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.
(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?
Dylanologists rejoice! I've heard from a semi-reliable source that Renaldo and Clara, a much-discussed and little-seen 1978 epic film by Bob Dylan, will soon be finally released on DVD.
This astounding, rich and often frustrating movie represented one of the most dramatic episodes in Bob Dylan's long career. An ambitious, intentionally difficult postmodern art film, Renaldo and Clara was panned by critics for being pretentious, incomprehensible and painfully long (all of these things are true). Released in the early years of the punk-rock/new-wave era, the film's windy self-indulgence revealed Dylan as completely out of step with his times. Stung by the criticism, Dylan has refused to release the film ever since. It has not shown in theatres since the 1970s, and has never been officially released on VHS or DVD.
But this movie is a masterpiece in spite of its faults, or perhaps because of them. Conceived by Dylan as an early experiment in cinema verite (a genre now typically known as "reality tv"), Renaldo and Clara tells a single story but deliberately confuses the identities of all the characters, several of which are played by Dylan, his former lover Joan Baez or his then-wife Sara Dylan. Bob Neuwirth, T. Bone Burnette, Ronee Blakely, Mick Ronson, Scarlet Rivera, Ronnie Hawkins, Rob Stoner and countless other friends come along for the ride. Various improvised or real-life scenes introduce themes of love, politics and the meaning of America, and by the end none of the themes are easily resolved. The film quality is erratic, the direction is often unclear, and the acting is often clumsy (guitarist Mick Ronson is particularly wooden, and Dylan is no Brando himself)
However, stirring scenes and images emerge. Most importantly, the narrative scenes are intercut with stunning complete performances of great songs like Tangled Up In Blue, It Ain't Me Babe, Never Let Me Go, When I Paint My Masterpiece and One More Cup Of Coffee. The film features Dylan in a peak moment of live performance with the Rolling Thunder Revue (the largest and, in my opinion, most exciting band he ever played with).
It's getting to be around that time in December when I put up a wrap-up post and disappear for a week or two.
I stopped by the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City recently, and was once again energized (a visit always helps) by the spirit in that eclectic room. You know, some people have asked why I claim to be interested in poetry when I don't follow the lit journal/academic/prize scene at all. Well, the spoken word scene is quiet but very much alive. The poems are still good, the talent keeps renewing itself, and the format still works. I guess the reason I keep this Action Poetry thing still rolling on this site (it's been around since early 2001) is to try to capture some of that spoken word spirit here on this blog. Which is why I'm happy to announce the launch, on Thursday morning, of this year's Action Poetry Randomized Wrap-up. One poem per click, all the poems you can want (from the best ones posted this year), just like we always do at this time.
I reach the closing days of 2010 in a reflective mood; not exactly satisfied, not suffering either. Let's just say I feel optimistic about the year ahead. Here on Litkicks, I'm looking forward to continuing my weekend excursions into philosophy (and politics, psychology, sociology, religion, ethics and history). I'm also looking forward to continuing to work with the excellent gang of Litkicks contributors (you can see 8 of our best names in the "By Author" panel in the right sidebar, in case you haven't noticed) who will certainly help me stay on top of the literary news of the day in 2011. I'm always looking for new contributors, too, so get in touch if you'd like to be a part of Litkicks 2011.
I'm in a rush and don't have time to stir up my usual bucket of snarky literary muck today, but here are a few real quick links before I blow this popsicle stand and catch you in the new year.
1. My oldest daughter showed me this New York Times Book Review feature about what people read on the subway and said "don't you think it's cute?". Yeah, I said, and it was also cute two years ago when I thought of it first.
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!
It's almost 2011, and the Beat Generation is as hot a topic as ever. Especially when it comes to new movies. Here's the rundown:
1. Way back in 1952, long before Howl, long before On The Road, the phrase "Beat Generation" appeared for the first time in a New York Times Magazine Article by an up-and-coming New York City writer, John Clellon Holmes. Holmes, a good friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and a founding member of the original Beat circle in New York City, also wrote several novels that were respectably reviewed. But he lacked the charisma and theatricality of the later Beat writers, and struggled for literary success even as his friends reached explosive levels of fame.
It's only because of these legendary friends, and not because of his own fiction, that John Clellon Holmes merits an extensive literary biography by Ann and Samuel Charters today. Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation is unusual among literary biographies because its hero never had a breakout success. Instead, he filled out his career with dead end manuscripts, odd magazine assignments and college teaching jobs. In this sense, Brother-Souls is actually a more accurate glimpse of how most writers live than any typical biography of a famous writer. Still, mostly due to Ann and Sam Charters' obvious affection for their subject (who was their close friend), a poignant and meaningful storyline emerges. The most surprising chapters take place during the 1960s, when Holmes and his wife Shirley attempt to find their own inroads into the swinging counterculture by experimenting earnestly (and at a very intellectual level) with free love and group sex. These experiments failed more often than not, sometimes leaving deep psychic wounds behind, and the chronicles of these failures (which Holmes himself later tried to publish a book about) provide a new angle -- an Updikeean angle, surprisingly enough -- on the famous legend of the Beats. Brother-Souls, though clearly a labor of love by the Charters team, is a nice addition to their body of work (Ann Charters wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac, many decades ago).
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
1, Prompted by Tom McCarthy's trendy new novel C, AbeBooks presents a tableau of one-letter (or two-letter) books. It's a lot of fun to look at. Of course, I'm an old school techie, so to me C will always be the title of a classic book by Kernighan and Ritchie.
2. Those are the 26 letters of the alphabet in books, and here's the 50 states of the United States in movies. Some of these choices are superb, like Gummo for Ohio, Napoleon Dynamite for Idaho, The Wizard of Oz for Kansas, October Sky for West Virginia, Bull Durham for North Carolina and The Ice Storm for Connecticut. Taxi Driver is not a bad choice for New York, though I would prefer Goodfellas or The Godfather. But the map also misses a few. River's Edge is a better choice than First Blood for Washington, Angel Heart is better than Southern Comfort for Louisiana, Porky's is better than Scarface for Florida, and Ferris Bueller is better than The Blues Brothers for Illinois. I can think of plenty better choices for California -- I saw Fast Times For Ridgemont High, and didn't even know it was a California movie. Finally, Deliverance for Georgia? Nothing wrong with Deliverance, but there's this flick called Gone With The Wind ...
"Why the hell do I want to see a movie about Facebook?" a friend said about The Social Network, the new film about the geeky young entrepreneur who created Facebook. "Don't I get enough of it everywhere else?"
That might be the best reason not to see the movie, but it's quite a film, and possibly even a future classic (I bet it will get nominated for a few Academy Awards too). It's a serious movie that revolves around a moral question: what does it mean that everybody's favorite social network was built by an awkward, alienated college student who had lots of trouble making friends?
Those who resent Facebook's intrusion into our common privacy can enjoy some zuckerfreude here, because young Mark Zuckerberg's personality is splayed out in the most unflattering poses -- and yet he remains, in Jesse Eisenberg's deft impersonation, mostly charming and lovable. Unlike many of his fellow nerds who haunt the social circles around Harvard University during the movie's early scenes, skinny nervous Zuckerberg is naive but never quite shy. He has strange reservoirs of confidence, rooted perhaps in his mastery of Linux and Apache. He tries boldly to puzzle out the social codes -- attitude, style -- that lead to popularity on campus. But these are puzzles he can't seem to solve, and he is forced to face this uncomfortable truth repeatedly. The long journey of coding that ends with the creation of Facebook begins in a desultory dorm-room cloud of romantic misery after Zuckerberg's semi-girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him. Thus was Facebook born.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.