Sunday, April 24, 2011

I Hotel: A Review

Novelist Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel I Hotel, a finalist in the 2010 National Book Award, is an epic in experimentalism, spanning ten years in the social and political activism of the San Francisco Asian community.

Based on real events, the I Hotel, or International Hotel, was a residential hotel in Chinatown for elderly Philipino and Chinese immigrant workers, mostly bachelors, which was demolished in 1979 to make way for redevelopment. In the book’s afterword, Yamashita writes that the these elderly workers were "men who had come to work and make their fortunes prior to World War II and who, because of antimiscegenation laws, exclusion acts prohibiting Asian immigration, and a life of constantly mobile migrant labor, were unable to find spouses, have children, and to settle in the United States.”

Yamashita not only covers the lives of some of these bachelors, but also those of young activists fighting against the closure and destruction of the I Hotel, forming what was then dubbed the Yellow Power movement, inspired by the civil rights, antiwar, socialist/Marxist, and Black Power movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. Yamashita tells these often disparate tales through ten novellas, each covering a year from 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, to 1979. A cast of characters spans the scope of the political and social events that occurred in the Bay Area during this period.

I enjoyed reading I Hotel for the most part. Some of the novellas and characters are quite compelling and Yamashita is at her best when she is detailing the cultural and generational differences within the various Asian communities in California (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.). She creates a milieu within the novel that is fully realized, bringing to life the culture and lives of Japantown and Chinatown in all of their complexities. Unfortunately, the novel's strength is also its weakness as it tries too hard to include too much. In his review for the Chicago Times last year, Alan Cheuse wrote that the novel was “a glorious failure of a book,” and I would have to agree. Yamashita makes the mistake that social realist novelists make in that she weighs in on the side of inclusivity, often at the expense of the story. At 605 pages the novel is too long for its type, undermined by repetition and narrative stagnation.

Yamashita spent ten years doing research for the novel and unfortunately it shows. She takes pains to include the voices of everyone during this time period, but not all of the narratives she includes are compelling enough to warrant inclusion. Some characters seem to exist merely to (re)present a type. Considering that the novel delves heavily into Marxist theory, perhaps Yamashita wanted to capture the collective struggles of a people and movement rather than pursue any artistic inclinations (Yamashita does in fact delve into the argument of whether art should exist for its own sake or should exist for the proletariat, an argument she leaves to the reader to resolve). However this only reveals the limitations of ideology over art. The most compelling characters in the story, such as Paul Wallace Lin, Chen Wen-guang, and Edmund Yat Min Lee, who appear in the first novella, are the most memorable precisely because their wants, desires, and backgrounds defy archetypical or ideological dogma.

Cheuse adds in his review that the more experimental sections are the least successful, but I would have to disagree. Her use of graphic novels, dossiers, screenplays, stage plays, and other sources of multimedia were the most compelling aspects of the novel, offering critiques of Socialist/Marxist dogma and revealing how form changes and redefines representation of class, race, and gender. 

In spite of its flaws, I Hotel is an admirable effort that looks at a period in American history through a unique perspective. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of a Yellow Power Movement, in spite of the fact that I was born and raised in the Bay Area during this period. For that alone, I Hotel preserves a history that is otherwise ignored in mainstream literature. The last twenty-six pages alone are a beautiful testimony to the voices of a people struggling to live, survive, love and thrive in this country. And Yamashita's push toward experimentalism also offers hope in further breaking down the boundaries of what the novel can achieve. I Hotel may be a “glorious failure,” but it is a failure worth the experience.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday, April 20: Deaths in the Rock and Photojournalism Worlds; Jennifer Egan Gets More Good News; and Tyler Perry Strikes Back!

Sad news today.

Gerard Smith, bassist for the indie rock band TV on the Radio, died from lung cancer at the age of 34. The band’s latest album, Nine Types of Light, was released over a week ago and has landed number 12 on the Billboard charts. Photojournalist Chris Hondras, whose work appeared on Getty Images, and Tim Hetherington, the British-born co-director of the war documentary, Restropo, were killed in Mastrapa, Libya on Wednesday. Two other journalists in their company were also injured. 

My condolences to all family and friends of these dearly departed.

In less depressing news, HBO announced today that it has bought the rights to Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel A Visit From the Good Squad for adaptation into a series. This news comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that her novel won the Pulitzer Prize. Congrats in both regards to Ms. Egan!

And still yet other news, Tyler Perry finally responds to Spike Lee's criticisms of his work by telling the director he "should go to hell." Lee previously described Perry's as "coonery and buffoonery." As of this posting, Mr. Lee has yet to respond. But when he does, I'm sure it'll be interesting!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

ABC cancels "All My Children" and "One Life to Live"

Today, ABC announced the cancellation of two of its long running daytime soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live. The network plans to replace them with something called "Chew" and another program.

That makes four shows in the past three years that have seen the axe, the first being Guiding Light on CBS, followed by As the World Turns, which went off the air last year.

I have to say that I was a big soap fan in my younger years. In fact, the first soap I've ever heard about was One Life to Live. My older brother was talking to my mom about the infamous Viki Lord story when she was on trial for the murder of pimp Marco Dane (she didn't do it). That was the trial where Karen Wolek (played by Judith Light) admitted on the stand that she was hooking for Marco. That scene became infamous in the annals of soap operas. I was hooked.

Ironically, I never became a One Life to Live fan. Instead I started watching General Hospital at the right time when being a GH fan was the hottest thing around. Yes, I'm talking Luke and Laura! So that started a decade of soap viewing that branched out into All My Children, Another World, The Young & the Restless, and Guiding Light, with brief forays into Ryan's Hope, Loving, Santa Barbara, and The Edge of Night.

Soaps always had a maligned reputation. Too slow. Too boring. Too cheesy. Too ridiculous. But when they were at their best, they created great stories and characters. However the changing times and technology have rendered them obsolete. And really, most cable stations have taken over the long-running storytelling genre. Though their fans might deny it, shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet and Under, Big Love, Mad Men, and the recently completed HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, are basically soap operas.

These cancellations signal an ending to an era. But it's not like this wasn't foretold. In the last fifteen years soaps have been struggling to maintain relevance and viewers. Too bad. As I said before, when they were good, soap operas were some of the most entertaining and socially relevant programs on TV. I'll go so far as to say that, despite their bad reputation, they were a lot better than what passed for a lot of prime time television back in the day.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Finale of HBO's Mildred Pierce Goes Out with a Bang

HBO aired the two-part finale of its miniseries Mildred Pierce with a bang. Much different than the film version, but sharper, more intense, and without any of the Screen Code era moralizing.

In these last two installments, Evan Rachel Wood takes over the role of Veda. Four years have past since last week’s episode and eighteen year old Veda’s piano instructor dies, leaving her rudderless career-wise. On the flip side, Mildred’s restaurant business has taken off. She’s about to open a third branch in Los Angeles in a beautiful seaside resort. By the end of the finale, their careers change radically when Veda, after being rebuffed by a new piano instructor, becomes an opera singer and turns into a major sensation, and Mildred, in her effort to hold onto her daughter, becomes preoccupied with Veda’s career and ends up losing her business. In between there are angry recriminations and betrayals that reveal what a poisonous well Veda and Mildred’s relationship really is. When Mildred learns that Veda trapped a young wealthy swain by getting pregnant and resorting to blackmail, she and Mildred get into a vicious argument after which Veda leaves home. Though Mildred realizes how callow her daughter is, she still yearns for her. She buys a mansion she can’t afford and reunites and marries Monty to win her back. Which of course she does. Sort of. The mansion and Veda’s career leads Mildred back to where she started when the series began, but not before she learns some more bitter truths about her daughter.

There were a number of wonderful moments throughout. Mildred and Veda’s break up scene, Mildred listening to Veda singing on the radio, awestruck and filled with longing as she looks out over the pier; Mildred discovering Veda and Monty’s affair. In fact that last scene was brutal, exemplified all by Veda’s casual cruelty toward her mother (Veda rising naked out of the bed she and Monty slept in was the final sting). When I saw that, I thought: oh, no she is not going there!

Story-wise there were a few implausibilities, one namely being Veda’s singing career. It’s hard to believe that someone can become a talented opera singer just on the basis of humming a Schubert piece. Nor is it possible to learn to sing opera in an intensive one-week program. I’d have believed that more if she was studying opera at a young age instead taking piano lessons. Yet the performances by both Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood were enough to suspend disbelief. Winslet continues her fine performance, and Wood is wickedly cruel as Veda, while also providing her with enough vulnerability that Mildred's love and support for her doesn't come across as entirely masochistic.

The finale is much more measured and nuanced than previous episodes. Todd Haynes knows exactly out to eke out the emotional beats in the story. After Mildred and Veda’s first major fight, he has the camera linger down the hallway when the two women storm off to their rooms, building both the tension and the loneliness in that house. The scene at the pier is a beautiful piece of cinematography and does the kind of work good cinematography ought to do in exploring its subjects emotional worlds. The chase scene after Mildred strangles Veda following her betrayal is one of the more intense ever shot on film. Mildred Pierce is a gorgeous film, but tough and resilient just like its subject.

Monday, April 4, 2011

HBO Airs Third Installment of Miniseries Mildred Pierce and AMC premieres new series The Killing

Last night, HBO aired the third installment of its miniseries Mildred Pierce and AMC rolled out a two-part pilot for its series The Killing. Both series began with a funeral and a death respectively, so Sunday night TV was depressing to say the least.

Last night’s episode of Mildred Pierce actually rolled along quite nicely, with the action now centering on Mildred burying her youngest child, Ray, opening her restaurant to great success, and helping to build surviving daughter Veda’s blossoming operatic talents. I won’t go too much into the plot (I’m not good at recaps and I’ve never really found much use for them frankly), but focus instead on the style of this production.

I found it interesting that this installment lacked the flourishes Todd Haynes brought to the series in the previous episode. There aren’t very many lingering moments, such as the scene of Mildred sitting in a diner contemplating her options following her split up with Bert. While Haynes’ directorial style was beautifully cinematic, it was also ponderous and tended to slow the action down. This week however the episode gets the plot moving along, setting up the conflicts between Mildred and Veda. The episode opens up with a shot of Mildred’s foot (perhaps the only scene Haynes concedes to the previous directorial style) and follows up her leg and torso, only to reveal that she is lying in bed with Veda. When she snaps awake, she gazes across at the empty twin bed in her daughters’ room. What a great beginning since it not only reminds audiences of what happened the previous week, but it also sets the stage for the emotional action to follow.

The acting performances, as with last week, continue to excel. Three notable performances belong to Kate Winslet, Morgan Turner, and Brian F. O’Byrne, who plays Bert, Mildred’s ex-husband. O'Byrne's most notable occurs early in the episode when Bert breaks down over his daughter’s death. It’s such a short and simple scene, but it packs a wallop. And while I hate to have to compare this version of Mildred Pierce to the original movie, I can’t help but say that Bert comes across as a much more sympathetic character. Not to say that he wasn’t in Crawford’s version, but Bert had very little screen time since the movie focused more on Mildred and Veda’s relationship. Turner as Veda is ratcheting up the character’s brattiness quite nicely. Some of her actions are beyond belief, but since this is a melodrama certain things are allowable. As Veda, Turner employs certain expressions and twists of the wrist that reveal just how hateful a human being Veda is. Veda and Mildred’s relationship is full of toxins, a mother-daughter love that, when taken from its source material, is gleaned through a male perspective. You can take that for whatever that means or not, but I’m less concerned about subtext than I am with performance and both Winslet and Turner do a wonderful job of portraying the twisted relationship these two share.

Winslet, of course, delivers another fine performance as Mildred builds a successful career as a restauranteur only to still be overwhelmed by the demands of a selfish daughter and an even more selfish lover, Monty Beragon, played by Guy Pearce. Pearce was introduced in the drama last week, but we really get a better sense of his character in this episode. A rich playboy, polo player, and businessman fallen on hard times, Monty uses Mildred to finance his own lifestyle and develops a close kinship with her daughter. Veda comes to idolize Monty. He is after all everything she seeks out herself: the unbridled sense of entitlement that can only come from idle wealth. Their relationship in the end is what leads to Mildred and Monty’s break up. Mildred and Monty have a purely sexual relationship, one that Mildred is forced to recognize in one argument after Monty complements her for being a nice “piece of tail.” Yet, as with her daughter, Mildred allows herself to be strung along. She breaks up with him only because he has formed a friendlier relationship with Veda. The break up scene is remarkable and both Winslet and Pearce ground their performances, which easily could have drifted into melodrama, with a naturalism that holds the final moments of the episode together.

All in all, another good installment from Todd Haynes and company. Next week, Evan Rachel Wood takes over the role of Veda in the last two episodes that will be aired. From what I have learned online, the ending of the novel is much different from the movie, so I’m curious to see how things will play out.

AMC premiered their new series The Killing with a pilot two-parter. I only watched the first part and recorded the second half while I watched Mildred Pierce, so I’m not fully prepared to give my judgment on that series. I will say that of what I did see there was much to recommend and much not to. Based on a Dutch production called Forbrydelson, the series is about the killing of a young girl, Rosie Larsen, and the subsequent investigation into her murder. The series covers not only the detectives who investigate the homicide, but her family as they grieve, and a city councilman running for mayor whose campaign vehicle was the scene in which the young girl’s body was recovered. One thing that did strike me though was the atmosphere. The series takes place in Seattle, Washington, and has the damp, dreary atmospherics that reminded me so much of the early years of The X-Files. The production made me realize how much I missed The X-Files and how the right tone and atmosphere to a series can really create a compelling backdrop to drama. Whether or not I’ll continue to watch remains to be seen (I haven’t fully committed to a TV series since The Sopranos left the air four years ago), but I’m interested enough to give it a try.