Category Archives: Criticism

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.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Movie Tie-In — Part I

The phenomenon of the “movie tie-in” has become so important over the years that many publishers regard it as a small art form.

I certainly do.  Since motion pictures can give us only a slice of the book, the job of the movie tie-in is to lure viewers from screen to print, and heaven knows that’s not an easy sell. Hollywood’s target audience — young males aged 13 to 25 — reportedly believes that reading a book is harder, duller and less relevant than watching a film.

So most publishers have mistakenly decided that the movie tie-in — instead of rousing and inspiring potential readers! (which we’ll get to in Part II) — must calm and reassure. It must show moviegoers that reading can be less taxing, more fun and just as passive as watching a movie.

For some years, publishers did this by inserting a fat section of color photos from the movie into the pages of the text. Just open the book to these photos, the movie tie-in beckoned, and you’ll see it’s all the same movie experience. There’s nothing literary or challenging here.

Photo inserts are expensive, however, and besides, it’s the cover illustration that must erase any artistic-looking stuff from the book.  That’s one reason this gorgeous jacket art (“Celestial Eyes” by Spanish artist Francis Cugat), which appeared on the first edition of The Great Gatsby —

Picture of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, original jacket illustration, 1925

–was replaced at one point with the pulp-fiction look below, where a big-chested Alan Ladd removes his shirt just in time to be shot.

The Great Gatsby, 1947 movie tie-in edition

The Great Gatsby, 1947 movie tie-in edition

Pulp fiction covers had an extra allure. They reminded readers that movies were heavily censored at the time, while explicit sex scenes in books were protected by the First Amendment. So the marketing line at top — “The Great Novel of the Sinful Twenties” — promises that reading a book might be better in terms of active personal engagement with the story that’s not allowed in a movie theater.

New tie-in art for The Great Gatsby arrived with this photo from the 1974 movie, where Robert Redford and Mia Farrow try hard to emote under those nifty hats. Here the message seems to be that failures of the upper class can be just as entertaining as sinful sex.

The Great Gatsby jacket

The Great Gatsby, 1974 movie tie-in

Then came your basic larded-with-celebrities illustration in this Art Deco cover for the 2013 tie-in. Too bad it looks like a dreary office party from The Wolf of Wall Street. It might be cold, clinical and tiresome. It might be manipulative, cynical and boring. But it’s safe.

The Great Gatsby, 2013 movie tie-in

The Great Gatsby, 2013 movie tie-in

So movie tie-ins  try to lure or trick us to look inside, but sometimes they’re more honest than the publisher’s original illustration.  For example, the first book jacket for The Help seems to be saying, let’s-not-talk-about-RACE-for-god’s-sake  in Penguin’s U.S. edition, since it doesn’t even allude to the story inside —

The Help, 2009 jacket

The Help, 2009 jacket

— or does it? Let’s see, one bird sits apart from two other birds, and that’s a metaphor, right? So it must mean …. I know! Birds of a feather should do the laundry together!  At least in the United States. In England, the jacket may have resembled a documentary film cover, but at least it provided a glimpse of the story’s theme inside.

British edition of The Help

British edition of The Help

Eventually, after the movie came out, the skittish publisher decided that famous actors from the movie could, in the American tie-in, give the reader an idea of the story:

The Help, move tie-in edition

The Help, move tie-in edition

Or wait. These characters seem to look like birds, don’t they? — all lined up in a cartoonish and nonthreatening way. Aw. And here the publisher is trying to make everything entertaining and fun with a marketing line that says, “Change begins with a whisper.” Isn’t that simple?  It’s your basic no-risk movie tie-in.

Which brings us to 12 Years a Slave and the subject of truth in book cover illustrations. When you look at the movie tie-in photo of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the role of Solomon Northup, what do you see?

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

I think the cover says, This is an escaped slave who is running for his life.   I bet it was selected as the “brand” for movie posters and book covers because it suggests that: 1) here is an “action” movie and not some boring treatise on slavery that will make white viewers feel guilty; and 2)  Solomon Northup survives the 12 years of the title, so don’t worry about a sad ending.

The irony here is that we never see Solomon Northup running like this in the movie. We see him speed up on his walks between plantation and store; we see him explore the swamp and contemplate escape; we see him nearly hanged and chased around a hog pen, but we never see him running so desperately, so wildly, so fearfully fast.

In the book, however, the running scene does exist, and it’s a pivotal episode. I’m not sure why the director didn’t bring it to the screen (what an idiot), but readers will find a thrilling, awesome passage in the book that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Next: So what if a cover photo never appears in the movie? Why the difference matters.

 

 

A Mistake and a Debate about ’12 Years a Slave’

I loved that moment at the Academy Awards when John Ridley, accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, stated fiercely that almost every word in 12 Years a Slave came from the original book by Solomon Northup, who wrote it in 1853.

John Ridley

John Ridley

In later interviews, Ridley added that he  saw his job as “reductive — take 12 years and fit it into what ended up to be about 2 hours — but not additive. I had nothing other, better, greater to say” than what Northup put on the page. At last: a commitment to print from the translator-to-film.

Question #1: The Out-of-Place Scene

So I’m wondering why director Steve McQueen created a scene for the movie that’s not only missing from the book but is weirdly, to me, out of place.

In this scene, Solomon Northup is trying to sleep on a floor crowded with other slaves when he notices that the female slave next to him is staring beseechingly and soon insistently at his face.  Without warning,  she grabs his hand and uses it to massage her breast. Then she briefly kisses him on the mouth and brings his hand between her legs to masturbate herself to orgasm. Then she turns away from him and bursts into tears  — in shame or hopelessness or release, we’re not sure.

McQueen has said he created this scene for the movie because “I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.”

His choice of words sounds odd to me because “tenderness” is completely absent in the scene, and the idea of “taking control of her own body” had not been conceptualized for women at the time (i.e., no Our Bodies, Ourselves lying around.) Since we know from the movie that female slaves were raped repeatedly by white men along the way, it’s hard to believe this manic rubbing would provide the kind of “sexual healing” McQueen mentions.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

Of course, directors throw new material into adapted screenplays all the time, and I’ve always believed it’s not the business of the viewer to question WHY a decision was made.  (We simply get to say it works for us or not.)

But in this case, Ridley’s pride at the Academy Awards reflected more than a faithful script. He wanted us to appreciate the enormous achievement of Solomon Northup, an ancestor who so perfectly captured every detail of his experience that the truth of it, coming to us through the political chaos of a century and a half, must be respected and preserved.

And Ridley is hardly alone in his praise for Northup. Usually in the case of an adapted screenplay, only one edition of the book exists, and that’s the movie tie-in. But 12 Years a Slave has been valued by so many  audiences that there are more than 20 versions — illustrated, annotated, footnoted; with interviews, introduced by scholars/celebrities, written for children — now available.

McQueen himself is quoted as saying that when he first read 12 Years a Slave, “it felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary.” That should have meant Don’t mess with what the author left us in print.

News stories suggest that Ridley and McQueen argued during the filming and  aren’t speaking to this day, which is why they snubbed each other at the Oscars.  I wonder if the made-up masturbation scene is the reason.  The worst part of it, to me, is that McQueen inserts the scene again later in the movie to show us (I guess) all the things Northup endured in his 12 years of slavery. The unfortunately comical message we get at that point is Wow, what a great guy! Show him your needs and he’s a veritable Dr. Ruth. No puns allowed about lending a helpful hand.

Question #2: The “Mistaken” Scene

One of the big no-no’s in movie tie-ins is that the publisher must never step in and “correct” the original work, even if there are misspellings and grammatical errors aplenty.  The thinking goes that once you open that door, your own biases could intercede, distorting the author’s intentions without your conscious knowledge.

Several times while reading 12 Years a Slave I imagined frustrated copy editors tying their hands to the chair upon viewing Northup’s many misplaced modifiers (“having been fed, preparations were made to depart”), lengthy sentences and pronoun confusion.

12 Years a Slave book cover

12 Years a Slave book cover

See, for example, if you can sort out who is who in this passage below. The speaker is Solomon Northup, and he is describing  the hatred that Mistress Epps bears for Patsey, the slave whom Mr. Epps sexually prefers:

“Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.”

Yikes, so many uses of “she” and “her” could inspire a person to pick up the blue pencil, but noooo. Just as Northup is to be respected for his thoroughness in historical/geographical accuracy, so must he be allowed a few bafflements along the way.

But readers get to have their opinions, so what do you think:  Is it Mistress Epps or Patsey herself who is depicted asking Solomon to put her (Patsey) to death?  The pronouns make it impossible to tell, so the filmmakers chose Patsey to be the one pleading with Solomon to put her out of her misery.

#2On the Internet, however, by my count, most viewers who debate this question believe Northup was writing about Mistress Epps –for one thing, she can afford the kind of bribes Patsey could never offer; for another, Patsey is not suicidal even after the whipping scene (though her spirit is altered terribly).

I also believe the author meant Mistress Epps,  but this time, unlike the first example, I’m not worried about the filmmakers’ mistaking the author’s intention. The scene is so well acted and scripted that it feels authentic and fitting in terms of the movie’s view of the world, and that’s good enough for me as a viewer.

Question #3: The Jacket Illustration

What film producers decide to put on the jacket of the movie tie-in is something I wonder about all the time. Like many readers, I tend to stare at it the cover illustration while pausing between chapters, and if its message even remotely misrepresents the book, I find myself thinking that all of Hollywood is illiterate.

So I’m wondering what comes to mind when you view this photo of Chiewetel Eliofor, the actor who plays Solomon Northup, running across the cover of Penguin’s official movie tie-in cover.

I’ll try not to bang on the table in the next post, The Art of the Movie Tie-in, when describing what I think is going on.

movie tie-in book cover

movie tie-in book cover