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Saturday, March 31, 2012

You Can't Handle My Apple Strudel!

Recently in school, I've done a lesson - or participated in one, at least - about the family classic The Sound of Music. 

I know it to be true that a lot of Americans going to Austria anticipate a Sound Of Music sort of experience - beautiful medieval villages tucked into mountains, schnitzel with noodles and apple strudel, and singing children escaping from the Nazis. The songs are timeless and romantic (though in my opinion a bit cheesy, like most Rogers and Hammerstein stuff), and 99.9% of Austrians hate The Sound of Music with a passion.

Today was the first time in my life I saw the movie all the way through - a friend sat me down and subjected me to it (or, more diplomatically put, highly recommended we watch it together). It was something I wanted to get done before I left the USA, but, well, that didn't happen.

For those of you who thing this is tragic and would like to thus imply that I never really had a childhood without having seen the musical, I will point out two things: 1) plenty of my friends from college have never seen Bambi (I would call that tragic as well - there are so many wonderful lessons in Bambi, and the part where his mother is killed by hunters is not that scary) and 2) a childhood favorite of mine was The King and I which is basically the same story as The Sound of Music but set in a more exotic location. Sorry, but Austria is just not as exotic as Thailand [Siam]. Plus, I saw Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, where she also plays a nanny.

In any case, I think The Sound of Music is probably not as offensive to Austrians as they'd like to let on. First, ALL musicals are cheesy. Period. Second, the Austrians portrayed in the movie/musical are 1) high-class aristocrats doing high-class things that should make Austrians proud, like wearing Trachten and waltzing and appreciating music and nature and 2) taking an anti-Nazi stance during the war. These are not stereotypes (Austrians really do do [did do] these things), and even if they are, they're good stereotypes. Third, if the musical assaults the sensibilities of Austrians, may I please say that what the Burgtheater considers "high art" (i.e. having one character in a Schiller play sexually molest another for comic effect) assaults my sensibilities?

During the lesson the teacher and the students were equally abrasive on the subject, laughing at the movie scenes we watched (including the Lonely Goatherd and My Favorite Things) and said how offensive it was that Americans don't have any clue what Austria is really like, aside from The Sound of Music. Ahem. I reiterate: what Austrians think America is "really like" based on The Simpsons, the Kardashians, and the cast of Jersey Shore is much worse. How can you romanticize Homer and Marge? Certainly not in the same way you can romanticize the Captain and Maria.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Artist

Last weekend (or thereabouts) I went to see The Artist. After hearing all this Oscar buzz about it, and discovering it's a contemporary silent film - and French - I just knew I had to see it, especially in the theater. Silent films really are best when viewed on a big screen. Some might say this is true for all films, but I will...disagree. I don't recall a big screen (or 3D for that matter) doing much for Beowulf.

In any case, I was a bit put off at first, since I have very specific expectations of a silent film, and it seemed fakey to get into the theater, watch previews in color and sound, and then BOOM be hit with silence. After about five minutes, I got used to it, though. And I loved it.

The story is about George Valentine, the artist: the egotistical darling of the silent screen, whose best and only friend is his dog, and his adoring fans, who toss him aside once talkies burst onto the scene, and he refuses to transition, considering his "art" more important than some fad - the "future." 

The side-story is that of Peppy Miller, Valentine's biggest fan, who is encouraged by him (coincidentally - he never actually has anything directly to do with her decision) to go into acting, and becomes more famous and popular than him. In fact, she steals his thunder and inadvertently destroys his career (well...his divorce and his own egomania contribute) and he becomes destitute and desperate. However, Peppy is in love with him, and saves him in the end. 

I also loved Jean Dujardin as Valentine. He was perfect! I first saw his work in France - he's known there as a comic and for his television roles. While I was living as a student in France, I watched Un gars, une fille all the time with my host sisters - and totally developed a crush on Jean Dujardin.  The show is cute, made up mostly of skits about a young married couple and the shenanigans they get up to - sort of like Friends meets Saturday Night Live, but actually funny.

With just the right amount of modern sensibility, nostalgia, charm, poignant story line and overdone acting, The Artist, to me, deserved all the praise it got through the BAFTAs, the Academy Awards, - every thing. It is one of the most innovative films I've ever seen, in that it is being cutting edge by returning to traditionalism, the roots of cinema, and redefining them. I see The Artist  as an allegory for the modern world: we should look to the past for inspiration - not to relive it, but to consider how we are shaping our world. The past is never dead, but a memory that has evolved into our consciousness, imposing its will on us whether we think of it in that way or not.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring - Awakening!

Spring has sprung,
The grass is riz. 
I wonder where 
The birdies is? 

The weather has been beautiful here, if not a little freaky. With temperatures a month ahead of schedule, and articles like this one, the pessimistic global warming vibe rears its head. Yes - global warming is real, and it is becoming all the more imminent and dangerous the closer the earth comes to a tipping point. Most people don't want to hear that, though, when it's 65 F in late March. 

Though it is arguably imperative that people do thing about such things, spending a Saturday afternoon strolling Vienna's Innere Stadt and having an ice cream at the season's opening of one of the Eiscafes lining the main drag is much more to the liking of most.  It's how I spent my day yesterday. And I had a lot of fun.

I went to the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts, or Museum für angewandte Kunst) which is mostly furniture and architecture, but it's free on Saturdays, so it's been on my list of museums to go see (being the cheapskate I am). Interestingly, I found a chair in the museum (on display, not to sit on) that is exactly like the chairs in my apartment last year, which I used with impunity - sitting on them, standing on them, spilling things on them. They're from the 1890s, apparently, and neat-looking hardwood chairs (very sturdy) with embossed leather backs and seats. And apparently art. Who knew?  I'm starting to think nearly everything in Austria can be classified as "art" in some way or another. Beautiful, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Famous Austrians XI: Heinrich Harrer

I will admit that Seven Years in Tibet was my favorite movie as a little girl, and - here's the admission - mostly because Brad Pitt played the main character.

I will also admit that, since Brad Pitt plays Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer in the film, Seven Years in Tibet is also one of the reasons I was ever interested in coming to Austria in the first place. That and mountaineering, of course.

Harrer himself was interesting enough, however. Born in Hüttenberg (in Carinthia) in 1912, and attended Karl-Franzens-Universität in Graz. He almost participated in the 1936 Winter Olympics, until the Austrian athletes boycotted (Austrians would boycott skiing?!?). He became famous as a young man for climbing the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland (also known as the White Spider) which had actually been banned for climbing by the Swiss government due to the deaths of several earlier climbers. Something not so nice about Harrer is that, immediately following the Anschluss, he joined the SS. In later interviews, including his biography, he apologized for this, chalking it up to youthful indiscretion. 

While on a trip to India in 1939, Harrer and his mountain crew decided to climb Nanga Parbat but World War II was declared in September and, being in British territory, and the crew (as German citizens) was arrested and thrown into an internment camp near Bombay. In 1944, Harrer and others escaped dressed as British soldiers and headed for Tibet.

During his exile in Tibet, Harrer worked as a translator, eventually meeting the Dalai Lama (then aged about 12) and became his English and Geography tutor. They made films together, the Dalai Lama learned how to ice skate, and they remained friends until Harrer's death in 2006. 

In 1952, Harrer returned to Austria and wrote the book Seven Years in Tibet based on his experiences. He continued his mountaineering adventures, traveling to each of the continents in turn. As well as being an explorer and writer, he was also a photographer and documentary filmmaker. Many of his photographs and films are at the Harrer Museum in Hüttenberg. Hopefully I'll make it there before I leave Austria! I've never been to Carinthia, might be fun!

Harrer and the Dalai Lama

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Single Man

I saw the film by Tom Ford when it came out in 2010, and was impressed by Colin Firth preparing a role that was, in essence, a one-man-show with props of other actors (he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor but did not win). Mr. Firth, unfortunately, was all that could be recommended for this film. I thought it was a little too something - ostentatiously gay? Visual? Superficial? Self-promotional? I'm not sure.

So, I liked the movie, but not as much as I thought I would. I saw a spot for it on Sunday Morning With Charles Osgood and various commercial seemed a lot deeper and artier than it actually was. In fact, I thought it was actually complete crap, and Colin Firth's character was a sleazy and maladjusted type for attempting an affair with a student.

Nonetheless, I have been looking for some Christopher Isherwood stuff, specifically the Berlin Stories or Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, as they were published in Europe. I'm planning to write my own "Vienna Stories" and would like some inspiration as to how to format my collection. Since these stories are more famously known (and set to music) as Cabaret, and in that form likely Isherwood's most famous works, I figure they're a good place to start.

However, when I went to the library, I didn't find what I wanted. They did have A Single Man on the shelf, however, and I decided, well, any Isherwood is better than no Isherwood.

What I love about A Single Man is that George is overtly and unapologetically gay in 1960's California (before the hippies, mind you - circa 1961). Isherwood's writing style, choice of scene and structure, never let the reader forget George's sexuality. In fact, Isherwood's style is pretty sparse, borrowing a page from Hemmingway's book in that it has very little physical description of characters or place; though it is better (i.e. not as bare bones) as The Sun Also Rises, for example. In concentrating on  the sensual aspects of live, the novella is charmingly and grippingly sensory - not erotic, not bogged down in details or description, just sensual. The ocean scene, where George goes for a dip (naked midnight romp?) with Kenny in the Pacific is one of the few exceptions to this, but in its description, continues to center on emotions George feels, rather than the temperature of the water, as an example. And it is critically important to George's psyche - the ocean, the young man, symbolize George's rebirth after Jim's death.

I was pleasantly surprised that the novella far exceeds the film. Isherwood's character George, far from being the superficial, self-conscious and self-promoting type of gay man Tom Ford made him out to be, is down-to-earth, sarcastic and outrageous as only a gay man can be, and though wounded by the loss of the love of his life (Jim, who passed away in a car crash visiting his folks in Ohio), George perseveres, does not assault himself by minimizing his love, like society is wont to do, or falling into an almost-affair with a student - he more or less fantasizes about sex, but does not delude himself into grander emotions, or actually committing any acts. Besides, Kenny (the student) doesn't have much to offer George beyond a nice body. Aside from scratching an itch, Kenny's not much of a catch. He's pretty dopey.

The one thing I hate about A Single Man (which was ambiguous in the book, but more ambiguous in the film) is that George dies at the end. Why does he die, when the book is about persevering despite obstacles?! It was so annoying, because it implied that a person cannot be total, complete, without another person to live with, love, and more importantly, have sex with. Most of the time protagonists in such situations are women falling all over themselves for a man, but obviously anyone can fall victim to the mentality - the sex part almost always shrouded in innuendo in anything pre-Woolfe (or pre-Anais Nin) for the woman. Gotta keep those Victorian double standards in working order...

Anyway, I think it's ridiculous that anyone should ever want to be defined by another, in any way. Yes, love is powerful, and I think true love does exist, but it is not the be-all and end-all of an existence to get married (or move in together) and "become" that other person, or have that other person become you. Sure, people need relationships, another to guide them, help them and give them the chance to become the best they can be through love and support and faith in their love. And it is painful to lose someone so dear and necessary to you. But that does not mean when you lose someone, you should not go on living! You are still you, not the other person and you deserve to continue your life, perhaps diminished, but hopefully not for long!

Losing love and losing faith are not one in the same, and though losing both can be devastating, no one says you have to.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

On the Job

It occurs to me I haven't said much about teaching recently, and I'm wondering now why that is.

To get to the root of it, I'd like to ask myself a few questions: am I trying to hide something, or feel that I cannot be honest? Do I have "better" things to write about? Do I feel my audience has little interest? Have I categorized teaching into one of those things I don't think about anymore (…going on autopilot…) and thus don't have anything enlightening to say?

Well, I suppose I should take a step back and simply state what's been happening in the world of school. In early February, we had the end of the first semster, a week off (Austrians will take any excuse for time off : woohoo!), and then came back to a new semester, and a slightly new teaching schedule. I haven't been the most satisfied, and that's why I feel I need to ask myself these questions.

Because the real question is whether I want to make a profession out of teaching? I'm still on the fence. Now more than ever, since I've had two years in the "business." It seems a little that I mean the material isn't very challenging, the expectations are not as high as they could be - for me or my students. However, I have little autonomy in the classroom, especially this year. I guess I should keep in mind that, if/when I become a "real" teacher, rather than just an assistant, i.e. live-action dictionary, I will be able to set my own rules, curriculum, etc., at least more so than currently.

I've been thinking very seriously about becoming TEFL certified, to teach English abroad. I met a few English teachers abroad this summer, and they all had positive things to say about their experiences. I'll be honest, I'm a little afraid of being let loose in a classroom full of kids whose native language is not English, especially if I don't know their native language, either. If I did take an online course to become TEFL certified, I could even stay in Austria. I haven't yet made up my mind whether I'd like that or not.

The biggest uproar in the Austrian school system is the new Zentralmatura, which is the new, centralized government school-leaving exam for Austrian secondary students. All students who are now in the sixth year at Gymnasium (roughly American Sophomores) will have to take the centralized state test. There’s been lots of “debate” (whining) about it at school, from my colleagues.

The difference between the Zentralmatura and the traditional Matura (similar to the German Abitur) from which they’re transitioning is basically the difference between the American ACT and a high school final exam a teacher creates at the end of the year. Although the Matura is farther reaching than either an ACT or a final exam, basically teachers have had the right (and autonomy) to put whatever they wanted on their exams for their students, i.e. testing them on exactly what they’ve been taught. 

The Matura typically includes a German comprehension portion, a Math and Science portion, and a foreign language portion (either written or oral) in English – the most popular – or another living language, typically French, Spanish, Italian or Russian. The teachers are complaining that the new Zentralmatura is killing their classes. They have to teach twice as much, with half the preparation time. That is, they have to teach what they've always been teaching in school, plus the addenda of multiple choice/standardization/teaching to the test. I get it. I would complain, too!

All of the explanations I’ve gotten for the transition to a centralized state test have not sufficed in my opinion. It seems like a big fat mistake and a hollow attempt to copycat the American secondary system, which is completely broken! Come on, people. If you’re going to change your system, at least get a good, viable role model, not a crappy, broken-down one. I thought everyone knew the ACT/SAT stuff was just a load of graft set up by the Princeton Review – forcing unsuspecting highschoolers to fork over money by telling them they’ll never get into college if they don’t take one of these tests. Maybe this is overblown, and has nothing to do with the United States. But then again, Austria has imported Jersey Shore - (why do they always choose the bad aspects of American culture?)

The Zentralmatura is in some ways worse as a standardized test, because no one is ever forced to take the ACT. Some colleges and universities don’t require them in an application anymore (like my alma mater, in fact); but, to graduate from Gymnasium at all, let alone go to uni, you need to pass the Matura. How’s that for Schwindel, hmm? Not to mention, standardized testing is a completely foreign cultural concept anyway, which is the root of most of the complaints.

Recently, Die Presse has been running articles on the various opinions related to the Zentralmatura. Though they are in German, here is a link.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Der Parasit

A still from the Burgtheater production

A while ago, I saw a production at the Burgtheater of Schiller's comedy Der Parasit. The play is based on an older French play by some lesser-known named Picard - presumably not Jean-Luc - and is one of the few Lustspiele,i.e. comedies the very serious Herr Schiller wrote (or, in this case, stole and improved upon).

The theme of Der Parasit is very Moliere - very French, down to the names. The main character is a mid-level bureaucrat named Selicour who blackmails his way up the ranks, intending to get a fat cat job and then marry the daughter of the fat cat he replaces, Narbonne. I knew it reminded me of something about halfway into Act 2: why, Tartuffe, of course! The themes are identical: hypocracy, greed, corruption, con-artistry, lust for power, lust for some chick...the list goes on.

I am going to be honest. I am not a huge fan of the Burgtheater because I think they are a little low-brow. By that I mean everything becomes one big sexual innuendo. I did not like how slapstick and crude the characters were - there's more to comedy than a kick in the balls or something flying down a buxom lady's dress front. But, considering it is the "People's Theater" refinement is not always at hand.

The best part is the ending, though. Unlike Tartuffe, Schiller puts in one of those ambiguous endings a la Clue where the possibilities, seemingly endless, are given: 1) Selicour is found out and punished; 2) Selicour is found out and no one cares; 4) Selicour is not found out and everyone's lives are ruined; 5) Selicour is not found out because he's clever enough to put the blame on someone else; 6) Selicour is found out by the only intelligent/sympathetic character, who is then not believed...

Schiller's point was that corruption is all around: who decides what is moral? Those in charge (of course), who are exempt from "normal" bourgeois views of right and wrong. Leaders especially can do whatever the hell they like, as they are doing it in the best interest of people who don't know any better - Schiller's lampooning of these sentiments, as well as implying they need to be changed (but who is going to be the first?) are perfectly within keeping of his normal rants under the title "tragedy." At least he finally got in a few laughs! I can only imagine: what if Schiller had devoted more time to parody and less time to bringing Classical back (like bringing sexy back, but with more Goethe)?

So, yeah, most of what I've seen at the Burgtheater I would consider marginal. (What else have I seen? A take on Shakespeare and a terrible translation of a little-known Tennessee Williams play, coming up) Most of the play was a snooze, but that's not to say I didn't get anything out of it! The staging of the final act was really excellent: the set had enough doors for each of the characters, and to signify each alternate ending, the players would walk in and out of the doors, repeat their lines with certain twists, so that the audience could ruminate and contemplate. Just my style.

All in all, I liked Der Parasit, and will say it again: I love Schiller, but damn, that dude was depressing!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beggars in Vienna

Translation - Beggar: Spare some change?
Man w/dog: Come, Hercules, let's leave the man a donation and save ourselves the baggy.

I must have one of those faces.

You know, those gullible, sappy, emotive faces that scream "I am a pushover." Because in Vienna, I keep getting approached by bums who want my spare change.

Not only this, when I decline and say I don't have any, they push and say, "Oh, but you have a bank card? You could go to an ATM and get money out and go buy me groceries."

To which I normally say, "Are you kidding?"

In most cases, they are not, so I have on occasion had to tell them I would call the police if they followed me - one guy did.

Am I being too mean to the beggars? At least I don't leave them dog poop.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Famous Austrians X: Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor

Oh, Rudolf. He's more than just a reindeer, you know. 

Born in Vienna to Maximilian II and Maria of Spain, Rudolf II was groomed from an early age to be emperor, spending much of his childhood in Spain - the old stomping ground of his grandfather, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He was shy, aloof, and a little on the nerdy side. He loved horses, clocks, and astrology (he was a Cancer) and alchemy. He never married, though did have several mistresses, trysts and illegitimate children. He could have been what we would now call bisexual - or, what may have been the portmanteau of the era, "of the Greek persuasion."

Seeing as Rudolf loved art and the occult, and at the time Prague was the seat of all that alchemy business, he moved the Habsburg capital from Vienna to Prague in 1583 - it was moved back after his death - and added to his collection of curiosities (things that were to-be-defined by science: think of them as the Renaissance version of Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not) with antiquities, sketches, "dragon" (dinosaur) bones, mermaids, and unicorns - whatever. Unfortunately, his cabinet(s) fell into disrepair and were looted some 50 years after his death. Certain collections survive in museums around Europe.

Myths surrounding Rudolf II still abound in Prague, including the Golem of Prague; the contemporary Czech artist/film maker Jan Svankmajer plays off of the creepy/occult traditions of Rudolf II for much of his work. I had the pleasure of seeing some of his stuff earlier this year at the Kunsthalle in Vienna.