Something Literary

You’d think a traditional publishing person like me wouldn’t be intrigued by a tiny collection of iPhone snapshots such as this:IMG_1114Not a “real book,” right?  It’s smaller than a deck of cards, has fewer than 50 unnumbered “pages” and no text at all except the words iPhone Photos  Julie Gebhardt on the back page.

And yet I was drawn to this mini-book from the first moment I saw it, for one thing because it’s so cute (note the green push pin, placed there for scale) and is even kind of classy with its oversized spiral binding and heavy photo-card stock.

Production elements like these would have shot the costs up years ago, as would four-color printing (which I must say is sensational), but the price is affordable ($20) and shipping is free when you order directly from the author by emailing juliegeb@me.com.

But I kept thinking the term “snapshot” isn’t right, “collection” isn’t right, even “little” or “quickie” is disrespectful because there’s something bigger to ponder here, something even literary going on, which I’ll get to below. True, you can just flip through it like a keychain souvenir, but I guarantee that every time you close it, a larger conversation will follow you around in “real life.”

Julie Gebhardt

Julie Gebhardt

The author, Julie Gebhardt, caught the photo bug three years ago after acquiring an iPhone and reading a New York Times story about Instagram, the social network for sharing photos that’s used by subscribers all over the world (more than 150 million of them by now).

After downloading the app and looking at probably thousands of Instagram posts, Julie, or @juliegeb, began walking around the streets of San Francisco to see what caught her eye. Something as commonplace as building exteriors — walls, doors, windows,IMG_5865 gates — had personality and character when framed by her iPhone lens. She was particularly attracted to things that “are old and a little dingy, or made of cheap quality material, or that show the weathering of time.”

Even today, “I like corrugated metal any time I see it,” she says.  Aging paint, water stains, odd splotches, loose flashing — these may be signs that a building is falling apart or soon to be condemned, but for Julie they add a touch of animation and surprise to the eye, even if the thing itself is a little grim. IMG_1265

I’ve walked right by many of these scenes on my way to important appointments so it’s startling see the allure of decay — an ugliness that appears beautiful to me now, just because Julie decided to shoot them that way.

Sometimes you can detect a story behind the image. In the photo below, doesn’t it look like somebody was spray-painting that light blue color on the door oh, so carefully but messed up enough times with the blotches on the top and lower sides to think, All done! I have to go to an important appointment now — and left it that way? IMG_3313

This kind of Oh Well Art (not her term) happens often, she finds, when people are trying to spiff up or cover up rust or old paint or corrosion. So Julie created hashtags (categories within categories) like #sloppy_job and #graffitipaintout. That way, other subscribers can contribute their own photos, just as she can add to theirs.

For example, the photo on the right below, with its enormous bushy eyebrow sculpted over the door, appears in Julie’s feed as well as another subscriber’s as “Nature’s Comb Over” (#naturescombover).  IMG_8345

Things get a bit more complicated when the idea of intention crops up behind paint jobs of exteriors. When she came upon the brick wall below, for example, Julie believed she saw a Rothkoesque quality to clouds of different-colored paint and was particularly delighted by the unintentionial part, a dangling wire that so beautifully interrupts the action.IMG_5628

Soon she realized that any architectural element such as the drainpipe to the left (what gifted soul decided to paint it blue?) canIMG_6667 be part of that vast creative effort called “street art,” which is constantly percolating and newly visible wherever you look (or someone like @juliegeb looks) on the urban scene.

It was probably inevitable that Julie would make her own artistic decisions. She noticed that the iPhone camera doesn’t allow for much depth, so most of the photos are going to look pretty flat.  Instead seeing this as a problem or weakness, she developed an interest in “two-dimensionality as a style.”

In the photo below, for example, you have to look twice to see that a door is built into the graffiti-covered wall, and that theIMG_8841 artist — maybe commissioned by the building’s owner OR maybe just an unknown  person with half a dozen spray cans in a hurry because police or home owners or neighbors might be near and not happy — took the time to set it off by coloring inside the doorway lines, so to speak.

The startling orange-and-purple facade to the left offers a more dramatic and deliberate use of color that in turn defines the surrounding blocks of tile, wall and brick. And here Julie stands just far away enough so that the iPhone, IMG_5807for all its two-dimensional lens, can’t help itself: the leafy green branches billowing into the upper left corner give this photo unexpected depth and substance.

And this one at right is just a square of yellow wall with a mailbox, wouldn’t you say? (It’s another setting I’d walk right by without noticing.)IMG_8837 But I think because Julie sees a kind of geometrical art in squares upon squares sinking into that joyous yolky color, you can feel your fingertips anticipating the goosebumpy texture of the stucco wall beneath. Somebody also took the time to choose a stylish font for the address –  “the scroll of number 3 is so lovely,” sighs Julie. And there’s even a comical touch to the oval mail slot, which is stamped with the word “MAIL”  in case your letter carrier forgets what it’s there for.

So far, I’ve been talking about intriguing street scenes that Julie turns into photos with an artistic edge. But to get back to this gnawing feeling that something literary is going on in the book,  we need to see if that larger conversation I mentioned actually exists, starting with Julie’s notion of surrender.

You’ve probably assumed a continuing truth about street art is that everything’s changing all the time. Julie says most of the places she’s photographed are gone now — they’ve been taken down, painted over, razed, vandalized or re-graffiti’d shortly afterward, often overnight — which means every walk with her iPhone is going to be different: some new piece of something or overgrowth or fixer-upper or illustration is always going to pop out.

We would expect that to happen with a painting like this, where the beauty and IMG_8178freedom of the artist’s visual language (fascinating when you see it up close) might one day be dismissed as ugly by the owner of that building, who’ll “fix the problem” by covering it up with a layer of paint. That’s just the reality for anybody, artist or vandal, who takes to the street.

But it’s sad to see this enormous (see the pigeons on the sidewalk below), soulful face — part of a mural that Julie discovered in a back alley in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district  — already being eaten away by other people’s graffiti, which has begun to invade the picture from the sides and top.IMG_9945

“I have so much admiration for anonymous muralists who pour their heart and effort into these paintings,” Julie says, “and then just surrender them to the public. The minute they walk away, the art is transformed.”

Very often a sense of humor sneaks in that’s soIMG_5124-1 touching, like a wink from a dying building, that even people on their way to important appointments can’t help but slow down and chuckle.

Speaking of the humor that crops up in street art, while I’m not a fan of comic book art, I but have to say the question depicted in the painting below  — is it the colony of giant ants or the loss of his iPhone that causes this headless guy’s IMG_7942anguish? — offers a funny and arresting comment on modern life.

The always-changing nature of street art makes a person realize that for Julie, everything in a city scape must feel like nature in fast-forward, as in that YouTube video where you see the dead fox decaying and the skin peeling and teeth baring and the bones emerging while the remains of the fox get smaller and smaller until nothing exists in the spot where life once flourished — until the next object like a rock or egg or baby fox rolls into view.

Just as you could walk up to that fox and shoot a thousand different images, so do buildings on the street “host” something new or strange every day that will change in a second. Julie, bless her, respects this phenomenon but does not want to document it. She is not interested in going back to photograph the muralist in tears repainting his subject’s jaw or eyeball in the midst of cooing pigeons because that would be a human interest story and is really none of her business. Her iPhone is not there to intrude.

But it is there to capture the images she treasures. “I broke into a run when I saw this,” she says of the scene below.  “It’s a hillside near the ocean with a little IMG_8171shed in front that has no door and a rotting-away floor that’s full of sand. No roof exists, and the hill above it is bulging down  the back wall.  To think they’d [the owners or the army or the coastal commission] would paint this exterior bright red at some point is amazing to me.”

Right, the red paint, even when fresh, would be lost on the seagulls and snowy plovers that inhabit the coastal dunes, so even the people who built this shed surrendered their casual artistry to the elements at one time. And then Julie came along to capture that incredible mixture of beauty and decay that fits so well with the endless carving-out of cliffs and coast by ocean waves and weather.

The idea of surrender has a literary bent to it, I think –  a writer must surrender the work-in-progress to the reading public or it will never be finished –  but that’s not enough of an answer to my gnawing question about something literary going on in Julie’s mini book of photos.

I do know that just browsing through it gives me the impression that a larger conversation is taking place, and that philosophical connections are being made all over the place.  You can see an obvious example in the way Julie pairs photos in two-page spreads, often using color –  IMG_1122

– or themeIMG_1154–or artistic intentionIMG_1164as her bridge. (Pardon shoddy photos — these were taken of the book with my iPhone and they didn’t come out too good.)

But it’s in the pairing below that this larger conversation really comes out, at least to me, and I do think it has a literary nature. Both images are similar because of the color blue, of course, but it’s their differences that make an impression: the photo on the right emphasizes rigidity and corrugated metal as we have seen, while the photo on the left is fizzing with excitement, tossing about balloony yellows and stringy pinks and sly greens in a 1950s palette gone slightly berserk.IMG_1116

“I shot these two photos on different days,” Julie says, “but they have a relationship that’s more than a happy accident. Maybe it’s the piece of cardboard in each that might have drifted in, or been placed there. Who knows?”

Right, we don’t know anything except what we see: “An insanely dizzy wall on the left that seems to dance around a garbage bin, of all lucky things, across from the quieter but still varying tones, also of blue, in straight lines that nevertheless have a flow to them.”

Hold that thought for a moment as we apply the same curiosity to the photo below. Granted, it’s just IMG_1141a keyhole, one of so many locks that Julie started a hashtag called #keyholelove, to which hundreds if not thousands of Instagram users have already contributed. This one’s got some touches of red and green paint that could be accidental (another #sloppy_job photo?) but seem polished and deliberate.

In fact, says Julie, this keyhole is part of a huge and colorful mural that extends along the backs of several fences in the Mission District of San Francisco (where street murals abound). Of course you don’t have to know the keyhole’s function as a small detail in the overall canvas to sense a certain gravity about it that Julie doesn’t need to interpret: Her eye has focused on this one aspect of the mural, the brass lock. She loves it, and her camera loves it. She shot it close up in a way that makes me, the viewer, love it, too.

But the photo gains in significance when Julie as author puts it next to another picture with a completely blue exterior that also happens to have a keyhole, and this one shines out with no paint on it at all.

IMG_6575I find it kind of amusing that the vast Rococo design of the wrought iron with all its squares and circles, its graceful Xs and Os, its blocks and scrolls and flourishes, started out as just a gate to keep the bad guys out, and then somebody decided to make it stylish and pleasing.  And then again, the whole artistic presence of the thing was designed to fade and recede as the eye zooms in on that tiny, shiny brass keyhole.

Granted, the gate is painted that way to make it easier for the keyholder to find the keyhole. That’s fine. But look what happens when Julie pairs it with the keyhole-in-the-mural:IMG_1130First,  I like the idea of a universe arranging itself around a tiny speck, as we see on the right, placed as it is across the spiral binding from the unique and purposeful image of the similar tiny speck (now so big it’s a universe of its own) on the left. That’s one “conversation” between the pages in which we viewers get to participate (and only if we want to!).

But there’s more. As you flip through the book, every pairing of photos brings up the same Big Idea, something we humans ponder all our life, which may be stated in this way:  Time rushes by so fast in our high-tech, fast-paced world that suddenly we’re old, and our tenure is almost over, so the question is whether it’s possible, while hurrying off to important appointments,  to slow down and actually find meaning in life.

Julie’s book says YES, people may get jaded and hardened by the chaos of street life, but just the act of noticing something like what these pages bring to light can give life meaning. This is hardly an original thought (Buddhists sum it up with the word mindfulness all the time, although that’s more a spiritual practice), but it is an unexpected discovery in a tiny book like Julie’s.

Another question: Does this dialogue between readers and photos happen only as you turn the pages of Julie’s book. Yes again, I think — some kind of power is exchanged even without the presence of text.  For example, look at this: IMG_1155

On the left is a walled-off mausoleum sort of building with heavy columns and portico that’s hard to see because the whole thing is boarded up and surrounded by fences. (Another advantage to iPhones, says, Julie: “The lens is small enough to shoot through the tiniest of holes”).

On the right is such a rare discovery that I’m going to enlarge it below.  Can you guess what it is (I couldn’t at first)? IMG_3150Here’s what happened:  Julie and her husband Allen (also taking pictures but with a “real” camera) got into “this abandoned old warehouse that was entirely covered in graffiti,” she recalls. “The walls, the ceiling, the doors were all drenched in color and shafts of light were streaming down through broken windows, so just being inside, just seeing the character of the place was thrilling.

“Then in the middle of the floor we saw this ruined piano, every key ‘defaced’ by paint and tiny drawings, so I leaned over the keyboard looking straight down and shot it, missing keys and all. What comes forward is so abstract in shapes and colors that all we can see is  transformation.”

Again, we readers don’t have to know that it’s a piano keyboard, because something’s being said in a conceptual way that will come to mean whatever our eye decides it to mean. But what I feel most gripping about it is the way this photo relates to the deadly silent building on the left, which by contrast appears to have been caged up, locked down and blacked out for years. Here it is again:IMG_1155So when I talk about a conversation going on, I don’t mean to say these two photos actually tell us something. I mean there’s a connection here that’s interactive and open to participation with the reader. And when something like that keeps bubbling out of a book, page after page, with the kind of energy that strikes a nerve as deeply as it does in Julie Gebhardt’s teensy spiralbound collection, well, that something is literary.

Admittedly, I get romantic about these things, but because art is subjective, I also get to draw the line.  This photo on the left may IMG_3335-1show us exuberant examples of street art all talking at once  (ain’t the color gorgeous?), thereby forming a remarkable avant-garde image that only Julie Gebhardt can see amidst the mayhem. But I have to admit it’s messy and repugnant to me. If I came upon it in the street, I’d  walk right by with my face turned away. Perhaps  that too is a testament to the author who uses her book to present rather than hit us over the head with what she sees.

But because I’m also the traditional book publishing person, I remember when costs were astronomical and people had to (still have to) fly to China and Italy just to print expensive art books, which the publisher then had to ship to bookstores where very few customers could afford them. And then after a few months the bookseller with heart sinking had to ship the books back to the publisher who either dumped them off as remainders (sale items) in Australia or pulped them regardless of artistic message because nobody ever saw or appreciated the art.

Which brings us to today. Don’t you get weary when people keep asking whether the use of computers and the rise of the Internet are “good” or “bad” for books, for publishing, for bookselling, for reading? The fact is, technology has this infuriating way of changing the world before we know it. Asking questions about its value gets us nowhere. The Internet (like the other universe) is indifferent to human needs and wants.

But if Julie’s book teaches us to slow down and notice things that give life meaning, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the Internet as one big sorting machine that uses a toolbox like Instagram where talented, self-taught people like Julie are actively supported by an international community of millions. By the way, her personal followers total 28,542 as of yesterday.

So if you think a traditional publishing person like me should decry the way websites on the Internet may be gutting mainstream book publishers like Rizzoli, Abrams, Taschen, Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, Aperture and others of the once-honored opportunity to produce gorgeous oversized artbooks that sell comparatively few copies (well, enough to libraries, colleges and some collectors to make a buck);  and also may be robbing independent bookstores of hundred-dollar-plus purchases (Rizzoli’s All the World’s Birds sells for $350, but give them credit, that’s a lot of birds); let’s remember that before the computer revolution, the odds for unknowns like Julie to get anybody in the book industry interested in her potential as an author were zilch, especially for a tiny book like _________ (you see? it doesn’t even have a title).

Today we don’t talk about the bookstore or gallery approach where very few people get to view an art book, let alone buy it. Today we talk about the community approach where Julie felt encouraged to see “nothing precious” about jumping into a rushing stream of 150 million other photographers, and where she is increasingly supported by an audience she built from scratch that loves and appreciates her work.

Plus! It’s not just the mini book she created at Social Print Studio that’s for sale. Five of her photos are featured in This Is Happening, a book about the Instagram phenomenon from Chronicle Books. The wonderfully named Casetify has snazzied up many iPhone

Julie Gebhart iPhone case

iPhone case from Casetify by Julie Gebhardt

cases with Julie’s images, such as the one on the right, and thanks to Blurb.com an even more adventurous 60-page collection of Julie’s photos is available in hardcover ($36.95) and softcover ($25.99).

You can buy her photos at all sizes and in different frames, and at least one museum has displayed photos like this one below, which shows Julie finding a way to bring depth to that tricky two-dimensional style, after all (note the teensy red chair to the right: another speck in the universe! Okay, will stop here.)

IMG_4880I’ve probably finished “reading” Julie’s book a dozen times by now, and I always come away  thinking that the next time I start to dismiss some discomfiting  image on  the urban landscape, I’ll have been taught by Julie to notice if there’s something creatively interesting, even frameable there, for me.  And I’ll ponder more about it because of the book’s continuing conversation.

That’s all I’ve learned from the blessed thing, and yet what I’ve learned is kind of monumental. After all, when “real life” is out there calling, you want to have the eye to see it.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘According to Our Records…’

Of the many chilling scenarios Dave Eggers lays out in his futuristic novel, The Circle (Vintage; 512 pages; $15.95) the one that scares the dickens (not Charles!) out of me popped up in emails recently from two fundraising political groups, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Eggers is not a great writer of fiction (a bit clunky and shallow) but his warning about tyrannical forces growing at Internet companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others is both visionary and truly terrifying.

This illustration is not from the book -- it's Apple's proposed new campus in Cupertino, Calif.

This illustration is not from the book — it’s Apple’s proposed new campus in Cupertino, Calif.

The story follows Mae, a talented Internet worker who lands a job answering customers’ questions at The Circle, the most powerful corporation in Silicon Valley.

The perks there are plentiful, some unusual — not just state-of-the-art fitness programs, gourmet cuisine, a daycare center, famous people giving TED-type talks at lunch; but also a bocce court, dog kennel, dormitory, all-night parties, national candidates holding town hall meetings and fantastic art everywhere (a Calder mobile hangs in the 40-foot atrium).

Business terms at The Circle have been renamed to reflect a warm, happy, never judgmental, always positive and inclusive atmosphere. Mae isn’t employed by a corporation, for example — she’s part of a “culture.”  The Circle doesn’t exist on company property; it has a “campus.” Mae doesn’t work in Building A, B or C; she works in a glass-and-oxidized-copper environment called Renaissance.

How can Mae best rate her job success?  Well, no stuffy performance reviews are conducted, no boss makes impatient demands. Instead, customers respond to surveys after Mae helps them, and soon questions from The Circle pop up in her email, such as (I’m paraphrasing), “Do you understand why you might want a 99.5% success rate rather than a 99.4?”

Glazed spheres at proposed Amazon campus will provide "a comfortable, park like place to brainstorm."

Glazed spheres at proposed Amazon campus will provide “a comfortable, park like place to brainstorm.”

But the best part of The Circle is its elaborate network of social groups. There seem to be hundreds of them, and no matter who you are, a perfect fit is possible for all sorts of people with multiple interests.

Say you’re a parent with a disabled child; a lover of bridge who likes to hike; a French-speaking gourmet who plays left-handed tennis. Groups are available to help you improve every hobby/recreation/pastime/career/recovery program/golf swing/wine appreciation/spiritual interest/Ken Ken score.

And if you forget to join a group, don’t worry — The Circle knows, and soon a query arrives (still paraphrasing): We’ve noticed your love of word games and research on chlamydia make you a perfect candidate for the Scrabble Fans with SIDs group …

And so the net descends.  One needn’t have read George Orwell’s novel, 1984, to know that routine collection of information about employees’ professional and personal activities can become a way of life without anybody blinking an eye. Soon everything about you is known to somebody.

I don’t work for a company like Mae’s but recently started wondering about the a net descending from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Samsung's new campus will "feature sports facilities, cafes and 'collaboration zones' "

Samsung’s new campus will “feature sports facilities, cafes and ‘collaboration zones’ “

I subscribed to these websites for updates and have contributed small amounts of money.  Soon emails for more donations arrived — fine, that was expected — and with them came the phony “personalized” plea in which a computer shoves your name in the text to make you feel appreciated.

The tone sounded a little desperate –

“Look, you’ve received a number of emails from us about all of this — but this is deeply important. PATRICIA HOLT”

– but who cared.  I was accustomed to the increasingly sensational declarations (“Mitch is FURIOUS,” “Boehner is CRYING”), and to the fact that “they” — the anonymous operators behind these websites —  liked to show that an official file existed on me with a long and important- sounding identity code:

Name: Patricia Holt

Supporter Record: VN96C9W3FW0″

And “they” liked to use hyperbole (“we actually have SERIOUSLY INCREDIBLE news”) and suggest that tiny invasions of privacy had already been accomplished:

“We know that everyone from President Obama to Sen. Warren has emailed you…”

(It’s funny: I expected Obama’s name, but Elizabeth Warren? Let’s leave her out of this.)

And soon they liked to demonstrate that I was being watched a little more blatantly than usual:

“PATRICIA HOLT: According to our records, you haven’t chipped in yet to fight Boehner’s lawsuit.”

Maybe it was the word “yet” that did it, meaning they’re waiting for me to kick in.  The voice wasn’t terribly Orwellian, but it did have a hint of swagger, of knowing too much, of applying pressure and expecting right behavior.

So I unsubscribed (not that it’ll do any good), but I keep wondering: Is this how it starts?  A tone that gets increasingly personal, a dismissal of privacy, a hint of something threatening?  — and will I ever really get rid of them?

In The Circle, Mae makes the mistake of trading a bit of her identity for every step up the corporate ladder. By the time she reaches the inner circle, we worry that her voice — once so independent, so insightful — will sound like everybody else’s.

Eggers, however, is not only saying that power is seductive. He’s saying that that today, right now, we the people are giving away our power for really stupid stuff.

Facebook's proposed housing campus will bring employees within walking distance to the office.

Facebook’s proposed housing campus will bring employees within walking distance to the office.

You think grocery-delivering drones from Amazon are a cute idea? Watch them turn into darling mechanical stalkers near Mae’s office. Don’t we all want more transparency from public figures? After reading The Circle, we’ll wish for more Anthony Wieners. Won’t “company towns” (nearby housing) give Internet employees more time to create new ideas?  Exactly: soon office and home will be so comfortable that nobody will venture off-campus again.

You can’t help looking up from the book to ask similar questions of real life: For example, aren’t micro-donations of $5 or $10 the new thing today? Don’t they stand for the kind of democratized funding that balances the scales against billionaire bigots like the Koch brothers?  Isn’t this version of “one-click” the new way to rebuild the Democratic Party?

Well, maybe that’s the way quickie $5 donations started. But then like so many Internet phenomena, it wasn’t enough. Sign a petition, fill out a survey, give a few bucks, put your signature on Obama’s birthday card (huh? why, I would never … )  and “they” have their hooks in you for more and more and more. Emails were pouring in, ostensibly from Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, GOP Shutdown Watch, Democrats 2014, requests@dscc, rapid-response@dscc, alert@dscc, updates@dccc, urgent@dscc, breaking@dscc, Democratic Headquarters, DCCC Rapid Response, Stop the GOP, polling-alert@dscc, paul@dscc, Patrick McHugh, Matt Kehres (DSCC Digital Director), Kay Hagan, Julia Ager (DSCC Rapid Response Coordinator), Jennifer O’Malley (Senior Advisor), DSCC Grassroots Victory, Democratic Victory, Emily Bittner (DCCC National Press Secretary) and many others including (sob) Elizabeth Warren, all with addresses going back to info@dscc.org or info@dccc.org.

For me, this guilt-inducing, name-calling, threat-evoking, whack-a-mole approach to fundraising ain’t the Democratic Party I want to support.  And, sorry to say, faced with similar emails from others, I’m close to feeling that way about Emily’s List, Food Democracy Now, MoveOn, Credo, Courage Campaign, Environment California and a bunch of groups I used to believe in.

 

 

 

Thank You, Roger

Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wanted to knock each other’s block off frequently on their TV show, as shown in the provocative documentary Life Itself, that’s just been released.

arguing

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert bring it on

But their unique chemistry will always be missed, I think, because they brought to the screen two very different (and often opposing) approaches to the art of reviewing.

Ebert was the objective critic who emphasized reason over personal opinion. He never gave thumbs-up to a movie without offering evidence — images, themes, plot, dialogue, etc. — to support his argument.

Siskel was the subjective one. He used the “I” voice a great deal, as if to say that personalizing a movie was the only way to view it critically. Siskel saw himself as a kind of Everyman who didn’t need to prove his point — after all, if he liked something, it had to be good.

So Siskel might say, “I was impressed by the director’s decision to … ” or “I laughed out loud in the scene where … ” or “I hated it when she ….”

Whereas Ebert might say, “the suspense builds when he …. ” or “she’s in love because … ” or “a strong foundation is laid early when ….”

On the set of 'Siskel and Ebert and the Movies'

On the set of ‘Siskel and Ebert and the Movies’

Of the dozens of great examples you can find on YouTube, a favorite of mine is the navy courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, Ebert turned thumbs-down on the film because, he said, “the script fatally undermines the key scene in the whole movie.” His evidence:  Tom Cruise’s character tells us exactly how he’s going to trap the bad guy (played by Jack Nicholson) before Nicholson takes the stand.

“Now why would a screenplay give away a surprise like that?” Ebert asked. “Why didn’t they figure we were smart enough to see the courtroom scene and figure out for ourselves what it was Cruise was trying to do, and then see if Nicholson falls for it or not?”

Siskel conceded that A Few Good Men was “a predictable movie” but gave it thumbs-up anyway. “The screenplay was surprising for what it didn’t do,” which he found delightful: This movie brought together two gorgeous Hollywood actors, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, whose characters don’t fall in love or end up in bed. Watching Ebert try to hide his revulsion over what he saw as indulgent and foolish on Siskel’s part is half the fun.

Sometimes Ebert got so personally offended by a movie that he sounded more subjective than Siskel. This was the case with Blue Velvet, a controversial film that was called “a masterpiece” by some and “sick and depraved” by others.

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signal

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signs

Siskel took his Everyman approach to the film by saying he was thrilled by the movie’s sexually kinky, often perverted theme.  “I sat there and this (movie) did for me … what Psycho did when I was a lot younger, which is, ‘eyes open and oh, my god, we’re really getting in over our heads.’ And that’s an experience which is challenging, shocking, but mesmerizing. And I liked the picture.”

Ebert blasted Blue Velvet for being “cruelly unfair to its actors.” He criticized director David Lynch for “asking [the star] Isabel Rossellini to be undressed and humiliated on the screen as few actresses ever have been, certainly in non porno roles.”

Siskel scoffed at this, saying that Isabel Rossellini was a big girl who could get over any embarrassment she felt from the movie, just as Janet Leigh had after the shower scene in Psycho.

Ebert believed that at the very least, the director was inconsistent. By the end, “[Lynch] tries to take the edge off [Rosselini's] shocking scenes by turning the whole thing into some kind of a joke. Well, either this material is funny, in which case you don’t take advantage of your stars, or it isn’t funny, in which case it shouldn’t have so much campy and adolescent dialog along with the really powerful sexual scenes.”

In a dismissive tone that makes you realize why he could irritate Ebert so easily, Siskel intimated that a critic’s job is to review the movie, not worry about the actors’ or viewers’ reactions.

“We can’t divorce our reactions,” Ebert said hotly. “It’s not how Isabel Rosselini reacts to the fact she’s standing there nude and humiliated on the lawn of the police captain’s house with lots of people watching.  It’s how I react, and that’s painful to me to see a woman treated like that, and I want to know that if I’m feeling that pain, it’s for a reason the movie has, other than simply to cause pain to her” (my italics).

Wow.  It’s tempting at this point to think of Roger Ebert as a budding feminist rather than an objective critic, but then, his use of the “I” voice refers less to himself or the audience and more to the integrity of the movie. To Ebert’s mind, every viewer has the right to demand that a film tell us which way it’s going to go — from cheap manipulation to creative vision — especially when the emotions we feel because of that movie are painful. If the director is going to equivocate around and debase his actors for no artistic reason, everyone should be infuriated.

last photo

Thank you, Roger

Ebert wrote more than 20 books in his lifetime, but I think he’ll be remembered as a true film scholar with a genius for critical conversation. Siskel had a gift for talking about the movies, too, but he never reached as high or took as many risks as Ebert did. It was only when the two were sniping and griping at each other that they hit a nerve between art and commerce, and then we all got to pitch in.

 

A Glorious Mess, But a Mess

When my book group read the novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, we were surprised at how breathtakingly beautiful it could be, yet how “boring and muddled” at the same time.

Eng’s book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and won the Man Asian Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This seemed incredible to us.

“What were they thinking?” members of the group asked about judges of these awards — and about critics who praised the novel but never mentioned its serious flaws.

Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng

This is why I love book groups — we get to take the book apart put it back together again. We talk about what works and what doesn’t, and by the end, so many points of view are expressed that the book changes — deepens, opens, enlarges — before our eyes.

On the Good Side

One of Eng’s talents lies in capturing a moment so vividly that you can almost hear the camera click. This is one, set in the stillness of a Japanese garden deep in a Malaysian forest:

            “In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.”

Reading quotes aloud lets us sink collectively into the gorgeousness — pardon my teenage hyperbole — of the author’s writing style.

This one below prompted gasps of admiration, even though everyone had already read it. On a makeshift runway at the end of World War II, when Japan knows it’s lost the war, a reluctant kamikaze pilot revs up the engines for a suicide mission.

            “The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. paperback edition

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” U.S. paperback edition

These quiet reflections can be missed in the heat of a violent story, but what pops out over and over is Eng’s unbelievable vocabulary.  He seems to have a gift for inserting a single, sometimes exotic, always completely unexpected word in an otherwise matter-of-fact sentence.

Here, for instance, is what happens when Yun Ling, the narrator of the novel, takes a breath in cold weather:

“I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath shape this cobweb of air that only a second ago had been inside me  …”

There’s nothing unusual about watching one’s breath take shape in the chilly air, but the word “cobweb” is so visual and unusual that it transports us right into the scene.

Eng tosses these linguistic bon-bons into sentences all over the place — “the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops,” for example. Or “the lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.” Rather than refer to the sides of mountains, the narrator chooses a more tactile, even voluptuous word:

            “The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of morning melting down their flanks.”

Here’s the last glimpse of a morning sky: “The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.” At twilight, “above the trees, the line of mountains serrated the sky.”  Water pouring over a cliff “broaden(ed) into a white feather as it fell ….”

Sometimes Eng changes the point of view — as below, from human to insect — before we realize what’s happening:

        “At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s light bulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.”

At other times, Eng deliberately confuses visual and audible words so that the sound of a bird’s wings, which humans almost never hear, inspires the sight of natural forces we never see. This occurs when a pair of storks fly off a treetop as the narrator watches:

           “It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.”

On the Bad Side

So while we admired Eng’s artistic precision, it was a huge disappointment to watch this potentially stunning work of fiction turn clumsy, amateurish and awkward.  Eng’s characters are at times stiff and wooden, the story ragged, the dialogue inauthentic and the writing so heavy-handed that it drags the whole novel down.

"The Garden of Evening Mists," U.S. hardcover

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” hardcover edition

Most irritating to me, the stickler of the group, is Eng’s dependence on sentences that begin with present-participle phrases (the “ing” version of a verb), like this:

Going behind a stand of bougainvillea trees, I enter a bower of low-hanging branches … ”

Wincing at the pain in my knees, I kneel at the oldest gravestone … ”

There’s nothing wrong with one or two of these “ing” phrases in a novel, but Eng has developed a kind of addiction to them that lands two or three on a page.

Soaking my hands one evening, I heard..”

Wrapping a hand towel around my left hand, I went…”

Gesturing them to the rattan chairs, I went …”

I’m not saying that readers throw up their hands and say, “Oh no, participial phrases, shoot me now!” Quite the opposite — most people don’t see the problem and just keep reading. In time, however, a sing-songy rhythm emerges that makes the best writing sound childish. Our eye grows weary of sameness of style; even poetic writing will sound as sluggish as mud.

For Eng the problem gets worse when he breaks the rules of grammar by creating that bad boy of English grammar, the DDM (Dreaded Dangling Modifier).  This is simply the “ing” word describing the wrong thing, as in this sentence: .

Turning (the envelope) over, a thin wooden stick…fell out onto my desk.”

Well, it ain’t the stick that’s turning the envelope over, it’s the narrator. A simple fix, following the author’s sentence construction, might read like this:

            “Turning (the envelope) over, I saw a thin wooden stick fall out onto my desk.”

Again, most readers aren’t conscious of the Dreaded Dangling Modifier, but they’ll stumble over it just the same, and after a while, confusion will register.  The sad part here is how easily Eng’s sentences could be corrected, perhaps like this (again following the author’s sentence construction):

            Mistake: “Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital filled me with disquiet … ”

            Suggested fix: “Entering Tanah Rata, I was filled with disquiet at the sight of the former Army Hospital … ”

            Mistake: “Being the only child…my father’s main purpose in life was cultivating the fortune… ”

            Suggested fix: “Being the only child, my father discovered that his main purpose in life was to cultivate the fortune… ”

            Mistake: “Sinking lower into the tub, the stiffness in my body slowly dissolved… ”

           Suggested fix: “Sinking lower into the tub, I felt the stiffness in my body …”

"The Garden of Evening Mists," British paperback

“The Garden of Evening Mists,” British paperback

Some book group members looked at these sentences and said, “Sheesh! Where was the editor?” Who could blame them?  DDMs are fixable problems that a professional should spot and correct immediately.

Still, I’ve always felt that question isn’t  appropriate because in a way it’s none of our business. As critics and readers, we don’t know how bad the manuscript was when the author turned it in. It could have had a thousand DDMs, most of them caught and fixed by heroic editors, but a few allowed to remain since they were cherished by the author, who refused to have them corrected. Hard to believe but this happens.

Or it could be that the publishing house just doesn’t care. In the midst of huge upheavals facing the book industry, especially the corporate-takeover era that initially cut editorial budgets and inflated marketing departments, fewer and fewer editors get to read the manuscript all the way through, let alone try to maintain editorial standards.  Typos should never exist in a published book. But in the paperback edition with an Author’s Commentary in the back, this sentence makes to sound as though nobody’s even decided on British or American spelling:

Yun Ling realises realizes this when she leads a group of visitors ….

To me, the greater tragedy is the trickle-down effect. In the current issue of Essence, a magazine for young African American women that I’ve admired for years (it’s way too commercial now but that’s another story), two bylined columns about the subject of “body love” begin with DDM mistakes:

            Mistake: “As a kid, my feet seemed to grow faster than my body.”

            Suggested fix: “As a kid, I noticed my feet growing faster…”

            Mistake: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, people naturally assume I’m an athlete.”

            Suggested fix: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, I am often mistaken for an athlete.”

These are the lead sentences in an important feature for the magazine, and sure, readers may not notice the tiny bit of confusion created by DDMs, but the lack of clarity will have an effect. In magazines, you have no time to horse around! If you don’t sweep every story clean of mistakes, readers will go off and play Candy Crush in a second.

Eng's first novel, "The Gift of Rain"

Eng’s first novel, “The Gift of Rain”

The great joy of the Internet, I think, is that we’re all writers of record somehow. We send out a tweet or text or an article or a book as do millions of others, and one way to separate our message from the chaos around is to write clearly and accurately, even gracefully, with our readers’ needs in mind.

Premature Awards

For book industry observers, this brings up a related problem concerning judges of literary prizes who want to encourage young writers by giving them prizes too early.  These judges forget that awards exist to celebrate excellence, not to help authors get better.

In fact the reverse is what happens. You can’t expect promising writers to improve if they’re given the kind of accolades that Eng received when his first book, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  Maybe that’s the reason The Garden of Evening Mists is such a mess — a glorious mess, mind you, and well worth reading, but in terms of literary awards, a mess that shouldn’t even be in the running.

And Yet

And yet, how my book group rooted for Tan Twan Eng!  We loved his potential so much that we’d like to sit him down and say, “No more dangling modifiers for you! Get rid of those participial phrases and concentrate on your friggin’ gifts!”

P.S. I can’t leave The Garden of Evening Mists without providing one delicious chunk of Eng’s stunning narrative, warts and all (with a real beaut of a DDM in the middle). It’s too long at the end of this already too-long column, so i’ll post it next time.

 

Use Your Words, Not Your Fists

Let’s say you’re the publisher at the New York Times and you know that an executive editor is slamming her fist into the newsroom walls so hard that holes appear in the plaster. These holes are so unsightly that other employees have placed wall maps over them to cover the damage.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times

It’s not a rumor — the editor is known for this behavior, and you know it keeps happening. The company has a Workplace Violence Prevention Program* that  states even the threat of violence can be grounds for dismissal, so of course you, the head of the New York Times, are gravely concerned.

*Note to reader: These days just about every major company has this kind of policy. I’m assuming the Times does, too, but don’t know for sure.

So: to the question: Should you fire this person?

Let’s add that you call this editor into your office and say, “Your admirable work here means nothing now!  Don’t you realize we have a policy against any violence in the workplace, and that this policy  leaves me no choice? Personally, I can’t believe you’ve been slamming your fists in the walls here, at  America’s newspaper of record! People here are dedicated to the power of words (not fists).”

I bring this up because as we know, it isn’t a woman who’s been slamming her fist in the walls at the New York Times — it’s Dean Baquet, the former managing editor who worked for Jill Abramson, and who’s now replaced Jill as top editor.

Dean Baquet

Dean Baquet

Of course, nothing was said about Dean’s fist-slamming when publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired Jill a few weeks ago. No, most of the talk (some of it by Arthur) concerned Jill’s behavior  – she consulted a lawyer over salary matters; she hired a co-managing editor without checking with Dean; she was “difficult,” “stubborn and condescending,” and so forth.

When people questioned whether Jill was fired because she was a woman, Dean came forward. He granted an interview to National Public Radio to assure listeners that this was not so. The “turmoil” surrounding his promotion was over, he said. And he wanted to make an unequivocal statement.

“I do not believe Jill was fired over gender,” he said.

So there you have it, and thank you, Dean.

More important, here’s what he really meant:

“I get to stay because I’m a man.”

Oh, excuse me, did my finger slip on the font-size key?  Well, let’s leave that statement as big as it is, because what other reason could there be?   Dean admitted  he’s been throwing fits as well as fists in the newsroom for some time now, and everybody knew about it.

Am I going out on a limb here to say out loud what we all know is true?  That a woman would never have been able to get away with actions like that?  Shoving your fist through a wall because your boss overruled you?  And doing it a LOT?  And not being embarrassed by a newsroom covered with wall maps to hide behavior that’s in direct contradiction to workplace policy?

Oh, all right, Dean says. Now that punching walls is out in the open, he’s going to be a good guy and open up about it.

“I feel bad about that,” he told Politico magazine. “The newsroom doesn’t need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum.”  Gee, ya think?

Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson

Then, coming to Jill’s defense like the fair-minded man he sees himself to be, Dean said:  ”I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer. That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”

Isn’t that sweet.  He’s not saying Jill’s the “bitchy woman” — that’s what others have said. He’s the humble guy accepting that second role, the one where he’s the … well, he’s characterized as … Wait a minute, Dean sees himself as The guy who is sort of calmer?

Maybe Dean is just a selective puncher.  When it comes to why he’s sometimes capable of slugging things and sometimes not, he says this: “In each case, I was mad at somebody above me in rank. It’s not an excuse, but it is a fact.”

Well, Arthur, you old publisher on the top of the Times’ power chain, I’d watch my chin if I were you.

 

Reading the News Critically

I’m not a fan of former Secretary of Labor (2001-2009) Elaine Chao, but I don’t like snarky put-downs masquerading as news stories, either.

Elaine Chao and then president George Bush

Elaine Chao with president George Bush

Take the front-page article in the New York Times last week by Jason Horowitz about Chao and her husband, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who’s currently up for re-election.

“At Harvard Business School,” it begins, “Elaine L. Chao kept card files on her classmates, then later kept tabs on their careers.”

Fine. Not sure what it means, and “kept tabs” is never explained, but okay.

Sentence #2: “As labor secretary, (Chao) had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief, and employed a Veep-like staff member who carried around her bag.”

Goodness. Somebody carried her bag when she was a Cabinet member? I wonder if Secretary of State John Kerry ever tells an assistant to carry his briefcase when he shakes hands with, you know, the Pope or Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel. I bet his career would topple.

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

New York Times article, May 13, 2014

The word Veep in the article refers to the TV comedy show about the Vice President of the United States, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as petty, narcissistic, manipulative and incompetent.  Because she’s followed around by silly and obsequious assistants, the NYT’s mention of Chao and her “Veep-like staff member” is meant to be disparaging.  There are no quotes, no sources, no photos to support this contention because hey, this is gossip disguised as news. It’s simply too catty for attribution.

As to the “gold colored coins,” these were given out at a competition among rescue teams at the Mine Safety and Health Administration — an agency Chao directed as Labor Secretary. I doubt she “minted” these souvenirs like a despot starting a new currency. But putting her name in “bas-relief”?  I dunno, maybe it was an act of hubris. If so, let’s see it!  How many taxpayers dollars were spent on the things? Show us the budget!

In fact, the purpose of this piece is not to provide proof of any claims but to show, according to the headline, how Senator Mitch McConnell is “Girding for a Fight” in his reelection campaign and “Enlists His Wife” to help him.

No news there, right?  A lot of politicians ask their spouses to help with campaigns — it would be odd if McConnell didn’t.  And it must be a plus that Chao, “renowned for her strong sense of self,” whatever that means (and “renowned” by whom?), “can recite the names of people who have donated to her husband – and how much they gave, friends say.”

Oh, those friends, how they gossip.  “Those who have encountered Ms. Chao describe her as an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.”

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

Chao and McConnell after winning the primary May 21

In the context of the article, this has an accusatory ring, making Chao sound ruthless and Machiavellian. But why?  For someone in politics, isn’t being “an unapologetically ambitious operator” a compliment? And as to “a short fuse,” everybody from Bill Clinton to John McCain is said to have one of those, so it  must be okay for a woman to have one, too, right? (Why, look at Jill Abramson, the first woman editor of the New York Times! Or wait a minute….)

But then we learn the worst. Elaine Chao may attend football games at Louisville, but “she wears dark sunglasses so that she can furtively doze off.”  Whoa, who said that?  Would you call the source reliable?  Is there a source or did the reporter make it up?

At a time when newspapers are dying, and journalistic standards continue to fade into the chaos of Internet voices all shouting at once,  it’s important to recognize “news” stories that replace fact with innuendo and sources with generalities like “those who,” and “friends say.”

Most of the time,  I’m grateful for the New York Times. Regardless of its own management chaos, it’s accurately portrayed as the nation’s newspaper/website of record. But that means you don’t put a hit piece on the front page of the news section.  If you do, you should be called on it.

 

A Thought While Reading ‘The Goldfinch’

I’m not sure The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt deserves the Pulitzer Prize. It’s way too long (771 pages), and the pace mires down way too often.  Early promises aren’t fulfilled, the characters are more adored than developed, and parts of the narrative turn preachy and patronizing.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

Yet I loved the reading of it for the most part. Observations and insights are so rich that I don’t really care what the story is about, especially when it comes to themes about art and the flow of people’s lives around art objects.

Take the narrator’s mother, a self-taught art buff who’s rushing Theo, her 13-year-old son, through an exhibit of Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It’s hard to like this character’s air of false cosmopolitanism (“Oh, drat,” she exclaims at the first sign of rain). But her regard for these paintings is so exuberant and her knowledge so intriguing that (like other people in the museum) I want to sidle up close to hear everything she has to say.

“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters — ripeness sliding into rot,” she says gaily as they move quickly toward the Rembrandt painting at the heart of the show, The Anatomy Lesson.

Theo has viewed this image on the exhibit poster so many times that he now sees only “the same old corpse with the flayed arm,” but his mother reveals much more as they slow down before it.

The men in the painting are “very naturalistic,” she begins.

'The Anatomy Lesson'

‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“But then — she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger — “the body isn’t painted in a very natural way at all, if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it — make it jump out at us.”

The novel itself never shows us a picture of anything, but we end up sharing her fascination with the flayed arm because Tartt articulates the mother’s excitement about it so perfectly.

Closeup of the flayed arm in 'The Anatomy Lesson'

Closeup of the flayed arm in ‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“See how (the artist Fabritius) calls attention to it by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see?  Well, he didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand — we see it immediately, something very wrong — but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick.”

Okay, a trick (it looks okay to me), but why would the artist do that? we wonder, waiting for Theo to ask this very question. However at that moment, the boy’s attention has wandered to a girl nearby with bright red hair and “golden honeybee brown eyes” –  a girl who is “too thin, all elbows, and in a way almost plain, yet there was something about her too that made my stomach go watery.”

This happens before his mother moves smoothly on to the real gem she wants Theo to see, The Goldfinch of the novel’s title. It’s “a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition,” Theo tells us –

image of 'The Goldfinch'

image of ‘The Goldfinch’

although he’s also inclining his head to get another glimpse of the girl and the grandfatherly man accompanying her –  “and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”

It doesn’t register at first, but that small looping chain and “twig of an ankle” will return to our memory in a subliminal way for the next 700 pages. As will dozens (I’m still counting) of other references, each looked at first from an odd angle and later more provocatively, causing us to remember and wonder each time we leave the page or screen.

For instance, Tartt knows enough about Amsterdam and Las Vegas to take us to these cities in vivid, visual detail. But she is eloquent about New York City,  particularly when Theo finds his bleak mood reflected in a simple walk down Lexington Ave. Though he bypasses subway stations to “clear my mind” (to further mess up his mind, is what he means), the city is there, as always, it seems,  to mirror anyone’s deepening despair.

“… weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like a stone.”

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

Tartt doesn’t allow many lengthy sentences in The Goldfinch and seems to dismiss stream-of-consciousness as a cheap trick. So this passage is a rare surprise. It’s risky and wordy and malaise-ridden — and for some readers incredibly true.

Again I wouldn’t give a literary award for The Goldfinch, but when the writing is enthralling on every page, you have to say the author deserves a lot of credit.

 

 

 

 

On Language: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Changes the World

Is it possible to change the language?

Can you convince the world to stop (or to start) using certain words? Or does the culture have to evolve by itself, and take a long time doing it, before old words filter out and new words filter in?

I used to think you could never tell people how to speak or what to say. In the street, for example, you can’t say, “Stop calling me a bitch,” and expect the men following you to apologize and stop using the word. They’re more likely to laugh and use it again, or taunt and heckle, or move closer.  Better to just look down, say nothing and get out of there fast.

Until, that is, something like the image below appears out of nowhere with an unequivocal message, Stop telling WOMEN to smile.

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: 'Stop telling WOMEN to smile'

Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: ‘Stop telling WOMEN to smile’

It’s one of a series of posters by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that began showing up on buildings throughout Brooklyn in 2012.  I saw my first in Oakland, California, a month ago, and it took my breath away.  The gaze is unapologetic, direct, powerful and as clear as its challenge-in-print.

Fazlalizadeh has made dozens of these posters by now. The process usually begins, she told The Guardian in a video interview, with a conversation in which she asks women how it feels to walk in the street alone (“uncomfortable and unsafe” is where most of them start). She takes a photo and draws their portrait, pulls a concise statement out of the discussion and creates the poster so fast that she’s out pasting up copies before the ink dries. (She also makes her own paste.)

The women in these posters turn to confront their adversaries directly.  My name is not BABY, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma, says one. The message is so bold and so true that the paper and the wall behind it tend to disappear.

'My outfit is NOT an invitation'

‘My outfit is NOT an invitation’

You are not ENTITLED to my space, says another.  The words have their own power, but it’s the gaze that nails you.  No, you can’t talk to me for a MINUTE. Without a physical body to threaten or diminish, the poster arrests, shocks, resists and lingers in memory.

We know this because men began trying to reply, in writing and on the posters themselves, almost as soon as Fazlalizadeh began putting them up.

The poster on the left reads: 'WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation'

The poster on the left reads: ‘WOMEN do not owe you their time or conversation’

“Really,” the exasperated women in these posters seem to say, “do I have to make this message so obvious?” Many of the handwritten responses are angry and combative, but the project hit a new dimension when male feminists picked up on Fazlalizadeh’s subtle humor.

'STOP telling women to smile' 'START giving them reasons to!'

‘STOP telling women to smile. START giving them reasons to!’

This young man to the right takes her point, for example, and suggests a way to have fun with it, too. Soon Fazlalizedah began collecting what might be called DIY poster-selfies from a new and responsive fan base.

Today you can buy posters and t-shirts from Project STWTS to help support Fazlalizedah’s work, and the Internet has already done its job by spreading the word internationally.

But she is still a lone person trying to change the world. Which brings us back to the question: Can you tell people to stop using certain words because it’s just the right thing to do?  I still think the answer in most cases is no.  (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? We won’t go into that now.)  But there is this:  Every time a person chances upon the unwavering stare and message of one of her posters, Tatyana Fazlalizedah shows us the power of art. And art, as we know, can change the world.

Future posts: More On Language from Pussy Riot to BanBossy.com

You could try co-opting the power of words like “bitch” or “dyke” by embracing them as your own, but when they’re hurled at you in hatred, these words still have the power to hurt and offend.

The Art of the Movie Tie-in — Part II

Here we are again looking at the movie tie-in edition of 12 Years a Slave, which shows actor Chiwetel Ejiofor running for his life as the slave Solomon Northup. The photo so beautifully communicates Northup’s excruciating fear that it was chosen as the “brand” for both movie and tie-in edition.

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in from Penguin Books

It’s okay with me that this specific scene isn’t in the movie (more about this later), but I wish the publisher had at least hinted on the cover that the original book is more than an extension of the movie experience.

To me, that’s the art of the movie tie-in, showing that print can sometimes be better, wilder and more adventurous, more escapist and engaging, more colorful and even more intimate and immediate than any movie on a screen.

A Pivotal Episode (Not in the Movie)

What’s in the book that doesn’t appear in the movie?

No motion picture can capture the entirety of a book, but in the case of 12 Years a Slave I was surprised to see a key passage omitted that occurs about 90 pages in. This occurs when Northup clashes for a second time with the vicious white carpenter, John Tibeats.  The movie shows us the first conflict (Northup’s near-hanging) but leaves out this more riveting episode, when Tibeats comes after him with a hatchet, and Northup has no choice but to run for it.

Behind him Solomon hears Tibeats release the plantation’s dogs — each a “savage breed” of hound and pit bull “trained to attack a negro” and capable of running faster than a slave can run.

We’ve learned by now that the swamp is eerily silent, so it’s doubly terrifying for Northup to “hear [the bloodhounds] crashing and plunging through the palmettoes, their loud, eager yells making the whole swamp clamorous with the sound.”

The dogs are 80 feet behind him when Northup reaches the swamp, hoping they’ll lose his scent in the murky green water. “Most slaves are not allowed to learn the art of swimming,” he writes, which is why plantation owners used swamps to keep slaves from escaping. But Northup learned to swim as a child in the North and is relieved to feel his ankles, knees and chest sinking into the thick marsh water as he plows ahead.

But now the real danger begins. “Great slimy reptiles” loom out of the water everywhere — poisonous water moccasins slithering over every “log and bog,” and “alligators great and small, lying in the water or on pieces of floodwood,” inches away. Continue reading

Tennis v. Shootout, Anyone?

It used to be a cliche in the theater what whenever a playwright wanted to clear the stage so that principle characters could talk alone, an actor in white shorts would rush in waving a racquet and shout, “Tennis, anyone?”

Then all the people who weren’t needed for the next scene would race off.

Bringing in the Greek god

Bringing in the Greek god

A similar device in Greek theater is known as deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” which means that when human characters confront an unsolvable problem, the playwright flies in a god to fix it. In Greek times, a visible machine with a crane was used that the audience pretended not to notice, thus granting the gods their divine power.

In the 20th century, the transition to a new kind of deus ex machina was attributed to actor Humphrey Bogart. After reporters asked for years if he made the Tennis, Anyone? device famous, Bogart told a Hollywood columnist in 1948:

“I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: ‘Tennis anybody?’ It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way, I come in with a gun and bump ‘em off.”

Picture of Bogart with gun

Bogart clearing the room

Amazing, isn’t it? The entertainment world changed this plot device from a mild invitation to play tennis to a deadly attack by gunshot. In the process, you might say that Tennis, Anyone? turned into Shootout, Anyone? and the guy with the pistol became a criminal version of deux ex machina.

Today the phrase,Tennis, Anyone? is a catch-all for the kind of phony contrivance you see when, for example, a TV actor like Josh Charles, who plays attorney Will Gardner on The Good Wife, refuses to renew his contract.

That was the “gut punch” that Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife, confessed knocked the stuffing out of them when Charles’ made his surprise decision to quit the program. They felt backed into a corner, and who could blame them?  Will Gardner’s passion for protagonist Alicia Florrick had become central to the show’s enormous success over four seasons.

How to get rid of the lead romantic interest? A new version of Tennis, Anyone? — like a judge rushing in with a basketball, asking,  “Pick-up game, anyone?” — had been used before, when Will got in trouble for allegedly bribing judges. So that was out. Giving Will cancer would be too slow (Josh Charles wanted to leave now), and we know Will wouldn’t fall in love with somebody else (tried it — she went to London). Going to prison was not an option (that’s Alicia’s husband Peter’s gig), as was falling out of love with Alicia (never).

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in 'The Good Wife'

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in ‘The Good Wife’

So killing him off was the only answer, it appeared, but the Kings forgot a key writing requirement that comes with this deus ex machina choice today: If a beloved central character like Will Gardner must die, he has to die for a reason. He has to be involved organically in the ongoing story, and the legacy he leaves behind must contribute to the growth of other characters, which we’ll get to later.

I think the Kings forgot about this because they seem to have been distracted, as 21st-century TV creator-writers often are, by the fact that in our post-9/11, post-Columbine society, you can do so much with blood spatter after Dexter. They knew the Shootout, Anyone? device happens so often on TV crime shows that a clerk in a local convenience store can’t look twice at a customer without guns coming out and soda bottles bursting and Little Debbies shot off the shelves as automatic firearms go ding, ding, ding down the row.

We viewers in turn are so accustomed to out-of-nowhere violence that we can predict it’s not the anonymous clerk who’ll be caught in the crossfire — it’ll be the beloved Dad who innocently stopped by for milk and is now lying dead among the Debbies, or the newly engaged fiance who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, or the veteran cop who never fired a weapon in 20 years “on the job” and was hurrying off to the retirement dinner when Fate intervened.

Promo for Will's death scene - don't forget that happy smile

Promo for Will’s death scene – don’t forget that happy smile

This is why killing off Will Gardner in a courtroom shootout was so obvious and cheap. It was beneath the standards we’ve come to expect of an otherwise smart, relevant and innovative series.  The coincidences alone were hard to believe: Will just happened to get in the way of a flying bullet? His colleagues Diane and Kalinda just happened to be working down the hall? The bailiff just happened to leave his loaded gun unbuttoned, inches away from the client’s unshackled body? The deranged client just happened to turn paranoid at the moment the pistol came into view? (And why did the usually observant Will miss every warning sign the panicked client revealed from the first arrest?  We viewers all saw it — Kalinda kept mentioning it — so why not Will, except that it was another convenient coincidence.)

I thought TV critics would denounce The Good Wife for using such a tacky plot device that broadcasts a dangerous and inaccurate message about violence in America. That message is:  Shootouts are so prevalent today that gunfire is as likely to kill Our Hero as a heart attack or car accident. This is not true, and it’s doubly irresponsible coming from writers who’ve been so fastidious about the accurate portrayal of real controversies in our time, such as Bitcoin currency,  insurance fraud, rape in the military, undocumented immigrants, surrogate mothers, army torture, sexual harassment, capital punishment, wiretapping, and of course the Cheese Guild (which you have to see to believe).  Shootouts are incredibly rare in  society, but they’re so sensationalized by the American press that they seem to be  “considerably more common than they are.” 

So why did the Kings use the Shootout, Anyone approach? Maybe all they wanted wanted was a big distraction. Maybe they hoped the gunshots, screaming crowds and blood-spattered walls would cause TV critics to be so dazzled  that they’d forget how shameful and outrageous it is that Josh Charles would blithely walk out on the complicated and seductive character whom he and the Kings so carefully created over four seasons.

Writer Delia Ephron

Writer Delia Ephron

Indeed, other than Delia Ephron, who wrote a silly essay in the New York Times that she was mad at the “selfishness” of Josh Charles because she personally was going to miss his sex scenes, most of the critics I read praised the show for unleashing a “bombshell” and keeping Will’s death a secret for nearly a year.

Josh Charles himself appeared proud and happy on the Dave Letterman program when he should have been ashamed and apologetic for crippling the series by removing its most riveting male character and story line. it was as though he expected audiences to pretend not to notice the deus ex machina of the moment so we could keep on loving the character of Will after he’s gone.

Which brings us back to the integrity of any work of fiction, which is to say that every event has to have a reason, including a character’s death. The great irony of The Good Wife is that a foundation had been laid for several legitimate possibilities leading to Will’s murder that would have contributed to the strengths of the show.  All the writers had to do was follow their own subplots.

Suppose, for example, Will is killed — possibly assassinated? — when he’s on the way to meet someone involved with, say,  the voter fraud issue that’s dragging Peter down, or the drug-smuggling kingpin who may switch law firms, or the Milwaukee Food Festival bomb suspect, or webcam spies, or tampered juries, the hilarious Office of Public Integrity (this has got to be a spoof on the National Security Council), all of which offered complex gray areas in which Will is neither villain nor hero.

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

There he is, wearing that great Will Gardner glower that means he’s going to do something big, maybe change the world, maybe tell Alicia he loves her, when bam, shots ring out, intended only for him. Given his history of shady legal deals, Will’s death would  leave a mystery to be solved in subsequent episodes that could challenge every character who knew or loved him. In the process, everybody on The Good Wife might think a little more deeply about the difference between living passively and meeting one’s destiny. So in a dramatically challenging way, Will’s death would have contributed to the advancement of both story and character.

And because that self-righteous guy from The Office of Public Integrity would positively drool with a new sense of purpose, the story would pick up again rather than bog down in the next episodes with everybody crying mawkishly over Will’s loss. I’m not saying the characters shouldn’t feel grief; rather, the series would be deepened and enlarged if they’re hit with one real crisis after another while they’re trying to recover. Otherwise the story just lies there dragging the pace down growing more mawkish by the second.  (I didn’t buy Diane kicking out the rich client; she’s too professional to parade her woundedness like that, and she was wrong – Will would never have lost those billings, either.)

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

It’s too bad that Kings have defended the courtroom shootout as part of the theme: “To us, there always was a tragedy at the center of Will and Alicia’s relationship,” they wrote in a letter to viewers. “The tragedy of bad timing. The brutal honesty and reality of death speaks to the truth and tragedy of bad timing for these two characters.”

Uh-huh. Let’s see now, tragedy = death, you say? As in Shakespeare or something?  Like star-crossed lovers who bemoan their fate but can’t do anything about it?

Sigh. Sometimes the writers are the last to know.

The best part about The Good Wife is that tragedy happens to Alicia and Will before the story begins. It’s the tragedy of Alicia being the loyal housewife and mother who depended on her husband Peter to keep the family secure while he ran around with prostitutes and crime figures. It’s about Will, the sensitive but ruthless attorney-on-the-make who can’t commit to anyone in a love relationship and tends to bend the law too far.

So from the start, the theme of the show poses this question: Can Alicia transform herself from the  loser wife (as people see her) standing powerlessly by her fallen husband to a self-actuating single mom who can think on her feet and have terrific orgasms on the dresser with a rehbilitated Eliot-Spitzer hubby or in a hotel suite with the charismatic-yet-ruthless mentor-with-a-heart Will?

To many viewers, thats the theme: Whether Alicia can learn to carve out her own choices in a world that’s filled with hidden agendas, political in-fighting, social back-stabbers, romantic subterfuge and government/corporate surveillance.  And if she can, what about Will, Kalinda, Diane, Eli, or Cary? Indeed, can any of us? One of the joys of watching this richly detailed story unfold is to witness this theme filtering down to even the minor characters in the show, including the shy new law partner (Nathan Lane), the attorney who exploits his own disability (Michael J. Fox), the possibly autistic fixer (Carrie Preston), Peter’s ethics consultant with the too-big lips (Melissa George),  Eli Gold’s far-too-young love interest (America Ferrera), and dozens of others, all struggling to define themselves as independent players in a world of conformists.

Will's own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

Will’s own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

But i think it’s Alicia’s children who could have played a key role about Will’s future with Alicia when unfortunately the Kings killed him off.   Zach and Grace were just  beginning to realize that Will was their mother’s terrible secret, the Guy Who Isn’t Dad. They were suspicious of him, and he was awkward around them.  How intriguing it would have been if Will happened to  help Zach in a dispute with police, or represented a young Christian minister whom born-again Grace idolized. Then Will, the famously shy and tongue-tied adult when he was around Alicia’s children, could have begun to make a commitment for the first time in his life for the betterment of another human being — not just a love interest (Alicia) but young people he found valuable in his own life and in the world.

That commitment could have challenged the kids’ limited understanding of moral issues and forced Alicia to confront her own fears about what kind of “good” mother and “good” wife she would continue to be.  Then, just when everybody was in the grip of life-changing events, Will would get killed, and the more dubious his legal situation at that moment, the better.

A second scenario lost in the Shootout, Anyone? debacle involves the one thing Will never knew: that Alicia left Lockhart Gardner to get away from the boss/associate and partner/partner relationship problem so that she and Will could go at it in the front seat without violating company rules. Having Cary as her law partner across town, she would have been free to choose Will as a lover (or not) without worrying about client relations or Diane banging on the hood of the car. She could tell the kids the truth, decide about divorcing Peter, earn more money by poaching clients and live openly on her own terms. That, too, would be a great time to whack Will.

Some observers say that all drama is about the possibility of transformation, which is why a Greek play can still be inspiring — the god they lower from the skies is really a stand-in for ourselves. The choices made by a divine power are dangled in front of human characters every day. What made The Good Wife so engrossing was the authenticity of every choice, the rich detail with which we could see that life isn’t stagnant, that independent thought can be scary and fulfilling at the same time. That’s not lost in the shootout; it’s just weakened.

In the end, I could see somebody knocking off Will Gardner for his annoying habit of obsessively unbuttoning and rebuttoning his too-tight suit jacket every time he stands up to address the judge. James Spader did this in every episode of Boston Legal and he, too, should have been jailed for it.  Let’s hope Finn (the new love interest? so soon!) uses Velcro.

Will Gardner's too-tight suit

Will Gardner’s too-tight suit