April 30, 2015

The New Common Law

Just saw this posted as the caption of a homemade video of scenes from Outlander set to a Billy Joel song. This type of statement is usually included in fan usage, but the wording here seemed particularly confident and authoritative.

"Fan vid. No rights infringement."

"Umm . . ."

April 23, 2015

Rehab Works! by Jim Savage

One of my favorite books to have worked on hit Amazon recently. Here's the link for anyone interested in rehab and what it really requires to be successful.

April 22, 2015

We Are Goop

Hermes bag.

In the days of the old movie studio system, the big film studios, stars, and their publicists carefully managed the stars' public images, keenly aware that audiences would turn on them if they appeared anything other than glamorous, fun (within bounds of propriety), and straight. Stars could be taken down by breaking up a marriage, having affairs, or having a child out of wedlock. Ingrid Bergman managed that trifecta when she shacked up with the married Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to a son just days before her own divorce was finalized. It took America a long time to forgive.

The now years-long hatefest on Gwyneth Paltrow calls to mind this same sensitivity to image. Paltrow does not appear to have a life that is very different from other celebrities. She dresses in nice clothes, goes on vacation, eats at expensive restaurants. The difference is that she has a website, Goop.com, that highlights the clothes, the vacations, the restaurants. Goop provides transparency to the reality of Paltrow's life—and we really, really don't like that.

The 20th-century audience's insistence on glamour and propriety has been replaced with a new template of demands: Celebrities should be down-to-earth, smooth but not too smooth, and self-deprecating. We mostly don't care if someone has a child outside of marriage or is gay, all of which is great. But while the nature of the demands on celebrity behavior has changed, the fact of these demands has not. We still demand they provide a sanitized image of their reality.

I am certain that Vin Diesel does not live in a dump and that Jennifer Lawrence doesn't stay at the Motel 8 when she travels. But without their own Goops, we don't have to think about that. Likewise there are celebrities who are reportedly terrible people. Serious, in-depth articles have contended that Matthew Fox is physically abusive and Tobey Maguire is verbally abusive—I mean really awful. But these things make barely a ripple in the cultural ecosystem, partly because they are no longer huge stars but also because their images are so likable, Fox with his All-American good looks and Maguire with his aw-shucks nerd-made-good persona.

It seems like an infantile mentality to punish stars who are honest about their lives, who are open about their luxuries or the fact that being hounded by paparazzi is a horrible experience. Even clothed in terms of class awareness or antimaterialism, it smacks of 1930s fantasy. And maybe just a tiny bit of misogyny, since we tend to get whipped up in a furor over women far more than men, who if anything are hated for being objects of desire or popularity with women, not for living the good life and being happy about it.

Worst of all is that when we fixate on Paltrow's excesses, we reinforce the delusion that the problem of income inequality lies elsewhere. After she tried to buy a week's worth of groceries on the welfare allowance of  $29 this past week, critics noted that the cost of a page of luxuries touted on Goop could feed a family for a year. While the rich should pay their fair share of taxes and corporations should pay their employees a good living wage, this kind of spotlight on individual celebrity excess directs our gaze to the super-rich, leaving our own excesses off-stage. How many families could be fed for a year by the amount those critics—and we their co-conspirators—spend on clothes, shoes, travel, restaurants? In the end, most of us participating in the hatefest are more like Gwyneth Paltrow than the poor family we imagine her wronging. Maybe a desire to have the reality of celebrities' lives veiled is in part a desire to have the reality of our own lives, our own privileges, veiled.

April 18, 2015

The Copyediting Mind

Yes, it's a grandiose post title, but that's how I'm feeling after reading Mary Norris's glorious "Holy Writ: Learning to Love the House Style" in the New Yorker. Norris has been copyediting for the New Yorker for many years now (though she writes it "copy editing") and just put out a book about her life called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

I've been a copyeditor for roughly twenty-five years now. Like all jobs, editing requires a thought process that becomes virtually invisible after a while. And like all jobs, it constitutes a microculture of its own, with its own tools of the trade (back in the day, colored pencils that each meant something specific: red for printer's errors, blue for editorial changes), specialized vocabulary, and stereotypical experiences. Most microcultures these days at least enjoy dedicated online forums, but it's rare to see one's world put front and center like Norris's book does for editing. John Leguizamo has said that Hispanics are starving to see themselves represented in culture (specifically movies and TV), and it's easy to imagine the joy audiences must feel when they watch an Ugly Betty or Jane the Virgin. Reading Norris's article feels like that to me: I thrill at every recondite detail—the dithering over the comma in "the thin, burgundy dress"; the authors whose talent doesn't match their eccentricity; the satisfaction of work for which a liberal arts education is actually useful and allows you to improve the underlying structure of a sentence while knowing that "Mies" is not the first name of a guy named "van der Rohe."

It doesn't hurt that Norris is a fabulous writer. In the last paragraph of her article, she likens reading and writing to driving a car: You can glory in the details of the engine, or you can just turn the ignition and go. But she drops in the phrase "join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts," which is a lovely reference to the famous poem "Naming of Parts," by Henry Reed. These kinds of pearls dot the whole article—language geek heaven.

April 17, 2015

It's the Little Things

It's long been my contention that Stephen Colbert would be 20% less funny if he didn't have his one elf ear:

I now contend that 5% of Sam Heughan's extraordinary acting talent derives from mastery of his hyperexpressive eyebrows:

April 12, 2015

Plot and the Problem of Consequence

Outlander spoilers ahead.

Outlander has picked up again, and the first episode of this second half of the first season (got that??) contained the most controversial scene of the series: the either terribly dreaded or gleefully anticipated spanking scene. It begins when Claire makes an escape attempt and, rather than reaching Craig Na Dun, ends up in the hands of the Redcoats. A brutal scene with Black Jack Randall follows, but Jamie and a handful of buddies rescue her. The clan members in the traveling group are now being pursued by the Redcoats, BJR knows that Jamie is back, and the clan is shunning Claire as a result.

Because severe corporal punishment was the way all justice was handled in 1743, Jamie is expected to punish Claire in private, which he does. It's too complicated a scene to analyze here, but in both the book and the show, the end result is clear: Claire learns that Jamie has insight into this world that she doesn't, and Jamie learns that he better never, ever beat his wife again. 

One week later (not just in the viewing world but the world of the show, more or less), Jamie is forced to travel and has only one request of Claire when he leaves: Stay away from Geillis, a mysterious villager suspected of killing her husband. Claire promises—and a day later goes to Geillis's house, where she is promptly arrested, along with Geillis, as a witch.

The fan pages are aflame with opinions about this: Some think Claire is being both stupid and ornery, and some think she's being independent and noble (for going to help a friend). There may be truth in both these opinions, but her disregard for Jamie's request is problematic for another reason: It nullifies all of the developments and action of the previous episode—which is regarded as one of the pivotal moments of the story. It's as if the entire sequence of her rescue from Black Jack Randall and the "reckoning" that followed, in which she slowly realizes the import of her actions, simply never happened. Claire does exactly what she would have done before the reckoning: ignore Jamie's warning and go see Geillis.

That plot points must have consequences seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how often this is abrogated. A favorite episode of The Big Bang Theory centers around the revelation that nothing Indiana Jones does in Raiders of the Lost Ark matters to the plot. I still remember my frustration at the second Die Hard movie when I realized that nothing that happens in the first four-fifths of the movie has any impact on the outcome, which is determined solely when the plane takes off very near the end.  This is bad for an action movie, where, you know, action should matter. But it's even worse for a character-driven narrative like Outlander, which makes strong claims regarding the development of its characters. If it is the story of two people who change over time yet continue to love each other and grow, what happens when the change and growth are nullified?

Inconsequence is more of a risk with long narratives. You have to keep coming up with problems and mistakes, but if you want your characters to grow, that means leaving behind certain kinds of mistakes. Outlander is a love story at heart, despite the history and action that accompany it. And love means getting to that point where you're on the precipice of an action and you're able to stop yourself because you're thinking of someone else now. Outlander is still the best show on TV, but it will need to tread carefully. Taken to an extreme, there's a term for a show where the characters never grow and the narrative is a never-ending  succession of crises as a result: soap opera.

April 1, 2015

Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

I reviewed this novel for Booklist recently and am glad to see it finally published and available. This is the novel of the year for me.