segment = Good.

Overall, this was a disappointing misfire that failed to do justice to such a fascinating city. I expected a much better effort considering the talent involved.

Anything Else (Woody Allen, 2003) = 3/5

This is probably the weirdest Woody Allen film I have seen, and that's quite a statement considering the amount of genre-hopping the veteran has done. It's not weird because of its plot. It's weird because there isn't much of a plot to begin with. It feels less like a film and more like a screenplay read aloud amidst the backdrop of a movie set. The dialogue is snappy and it's funny enough despite the pseudo-intellectual overtones, but the film has no soul. It could have been titled I'm More Cultured Than You: The Movie. I didn't hate it, but I did feel like it was incomplete—a melting pot of ideas and literary allusions waiting to find coherence.

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) = 5/5

When I got my Blu-ray player, this was the first film I watched on it. I didn't think this film could get any more gorgeous. I was wrongIf you've been living under a rock for the past couple of years, American Beauty is my favourite film of all time. I could waffle on here about how much I love it, but instead I'll link you to this, where I explain the reasons this film is so dear to me. 

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) = 5/5

This was another rewatch on Blu-ray. It is probably the most beautiful film about human connection I've ever seen. It's about two lonely people—one an aging actor; the other a young, married college graduate—who find each other in a city where everything is, well, lost in translation. The city is Tokyo, and good lord, it has never looked more spectacular.  This movie works for so many reasons, but the main one is that Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) never turn their relationship into an erotic one. This is not about sex. This is about companionship in a place where you can't really turn to anyone. The contrast between Bob's life experience and Charlotte's naivety is interesting to observe, and makes their relationship all the more intriguing. Lost in Translation is not always entertaining, but it is never dull. Even when nothing's happening, everything is so aesthetically pleasing that you can't afford to look away. It makes me sad that this is a fictitious film. I fell in love with these two souls, but I've got to accept they don't even exist in the real world. There's something incredibly poignant about a fleeting connection. How often have you shared a special moment with someone who you never saw again? You lament the loss of contact, but a part of you feels like your meeting was meant to be transient. One last thing: the karaoke scene is very, very special. 

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (Woody Allen, 2001) = 2.5/5

I really didn't want to watch this film as I knew it had a reputation as Woody Allen's worst film. But since I vowed to watch every single Woody film, it had to be done. It's not the disaster many claim it to be, but it's not that good, either. It's just too damn gimmicky. I did enjoy the interplay between Allen and Hunt, and there are some very nice warm colours in this.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) = 5/5

Scream is one of those movies that is scarier than you actually expect. The poster suggests it's just another run-of-the-mill slasher flick, but it's far from that. Wes Craven is playful and the material is never too dark, but when it wants to be, Scream can be incredibly unsettling. The opening scene featuring Drew Barrymore is probably my favourite opening scene of all time, and a terrifying one at that. Craven is a genius who knows what horror fans like, and this film is an homage to everything the slasher subgenre is about. It's a quintessential 90s film. Watching this on Blu-ray for the first time in years was interesting. I'll admit that it hasn't aged terribly well, and the third act is a bit sloppy, but I just couldn't bring myself to lower the rating. This film just means too much to me as a horror enthusiast. 

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Black Narcissus
* Annie Hall
* Back to the Future
* The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
* The Thin Red Line
* Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
* American Beauty
* Lost in Translation
* Scream