Sunday, March 25, 2012

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Since everyone is talking about the film version of "The Hunger Games" these days, I figured I'd blog about my take on it. First off, for those of you who have not yet read it, DO IT ALREADY. I know, I know, you don't want to be yet another person jumping on the bandwagon, because you probably think these books are just another Twilight-esque craze. Well, you are wrong there. Okay, I didn't actually read Twilight, but I did see two of the movies and wanted to jump out of a window. And I was reluctant to read The Hunger Games at first, because it just didn't sound like my type of book, and I thought it might be a lame teenager thing. But so many of my friends and colleagues recommended it, and even my students insisted that I just HAD to read it--including some of my CP2 students who usually would rather have a root canal than read a book. So I decided that I needed to see what all the fuss was about, and boy was I hooked. It was so difficult to put it down, and soon enough I had read the entire trilogy.

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of the film version of the first book. One of my colleagues decided that a group of us English teachers should go to the midnight showing together, so a few of us agreed, despite it being a school night. We had a great time, and I enjoyed the movie. I thought that Jennifer Lawrence, though maybe not the appropriate physical type, made for a pretty good Katniss. Josh Hutcherson was great as Peeta, very believable. Elizabeth Banks was an unexpected choice for Effie, but it worked, though I'd like to see her character's growth to be shown in the next installment, as they left it out of this film. Woody Harrelson was a lousy Haymitch, failing to show the character's bitterness that is a result of being used by the Capitol and having to mentor tributes for so many years and watching them all die. Playing down his drunkenness may have been a result of this being a "family film," but it was still disappointing. One of the best parts of this film was probably Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. It is a small role, but he did a fantastic job of using it to show the decadent attitudes of the Capitol's residents. I believe that he is truly one of the best actors in Hollywood. Though he plays mainly supporting characters, they are always memorable.

The film was overall very true to the book. It covered all the important points and tapped into a variety of emotions. The look of the film was spot-on, and I felt transported into the world of Panem. I also liked that they didn't play up the love triangle too much--it was touched upon, as it needed to be, but was not made the main focus in order to pander to the teenagers in the audience.  Despite these successes, however, some important elements were glossed over that perhaps a more daring director would have further expolored. First off, in order to really stir up anger in the audience, there could have been a couple details put in here an there (I understand that they have to be time-conscious, so I know that only so much of this can be done) that would have better illustrated the oppression of the Capitol. This would have made such moments as Peeta's speech about wanting to show the Capitol that he's "more than just a piece in their Games" more poignant. They also could have shown this oppression more through the scenes with the character Rue. The connection between her and Katniss was not portrayed as powerfully as it needed to be.

My other big criticism is the film's lack of attention to the book's commentary on the role of technology and media in our world. The book discusses the great enjoyment the residents of the Capitol find in watching the Hunger Games and their intense lust for blood. Even the people in the districts are glued to their screens, though it is a more painful experience for them. Katniss understands the how to play on the emotions of the audience, and thus makes her strategy in the game not only physical, but also an intelligent manipulation of her audience. The book serves as a really interesting commentary on our society's obsession with "reality" tv, how we enjoy watching real people suffer and become incredibly invested in what we watch. It's one of the more gruesome (and fascinating) aspects of our culture, but the film barely touched on this theme. I wish the filmmakers had been more gutsy and made the audience see themselves reflected in what was happening on-screen, but they missed that opportunity.

I was told that originally, a TV series of the trilogy had been proposed, and I hope that this will happen in the future (so long as it is put in the proper hands). I think that would be a really great opportunity to allow the audience to explore the psychology of the characters and the elements of the books that the film only touched upon.

Final verdict: "The Hunger Games" is nowhere near as fantastic as the book (as is usually the case), but still good in its own right. It is entertaining, exciting, emotional, and, despite some missed opportunities, thought-provoking. It could and should have taking all of this to greater heights, but I still recommend seeing it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Words, words, words

While chatting with my friend GJ last night, he sent me the link to this OpEd piece by Jhumpa Lahiri entitled "My Life's Sentences." (We read her stories from Interpreter of Maladies in high school, and he remains fascinated by her.) I highly recommend reading the entire thing before proceeding here, but for those of you who aren't interested, I'll just copy the first couple of paragraphs, which I am most interested in, here:

In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.

As I read this, I thought, "That's ME!" Every now and then I will come across a sentence or phrase that I just find so lovely that I have to linger over it or even underline it. In college I took a course with my favorite professor where we read Marilynn Robinson's novel Gilead (many of those of you who know me well have already heard me speak adoringly about this novel...please forgive me for repeating myself here). She is an amazing writer (I have since read one of her other novels, and bought the third), and Gilead is truly the most beautifully written book I have ever read. When I read it, I envision and almost feel sunlight, the way it is at around 6 o'clock on a summer's evening. Her words just radiate this soft warmth. While reading this for my class, I used those little Post-It flags to mark passages that contained important information or that I wanted to discuss in class or use for my essay. However, I found myself getting so caught up in the beauty of the words that I began underlining and flagging passages that might not have been "useful," but that I just simply loved and wanted to be able to revisit.

Robinson writes phrases that almost beg to be read aloud so that the reader can taste their sweetness. I've experienced this with a few other books, but never so consistently as with this novel. I wish that I could write like her. Like Lahiri put it, Robinson has that power to artfully arrange words and stop time with them. A few of my favorites:

Ah, this life, this world.

I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness.

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

Reading this book felt like such a profound experience, and sometimes, when I am feeling lost or sad and need a bit of guidance or warmth, I open this book and revisit it like an old friend. Besides being beautiful, and also contains some wonderful wisdom. One of my friends once said that sometimes, when she gets to the end of a good book, she gets the urge to kiss it as Jewish people kiss their siddurs (prayer books), and that once in while, she gives into it. That's how I felt with this one.

If any of you, my lovely readers, have read a book that has had this effect on you, or wish to share a sentence that struck you as being so perfect, please leave a comment below so that we may all enjoy it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Learning from and with students

There are times when teaching the same text over and over again can begin to feel a bit dull. One way to overcome this is by mixing things up--trying new ideas, examining the text from new angles, using different projects, etc. And I absolutely LOVE it when my students teach me something new by coming up with ideas that I had never considered before. Today was a great example. One of my students asked if he could stay after school briefly to bounce ideas off of me for his paper (what a lovely question!). He said he was interested in my suggestion of analyzing Shakespeare's use of equivocation in Macbeth and arguing what his purpose/message is with this. He had some thoughts on the subject, then I asked a couple questions to push his thinking further, and we kept on tossing out ideas and building on them. Suddenly, we were thinking about this in ways that neither of had considered before, and getting increasingly excited about the possibilities that this topic had. It was great to see the wheels in his head turning as he pushed his thinking to new levels, and he kept expressing how he liked these new ideas and thought they were cool. I know that students aren't big fans of writing papers, but he actually seemed to be looking forward to exploring the ideas that we had collaboratively come up with.

The student left my office with a positive attitude and a much clearer notion of the direction he wants to go in, and I came away from this with a new perspective on a play I have read many times over. Something I want to always remember is that being a teacher doesn't just mean teaching others--you also have to be open to continuing to learn and grow. My students love to ask me, "Well what do YOU think of this?" And I remind them that that's not really so important, and that just because I interpret a text a certain way, that doesn't mean that they have to agree with me. I have definitely learned some great things from them, and it's so fun to say what they have to offer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Humorous odds and ends: Shakespeare edition

Student, during a discussion about Macbeth's speeches in Act V ("My way of life is fall'n into the sere..." and "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...") which mark his downfall: "Oh, so it's like how old people complain."

Compare and contrast:

I want this Shakespeare T-shirt:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Brawling and bystanders

My school definitely has its fair share of fights. Usually the week before the week before a vacation, a few fights will break out, and some of them have been pretty nasty. What is just as troubling, though, is the fact that the students get so excited about them. They stand up to watch, making noise like they're at a WWE fight, and won't stop talking about it for the rest of the day. Before February break, there was a brawl between two boys that, after it was broken up, ended with a racial slur being spit out. I was the first person to spot the fight and beckon for the male teachers to come over (since they just stand in the corner of the caf and gossip, oblivious to the world), and after it was over I shouted at the lower level of the caf to sit back down, as they were all standing up and gawking. 

My next class was all excited: "Ms. Greene broke up a fight!" "Who won the fight?!" I told them that nobody wins that kind of a fight, that both people make themselves losers. But the class would not stop buzzing about it until I finally had to raise my voice. I told them that this was not something to get excited about, that it was disgusting, and that I do not want them creating a culture of excitement and sensationalism around violence. These kids are so thrilled to be the bystanders at a fight, and that is the breeding ground for this kind of violence.

Today, I read a little editorial from the Boston Globe : "Schoolyard brawl: Essay beats suspension."  It talks about how after a fight at Lynn English High School, school officials didn't just punish the girls involved; they also punished the bystanders. They chose to make these students write an essay about Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was stabbed to death and raped on a public street, her cries for help ignored by dozens of neighbors for approximately half an hour. I remember learning about this in a psychology class in high school, as this case led to the investigation of the "bystander effect," which says that the more bystanders there are, the less likely anyone is to intervene. The article points out that Genovese's case and the fight in Lynn are not exactly the same, but the idea behind the essay assignment is admirable. I don't expect my students to stop a fight. But I do want them to be responsible and alert a teacher about one, and I want them to stop watching fights with such giddiness, egging the fighters on. The next time this sort of situation arises in the school, I think I may just do a little lesson on Miss Genovese, and hopefully get them to reconsider their attitudes.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Fantastic Flying Books" and more

The Oscars were this past weekend, and despite dragging on, there were some truly funny and wonderful moments. Plus, I absolutely love looking at all the dresses (and judging them, of course). I haven't yet seen many of the nominated films (right now I am dying to see "The Artist," as I am a big fan of old films), but one that I just watched was the winner for animated short film: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore." It is a lovely little film that, in just 15 minutes, captures the magic and wonder that books possess. I highly recommend it to all of you who are bookworms and bibliophiles, or even those of you who just appreciate good filmmaking.

In other news, last week was vacation week, which was why I didn't get around to blogging. You would think that vacation would leave ample time for writing, but this was actually one of my busiest vacations ever! I went on a couple mini-trips to visit and stay over with friends and family, had a rehearsal with my cast (the play is coming along quite nicely), played soccer (we were in the playoffs!), and various other things. I think I only had two days with nothing planned other than grading papers. But it was good--I had lots of fun and didn't get to the end of vacation feeling as though I had wasted it. In fact, it felt as though I had been away from school for ages. As much as I love what I do, it was really nice to have that break. Especially since this Tuesday, I collected two class sets of at least I've got a bit of energy stored up for that now.