March 30, 2016

"A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson

(Eventually, spoilers.)

Kate Atkinson's latest novel, A God in Ruins, arrived to great acclaim. Having read several of her mysteries along with her literary novel Life after Life, I was intrigued. Life after Life was cool: the story of a woman's repeated attempts at survival, as the universe puts her through a series of do-overs in which she gets to avoid the mistakes that killed her in previous lives.

A God in Ruins follows the (single) life of another character from Life after Life, a young Englishman named Teddy who becomes a fighter pilot in World War II. For most of the novel you flit back and forth in his life, from his courtship of his wife, who is bright and clever but whom he doesn't quite fully connect with, to their difficulties with their daughter, who grows up to be a bit of a mess and incessantly hostile to her bewildered father. There are lots of scenes from the war as Teddy grows into his command and guides his team on missions.

There's no doubt that A God in Ruins is an excellent, traditional literary novel. It's written in the style of everyday realism and puts the reader right in the middle of its historical era with great period detail and psychological insight. For me the traditional realism kept it from being anything more than a very good historical novel, and the jumping around from youth to old age to middle age and so on is a trick I tired of the very first time I saw it used in a novel; it's such an automatic generator of pathos (here's the person in the throes of youth, and oh look, here they are as an old person whose dreams never came true) that it feels like a cheap shortcut. I've read the carefully observed period novel a hundred times, so, while I enjoyed the story, a tiny bit of me was thinking, "Why am I reading this?"

Then the ending comes and there's a twist. No doubt this twist makes the whole novel even more moving for those who liked it. It's a good one and it's effective, but here's the problem: It is the exact same twist that appeared in a very famous novel from about ten or twenty years ago that was highly acclaimed, in part because of this very twist, which was a first at the time. This older novel was a phenomenon: the book equivalent of a celebrity among those who read fiction. It took place in the same time period, featured a young man thrust into war, followed a fairly traditional line of realism in its narration (with some notable, incredible expansions of the form), had great psychological acuity, and ended, in the very last pages like Atkinson's novel, with this same revelation. Kate Atkinson, in a postscript to A God in Ruins, goes into unusual detail about the process of writing the novel. She talks about the twist and how it fits into literary theory and also about all the authors she borrowed from in terms of writing about the war. But she never mentions this other author, the one who famously created this very original twist.

Atkinson's borrowing from and lack of acknowledgment of this other author (I'm trying not to say "rip-off") kind of tanked the novel for me. I don't even know if my snooty dismissal is fair. After all, 99.99999 percent of novels use the same forms and techniques as other novels, and that doesn't bother me. In fact, 99.99999 percent of everything is a rip-off of something else: clothes, verbal expressions, music, this blog post. Maybe it's just the fact that what Atkinson borrowed from was so singular. In clothes, if you design a wide-leg pants, no one's going to bat an eye; but if you design a short, square jacket made of pastel tweed with fringed edges, you're going to get called out for lifting it from Chanel.

In the end, what was well done in the novel felt not very special; and what was special felt like a rip-off. As much as I love realistic fiction of this type, it isn't where truly great writing is happening now. For that we have to look farther afield, for those authors who are expanding the form and pioneering new modes of expression (*cough*davidmitchell*cough*).

Spoily Note: The novel that first displayed this twist is Ian McEwan's Atonement. The novel traces the wartime journey of a couple who had been forced into dire circumstances because of a childish deception on the part of the woman's young sister. At the end of the novel, you find that most of the events of the novel never took place because the couple was killed early on in the aerial bombing of London. The young sister grew up to be a novelist and wrote the story that the reader has just finished as a way of imagining what their lives might have been if they had survived—and as an atonement for the irreparable harm that she caused them.

March 6, 2016

Two Notes on "The Witch"

Note 1:  The movie The Witch has gotten crazy good reviews, and it is indeed a compelling, suspenseful movie. Superb acting, cinematography, symbolism, and more. It's uncomfortable viewing because it's so creepy but also because it's based on a colonial New England folk tale, which means that it's all about the dangers of women's sexuality and is obsessed with women's bodies. The movie adopts this point of view—that women are scary and not to be trusted—because it is retelling the folk tale as its 17th-century audience experienced it, not as we today might interpret it. It's absolutely brilliant at putting moviegoers inside the mindset and worldview of these Puritans. (I recommend this book for those interested in delving further into what it felt like to live back then.) But it's a weird sensation to be asked to give yourself over to a story that embraces that woman-fearing point of view so deliberately.

The reality of early colonial life: muddy and hungry.
One of the best scenes of the movie is when the oldest child of the family
fondly remembers the glass windows of their house in England.
It's also maddeningly objectifying. I'm of the opinion that there should be more nudity in film, but we need less of this type of nudity, which is focused on either the horrors of the aging female body or the delectability of the young female body. The opening shot is of the beautiful, angelic face of the prepubescent Thomasin:

And the minute you see that face in the first seconds of the movie, you know that you will end up here:


So inevitable, it's disappointing.

Note 2: The little twins Jonas and Mercy are the most hilarious, brilliant, hateful, lovable, scary characters in the movie and fully deserve the joint Oscars for supporting actors that I expect to see them win a year from now. I mean, just look at these two:

 If they don't scare the bejeesus out of you, nothing else in this film will.

February 10, 2016

"The Sparrow" as Prejudice and Tract

Disliking a work of art is not a common occurrence for me. My response to art is usually either (a) positive or (b) indifferent. I may not like a book, but what do I care if someone else gets something out of it?

I think of this in relation to one of the questions that James Lipton puts to his guests on Inside the Actor's Studio: "What is your least favorite word?" The answer is usually something like "prejudice" or even "moist." But these words are not offensive; they're simply performing their humble duty of representation.

There is a type of word, however, that does not simply represent but acts. Some of these so-called speech acts are benign, like promises. But some words are weaponized. These are words whose only function is to, at the moment of expression, harm the hearer, usually by highlighting the hearer's membership in a vulnerable group (racial, sexual, etc.). These are words worth hating.

So it is with works of art. I guess it's not new to assert that some works of art are harmful; it's what Hitler said about "degenerate art" and Rudy Giuliani said about Beyoncé! It's just that I don't usually assert that. So Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow sticks out.

The Sparrow was written in 1996 and became a kind of cult classic, beloved among progressive, brainy sci-fi fans. The novel is set in the mid-twenty-first century in a time of environmental degradation and social inequality. A group of disparate individuals is chosen to be the first team to seek out alien life on a promising far-off planet. Several years later, the team returns—with only one member remaining, a Jesuit priest who is highly traumatized and announces that everyone else is dead.

What happened on the planet is fed to readers over the course of the rest of the novel in flashbacks. As a novel, it has good points and bad: The writing is interesting, even if the characters all tend to have the same kind of voice. The reader learns the peril of even benign missions to other cultures. The great mystery of what happens to the Jesuit priest is a weak point since it can only be one of a handful of things, so drawing it out feels lame. In the afterword, Russell says that her intention was to take a character who believes in God's individual attention and put that character through a kind of personal Holocaust, in an effort to demonstrate that faith shouldn't be invested in God's intervention in our personal life but rather in God's moral precepts. In that same afterword, she touches on another theme, which is the source of my reaction to this book: the role of procreation in moral development.

The Sparrow is unique in that the villains of the novel are a class of individuals who are childless. And they aren't simply childless individuals who happen to be villains. They are villains because they are childless. As childless people, they are without any investment in the future. They live for aesthetic and sensual pleasures. They are entirely without conscience. They are self-absorbed, highly cultured, and utterly devoid of moral feeling. This was weird for me to read, as a childless person myself. Our culture (like most) has attitudes toward people without children, but those attitudes are usually off-hand and coded. No one comes out and says, "People without children are bad." No one except Mary Doria Russell, apparently.

The disturbing nature of this portrayal has two aspects. First, it's false. Fiction can be made up but it should still be true. There are people without children, without any "investment in the future," who nonetheless lead lives of generosity and, well, investment in the future. Teachers who are beloved by the young students. Citizens who fight for the environment. Albanian nuns who run orphanages in India. And there are likewise people with children who throw bags of trash out their car windows, sit around the house toking cigarettes and pouring secondhand smoke into their children's lungs, who take the small, vulnerable bodies of those very children and do unspeakable things to them. Russell is more like Ayn Rand than any other novelist I know in this regard: She creates an imaginary world that is intended to reflect on our world but that grossly misrepresents reality. It's a tract masquerading as a novel.

The second problem is that Russell picks on a vulnerable group. The idea of the childless as self-centered didn't come to her in a fit of inspiration; it's a stereotype—and an ugly one. Although people sometimes choose not to have children, many people want children and don't end up with them. Those people are reminded daily of what they're missing out on: personal experiences that can't be summarized in any blog post and also a certain societal status. And yet despite people's (in my opinion correct) feeling that those who don't have children are unfortunate, often the attitude is not sympathy but hostility.

A small example: A book club of mostly moms in my neighborhood read Eat Pray Love a few years ago. In this memoir, the childless and husbandless Elizabeth Gilbert travels the world to find herself after a painful divorce. She has beautiful experiences and profound revelations and ends up happy and invested in life. Do you think the reaction of the book club to this story was "Good for her! She found happiness despite her troubles!" Or "She's not lucky enough to have children, but I'm glad she at least had these fun times!" If you do, you don't know humans. No, it was, "Well, sure, if I didn't have children and responsibilities, I could traipse around the world as well." Huff, huff. It's as if the these moms considered themselves both (a) superior in fortune and happiness and (b) the only truly worthy recipients of sympathetic attention because of their burdens and responsibilities. Concomitantly, the childless woman is both (a) inferior in fortune and happiness and (b) unworthy of sympathy or good will. I don't want to exaggerate because Gilbert's book was a huge bestseller, so not everyone felt that way. But I bet that most of us recognize that uncharitable feeling, hopefully in others and not ourselves.

Another example: A good friend of mine was telling me about a teacher at her sons' elementary school that none of the parents liked. This teacher was perceived as not being very warm or accommodating. After a listing of the teacher's faults, she described how this group of moms all agreed that because the teacher didn't have kids of her own, she was not "kid-friendly." I—her childless friend—kept waiting for her to tell me how she spoke up and defended the teacher against this charge, but no. My friend's point was that it was true: This woman's faults were not due to her personality or lack of experience or any of the other factors that could influence her teaching style; they were due to her childlessness. Being childless made her a bad teacher.

This premise—that teachers without children are inferior teachers—is so ludicrously, obviously untrue that it's almost laughable. But social science has shown that, when analyzing a person's fault, humans are quick to attach the fault to the trait of the person that is most out of sync with the group identity. That is why when 20 Muslim men commit a horrific act of violence, we attribute it to their being Muslim and not their being men, despite the fact that being a man is far, far more closely correlated with violence than being Muslim is. This outlier-blaming seems to be a kind of value-neutral tendency among humans, something that comes to us instinctively. But there is almost always an element of bad faith as well, a kind of pleasure that humans get from reaffirmation of their own membership of a high-status group at the expense of a low-status group.

So Russell's novel combines three kinds of statements that should never be combined: (1) a lie (2) that is hostile (3) to a vulnerable subgroup. This is terrible thing to do. Years ago I saw a videotape of Jerry Falwell standing in his pulpit on Sunday morning and telling his parishioners, "Gay people will kill you as soon as look at you." That trifecta is the basis of every genocide in history and innumerable small acts of hatred as well, from "The Jews eat Christian children for Passover" to "Your Tutsis neighbors are responsible for killing the president and must be stopped." The publication of a novel with an offensive thesis is not the worst crime in the world. But The Sparrow should be recognized for what it is: an Ayn Rand novel in which the source of evil is not the charitable people of the world but the childless.

February 2, 2016

Catastrophe and the Artist-Centered Production

The shattering of media into small shards—blogs, podcasts, and nontraditional producers like Netflix—is a beautiful thing. The Portlandia model is creative talents writing, running, and starring in low-cost productions. My new fave in this model is Catastrophe, produced by Amazon. It's created by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, about a couple who get pregnant after a one-night (well, one-week) stand and decide to stay together. So clever. So funny. Sweet. And so, so dedicated to avoiding clichĂ©s. Plus, Carrie Fisher as Rob's mom!

January 30, 2016

On the Theme of Naturalistic Acting . . .

One of my favorite movies for its acting is Once, the indie film of a few years ago that told the story of two musicians in Dublin. The scene in the piano store is one of my favorite scenes of all time. The song is beautiful, but I especially like the beginning of the scene where they're feeling their way through the song. It's cool to see how musicians might work and also to see the little flickers in Glen Hansard's eyes as he realizes Marketa Irglova might be something special, musically. Funny note: Until I went onto IMDb to look up the characters' names, I didn't realize that we never learn their names in the movie.

January 23, 2016

Mr. Turner


The movie Mr. Turner is Mike Leigh's twelfth film, but it feels like what all his films feel like: another installment in a great, lifelong project of documenting human life. Some films are historical (like Mr. Turner and Topsy-Turvy) and some are contemporary (like Secrets & Lies or Another Year). But every one seems devoted to reproducing social life rather than presenting a theme or even a story. A few of his movies have something like a theme or lesson: the durability of family in Life Is Sweet and All or Nothing, the need for openness in Secrets and Lies, or the delicate balancing of social generosity with personal happiness in Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky. But mostly they feel like slices of life, and it's hard to even know why that is so satisfying to watch—but it is. Enormously satisfying and moving.

Mr. Turner portrays the later life of J. M. W. Turner, the English painter known for his impressionistic seascapes. He putters around his London townhouse, meets up with his father, checks out the latest academy exhibit. We have little way of knowing if what the movie portrays is what life was really like in late nineteenth-century England, but it feels like it, maybe more than any other historical movie I've seen. For about the first fifteen minutes of the movie I really couldn't understand what the characters were saying because they were talking in, again, what at least sounds like authentic nineteenth-century English. The language and the relationships aren't translated to our own time's vernacular; instead we are invited to observe their vernacular.

Timothy Spall won the best actor award at Cannes the year the movie came out, and he is utterly believable and immersed. He's also genius at portraying the way all of us are not just one person but many different social persons. He is thoughtless with the maid, free and affectionate with his father, a bit of a showman at the gallery, and all these personae feel like authentic aspects of the same man.

A scene from the movie.

A Turner painting in the movie.

Of course, being a film about Turner, the second most important star of the film is cinematographer Dick Pope, who was nominated for an Oscar for the film. Many outdoor scenes are reminiscent of Turner's own light-filled visuals, but it's not all gauzy light and beauty. There's intimate indoor lighting and neutral street scenes as well. Mike Leigh is also genius at mise en scene, specifically composition. So many shots were reminiscent of Vermeer and Dutch painting in general that my mind kept calling them out as I saw them. This provides the pleasure of recognition and also replicates the particular pleasure that Vermeer and Dutch painting provide.

There is a famous scene in the Italian neorealist film Umberto D of a maid going through her morning routine in silence: lighting the stove, grinding the coffee, and so on. It's a justly famous scene for just the same kind of simple observation of life that Mr. Turner includes. "Observation of life" sounds like a snore-fest, but it's actually fascinating—and nowhere more so than in a Mike Leigh film.

November 29, 2015

Our PG-13 Culture

Not PG-13. At all.

Long ago, my brother sat down with my father on a visit to watch one of his favorite sitcoms at the time, Will & Grace. And it was then, with the focusing presence of our 80-year-old dad in the room, that he realized something: Will & Grace consists of absolutely nothing but wall-to-wall sex jokes. Mostly really dirty, crude sex jokes. My brother sat frozen, not knowing whether to white-knuckle it out or admit defeat and feign a pressing interest in PBS.

A lot of our culture is like Will & Grace. It's PG-13 culture, where everything is slightly vulgar and crude. It's every sex joke on The Big Bang Theory. Every "fuck" on The Daily Show. Every boob shot in movie comedies. Not really explicit but not really clean either. An endless landscape of tepid titillation. Are we really still laughing when Raj makes a faux pas that makes him sound gay? Still finding it delightfully bold when a late-night guest pulls out the F word? Still watching scenes of sexual menace and finding it dark and edgy?

Luckily, there are outliers. These outliers exist on both ends of the spectrum: the truly wholesome and the truly adult. The Irish immigration movie Brooklyn is not a kids movie but it's clean enough that I could probably take my 11-year-old niece to it. The Age of Adaline was grown-up but free of tawdry adornment. And then there's Outlander, which shows sex of nearly every single kind (I say "nearly" because, you know, no furry sex) and multiple shots of nearly every part of the body, male and female. Repeatedly. Often. Sometimes for no good reason. It's the best show on TV.

We need both more G and more NC-17 in our art. PG-13 culture can be great, but it's hegemony is infantilizing for adults, corrupting for kids, and just boring for everyone.  G culture requires wonder, creativity, and sweetness. Adult culture requires daring, care, and beauty. This is good stuff, just waiting for expression.

November 23, 2015

The Vagina Monologues

The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's iconic play featuring diverse women standing up to talk about their vaginas, has been around for a while now. I always assumed it was dated, overly militant, and/or overly . . . I don't know, goddess-y. But when my 85-year-old mother-in-law performed in it this past weekend, I get a chance to see for myself.

Turns out, it's iconic for a reason. The play is fantastic. There are a few eye-rolling moments (the woman who always envisioned her vagina as furniture?), but it is artful, creative, and moving. The monologues include simple stories, arguments, poetic word associations, everything under the sun. There are sad stories, happy stories, luminous moments, dark moments. Most important, it does what great art should do: brings reality closer. That's true whether it's a far-flung reality, like life under the burqa in Afghanistan, or a close but deep-buried one, like the yearnings of a middle-class white American woman.

The performance was at a Unitarian church nearby, and all the performers were church members. This is the second time I've seen a first-class performance at a local amateur theater. One of the best Shakespeare performances I've ever seen was of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in a local high school gym by a local troupe that included one of my students, and it was better than the one Shakespeare play I've seen at West End. Art comes in when preconceptions are shut down.

November 21, 2015

Best Books Round-Ups

Since the Best of 2015 round-ups are starting to emerge, I thought I'd plug my favorite novel of the year, which has shown up on the Publisher's Weekly Top Ten and the Washington Post's Notable Books lists. It is James Hannaham's Delicious Foods.

November 1, 2015

The Greatest Tale: A Mind at Work

In his lovely, small volume on description in poetry, The Art of Description: World into Word, Mark Doty uses Elizabeth Bishop's famous poem "The Fish" to show how description acts as a roadmap to the poet's (or narrator's) mind. The reader sees not just the object but the route that the poet took as her eyes and mind roved over the thing being described.

The way a mind works is one of the most fascinating subjects of any art. It's there in detective fiction, with both the detective and the villain. And it's there in one of my favorite genres—one of humanity's favorite genres, actually—the survival tale. From The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to films like Swiss Family Robinson and Touching the Void, watching a single person (or two) confront seemingly insurmountable odds—with very few tools but one big brain—has everything you could want in art: suspense, creativity, hope, despair, beauty, loneliness, mortality.

This is the type of movie The Martian is. When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left on Mars by mistake, he has to "science the shit out of this." Entertainment Weekly in its review lists five other movies with a single protagonist battling a hostile natural environment: Cast Away (Tom Hanks), Moon (Sam Rockwell), 127 Hours (James Franco), All Is Lost (Robert Redford), and Gravity (Sandra Bullock). That would be a hell of a home film fest for being snowed in this winter.

There's an element of fantasy in these tales. Not fantasy as in genre; rather our own minds' craving the imaginative experience of ingenuity triumphing over difficulty. Modern novels like Neal Stephenson's Reamde and pulp like The Hunt for Red October have it. It's a bonus if the art is based on a real story like Apollo 13 or the upcoming movie on the Chilean miners' rescue. The truth is, we fail as often as we triumph (no movie yet on the Challenger disaster or the hundreds of miner rescues that failed). But that's okay. We know what failure feels like all too well. We want to experience what success looks like, what happens when resources + brain cells + persistence are combined with enough luck to defeat despair, loneliness, mortality.

August 30, 2015

The Meaning of Foley

Fascinating article for anyone interested in the more technical side of moviemaking:

The Art of Movie Noise

August 17, 2015

Breaking Bad: A Hatchet Job

Breaking Bad, the AMC series that ran from 2008 to 2013 about a lowly chemistry teacher who becomes a drug tycoon, is one of the most acclaimed series in television history. It had a stellar cast, great plotting, great directors, and rich cinematography. And I effing hate it.

It's rare for me to actually hate a series. With regard to art, my general categories are Love, Like, and Don't Care. I love Outlander, and I like Blackish. I don't watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but I don't look down on those who do; it doesn't fill me with rage that these people  have a TV show. I don't care. Just like I don't care about Nickelback or Train or soft white bread with no nutritional value or discernible taste.

But Breaking Bad pushed my buttons. We are introduced in the first episode to the antihero, Walter White, who is a stereotype of the emasculated white middle-class man. He has a wife and a teenage son with whom he has warm if not particularly interesting relations. His house is modest, always shot with dull lighting and muted colors, telegraphing its humble, slightly sad nature. Walter teaches high school chemistry, one of those old-fashioned sticklers with no charisma but a stubborn dedication that garners him his own type of affection from his students. His brother-in-law is the family Big Deal, an daring DEA agent who ribs Walter about his humdrum life. Walter doesn't seem to have any real friends, but he dutifully shows up at his rich friends' birthday parties at their beautiful estates and lets the other guests think he's a college professor. These encounters are painful, yes—especially since Walter left the company they all co-founded right before it went big—but Walter is a good sport about it because he's just that type of guy. Decent. Appreciative of what he has. Content with his good family and small blessings.

Then he's diagnosed with cancer. He has little savings, what with his modest teacher's salary, and suddenly he's facing a painful treatment regimen that will almost certainly leave him dead and his family bankrupt. What to do, what to do.

Luckily, he has those rich friends. As soon as they hear the news, they offer him $100,000 with no strings attached. Not a loan—a gift. Walter says no. It turns out that underneath that nice guy exterior, Walter nurses a little resentment about how he lost out on the company's big payout. We the viewers learn nothing about his separation from the company. Was he pushed out? Unfairly fired? Did he quit in frustration and merely have the bad luck to have missed the jackpot that followed? We don't know, but we do know that the unfairness of his diagnosis is getting to him. One by one, all the things that have bothered Walter over the years are bubbling to the surface: his lack of money, his brother-in-law's bravado, his wife's old affair. And like many a semi-privileged white man before him, he's decided its time to let his inner lion out. Walter White is going to become a man again.

When he sees a former student running from the police, Walter sees his chance. He will make meth, and the former student, Jesse Pinkman, will be his grunt. Jesse will amass the supplies, get the meth to the dealers, handle the transactions. Jesse has some nostalgic affection for ole Mr. White, but Walter has nothing but disdain for this punk, and he lets him know at every pass. While teachers can be overidealized, most teachers I know have a baseline affection for even difficult students and understand the psychology of youth: how they need support, need people to believe in them, how they flourish under loving attention. Not Walter. He is hard as granite and has not a smile nor a supportive word for this kid who so obviously craves his approval. While I realize that the showmakers (rightly) didn't want to sentimentalize their relationship, Walter is nearly pathological in his lack of emotional affect.

This is my BIG PROBLEM #1 with the show: compartmentalization. At the same time that Walter is treating Jesse Pinkman like trash, he's shown being the soul of sensitivity and support to his son, a teenager with a slight disability who has struggles of his own. Obviously we are complex beings and we are often better to some people than we are to others. But in order to treat lovingly and wisely with his son, he has to have love and wisdom within him already. And that can't be thrown out every time you want to take the plot another way. The same is true with his wife. The show presents Walter as devoted to Skyler, but when she begins to suspect something's going on, his treatment of her is contemptible—not just exposing her to danger but denying her instincts, trying to convince her she's crazy, eventually even manipulating the police to that conclusion. These aren't the actions of a "complex character" but of a sociopath.

As the story progresses, Walter starts becoming a big deal in the drug world. His Blue Meth, informed as it is with Walter's chemical expertise, is a hit, and soon he's a target of other dealers who don't like Walter's success. Walter's old-fashioned know-how is one of the show's greatest charms. In one scene he is cornered by rival dealers and things look bleak until—kazaam!—sneak chemical attack! Isn't this every middle-class drone's fantasy? That while others—the bad guys—might have money or weapons or swagger, we have the work ethic and actual know-how that could trump them all. You know, if push came to shove.

All of us enjoy the fantasy of strength and daring, of vicariously experiencing what it would be like to be able to act without consequences. To be so [fill in the blank] that our employers would put up with us, our friends would forgive us, our enemies bow before us. Sometimes that [fill in the blank] is strength (Sarah Connor in Terminator 2) or money (Tony Stark); sometimes it's technical expertise (Tony Stark again) or sheer mental brilliance (Sherlock Holmes or The Mentalist). When that kind of power is put in the hands of a Mr. Everyman like Walter White, the fantasy is all the more potent. Breaking Bad is more like a superhero movie than a gritty crime drama.

That is for me BIG PROBLEM #2: The show taps into a self-serving and subterranean fantasy of competence and domination on the part of viewers while collaborating with the viewer to make it appear otherwise. If you're watching Iron Man, you know you are indulging in fantasy and the movie doesn't try to convince you otherwise. If you're watching Twilight, you know you're enjoying the vicarious experience of being adored by the most perfect boy ever. But people talk about Breaking Bad—critics, fans, and showmakers alike—as if it is the opposite of those things, when really it is the apotheosis of those things, but sublimated. It's a Disney princess movie for arty intellectuals.

The deeper Walter gets into the drug trade, the more dicey his moral decisions become. It must have been a full-time job for the writers to craft every episode so that Walter is ever more the badass without actually becoming evil. A friend once said that the show is easier to understand if you see Walter as a villain. But in reality Walter is not constructed as a villain but as an antihero—a function of BIG PROBLEM #1, compartmentalization. (Spoilers ahead.) Every single action of the series is weighed and weighted to achieve the perfect moral balance. His actions get his brother-in-law killed, but his death wasn't Walter's intention (despite Walter's seething jealousy). Walter lets Jesse's girlfriend die, but he doesn't outright kill her. He doesn't actually harm his old rich friends, but he does tell them that he's hired a hit man to kill them when they least expect it, so that the rest of their lives will be spent in fear. Even at the very end, when Skyler confronts him about his motivations and says, "Don't tell me you're doing it for us" Walter is allowed his moment of self-knowledge. He wearily confesses before he dies that he did it for himself, because he liked the way it made him feel. This shuts Skyler up, as Walter's words and actions are so often intended to do. (No wonder that Skyler was absolutely hated as a character while fans wore Team Walter tee-shirts to the bitter end.)

In the end, Walter gets everything he wanted. He was always going to die, thanks to the cancer. But he makes his fortune, provides for his family, acts the badass, takes revenge on those he wishes, gets his moment of self-revelation, shuts up the ever-accusing Skyler, and even dies a heroic death to save someone he had wronged. He gets it ALL. Think how different it would have been if in that last scene with Skyler, instead of saying "I know I did it for myself, so I could feel like a big shot," Walter had continued to angrily contend, as he had throughout the whole series, that he was only doing it for the good of his family. If he had gotten angry with Skyler. If he had remained sunken in that self-deception and self-justification. Wouldn't that have been more realistic?

That scene reminds me of a counterpart in Martin Scorsese's great gangster film Goodfellas. Scorsese's film starts with the protagonist, Henry Hill, as a boy fascinated by the gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He starts running errands for them as a boy and grows into a full associate by the time he's an adult. Because Henry was drawn in as a child, seems so affable, and narrates the film himself, the viewer—almost subconsciously—regards him as not as bad as the other gangsters, as someone taken in. In the end, after Henry is forced to testify against his partners in crime, he is put in Witness Protection and has to live out his life in the burbs. It's a shock when, after surviving all the violence, after getting home free, his last words to the audience are: "Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats . . . When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. . . . And now it's all over. [I] have to wait around like everyone else. . . .  I'm an average nobody... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook." We took Henry for an antihero when the whole time he was a villain. And it's not till the last line that Scorsese lets us know. THAT's a gritty crime drama. That's lack of sentimentality. That's myth-busting.

BIG PROBLEM #3 for me the most damning of all. I hate pre-cancer Walter White. He's a teacher who doesn't care about kids. He's a brother-in-law who doesn't have the guts to say "Stop talking about me that way." He's a (maybe?) wronged colleague who has nursed a deadly grudge against his co-workers instead of pursuing legal action or alternatively owning up that missing out was his own damn fault. And he's a fraud. While Walter pretends to be modest and hard-working and happy with the blessings of family and friends, the show itself, through every possible means—lighting, set, dialogue, cinematography—tells us the opposite. The show tells us that being a high school teacher is for schmucks, that having a family and a home hardly counts, that having modest finances really does make you a loser. That all of those gangster values that the shows pretends to be showing up—money, weapons, swagger—really are what matters. We are supposed to be sad at his little life, just like he is.

Well, eff that. Lots of people on earth never own a house. Never have kids or a loving spouse. Spend their entire lives working in silver mines in god-awful conditions. Only children think as Walter White does. Bryan Cranston deserves every single acting award he got for that role, but Breaking Bad has been graded on a curve, and it's time for a re-test.

August 7, 2015

Bad Romance: Terrible, Horrible, No Good Covers—and a Few Hopeful Trends

Let us discuss the terrible, horrible, no good state of romance cover design.

It's true that covers—especially in genres like romance, action, and mystery—are not primarily designed to illustrate the book or to be aesthetically interesting but to convey what kind of book they represent.  Shopping for genre novels is often a guessing game, especially when it comes to romance: The novels aren't widely reviewed in major media outlets, and personal taste plays a much larger role in a reader's enjoyment. So readers rely on clues like covers, descriptions, an author's reputation, and reader reviews—scanning for telltale phrases like "great story," "fast-moving," "in-depth characterization," "too much sex" (meaning for many of us "just the right amount"), and so on.

Covers are kind of the first winnowing tool in this process. First, it tells you the subgenre at a glance. Here we've got historical, contemporary, and cowboy subgenres:

Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey ushered in a wave of good design for contemporary romance, one that features meaning-laden objects rather than settings or people:

Contemporary romance novels have benefitted ever since, and Courtney Milan's Trade Me is clearly the best design of that first group—and pretty typical of contemporary covers.

Second, the cover gives you a clue as to quality. I'm much more likely to pick up this book:

than this one:

(Note to newbies: Outlined text on a cover is ALWAYS a bad sign.)

But Grace Burrowes's The Laird—which is quite a good book—still harkens back to the cheesy Fabio era of romance covers. And featuring faces on a cover is always a risk. This guy? Maybe:

These guys? Uh-uh. I don't care how good the reviews may be, these covers are flat-out boner killers:

Following the principle of "Do No Harm," I'd much rather have an old-fashioned scenic cover than any of the above since at least these covers are weak and unlikely to have any psychological impact on my reading. Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm is a good example:

Still, I don't think you'd get from this cover what an incredibly good writer Laura Kinsale is—or that Flowers from the Storm is repeatedly voted one of the best romance novels of all time. Kinsale is an interesting case, actually. A super good historian as well as writer, her novels have been reprinted enough to go through several iterations of cover design. Here are two of her novels in their earliest form:

Flat-out awful (outlined type—blech). Then came these editions:

Better. But in the last few years, her covers have made a exponential leap forward. I cannot think of any other historical romances with covers as arty and intriguing as these:

Or these, from a different series:

And now there are audiobook editions:

These are damn good covers. As romance continues to gain respect and a new generation of smart women tout its virtues, here's hoping there are more to come.

August 5, 2015

Beefcake with Bacon and Tatum Tots


Kevin Bacon did a very funny fake PSA for male nudity in film recently—with some sincerity behind it. Hours of naked women on Game of Thrones and no male nudity? 50 Shades of Grey and no frontal of Christian Grey? Unacceptable. Where's my shot of Jamie Lannister walking stark naked through the streets of King's Landing??

The truth is, male nudity IS a matter of gender equality. Straight men have enjoyed an unbroken tradition of female beauty on screen while art geared toward women's sexual desires—movies starring handsome, idealized men; romance novels—have been considered the lowest form of literature or film. Well, eff that.

Thankfully, women have a new batch of bona fide heroes:  Channing Tatum, Chris Pratt, Joe Manganiello, and every other guy who's out there defending women's right to lust. Here's Chris Pratt on being a beefcake:

"I think it’s appalling that for a long time only women were objectified, but I think if we really want to advocate for equality, it’s important to even things out. Not objectify women less, but objectify men just as often as we objectify women." (He also adorably continues: "We’re just big bags of flesh and blood and meat and organs that God gives us to drive around.")

Then there's Outlander's Catriona Balfe on the many, many, many beautiful shots of naked Sam Heughan on her show:

"I think obviously women have been starved for quite a while because all of these films and shows that are coming out right now that are catering to that, you see the voracity of the audience . . .  it’s some kind of mini-revolution of sexual awakening for women in the media."

And best of all here is writer Christopher Rice (Anne Rice's son) on romance novels:

"If I read one more purported 'think piece' about how romance novels 'damage people' by setting up unrealistic expectations, I might vomit. This is sexist nonsense that seeks to depict fantasies of brave sexual intimacy as a toxin swimming through a superior landscape of stereotypically male destruction and violence. . . .  It also furthers a bogus image of the largely female romance novelist population as a bunch of delusional ninnies suffering through a string of broken relationships because of their purported 'unrealistic expectations' and 'dangerous fantasies'. The majority of successful crime novels streamline the realities of the criminal justice system in an unnatural way to deliver a nice, tidy, bad-guys-go-to-jail resolution, and yet there’s no concerted effort to constantly wage the accusations of 'dangerous fantasy' against them with a barrage of sanctimonious, finger-wagging news articles and blog posts. And when was the last time people accused a male crime novelist of harboring secret fantasies of being a serial killer?" (It's hard for me not to quote the blog post in its entirety because it is so, so good. Here's a link to it:  Christopher Rice's Rant.)

True objectification has its problems—reductionism, hostility, and so on. But we shouldn't confuse objectification with simply enjoying physical beauty and sexuality, which is one of our most basic cravings, male and female. When the Oscars tried to be funny by putting Sofia Vergara on a rotating platform while the Academy president read out the award rules, the outrage wasn't because they were objectifying Vergara but because they were catering to straight male taste as if it were universal—which is so, so last century. Had they put Joe Manganiello on a matching platform, everyone would have been happy. Now is that so hard?

July 27, 2015

The Most Wholesome Movie of the Year: Magic Mike XXL

Coming home from Magic Mike XXL this weekend, my husband commented, "You know, it's really a very wholesome movie." I quipped, "Once you set aside the cussing. And the drug use. And the simulated sex."

But I knew just what he meant. MMXXL is unusual. It gets high scores for being positive toward women, and yay for that, especially on the heels of shooting of two women during a viewing of the feminist comedy Trainwreck this past week by a old, angry white man who had a longstanding hatred of "feminine rights." As the boys in the movie make their way to Myrtle Beach (Myrtle Beach!), they run into every type of woman: cool beach girls, young black women at a steamy club, rich older white women in a wealthy neighborhood. And every group is treated with respect and a sense of possibility: whatever new place they go, they as characters—and you as the viewer—feel that something good is on the way. And why not: In Mike's world, men and women are friends and comrades. There are no assumptions, no expectations of sex, no temper tantrums if sex doesn't happen, just openness and generosity and respect, toward others and yourself.

The movie's equally positive toward men. The guys at the center of the movie aren't perfect and they aren't generic. They're no better than they should be, but they're good-hearted and, underneath the bravado, grappling with their insecurities and trying to figure out how they can get from point A to point B in pursuit of their dreams. They're friends. Nobody's mean to each other or overly competitive. When Joe Manganiello's character fears that he's losing his touch, his friends challenge him to woo a grumpy convenience store clerk, leading to one of the best scenes in the movie as he dances his way around the condiments and sodas. And there are his friends, outside the store windows cheering him on. The whole scene is dirty . . . and very sweet.

Even better, the movie is sex positive. Hooking up doesn't make you a douche. Having sex is great, with no sense of shame for the women or ugly conquest for the men. The movie has a comfort with male beauty and the female gaze that is simply unprecedented. When the guys are dancing and stripping, there's no camp, no wink-wink at the audience like they know how silly it is. They are deadly serious about what they do. Which doesn't mean it isn't fun, only that they find the business of being sexy for women to be a straightforward and perfectly respectable endeavor, honorable even.

The plot is also unusual because it contains obstacles but not conflict. It's like a picaresque novel, in which the hero travels through society in pursuit of a goal, at each stop interacting with a different slice of society and revealing its vices and hypocrisies. The point of a picaresque novel is not character development but satire. MMXXL is kind of the reverse: The boys travel up the East Coast, interacting with different groups, and revealing the virtues and possibilities of each. Their characters don't develop—they're fine just as they are. But each stop on their journey reveals a new way in which people can connect and have fun together. The culmination of this might be the rich woman's house. When the boys come in, looking for a beach girl they met a few days earlier, they're sat down in the brocaded furniture by a group of older women who would, in any other movie, be reduced to an ugly cougar stereotype. How they inch from strangers to mates (in the British sense of the word) is great, culminating in the loveliest scene in the movie, where they sing "I'm in Heaven" together.

There's craft here. The dancing is great (and yay on including one of my favorite dancers, tWitch), and the writers find a way to bring each guy's personal passion to the final dance scene—a neat trick. It gives a satisfying arc to the movie and provides a lesson in authenticity, as the guys reject the worn stripper stereotypes (fireman, cop) and build new stage characters from the inside out. I have to say, too, that Channing Tatum is a hell of an actor. Just watch a scene where he's in the frame but not talking: he's looking around, making little distracted expressions, totally natural. I've seen Oscar winners who aren't as good at that.

Every woman viewer during Magic Mike XXL.

July 15, 2015

The Bold and the Beautiful, in Writing

Ever since I read The Fault in Our Stars, John Green's YA novel about a teenage girl with cancer, a few years ago, hardly a month goes by without the novel's signature line coming to mind: "The world is not a wish-granting factory." That's a great line because it is both true and well-expressed. Reconciling ourselves to the indifference of the world to our desires is a struggle as ancient as the Greeks. They expressed it as the wheel of fate, and it's been expressed a zillion times since. Yet this quote makes you feel it anew, acutely and even beautifully. How does it do that?

John Green proves that great writing doesn't have to be elaborate. But elaborate can be beautiful, as one of my other favorite quotes, by Virginia Woolf, demonstrates: "The beauty of this world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder." While John Green's line is forceful, Woolf's is subtle. And precise: Has the exact nature of life—how completely its wonderfulness and its tragic nature are interwoven—ever been so exactly conveyed?

July 12, 2015

Love & Mercy: Second Viewing

I saw Love & Mercy in the theater for the second time this weekend. There is so much going on in this movie that I think I could watch it a third time and still pick up more. The photos above may not make it look like a very compelling film, but it's mesmerizing.

June 20, 2015

Jon Stewart Was Wrong—And So Was I

Back in the more innocent time of  2010, Jon Stewart held the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. The purpose of the rally was to bring right wing and left wing together to moderate the extremist rhetoric that had become ever more common in our public discourse. He wanted us to stop calling each other Nazis and terrorists and haters of America. I went to the rally; it was fun. People had cool signs.

Looking back, it feels ominous. Shouldn't we have been more disturbed that some of our best-known media figures felt the need to address this? Didn't it imply an underlying unease at what was coming across our airwaves? Didn't we want to assure ourselves that, really, we're okay, America is full of good people, we're fine, aren't we? Aren't we?

We're not fine and we're not good and we're not safe. This week a white 21-year-old planned and carried out the murder of a group of black people. At first I balked at the term "terrorism" to describe it because I think of terrorism as something committed by networks of people instead of individuals. But the truth is that the killer was part of a network, a network that has been growing year by year. 

Terrorism grows when a group of people in society feel they are getting a raw deal. This raw deal consists of two things: economic stress and loss of political clout. They are angry and perhaps even humiliated. They want very, very badly to matter again. If they can't achieve that through normal means, abnormal means will do.

Fear of humiliation is one of the strongest motivators in all of human nature. People will do a lot to rid themselves of that feeling. It's what motivates the husband whose wife has left him to kill her. It's what motivated the straight soldier who attacked a gay soldier and found himself beat up instead to go back the next day to kill that gay soldier. It's what motivated Germany to start World War I. It's what motivated Osama bin Laden, who couldn't stand that the West was winning, that the Muslim world was considered a hopelessly backward, inferior culture.

There is a portion of white America that is in psychic crisis over their identity and their place in this country. Year after year they have to hear about police brutality against black people; they are forced to observe the celebration of the civil rights movement. They are told that black people are good and white people are bad, and they HATE that because they know some black people, and they're not good at all, while they themselves are both white and good. They watch a black president get elected, even though they hate him. They didn't want a black president, but their voice, in the end, didn't matter. The country is changing and moving on, and they are being left behind and they hate that too.

What happens with this group of people? What do they do with those feelings of resentment and loss of status?

After Barack Obama was elected, sales of guns and bullets soared, a fact that some Republicans reported with glee. The ostensible reason was worry that Obama would enact gun control laws, but there was no indication that would happen. More likely: guns represent power. If you are armed, you can't be dismissed. You must be recognized. You automatically matter.

Way back in the 1980s the film Grand Canyon has a white middle-aged driver get lost in a ghetto. He is accosted by a group of scary black young men but a black middle-aged tow truck driver arrives to diffuse the tension. He appeals to the young man who seems to be the leader and urges him to let them go on their way. He treats the young man with deference and respect, and the young man asks him if he would have addressed him the same way if he (the young man) didn't have a gun. After a moment, the middle-aged man answers:

Middle-aged man: You don't have a gun, we don't have this conversation.
Young man: [pauses, smiles] That's why I have the gun.

That black punk, that degenerate, status-obsessed thug? He is Osama bin Laden. He is WWI Germany. And he is white right-wing America, right now.

There is another element to every successful terror movement: media.  Local newspapers were extremely important in the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism in Germany, just as local radio was in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. Day in and day out, readers or listeners were whipped into a frenzy of disgust for others and self-righteousness for themselves. The constant onslaught of media brainwashing turned thousands of people who had been peaceful neighbors into sadistic killers. These are people who, not too long beforehand, greeted these same neighbors in the street, shared meals, shared gossip, lived together normally. They were—once—perfectly good citizens.

We have in American culture right now a media empire that is daily growing richer by nurturing the feelings of resentment, victimhood, and extremism that terrorism grows from. Fox News is not calling for white conservatives to kill their enemies. But they have found a formula to make money, by stoking feelings of disgust for others and self-righteousness for themselves, and if the cost of that cash cow is the spread of white right-wing violence, then so be it.

The killer of the members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston said that he was radicalized by the Trayvon Martin incident. But how is it possible that the acquittal of a white man of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager should represent the oppression of white people and the taking over of America by black people? How is such thinking created?

It is created by Fox News and all media like it. For Fox News, Christians are an oppressed minority (though Ivy League colleges have never banned or restricted Christians from enrollment, no evidence exists of job, housing, or political discrimination against Christians); the terrorist attack of September 11 (carried out by a group of conservative religious fundamentalists) was the fault of "gays and feminists"; the drought in California is caused by liberals' acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Trayvon Martin was a travesty of justice for white America, reporting allegations of Chris Christie's corruption is a sign of an unwanted "feminization" of American politics, up is down, black is white, yes is no.

Fox News and its right-wing extremism have poisoned our nation. It has fed the passions and delusions of a disgruntled minority with an attraction to the status-generating power of the gun. And to the Emmanuel AME killer, the shooter at the Holocaust Museum, and the gun fanatic at Sandy Hook, let me give you your due: You have gotten our attention. You cannot be dismissed. You inarguably matter. It is an incredible tribute to black America that the result of the Emmanuel AME killer's slaughter was not the race war that he wanted but yet another instance of black strength, forgiveness, and fortitude. White America will never be able to repay the debt that we owe to black America for its nonviolent struggle for justice. But no one should be asked for that much strength and forgiveness.

I hope that we begin to take white terrorism seriously in our country. We need to invest many more resources into investigating and monitoring those who present a risk to our nation. And we have to also admit that liberals alone cannot change our culture. Liberals tend to trust in time and progress, but things are deteriorating too rapidly for time to heal. And once a sense of grievance on both sides develops, reconciliation becomes almost impossible, as the Israelis and Palestinians tell us so eloquently with every new death. Conservative America has to find the moral strength to oppose the destructive lies of victimhood and scapegoating, to reform their own gun culture, and to turn the tide on this drift toward extremism.

June 4, 2015

Magic in the Moonlight

Yes, it's a third-tier Woody Allen movie. But a third-tier Woody Allen movie is still a solid B.

Plus it has Hamish Linklater, one of my favorite under-the-radar actors.

Plus Emma.

Plus Colin.