Monthly Archives: September 2012

Farewell to ‘Farewell’

Turns out I have one thing in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We both started Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with high expectations and ended up bored and indifferent. The love affair with Catherine, like the battlefield romance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, was one of the least convincing things I’d read up to that point:

I thought the protagonist fell in love because the book required it, and I never got any firm picture of who Catherine Barkley actually was. The obvious contrast for me is Wharton’s Madame Olenska and Newland Archer, where you see two people falling in love out a kind of need. I don’t really believe in literary romance for romance’s sake. I think love comes from actual places.

Hemingway was the second Certified Great Author I took on as a teenager, after spending a summer and most of the fall reading my way through John Steinbeck. At the time, Hemingway and Steinbeck were often lumped together by reviewers and teachers, which was not simply a mistake but a crashingly obvious mistake I still can’t fathom. Steinbeck could be an astonishingly clunky stylist, but he created undeniably powerful work in a variety of modes: near-documentary realism with In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, mock epic with Tortilla Flat, magic realism with Cannery Row, allegory with The Wayward Bus, morality play with The Winter of Our Discontent. Hemingway crafted some of the most beautiful sentences ever set to paper, but he had only one mode, and while he could play it beautifully, in some of the later works — Across the River and Into the Trees anyone? Anyone? — he sounded like Vladimir Horowitz banging on “Chopsticks.”

Steinbeck was chiefly a novelist, though he could so fine work in short stories: see The Long Valley and the story-collection-as-novel The Pastures of Heaven, the book that shows him discovering his true narrative voice. Hemingway’s magic is in the short stories, not the novels.          

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Deja spew

It wasn’t all that long ago that a bunch of sleazy operators who claimed to have inside knowledge were telling us that Iraq was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. We all know how that one turned out, so it’s a little incredible to see Benjamin Netanyahu on the tube hawking almost the exact same script about Iran.

Because the neutered American media long ago surrendered their ability to subject this guff to actual analysis, I turn to this Mideast expert to provide some factual background and independent insight. Neocons may salivate whenever Bibi rings his bell — nothing gets their blood up like the prospect of dropping freedom bombs on Mideast countries — but the rest of us know we’ve heard it all before, and we’re not buying.  

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So much for that idea

I knew John Boorman was one of the parade of filmmakers who took a run at adapting The Lord of the Rings but I didn’t know the details of the script Boorman wrote. Apparently one of the high points of the Lothlorien sequence was Frodo getting it on with Galadriel:

United Artists (which acquired the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings from Tolkien before his death) originally was going to have John Boorman write and direct a film adaptation, but Boorman’s script confused the heck out of the studio. (Actually, with its Frodo/Galadriel love making scene, his script confuses the heck out of me as well.) And to make matters worse for United Artists, they had agreed to pay John $3 million for this badly written piece of garbage. As they were deciding whether to move forward or not, Ralph Bakshi (a big fan of Tolkien) approached them and asked the studio heads what they thought about having him direct three animated films that were closer to Tolkien’s original books. United Artists said that was fine, but they needed $3 million to cover the cost of throwing away Boorman’s script. At that point, Bakshi approached MGM (which wasn’t hard, because they shared the same building with United Artists) and MGM was so interested, they bought all the rights from United Artists for the $3 million, wiping UA’s books clean and taking on the project themselves with Bakshi as director. Unfortunately for Bakshi, the man who made that decision for MGM (Dan Melnick) was then fired, and the new guy (Dick Shepherd) didn’t want anything to do with Tolkien. That’s when Bakshi contacted Saul Zaentz, whom he had previously worked with, which led to Zaentz acquiring the movie rights from MGM and asking United Artists if they were still interested in doing the project. United Artists was back on board, and Bakshi ended up making the animated film that cost $4 million to produce and grossed $30 million. (Despite making money, neither Zaentz nor United Artists had any interest in a second or third part.)

Well now. I think we can agree that it’s just as well United Artists pulled the plug, even if it did lead to Ralph Bakshi’s inept and incomplete animated version. The daisy chain continued for another couple of decades and at the end waited Peter Jackson, so happy smiles all around.

Something just as ridiculous almost happened to Dune, another bulky classic that defeated a number of directors before making it to the screen. According to Harlan Ellison, the screenplay written by Alejandro Jodorowsky added an incestuous relationship between Paul Atreides and his mother. (That version, needless to say, was never made, but Jodorowsky had hired Swiss artist H.R. Giger for design work, and through him Giger met Ridley Scott, who used him on Alien, so once again happy smiles all around.) There must be a dumb screenwriter’s textbook somewhere that advises spicing up a difficult literary property with a sex scene between the two least likely characters. It’s been done over and over with Beowulf, and each time the screenwriter was convinced he’d concocted something outrageous and original. The saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” goes double for bad ideas.   

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The last big thing

When the first of three films based on The Hobbit opens in about two months, a certain number of theaters will show the movie at a speed of 48 frames per second — double the current standard of 24 frames per second. A preview of the 48-frame print drew a mixed response, though the problem could simply have been that the preview was too short to give eyes and minds the time to adjust to the higher resolution of the image. At any rate, I’ll be curious to see the new technique in action — though only after I’ve seen the film in the standard format.

Some of you may be old enough to remember Cinerama, a film technology introduced in the late 1950s that provided an overwhelming, immersive viewing experience. I’ve never seen a Cinerama film. I have vivid memories of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey during its initial late 1960s run in a cavernous New York theater. Though billed as a Cinerama show, the screening was actually in single-screen 70 mm instead of the three-screen process used for true Cinerama shows. I couldn’t have cared less at the time: 2001 in 70 mm blew my mind in every conceivable way. Seeing it in true Cinerama style probably would have altered the cellular structure of my brain.

Film historian and blogger David Bordwell talks about Cinerama in connection with the new Flicker Alley DVD release of This Is Cinerama, the demo film used to tout the wonders of the new technology. Film aficionado David Frohmaier has apparently come up with a display technique called Smilevision that puts across the three-screen effect while cleaning up some of the bugs that led to its abandonment.

Funny thing — one of the early shots in This Is Cinerama is a trip on a rollercoaster filmed from the front car. That reminded me of Brainstorm, a largely forgotten 1983 science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull, the magician behind the startling visuals in 2001. (It’s mostly remembered as Natalie Wood’s last film — she drowned during the production, and Trumbull had to fight to get the redone film released at all.) Trumbull had conceived the film, which is about the invention of a device that records thoughts and memories so others can experience them, as a showcase for his own Showscan technology, which would have projected the image at 60 frames per second. When the inventors prepare a mental “demo reel” of their own, it starts with a rollercoaster and other images that may have been Trumbull’s inside reference to This Is Cinerama. Talk about an in-joke! 

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All I can say about this article is: If somebody wants to throw me a hundred grand for an advance, I’ll deliver the manuscript early and bring a pizza.

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Drive, he said

Cosmopolis, an unreadable novel by Don DeLillo, has begotten a somewhat watchable film from David Cronenberg, which in turn has begotten a highly listenable soundtrack by Cronenberg’s longtime collaborator, Howard Shore. And I do mean “collaborator.” Cronenberg gave Shore his entree to film scoring with The Brood in 1979, and he’s used Shore’s music on all of his subsequent films except The Dead Zone.

Though there are plenty of long-running relationships between directors and composers — I’d be hard-pressed to think of a Steven Spielberg film that hasn’t been scored by John Williams — few compare with Cronenberg and Shore in terms of artistic quality. Alfred Hitchcock relied on Bernard Herrmann to give his films warmth and humanity, to the point that I’d give Bennie co-auteur status on just about all of Hitch’s certified great films. But Shore’s approach is more adaptive than Herrmann’s. His scores for Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash, for example, do not announce themselves as Shore’s work the way Vertigo, Marnie, and North by Northwest are instantly recognizable as Herrmann’s compositions. Shore is also exceptionally astute in his choice of collaborators. His use of Ornette Coleman makes Naked Lunch an exceptional soundtrack. The Lord of the Rings is a showcase for beautiful female voices, such as Aivale Cole, Isabel Bayrakadarian and Emiliana Torrini.

Shore’s work for Cosmopolis has some of the same metallic sheen as Crash (appropriately, since cars figure heavily in both flicks), but without the earlier film’s spiky menace. Shore wrote his music to be performed by Metric, a Canadian band with a bright, synthesizer-heavy sound that works for the protagonist’s disaffected mindset. Like the young financier in his stretch limo, the music combines forward motion with a sense of drifting. There are very few composers whose work I want to get even before the film comes out. Shore is one of them.

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The thriller of it all

All readers are critics, but not all readers (and definitely not all critics) are created equal. So when this reader-blogger offers a critique of a thriller, it’s useful to pay attention. I particularly liked this observation:

There are three ways to go with a thriller.  You can write what’s essentially a horror story.  You can tell a morality tale.  You can make it a comedy.  It seems like most contemporary thrillers—books and movies—are horror stories. The bad guys are monsters, inhumanly evil, irresistible, relentless, and possessed of an almost supernatural ability to cause harm and get away with it.  John D. McDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Robert B. Parker told morality tales. Most of the crimes in their novels arise from decent people’s moral failings rather than from the intrusion of an outside evil.

That certainly gets at the core of what I like most about John D. MacDonald’s novels. His Travis McGee books are not as consistent as, say, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport series, but the only out-and-out stinker of the series, The Green Ripper, goes wrong because MacDonald has his hero tangling with a terrorist cell disguised as a bizarre religious cult. (Great way for terrorists to avoid attention.) There’s also the tired device of having the hero out to avenge the murder of his beloved, but even that might have been less wheezy if MacDonald had kept his villains within the realm of crooked sheriffs, sleazy developers, petty mobsters, and rustic psychopaths — territory MacDonald made his own over the course of dozens of novels.

I’m not crazy enough to equate myself with MacDonald or any of the other authors in Lance Mannion’s piece, but my own fiction rests comfortably within his definition of a morality tale. I tend to nod off when reading about eeee-vil global conspiracies and bands of maniacs with Hitler’s head tucked away in the freezer. I like human-scaled heroes and villains, and I prefer the evil acts to arise from recognizable human-scale behavior.

That’s the case with my first novel, We All Fall Down, and it will be the case with my second, Echo, coming out in about ten months or so. But I’ll get back to that in due course.     

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Gone but not forgotten

Absentia, a horror film that made some waves on the festival circuit before going straight to a recent DVD release, is a very creepy little number. I don’t know where writer-director Mike Flanagan hails from, but his script reminded me of some of Ramsey Campbell’s best short stories in the way its horrors enter the story from an oblique angle while the characters, all of them immersed in their very human concerns, find ways not to acknowledge the very inhuman presence affecting them. The film creates a very believable group of wounded souls — a woman coming to terms with her husband’s disappearance, a bad-seed sister come back to make amends, a cop who takes entirely too close an interest in the wife’s situation — bound together by a tragedy caused by something they will understand too late, if at all.

The monster’s appearances are fleeting, and it is never seen fully. The film instead concentrates on the effect it has on its victims, and while the creature’s motives are never made clear, the film’s wrenching climax — set in a pedestrian tunnel that is beyond menacing — hints at truly inhuman loathsomeness. Everyone involved in this film (which was launched with the help of Kickstarter) should go on to better things, but this is a great start. I’m particularly interested in what Flanagan does next. All good horror stories are, at bottom, tragedies. Flanagan understands this, and that’s why Absentia keeps nibbling at the imagination long after showier horrors have faded from memory. 

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The Southern thing

The news that Lynyrd Skynyrd, the onetime standard-bearer for Southern rock, will no longer use the Confederate flag as the backdrop for its shows has sparked a very interesting discussion on the band’s website.

Though I can only laugh at Rossington’s statement that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” I can also sympathize with people who try to make symbols mean what they want them to mean. But when the commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans calls the NAACP  a hate group along with the Ku Klux Klan, that suggests something quite a bit nastier (or, at the very least, howlingly ignorant of history) is going on with the complainers.

It’s a fact that many Southern states only resurrected the Confederate flag in response to the civil rights movement. For a long time I had problems listening to Skynyrd’s signature song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” because the reference to George Wallace was so ambiguous. It took the Drive-by Truckers and their album Southern Rock Opera to get me to listen with fresh ears. Along with “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” posted above, the album has a song called “The Southern Thing” with these great lines:  

“You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright/ You wonder how I sleep at night/ Proud of the glory, stare down the shame/ The duality of the Southern Thing.”

Since I’ve spent my years living comfortably above the Mason-Dixon Line, there are probably lots of people who’ll say I have no busy chiming in on this argument. But since the flag represents a foreign nation that tried to rip our country apart, all to preserve a decadent society built on the sale and exploitation of human beings, I think we Northerners have the right to make our voices heard as well.

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