Category: Arts and Entertainment

In a footnote from her essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag refers to film as a “subdivision of literature.” Now, I have never been one to uphold any kind of “hierarchy of the arts” (of what use would this be anyhow?), but I am interested in the relationship between different artistic mediums, and, in particular, as Sontag describes, that between film and literature. “Subdivision of literature” suggests literature as a kind of umbrella term encompassing film within its greater arena, as opposed to, as one might have intuitively supposed, two separate subsets within the greater arena that is “art.” Furthermore, the phrase disallows the opposite (“literature as subdivision of film”) to be true. What is it, then, that makes literature more “all-encompassing,” and what does it mean for a film to be “literary”?

An examination of “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie,” Sontag’s essay on the French filmmaker’s fourth film about a struggling-artist-turned-prostitute, will prove useful here. In the essay, Sontag points out two general tendencies of the artist: the tendency toward proof, characterized by an emphasis in considerations of form, and the tendency towards analysis, which is more akin to fruitless “rambling” within a work, as the artist chases after the “infinite angles of understanding.”

As you might have guessed, Sontag favors the former, insisting that “In great art, it is form—or, as I call it here, the desire to prove rather than the desire to analyze—that is ultimately sovereign. It is form that allows one to terminate.” Thus, it is characteristic of great art to contain “endings that exhibit grace and design, and only secondarily convince in terms of psychological motives or social forces.” Vivre Sa Vie is therefore “literary” in the sense that, as in all great literature (Sontag names Shakespeare’s early comedies and Dante’s Divine Comedy as paragons), at play is a predominant concern towards proof—as opposed to analysis. The term “literary,” used to describe film, is thus a bit of a misnomer on Sontag’s part, as it might have suggested the presence of qualities intrinsic to literature, whereas all she is referring to is that which defines good art, within any medium. For Sontag, this means the artist emphasizes the formal: that is, they include a conspicuous element of design (symmetry, repetition, inversion, doubling, etc.).”

Sontag’s insistence on form strongly reminds me of my Art Hum instructor, Daniel Ralston, who would call us out whenever we would respond to a painting with such platitudes as: “I think the three birds represent the Holy Trinity” or “The expression of the left-most figure is one of intense melancholy”—statements of a nature which would no doubt have gone unheeded (perhaps praised) in some of my previous Core classes. For example, during my Literature Humanities course several years ago, a full hour was once spent on a Freudian analysis of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (which, unfortunately for me, I consider to be one of the most beautiful novels of all time). Ralston would often respond to these comments by saying, “Yes, but, what about formally—for example, what can you say about the composition?” And though frustratingly delimiting and didactic at first, I eventually came to realize this methodology was far more compatible with my personal relationship with art, which, for the most part, had tended to go ignored by many of my humanities classes at Columbia.

This issue came up once during the discussion section to my Western class (FILM 2120, Topics in American Cinema: The West) the previous semester. The topic of discourse was the Edenic imagery permeating throughout some boring film whose name I can’t recall. Someone had said, “I don’t see it. I don’t see him [the director] trying to do that,” to which the others collectively responded in defensive choir, “But it’s there,” leaving the poor girl outnumbered. In that moment, what none of us understood was that, at its core, the disagreement arose out of a difference in hermeneutical approach. On one hand, there was the school of thought that perpetuates myth by asserting that “this is there” and this isn’t, that “this ought to be but not that” (i.e. all the feminist readings of these films), and, on the other hand, there were those who believed that a work of art is the thing itself, not whatever meaning is forced out of it by some ulterior agenda.

The subject of her famous “Against Interpretation” essay, Sontag is well aware of this dry hermeneutical approach, prevalent among most schools, which tends to mistreat the work of art. As she writes: “…it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (‘What X is saying is…,’ ‘What X is trying to say is…,’ ‘What X said is…’ etc., etc.)” (4). “Content,” in this sense, is tantamount to “what I think it says” which is always subjective—whereas it should be acknowledged that content is in fact objective (“This is not Edenic imagery, just a shot of a meadow where this story happens to take place”), and that anything more than that is a stretch, fabricating superfluous intellectual delusions that numb the senses and are best befitted for the most cerebral of students, those who relish the thought of life in academia and seek to write theses along the lines of “A Queer Reading of the Works of Pedro Almodovar” or “Marxism in Kafka”—horrible titles, but you get the idea. Sontag beautifully sums up the problem as follows:

“Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

And what would fix this? A de-emphasis on content and a recognition of art as a sensory experience. Or, as Sontag put it: “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” It is by abiding by this mantra I’ve discovered the audiovisual intensity of Faulkner to be found in Aronofsky’s crescendos, the minimalist serenity and ennui of Hemingway in Antonioni, and the hypnotic allure of flawed (but painfully realistic) characters from Tolstoy in Kieslowski. Literature is thus capable of being as “cinematic” as the cinema is of being “literary”—it’s just a matter of form, form, form.

SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical looks and feels like a kindergartner’s acid trip.

This isn’t a bad thing.

The show contains so many side plots that it can be a bit overwhelming to keep up. The main conflict involves the impending eruption of Mount Humongous, which threatens to destroy Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s beloved home. That said, the narrative also explores themes of friendship, chiefly between our three main heroes, SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy, as well as themes of discrimination and community.

Also, there’s an apocalyptic death cult, a charity concert headlined by a skateboarding, “California bro” version of KISS, and a sub-arc dealing with anti-mammalian hate speech directed at Sandy.

I’ll admit that I was a bit terrified when Nickelodeon first announced that this show was coming to Broadway. So many screen-to-stage musical adaptations have fallen flat in so many different ways: tacky costumes (The Little Mermaid, Shrek: The Musical); confused plotting; musical scores that fall short of the original score (Mary Poppins). Fortunately, SpongeBob steers clear of these pitfalls, for the most part.

For one thing, there’s the psychedelic aesthetic. Shrek: The Musical, this ain’t: David Zinn’s costumes have the headlining actors unencumbered by prostheses, free to move about the stage (and move they do!). SpongeBob is not, in fact, wearing a sponge-suit; rather, his classic square, yellow silhouette is implied through clever, subtle touches: a yellow gingham shirt; plaid brown-and-yellow pants; suspenders; and, of course, his characteristic red tie. Sandy, a squirrel in the original cartoon, wears a white spacesuit-cum-tracksuit that also manages to give off a ‘70s vibe, while Patrick sports Hawaiian prints and hot pink tie-dye—and an extra-volumized pink pompadour to stand in for his starfish cone head. Squidward’s costume proved a particular audience delight: through an ingenious rigging mechanism, he has four feet (tentacles?) that walk, kick, and dance in unison. There was immediate laughter as soon as he walked onstage.

The ensemble, too, sports an abundance of… stuff: traffic cones, baubles, bubbles, blue-and-purple shag rugs rolled into tubes, skirts made of kitchen gloves, hats made of straws, boxing gloves that become crab claws. There’s no shortage of candy-colored eye candy to take in—every time you look more closely at an object, it becomes something else.

The set, also by Zinn, possesses equal whimsy. The proscenium is surrounded by two massive, neon-colored Rube Goldberg machines constructed of what appears to be industrial scaffolding twisted into geometric shapes. As the impending eruption draws near, these machines, through a complex chain reaction that involves, in turn, a bicycle, a rainbow umbrella, and a shopping cart, shoot “boulders” (orange balls) at our Bikini Bottom friends onstage.

That says something about the hodgepodge nature of the rest of the set. It’s a carefully constructed bricolage of children’s playthings (fun noodles that stand in for coral, inflatable pool toys, and boxes), and strings of sparkling streamers and balloons—all painted in varying neon-bright shades. This playfulness is present throughout the musical. Before the curtain goes up, we’re treated to a backdrop reminiscent of the geometric tiling at the bottom of a pool, atop which Peter Nigrini’s projections of schools of fish and a scuba diver delightfully set the undersea mood. In Act II, the aforementioned Mount Humongous is a series of stacked packing boxes extending to the top of the stage. When we finally see the volcano’s mouth, it’s represented through intertwining, orange ladders, evoking a spider’s web. What’s more, the set has so many different components that every scene becomes a surprise: the Krusty Krab is transformed into Mr. Krabs’ private money stash, actors pop out of boxes and industrial tubing that looks like trash onstage, and pieces of the set are flipped over to reveal an entirely different scene.

As for the music, the generic range wasn’t as jarring as I had expected going into a musical that boasts both the Flaming Lips and Panic! At the Disco as composers, among many, many others (14 different artists and musical teams contributed original music to the score, while musical coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons tweaked the arrangements and Tom Kitt added transitional music, assuring that the songs flowed smoothly). “No Control,” which comes just after the Bikini Bottom denizens learn of their forthcoming doom, pulls out all the stops: the stage is washed in bright red lighting, fog fills the stage, lasers shoot off, and a ticking doomsday clock lingers, ominously, on stage left. Throughout, actors move in and out of panicked tableaux that always leave one or two characters spotlighted, highlighting individual, narrative-specific arcs within a song that its original composers, David Bowie and Brian Eno, doubtlessly had never envisioned including in a musical about a cartoon sea sponge.

There’s also a delightful Broadway send-up headlined by Squidward (Gavin Lee) in the middle of Act II, “I’m Not a Loser,” composed by They Might be Giants, replete with Broadway show tunery, pink glittery costumes, a full chorus line, and a four-legged tap number.

The cast’s high energy is what really sells the show. I can only imagine how exhausted Ethan Slater, who plays the titular SpongeBob, must be after every performance; he never stops moving. He has a spring in his step so tightly coiled that it seems like he’s launching himself into the air, he has the flexibility of an underwater invertebrate, and he keeps absolutely perfect timing with every sound effect (he squeaks with every step). During “Simple Sponge: Reprise,” he lithely climbs the latticework leading to Mt. Humongous’s volcanic mouth, and belts out convincingly earnest lines about redemption and friendship while dangling from the set—and, at times, sings while upside-down.

Danny Skinner’s Patrick Star provides a humorous counterpoint to Slater. While SpongeBob is flexible, bouncy, and enthusiastic, Patrick is slower (in both the mental and physical senses). Skinner delivers a number of one-liners with a lack of self-awareness and perfect comedic timing. The third member of the trio, Sandy (Lilli Cooper), provides a more grounded counterpoint. While the script doesn’t offer her as many funny lines, she makes the most of her role as a down-to-earth squirrel trying to reconcile SpongeBob and Patrick’s increasingly strained relationship.

Wesley Taylor’s Plankton at times reminded me of Robbie Rotten from LazyTown—he milks every minute of his stage time, especially in his rapport with his “Computer Wife,” Karen (played by Stephanie Hsu), serving up a playfully conniving villain.

Amongst the ensemble, Pearl Krabs (Jai’len Christine Li Josey) stands out. As Mr. Krabs’ daughter, she plays a whale who can wail: her high notes—which she executes with ineffable ease—add some gospel soul to what is otherwise a very pop-driven musical. And, at only 18 years old, she remains one to look out for.

Overall, it’s clear that Nickelodeon is capitalizing on its intellectual properties with this production, which also represents a challenge to Disney’s dominance in the beloved-film-to-musical adaptation arena (Disney currently has three shows on Broadway: The Lion King, Aladdin, and Frozen). With its first stage production, Nickelodeon now also seeks to capitalize on “family fun for all”-style entertainment. That said, it was apparent throughout the show that it was primarily marketed toward a young audience, despite some adult jokes designed to go over the heads of little ones, as well some humorous references to Broadway classics (the exodus from Bikini Bottom is sung-through with a rendition of “Bikini-tevka” in a nod to Fiddler on the Roof, while the chorus of Mr. Krabs’ ode to his cash, “Daddy Knows Best,” might sound familiar to some Cabaret fans).

“Poor Pirates,” (comp. Sara Bareilles) which opens Act II, is where the musical is most clearly targeted at kids; effectively, this is pre-show and intermission entertainment, meant to ease kids (and other fidgety members of the audience) back to the main event onstage. The intermission song in particular has no relevance to the plot at large, which is essentially about “pirate discrimination.” It seemed like some of the political references here were a bit misplaced (Patchy the Pirate, the number’s lead, yells “Yo ho, we won’t go” at one point). Nonetheless, this “adult kid” found it all very entertaining to watch.

Which brings me to my next point. SpongeBob also plays off of the nostalgia factor for Millennials and Gen-Z kids who grew up watching both the TV cartoon’s original run and subsequent re-runs. With the fast-pacing and the colorful world created onstage, however, parents (and others who didn’t necessarily see the original show) will also be entertained. In this sense, it’s fitting that the curtain call ends with the original cartoon’s theme song, which invoked a chorus of audience members to sing along (and with vigor, I might add).

For all its (many, many) moving parts, the show never drags, nor does it—as I had feared—become grating. Instead, SpongeBob proves a delight, both under the sea and on the Great White Way.

My previous column was all about the cultural importance of Star Wars as the quintessential modern myth. I even mentioned the need for myth in these troubled times, insinuating my desire for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to acknowledge, or comment on, the current political climate in some capacity. And so, having now watched it, I ask: how good was it, and how does it hold as a modern myth?

To begin, much of the progressivism from The Force Awakens is carried over here, and is given much more room to breathe in some instances, as in Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) excursion to Cantonica, a desert planet run by greedy, corporate, casino-obsessed profiteers who benefit from the galactic war between the First Order and the Resistance. As many reviews have been quick to point out, this arc is easy to bait as a digressing rambling point, though this is most attributable not to the narrative intentions of the arc, but rather the lackluster execution of these explorations which at times threaten to inspire a blatant indifference on the audience’s part. From the moment Rose begins telling her sob backstory, which then leads into a preachy animal-rights midnight exodus extravaganza, the narrative feels forced and progressive for the sake of being progressive—in short, it feels inauthentic.

I should stress that this lack of authenticity exists strictly on a formal level, by which I mean the film was admittedly doing some interesting things in theory. This includes the incorporation of Star Wars canon material previously unseen on the big screen (How did Luke get there?), the subversion of myth by questioning its authenticity, and the fabrication of a triadic collective protagonist (Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren). However, most reviews that have defended The Last Jedi have tended to rely on these novel narrative deviations to the Star Wars canon as sufficient evidence for the film’s artistic merit, the equivalent of arguing Pollock’s early works as redeemable insofar as they are “dense with mythology and Jungian archetypes” or that James Joyce is a genius on the basis that UlyssesLike many great works of literature…requires repeated reading and deep study fully to understand–and ultimately to enjoy–the many dimensions and layers.” All this is well and fine, but I would argue that the formal ramifications of a work of art (i.e. revolutionary or revisionist technique), or its utter abstruseness, are not enough to warrant—indeed, even measure—artistic merit. Hence, to defend The Last Jedi by way of uttering such generalizations as “The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties” is not enough; I mean, sure, but, where specifically do you see this being done well, and, more importantly, how are you measuring “well”?

I would narrow down my problems with this movie to one pivotal, overarching problem that effectively ruined all of the things that could have worked for the film: pacing. By this I mean not only the editing from one plot to another, but the consistent incorporation of “tonal distractions,” both of which, collectively, forbid any one point in the story to breathe and really come into its own. One result of this is that, unlike The Force Awakens, the film no longer feels character-based—the word “feels” is crucial here as the narrative was evidently attempting to darken and flesh out three of its main characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker. This sophistication had the potential to be the holy grail of the film’s engagement, but, whenever this character-building is at play, it is superfluously embroidered by these aforementioned tonal distractions, whether it’s Luke tricking Rey into “using the force” with a blade of grass, Kylo Ren being shirtless (but why?), or a Pog face-planting into a window during what should be a serious rescue scene on the planet Crait. It’s as if Robert Altman had been hired to write a Star Wars movie and immediately decided to Nashville the sh!+ out of it.

The thing is (and this gets to the heart of why I abhor Robert Altman films) the film medium is temporally built to sustain a well-chosen economy of narrative if it has any hopes of fabricating and sustaining any degree of emotional investment. Shows like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black have shown that the serial format is much more compatible with large ensemble casts because they are given the room to be explored in an organic and engaging way. When condensing these kaleidoscopic endeavors into a film, much of the emotional weight is lost in favor for what essentially amounts to “interesting ideas”: the philosophy underlying Luke’s cynicism, Rey’s development as a Jedi (we are given some “shocking” background story, but how does this affect her character? She’s still on the good side at the end [I almost wanted her to go to the dark side, just to shake things up]), or Kylo Ren’s inner conflict (which, again, amounts to nothing—he is still the “bad guy” at the end of the film).

While The Last Jedi does not have a terribly high amount of plots and characters, it does incessantly move from one thing we are meant to be taking seriously to another, a system which amounts to the same thing: the dilution of the audience’s emotional investment. Sure, much of the frantic pacing works for the fresh new theme of “let the past die, look to the future” which may in fact be commenting on the generally pessimistic milieu of our times, and whose newness does manage to “keep the myth interesting, and hence relevant” as I mentioned in my last column. However, The Last Jedi is revisionism done wrong, in the vein of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where a lot of interesting things are going down without succeeding in making us care. This is in sharp contrast to the much more cogent (and also revisionist) The Dark Knight, or The Empire Strikes Back. Recall how much time we spend following Luke’s training with Yoda in Episode V, or Rey the scavenger-for-parts at the beginning of The Force Awakens. These are some of my favorite moments in the franchise, and the reason they work is because we’re there for a while, to the point where the depicted world begins to feel organic, our own—thus paving the way for emotional investment.

If anything, The Last Jedi has compelled me to familiarize myself to a much greater extent with the Star Wars canon. Through my current efforts to understand just what in the world was happening in the film, I might eventually be able to tame my currently lashing and thrashing response to such a degree that the film may not appear as messy and improvised as it does now. Who knows, a year from now—maybe less—I may even like it.

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus

There’s this consistent trope that exists in many stories typically featured on Broadway:  a person falls in love with another character that has unexpectedly entered their life and against all odds, they end up happily ever after. I sat through two-thirds of Once On This Island, seeing this same storyline build up, only to be thoroughly surprised by the ending that unfolded.

As a woman, I see this across media all the time – in TV shows, movies, and more relevant to this article, plays and musicals. For example, “A Bronx Tale,” a musical about Jane, a stunning black woman, and Calogero, an Italian man from a racist Italian community in the Bronx. Despite awful racial tensions, including a scene where he drops the “N” word, the two magically work things out and end up in a “loving” relationship. Though a less extreme example in “Groundhog Day,” Rita Hansen, another successful woman, falls for the main character, Phil Connors, a man who after getting stuck reliving Groundhog Day, attempts to use the ability to emulate what he views as Rita’s ideal lover without her knowing.

Seeing these different examples where it seems characters end up relinquishing their lives and passions for a lover they barely know has always come off to me as traumatic and sad — and seeing this notion challenged in “Once on This Island” was quite meaningful for me. Relationships are meant to be hard, but they’re not meant to be traumatizing. They’re not meant to lack reciprocity and pose burdens on one of the parties. That’s quite simply unhealthy behavior.

Where “Once on This Island” shines is its uplifting collection of songs that emphasize community and belonging. Rather than just another character suddenly finding love, the show showcases a community of people so closely connected that stick together despite the adversity they face living on a small island. In particular, in the song “Part of Us,”  the audience is reminded that a relationship is not the be-all end-all for the lives of women, especially women of color. In a world that consistently emphasizes the importance of intimate relationships, it was refreshing to see a musical emphasize community. Growing up in a Puerto Rican family, it was always ingrained into me that my family came first. And as I grew up and learned to embrace my Caribbean-Latina identity, it became even more obvious to me what was most important to me. Seeing Ti Moune struggle through navigating her own identities and values spoke to my own journey. While her experience doesn’t speak for everyone’s, I was happy to see another story being told.

Beyond the storyline, “Once On This Island” has an amazing cast. One of the show’s breakout stars is Alex Newell. Newell, playing the role of Asaka was absolutely radiant. In particular, his performance of “Mama Will Provide” absolutely blew me away thanks to his strong vocals and jubilance. Along with Newell was Hailey Kilgore in her Broadway debut who was a stunning Ti Moune. Her energy was tantalizing and her voice shined throughout the theater as she helped tell the story of these islanders. Overall, “Once on this Island” was fun, meaningful, and a beautifully nuanced representation of people of color and a reminder of why fostering inclusive communities matters so much.

If you’re a looking for something that will leave you feeling uplifted with a big smile on your face, this is the show to see.

Tickets to Once on This Island can be purchased from the TIC and through the show’s website.

After weeks of ignoring her begging, I went with my roommate to see Thor: Ragnarok. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see the movie (Marvel films are actually my guilty pleasure), but I didn’t want to spend the ridiculous amount of money that is New York theater prices to see a film I thought I could predict in its entirety. I had a pretty strong feeling about how the movie was gonna go: we’d start with a dramatic scene where Thor’s at a low-point, then the film’s villain would inspire him to get his act together, and he’d reunite with some random Avenger to defeat whoever was threatening Asgard this time around. Interspersed would be some jokes about his abnormally attractive body, his villainous brother Loki, and of course Marvel’s typical sexual innuendos. I knew it would be entertaining, but also extremely predictable.

So when I sat down in the theater, I was surprised by the film I saw. Don’t get me wrong, I had indeed predicted the general plotline, but something about Thor: Ragnarok was different. Rather than being interspersed throughout, the jokes were continuous and quite upfront. From the very first scene (where Thor was indeed at a low-point), Chris Hemsworth’s superhero was cracking jokes left and right. His relationship with Loki took on a more humorous tone than ever before, and even the villain (Thor’s sister Hela) cracked a joke every now and again.

Even in the movie’s darkest and most serious moments, the characters were joking around. As I watched, it felt a little off-putting: why would Thor and the Hulk joke about the fate of millions of people? Why couldn’t the writers be serious for just one second? I came out of the theater feeling a bit uneasy; sure, the film was hilarious and most definitely entertaining–but what just happened? In an earlier column, I praised this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming for its jokes and for creating a lighter and more entertaining superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman. But it seems like Marvel took my feedback and dialed it up, like, five thousand percent.

Earlier this week, Marvel released its trailer for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, set to be released in two parts- one in 2018 and one in 2019. The trailer is typical of Marvel’s superhero universe, and only features one joke at the end of the preview–more like what I had been expecting from Thor: Ragnarok. And the trailer wasn’t released without its own drama: news that Avengers frontrunners like Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), and Scarlett Johansson’s (Black Widow) contracts are up after the film releases is sending every superhero-fan into a frenzy. Is this the last Avengers film? Will Marvel try to continue the Avengers franchise without its stars?

In interviews, Marvel CEO Kevin Feige has said that Marvel intends to continue the franchise with or without its stars, but that Infinity War will definitely mark the end of a particular era in the Avengers universe. And with Thor: Ragnarok shifting so dramatically in its approach, I am left wondering: is this lighter tone Marvel’s new take? And how will that work? Will it work?

Now don’t get me wrong: the fate of the superhero genre is not in danger. People will keep paying to see attractive men and women (although far too few women admittedly) save the world while cracking a joke about it. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it makes us feel good. But where Marvel has succeeded (and where, I would argue, DC hasn’t) is in making these feel-good movies into films with real quality. Previous Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Avengers movies are all actually good movies. And that’s because they mix action and humor effortlessly, and invite the audience to feel close to their heroes. But when Marvel decided to focus solely on the humor in Thor: Ragnarok, they lost their appeal (at least to me). And if they continue on in this way, they may find themselves losing at the very genre they brought to the forefront of American cinema ten years ago.