Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Job Situation

This morning I printed out a list of all the teaching jobs I applied for and posted it in the kitchen. (Movie Dictator wants to know what the future might bring.) So far, I have applied for 26 jobs (and some fellowships), and got rejected from 3. Any day now I expect a whole batch of rejection letters to appear in our mailbox. The teaching positions are all over the place: East Coast, West Coast, South, Pacific Northwest. I’m open to just about anything -- though I did avoid Midwest.

As many of you know, applying for teaching jobs is a long and torturous process. You look for openings. You send out applications. Some colleges want everything at once: your CV, your recommendations letters, your writing sample, your creative statement, your statement of teachings philosophy, your statement of Christianity (no, I’m not kidding). Others keep it minimal at first and then follow up with requests for extra info. Then there are initial interviews. Many of them happen at the MLA Conference (which takes place between Christmas and New Year, the worst and most expensive time to travel). Some initial interviews happen over the phone. Then, if you’ve been picked as a finalist, you get invited for a campus visit, also known as an all-day interview. You might be asked to teach a workshop, a lit class (full-length or abbreviated), do a reading or a lecture, meet with various people, go to lunch and/or dinner during which you’ll be carefully scrutinized. It sounds hellish, but the one time I did it, I actually had fun – though preparing for it was a nightmare.

So what happened this year? Not much so far. The MLA was in Philadelphia, and I traveled there in December and had 4 interviews. I thought they went well. How do I know? I don’t. All I know is, the people were lovely and friendly, the conversations were good, the questions made sense. I enjoyed every interview. (The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the general confusion of the conference and running around – in heels! -- from one hotel to another.)

I also had two phone interviews, and these are always tough. You’re talking to a group of people. They are on a speaker phone. You’re on your cell phone. You can’t see their facial expressions or reactions to what you’ve just said. They can’t see you. Phone interviews make me feel like a fake. An incoherent, fumbling immigrant.

It’s been a month since the MLA, and I haven’t heard from any of the places that interviewed me. Which is not a good sign. Of course, it could just be a delay, something to do with budget. Movie Dictator likes to point out to the inclement weather in California. But I have to be realistic (without being pessimistic), and the truth is, I probably didn’t get picked.

I try to stay positive though. This year is somewhat unusual. Many job postings appeared late. Some colleges are planning to interview at AWP conference (end of February, Atlanta). The response time is also strangely slow. I mean where—where—are my rejection letters? So the process continues, there’s still hope – i.e., 23 places that haven’t responded yet. After a couple of weeks of obsessively checking my e-mail and phone, I decided I have to stop worrying. Something will happen. Something will come through. I don’t know what or where. I can’t predict it. But something will. I just have to believe this and set the whole issue aside and not to think about it. I’ve got a life to live, a new book to write, a class to teach, fiction to read, a blog to play with, and Movie Dictator still hasn’t shown me all the Fawlty Towers, and there’s still a couple of seasons of Absolutely Fabulous left, not to mention all the Kubrik films, which we barely tapped into, and Kurosawa, and little known Korean flicks. So stay tuned for more updates.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Life and Kurosawa

Is it okay not to like Rashomon? (Movie Dictator doesn’t think so.)

To be fair, it was late when we watched it, and it came on the heels of two lovely Korean tearjerkers (Traces of Love and Ing). Still, I really struggled through Rashomon. I felt it was excruciatingly slow, and I couldn’t connect to the story.

So far, we’ve watched Kurosawa’s Ikiru (mostly liked it, except for the last third; but Movie Dictator made me see the light), The Hidden Fortress (an adventure story, very enjoyable and funny), and Dreams (stunningly beautiful, probably my favorite so far). I’m sure there’s more to come.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Movies: This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

If you don’t know much about the MPAA Rating system, this might come as a surprise. I personally never gave it much thought. I remember the controversy over The Eyes Wide Shut and its NC-17 rating, but really, to me NC-17 meant the movie took risks and that’s always a good thing.

The father of the rating system (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17) and the MPAA itself is Jack Valenti -- a former staff member in Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House, according to the New York Times. The ratings are supposed to be harmless, but in reality they determine where a movie can be advertised, which studios might be willing to carry it, and which theater chains would be willing (or unwilling!) to show it. The whole thing is terribly secretive. No one knows who the raters are.

The director of This Film Is Not Yet Rated hires private investigators, and what they find out is quite astonishing. Here are some facts:

1. The raters are supposed to represent average American viewers, especially those with young children. According to the MPAA, that’s what all the raters are themselves. However, the investigators discover that almost all of them are parents of grown-up children (20-22 years old), and one of the raters doesn’t have children at all.

2. Movies are slapped with NC-17 four times more often for sex than for violence. Gay sex is seen is more “dangerous” as straight sex. The scenes of women’s orgasm and/or masturbation are usually seen as unacceptable (no matter how discreet), while the similar scenes featuring men might be okay.

3. Independent movies get harsher treatment than those released by major studios. In the former case, the MPAA might not tell the director what cased a NC-17 rating, while in the latter case, they might be willing to provide some pointers (just so the director can make some edits to get a better rating).

4. Not only the raters are anonymous, but so are the members of the appeals committee. The director will be in the same room with them, but won’t be allowed to know their names. Present on the board are two members of the clergy (Catholic and Episcopal). According to some, they cast their vote; according to others, they don’t. In the course of the movie the identities of the appeals board is revealed. And what do you know? They are all big wigs at major studios and theater chains (a buyer for Regal Cinemas, a VP of sales for Sony Pictures, the CEO of Fox Searchlight).

The movie itself is quite funny—though the scenes with the private investigators eventually got too tedious. At one point, the director (Kirby Dick) submits the movie itself to the MPAA. He gets NC-17, and the conversations that result from that are just great.

Someone in the movie commented that the problem with the MPAA’s rating is that it’s the only game in town. I kept thinking that the one way to fight it is to create an alternative system (if ratings are indeed so important to parents). I mean, Hollywood has tons of money, and I doubt any director or actor there is a big fan of the MPAA’s ratings. Why not create an alternative? Assemble a group of reviewers. Announce their names. Use some prominent figures as well as regular Americans. Make it diverse. Use Internet.

Or am I being too idealistic here?

It’s Official: We’re Yuppies.

Back around Christmas time, we got a GPS device (Mio). Movie Dictator insisted we needed one, and he had a point -- given my near-psychotic level of stress while driving and my ability to get lost just about anywhere. In that respect, Mio’s been a miracle. Not only does it map the whole route, not only does it tell and show you where to turn, it can also find parking garages and Burgher Kings that are nearest to you at any given moment. Initially, I worried that I’d just be driving on autopilot, not noticing or remembering the routes. But instead I’ve discovered and learned all sorts of neat shortcuts. Driving has become fun!

So there we were yesterday, in our Subaru Forester (which is a wagon, not an SUV) and with Mio mounted to the dashboard, the envy of everyone on route 2 (or so we’d like to think). We were heading to British Delights in Westford. It might be the only British food store in the area. An odd little place, easy to miss (unless you use Mio, that is, or just keep an eye for the British flag). They have the best bangers. We also stocked up on sausage rolls, Horlics, Scott's Porage Oats and assorted sweets that were half-price and that we really shouldn’t be touching. You don’t want to know the appalling amount of money we spent. We drove back in high spirits, trying to justify to each other the value of every items we’ve picked up. Then we got home, unpacked the loot, looked at each other, and realized we had nothing to eat. It was time to boil some pasta.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Movies: 49 Up

It was sad.

I’d been wanting, desiring, yearning to see it; waiting for days while Netflix lost one copy in the mail and had to send us another; convincing Ian (the movie dictator in our household) that it had to be seen immediately.

Then we saw it.

I love Michael Apted’s Up Series. For those who don’t know: the first installment was released in 1964. In it, the director interviewed 14 British kids, who were all seven years old at the time. Since then, every seven years he returned to these same kids to ask them questions, track their progress. These are lovely films. I particularly loved 35Up and 42 Up. I even showed it to my undergraduates one year (they complained that the English accents were hard to understand).

Now, I’ve seen 49 Up, and as much as I hate to say it, I was bored.

What I loved in the previous films—especially 35 and 45 Up—was the hopefulness and uncertainty. The characters—not kids anymore—were struggling, making choices. Their class was always a factor. Some kids came from working class families of East London. Others were little privileged snobs. A couple of boys were growing up at a children’s home. You could actually see the way their background shaped their lives.

But I guess age is a great equalizer. Now, 49 years old, “the kids” have settled into very similar and quite comfortable lives. Almost all of them are married (or remarried), living in nice enough houses, with modern kitchen sets and cozy yards. Their children are mostly grown and several have children of their own. While their economic circumstances vary, no one is starving. To which, of course, I say, Good for them. But not so good for the movie. I was seeing the exact same story over and over again. Complacency replaced uncertainty. They’ve struggled enough, and now they are raising their grandkids, doing their work, enjoying their summer homes. There’s little drama and very few variables left in their stories.

It’s not their fault, though. They’ve had their share of problems, they’ve deserved a bit of calm. But despite the quiet, the director still could have made an interesting movie. Over the years, he asked the same questions, followed the same template: romance & family, career, parents. And this time around, his questions are still the same. He doesn’t ask how “the kids” feel about England, whether they think it’s changed for the better. His doesn’t mention economy, global warming, education. Only one of his subject, Tony the taxi driver, gets to talk about East End where he grew up and about his current feelings toward immigrants who live there. To me this was one of the most illuminating moments in the film. But the director misses these opportunities. He doesn’t ask Nick, who spent the last few decades in Madison, Wisconsin, about the war in Iraq. (Instead he asks him whether he misses England. Yes, says Nick, he does.) Nor does he ask Neil -- formerly homeless, now a politician -- about his politics. When another character, Jackie, accuses him of never asking her good questions, she actually might be right. It’s a shame. There’s so much that could be gleaned from these interviews.

My recommendation? If you’ve never seen any of these films, start with the earlier ones—28, 35, 42 Up. Then, if you want to know what happens in another seven years, scan through the 49 Up. And try not to be disappointed.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Why me? Why blog? Why now?

First, let me say that I like the idea of blogs. I read them, I find them useful, I have my favorites. And yet, I didn’t think I’d start one. I could see myself agonizing over each post, spending hours on it, trying to make it entertaining, funny, relevant. What’s more, I like being anonymous. I read forums but never post on them. I read blogs but never leave comments.

So why now?

A couple of reasons, which I will try to explain.

Reason #1. To keep in touch with friends. I used to be good at it, but lately I’ve been slipping. I grew up in Moscow, and I thought I’d spend my whole life there, surrounded by family and friends. Then when I was nineteen, we moved to the US, and I became Frog the Traveler, moving every 2-3 years. Pittsburgh to Baltimore to Boston to Syracuse to Madison to Boston…and who knows what’s next. Not only that, but my many of my friends move as well (to Ireland! to Texas!), Or they live far away to begin with. So what am I to do? Starting a blog might be just the right solution. I’ve been inspired by some of you, who’ve done just that (Jane, Heidi). It’s great to have a place where I can go and read about your experiences, see pictures, hear your voices. And even if I don’t leave comments, I still feel connected to you. Now I will try to do the same.

Reason #2.

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.

I’ve always wanted to be Dorothy Parker. Albeit without suicide attempts, lapsed fiction career, failed marriages, and general heartbreak. What I like is the idea of reading books, watching movies and plays, and then writing witty reports about them. In other words, I’d like to be a reviewer. What strange is, I don’t even like Dorothy Parker’s reviews all that much. They are funny, true. But in general, I prefer the more thoughtful reviews (see James Wood or Keith Gessen), the sort that puts forward ideas, the sort that informs as well as entertains. It remains to be seen what kind of “reviewer” I will turn out to be. But I’d like to give it a try. I read a lot, and lately I’ve been watching lots of movies as well. On the most basic level, I want a place where I can tell you about it, and let’s hope it won’t be too boring.

Reason #3.

The Chicken or the shameless self-promotion.

I have a book coming out in the fall -- The Last Chicken in America -- and I’ve been trying to learn a bit about publicity: op-ed columns, web sites, stuff like that. I haven’t figured it out exactly. On the one hand I’d like this blog to be semi-anonymous. On the other hand, if it turns out to be interesting, I might want to link it to my web site (when I have one). I don’t know. I’m torn about this. Privacy vs. publicity. For now, I’m thinking of it as an experiment.

And on that note, let me conclude this somewhat indulgent introduction and get to work…