Being A Writer
(Please welcome a debut Litkicks piece by Michelle Glauser, who runs her own blog and describes herself as "a Mormon chocolate-lover who studied English at the University of Utah and American Studies at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where I focused on women's autobiographical writing and wrote a master's thesis on mommy blogging". -- Levi)
Have you ever found something in an old book that took you by surprise? It's not unusual to find a name or maybe even a phone number. Sometimes you'll find evidence that the book once belonged to a library. But extensive notes and criticism of an author as well-known as Edgar Allan Poe and his biographer? Maybe in a textbook. I certainly wasn't expecting what I recently found.
Here are three books I've recently enjoyed. I'll cover a couple more next week as well.
The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda
Chilean novelist and activist Luis Sepulveda lived through his nation's greatest political humiliation -- the overthrow of its democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende by rightists (backed by USA President Nixon's CIA) in September 1973 -- and now recalls that era in The Shadow of What We Were. This deceptively lighthearted comic novel presents a modern-day reunion of aging freedom-fighter heroes, fugitives, dreamers and organizers from 1973, now elderly men grown weak and bittersweet, gathering one last time to carry out a mission against the powers that still oppress them. Sepulveda skillfully balances the morose political overtones and deep sense of national loss with warm, wry dialogue and layered pop-culture references -- we catch glimpses of The Watchmen, Reservoir Dogs and The Magnificent Seven -- that point our attention to what has really conquered Chile since the days of Allende and Pinochet: western culture, and the complacent spirit of entertainment.
One of the final films to be released in 2010, True Grit has been a bit of a last minute surprise to many folk. First, True Grit has thrown critics for a curve. A heartfelt Christmas movie from the Coen brothers? Could it be? The movie seems a straightforward and unlikely foray into the Western genre by two filmmakers better known for darker, more comedic flicks like The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Second, it’s the Coen brothers’ most financially successful flick to date. Made on a budget of about $35 million (peanuts for a genre film: see Inception, which cost $160 million to make), the movie has already doubled the U.S. take of the Coen’s previously largest grossing film, the quasi-action flick No Country For Old Men, pulling in $165 million to date. True Grit, like many Oscar nominees this season, including The King’s Speech, is the smaller movie that could.
The Coen brothers have a devoted cult fan base and much critical successes. Now they have on their hands a veritable box office hit. What accounts for this movie’s huge breakout? And how far a departure for the Coen brothers is True Grit? Finally, is there any connection between these two things? Delving into the script—one of my favorites of the year—I look at some of the elements contributing to the film’s multiple levels of success.
Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?
When we think of the Oscars, we inevitably think of swelling music, the gutsy underdog of Slumdog Millionaire, the powerful real-life heroes of Gandhi or Schindler’s List, or even the ordinary heroes of Rainman and Forrest Gump. The Academy, or so the common wisdom goes, favors stories of truth, justice, and the noble, courageous way. And though Oscar heroes are also sometimes tragic or flawed, they are rarely as downright unsympathetic as the “hero” of The Social Network, a film that’s one of the frontrunners of the 2011 season.
Whatever you think of The Social Network’s ultimate chances at the Academy Awards, it’s generally conceded that it took kickass writing (not to mention top-of-the-game directing and fearless acting) for this story of an antihero to make it quite this far. Antiheroes pose a unique challenge for writers—and for audiences. How to imbue with sympathy a character we’re also asking viewers to dislike? In my second post on some of the screenwriting talent behind this year’s Oscar nominees (see here for previous post), I take a closer look at some of the techniques Aaron Sorkin uses to bring The Social Network’s antihero, Mark Zuckerberg, to vivid life.
POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
POLONIUS: What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET: Between who?
There's a whole lot of sarcasm in this 17-word exchange. The castle is in a crisis, the Prince's mental state is uncertain, and the King's elderly aide tries to calm the tension with a bit of small talk, querying the Prince about the book he's reading. When Polonius asks "What is the matter, my lord?" he's inquiring as to the plot of the book. But Hamlet pretends to misunderstand the question, and his cutting reply -- "Between who?" -- brings the conversation out of the ethereal realm of books and into the present moment. Where, of course, plenty is the matter.
(Dedi Felman, who has written previously here about the art of film adaptation, was particularly impressed with the way a screenwriter handled the challenges of a recently released historical film. Here's Dedi on The King's Speech, a new hit that's been generating a lot of Oscar nominations, and some controversy as well. -- Levi)
“Two men sitting in a room talking.” That’s how director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler described, in a recent post-screening talk, their marvel of a film, The King’s Speech. Hooper and Seidler even said that they cut back on some of the original script’s history and pageantry scenes (e.g. King George V's funeral) because they wanted to nudge us ever closer to the film’s heart: a stammerer and his speech therapist sitting around talking about how a would-be king can find his voice.
But how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking gripping? Especially if one of those men has a stammer and makes us “wait a long time” for the punchline to his jokes? And how does one create even a modicum of suspense in a story of a family about whom the basic facts are part of the history books? The wartime broadcasts that lie at the core of this story made a huge impression on their listeners and so, spoilers or no, many audience members are aware that George VI does make it through the speech. Similarly, Edward’s deliciously scandalous abdication on account of an American divorcee is common lore. So we know a great deal going in. Yet we're still completely drawn into Bertie's plight. Will he find his voice?
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!
(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh's memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. -- Levi)
Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?
The folks who run a weekly radio show called Cityscape at WFUV in New York City kindly invited me to read from a piece I'd written many years ago, The Bridges of New York City, from my 1995 fictional folk-rock record album Queensboro Ballads, for an episode of their show devoted to, well, the bridges of New York City. The show aired this morning, and you can listen to the podcast here.
I was particularly glad they'd aptly dug up this old piece of mine for this show, because at the time I wrote it The Bridges of New York City represented an important step forward in the evolution of my writing. After I created Literary Kicks in 1994 I began doing a lot of writing about literature and, as the website became popular, found myself widely read for the first time in my life. But I had an urge at this point to try something different. I wanted to write about my beliefs, about the philosophy of my life; I wanted to preach.