Podcast

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I Love This App For Listening to Your Manuscript

Hey guys, I occasionally let people pitch their apps here even though I haven’t really tried them, but in this case I’m voluntarily pitching an app because I really like it.  If you’ve read my book, you know that I say you should listen to your writing read aloud by your computer, in order to find typos and separate yourself from the material for a rewrite.  Well, I left it up to you how to do that, and you may have discovered that the tools that were available kind of sucked.  No longer!  There’s a great new app called “Edit Out Loud” that exists just for that purpose.  When it first dropped, it had problems, but the creator of the app was very responsive to all my concerns and worked with me to get it up and running on my phone.  I’ve listened to a few book for my manuscript consultation service on it and it works like a charm.  You can even mark it up to a certain extent while you listen!  Get this app before you revise.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Best of 2019, #1: Marriage Story

This is, to put it mildly, the best American movie of the year. It is, in fact, the best American movie in several years, since… well, since Lady Bird. And that’s only appropriate, since it’s obvious that one of the factors fueling this movie is Baumbach’s jealousy over that movie’s success. (One of the husband’s final humiliations is when he finds out that his wife has gotten a directing Emmy nomination, despite the fact that he thinks of himself as being the great director of the family.)

Both Baumbach and Gerwig have just turned out movies that aren’t exactly high on the subject of marriage, so who knows how things are going at home, but they’re certainly turning out great work, so I hope that whatever tension they’re feeling remains high!

Before this movie, the great American divorce movie was Kramer vs. Kramer, but this movie easily surpasses that one. That movie clearly picked a side, but this movie has the courage to split our identification (though not necessarily our sympathies) evenly. The result is one of the most heart-rending movies I’ve ever seen. It really wrecked me.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Create Real Horror Movies. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen that exposes one of my deepest fears, the fear that my kids wouldn’t miss me that much if I got separated from them. The movie makes it clear that Driver is a very good father (with the big exception that he wasn’t a great husband to his son’s mother), but when Johansson’s work takes her to L.A., Driver keeps waiting for his son to miss him and that just never happens. Unlike the kids in The Squid and the Whale, this kid adjusts quickly and easily to his parents’ divorce, and, while that’s great for the kid and mom, it’s unbearably painful for for the father. I think every loving parent has a horrible suspicion that their children are just black holes of love, never intending to give back all that they’ve taken in, and this movie really tore me up inside by showing that fear made manifest.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Pass the TBS Test. I’ve always felt that every great movie should pass the TBS Test: If you were flipping around the TV (I realize that people don’t really do that anymore), and you ran across this movie on TBS, would you be compelled by whatever scene you happened upon? In this movie, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. (A distinction that was also true of Kramer vs. Kramer, come to think of it.) There are several scenes/sequences that would make compelling short films, and none is more amazing than the home visit from the court evaluator. Driver is, as usual, riveting and squeezes just a right bit out humor out of his agonizing tension, culminating in wonderful bit of subtext-becomes-text when he slices himself open and fails to hide it.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Best of 2019, #2: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, this movie is greatly indebted to Wes Anderson, but I think it’s ultimately better than any Anderson movie since Rushmore. When I originally wrote up this list, I hadn’t seen this one yet, so I wrote that Joker was the only movie to take Trump seriously. Turns out, that’s not the case. This comedic film, about a good mom who watches her sweet 10 year old son naively (endearingly, in fact) embrace Nazism, could have been been dreadful if it hadn’t judged its tone juuuuust right, but I thought it used its humor as a powerful dramatic tool.

Why do people embrace Nazism? Because it puts you in a world of super-heroes and super-villains that is, on some level, fun. Those people at the Trump rallies are having fun, and mentally regressing to ten-year olds.

If a certain character had not blocked a certain other character’s knife, this would have been a very different movie, and perhaps a braver one, but I think it works the way it is, because it is willing to push us to that point before it takes mercy on us and our hero and drags him back to humanity.

As I’ve said before, I know I’m watching a great movie when I’m not thinking about movies but thinking about my own loved ones. Like many fathers of young sons, I worry so much about the toxic environment awaiting my son, and Roman Griffin Davis’s performance is so remarkable human that I couldn’t help but see my son in him, not a film character. As with tomorrow’s film, this film left me with a profound desire to hug my family afterwards, holding on to them for dear life.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Best of 2019, #3: Knives Out

Brick wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. The Last Jedi was pretty dumb. Looper was downright idiotic. How did Rian Johnson get so smart all of a sudden? Maybe, like Craig Mazin, his whole career pre-2019 was one long fake-out, setting us up for the knock-out punch? Even this movie’s trailer wasn’t very appealing. It showcased the movie’s weakest aspect (Craig’s accent, which is harmless but certainly never convincing) and the few jokes that didn’t land (“Is this ‘CSI: KFC’?”). So I was totally unprepared for how great this movie is.

The cinematography! The production design! The dialogue! The performances! (One silly accent aside) One problem is that, since they were being so coy about the plot, they had to hide the fact that Ana de Armas is the main character, which means she didn’t get the star treatment she so richly deserves. She quietly steals scenes from each of the big name actors, keeping us in her head, not theirs.

Tips: Beware of concepts you can’t promote well

 The most obvious way to promote this movie is “A private nurse becomes the number one suspect in the murder of a wealthy man when it turns out he left her all his money.” But that set-up isn’t established until halfway through the movie, so it would have been frustrating to viewers who had seen the trailer that it took so long to get to that set-up. So instead, it was just promoted as “An old fashioned big-house star-studded murder mystery,” and it did fine, but ultimately its marketing was a liability, not an asset. And because Armas is not one of the previously established stars, she got sidelined by that promotion strategy. Still the plotting and pacing in this movie were pretty much perfect, so I can’t complain.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Best of 2019, #4: Joker

By the time I finally got around to reluctantly watching my screener of this movie, I had been fully conditioned to hate it. Imagine my surprise to find out that it’s actually pretty great.

First, I had been warned by months of media coverage that it was a lazy Scorsese knock-off. It’s not. If you want to see a lazy Scorsese knock-off, go watch The Irishman. I thought this one definitely wanted to be in conversation with Scorsese, but its greatest assets (the cinematography, score, production design, and Phoenix’s performance) were not at all indebted to Scorsese. I thought it was an original vision.

Secondly, I had been warned by the media that this movie was recklessly reactionary. The ghouls at AVClub.com were openly rooting for there to be shootings during the opening weekend showings. They ran article after article about violence that was sure to come. It didn’t. Personally, I always found the two movies this one is most in conversation with, Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight, to be vaguely reactionary, and it’s never surprised me that one inspired a presidential assassination attempt and the other a mass shooting. Of course, it’s not too late for this one to inspire violence (the Hinkley shooting wasn’t until four years after Taxi Driver), but, having seen the movie, I’m not surprised that it hasn’t.

(Just to be clear, Taxi Driver is superior pieces of filmmaking, but I worried more about people taking the wrong message from that one than I do from this one.)

Speak to Real Life National Pain: This is one of the only American movies to take the Trump election seriously. It’s no secret that a lot of people on the left think we shouldn’t do that. “There was no populist element to Trump’s victory. Blame the Russians and move on. Triangulate better next time.” They get pissed whenever a reporter interviews a Trump voter. The problem, they say, is that such voters weren’t silenced effectively enough, and we’ll do better at that next time. This movie actually stares down America’s screaming throat and listens to the madness.

I’m old enough to remember when the left embraced empathy and the right was against it, but that seems like a long time ago now. The belief now, as far as I can tell, is that there’s never been a strong enough wall between empathy and sympathy, so one is always in danger of leading to the other, so we should all just stop feeling each other’s pain and raise the barricades instead.

What I love about this film is that Phoenix demands our empathy without ever once asking for any sympathy. Sorry AVClub, but nobody left the theater wanting to be Arthur Fleck or any of his pitiful followers. You can feel for people and still loathe their actions. We must learn to do that again.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Best of 2019, #5: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

This movie has received zero year-end love, so I just rewatched to see if it’s as good and I thought on first viewing. It’s even better! This is certainly the most underrated movie of the year. This year saw two eagerly-awaited follow-ups to animated hits of a few years ago. Frozen II on to surpass its predecessor at the box office and become the biggest animated hit of all time, while this one flopped hard. How did the public get it so wrong?

I’m not sure any movie has stayed with me as much as this one. Most obviously that’s because I haven’t stopped playing and singing its songs (Yes, one fun song is genetically engineered to get stuck inside your head, but “Not Evil” does that job even better) But more importantly, I thought this movie had the courage to hit the emotions just as hard as the original, and go darker (as heard in “Everything’s Not Awesome”)

This had a lot to say about how we gender the concept of “hero”, why we crave post-apocalyptic narratives, and how men and women try to change for each other, for good or ill. The performances of Pratt, Banks, Arnett, et al, continue to be wonderful, and Tiffany Haddish is a great new addition.

Tip: The Smarter You Are, The More Heartfelt You Have to Be

This is one of the most post-modern movies ever made (Right down to an end credits song by Beck about the greatness of end credits). The whole thing is an examination of how and why we tell stories with several very clever self-aware jokes. So it’s a very head-y movie, but its heart is even bigger. In fact, that’s the whole point. The boy playing with these legos wants to be cool by closing his heart, and the movie knows that we’re conditioned to root for bad-ass-ery, so it gets us wrapped up in his quest. It’s truly shocking when we’re reminded, along with him, that it’s more heroic to open your heart than it is to harden it.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Best of 2019, Bonus Runner-Up: Us

A Saturday post?? It’s been almost ten years since I did that! Folks, there’s been a shocking turn of events: I unexpectedly got a chance to see one of the movies I hadn’t seen and it’s upended this list! This was going to be movie #5, but now it’s been knocked down to runner-up status, and if I’m going to finish all these before the Oscars, I’d best cover this one today!

Parasite isn’t on this list because it seems silly to see just one foreign-language film and say that was the best one, so I decided to limit myself to the best English-Language films of the year. But I did see it, it is amazing, and it makes an amazing companion to this film. Talk about great minds thinking alike! Both have two four member families, one living below ground and the other above, both involve a plan by the underground family to displace the aboveground one. They’re both great movies, and I just think it’s a shame they came out the same year because I fear that the similarity cost this one an Oscar nomination.

My one concern: This has one of the all-time great “Everything you know is wrong” twists, but I was never sure about its placement. It’s revealed at almost the very end of the movie, after it’s too late to affect any of the heroine’s actions. (The Sixth Sense reveal also happens at almost the very end, but in that case the hero acts.) Basically, this movie is saying “Sorry, but you have to buy another ticket and watch it again now that you have this essential piece of information that will change the way you see everything.” I haven’t had a chance to revisit it yet, but if Get Out is any indication, I’m sure it will only grow in my estimation on subsequent viewings.

Tip: Exhaust the Plot, Then Escalate

In the first half of this movie, the four members of the family go face to face with their doppelgangers, and the viewer assumes that that will be the whole movie, and it feels plenty satisfying. But then they successfully escape to the nearby lake house of their friends …only to discover that their friends have been killed by their own doppelgangers! It’s an escalation of the action, an escalation of the danger and it’s an escalation of the the theme, going from a personal horror story to a broader societal critique, and it’s absolutely thrilling to the audience.  Most horror movies have diminishing returns in the second half, but this movie is just getting started.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: The Two Popes


One of the best surprises of the year, highlighted by two amazing performances: How wonderful to see Hopkins gleefully rediscover skin-crawling creepiness and Pryce get to play a genuine hero for the first time in years (though both popes turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.) (It’s fascinating to compare Pryce’s performance here to “Game of Thrones” where he got to play the evil version of the same character, and did an equally good job.)

Tip: Give them a Fit Bit

The play, as far as I can tell, just consists of two men, a pope and a pope-to-be, sitting in a room and talking for two hours. The movie has to “open the story up”, and it does so in various expected ways (It adds little moments away from the confrontation, it dramatizes the stories Francis tells about his past, etc.) but it also uses a trick I found amusing: Benedict is wearing a Fit Bit, and, as anyone married to a Fit Bit user knows, it’s constantly telling him he has to get up and walk around, so the two keep having to get up and walk from room to room (and of course these are some of the most spectacular rooms in the world). It’s a good humanizing detail, and it livens up the visuals at the same time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: 1917

Like Dunkirk, this is a showy technical achievement that still manages to be an impactful tragedy. I thought this film rose above that one through its performances. This one follows the same strategy of getting name actors to play the higher-ups while the youngsters are played by new faces, but I thought Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay were far more compelling than the young stars of Dunkirk.

Tip: Give Them Ironic Motivation

This movie does something interesting. It gives Chapman a personal motivation for his mission (which felt a little contrived): if he succeeds he may save his brother’s life. Despite knowing that, MacKay, worried for his own life, says maybe they should refuse orders. Then the movie kills off Chapman halfway through the mission. MacKay didn’t feel he owed it to Chapman to help save his brother when he was alive, but he does feel that obligation once Chapman is dead. That’s nicely ironic.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: Little Women

Going into this movie I couldn’t help but think about the fact that “Little Women” had a distinction that was not shared by any other Great American Novel: It already had three excellent film adaptations (1933 with Katherine Hepburn, 1949 with June Allyson, and the very best: the 1994 version with Winona Ryder) so who needed another one? Unfortunately, after watching it, I still feel that way.

This is, in many ways, a great film. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (Oh how I wish I could take this movie’s cinematography and transfer it over to Harriet!) The performances are great (though in almost every case, the performances in the 1994 version were even better), but it never drew me in all the way.

What ultimately alienated me from this version is the timeline-rearranging. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out why Gerwig did it and I never came up with an answer. The plot turns in the book are so moving, so why spoil them all up-front? And it put Gerwig in the position of having to work hard to differentiate Beth’s two illness, which now play out simultaneously. She did so with the tired trick of color-tinting one blue and the other gold, which drew attention to itself and still didn’t work.

As for the big change to the ending of the story, it’s fine. Alcott intentionally chose to disappoint the reader, and by doing so she made a powerful statement about women’s choices in the 19th century, but Gerwig (like lots of modern readers) couldn’t accept that disappointment. She wanted a more heroic ending, and she cleverly found it by borrowing from Alcott’s own life-story. As it turns out, that does indeed make for a satisfying ending, and one can hardly criticize Gerwig as not being true to the 19th century, when this is the version that really happened. It’s a neat trick. (Of course, at some point we’ll get a fifth version which acknowledges the real possibility that Jo is lesbian and/or trans, and then this one will look dated.)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: Harriet

This is certainly the most essential movie of the year, in that this is the story that most needed to be told. Harriet Tubman is the greatest hero in American history and she’s only now getting her biopic. And it’s perfectly fine. It does the job of telling this story, and it’ll be a good choice to show in schools from this point on. I just wish it was more artfully made.

The score (by the usually great Terence Blanchard) is ham-handed. The cinematography is very flat. This was obviously going to be a very hard movie to light, since Tubman’s whole trick was that she would travel through the woods on moonless nights, and thank god they didn’t shoot it day-for-night (You scoff that they never would have done that, but X-Men: Apocalypse had a day-for-night scene set in the woods at night, and that movie came out just three years ago), but their solution is just to have big blue flood lights on at all times, so bright that even when people light lanterns those lanterns cast shadows. How I wish this movie could borrow the cinematographer from Little Women. Even better, imagine this movie had been shot like The Revenant (another big-19th-century-foot-trek movie).

But ultimately, my big concern is Tubman herself, both in writing and performance.

Cynthia Erivo is fine, and I don’t mind that she got an Oscar nomination, but ultimately I wanted a performance with a little more interiority. Ten years ago, I gave this advice to actors and actresses: Always look like you’ve got a secret. Harriet Tubman was a woman with a lot of secrets, but Erivo plays her as too much of an open book.

In terms of the writing, I feel like the major turning point in Tubman’s life was the moment when, after years of asking God to change her owner’s heart, she reluctantly asked instead that God take his life, and the man unexpectedly died the next day. That, understandably and correctly, convinced her that she had superpowers, and she acted accordingly from that point on. The prayer is in the movie, but the camera isn’t even on Tubman at the time, it’s on her owner’s son. And we don’t see her find out that the owner is dead. We never get that “Holy shit, God does what I say, this changes everything” moment. That’s Tubman’s secret, and I wish it fired up the movie more.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Best of 2019 Runners-Up: Ford v. Ferrari

I do have ten movies this year, but I’ve decided to go with five ranked movies and five unranked runners-up, presented in random order. Some are movies I didn’t respond to as much as I wished, but were undeniably worth watching. Others, such as this one, were ones I unabashedly loved but can’t justify ranking above the others, so I’m staying unranked this week.

Ford vs. Ferrari (As with all my write-ups, this will have spoilers)

A great old fashioned man’s-man sports movie, thrillingly shot, scored, and edited. I’ve always found Mangold to be overrated (I didn’t like Logan, as you’ll recall), but this felt like a real breakthrough for me (at least in the coveted category of “pleasing Matt Bird”). You all know from my previous lists that I love Bale and Damon, and their riveting performances here (in roles that aren’t very showy) show why they’re my favorites.

Tip: Sports Heroes Should Win By Losing or Lose By Winning

You know I love irony, right? That’s come up before. Of course, sports movies always risk being unironic. Trying to win and then winning is unironic, but trying to win and then losing just feels like a bummer. The solution, of course, is to find a more ironic (and thereby satisfying) choice: Either win by losing or lose by winning.

The writers of this movie found a true story with a wild ending that’s packed with irony. They spend the whole movie (including the title) preparing us for a big showdown with Ferrari …but then Ferrari is eliminated before the final race ends! So then what the hell movie are we watching? But then Bale must confront his real demon: his self-destructive pride. His corporate bosses make an outrageous demand of him, and he at first refuses to comply, but then he realizes it’s time to let go of his pride and share the win. In the end, he officially “loses” the race, but he’s won by losing. Agreeing to share the win shows that he’s not a jerk anymore.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Not On the Best of 2019 List

Welcome to my annual series about the best movies of the previous year!  As usual, I’ll start with a list of the movies I didn’t get a chance to see. The big one is Jojo Rabbit. I was supposed to get a screener in the mail and it never arrived. Also unseen: Uncut Gems, The Farewell, The Lighthouse, Judy, Bombshell and several others I’m forgetting to mention.

Next, as has become a recent tradition, I will spotlight just some of the movies that are pointedly not on the list. If you have no wish for negativity, come back on Sunday when I will start celebrating the best!

Not on the List: The Irishman

  • The onscreen title of this movie is “I Heard You Paint Houses”, which is also the title of the book. Clearly, somebody changed the title at the last second, but why? And of all the thousands of titles they could have chosen, why that one? They cast an Italian-American in the lead role. He is in no way conveying the fact that he is playing an Irishman. That’s fine—I have Irish relatives that look enough like De Niro—but then why call it The Irishman? Why call attention to something they are not conveying in any way?
  • Not since WB hastily removed Superman’s mustache has a CGI job looked this bad. This movie might best be described as “Polar Express Meets Goodfellas”. As with Justice League, an unpaid fan has used free Deep Fake technology to improve the effects greatly and posted the results on YouTube. I realize that Hollywood is terrified of Deep Fake, but if you’re going to keep making movies like this, you have to embrace it. What really hurt is that it was released the same year as Captain Marvel, which became the first movie to flawlessly de-age a major character for the whole runtime. But, to be fair, Samuel L. Jackson wears his years a lot of lighter than Robert De Niro does.
  • At one point early on, buried in the avalanche of voiceover, De Niro casually mentions that, between scenes, he left his wife and family for another woman. This is in a 3 and a half hour movie! You can’t devote ten minutes to the everyday tragedy of that? Take a look at the first ten minutes of Up! You can pack a lot of emotion into ten minutes! I felt very gratified that De Niro did not get an Oscar nomination, because his character is utterly uncompelling. He gets 45 minutes of build-up before the real plot begins, and then another 45 minutes of wind-down after the plot ends, but all the non-Hoffa screentime is just inert, because De Niro is giving us almost nothing. I want my 3 ½ hours back.

Not on the List: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

  • I’ve always thought Leonardo DiCaprio was our most overrated actor. He was great in Titanic and Catch Me if You Can, but he’s only convincing in boy-ish roles, and any time he tries to play a grown man it feels like a middle-school production of “The Iceman Cometh”. Has he ever been more miscast than he is in this movie? Washed-up cowboy actor, reduced to playing TV villains, finds a second life as a Spaghetti Western star? Why would you cast someone who can’t grow a convincing beard in a Spaghetti Western? I didn’t buy it.
  • Pitt is fine, but he’s not digging deep. I’m not going to find anybody bad-ass when the movie is trying so hard to make him seem bad-ass, even having him beat up Bruce Lee! I hope the ghost of the real Bruce comes back and kicks the asses of both Pitt and Tarantino.
  • The most excited I got while watching this movie was when Maya Hawke from “Stranger Things” Season Three was on screen for two minutes. That season was great cinema. This was not. Great, soundtrack though, as always.

Not on the List: Frozen II

  • I’ve just discovered that, when my father built that dam for the indigenous tribe north of us, he didn’t have their best interest at heart. And so, immediately upon hearing this, I will run over and destroy the dam without asking anyone in the tribe if that’s okay with them. Equity achieved!
  • I thought everything about this movie was pretty dreadful: The songs, the personal arcs, the character work… The massive new mythology was way too indebted to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” but it suffers mightily from that comparison.

Not on the List: Avengers: Endgame

  • Unlike the above 3, I adored this movie and I love that it beat out Avatar to become the most successful movie of all time. There’s just one thing keeping it out of the top 10: They should have just restored things back to the point of the snap! Yes, it would have felt odd for Tony to wipe his own kid out of existence, but refusing to erase five years of horrific trauma for everybody in the entire universe is worse, Tony! And I spent the whole movie distracted, thinking “This five year gap is gonna totally screw up every movie they try to make from this point forward!” And then the latest Spider-Man movie came out and yeah, it was totally screwed up by the five year gap. Just undo the snap! A terrible decision marring an otherwise-great film.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

New Podcast: Should Novelists Follow Screenwriting Advice, featuring Parker Peevyhouse

Hi everybody, we’re about to do our year-end wrap-up, but first we’ve got a new podcast, and it’s a good one!  We have a special guest appearance from novelist Parker Peevyhouse!   She has two acclaimed novels and a third one that’s coming out this week, and she proposed stopping by with a juicy question: Should novelists follow screenwriting advice?  The result is a pretty great episode where we really get to the heart of what this podcast is about!  (And James has a proposed addition to Believe Care Invest!)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Rahel in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”

  • The Indian Province of Kerala in 1992: 29 year old Rahel returns after many years away to help her troubled twin brother Estha. She quickly becomes overwhelmed with memories of different times, including the death of a girl named Sophie Mol when Rahel and Estha were 7.
Though this novel is also assigned in high schools, it requires the most out of its readers of any of those we’re looking at. Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground ripped out from under their feet, leaving them unmoored in time and space, and modern literary masters like Roy attempt to capture that condition in prose.  Complex literary fiction challenges the reader, but in a book such as this one, those readers that rise to the challenge are richly rewarded.

Believe: It’s easy to believe in the reality of this world because every line of the book explodes with vivid, unique imagery that literally brings this world to life: The first line is, “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month,” then we hear that “the countryside turns an immodest green.” Months brood, colors have feelings—everything is alive in this world.

But what really makes the novel seem so utterly real us is the way it intimately captures the crazy logic of childhood. Our own childhoods may not have been as traumatic as Rahel’s, but Roy captures with startling intimacy the way a 7 year-old thinks. To read the book to is to feel like a child again, not in an aw-shucks kind of way, but in an “Oh, right, childhood was weird” kind of way. Rahel is convinced that she would have gotten free bus rides for life if she had been born on a bus, and she’s convinced that the government pays for your funeral if you die in a zebra crossing. That’s harmless enough …but she’s also convinced that Sophie is still alive in her coffin, which is less so.

Care: It will take us a while to understand every trauma that happened in those terrible two weeks in 1969, but we do get just a sense in these first ten pages of each of the various traumas that still have both Rahel and Estha in their grip:
  1. The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did something to Estha (which we can already correctly guess to be molestation)
  2. Their cousin Sophie Mol drowned, and perhaps they’re to blame
  3. A man named Velutha seems to have been killed by the police because of Sophie’s death, and perhaps the kids are to blame for that as well due to some further sin of theirs.
  4. As a result of all of the above, the closer-than-close twins were sent to live in different cities until now.
  5. Estha stopped speaking not long thereafter and has never spoken since.
These traumas have fractured Rahel’s sense of self, and they’ve also fractured her perception (and therefore our perception) of these events, so we get sections like this:
  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.
  • And these are only the small things.
From such tangles of memory we have to pick out the salient details and arrange them into a timeline, and we are increasing horrified as it all falls into place.  What is pervasive right away is the feeling of loss and trauma, and that makes us care deeply.

Invest: Like any good hero, Rahel shows up on page one on a heroic mission.  Her brother has finally come home, there’s something wrong with him, and she must come home as well to try and fix him. Most of the pages will be devoted to her fractured memories of what happened to them in those two weeks in 1969, but we will regularly check in on her modern day attempts to get through to Estha, which she will do …in a fashion.  It is only because we are invested in this modern-day mission that we are willing to do the hard work of piecing together their past.

But of course, as with most literary fiction, we are really rooting for Rahel to deal with her own pain. As she and we sort through the shattered pieces of her traumatized psyche, we feel a shared sense of accomplishment. We have to struggle to piece together a coherent story, which can make for a frustrating reading experience, but ultimately, those who do the work the novel requires will feel all the more bonded to the heroine, because she is undergoing the same struggle. She and we are working together to make sense of her life, and we feel a shared sense of accomplishment as the jigsaw pieces slowly click together. Of course, as with any old jigsaw puzzle, we’ll never find all the pieces, but we’ll have enough in the end to get a sense of the total picture.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Sethe and Others in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

  • A rural area outside Cincinatti, Ohio in 1873: Escaped slave Sethe is haunted by her baby’s ghost. Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law who originally owned her house, has died and her two sons have run away in fear of the ghost, leaving her alone with her quiet 18 year old daughter Denver. Paul D, an old acquaintance from her plantation days, stops by and quickly realizes the house is haunted. He banishes the ghost and becomes Sethe’s lover. 
Like all of the other books in this section, this was a bestseller, but unlike those, it won its writer a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize. It’s a tough read about the most painful fact of American history, but it’s also a compelling ghost story. It has horrific atrocities, but it’s also, in some ways, an uplifting love story. You can read it in high school, or a book group, but you can also write a dozen doctoral theses about it.

Believe: Morrison has a lot of big jobs in front of her. As with any novelist, she must describe thing with unique similes we haven’t read before (a gravestone is “pink as a fingernail”), then she must make the 19th century come to life with details unique to that century (slop jars, a kettleful of chickpeas, the house’s “keeping room”), then she must make the horrors of slavery come alive (the scars on Sethe’s back are in the shape of a “chokecherry tree”) and ideally she can do all three in one phrase, such as when we hear that one of Sethe’s memories is “as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”

Morrison’s utter unique character descriptions are perfect models of efficiency. Here’s how Paul D. sees Sethe: “A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes.” Here’s how Sethe sees Paul D: “Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed.”

One way to make characters feel unique is to give them things they won’t normally do, and then we know the significance of a change in that behavior. Denver notes that Paul D. is “someone her mother wanted to talk to and would even consider talking to while barefoot.” Sethe has unique values that define her, and then she makes an exception, showing how these events are shifting her world.

Already in these first ten pages, we totally believe in the reality of this world. We sense that Morrison surely must have been there in person to have noticed all these odd little details that no one could just make up.

Care: On the one hand, these characters are very easy to care about. They are, after all, the victims of America’s greatest atrocity. Who in our history has suffered more than they? But Morrison knows that it’s hard to conceive of the horror of slavery. Most of her readers had seen “Roots” ten years earlier, so they knew about the vicious whippings, the omnipresent rape, and having your children sold away from you, and they were inured to it. But of course slavery is an unending fount of horror, and Morrison used her research to gouge through the calloused skin of her readers and make the wounds fresh.

Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs has had all of her eight children taken from her. How can we conceive of the magnitude of that? The horror comes alive when she says, “My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that?” The fact that she only has one memory of the toddler that was taken from her is staggering, but the memory is fascinatingly bizarre (and thus convincing). Likewise, Morrison knows she must confront the reality of rape, but she must make the horror fresh. For Sethe, what made it so horrific was that she was nursing at the time and “they took my milk.”

In the modern day story, things are going better for Sethe, as a lover emerges as if from nowhere and eases her burden a little, but we only believe in this relationship because it’s not as easy as it should be. Sethe is amazed to see Paul D. and asks “Is that you?” to which he honesty answers, “What’s left.” Later, she says, “You could stay the night, Paul D,” and he parries with “You don't sound too steady in the offer.” Neither feels entitled to happiness and they’re wary of it. She recalls that he’s always “treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.” Even when the romance develops quickly, as it does in this book, always make your heroes scratch for it a bit, and we’ll care about the relationship so much more.

Invest: Of course, the ghost story of course also need unique details, to separate it from a million other ghost stories. Here the ghost-baby picks on their poor dog, which is named “Here Boy”, and Denver remembers Sethe’s fierce reaction:
  • And when the baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye, so hard he went into convulsions and chewed up his tongue, still her mother had not looked away. She had taken a hammer, knocked the dog unconscious, wiped away the blood and saliva, pushed his eye back in his head and set his leg bones. He recovered, mute and off-balance, more because of his untrustworthy eye than his bent legs, and winter, summer, drizzle or dry, nothing could persuade him to enter the house again.
We will read much more about the remarkable (and occasionally disturbing) resilience Sethe has shown over the years …but do we really invest our hopes and dreams in Sethe in these opening pages? Not really. And we’re right not to do so. About half of the book takes place in flashback, and in those sections “iron-eyed” Sethe will show epic heroism, but in the modern day story, Sethe has lost all willingness to stand up the vengeful ghost that rules her house, and she will continue to cling desperately to it even past the book’s climax where Beloved is finally banished.

No, in these opening chapters, we invest our hopes in Paul D, which is easy enough to do, as he shows traditionally manly traits and stands up to the ghost right away:
  • A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house. “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!” The quaking slowed to an occasional lurch, but Paul D did not stop whipping the table around until everything was rock quiet.
That’s pretty easy to invest in. But, as it will turn out, Beloved will return in the flesh, and Paul D, too, will ultimately be unequal to the task of defeating her for good.  It is meek Denver who will do what is necessary to purge Beloved from the house, but we don’t sense that yet, which is fine. As long as we have characters to root for early on, we don’t mind if the real hero turns out to be one we didn’t pick.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Believe, Care, Invest: Our Choice of Heroes in George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”

  • The fantasy kingdom of Westeros: Three rangers patrol north of “The Wall” and encounter ice zombies. One survives and flees, but he is caught south of the wall and executed for desertion by Lord Eddard Stark. We see this through the eyes of Eddard’s young son Bran. On the way home, the Starks find a litter of direwolves and adopt them.
Massive spoilers for the book series and TV show! Skip to the next chapter if you don’t want to know how it all ends!

It’s fascinating to re-read this first chapter, knowing what we know now.  For the past twenty years, readers have been saying to themselves, “Why do we start with Bran?? He’s such a minor character!” Little did we suspect that he would win the game of thrones! Maybe Martin knew what he was doing all along.

But before we get to Bran, we start with a prologue. As with “Hitchhiker’s”, these pages are not yet identified as “Chapter One”, so we sense that we need not fall in love with these characters, but this prologue is longer, so if we didn’t find the characters and situation compelling we’d probably stop reading.

Ultimately, we will realize that these opening pages prefigure the whole series. Our POV character watches as a grizzled old veteran ranger, whose sword is “nicked from hard use,” is led into disaster by a “lordling” whose sword has never “been swung in anger” (the ultimate insult in this manly world). Over the course of the next three books, both the North and South of Westeros will be led into disaster by too-young lords that are ill-prepared for leadership.

We never find out enough the prologue’s POV character Will to Believe-Care-Invest, but we certainly do so for the veteran Gerad, who gets lots of details, suffers mightily, and shows his clever skills. We even come to appreciate the lordling Royce who, in a nice ironic turn, dies bravely. We sense that these aren’t our heroes, and don’t really invest our hopes and dreams in them, but we can tell from these pages that Martin can make us identify with heroes, if he wants to, and we trust him going forward.

Another thing this intro establishes is Martin’s greatest strength: his ability to put the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Over and over in this series, Martin will fool the reader into thinking that the heroes will triumph, only for something awful to happen. The most essential line in this introduction is this:
  • For a moment, he dared to hope.
That’s a dead-simple trick that any writer can use: Just insert that line into your book, as often as possible. Lift the reader up, then cut them down. Martin has a curiously sadistic relationship to his readers. Perhaps more than any other popular writer, he really likes to torture his heroes (to death), which also tortures the readers who love those characters …but we love him for it. He triggers a pleasurable masochism within the reader. Every time Martin tricks us into daring to hope, then viciously punishes us for it, we get a thrill.

But we still haven’t met any main characters, so let’s move on to Chapter 1, which is named “Bran.” Right away, we start getting a little nervous: We find out in the first paragraph that Bran is seven years old! Is this a kids book? It doesn’t seem so from the page count. Martin is basically counting on us to flip ahead and see that the book’s 73 chapters will be credited to 8 different third-person POVs, and Bran will only get 7 of those chapters. We sense that Bran is not going to solve the book’s big problems, so we need not fully invest our hopes and dreams in him.

So Martin has a tricky task, we’re meeting our main cast now, but we’re meeting them though the POV of a (seemingly) minor character. His goal in the first real chapter is to get us to believe in and care for this family, and then, through Bran’s eyes, search for some member of the family other than Bran that we can invest our hopes and dreams in.

Believe In: After reading the prologue we already believe in the reality of this world. Martin is mostly Italian-American and grew up in a New Jersey housing project in the 1960s, and yet he convinces that surely he must have lived in medieval England at some point with his wealth of detail.

And Bran is a believable seven year old: Eager to be included in adult things but anxious about what he might see. We are told it’s been summer for nine years but winter is coming, so seven year old Bran is about to know the cold for the first time, which is a metaphor for the chilling step into reality we all must take on the brink of adolescence.

Care For: This is tricky because Bran is not suffering all that much. Sure, he feels cold, and he’s being forced to watch a man being beheaded, which disturbs him, and later he almost has to watch some wolf-puppies put to death... but the real reason we care about Bran is because we sense, from reading the prologue, that the ice-zombies will eventually come for him, and he’s so terribly unaware of this. (In fact they will come just for him, though those who stick to the books may never find that out). We care for him because we can see what he can’t see.

The novel’s multiple-POV structure ensures that we will always know more about what’s going on than any of the POV characters we’re reading about, not just plot-wise, but also morally. We know from the prologue that the deserter had a good reason to flee, which none of the Starks bother to elicit. Each POV-jump for the rest of the book will follow this pattern. There will never be a character that understands this world as fully as the reader does. Only we can see the ironic contrasts between these points of view. Only we know how tragic all of these events truly are. We care about these characters in an almost godly way: What fools these mortals be.

Invest In: We’re in an odd position: We discover that we were correct not invest our hopes in any of the characters from the prologue, and we can’t really invest in a seven year old boy, but we can tell that the Starks are going to be our main characters, so we examine them through Bran’s eyes, looking for a hero.

The most obvious choice is Eddard, who seems like a manly and responsible Lord in his insistence on being the one who swings the beheading sword himself. And if we’ve flipped ahead, we know that he will have the most POV chapters. But we also can see that Eddard has a limited perspective. He dismisses what Will has to say without really listening, leaving his kingdom eventually vulnerable to zombie attack. And of course, as fantasy readers, we’re conditioned to seek out young heroes so we’re also looking at his sons, whether adopted, blood, or bastard.

It’s easy to dismiss Theon Greyjoy, Eddard’s ward:

  • The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.

But it’s not so easy to choose between Eddard’s bastard son Jon or his official heir Robb:
  • “Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran’s shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. “You did well,” Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.
  • It seemed colder on the long ride back to Winterfell, though the wind had died by then and the sun was higher in the sky. Bran rode with his brothers, well ahead of the main party, his pony struggling hard to keep up with their horses.
  • “The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. He was big and broad and growing every day, with his mother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun. “He had courage, at the least.”
  • “No,” Jon Snow said quietly. “It was not courage. This one was dead of fear. You could see it in his eyes, Stark.” Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.
  • Robb was not impressed. “The Others take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to the bridge?”
In the introduction it was easy enough to choose between the two men that were being described: Gerad was full of manly virtues and the lordling Royce was not. Here, it’s harder: Robb and Jon offer two different visions of manhood that both seem equally appealing at this point. Ultimately, we (correctly) invest more in Jon, because he perceives more of what we know, and shows more compassion to Bran, but it will take three long books before we can be sure we’ve made the right choice.

Of course, on some level, the moral of the prologue lingers in our minds: Don’t trust lordlings like Robb. They’ll get you killed.

As with any fantasy author, Martin is asking a lot of his readers: He’s asking us to commit to a long book with lots of characters. In the end, this book will not end satisfactorily, demanding we read the next and the next in a search for satisfaction that will never end, because it’s more than two decades later and it seems likely Martin will never finish the book series.

Ultimately, there’s only one reason to read this series: Because it is pleasurable to read each chapter. Martin will not honor the pledges that most authors make to their readers, but we will forgive him for that, because the books are so enjoyable.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Celebrating 10 Years

Hi guys, new material resumes in a few days, but first I should note that I failed to note a significant milestone: Monday marked the 10th Anniversary of this blog, which began as a New Years / New Decades resolution on January 1st, 2010.  That first year was mostly Underrated Movies and odd miscellany, but already by the end of the year Id started posting writing advice and began our long, strange trip.  Thanks to those of you who might have been around since the beginning, and thanks to our more recent readers!