Friday, February 28, 2014

Movie Week: Symbolism

With movies, as with novels, one can enjoy the story without understanding the symbolism, or even being aware of any symbolism. Yet stories become richer when one finds deeper meanings in them, even if these are not necessarily the same meanings the director (or writer) had in mind.

Lately I've been reading James Mottram's book The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind (2000), which discusses symbolism in the first eight films made by Joel and Ethan Coen. Much of what Mottram writes strikes me as pretentious nonsense, as when he says of The Big Lebowski, "The fact that the Coens have set the film primarily in a bowling alley symbolises the lethargy of the masses."

Yet I was rather taken by what he has to say about their 1990 film, Miller's Crossing.

I have loved Miller's Crossing since the first time I watched it, yet I doubt I could give you a synopsis of the story even 10 minutes after watching it, let alone a month later. It's a confusing gangster movie in which somebody is constantly betraying somebody else. Yet the images, the music, the striking scenes and terrific acting make me want to return to the film again and again. But what does it all mean?

Mottram suggests we watch the hats. The story is set decades ago when men wore hats. The Coens have stated that the idea for the movie started with the image of a hat blowing in the wind, and we see that image in the film. That hat means more than we might think.

"Tom (the main character played by Gabriel Byrne) remains the most intelligent of the characters, again reflected by his attachment to his hat," Mottram writes. "It acts as a holster for the film's most powerful weapon -- the brain. Those without one -- characters outwitted by those of a superior intelligence -- are the ones to be dispatched."

The story becomes one of conflict not just between rival gangs but between Tom's head and his heart. He acts one way, with different priorities, when he wears his hat and another way when he does not. When ruled by his heart, he becomes more human, but also more vulnerable.

Now I am eager to watch Miller's Crossing yet again so I can watch the hats.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Movie Week: Credits

"They worship these old houses. They're people down here that spend every cent they've got to keep up these old mausoleums. And, of course, there isn't a single plaque anywhere with the names of the people who actually built them."
Ellen Gilchrist, The Annunciation

Most of us in this world get little credit for what we contribute to it. Not only don't carpenters, masons, plumbers and electricians get their names on the buildings they build, as Amanda McCamey observes in Ellen Gilchrist's novel, but workers in most other fields go unheralded. There are exceptions. Some people, like clerks and nurses, wear nametags. Bank tellers usually have their names at their windows. Journalists have bylines. Even so, most workers are nameless most of the time.

It's not that way in Hollywood.

When the credits start rolling at the end of a movie, patrons usually get up to leave. The names are often too small to read, even on a big screen, and move by too quickly to read anyway. Yet I am glad those names are there and will be attached to movies they had a part in making for as long as those movies are shown. It may not be immorality, but it's close.

In the early days of film, credits didn't amount to much. Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, made in 1921, listed only the main cast at the beginning of the picture. At the end, it simply said "The End." Gradually movies had more credits added at the beginning, generally just the major contributors. The opening credits for Ben-Hur, made in 1959, lasted a couple of minutes, but there was just "The End" at the end. Some films, like 1947's Life with Father, repeated the names of cast members at the end.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point the credits moved to the back of movies. Some modern films, in fact, don't even give the title of the film until the end. Other films list the major stars and the key people involved in the production at the beginning, then repeat those names along with the names of everyone else even remotely involved at the end.

Modern pictures often have curious and confusing credits like these at the beginning of Life of Pi (2012):

Fox 2000 Pictures presents

in association with Dune Entertainment

and Ingenious Media

a Haishang Film/Gil Netter production

an Ang Lee film

Obviously there are a lot of fingers in the pie, each sharing the credit (and profit) or blame (and losses).

End credits last several minutes in today's movies, and hundreds of names go by during that time. Many of the jobs people get credit for performing have been around for decades, like gaffer, best boy, electrician and so forth. Others seem really strange. Life of Pi lists credits for Swing Gang, Prosthetics Sculptor, Data Wrangler and Cleaning Assistant. True Grit (2010) lists Table Person, Ager/Dyer, Mechanical Horse Effects, Corpse Creation/ Effects Make-up, The New Duke, Lead Green, Greens and one called Serious Matters. The King's Speech (2010) has credits for Floor Runner, Camera Trainee, Costume Standbys, Armourer and Walkie-Talkies.

Watching the credits can actually be fun, and it can really be rewarding if you recognize any of those names. The son of a former editor of mine went to Hollywood after college and got involved in animation. He was one of those involved in producing the detailed hair seen on the creatures in Monsters Inc. When my wife and I watched that movie, we made it a point to stay for the credits so we could see the name of this man I had known when he was a little boy. Imagine the thrill that name in the credits must have given his parents and others who know him and love him. You can multiply that love for each of the many names in those endless movie credits.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Movie Week: Adaptation

To award the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, as will be done in a few days, judges should properly not just watch the nominated films but also read the novels or plays from which the screenplays were adapted. I wonder how many of the judges actually do that. For some, I suspect, just watching all the nominated movies would be a challenge. But how can one determine the best adaptation without being familiar with what the screenplays were adapted from?

Most of us have said at one time or another that a movie isn't as good as the book. Sometimes the movies are actually better (The Godfather, perhaps), but in most cases the novels really are superior. There are reasons for that. Authors can describe characters' feelings and impressions that can be difficult, if not impossible, to translate onto film. A writer can take as many pages as needed to tell a complex story. A film director is expected to tell the same story in two hours or less. Screenwriters hired to adapt a novel for the screen must decide how much of the plot and how many of the characters they can cut out and still have a story that makes sense. For those adapting a play, the big challenge may be turning it into a movie that isn't as static or as talky as a play.

I was reminded of just how difficult adaptation must be when a couple of weeks after reading Elizabeth George's novel In the Presence of the Enemy (1996) I watched on DVD the BBC adaptation shown on PBS as part of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries a decade ago. Had I watched the TV episode without first reading the novel, I probably would have thought it pretty good. I might even have enjoyed it had I waited a year or more before watching it. But the novel was too fresh in my mind and I seemed to focus more on what had been changed than on the story itself.

George's novel is more than 600 pages long. This had to be squeezed into one 90-minute episode. Obviously a great deal of the main plot, many of the subplots and quite a number of characters had to be eliminated. The novel was written before cell phones were in common use, and a character's isolation at the climax of the story required that she be unable to call for help. The TV version, made just a few years later but after police officers began using cell phones, required a reasonable explanation for her phone not to work, which the screenwriter had to work into the story.

Thomas Lynley, the main character in most of George's novels and on the TV series, is little more than a supporting character in this particular story. So in adapting the novel, the scriptwriter had to find ways to work him into scenes where he wasn't originally present.

I still wouldn't vote to give any awards for the adaptation of this particular book, but understanding some of the challenges faced in the adaptation at least helps me appreciate the work. I do hope the judges of best adapted screenplay understand and appreciate the work that went into the scripts for Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street. The Oscar should not go to the best movie of these nominees but to the screenplay that did the best job of turning a book into a movie.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Not so special

By repeating that special twice, Carver manages to breathe new freshness and vigor into a word that has, by now, been blunted out of meaning.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

As Francine Prose suggests, words can, like knives or toothpicks, become blunted through use. The more we use them, the less powerful their meaning. I have written in the past how the word horrendous, heard so often in the days following 9-11 and since, may no longer be adequate for future disasters. Like the words terrible and horrible, it ceases to carry the punch it once did. It has become blunted. If a flat tire on the way home from work can be horrendous, then you need something stronger to describe a massacre.

Most capable writers refrain from using the same word twice in the same paragraph, and certainly not in the same sentence. That Raymond Carver uses special twice in consecutive sentences in his short story Feathers, as Prose points out, serves to bring some attention to the bland word, to give it a little zing. Most of us try to do that, less successfully, by using phrases like "very special" or "truly special." Carver does it by breaking the unwritten rule about repetition.

Repetition didn't help my pastor last Sunday. He must have used the word special eight or 10 times during the service. Had I known how often he would say the word I would have kept count. Each time he said it the word became less sharp, less meaningful. If this Sunday is special and last Sunday was special and, presumably, next Sunday will be special, then what does special mean anyway?

I was reminded of a couple of songs, first the Ray Stevens recording with the line "Everything is beautiful in its own way." There may, in fact, be a bit of truth there, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that. Yet if everything is beautiful, what word do we use to describe rainbows and Bryce Canyon? We don't need the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition to let us know that some people are more beautiful than others.

The second song comes from Gilbert and Sullivan. The line goes, "If everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody." It's like when you are given a certificate just for showing up or get a prize just for playing the game. If, as in Lake Wobegon schools, all the children are above average, then average has lost all its meaning. Everything and everybody can't be special. Each can be unique and each can have value, but they can't all be special or special becomes meaningless.

My wife received a card with the words "Special Valentine" on the cover. It was from one of her female friends, certainly not from me. I tend to recoil every time I see a greeting card containing the word special. With special needs, special education and Special Olympics, a grandchild, niece or nephew might actually be insulted to be called special. Mostly the word just sounds trite to me, never mind how it may sound to the person receiving the card.

So what does one do? It is probably too late to rescue the word. We can look for substitutes like extraordinary or exceptional, although they too have been dulled by overuse. At the very least we can try to reserve our use of the word for, well, special occasions.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Shopping by genre

Searching for a copy of  Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber, the second novel in her Outlander series, in a used paperback store, I was unsure where to look. I knew the books were romances, so should I look for it in that category? But they are also historical fiction, set mostly in the 18th century, so should I look there? The novels have to do with time travel, so perhaps I would find the book in science fiction or fantasy. Striking out, I finally asked the proprietor for help. She suggested I try paranormal romances. Paranormal romances? I would have never guessed. I didn't even know such a genre existed.

I can understand why booksellers divide fiction according to genre. Many people walk into a bookstore knowing exactly what kind of novel they want to read, a mystery  or a western perhaps, and so they can go directly to the genre they seek without having to wade through a lot of novels they would never want to read. I suppose that's a good thing, yet such readers are likely to miss something good when they shop this way.

Recently I finished reading two books, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver and Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, that readers who shop by genre might miss. Stephenson's novels always seemed to be classified as science fiction, yet Quicksilver is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Much of the story has to do with Isaac Newton and other early scientists, but still it seems like a stretch to term it science fiction. Meanwhile Russell's short story collection, to be found with the general fiction, would delight many science fiction readers. These are fanciful tales about bizarre worlds, such as the title story about daughters of werewolves sent to a school where nuns try to turn them into ladies. Sci-fi fans who can't get through Stephenson's massive novel, the first book in a trilogy, mighty enjoy Russell's book, if they are lucky enough to find it. Meanwhile those who love good historical fiction may never come across Quicksilver because they will be looking in the wrong place.

Because of the success of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, all of Alexander McCall Smith's books are likely to be found in the mystery section. Yet even his "detective" novels barely qualify as mysteries, and the 44 Scotland Street books certainly don't.

What's to be done? Forgetting about genres altogether would probably be too much to ask. Too many people go genre-shopping to find the books they like or to avoid those they don't like. Booksellers, however, should stop thinking that any book must be shelved in one place or another. Why not both? Why not shelve Dragonfly in Amber with the romances, the paranormal romances, the historical novels, science fiction and, yes, general fiction? That way everyone who might want to read it should be able to find it with ease.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Like another language

After my grandmother died, my mother found letters that had been sent from Poland many years previously. Mom had spoken Polish as a child, but she never learned to read the language. She asked an older relative to translate the letters for her. Grandma had come to America alone when she was 16, settling in Toledo. She never saw her family again. The letters, which had petered out after a few years, were from them.

Much more recently, my wife read some letters sent to her own parents over the years. They were all handwritten in English and, for the most part, easy in read. Yet it occurred to me that, for so many young Americans, family letters like these would be unreadable. Like my mother they would need someone older to read them for them, someone to explain what they said.

Cursive writing is a dying discipline in public schools. State tests don't require it and most people no longer need it in their daily lives, so schools don't see a need to teach it. Last weekend my sister told me about her experiences registering voters in Minnesota. The law requires prospective voters to sign their names, but teenagers registering to vote for the first time often didn't know how to sign their names. She had been given no guidance as to how to handle this situation, but she knew she could accept an X for illiterate voters, so why not a printed name for those who were literate but didn't know how to sign their names? She asked the teens to print their names just as they appear on their driver's licenses.

I should be the last person to lament the failure of schools to teach cursive writing. I hate to write in cursive and always have. Even I can't read what I write. My printing is not much better. I love keyboards.

In fact, I credit the typewriter with making a writer out of me. Through eight years of elementary school, I hated writing and had no clue I might be any good at it. My teachers certainly gave no indication that I had any ability in this area. Early in the summer after eighth grade, my parents returned from a shopping trip with a portable typewriter, and my life changed almost immediately. I loved watching words appear in type, but I had no interest in copying somebody else's words. I wanted to see my own words appear on paper. So I became a writer. By the end of the summer I was turning out stories, poems and even a weekly satirical newspaper, all typed on that Smith-Corona. My ninth-grade English teacher praised my work. Yet I continued to struggle with in-class essays right through college. I would have loved to have been able to use a computer in class.

I might as well have never learned to write in cursive, but I certainly am glad I learned how to read it.

The Tampa Bay Times recently reported on a cake decorator in Tampa who writes beautifully in cursive. Yet she must reconsider when her cakes are intended for children because so many of them now can't read a simple Happy Birthday! when it's written in cursive. It's like another language.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The missing The

Years before I joined the copy desk at the News Journal in Mansfield, Ohio, I overheard a discussion (more accurately, an argument) over the title of J.D. Salinger's greatest book. Eileen, the chief copy editor, insisted the correct title was Catcher in the Rye, not The Catcher in the Rye. Other copy editors disagreed. This was long before it became possible to simply find a cover of the book on the Web to quickly settle the debate, but I went home that night and located my paperback copy. Later I quietly informed Eileen that the title of the novel is The Catcher in the Rye, and the argument was settled, even if not for all times and in all places.

When I watched the documentary on Salinger on PBS a few weeks ago, I noticed that about half the time his novel was called The Catcher in the Rye and about half the time it was just Catcher in the Rye. The novel is mentioned several times in A Passion for Books, a collection of essays, lists and even cartoons on the subject of literature. In an essay about the Book-of-the-Month Club, Al Silverman calls it Catcher in the Rye. So do the book's editors, Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, when they list the 15 books they would want to memorize in a Fahrenheit 451 kind of world. In the Modern Library list of the 20th century's best novels in English, the title has the The. It also does in Jonathan Yardley's list of 10 books that shaped American character.

I have no idea why this particular book, more so than most others with a title that begin with The, has generated so much confusion. It is certainly not the only one, however. Is the correct title of Mark Twain's greatest novel Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Actually it is neither. The original title was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though Twain's companion novel is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In this case, however, you can't look at a copy of the book to settle the matter because some editions of the novel have the The and some don't.

Then there's the question of whether Herman Melville's greatest novel has a hyphen or not. Is it Moby-Dick or Moby Dick? Again, you can find it both ways on book covers. It properly has the hyphen. Actually, the correct title is Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Hardly anyone uses the full title, however. Copy editors may be sticklers for accuracy, but there are limits.

At one time it was the fashion for novels to have very long titles such as The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. I am quite willing to call Daniel Defoe's book simply Robinson Crusoe, even while insisting upon The Catcher in the Rye.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Heroic Poles

As much as I enjoyed Lily Brett's novel Too Many Men when I read it two or three years ago, I was bothered by how Brett, or at least her main character, portrays Poles as willing collaborators with the Germans in the attempted eradication of Polish Jews. Ruth Rothwax, who returns to the country where so many of her family members died during World War II, finds as much hatred for Jews as ever. She seems to blame the Poles more than she does the Nazis.

My maternal grandparents immigrated from Poland. I don't believe such things as bigotry and hatred are passed down through blood or genes, and I didn't care for the novel's suggestion that Poles are, by nature, evil.

Diane Ackerman sets the record straight in her work of nonfiction, The Zookeeper's Wife (2007). When the Germans began rounding up Polish Jews, a great many Polish Catholics placed their own lives in jeopardy by protecting their Jewish neighbors until the war ended. Her story focuses on Antonia Zabinski, the wife of a Warsaw zookeeper, who hid a number of Jews on the grounds of the zoo while Jan, her husband, fought with the Polish underground. The whole family, including two children, survived the war, as did all but a couple of the Jewish guests who passed through their property on their way to safety.

The fact that Antonia had two small children, one of them born during the war, makes her heroism seem all the greater. It's one thing to risk your own life to save others, but to risk the lives of your children seems almost foolhardy. Only someone who believed strongly in the rightness of her actions would do such a thing. And Antonia, according to the journal she kept during that harsh period, had many friends who were doing the same thing.

Ackerman wrote an inspiring book that deserves to stand with Schindler's List. It's full of wonderful little moments that take the reader back to that time and place. One of oddest finds Antonia visited by a German officer who, spying a piano in her home, asks her to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" while he sings along.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tribute writers

A Mamas and Papas tribute band
The Tampa Bay area offers many opportunities for live, big-name entertainment. Major venues in Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg attract some of the best acts you will find anywhere. Then there's little Largo Community Center, an attractive theater in a city park that books lesser acts like Jane Monheit, people who were once big names but aren't anymore like the former lead singer for Men at Work and mostly nameless entertainers who "pay tribute" to big names of the past by singing their songs and copying their costumes and styles.

Lately the tributes have been to the likes of the Mamas and the Papas, ABBA and Louis Armstrong. I confess to once attending a tribute to Jimmy Buffett, not in Largo but back in Ohio, but as a rule I avoid tribute bands. When I want to hear ABBA, I put on an ABBA album. I'm not interested in paying money to hear somebody else pretending to be ABBA.

I feel much the same way about what I think of as tribute writers, those people who, after the deaths of popular authors, continue writing books in the same style and using the same characters. The other day at Barnes & Noble I noticed Robert B. Parker's Bull River by Robert Knott and Robert Ludlum's The Arctic Event by James H. Cobb on the shelves. There are still plenty of Parker and Ludlum novels I have yet to read. Why would I want to read these imitations?

In a way, these "tribute novels" don't really pay tribute to dead authors at all. If Robert Knott and James H. Cobb, among others, can write like Robert B. Parker and Robert Ludlum, then maybe what Parker and Ludlum did wasn't so special after all. Maybe any competent writer could have written the same books.

Sebastian Faulks
Just as I once attended a tribute concert, so I once read a tribute novel, a James Bond adventure called Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks. I enjoyed the book, although my reason for reading it had more to do with my interest in Sebastian Faulks than my interest in James Bond. I have often been tempted to read Mark Winegardner's take on Mario Puzo's Godfather characters, The Godfather Returns, although again I am more interested in Winegardner than in the Godfather. I would like to know how a man who grew up in northwestern Ohio, as I did, handles the Italian mafia.

Why would quality writers like Faulks and Winegardner stoop to writing tribute novels? Probably for the same reason William Faulkner wrote Hollywood screenplays. Serious novels usually don't make all that much money.

Undoubtedly there have been more Sherlock Holmes stories written by writers other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than were ever written by him. Do they really pay tribute to Doyle and Holmes, or are they, like the various tribute bands, just trying to cash in on somebody else's success?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

E.B. White on reading

Michael Sims
I am not quite finished with E.B. White, about whom I have written in a couple of recent posts. The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims, in addition to the comments by White about writing that I wrote about last week, contains some of his observations about reading. Here are two I would like to reflect upon.

1. "He (White) once described Walden as the only book he 'owned,' that others merely lived with him," Sims writes.

Others of us might put it a little differently. Some of us might say that we own some books, while certain other books own us. Others of us might say that most of our books are just temporary visitors, while others are permanent residents. Or we might say that some books are our friends, while others merely acquaintances.

However we think about it, all books are created equal, but some books, to paraphrase George Orwell, are more equal than others. Certain books speak to us in a way that others do not. Rebecca Mead has a new book called My Life in Middlemarch about her lifelong fascination with the George Eliot novel. There are probably many books in Mead's personal library. Middlemarch is the one she owns, the one that owns her, the one that's a permanent resident or, if you prefer, the one that is her best friend.

Most serious readers have books like that, likely books we found magical in our youth and that remain so years, even decades, later. I know I do.

2. White once described his feelings about visiting a bookstore as "the terrible excitement of so great a concentration of books in one place under one roof, each book wanting the completion of being read."

That partial sentence contains three ideas worth a comment:

The terrible excitement: Some people feel excitement when entering a clothing store, an electronics store, a casino, a ballpark, whatever. For book lovers, that excitement comes in bookstores and, perhaps, libraries. We probably even feel it when surrounded by our own home library.

So great a concentration of books in one place: Here's one reason for that excitement. Small bookstores can be wonderful, especially when they hold books you can't find everywhere else, but there's something compelling about large bookstores, those places where you can't possibly see everything in one visit. Like the stars in the night sky, all these books overwhelm us and leave us with a sense of awe.

Each book wanting the completion of being read: I like this idea, that no book can really be completed until it is read, and not just read by somebody else but by you. Each of us completes the writing of a book by reading it. Writers, like singers, dancers or actors, need their audience for completion.

Monday, February 3, 2014

No adjustment needed

Among the many charms of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels are the names Smith gives to the businesses in Botswana. Many of these find their ways into his titles, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency being but one of them. Among others are The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Miracle at Speedy Motors and, most recently, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.

When Precious Ramotswe gets a "free" facial at the newly opened Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, she soon realizes the proprietor expects a favor in return. Someone is already trying to destroy the business by spreading terrible false rumors. How does one go about tracking down the source of a rumor, Mma Ramotswe wonders.

Another case proves even more challenging. A lawyer wants Mma Ramotswe to discover whether a nephew about to inherit his uncle's estate is really who he claims to be.

This being an Alexander McCall Smith mystery, you know the subplots will often overpower the supposedly main plots, and that is the case in this 14th book in the series, as well. This time, Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, attempts to become a modern husband and Grace Makutsi, her long-time assistant (no, better make that associate), gives birth to a baby boy and then must put up with her husband's overpowering aunt moving in and attempting to take over, all in the name of tradition.

I have listened to, rather than actually read, most of the books in this series, and I did that again with The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. Native South African Lisette Lecat has been narrating the series from the beginning, and as always she does a perfect job with this installment. With Lecat reading Smith's prose, what's not to like?