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

The Book That Is Not ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Movie

I was so sure Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio missed the point of their own movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, that I decided to read the book to see what author Jordan Belfort is all about.

Movie tie-in edition of 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Movie tie-in edition of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

DiCaprio has defended the movie by saying that critics missed the “irony” of the script, which he molded and shaped “for years” with screenwriter Terence Winter. But one glance at the book shows whole sections of text lifted nearly intact and inserted into the movie, the better to show us such realities as the-camera’s-on-your-crotch-honey scene, the give-that-candle-a-push-back-there scene and the-quaaludes-made-me-crawl-for-it scene, among others.

A deeper, more conflicted and actually interesting Belfort does come through in the book, but Scorcese and DiCaprio apparently wanted only the snorting-and-cavorting Belfort so they could more imagesdramatically film a fuck-and-suck movie without calling it pornography.

I’m not saying that Belfort as an author shows any conscience about cheating his investors or sending his colleagues to prison. I mean that even when Belfort portrays himself as charismatic, the book reveals torturous self-doubts building inside.

Short, Unworthy and Not WASP

From the early pages, for example, Belfort worries about his height (“on the short side” at 5’7″), his “status as a lowly Jew” in the land of WASPs, his lack of confidence with women (“What a fucking embarrassment I was!”) and his passion for “loamy loins” that strangely evade his grasp (“No choice now but to jerk off”).

Belfort also shows us a mean-spirited, trashy side we don’t see on screen. He describes hiring prostitutes “who could only say hello and good-bye! My favorite!” until a ringing phone in the room makes him think,  ”OH, FUCK! MY WIFE! THE DUCHESS! SHIT!” at which point he puts his forefinger to his lips, “the international sign language known to all hookers, which in this particular instance translated into: ‘Shut the fuck up, you whore! My wife’s on the phone, and if she hears a female voice in the room, I’m in deep shit and you’re not getting a tip!’ ”

Movie tie-in cover of Belfort's book

Movie tie-in cover of Belfort’s book

There are glimpses of cruel humor in the movie, as when DiCaprio coldly discusses dwarf-throwing contests, but generally nothing is exposed of the demons deep down that send Belfort over the edge. Maybe it’s because DiCaprio usually plays fallen heroes (Howard Hughes, Jay Gatsby) that he didn’t want to portray Belfort as a loser.  Perhaps he’s only comfortable acting the role of entitled, knowingly handsome and tall (6 feet) leaders of men — for a brief while he even made J. Edgar Hoover look conventionally attractive.

Belfort, on the other hand, makes no secret in the book that he’s more of a strutting-and-rutting bantam who takes on the big guys but never really wins. Interviewers have noticed his self-doubt, as when Belfort told Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, “Hey, being played by Leo is better than being played by Danny DeVito!” Her response: “At 5-foot-7, Jordan would mortgage his soul for [DiCaprio's] kind of height.”

Scorcese directing the crotch-shot scene

Scorcese directing the crotch-shot scene

DiCaprio believes he’s given a warts-and-all portrayal of Belfort. He’s told critics over and over that the movie is “an accurate reflection of (Wall Street people who) have been so incredibly corrupt.” His defense of the movie goes like this: As with Goodfellas, Casino and others, the job of a Scorcese movie is not to punish the criminals or dwell on the victims. It’s to show “the absurdity of the world that [criminals] created for themselves, where they just didn’t have any respect for anyone except themselves.”

That accounts for the sleazy side of Belfort, but it doesn’t really look into his complexity. Belfort is a gifted con artist and an inspiring salesman, so of course he’s going to be lying half the time. He wants to look heroic on the page, but he’s not a good writer, so he inserts a “braggadocio” spirit into the text that critics found superficial and tiresome when translated to the movie.  Though dazzled at times by DiCaprio’s shenanigans, the audience wonders: Isn’t there more to Belfort than this?

So here is my question: Since Belfort exaggerates everything to make a good story in the book, how did Scorsese and DiCaprio know what was “accurate” about Belfort and what was imagined?images-1

‘The Prettiest Girl, the Richest Man, the Most Rip-Roaring Drug Addiction … ”

Only one person has tried to answer. This is celebrity pothead Tommy Chong (of the weed-smoking duo, Cheech and Chong), who was doing 9 months in federal prison for selling drug paraphernalia when Jordan Belfort arrived to be his “cube mate” (no cells in this country-club prison) during his own term of 22 months for fraud.

According to Belfort’s sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, Tommy Chong was so entertained by the “totally hysterical”  Wall Street stories that Belfort told him in their cube night after night, he suggested that Belfort write a book.

“I started laughing,” writes Belfort. “How am I gonna write a book? I don’t know how to write! I mean, I can write, but not a whole book.”

Tommy Chong, Jordan Belfort (composition)

Tommy Chong, Jordan Belfort (composition)

So Chong laid it on the line: “There are two things about writing you can never forget,” he’s quoted as saying. “First, it’s all about conflict. Without conflict, no one gives a shit. Second, it’s about the most of. You know what the most of means?… It means you always write about the extreme of something. The most of this, the most of that, the prettiest girl, the richest man, the most rip-roaring drug addiction, the most insane yacht trip. Now that was what your life was all about: the most of. You get the picture?”  (Italics added.)

Oh, lordy, did he. Belfort says he read Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, “two dozen times,” then troweled on the hyperbole. We can see Tommy Chong reading the pages in a cloud of smoke and saying, “Great, man, keep it up. Love that yacht-sinking scene, let me at those loamy loins … Or did I dream that part?”

Enter Aunt Patricia

A deeper, more complicated Belfort begins to surface in the book when the author meets his wife’s Aunt Patricia, a future co-conspirator, in London. Her savoir faire and refusal to judge Belfort for his mistakes inspires him to unload the secrets he’s hidden from everyone else.

“I’m a fucking liar and a cheater,” he blurts out, “and I sleep with prostitutes the way most people put on socks — especially when I’m fucked up on drugs, which is about half the time … What can I say, Patricia? I’m a drug addict. I’ve never admitted that to anyone before, but I know it’s true. And everyone around me, including my own wife, is scared to confront me about it.”

This could be another case of Belfort conning his readers, but the admissions sound sincere the more he pours them out. “I’ve spent my entire life trying  to fill a hole that I can’t seem to fill,” he confides to Aunt Patricia. “And the harder I try, the bigger it seems to get.” Even at the peak of his success, “I live the most dysfunctional life on the planet,” he says. “I’m a successful failure. I’m 31 going on 69.”

Jordan Belfort and his fiance, Anne Koppe

Jordan Belfort and his fiance, Anne Koppe

In the movie, DiCaprio’s Jordan unceremoniously dumps his first wife, Denise, to continue his affair with future wife #2.  But in the book, his guilt about Denise has been roiling painfully for years. “I should have been horsewhipped for what I did to Denise. I don’t care if it’s Wall Street or Main Street. What I did was in-fucking-excusable. I left a kind, beautiful girl, who’d stuck with me through thick and thin, who bet her future on me. And when her winning ticket finally came in — I canceled it on her.”

The book touches upon Belfort’s hardships in childhood — in particular his father’s bouts of paranoia that tyrannized the family. But only to Patricia does Belfort describe the terrifying panic attacks that struck at age 7 or 8 (“like your heart is coming out of your chest”),  or the “terrible insomnia” that kept him staring at a digital alarm clock all night, every night, year after year.. An insatiable drive caused Belfort to make use of this time, learning that he could “multiply the minutes times the hours” obsessively. We believe it when he says, “By the time I was 6 years old, I could do four-digit multiplication in my head faster than you could do it on a calculator.”

This became the kind of “gift from God” that Belfort believes he wasted.   ”Everything in my life became accelerated. I missed my twenties and thirties and went straight to my forties.” Finally a success in his own eyes, he  was “an adolescent inside a man’s body …. an accident waiting to happen.” He remained “a scared young kid who’d gotten himself in way over his head and whose very success was fast becoming the instrument of his own destruction.”

I can’t remember much or any of this in the movie (and friends, please correct me if I’m wrong since I’m not going to watch it again). We do see Belfort on drugs trying to kidnap his small daughter, Chandler, after slugging his wife (huh? where did domestic violence come from?), but little foundation has been created to show what kind of father he wants to be. In the book, when Belfort mentions Chandler, it’s the first time he’s interested in anybody but himself.

“In a way, (Chandler is) what keeps me going,” he tells Patricia. “She’s everything to me. I swore I would stop doing drugs after she was born, but who was I kidding?  I’m incapable of stopping, at least for very long. I wonder what Chandler’ll think when she finds out that her daddy is a drug addict?  I wonder what she’ll think when her daddy winds up in jail?”

Belfort doesn’t open up for long in the book, but come on, Marty. Come on, Leo. Shouldn’t  the more complicated Jordan Belfort have been investigated and written into the script for that “accurate reflection” of the real Wolf of Wall Street?

From Wiseguy to Wolf

Back in 1986, I reviewed a memoir called Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, a terrific book about growing up in the Mafia as recalled by Lucchese crime family member Henry Hill.  Pileggi worked with Martin Scorcese on the screenplay for Goodfellas, and the result was that huge chunks of the book were transferred to the screen, mostly intact.

Mug shot of Henry Hill

Mug shot of Henry Hill

In that case, no one complained that Goodfellas the movie omitted back stories of the Mafia’s victims, or celebrated rather than condemned the wild excesses of mobsters, or created a cardboard character out of Henry Hill. Goodfellas was praised as a brilliant film showing the mob members’ point-of-view because Pileggi had thrown out the hyperbole and gotten the real story out of  Hill in the first place.

I think Scorcese didn’t realize the huge difference here. Belfort says he turned in a 1200-page manuscript that I bet was pure shouting on his own behalf (an editor carved it down to 500+ pages, which is still a lot of shouting). We’ll never know how much either the book or movie provides that “accurate reflection” of Belfort’s story, because Scorcese needed a Nicholas Pileggi, a professional writer determined to start with facts on the page.

I know I would never have read Belfort’s book if it hadn’t been for the 3-hour mess that Scorcese put on screen, but  I’m glad I did. It just goes to show you that when somebody like Belfort bares his soul in book form — even if he disguises it at the same time — some kind of truth comes out, simply because he’s trying to express himself in writing.

A movie, on the other hand, can have a more powerful influence on people who don’t read books as a habit, which brings up that audience Hollywood loves to exploit.  As Joshua Brown of TheReformedBroker.com noted, “100% of teenage boys who see this movie are going to want to grow up to be Jordan.” Wonderful.

Perhaps that’s why Scorsese and DiCaprio like to say the movie “pushed the envelope” on limits and taste — the more outrageous the image, such as DiCaprio felating his microphone in front of adoring onlookers, the more that audience with its disposable income is going to want to see the movie again and again.

The brand is everywhere.

The brand is everywhere.

 

 

Penguin Random House: ‘A Couple of Drunks Propping Each Other at the Bar’

If the biggest publisher in the world says that its recent merger “should not be interpreted as a couple of drunks propping each other at the bar,” what image comes to mind?

I would say it’s two drunks propping each other up at a bar.

The comment was made by the head of Penguin Random House, John Makinson, to the Economic Times of India.

He said that Random House and Penguin didn’t merge because they were “worried about our survival or that we were too small to be competitive” against the “impact of companies like Google, Apple and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

Really? That sounds exactly why Penguin and Random House merged, why Hachette bought out most of Hyperion, why Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins may decide to merge as well.

Afraid of being obsolete and technologically small, Penguin Random House is trying to buy its way into the competition with Google, Apple and Amazon. Feeling overpowered again and again, it will seek new mergers to cover the pain.

The bar metaphor is so true — Penguin and Random were drunk with power during the physical-book years. Now the print-on-screen years make them feel unnecessary and confused, so back to the bar they’ve gone to feed that acquisition addiction.

A big mistake of many CEOs like Makinson is to dwell on growth and power for traditional publishers rather than the centuries-old system of publishing procedures inside — the timeless discipline practiced by salaried professionals of selecting, editing, designing and producing literary works of merit.

I know it’s easy to criticize the mainstream (since I do it all the time), but deep inside these gluttonish corporate structures are at least a few people struggling to keep  the house’s standards high when it comes to literary quality and commercial appeal.  It’s too bad these dedicated pros have become the pearl in the oyster (irritating everyone, dismissed and often overruled by management) because they’re also invaluable.

A second mistake: Makinson said that “publishing is growing but the growth of bookstores has come to a stop.” Wrong. Independent bookstores are on the rebound, as recent statistics have shown. A smart publisher should know that word-of-mouth for new authors still begins at the brick-and-mortar level and is much more stable and accurate information than, say, sales rankings at any time on Amazon.

And the reason independent bookstores are strong?  For many, the key is to stay small, serve the local community well (book groups, author appearances, children’s programs, First Amendment protections) and hand-sell, hand-sell, hand-sell.   (As opposed to the direction Penguin Random House and other merger-minded publishers are going, which is to “grow” [what an icky word] dozens of boutique imprints but deny them freedom to publish.)

I loved the way novelist Ann Patchett, who started her own bookstore in Nashvllle, Tennessee, in 2010, described “the comfort about being around books” in a retail environment when she appeared with Terry Gross recently on NPR’s Fresh Air:

“Bookstores are home,” Patchett said, speaking as a reader and customer.  Any “building full of books that can come home with me,” she added, is “a world of endless possibility and opportunity.”

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Patchett opened Parnassus Books after the other two bookstores in Nashville closed.  As she told USA Today, starting a new bookstore in the Digital Age felt like “opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire.” The fact that Parnassus is thriving today does not mean that Patchett and Hayes are bucking a trend. “We are the trend,” she says, bless her.

But here’s the point of all this for me. When I hear people like John Makinson malign independent bookstores, or Jeff Bezos slash prices for the purpose of knocking out bookstores (why else would he do it?) or Barnes & Noble whine about unfair competition against its e-book reader Nook (aw. take another dose of your own medicine), I want to stop all that noise and do something about the problem.

Happily, bookstore owners believe that readers can make a difference. In fact, that’s the heart and soul of what they believe.

As Ann Patchett said to Terry Gross, for independent bookstores, proactive customers are the answer: “If you want a bookstore in your community — if you want to take your children to story hour, meet the authors who are coming through town, get together for a book club at a bookstore, or come in and talk to the smart booksellers — then it is up to you. It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore, and that’s what keeps the bookstore there.

“It’s true for any little independent business. You can’t go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides –  when do you plant, what kind of tools do you need –   use their time and their intelligence for an hour and then go to Lowe’s to buy your plants for less. That you cannot do.”

Ann Patchett's new book of essays is "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage"

Ann Patchett’s new book of essays is “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”

It’s refreshing to hear a bookseller speak directly and unequivocally about readers acting independently and responsibly to secure the future of bookstores.

Heaven knows the  book industry will be sinking further into chaos for some years to come. That’s what makes it, for me, a privilege to pay full price for a physical book or an e-book at an independent bookstore.

You know where each sale’s profit is going — not in the pocket of some meglomaniac billionaire or corporate giant but into the store’s budget for more books, each one deemed worthy to sell to any one of us, and to programs that enhance the neighborhood’s cultural roots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘Super Bowl Moment’ for the Book Industry

Listening to Anjelica Huston read the audiobook version of A Story Lately Told, the haunting first volume of her memoir from Scribner, I wished the world could see this Hollywood survivor tell at least a part of her story in some kind of live presentation.

Anjelica Huston reading from her memoir

Anjelica Huston reading from her memoir

Then I thought (as frankly I do every year), wouldn’t it be great if celebrities who publish memoirs each year could present awards and read from nominated books at a televised event like the National Book Awards?

Call this literary show the Bookies, or something. Spread the cameras out as they do at the Oscars and Tonys so viewers feel tension slithering through the audience. Use a big Broadway theater and also bring in actors currently in New York to present awards, act out dialogue, read excerpts and bring alive history, criticism, poetry and children’s literature to a national audience.

I thought this was just a daydream of mine since I’ve made quite a stink about the present NBA ceremony, an exclusive black-tie dinner at an insanely lavish restaurant (Cipriani Wall Street) in New York. There publishers spend obscene amounts of money to congratulate themselves while across the country independent bookstores (the core of the industry!) are hanging by a thread.

Cipriani Wall Street - interior

Cipriani Wall Street – interior

But it turns out I’m not alone. “Can Book Publishing Have a Super Bowl Moment?” writes Brian Feinblum at BookMarketingBuzzBlog.  Considering the Super Bowl, where TV ads sell for $4 million and 75,000 people pay thousands of dollars per ticket, he sighs, “Big game, big money. Can book publishing ever have such a high-priced moment?”

It could if an event like the National Book Awards stops fiddling while the book industry burns and seizes that “big-stage moment, like an Oscars,” Feinblum writes, “or a Hall of Fame, or a theme park, or even a day to celebrate its contribution to society. Bring in corporate sponsors and put some money behind it. You need a televised event, some type of packaged show that gets the media talking about you. Give out awards, lifetime achievements, feature bestselling authors, highlight movie connections, take us behind the scenes of book publishing and hold contests that invite consumer participation.”

Whoa:  contests, movie tie-ins? That’s going way too far, young man.  I love it.

It’s kind of hilarious that last year the NBAs attempted “an Oscar-style red carpet inside the ballroom to welcome celebrity guests like the former teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald,” according to the New York Times. Well it’s a start, but a naive one — who will see the red carpet, let alone Molly Ringwald, if there are no cameras?

We  have to remember that without media coverage, the NBAs sink into oblivion every year. In 2013, for example, nobody outside the banquet room saw a moving and historic moment when Toni Morrison awarded the Literarian Award (for lifetime achievement) to Maya Angelou. 

Toni Morrison presenting National Book Award to Maya Angelou

Toni Morrison presenting National Book Award to Maya Angelou

And let’s not allow publishers their usual we-have-no-money excuse. Perhaps the only benefit to corporations ruining (pardon, I mean ruling) the book industry is that connections to the entertainment world are all over the place. It’s worth spending money to hire a professional production company to produce a big celebrity blowout with bankable stars from movies, television and literature, and considering how these things are run, there might even be a profit.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

So stop backstepping, dear Mainstream Publishers: If you don’t assert your dominance in the modern literary world, there’s a guy named Jeff Bezos who’ll push you all aside with a hot-ticket, book-oriented celebrity-filled Super Bowl event of his own, and he’ll finance it with the change in his back pocket.

P.S. Which celebrities 1) are recent authors (say 2012-13) who could draw terrific TV audiences, and 2)  are just as recognizable as Molly Ringwald?  Here’s a brief list of some great candidates I would have loved to have seen on that 2013 Super Bowl/National Book Award stage:

Billy Crystal

Tina Fey

Christopher Plummer

Madeleine Albright

Rob Lowe

Ellen Degeneres

Anjelica Huston

Patti Smith

Jane Lynch

Anthony Bourdain

Sarah Silverman

Sidney Poitier

Mindy Kaling

Lewis Black

Betty White

Keith Richards

Bill Cosby

Shirley MacLaine

ON LANGUAGE: MISTAKE OR BREAKTHROUGH BY JANE LYNCH?

I admire actor Jane Lynch (Glee, Best in Show) for many reasons –  her comic timing, her touching memoir Happy Accidents, and her courage to come out as a lesbian when it was still dangerous to be gay in Hollywood.

So I don’t know whether to blame or forgive this dear funny celebrity for making a statement on her popular TV show, Hollywood Game Night, that I appreciate yet find appalling.

Jane Lynch

Jane Lynch

Hollywood Game Night features celebrities who compete in what we used to call parlor games, except the contests are so ridiculous and the contestants so wild that chaos fills the screen.

In one game, the stars sing melodies of songs by substituting DO for lyrics (as is in do, do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do … that’s Tea for Two, see) until a teammate guesses the title. In another they look  at pictures of two famous faces (or cereals or junk food) mashed into one photo and guess a name that would combine the two.   In another they’re given six famous magazine covers from, say,  People or Rolling Stone, which they have to arrange from earliest to most recent.

The fun of Hollywood Game Night is not watching the games  but scrutinizing stars like Amy Poehler, Ray Romano, Minnie Driver or Martin Short (and a lot of younger stars I don’t recognize) being unaffected and sincere while they race around hitting buzzers and making faces and shouting instructions.

Part of the show is deliberately phony — all that self-conscious applauding and high-fiving can drive you nuts — but for the most part, the point seems to be that stars can’t be divas. They have to at least try to show genuine enthusiasm and spontaneity even if the pressure to win puts them in awkward situations.

Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick

Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick

(It was very funny,  for example when Brooklyn Decker, the actress/model wife of tennis star Andy Roddick, correctly answered every question within seconds while Andy stood there dumbly trying to figure out how the game worked. Later he pretended to glower at everybody while saying how great it was to be emasculated on national TV “BY YOUR OWN WIFE” — a risky joke that he pulled off as the good sport he seems to be in real life.)

The show moves at such a crash pace, with the (unnecessary) live band too noisy and the (unfortunate) open bar too boozy and the (white-gloved) stagehands too quick to bring in one stupid game after another, that the center of the action falls to Jane Lynch herself.

Hollywood Game Night

Hollywood Game Night

I’ve never seen anyone work so hard at stopping arguments and explaining rules while joking with contestants and having so much fun, fun, fun in the chaos that you wonder why she took this gig in the first place.

Which brings us to that thing she said.

It happened at the start of a game in which six poster-sized Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues were randomly placed on easels in front of the two celebrity teams. Most of the models’ faces were recognizable, so the celebrities found it relatively easy to rearrange the magazines chronologically (i.e., a young Heidi Klum would be #1, a more recent model #6).

Now you have to say that in most TV game shows, the emcee would overlook the fact that here were nearly naked models, so bosomy and posed so suggestively that looking only at their faces (not their bodies) proved difficult  for everyone, stars and audience alike. And this was not a cable channel — it was NBC, which has formal “standards and practices” policies about such things — so not a lot of, you know, trashy T&A talk was going to be allowed.

Swimsuit Cover, S. I.

Swimsuit Cover, S. I.

Still, Jane Lynch is not somebody who’s going to let an opportunity for humor pass by, so as the magazines were positioned and before the game started, she said this:

“Can I just say that as a feminist, I am appalled by these images. And as a lesbian, I am delighted!”

(Reporting on the remark, Page 6 of the New York Post spelled the last word “de-light-ed” because she did emphasize each syllable.)
The comment was so bold and unexpected that I laughed out loud, perhaps more in astonishment than anything else.  Never in my whole life have I heard a gay woman wisecrack on TV about how much fun it is to be a lesbian, let alone a bawdy one.

Plus I’m also a feminist and come on, Sports Illustrated, enough with the soft porno!  Quit looking like an outdated Playboy and celebrate women swimmers for athletic achievement  the same way you do male swimmers.

At the same time, I wondered if Jane Lynch realized what a huge faux pas she had just made. I can’t speak for other gay women (as she shouldn’t have), but I don’t know any lesbian who would say that pimped-out female bodies with their chests and haunches in your face is appealing, let alone arousing.

Maybe if she had phrased the second sentence differently — instead of “As a lesbian,” which includes all gay women, she could have referred only to herself, as in, “But I’m a lesbian, and I’m de-light-ed!” — it wouldn’t have sounded so smarmy. But then, some of the rhythm and a lot of the humor (I guess) would have been lost.

Then I got to wondering if retail stores still cover up Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions like they used to so that children won’t see these images and assume that women exist to be objectified. Nobody wants that, and yet here is Hollywood Game Show coming on early enough and accessible enough

Playing Charades

Playing Charades

(by On Demand services) for all to see! How many families tuned in for some old-fashioned Charade-like fun only to see a bunch of tits filling up the screen?

That’s when it struck me that Jane Lynch might have pulled off quite a stunt. After all, she IS a feminist and she IS a lesbian. If she had said nothing about the Sports Illustrated magazines, then yes, all those kids and families and American viewers might have regarded the almost-nude models as acceptable, everyday fare.

But if she had said only that as a feminist she was appalled by the covers, a lot of people would have looked at her in horror because these days, as we all know, feminists have no sense of humor and spoil the fun for everybody.

So Jane, I’m still adding up what you accomplished by that remark:

1. You refused to let the swimsuit images go by without some kind of comment.

2. You sneaked in two references (feminist, lesbian) that were (I feel) more controversial than humorous.

3. You sacrificed a tiny bit of respect from nit-pickers like me for making all lesbians appear to “de-light” in objectifying women’s bodies. BUT in terms of stopping the show and making us all think more deeply about such matters than before, Jane, bravo.  You pulled off a genuine breakthrough.

Jane Lynch on the set

Jane Lynch on the set

 

 

 

“When You Get to Age 91, Just Skip It”

Whenever I see the term “Alzheimer’s Disease,” I wonder how people tell the difference from, say, everyday forgetfulness and the start of senile dementia that leads to Alzheimer’s.

            Most books about Alzheimer’s address this question, but rarely have I seen a more succinct description of that “different kind of losing” that begins long before anyone — family or patient — figures out what’s really happening.

       “It started out as the kind of losing we all know well,” writes Doris Ober in The Alzheimer’s Years: A Mother and Daughter Reunion.

The Alzheimer's Years cover

The Alzheimer’s Years cover

  “You put (something) down somewhere and walk away from it and can’t remember where or when. But if you add some paranoia to the formula, it becomes a different kind of losing: You hide it for safekeeping and don’t at all remember having done so. The only possible explanation is a theft.

            “And the more it happens, the more things disappear, the cleverer and more creative you become about your hiding places. Even if you could remember your intention to hide a particular item, which you can’t, you’ve hidden it so well, you’ll never find it.”

            And so we watch as Doris searches for the things her mother Betty is convinced someone has stolen.

            “Lost mail, lost glasses, lost tin in which she kept quarters for the laundry machines,” writes Doris. “Lost hearing aids, lost dishes, lost ice cream, lost poetry.” Doris finds them in the most ingenious places, like under the toilet plunger, where, of course the “blonde thief” that Betty insists has been sneaking in all along, hid  them until the next time.

            The most valued item — a pint of ice cream — is uncovered weeks later in a pot at the bottom of a closet where it’s hardened into the consistency of Styrofoam.

            Doris is the independent book editor in Point Reyes, California, who transformed Randy Shilts’ mammoth 1000-page manuscript about AIDS, And the Band Played On, into the succinct and moving bestseller it became in 1987. (She sat by his hospital bed helping him write the last chapter of another groundbreaker, Conduct Unbecoming, about gays in the military, before he died in 1994.)

Doris Ober

Doris Ober

            Those books, among the many dozens that Doris edited, co-wrote and ghosted from her tiny office perch in the 9-story Chinese-box house built by her partner Richard (best described in her last book, The Dogtown Chronicles), gave Doris a literary lens through which to view the stormy fading of her 90-year-old mother’s mind as Alzheimer’s set in.

            “Of course (the different kind of losing) is all a metaphor for the greater loss you’re suffering,” Doris continues. “The one no one can see. The one you get intimations of, the void that’s opening up inside and seems to be enveloping you.

            “My mother was able to speak of it in cryptic phrases, dropped into conversation or into silence. ‘You have no idea, how terrible it is,’ she said. ‘I so don’t want to go into the woods.’ Once she told me, ‘Soon I’ll be completely empty.’ “

            The great hoodwink of Alzheimer’s in the early stages, we learn, is the way it moves everyone to deny what’s really happening, and to deny it for very legitimate reasons. In the midst of her many lapses, Betty practices and plays the piano (including duets with Richard), remembers her recipe for chopped liver perfectly (Doris includes it in the book) and accurately identifies and converses with the shopkeepers she meets on her (fewer and fewer) walks into Point Reyes.

            And the great learning curve for Alzheimer’s caregivers, Doris tells us, is to accept the huge contradictions of the disease (her mother could be delightfully “clownish” yet bitterly morose at the same time;), to embrace other afflictions of the aged such as Lewy Body Disease,  which causes Betty to experience terrible “night crazies” and flailing of her arms as if batting something away; to understand how deafness can be “the perfect disguise for dementia,” and to learn “how important it was,” in the midst of one painful argument after another, “for me to win.”

Betty as bag lady

Betty as bag lady

            Along the way, though, Doris’s (now trademark) light touch often  transforms the cold reality of impending death and loss. She loves to show us the humor of Betty, who at 92, after surviving several near-death experiences, announced to friends, “When you get to 91, just skip it.”  At a costume party, Betty turned her fear of becoming homeless into a joke everyone could enjoy by taping grocery bags all over her body and on her head so she could come as a “bag lady.”

            Still, you aren’t going to see the author’s insights coming all that easily. While

Doris follows the chronology of her mother’s six-year battle, sometimes in the midst of developing a theme or story, she takes an abrupt turn to discuss something else. This doesn’t make the writing superficial or clumsy. Rather it brings an immediacy and flow to the story that pulls us in as part of the  family.

            Here, for example, is Doris realizing in a letter to her brother that something remarkable is being communicated in the many thank-yous that Betty, who’s lost 45 pounds in a year and sometimes can speak only in  “Da-da-da-da-dah” sentences, repeats to her daughter.

Betty, Dory, and Hal in 1954

Betty, Dory, and Hal in 1954

            “She tells me over and over how much I mean to her, how much she loves me, how her love for me and mine for her keeps her alive. I’m sure she’s right about this and I think it’s astonishing how such a sophisticated understanding exists in a woman who knows almost nothing else.”

            We’ve only been given a glimpse of the estrangement that once separated Doris and her mother for many years, and of the protracted fights that both experienced as shattering.  So this core moment in what the subtitle calls “a mother and daughter reunion” comes almost without previous resolution. But what we miss in back story, we gain in the present, watching their trust develop anew, page by page, as partners in one  last adventure.

            So: How do people know when forgetfulness turns to dementia, then to Alzheimer’s?  This book says there is no way to tell — no logic, no bridge, no step-by-step instruction. But if dealing with the changing needs of the elderly means that we make our own roadmap, it also means we might change radically — we might learn a new kind of love — by the time we get to the other end.

A Word about purchasing The Alzheimer’s Years

             I used to believe that critics shouldn’t tell you where to buy books, but in the face of Amazon’s ATRW (Attempt to Rule the World), let’s bypass that route and spend our CRD (Concerned Readers’ Dollars) with independent bookstores.

            You can purchase the book direct from Doris (at Villca Qutu Publishers, P.0. Box 417, Point Reyes Station CA 94956), but if you go to the website of her local bookstore, Point Reyes Books you’ll fall in love with this bookseller’s sense of community and author advocacy.   There you can buy both Doris’ books as well as one of the better literary journals in the country, West Marin Review, where Doris is managing editor.

            And let’s rejoice: It’s great to pay full price to independent booksellers whose very existence keeps First Amendment options and protections safe for all of us.

            Finally, full disclosure: I’ve known and admired Doris as an editor for 30 years and am impressed by her choice as a self-publisher to change the rules (not her standards) by recording her experience exactly as she wants to.

            For example, an  Acknowledgments page exists in this book, but the author stops the narrative several times to thank friends for their help, blast a local hospital for treating her mother “shabbily” and praise another for its compassion and care.   Self-publishing is a fine old tradition in the West. It’s often eccentric and never slick, which is why I’ve always liked it, and come to love it again in the publishing of The Alzheimer’s Years.

Meet Doris Ober December 8 at Book Passage

 

A few years ago, I had a wonderful time introducing Doris at Book Passage in Corte Madera CA when her first book, The Dogtown Chronicles, came out. Before the program began, the thoughtful staff set out about 15 chairs with a nice table in the back row to make the event look well attended if only a handful of people showed up.  When, however, 20 or so arrived, the booksellers quietly set out five or six more chairs and stood back, thinking that was it as far as audience attendance was concerned.

            Well, Doris and her West Marin Review are hugely respected in Marin, so it was kind of humorous as people arrived to see the staff race to the stockroom for more chairs, and then more chairs, and still more chairs, until the crowds (about 200 total) extended far back into the children’s section and almost out the door.

             I say I had a great time introducing Doris because I got to mention that The Dogtown Chronicles may look like a modern version of that classic urban-couple-buys-a-farm story, The Egg and I, but since it’s about raising nearly extinct breeds of farm animals (goats and sheep) in 10 acres of lush untouched nature loaded with bobcats, weasels, hawks, skunks, raccoons and other predators roaming about, a lot of raw, everyday brutality is revealed. As a result, the book teaches us how it feels to grow up in a neighborhood of serial killers always waiting in the underbrush, and how death in the larger yet more personal sense is simply one of the many events about to befall us whether we’re animals chewing a blade of grass or humans forgetting where we put the car keys.

            All this to say that I think The Alzheimer’s Story might be called a sequel to The Dogtown Chronicles and that these books could be packaged together to make a nice holiday gift for an unsuspecting friend or relative who will surely be grateful for two lessons in existentialism disguised as light end-of-life reading.

            So come see Doris at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, this Sunday, December 8 at 7 p.m.  I’ll be introducing her again and will give you my seat if the place is packed.

AND THE WINNER IS…

Here at the Trying Too Hard Sweepstakes, we’re always looking for simple answers to complicated questions.

            For example, a big problem among critics is a tendency to crowd too many descriptive words into a limited space. When in doubt, the experts say, get rid of ALL ADVERBS, but this is easier said than done.

            Take this sentence from a New York Times caption about a play on Broadway:

            “The script is neither a dramatically shapely piece of writing nor a deeply probing character study.”

            Blub, blub, blub, goodness. Now here is a Trying Too Hard cautionary tale. The unnecessary adverbs (“dramatically,” “deeply”) give the sentence a stuffed-to-the-gills feel and yet deleting them makes the sentence slightly deflated: “The script is neither a shapely piece of writing nor a probing character study.” But it’s cleaner that way, and besides, if you don’t take ‘em out, nobody will read it.

Janet Maslin

Janet Maslin

            Glib cocktail-party words are always surprising in a serious review.  Janet Maslin has a beaut when she refers to  “something funnily incongruous” in Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings.

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HOLD YOUR TONGUE, LARRY

 Big cocky corporate book distributors who think publishing is so easy they can’t possibly botch it — but do — are a fine old tradition in the book trade.

         Back in the ’80s, Harry Hoffman of Waldenbooks wanted to shovel the blandest of house-published genre books at customers but discovered that readers actually noticed and refused to buy them.  In 2002, Barnes & Noble purchased cheapo artbook house Sterling Publishing in an attempt to undercut mainstream publishers, realized the experiment was too costly by 2012, tried to unload it (no buyers) and took it off the market “for the time being,” unsure how a chain bookstore can or should compete with its own suppliers.

         And now what a surprise to hear that former Time Warner publisher and literary agent Laurence Kirschbaum, hired by Amazon two and a half years ago to create a big cocky publishing division, not only stumbled badly (the six-figure advance for Penny Marshall’s disastrous memoir was one indication) but also took another flier allegedly into the lap and down the throat of ex-lover/colleague Teresa McCoy, who’s suing him for sexual harassment.

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TOUGHER THAN IT LOOKS

I’ve heard that many of my old codger sisters from the ’60s are avoiding  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

            For a long time, I did, too. The title is meek, the photo is Gloria Steinem Lite and the message lacks the boldness of, you know, Our Day, when tens of thousands protested in the streets, wrote our manifestos and opened our PRO-CHOICE SIGNUP tables in every downtown in America, or so it seemed.

Lean In book cover

Lean In book cover

            True, we can’t claim huge victories four decades later — the ERA never passed, the military is practically a rape culture, abortion is even more despised and why we accept a Senate and House without 50% women is beyond me.

            But some things did change, thanks to antidiscrimination and anti-harassment laws that still make a difference. The glass ceiling is breaking  (thank you, Sheryl), and while many girls and women wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminists, there are good reasons for that, as Sheryl points out (see below).

            Now here’s Sandberg encouraging women to make ourselves heard, but not in a massive way, mind you, not in a historic way, nor heaven knows an impolite way. Her much-praised advice is for each of us to “lean in” to whatever conversation is taking place and quietly, softly, say exactly what we mean.  That’s it.

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Sexualized Dress Revisited

Like Meryl Streep (see below), I could have sworn that one-time celebrities Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen wore women’s suits on the 1950s TV quiz show, What’s My LIne?

That’s why in the last post, I blithely (without checking) quoted Streep’s concern about societal pressures on today’s women to dress in sexually alluring clothes, even on a hard-news political program like Meet the Press. Streep’s point was that in a previous era, TV shows (and the media in general) allowed women greater modesty, as recalled from watching What’s My Line?

Yikes, was that wrong, and thank you, reader Ed Dravecky of Allen, Texas, for spotting the error:

“Meryl Streep lives in an interesting alternate timeline,” Dravecky writes. “Suits? On this Earth’s What’s My Line, the women on the panel wore dresses and the men wore suits in the early seasons, and formal evening wear (including tuxedos for the men) in the later ones. Just do a Google Image search for ‘What’s My Line Panelists’ and you’ll turn up dozens of images like this one from the New York Times.”

Picture of What's My Line panel

Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf wear eye masks as they question the mystery guest on What’s My Line?

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