Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Break For Pop Cultue--ORPHAN BLACK and DA VINCI'S DEMONS reviewed

It's spring break here in Mulhouse, time to catch up on reading but also a moment to get up to snuff on new TV series. Two in particular have caught my eye--Orphan Black (BBC America, airing on Saturday nights) and Da Vinci's Demons (Starz / FX UK airing on Friday nights).


Orphan Black appeared  March 30th and surprised me right out of the gate. I had read the synopsis and thought, hmmm, sounds ok but not that hot, yet it quickly revealed it had mystery, humor, action and actively growing intrigue. As Neil Genzlinger announces in his review "One Woman, Multiplying Identities" for the NYTimes: " the end of the second episode, this tasty show starts to reveal that it is not just another identity-swapping story. Something creepily sci-fi is definitely going on." Even the identy-swapping side allures, as Courtney Vaudreuil so smartly writes in her "TV one" review of the first Orphan Black episode: "In modern society, looking like someone else offers the comfort of conformity while simultaneously offending one’s sense of individuality. In BBC America’s Orphan Black, the struggle between separate and same is taken to new heights..." This is because the writing is smart, the lead actors are fabulous and fun to watch, and because these actors and the authors of the storyline are able to really work with their multiple characters and personalities. There is never a lull in suspense. Each week, in fact, the story seems to gain in intrigue, add another piece to the puzzle. And this, despite its unintriguing synopsis.

Orphan Black did sound, in its original synopses, like it would be another twin life-swapping tale where the protagonist Sarah steps out of her down and out life replete with drug scandals and criminal activity as well as foster care in her past and into that of an upscale homicide detective. Sound familiar? Yes, that is the undeniable echo of RINGER which left me wondering as episode one began whether the BBC had done an American Hollywood copycat. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the 2011 CW show Ringer gave Buffy fans hope to see Sarah Michelle Gellar back on top but in a role she just wasn't convincing enough in (I didn't buy the addict half of her) and with less intrigue than needed to keep viewers hooked, leading to the series being cut after only one season, Orphan Black also parallels ABC Family's 2011 series The Lying Game, a teenie bopper version of twin life-swapping where the kids supposedly search for their birth mother amid a kind of soap opera of love twists and occasional murders that keeps the show running (now towards its 3rd season). In Orphan Black there is the similar question of "Where do we come from? Who made us?" and "Is there an original the clone is based on? If so, who is she?" But the story of Orphan Black is happily more complex, the dialogue more nuanced and the mystery more entangling and engrossing than that of The Lying Game. A more recent parallel to Orphan Black's storyline can also be made with the 2013 Cinemax series BANSHEE, where an ex-con and master thief takes over the life of a cop he's killed in order to hide out as little PA town sheriff while he reconnects with his thieving ex and meets and protects his own child from various mishaps. In Orphan Black, Sarah, the protagonist, also ends up impersonating Beth--a cop version of herself who commits suicide--and Sarah is attempting to re-connect with her child who she'd left in foster care.

While The Lying Game or Ringer might be fun, and Banshee is action-packed with its unendingly violent fight scenes (a bit of a Witness-like (for Harrison Ford fans) Amish community battles with its sinner organized crime side), Orphan Black ups the ante and emerges as a SciFy show suddenly revealing this is NOT a twin tale, but a clone conspiracy. How many of them are there? Well, in the 4 episodes aired thus far there are almost as many who have come out of the woodwork as get killed off, and I cannot do the fabulous show justice without giving things away.  The lead actrice, Canadian Tatiana Maslany, is certainly doing her best with the demands on her to produce not only an array of British accents, but also German and at this time some other non-native anglophone sound. Although her German (for the short-haired red-head clone pictured here) was lambasted by certain critics, I think she is doing an overall commendable job as are the make up and hair people who help us easily see which of the clones she is in each scene (as the "killer clone" blonde pictured at the top above, the red-haired German clone below left or the soccer mom Alison  and the scientist Cosima clones pictured together in black and white). 

As for her sidekicks, Neil Genzlinger nicely summarizes Ophan Black's "Jordan Gavaris, playing her gay hustler foster brother, [who] is a droll presence, even if his character feels like a stereotype."Although a bit of a cliche, his character lends a little lightness to the at times heavy or dark intrigue, and provides comic relief and a pleasant endearing sense of a struggle for human contact between the characters (Sarah's daughter, Kyra, and foster mother, or even with Sarah's lovelorn drug selling ex-boyfriend VIC (played by Michael Mando) who pines for her in an exaggerated and practically ridiculous manner, also verging on a few cliches but again in ways that provide fun, comic relief and humourous complications to the storyline). One of the characters who risks uncovering the entire string of mystery is, appropriate to his job title, Sarah's Detective partner, Art, played by Kevin Hanchard. In episode 4 he stands in front of the murder board and says, "But women, they look different, fight different, smell different" which doubles as a commentary on the murderer they are pursuing and some inkling he has about the recent modifications in his partner, Beth's, behaviour. Kyra, Sarah's daughter (played by the adorably cute Skyler Wexler), knows right away that soccer-mom clone Alison only "looks like mommy". So, will the secret leak out? And to whom, first? The consequences and ramifications of this double intrigue--keeping the secret and finding out who is killing off the clones--is what makes Orphan Black an entertaining way to spend your Saturday evening.

I am a sucker for visuals, and this FX UK/Starz action/historical fantasy drama show which aired for the first time on the 12th of April is fabulous eye candy. Not only are the actors elaborately dressed--in particular Laura Haddock (pictured at right) who as Lucrezia Donati amuses herself by playing at high class mistress, a common prostitute during Florence's Carnivale, or even doubling as a potential Roman spy for the pretty with an intense gaze but evidently mega-evil Count Girolamo Riario, Pope Sixtus IV's nephew, (played by Blake Ritson). 

The camera does love these gorgous actors and the elaborately staged scenes they have been placed in. But even more fun is the way the show uses the film techniques once seen on Numb3rs and which also appear on Touch--sketching lines and figures to depict processes of calculation, design or architecture taking place within the mind of young Da Vinci (played by Tom Riley). Computer sketch lines overlay images to demonstrate the thinking process of the hero-genius, recalling very much the images on display in Da Vinci museums, such as that in the French Loire valley town where Da Vinci would eventually pass away from this world in 1519--Ambroise, in the Château de Clos Lucé, Parc Leonardo Da Vinci which I visited with my parents in 2005 about a month before seeing the Antwerp "Artist, Engineer, Poet, Physicist, Inventor and Visionary"  Panamarenko (b 1940) show at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Brussels (Click HERE for a downloadable PDF of the show in Flemmish) with poet and my frequent "artseen" partner George Vance. In one of the first scenes from episode one with Da Vinci in this new show, an attempt at human flight is seen, recalling both the genius of the real Da Vinci and the comedic parody of him by contemporary visual artist Panamarenko. Panamarenko, in equal brilliance to that of Da Vinci--stated "Si on comprend le fonctionnement de l'univers, on parvient à s'élever de terre."

Da Vinci's Demons is produced and written by David S Goyer, who is the Batman The Dark Knight author and the producer-author of FlashForward and the series and films Blade among others. This should be our first sign that documentary is NOT the genre being explored here. Instead, Goyer  overlays the mythic force of a real genius from history and that of a fantasy version of Da Vinci, partly borrowed from the Dan Brown genre novels which are all about uncovering secret symbols and societies caught in the highly debated realm where religion and science overlap. This new Da Vinci is a bit more than man, superheroesque but dotted with tons of fabulous bad habits--drinking, girls, opium smoking, and a seeming inability to stick to one project and see it through because his mind is easily distracted by parallel projects, drawings, or design. This genius dilettante combo makes for a lot of entertainment. But this fantasy historical adventure tale is tethered to a darker, perhaps more gratifying sense of there being a mystical awakening underway in young Da Vinci. An awakening where intellect will be challenged by a sort of dreamtime and where the religious right arm of the Pope will have secrets and truths to hide and to unveil at will. The Christian notions of the day are certainly being challenged by the superstitions the character The Turk (played by Alexander Siddig) have planted in young Da Vinci's psyche--reincarnation, heroic destiny or fate, and the sense of the life of one being bound more to that of another than to any one god--and of course that a mysterious long-lost  Book of Leaves (a fiction created for the series) exists which Da Vinci will now go in search of as it may contain the truth of the universe. All in all, this is a fantastically entertaining show, beautifully filmed, which positions the viewer someplace between the genre of imagined historical genius and that of heroic quests for intellectual symbolic treasure. I, for one, cannot wait for episode 3!

For those of you in search for a truer-to-life tale of Da Vinci's history, check out the books Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind by Charles Nicholl (2005), Leonardo: The Artist and the Man by Serve Bramly (tr Sian Reynolds) and The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance by Fritjof Capra (2008)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Speaking on Self-naming in Postmodern Poetic Autobiography at the SAES conference in MAY

I am very excited to be speaking at the SAES conference in MAY 2013 as part of the Poetry and Poetics workshop. Seems nicely timed as they have invited Lisa Robertson as the guest of honor this year. Here is the complete info + my abstract below. Hope to see you there! 

SAES 17-19 May 2013 :

Theme "naming"


Attention, ouverture dans une nouvelle fenêtre.Chaired by Penelope Galey (Valenciennes), Hélène Goethals (Toulouse 2)

Vendredi le 17 mai 2013 : 14.30-16.30

14.30-15.15. Penelope GALEY-SACKS (Valenciennes): "The Sounding of the Sonnet: between Cratylus and de Saussure"

15.15-16.00. Taïna TUKHUNEN (Versailles St. Quentin): "'In the picture I have of you': Sylvia Plath's poetic project to name 'Daddy'"

16.00-16.30. Pause.

16.30-17.15. Jennifer K DICK (Université de Haute Alsace): "Self-Naming in Postmodern Poetic Autobiography"

17.15-18.00. Françoise BARBE-PETIT (Paris):  "Emily Dickinson: entre nommer et  re-nommée, l'espace d'une vie"

Samedi le 18 mai 2013 : 09.00-12.15

09.00-09.45. Sara GREAVES (Aix-Marseille): "Names and addresses in Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis Mac Neice"

09.45-10.30. Yvonne REDDICK (Warwick): "Appellations dans Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve d’Yves Bonnefoy, traduit par Ted Hughes"

10.30-10.45. Pause.

10.45-11.30. David TEN EYCK (Nancy): "Word and world in contemporary British poetry" 

11.30-12.15. Helen GOETHALS (Toulouse 2): "Not naming but shaming: poetry and politics in Cyprus 1953-55"

Here below is the abstract of my talk. I was seriously optimistic about what I could accomplish in my presentation in proposing this: This will be a nice start of a critical focus for me on these works I have spent so long reading and in some cases teaching:

Self-Naming in Postmodern Poetic Autobiography

Jennifer K Dick

MdC, Université de Haute Alsace, Mulhouse

Labo de recherche : ILLE, membre de SAES

For this 2013 edition of the SAES conference (in the Friday 17 May at 14h30 session in Dijon, France) I propose to explore the way the limits of the name “poetry” are stretched and fragmented as relates to genre in the currently very fashionable ‘postmodern poetic autobiography’. Evident late 20th and early 21st century practitioners of this mode will be discussed in brief based on a more in-depth processed look at their theoretic and poetic predecessors--Lyn Hejinian, Kathleen Fraser, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Frank O'Hara, Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim and Carla Harryman-- so as to hear echos in works including those by Joan Retallack (ie: Memnoir), Laura Mullen (After I was Dead, or Murmur), Bhanu Kapil (Incubation: A Space for Monsters, and Schizophrene), Eleni Sikelianos (Body Clock, and The Book of Jon) or Anne Carson (Anthropology of Water, or Nox and also Autobiograhy of Red). How these fragmented and collaged practices of writing the self (and personal past) have changed from their precursors will require comparisons and contrasts with techniques originating in My Life by Lyn Hejinian as well as her reflections in her essays in "The Language of Inquiry", and the writings of Kathleen Fraser in translating the unspeakable: Poetry and Innovative Necessity. Much of the theoretical and practical poetic debates about writing of the self hit their peak during the confessionalist movement, thus brief contrasts to Lowell, Rich, Sexton, Plath, and late confessionalist Louise Gluck will be mentioned. What will be seen is that these "autobiographies" or "memoirs" are looking to flatten the binary space between self and other, poetry and prose, personal history and History itself. I will conclude with a visual glimpse of the combinatory history and autobiography work by Susan Howe and Myung Mi Kim in extracts from their works, and ask the question--so, where are we going to now? If the I is (not) the I?
To see the many other SAES ATELIERS that are presenting at this conference: to read info also on special keynote event with LISA ROBERTSON, go to: