Monday, October 20, 2014

Kael and Greene at the movies

I happened to be rereading Pauline Kael's Taking It All In, a 1984 collection of her film reviews from The New Yorker, at the same time I was working my way through The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories. Kael was a professional movie critic, while Greene was a novelist who supported himself by writing about movies on the side.The reviews in these two books appeared nearly 50 years apart. Kael's reviews are longer, better written and more interesting than Greene's, yet I was struck by how often comments written by one sound like they could have been written by the other.

Greene writes that Kay Frances in The White Angel (1936) is "handicapped by her beauty." About Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) he says, "she toted a breast like a man totes a gun." He writes about the "fragile, pop-eyed acting of Miss Bette Davis" in The Sisters (1938). All these phrases sound, at least to me, like something Kael might have written.

Greene's frank commentary about female stars once got him in serious trouble. Writing about Shirley Temple, then just 8 or 9 years old, in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Greene said, in part, "Her admirers -- middle-aged men and clergymen -- respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." His review led to a libel suit again Greene and his publication, Night and Day, which the defendants lost.

One surprise in the two books is that Greene, a novelist himself, has much less to say about the novels from which movies were adapted than does Kael. In most cases Greene gives no clue that he has read the book in question, even when it happens to be a popular book of the day, such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon, while Kael time and again makes it obvious she has read the novel and knows what changes were made to turn it into a movie. She writes, for example, "E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime was already a movie, an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds -- figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams, and history, all tossed together." Writing about Sophie's Choice in 1982, she says, "(Author William) Styron got his three characters so gummed up with his idea of history that it's hard for us to find them even imaginable." Thus her film reviews become, at times, literary reviews as well. I don't find that kind of literary analysis in Greene's reviews, although to be fair he apparently had much less space to work with in Night and Day and other publications than Kael had in The New Yorker.

By the way, Kael reviewed Sophie's Choice in the same issue she reviewed Tootsie and Gandhi. Guess which one she liked best? Tootsie. She disliked both of the other films. Kael, like Greene, didn't write favorably about films just because they were serious movies that critics were expected to like, even if the general public didn't. The movies they liked and hated can be quite surprising, which is one reason both collections remain worth reading.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Generically kind

On the way home, she varied her route and passed St. Mary's. She had attended once or twice after they moved here, and people were generically kind. Her preferred brand of kindness, truth to tell.
Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

Sometimes I think adjectives and adverbs get a bad rap. Beginning writers are urged to go easy on their modifiers and focus instead on precise nouns and strong verbs to carry their sentences. "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say in The Elements of Style. "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That seems like good advice for writers,  yet when I read the short passage above from Laura Lippman's novel I'd Know You Anywhere, the two words that jump out at me are "generically kind," an adverb and an adjective. It would take a lot of nouns and verbs to create the image Lippman creates with those two descriptive words.

You need not attend church to know the kind of people Lippman writes about. These are the people who shake your hand without actually looking at your face. They say, "We're glad you could be with us this morning," without giving any evidence they mean it or will remember your name if you return next Sunday. We find generically kind people working in restaurants and shops all the time. They say their polite words and phrases as if they have memorized a script, giving no indication of sincerity.

What Lippman calls generic kindness beats no kindness at all, and is certainly better than rudeness. Yet unlike the character in her novel, most of us would probably prefer a bit more genuine kindness in our daily lives.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mystery in Algonquin Bay

The assumed suicide that turns out not to be a suicide at all has become something of a cliche in murder mysteries, yet there is nothing in By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt that reads like something you've read before. The suicide in this 2006 novel happens to be that of Catherine, the beloved, manic-depressive wife of Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police Department in Canada. If you have read earlier stories in the series you will know Catherine has been in and out of hospitals because of her severe depression. Yet at other times she is a gifted photographer and a loving wife and mother.

When her body is found to have fallen from a tall building where she was taking pictures at night and a suicide note in her handwriting is found as well, the conclusion seems obvious. Yet Cardinal, though he is placed on leave, won't let it rest. He discovers the suicide note was written weeks before Catherine's death and bears someone's fingerprints other than her own.

Meanwhile Sgt. Lisa Delorme, one of Cardinal's colleagues on the force, is assigned to a child pornography case. Evidence suggests the photographs were taken in the Algonquin Bay area. Amazingly, the pornography case and Catherine's apparent suicide have a thin connection to one another.

This novel by the Canadian author, whose books are not as readily available in the U.S. as I would like, makes riveting reading from beginning to end, which is somewhat surprising in that Blunt, unlike most mystery writers, gives the surprises away early. Readers know what happened and who's responsible long before Cardinal and Delorme do. Yet revealing the killer at the beginning of each episode never prevented Columbo from becoming one of the most popular TV detectives ever. Perhaps Giles Blunt is a fan.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Where the words came from

That the origins of so many English words can be traced back to the individuals who coined them or, at least propelled them into the English vocabulary, was what I found most interesting about the Henry Hitchings book I wrote about last Friday, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

Thanks to Chaucer we have such words as intellect, galaxy, famous, bribe, accident, magic, resolve, moral, refresh and resolve.

John Lydgate gave us opportune and melodious. Bible translator John Wyclif was responsible for chimera, civility, puberty and alleluia. Ben Jonson brought strenuous, retrograde and defunct into the language. Sir Philip Sidney produced hazardous, loneliness and pathology. John Skelton introduced idiocy and contraband.

Robert Burton, the 17th century scholar, gave us electricity, therapeutic and literary. Novelist Fanny Burney is credited with grumpy, shopping and puppyish. Lawrence Sterne brought lackadaisical, muddle-headed and sixth sense into the vocabulary. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized cavern, chasm, tumult and honeydew. Thank Sir Walter Scott for blackmailawesome, gruesome, guffaw, faraway and uncanny.

As I've suggested, these people did not necessarily invent all these words. In many cases, they may have heard words in conversation that they then incorporated into their own writing, or they may have even seen these words used in books that have not survived. In other cases, they borrowed words from other languages and simply made English words out of them. That these people have so many words accredited to them has a lot to do with how prominent and influential the literature produced by them was in their own time and since. Many people create words that die on the vine simply because they are not written down or, if they are, they are written in literature that generates little attention and does not pass the test of time.

Even the words introduced by the above individuals did not always gain acceptance with the public. Skelton, for example, called a clumsy person a knucklybonyard and a fool a boddypoll. Perhaps it's a good thing the influence of him and the others went only so far.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The spread of English

It is a language nobody owns.
Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Henry Hitchings makes this comment near the end of his 2008 book The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. He is speaking about the spread of the English language around the world so that far more people speak English as a second language than as their primary language. Travelers who speak only English can travel just about anywhere in the world and find some native they can communicate with. The language, as its name suggests, may have originated in England, but the English have not actually owned their language for a long time.

Hitchings doesn't say so, but nobody owns the Spanish or French languages either. Just as English spread in previous centuries thanks to conquest and colonization, so Spain and France spread their languages far and wide. Today Spanish is spoken throughout most of South and Central America, and thanks to immigration, legal and otherwise, in many parts of North America. French is the primary language in Quebec and in a few other parts of the world heavily influenced by France.

Most languages tend to be confined almost exclusively to the lands or regions where they originated. As Hitchings observes, if you hear people talking in Polish, chances are they are from Poland.

There were about 6,900 languages spoken in the world at the time Hitchings wrote his book, but hundreds of them have become extinct since then. "Realistically, fifty years from now the world's 'big' languages may be just six: Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic and English," the author writes. Of these, only the last two, Arabic and English, have "significant numbers of non-native speakers," according to Hitchings. Converts to Islam must learn Arabic, while persons around the world are learning English for reasons of business, technology and entertainment.

As English spreads, it continues to gobble up words from other languages, claiming them as its own. The apt word Hitchings uses to describe the language is "omnivorous."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

One step further

Christopher Guest in Best in Show
Christopher Guest's idea of comedy is reality plus "one step further." In his movie comedies, the reality is just as important as that one step further. He wants the characters portrayed in his films to seem just like the people one might actually find at a dog show or at a reunion of folk singers from another era. They are just a wee bit off center, like the travel agent couple in Waiting for Guffman who have, with one small exception, never left the town they live in, or the dog owner in Best in Show who keeps encountering former lovers she had before she became happily married.

John Kenneth Muir's book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, reflects on the making of those two movies, plus A Mighty Wind. The book was published in 2004, before the release of For Your Consideration.

Guest doesn't like the term "mockumentary" to describe his films because he thinks that suggests he uses the films to mock dogs shows, folk singers and small-town people with aspirations for Broadway. He prefers calling them comedies done "in a documentary style." Muir uses "mockumentary" anyway, and I think he is justified in doing so. First, the word has become widely used in reference to Guest's comedies. Second, the term means not just belittling or making fun of something, but also imitating something, such as a mock battle or mock turtle soup. Guest's movies play like true documentaries, but with that one step further that makes them great comedies.

Guest's screenplays are much shorter than the screenplays for most movies simply because he omits all dialogue. He chooses actors such as Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch and Fred Willard who have great improvisational skills. Then Guest just sets the scene, starts the cameras rolling and lets the actors make it up as they go along. Most of this footage never sees the screen. The editing process can take more than a year. In the case of Best in Show, 60 hours film was trimmed into an 84-minute movie. For A Mighty Wind, Guest cut 80 hours down to 90 minutes. Sometimes the funniest scenes don't make the final cut simply because Guest decides they are not necessary to tell his story.

I read this book over several days, and in the evenings I watched yet again the three Guest films Muir writes about. I have always liked Best in Show best because it is the funniest, and I liked it best again this time. Yet Muir makes a good case that A Mighty Wind may actually be the best movie, "the apex of the director's career." It may not be the funniest, but it has more heart and it ultimately tells the best story.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Saying a lot in a few words

Billboards along highways may have less than a second to get their message across, depending upon how fast vehicles are moving and how long drivers are willing to take their eyes off the road. Most billboards are too wordy and their words too small for drivers to read everything, assuming they even want to. Thus a billboard's effectiveness depends upon a visual image and a slogan or key phrase that says a lot in a brief glance. Here are a few slogans I've noticed on billboards near my Ohio home:

Where Friends Collide

Thankfully this slogan refers to a downtown restaurant, not to the stretch of highway where the billboard is located. Even so, the mental image the word collide suggests is not one that makes me eager to visit that particular restaurant. Certainly the restaurant could have found a better word.

Plant the Science of Tomorrow Today

This billboard promotes a seed company and is addressed to farmers, although since it is located on a stretch of highway connecting two cities, I am not sure its location is ideal, even though the road carries a lot of traffic. The slogan seems like a good one though.

Pick Your Passion

An auto dealership has this billboard, and that phrase sounds like it would be effective. I suspect buying a vehicle for most people has more to do with passion than practicality.

Hire Us BEFORE Your Spouse Does

That's all one has to read to know the people shown on the billboard are divorce lawyers.  If you are in the business of promoting the breakup of marriages, I guess that is as good a slogan as you could find.

Feel the Power of Massive Interest ... 1.77%

That bank billboard just makes me laugh.

You Get Paid, We Get to Crush Stuff ... Win Win

This billboard for a recycling company may be my favorite, even if it may be a bit wordy for most people to safely read at 55 mph.