All posts by A. Wells

Art illuminates fragile Lebanese life

By Alexandra Wells

ArtsPost Staff Writer

Photo provided by Katzen Arts Center.

Art, as defined in Webster’s dictionary, is “the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.”  Reflecting the dreams, history and depressing reality of Lebanese culture after its civil war (1975-1990), Convergence: New Art from Lebanon is a gem of an exhibit showing in Washington.

As the first exhibition in North America to introduce Lebanon’s post-civil war art, it expresses both the vigor for and the precariousness of life in Lebanon today and will be at The American University, in the Katzen Arts Center through May 16. The show was co-selected by the Katzen Museum’s director, Jack Rasmussen, and a highly respected Lebanese curator, Amal Traboulsi.

The various peoples of Lebanon have continuously overlapped in their cultures, sometimes violently, since before the birth of Christ.  This juxtaposing of peoples has allowed for vibrant art to be created, partly from the violence that often engulfs the region. Modern-day artists have used the country’s historical convergence of cultures to create the show’s masterpieces.

Although many works of photography appear in the show, there are also more high-tech mediums, such as video art and digital animation.  The show features 30 talented artists who created more than 50 paintings, sculptures and digital works of art.  Of these unique artistic representations, more than a third of the creators are women who live in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut.

Depressing destruction infuses Nada Sehnaoui’s elegant photographic grid “Rubble,” a 3-by-3 meter collage portraying multiple views of debris in Lebanon.  Artist Nadim Karam created a 16-foot high metal piece of art made solely for this Washington show.  The work brings about bitter feelings stirred up by lives influenced by war, but also by hope, represented by the installment of a cloud-like garden.

Another piece of art, an oil painting on canvas by Marwan Sahmarani, depicts soldiers at night.  This dark work is meant to be a guiding light for future generations to view and then learn from so they can avoid the violence of their ancestors.  Although the work is beautifully painted, Sahmarani writes that it should serve as a reminder of the cyclical patterns of Lebanon’s violent history.

The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center is free and open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., everyday except Monday.  For more information, call 202-885-ARTS.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is anything but an “Infidel”

By Alexandra Wells
ArtsPost Staff Writer

Fair use image provided by author's website.

Having all your life’s decisions made by the male head of a family is unimaginable to many Western women. However, this is the way that some Muslim women in the Middle East are raised, it is then “normal.” One woman who grew up in this climate is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who tells a unique tale in her memoir, “Infidel.”

Ali explains herself as a woman who went from quietly submitting her will in Saudi Arabia to loudly announcing her thoughts in Dutch politics. She opens with a scene of herself at age 5, sitting on a grass mat in Somalia with her grandmother, and reciting her ancestry, “I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.” As she falters for a second, her grandmother quickly speaks up to the nervous Ali, telling her, “If you dishonor him you will be forsaken. You will be nothing…”

The autobiography is extremely touching, a gripping read that is hard to put down. Ali uses descriptive prose to describe dire situations: her escape of an arranged marriage, the numerous death threats she received after her co-production of a controversial film and her atrocious beatings and female mutilation as a child. She manages to step back from the situation at hand and discuss the roots of her problems.

Many times when people are physically and emotionally downtrodden, they choose to curl up and ignore the outside world. In Ali’s case, she did the exact opposite and decided to help bring freedom to other oppressed women around the globe. Her political and religious positions are extremely liberal, especially for a female coming from a Muslim background, and for this she has suffered but not given up.

Her father disowned her when she chose to stay in the Netherlands and earn her degree in political science. Fundamental Islamists sent her death threats and tried to tarnish her public image. Ali however, has remained stalwartly committed to her cause of women’s rights, her voice bold. Her current method of reforming free speech for women in Muslim countries is through her election to the Netherlands’ House of Parliament, where she serves as a Representative.

She does not try to make herself out to be innocent or angelic and she recognizes that she had to be selfish in order to make it to where she is today. A sense of regret in hurting her strict Muslim family comes through during her recollection of childhood, but she does not waiver in her decision to fight religious injustice, which directed primarily towards women. She is truly resilient, springing back into action when it looks as if all the doors in her life are closed to her.

Seeing Ali’s thoughts turn from basic religious submission to questioning the dogma is an out of the ordinary change, but the true transformation in her life comes about when she begins to turn her thoughts into actions. Her deep sense of right and wrong, coupled with a curiosity and intelligence, allow Ali to learn from her life lessons rather becoming bitter and resentful. Sheer courage emanates from her pages, as she concludes her book saying, “Even with bodyguards and death threats I feel privileged to be alive and free.”

Movie’s split may alter your view

By Alexandra Wells
ArtsPost Staff Writer

Photo from the Internet Movie Database, imdb.com.

Instead of spending millions of dollars and countless hours negotiating Middle Eastern peace, politicians should spend $10 of their money watching “Ajami,” an Israeli film masterpiece. Going in, most audience members would notice the Hebrew and Arabic side-by-side during the opening and closing credits: a symbol for the entire theme of the film, which is centered in the multiethnic neighborhood in Jaffa, Israel.  This movie was a first for both directors, Scandar Copit (who also stars in the film) and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew, respectively.

This ingenious film, a medley of odd parallels, was eight years in the making. The directors chose to use nonprofessional actors. It is depressing, as any story would be when based on the daily perils in such a complicated region, “Ajami” manages to be amazingly unbiased, or maybe, influenced on both sides. Realizing that life is not easy or straightforward for people on either side of the conflict, the movie focuses on the lack of money, love and peace that shape every character.

After taking the Israeli Oscars by storm, the film then became the runner-up at the Cannes Film Festival and finally made it into the finals of the Academy Awards foreign-film section. Although not a documentary, this film feels so painfully realistic that it was hard to resist the urge to be angry or feel pity for characters who don’t truly exist. The fatalistic story is displayed in four chapters that, at times, circle-back on previous stories in order for the audience to truly understand what events have taken place.

At the heart of the film is the realization that every character has severely misunderstood a situation because of profoundly ingrained cultural and religious biases. No “side” is shown as better or worse, and anyone who sees this film can come away feeling ashamed and saddened with the Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Bedouins and Jews behaviors’ in the film. The chapters in the film create a sudden flip-flop of the audience’s emotions and make the plot much more intriguing to pick apart.

The movie focuses on seven main characters, at least one of which everyone can sympathize with in some profound way. The story unfolds as a young teenage Arab boy, Nasri, talks about how his neighbor has been shot instead of his older brother, Omar, whom the shooters thought they had killed. Another part of the film delves into restaurateur Abu Elias, who helps Omar’s family pay back the “blood debt” to the shooters family and is concerned that his daughter is in love with an inappropriate, or not Christian, boy.

Illegal immigrants to Israel, hard drugs, police brutality, soldiers missing in action and family illnesses that cause massive debt all add to the somber tone of this bleak movie. However, as I left the theater with tears in my eyes, I couldn’t help but think there was still hope for this bitterly torn-apart desert region. If only some politicians could take time out of their busy schedules to watch this impressive film and better understand all sides of the dispute.

The Opposite of a What?!

By Alexandra Wells

ArtsPost Staff Writer

opposite of a train

Opposite of a Train. Courtesy of the band's Myspace page.

More than 10 instruments for only three musicians might seem like overkill, but the band members from The Opposite of a Train know how to handle their equipment. The trio played an hour-long performance on the Millennium Stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which hosts a free performance every evening at 6 p.m.  The three musicians’ instruments created many different textures for the hundred or so audience members.  At various times the band reminded me of a film soundtrack, Middle Eastern dancing, jazz and even an Italian serenade at one point.

The trio write on their album cover that they first came together as “an intimate collaborative dynamic while composing and performing” for a theatre project in early 2008. However, the men say they’ve played “in diverse settings,” including jazz clubs, music venues and Cuban restaurants, and often accompany other bands.

Bill Carson played the electric and acoustic guitars, tenor banjo and bicycle while front man Nathan Koci rocked on the accordion, brass instruments, keyboards and metronome. Ron Wiltrout played the band’s percussion instruments, including the marimba (an African piano-like instrument), the glockenspiel (a metal xylophone), the drums and crash cymbals.

As for the visual aspect of the show, Koci could be seen swaying to the music, as could many audience members who were tapping their feet and bobbing their heads in rhythm. The band members were older than is expected to have just come together as a musical group, and admitted, “shoot, we’re just geeky.” They were sporting bowties, a pageboy cap, thick-rimmed glasses and messy, uncombed hair.

Carson, Koci and Wiltrout all hail from Charleston, S.C., yet have little Southern influence in their music. The band writes of their album, saying it “represents a diversity of compositional styles and arrangements, touching on classic Italian film scores, melodic post-rock, and slightly experimental chamber folk.” One song the band played was titled “Eurydice’s Waltz”, which sounded like it fit in equally well on a carousel or as polka dancing music. Another song, “The Typewriter” reminds me both of a circus act and dinner at an Italian restaurant.

Their self-titled debut album is categorized in the jazz section on the iTunes online store, but I could argue their music falling into almost any category, depending on the particular song. Once I gave up trying to classify their unique type of music, I sat back and simply enjoyed their distinctive and pleasing instrumentals.

Each time they began to play a new song, every band member would switch which instrument he was playing, sometimes even doing so midway through the song again. The constant changing of instruments was a bit overwhelming visually, but sounded seamless to the ear.  The threesome managed to pull off swapping musical instruments without a hitch and not one beat was missed during the plethora of swaps.

No ‘little green men’ needed…

By Alexandra Wells

ArtsPost Staff Writer

When you think of term “alien,” little green men often come to mind, sometimes having scales or even antennae. But in K-PAX (2001), directed by Iain Softley and based on Gene Brewer’s novel, the possible alien is Prot (played by Kevin Spacey). He is physically normal, but hides his oddness inside.

Prot simply shows up in Grand Central Station, one sunny afternoon and is thought to be crazy because he claims he comes from another planet. After being arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s taken to a psychiatric ward and assumed to be mentally ill. Dr. Mark Powell (played by Jeff Bridges) meets Prot and decides to try and treat his condition with psychotherapy.

Yet along the way Powell begins to wonder: is Prot really crazy or is he from outer space? However, Powell can’t seem to stump Prot with his questions relating to his home planet and even asks an astrophysicist friend to fact check some astronomy that Prot can’t possibly know. When the doctor feels as if he has no other options, he decides to put Prot into hypnosis and finds out some unfathomable answers.

In this science fiction movie, Powell does find his answers, but near the end of the movie, he says, “he wishes he hadn’t.” Prot stays optimistic and is an inspiration for all of the patients, but mostly for Powell.

Although Prot looks just like a human, he doesn’t seem to know basic things: He eats bananas with the peel still on and talks/barks with a dog. Spacey is the perfect man for this job, and pulls it off by convincingly acting a tad out of the ordinary throughout the entire movie.

The two actor’s performances were so spending throughout the film that no little green men are necessary. In addition, movie watchers each are allowed their own assumptions and views, as a definite answer is not always given.

Prot steps around some major questions, such as light travel, by using metaphors or excuses; this only allows viewers to create their own answers. The conclusion of the movie has multiple surprises and leaves any viewer wishing for a sequel. As he exists, Prot turns to Powell and adds with a sigh, “I shall miss Earth. It has great potential.”

The touching film was nominated for the Saturn and Image awards and brought in more than $50 million in 2001, the year it was released to the public. At least for a few hours after I watched the film, K-PAX altered the way I see the world and how I interact with it.

King Henry VIII: the Original Pimp

By Alexandra Wells

AU Post Staff Writer

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Born late in the 15th century, this monarch was married six times, but beheaded two of his wives.  He also sired 14 children, only eight of who lived past infancy.  Unrivaled in the amount of true drama surrounding his life, King Henry VIII now has an entire series on the Showtime television channel.

“The Tudorsseries began in 2007 and features England’s reign under Henry (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) during the Renaissance dynasty. The colorful show has been nominated for three Golden Globes and currently holds more than 27 awards.  Creator Michael Hurst, whose earlier works include “Elizabeth, has been nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and Gemini award.

The three seasons begin when Henry VIII has recently become King of England, after his older brother who was destined for the crown dies early and he is forced to marry his brother’s widow, Queen Catherine of Aragon (played by Maria Doyle Kennedy).  He tries desperately with his new wife to sire a male heir for the throne, but when this doesn’t prove fruitful, he becomes frustrated and has multiple affairs.

As he turns to other women in search of a son to take over his reign, he finds Anne Boelyn (played by Natalie Dormer) and soon becomes truly obsessed, an obsession that will come to rule his life and causes the fate of Christianity to diverge.  Throughout Henry’s juggling of women, he turns to male confidants: Sir Thomas More (played by Jeremy Northam), Charles Brandon (played by Henry Cavill), and later Thomas Cromwell (played by James Frain), who all become key sources of advice when the King feels lost or troubled.

The turbulent history of the Tudor era is not very well known by most television viewers, so many can benefit academically while sitting on their couch watching this show.  Although the show is not a strict biography of a previous King of England, it does bring some educational value to the table, helps to visually portray the time period and gives a loose sense of the historical figures’ lives.

Henry’s life is chalk-full of drama, intrigue, deception, arrogance, affairs and corruption.  So what gossip-loving, tabloid-reading viewer wouldn’t love this hour-long show?  Picture a time where royalty could order servants at their every beck and call while the Black Plague ravaged the neighboring poor countryside.

“The Tudors” is a show that helps to decode the mystery of a forgotten era and will be equally enjoyed by both history buffs and the average television watcher alike.  Combine the phenomenal cinematography with the ingenious casting, throw in a unique royal saga and: voila, a television masterpiece is created.

As the opening of the show explains, “You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.  To get to the heart of a story you have to go back to the beginning.”  “The Tudorsstarts exactly where it should and continues to engage the viewer throughout the entire journey of King Henry VIII’s tumultuous life.

Golly Gee Willikers!

By Alexandra Wells
ArtsPost Staff Writer

Monday, March 1, 2010

“Only Angels Have Wings”, directed in 1939 by Howard Hawks, is a romantic drama that was nominated for two Academy Awards.  The film was released during a landmark year, as “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also date to 1939, creating an astonishing number of classic films that audiences still watch today.

Only Angels Have Wings” begins when Bonnie Lee (played by Jean Arthur) waits for her boat to set sail again from a port in South America.  While she peruses the fictional port of Barranca, she attracts the attention of two American pilots and the trio head to a bar together.

At the bar, Lee soon becomes enamored of their boss, Geoff Carter, (played by Cary Grant).  He is the lead pilot of a small airline company that delivers mail over a foggy mountain pass.  When a new pilot arrives, he and his wife, Judy MacPherson, (played by Rita Hayworth), affects Geoff and the other pilots in a surprising way. Two key attributes distinguish this major motion picture from the others of its day.  First, the superb cinematography includes aerial and action scenes in the fog above the unpredictable Andes Mountains.  Secondly, director Hawks recruits a first-rate cast featuring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth and others.

Although the basic story is one that will resonate in people’s hearts for generations to come, to a viewer watching this movie in the 21st century, much of it feels out-dated.  Terms like “he’s a queer duck” or exclamations such as “golly gee willikers” are somewhat off-putting to anyone who grew up during the digital age.

Late in the movie, instead of the pilots using oxygen masks when they are at high elevation, they instead bite onto oxygen tubes.  Also, cigarette smoking is a constant element throughout the entire movie by everyone in the cast, 1930’s dreamy music plays in the background and women’s role in society is very differently defined than in the present day.

Easily Hawks’ best film, “Only Angels Have Wings”, is a compelling classic that has something for every movie-goer: action, suspense, romance and comedy, all rolled into one black-and-white, two-hour adventure. There are love quarrels, fights, deceit, death, shootings, total humiliation, romance and intrigue. The advertising posters proclaimed the film was: “Thrilling As Love Born Amid A Thousand Fabulous Adventures!” Seventy years after the film was first released in theaters, it still manages to hold the attention of modern audiences.